Syrian President Bashar Assad claimed to have won 95.1% of the vote in elections held last month, while a joint statement by France, Italy, the United States and the United Kingdom called the electoral process “illegitimate.”
One of the countries that did not comment on the elections was the Czech Republic, which is the only EU country that has kept its embassy open in Damascus since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. A war that has killed almost half a million people and driven 11 million from their homes.
While other Western states closed their embassies in Damascus in 2012 – most sending their staff to Beirut, in neighboring Lebanon – Prague decided to maintain its diplomatic relations, a decision that has benefited both pro-American and pro-Russian voices within. from the Czech Republic.
It also appears to have sparked little controversy among Czech public opinion.
What’s behind the Czech decision to stay in Syria?
Although good relations between the Czech Republic and Syria date back decades, the supposed driving force behind the decision was Eva Filipi, a seasoned Czech diplomat in the Middle East who became an ambassador to Syria in 2010.
“Filipi herself maintains good relations with the Syrian regime,” says Marek Cejka, a political scientist and Middle East expert at Mendel University in Brno.
“During the bloodshed of the civil war, she spoke apologetically in defense of the regime, and the Czech embassy also issued visas to various representatives of the Syrian regime,” Cejka added.
On the other hand, Cejka said, it is an “indisputable fact” that Filipi is a highly experienced diplomat in the Middle East – having previously served as ambassador to Turkey and Lebanon, and as charge d’affaires in Iraq in the 1990s – and with a few ties in Syria that few other foreign diplomats possess.
This was clearly recognized by other powers because, in August 2012, the Czech Republic accepted the United States’ request to be its “protective power” in Syria.
The idea of a “protective power” in international diplomacy dates back centuries, and the United States has often used the embassies of other states to provide an informal service to US citizens in a third country.
It is also believed that this agreement allows Washington to initiate a communication from behind with a foreign government that it formally denounces.
The Swiss embassy, for example, served as the United States’ protective power in Cuba between 1961 and 2015, when the United States reopened its diplomatic ties with Havana.
The Czech embassy in Syria maintains an official, a Czech national, as head of its “US Interests Section.”
A 2017 Foreign Policy article noted that former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford approved of the Czech Republic becoming the US “protective power” for two reasons.
First of all, because it was one of the few Western governments willing to keep its embassy open in Syria. Several European governments on the list of potential protecting powers said they would close their embassies if the United States did so, Ford told Foreign Policy.
Czech politicians from across the spectrum supported Filipi and the embassy’s decision, Cejka said, including pro-European Karel Schwarzenberg, who was foreign minister between 2010 and 2013 when the decision was made.
According to Ford, the second reason was that “we have a very good relationship with the Czech Republic,” an indication that Washington relied on Czech diplomacy.
According to the website of the Czech embassy in Syria, there are currently at least eight officials in Damascus, including an economic and political envoy, as well as a military and air envoy and a defense officer.
What has Prague gained from its presence in Syria?
The Czech embassy has been involved in humanitarian projects in Syria since 2016 and last month approved three new agricultural development programs, to which the Czech government contributed some 20,000 euros.
The National Museum in Prague received a one-time license to carry out archaeological research in Syria in 2019.
In 2017, the embassy also played an important role in securing the release of a Polish citizen who had been imprisoned by the Damascus regime on unspecified charges. The following year, he did the same with two workers – one of them a German national – from a German humanitarian group who had also been arrested in Syria.
When then-Speaker of the US House of Representatives Paul Ryan visited Prague in 2018, he thanked the government for its help in Syria. So did US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when then-Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek visited Washington the following year.
“It 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 wants to emphasize,” said Jan Daniel, coordinator of the Middle East and Africa Policy Unit of the Institute. of International Relations of Prague.
The Czech embassy in Syria and Ambassador Filipi did not respond to requests for comment.
On the other hand, it has been suggested that the maintenance of its embassy in Syria has played in favor of President Milos Zeman, who has tried to bring Czech foreign policy closer to Russia and China since his election in 2013.
“It will surely be true to some extent that the current Syrian-Czech relations are an outstretched hand of Zeman’s pro-Russian policy,” said Cejka of Mendel University.
After the fall of communism in 1989, the Czech ruling class pursued a West-oriented foreign agenda, with close relations with the United States and the countries of Western Europe.
But Zeman has argued that foreign policy should be more pragmatic and focus on profiting from Moscow and Beijing. Several of Zeman’s associates have close ties to Russian and Chinese companies that have invested in the country.
According to a Kremlin reading of a meeting between Zeman and Russian President Vladimir Putin in November 2017, Zeman told his counterpart: “You have won in Syria.” He then described Assad as the “democratically elected president.”
In 2016 and again in 2018, Zeman publicly criticized the US stance on the Syrian civil war, expressly denouncing the joint US, French and UK airstrikes in Syria that year.
In 2019, he accused Turkey, which has opposed the Assad regime and supports Free Syrian Army forces, of allying with the Islamic State group and committing war crimes in Syria.
Zeman has also been a key support for Ambassador Filipi, Daniel said. It has granted Filipi, now 77, an exemption, as Czech civil service law requires diplomats to retire at age 70. In addition, she has been an ambassador for more than a decade, while Czech diplomats usually rotate every four years.
According to Cejka, the Czech Republic’s policy towards Syria may also be influenced by President Zeman’s criticism of Islam, given that the Assad regime is largely made up of members of Syria’s non-Muslim minorities and is considered by some as a bulwark against Islamism in the Middle East.
Zeman, known for his anti-Islam remarks, commented in his Christmas message during the height of the migration crisis in Europe in 2015: “I am deeply convinced that we are facing an organized invasion and not a spontaneous refugee movement.”
However, the issue of the Czech Republic’s relations with the Assad regime has not become a major part of public discourse at the national level, the sources said.
Opposition politicians and newspaper columnists have occasionally criticized the Czech presence in Syria, claiming that it not only legitimizes the Assad regime but also publicly defends Russian interests in the Middle East.
This was felt most strongly among Czech commentators in 2015, when Russia intervened militarily in the conflict. In April 2017, then-Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek warned that the embassy could close if Assad’s forces were shown to have used chemical weapons against civilians.
In 2019, a new controversy arose at the national level when national media reported that the Czech embassy had granted visas to Syrians who had close relationships with those on international sanctions lists. That included Jawad Rida, the son of Assad’s adviser Buthajna Shabaan, who is on the EU sanctions list.
The 2017 annual report of the Czech intelligence service (BIS) noted that the country had become a route to the European Schengen Area “for some high-ranking representatives of the Assad regime or its descendants.”
However, public interest in foreign policy is low in the Czech Republic, and even the current intense debates about relations with China and Russia are proxy issues for domestic policy, according to Daniel.
In recent years, liberal politicians, mainly from opposition parties, have tried to hone their democratic credentials by opposing closer ties with Moscow and Beijing.
It also fits with the historical narrative of a communist giant from the East threatening a small independent nation, which locally draws analogies to the Prague Spring of 1968, when Soviet troops stifled attempts by local communist leaders to liberalize their socialist system. “There is no such easy explanation with Syria as there is with China and Russia,” Daniel said.
In fact, while many liberals in the Czech Republic would likely support a democratic uprising in Syria, he noted, the question of who opposes the Assad regime, between Democrats and Islamists, makes matters more complicated.
On the other hand, the discourse on Czech relations with Syria is held mainly among politicians and academics specialized in the Middle East, Daniel added.
Now that it has been almost a decade since most European states closed the doors of their embassies in Damascus, leaving the Czech Republic as the exception, it remains unclear whether it was worth the decision.