Syrian foreign minister al-Muallem dies

Bassem Mroue
·3-min read

Syria's long-time foreign minister Walid al-Muallem, a career diplomat who became one of the country's most prominent faces to the outside world during the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, has died at the age of 79.

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

A soft spoken, jovial man with a dry sense of humour, al-Muallem 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 foreign conspiracy against Syria for its anti-Israel stances, would be crushed.

A short and portly man with white hair, his health was said to be deteriorating in recent years with heart problems.

The state-run SANA news agency reported his death, without immediately offering a cause.

Born to a Sunni Muslim family in Damascus in 1941, al-Muallem 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 working at the foreign ministry in 1964, rising to the top post in 2006.

His first mission outside the country as a diplomat in the 1960s was to open the Syrian embassy in Tanzania.

He was appointed as Syria's ambassador to Washington DC in 1990, spending nine years in the US.

During that time Syria held several rounds of peace talks with Israel.

After the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, al-Muallem was tasked with holding news conferences in Damascus to defend the government's position.

He traveled regularly to Moscow and Iran, key backers of the Syrian government, to meet with officials there.

During a news conference a year after the conflict began, al-Muallem was asked to comment about then French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe's comment that the regime's days were numbered.

Al-Muallem 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-Muallem 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-Muallem 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.