Western countries and Syria’s neighbours, except for Lebanon, say conditions are not safe for the return of refugees.
Syria’s top diplomat and longtime Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, a staunch defender of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters that sparked a 10-year conflict, has died, state TV reported on Monday.
There were no details on the cause of death, but the 79-year old had for years been in poor health with heart problems.
A source close to the Syrian government said it was widely expected his deputy, veteran diplomat Faisal Mekdad, would replace his as foreign minister.
“He was known for his honourable patriotic positions,” the government said in a statement, adding that al-Moallem died at dawn and would be buried later on Monday in Damascus.
Al-Moallem was first appointed foreign minister in 2006 and also held the post of deputy prime minister.
The veteran diplomat saw his country’s tilt further towards Iran and Russia, who have helped shore up al-Assad’s rule and allowed the authoritarian leader to regain most of the territory he once lost to fighters.
Syria erupted into civil war nearly 10 years ago after al-Assad in 2011 began a brutal crackdown on protesters calling for an end to his family’s rule.
Al-Moallem accused Washington and the West of increasing the country’s unrest and labelled anti-government fighters as “terrorists” in a conflict that has cost tens of hundreds of thousands of deaths and led to the exodus of millions of refugees.
Al-Moallem, who served as ambassador to Washington for nine years starting in 1990 during Syria’s on-and-off peace talks with Israel, was a close confidant of al-Assad known for his loyalty and hardline position against the opposition.
A soft-spoken man with a dry sense of humour, al-Moallem was also known for his ability to defuse tensions with a joke.
During the current crisis, he often held news conferences in Damascus detailing the Syrian government’s position. Unwavering in the face of international criticism, he repeatedly vowed that the opposition, which he said was part of a Western conspiracy against Syria for its anti-Israel stances, would be crushed.
A short, portly man with white hair, al-Moallem’s health was said to be deteriorating in recent years.
Born to a Sunni Muslim family in Damascus in 1941, al-Moallem attended public schools in Syria and later travelled to Egypt, where he studied at Cairo University, graduating in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in economics.
He returned to Syria and began work at the foreign ministry in 1964, rising to the top post in 2005.
His first mission outside the country as a diplomat in the 1960s was to open the Syrian embassy in Tanzania. In 1966, he moved to the Syrian mission in the Saudi city of Jeddah and a year later he moved to the Syrian embassy in Madrid.
In 1972, he headed the Syrian mission to London and in 1975 moved to Romania, where he spent five years as ambassador. He then returned to Damascus, where he headed the ministry’s documentation office until 1984, when he was named as the head of the foreign minister’s office.
In 2006, he was appointed foreign minister at a time when Damascus was isolated by Arab and Western nations following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Many Lebanese and Arab people as well as Western governments blamed Syria for the massive blast that killed Hariri – accusations that Damascus repeatedly denied. Syria was forced to end nearly three decades of domination and military presence in its smaller neighbour and pulled out its troops in April that year.
In 2006, al-Moallem became the most senior politician to visit Lebanon after Syrian troops withdrew. He attended an Arab foreign ministers meeting during the 34-day war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, a strong ally of Syria.
“I wish I were a fighter with the resistance,” al-Moallem said in Beirut at the time, triggering criticism from anti-Syrian Lebanese activists who poked fun at him as being overweight and unfit to fight.
After the uprising against al-Assad began in March 2011, al-Moallem was tasked with holding news conferences in Damascus to defend the government’s position. He travelled regularly to Moscow and Iran to meet with officials there.
During a news conference a year after the conflict began, al-Moallem was asked about a comment by France’s foreign minister at the time, Alain Juppe, that the regime’s days were numbered.
Al-Moallem answered with a smile on his face: “If Mr Juppe believes that the days of the regime are numbered I tell him, wait and you will see.”
“This is if God gives him a long age,” al-Moallem said.
In February 2013, he was the first Syrian official to say during a visit to Moscow that the government was ready to hold talks even with those “who carried arms”.
In early 2014, he headed Syria’s negotiating team during two rounds of peace talks with the opposition in Switzerland. The talks, which eventually collapsed, were the first time the Syrian government sat face-to-face with Syrian opposition figures.
Al-Moallem was widely criticised for a rambling speech he gave at the start of Syria’s peace conference in Montreux, Switzerland. Then-UN chief Ban Ki-moon repeatedly asked him to step away from the podium when he exceeded his time limit.
Al-Moallem ignored Ban’s pleas, setting off a tense exchange.
“You live in New York. I live in Syria,” al-Moallem snapped. “I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum. After three years of suffering, this is my right.”
Al-Moallem then proceeded with his speech, saying he had a few minutes left. Ban asked him to keep his promise.
“Syria always keeps its promises,” al-Moallem replied, triggering approving laughter from the Syrian government delegation behind him and a grin from Ban.
Al-Moallem is survived by his wife, Sawsan Khayat and three children, Tarek, Shatha and Khaled.