Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was officially re-elected with 95.1% of the vote in last month’s presidential election, a process described as “illegitimate” by France, Italy, the United States and Great Britain. Brittany: The Czech Republic did not comment on the election, being the only EU country to have maintained its embassy in Damascus during the Syrian civil war.
While most Western states closed their embassies in Damascus in 2012 – most sending their staff to neighboring Lebanon – Prague decided to maintain diplomatic relations with Syria. A decision that generated little controversy among the Czech population and supported by Czech politicians of all stripes, including pro-European Karel Schwarzenberg, Minister of Foreign Affairs when the decision was taken.
Why did the Czechs stay in Syria?
Although good Czech-Syrian relations date back decades, the decision can easily be summed up in two words: Eva Filipi, named after an experienced Czech diplomat in the Middle East, who became ambassador to Syria in 2010.
“Ms. Filipi has good relations with the Syrian regime,” explains Marek Cejka, political scientist and Middle East expert at Mendel University in Brno. “During the bloodbath of the civil war, she stood up for the regime and the Czech embassy issued visas to various representatives of the Syrian regime.”
So much so that in August 2012, the Czech Republic accepted the United States’ request to be their “protecting power” in Syria. The concept of “protecting power” in international diplomacy goes back several centuries. The United States has often used the embassies of other states to provide informal service to American citizens in a third country.
This arrangement could have allowed Washington to engage in indirect communications with a foreign government that it officially denounces. The Swiss Embassy, for example, served as the United States’ Protecting Power in Cuba between 1961 and 2015, before the United States re-established dialogue with Havana.
Thus the Czech Embassy in Syria maintains an official of Czech nationality at the head of a “section of American interests.” According to the website of the Czech Embassy in Syria, at least eight officials are currently based in Damascus, including an economic and political attaché, as well as a military and air attaché and an adjuvant defense attaché.
According to an article in Foreign Policy in 2017, the former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, had approved this operation for two reasons: first, because Prague was one of the few potential protecting powers to maintain its embassy in Syria despite the American withdrawal. The second reason put forward by Robert Ford is the “very good relationship with the Czech Republic” that Washington maintains.
What has Prague gained from its presence in Syria?
We know that the Czech Embassy has been engaged in humanitarian projects in Syria since 2016 and last month approved three new land development programs, with the Czech government contributing around € 20,000 to each. The Prague National Museum was granted a one-time license to conduct archaeological research in Syria in 2019.
But also, that in 2017, the embassy also played a major role in the release of a Polish national imprisoned by the Damascus regime for unspecified reasons. The following year, she did the same for two aid workers, including a German national.
When the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, visited Prague in 2018, he thanked the government for its help in Syria. Much like US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when then Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek visited Washington the following year.
“This is not something that has completely changed relations between the Czech Republic and the United States, but it is an issue that the United States is keen to emphasize”, commented Jan Daniel, coordinator of the unit policy for the Middle East and Africa at the Institute for International Relations in Prague.
Some also suggest that maintaining its embassy in Syria has played into President Milos Zeman’s game in his attempt to bring Czech foreign policy closer to Russia and China.
“To some extent, the current relations between Syria and the Czech Republic are a consequence of Zeman’s pro-Russian policies,” confirms Mr Cejka of Mendel University.
According to a Kremlin account of a meeting between Zeman and Russian President Vladimir Putin in November 2017, Milos Zeman allegedly told his counterpart: “You won in Syria”, before describing Assad as the “democratically elected president”.
In 2016 and then 2018, Milos Zeman publicly criticized the American position in Syria and denounced the coalition airstrikes. In 2019, he accused Turkey of allying with the Islamic State group and of committing war crimes in Syria.
According to Cejka, the Czech Republic’s policy towards Syria could also be influenced by its criticism of Islam, given that the Assad regime is largely made up of members of non-Muslim minorities and is seen by some as a bulwark against Islamism in the Middle East.
The Czech head of state, said in his Christmas message, at the height of the migrant crisis in Europe in 2015: “I am deeply convinced that we are facing an organized invasion and not a spontaneous movement of refugees.”
Neither the Czech Embassy in Syria nor Ambassador Filipi responded to our requests for comment.