Beirut: Syrian authorities have revoked the residency permits of a handful of foreign diplomats covering Syrian affairs remotely from Beirut since 2011, ostensibly to pressure countries to officially restore ties with Damascus.
After the 2011 crackdown on anti-government protests, the majority of countries cut off or downgraded ties with Damascus.
Now that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has emerged victorious from the eight-year civil war—with the help of Russia and Iran—the emboldened leader seems well-positioned to make such bold demands.
Earlier this month, the UAE reopened its embassy it Damascus and there is much chatter that the Arab League could allow Syria back in—after being blacklisted for eight years.
The diplomats, while officially accredited to Damascus, live most of the time in Lebanon, due to the volatile security situation in war-torn Syria.
They would commute to Damascus once a month for a period of only one or two days and stay at the well-fortified Four Seasons Hotel in the heart of the city.
But now that the war has seemingly been won, Damascus wants them to officially return to their posts.
Exempted from the Syrian order are the diplomats of Norway, Spain, and Japan, who are all involved in humanitarian work within the country.
The revoking of their residency permits is a sign that have half-hearted diplomatic representation is no longer welcome in Syria.
The Syrian Foreign Minister wants them to follow in the UAE’s footsteps, either sending permanent missions or upgrading the level of their representation.
World capitals closed-down their embassies in Damascus back in 2011, vowing not to re-open until the guns go silent, security improved, and Syrians on both sides of the conflict abide by UNSCR 2254.
“The arrogance in the Assad regime’s posture highlights its newly found confidence” said Professor Murhaf Jouejati at the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Diplomatic Academy.
Speaking to Gulf News, he added: “blackmail is nothing new,” then said: “Despite initial expressions of resentment by some states, most are likely to comply.”
According to pro-government media outlets, some states are taking their que from the UAE, like Bahrain and Kuwait, willing to re-open even when the abovementioned list is far from achieved.
Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Milanesi said that his country was “thinking about the possibility” of re-opening its embassy in Damascus, depending on the security situation.
The only European countries to keep senior diplomatic representation in Damascus, at an ambassadorial level, are the Czech Republic and Romania.
Some diplomats from countries like Sweden and Spain made periodic visits to Damascus, occasionally crossing the Syrian-Lebanese borders, while others, like Great Britain, France, and the United States, severed all contacts, putting their full weight behind the Syrian Opposition.
“Russia is pushing the Arabs and the Europeans to re-open their embassies and pay for the reconstruction of Syria,” said Ebrahim Hamidi, senior diplomatic editor at the London-based Al Sharq Al Awsat.
Speaking to Gulf News he added that countries whose visas’ have been revoked “now have to make a decision.”
Hamidi noted: “So far, there is no change in EU policy toward Syria. On the contrary, some new sanctions on a pool close to the government will be announced soon.”
EU countries will have to now either take a collective decision regarding full engagement with Damascus, or to leave way for every member state to follow its own national interests. This was what was ultimately decided within the Arab League, where Lebanon and Iraq were pushing for the re-admittance of Syria ahead of the forthcoming summit in Tunisia, scheduled for next March.