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Faisal Mekdad and Ayman Soussan Image Credit:

Damascus: The job of foreign minister is vacant in Syria and a head-hunt is underway to find a replacement for Walid Al Muallem, 79, who died after losing a battle with cancer on Tuesday. Observers are uncertain who will succeed him; this is the first time in the country’s modern history that a foreign minister has died while in office.

Muallem held the dual posts of foreign minister and deputy prime minister since February 2006, working with six prime ministers. In the 1990s, he served as Syria’s ambassador to the United States where he played a crucial role in peace talks with Israel. He also handled Lebanese affairs prior to the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri.

Two candidates

Two names currently making the rounds, one being Muallem’s long-time deputy Faisal Mekdad, and the other being the assistant foreign minister Ayman Soussan. Mekdad, 66, is a veteran of the Foreign Ministry who had previously served as Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations during the Iraq War of 2003. He is also a ranking member of the ruling Baath Party.

Soussan was Syria’s ambassador to the EU until 2014.

“Syria’s two allies are watching closely who their new interlocutor will be,” said Ebrahim Hamidi, diplomatic editor at the London-based Alsharq Alawsat. “Faisal Mekdad is believed to be closer to Iran while Ayman Soussan is often recommended by the Russians.”

Speaking to Gulf News, he added: “Whoever is chosen for the job, whether it is Mekdad or Soussan, would have to carry on with Muallem’s numerous tasks, including overseeing the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and constitutional talks in Switzerland which started last year and are expected to resume before the end of this month.”

“Legally speaking the Deputy Minister is the one who deputises in the absence of Muallem,” asserted Ahmad Mansour, a Damascus-based writer and attorney. “Whereas the assistant is given specific authority for specific tasks.” Speaking to Gulf News he added: “Muallem can have many assistants, but only one deputy and in this case its Faisal Mekdad.”

“Let’s not get into names,” said Amer Elias, a Syrian political analyst. “The Foreign Ministry is an important institution filled with qualified people. The main requirements for who will replace Walid Al Mouallem are that the new minister is a member of the ruling Baath Party and an employee of the Foreign Ministry.”

In Damascus, many believe that Mekdad is the more likely candidate, at least in an interim capacity, given that he is older and more senior at the Foreign Ministry. He would serve in-office until presidential elections take place in mid-2021, after which constitutionally, the current government would resign and be replaced with a new cabinet.