Image Credit: Niño Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

Last seen in public on July 20, 2012 in Damascus and on July 21 in Latakia attending the funerals of several high-ranking security officials, Syrian Vice-President Farouk Al Shara’a was either under house arrest or safely hidden away by elements belonging to the Free Syrian Army.

Unverifiable reports speculated that Al Shara’a was killed during a random bombing along the Syria-Jordan border as he was fleeing the country, and that his body was still lying under the rubble. In the event, the mystery that surrounded his whereabouts epitomised the man’s life-long journey, rising from the position of an air force officer to the number two spot in the hierarchy unflinching in his loyalty and studious in his deliberations.

Al Shara’a was born to a Sunni Muslim family on December 10, 1938 in Damascus though the family hailed from the strategic Daraa province. He studied English at Damascus University in the 1960s, and took courses in international law at the University of London in 1972, both of which helped his career. Because of his linguistic abilities, he earned his wings along with a Bachelor of Arts degree, and was quickly promoted.

He was Syria’s ambassador to Italy between 1976 and 1980, and was elevated to fill the position of deputy foreign minister from 1980 to 1984, when he also acted as information ministry for a short period of time. President Hafez Al Assad propelled his diplomatic career in March 1984, when he appointed Al Shara’a minister of foreign affairs, a position he kept after the presidency was inherited by President Bashar Al Assad on July 17, 2000.

Between 1984 and February 21, 2006, when he was chosen to fill the vacant post of vice-president after the incumbent, Abdul Halim Khaddam, resigned, Al Shara’a truly earned his diplomatic wings. Ironically, Al Shara’a and Khaddam, both Sunnis, represented the ‘old guard’ of the Baath regime that gradually shifted its influence base to Maher Al Assad and Asef Shawkat, the president’s brother and brother-in-law respectively.

Still, powerful Sunni members were necessary in what was a largely Alawite-Shiite security apparatus, and Al Shara’a filled the visible gap that emerged after Khaddam left for Paris from where he regularly telegraphed Al Assad’s “political blunders” in dealing with several hot portfolios, including the crisis in Lebanon in the aftermath of the February 14, 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Early on, the wily Al Shara’a understood how the Baath party operated, as he became one of its most active members. Outside of the military, the ruling party was the only institution that limited religious discrimination, which allowed Al Shara’a to climb the ladder and receive an appointment to serve on its central committee.

Hafez relied on him for a variety of reasons, the most important being that the former president never considered Al Shara’a a real threat. Equally important, the affable ‘diplomat’ was the ideal human face that justified many of Damascus’ convoluted policies within Arab and international arenas, which he fulfilled with gusto, and for which he was rewarded by an additional designation as a deputy prime minister. It was worth recalling that Hafez relied on Al Shara’a to handle secret negotiations with Israel in the early 1990s, which probably explained his longevity in power as well. Simply stated, and while his domestic writ was limited, Al Shara’a was an indispensable foreign policy figure. Nevertheless, his testimony to Detlev Mehlis, the UN Security Council appointed head of an Independent Investigation Commission that looked into the Hariri assassination, was reportedly colourful. That chapter further illustrated his loyalty to Al Assads.

Although Bashar Al Assad kept Al Shara’a on, several observers perceived the vice-presidential appointment as a demotion, because his numerous ties with diplomats and world leaders were severely curtailed. Surprising many, however, Al Shara’a engaged in high-profile foreign travels as vice-president and, in the aftermath of the March 2011 uprisings, chaired the so-called ‘national dialogue’ committee that examined how to reconcile warring factions.

Importantly, and while he opposed weekly non-violent demonstrations that evolved into daily clashes, he called for a transition to democracy. According to Syrians diplomats and several intellectuals, Al Shara’a credited the mass protests with forcing the regime to consider reforms, which was an admission of Baath Party incompetence.

Al Shara’a last attended funeral services for Maj Gen Hassan Turkmani, a previous defence minister serving as his top military aide, though his actual whereabouts remained unknown. He was reported to have disappeared about two weeks days ago and may well be in Daraa, which partially explained recent heavy military deployments in the region—though few knew for certain. A Free Syrian Army spokesman asserted that Al Shara’a was safe, though the official Syrian Arab News Agency claimed that the alleged defection was pure speculation, and that the vice-president welcomed the latest UN appointment that entrusted the Syria file to Lakhdar Brahimi.

As a Sunni leader, Al Shara’a remained a potential powerbroker, because a majority of Syrians easily identified with him. Likewise, because of his Baath Party membership and loyalty to two Al Assad presidents, Alawites and especially merchant classes in Aleppo and Damascus were also reassured by his voice.

While Al Shara’a’s eventual accession presented a putative solution to the Syrian crisis that mimicked a Yemeni-type outcome, which would keep the country from falling into leaderlessness, it was difficulty to see how continued obduracy in Damascus could usher in a peaceful transition under Al Shara’a’s authority.