As crisis roils Syria, its diplomats stand firm with President Bashir al-Assad
By Colum Lynch,
UNITED NATIONS — To understand the staying power of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, consider his envoy to the United Nations.
As the crisis in Syria has deepened, Bashar al-Jaafari has shown his loyalty to Assad in a series of now-stock monologues in which he has marshaled the spirits of history and literature to defend his nation, comparing the president to Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and George Washington. He has claimed Syria is being targeted for punishment because of its “commitment to international legal norms.”
“I am an ambassador of the Syrian president,” he told the U.N. Security Council, “and proud to be here in that capacity.”
The U.N. envoy and his Syrian counterparts around the world have continued to support Assad in the face of vast international pressure. While the uprisings against other Arab despots, including Moammar Gaddafi, triggered massive diplomatic defections, the Syrian diplomatic corps has hung together, registering not even a single confirmed high-level defection.
Diplomats say the reasons are complex and varied, from fear of retaliation to the Syrian practice of installing ruling-party loyalists in key embassies over those who have spent their careers in foreign service. But Damascus has also maintained stability by demanding that its foreign diplomats send their relatives back home, where they could face violent reprisals in the case of defections, according to several top U.N. officials and diplomats.
“Syria has profited from the experience of Gaddafi,” said Ibrahim Dabbashi, a top Libyan envoy to the United Nations who was among the first Libyan diplomats to turn against the former regime. The families of Syrian diplomats are being “kept like hostages. . . . These regimes don’t care about human rights. They only care about staying in power by any price.”
For a short time last year, it looked as if the diplomatic facade of Assad’s regime was about to crack. A French television network, France 24, reported over the summer that Syria’s ambassador to Paris, Lamia Chakkour, had decided to defect in protest of her government’s violent repression of protesters. But the Syrian envoy subsequently denied the assertion.
Another Syrian diplomat, Ahmed Salkini, who served as spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington, resigned from the foreign service, citing concern about the bloodshed in Syria. “I have been pained by every drop of Syrian blood lost,” Salkini wrote in an e-mail farewell to reporters in Washington. “Still, I am certain of, and comforted by, the fact that Syria will emerge from this crisis more democratic, unified, freer, and stronger than ever.”
There have also been unconfirmed reports of unidentified diplomats breaking with the regime, including one Syrian diplomat cited in November in the Turkish press.
Still, the country’s top diplomats, including Jaafari and Bahjat Suleiman, a former chief of internal security who heads the Syrian Embassy in Jordan, are considered too closely linked to the regime to break ranks.
“The Assad regime has allowed independent career diplomats to die out, only to replace them with people from their own clan or sector,” said Murhaf Jouejati, a Syria scholar at the National Defense University whose father served in the Syrian Foreign Ministry under the late Hafez al-Assad. “Someone like Jaafari would not defect, because he would be threatening the well-being of his family” and lose the privileges that come with high office.
Syrian opposition leaders say they have been approached by numerous Syrian diplomats who are keen to break with the regime but cannot bring themselves to do so. “We get a lot of message and phone calls from diplomats and they are interested in defecting, but they have fear for their family,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a U.S.-based member of the Syrian National Council.
Jaafari’s lengthy public statements have been closely watched by Syrians, spawning a series of Facebook pages by admirers and detractors. One Facebook page remarks on the irony of a comment Jaafari made in the Security Council, recalling how in the 1950s and 1960s he and his schoolmates would donate their spare change to the liberation movement in Algeria and the Persian Gulf.
“We were happy to donate our pocket money, little as it was, to help liberate the gulf from Colonial rule,” he said.
Like many other top Syrian diplomats, Jaafari, 55, is a member of the ruling Baath Party.
A towering physical presence, he stands out from many of his Syrian diplomatic colleagues with an academic pedigree that features three PhDs, including a doctorate in political science at the Sorbonne in Paris, and family links to Iran — his wife is of Iranian descent, and his daughter was born there.
At the United Nations, his speeches have been remarkable for their historical and literary allusions. Drawing inspiration from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust,” he once belittled his Arab neighbors for joining forces with the West against a fellow Arab.
“A human being should not sell his or her soul to Satan in exchange for illusory gains that could destroy that person’s hope for freedom down the road,” he said in a Security Council address.
He has all but reveled in his diplomatic isolation, delivering elaborately worded put-downs of his colleagues from Britain, France, the United States, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, describing his Persian Gulf rivals as tin-pot autocracies that know nothing about democracy and that “prevent women from attending a soccer match.”
Even Google has felt his wrath. Last month, Jaafari accused the Internet giant of fomenting dissention in Syria after opposition figures used Google’s mapping application to rename streets and other landmarks after revolutionary heroes, wiping away regime references.
Jaafari has also been entwined with Assad through family ties, but in a way that has raised questions about his own personal access to the president. His daughter, Sheherezade, a graduate of Hunter College in her early 20s and a Syrian press aide, had developed a close personal relationship with the Syrian leader, with whom she maintained an informal, and often flirtatious, e-mail correspondence, according to a trove of personal presidential e-mails leaked to the Guardian and al-Arabiya.
Jaafari often used his daughter as a channel to send diplomatic messages to the president, bypassing the Foreign Ministry. In one e-mail, dated Dec. 14, Jaafari exposed the identity of a former Syrian diplomat who had anonymously criticized the regime in a BBC interview and warned Assad to stem further breaks with the regime.
“I would advise you to refer this matter to its high destination for consideration,” Jaafari wrote his daughter in an apparent reference to the e-mail’s ultimate recipient, Assad. “I would recommend to deal with it very seriously because, later on, I’m [quite] sure this anonymous diplomat will disclose his identity and will become another ‘star of the satellite channels.’ ” That, he said, would be “proof of defection in the Syrian diplomatic corps, something that didn’t happen till now.”
Jaafari declined to be interviewed for this article. Asked to comment on the authenticity of the e-mails, he said, “I comment on politics, not caricatures.”
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