Syria’s Longtime Foreign Minister al-Moallem Dies at Age 79

Walid al-Moallem, Syria's long-time foreign minister, a career diplomat who became one of the country's most famous faces to the outside world during the President Bashar Assad uprising, died on Monday. He was seventy-nine.

Al-Moallem, who served for nine years as an ambassador to Washington during Syria's on-and-off peace talks with Israel beginning in 1990, was a close confidant of Assad, known for his loyalty and hard-line stance against the opposition.

Also known for his ability to defuse tensions with a joke, al-Moallem was a soft-spoken, jovial man with a dry sense of humour.

He also held news conferences in Damascus during the current crisis, outlining the role of the Syrian government. He repeatedly promised, unwavering in the face of foreign criticism, that the opposition, which he said was part of the Western plot against Syria for its anti-Israel stance, would be crushed.

A short and portly man with white hair, his health has been said to be declining due to heart attacks in recent years. The state-run SANA news agency announced his death, without providing a cause immediately.

Born in 1941 in Damascus to a Sunni Muslim family, al-Moallem attended public schools in Syria and later travelled to Egypt, where he studied at the University of Cairo, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics in 1963.

He returned to Syria and began work at the foreign ministry in 1964, rising to the top post in 2005.

As a diplomat in the 1960s, his first mission outside the country was to open the Syrian Embassy in the African nation of Tanzania. He relocated to the Syrian Embassy in the Saudi city of Jiddah in 1966, and moved to the Syrian Embassy in Madrid a year later.

He led the Syrian mission to London in 1972, and moved to Romania in 1975, where he served as an ambassador for five years. He then returned to Damascus, where he was head of the Ministry of Documentation until 1984, when he was appointed head of the Office of the Foreign Minister.

In 1990, he was appointed Syrian Ambassador to Washington and spent nine years in the US. During that span, Syria held several rounds of peace talks with Israel.

In 2005, 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, Arab and Western governments have blamed Syria for the massive explosion that killed Hariri, allegations repeatedly refuted by Damascus. Syria was forced to put an end to almost three decades of dominance and military presence in its smaller neighbor, and in April of that year it withdrew its forces.

In 2006, after Syrian troops withdrawn, al-Moallem became the most senior leader to visit Lebanon. During the 34-day war between Israel and Lebanon's militant Hezbollah party, a close ally of Syria, he attended an Arab Foreign Ministers' meeting.

“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.

Al-Moallem was charged with holding news conferences in Damascus to defend the government's stance after the rebellion against Assad began in March 2011. He frequently traveled to Moscow and Iran, the Syrian government's main supporters, to meet with officials there.

A year after the war began, during a news conference, al-Moallem was asked to comment on the remarks of the then French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, that the days of the regime 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, marked the first time that members of the Syrian government sat face-to-face with Syrian opposition figures.

Al-Moallem was widely criticized for a rambling speech he gave at the start of Syria’s peace conference in Montreux, Switzerland. Then U.N. 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 an exchange that showed the tensions in trying to resolve Syria’s bloody conflict.

“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’s last public appearance was at the opening of an international refugee conference last Wednesday in Damascus, when he appeared to be in ill health. The following day, he did not attend the closing ceremony of the event, which was co-hosted with Russia.

Al-Moallem is survived by his wife, Sawsan Khayat and three children, Tarek, Shatha and Khaled. He will be buried on Monday afternoon and prayers will be held at a mosque in Damascus.

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