A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on September 25, 2013 shows President Bashar al-Assad giving an interview with Venezuelan television station TeleSUR in Damascus
A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on September 25, 2013 shows President Bashar al-Assad giving an interview with Venezuelan television station TeleSUR in Damascus. © - SANA/AFP/File
A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on September 25, 2013 shows President Bashar al-Assad giving an interview with Venezuelan television station TeleSUR in Damascus
Sammy Ketz, AFP
Last updated: December 1, 2013

European envoys back on road to Damascus

European ambassadors and intelligence officials are making discreet trips to Damascus in a bid to resume contacts with the Syrian regime after years of outspoken support for the opposition, diplomats say.

"Since May, little by little, we have begun to return, at first cautiously for a day, then two, then three," explained one European ambassador to Syria who has been based in Beirut since December 2012.

"Now we are going once or twice a month," the ambassador added.

Much of the diplomatic corps based in Damascus left the city last December.

More than 120,000 people have been killed in Syria's 32-month conflict, which also has forced millions to flee their homes.

Of the EU nations, only the Czech Republic's envoy Eva Filippi has remained in the Syrian capital throughout the conflict.

But a slew of envoys from Europe, including Austria, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and the EU's charge d'affaires, now regularly make trips back to Damascus.

Some even attended a briefing earlier this week with Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad.

The diplomats are constrained by EU sanctions which bar contact with 179 Syrian officials accused of supporting a brutal government crackdown against the opposition.

The blacklist was drawn up as part of EU sanctions against the Syrian regime in response to its suppression of peaceful demonstrations which began in March 2011.

"We can't make contact with these people, but if we're invited somewhere and one of them is present, we won't turn our backs, and if they address us, we respond to them," said another European diplomat.

But Muqdad is not on the list.

"The EU never asked its members to close their embassies. It was more a gesture of support to the opposition, initiated by the 'Friends of Syria'," the ambassador said, referring to a group of nations which back the Syrian uprising.

The group, which has met regularly to pledge support to the opposition, includes France, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, all of which have expelled Syrian ambassadors.

"I think that in the first quarter of 2014, you're going to see many of my European colleagues returning on the road to Damascus," the diplomat added.

Trend ahead of Geneva peace conference

The trend comes as the international community prepares for a peace conference slated for January 22 in Geneva, which the diplomat said could speed up the return of envoys.

"Geneva will be a good reason for them to return. They can say that the political situation has now changed, so we can come back," he added.

Muqdad this week denied that Syria was diplomatically isolated.

"Syria has contacts and diplomatic relations. There are 43 diplomatic missions in Syria, which is not as isolated as some might claim," he said, quoted by state news agency SANA.

"Contacts are being made to open embassies (in Damascus) and most of Syria's embassies abroad are still open, with the exception of those that Damascus does not want to open," Muqdad added.

Even more discreetly, sources tell AFP, Western intelligence services have been making contact with their Syrian counterparts to test old ties.

Some have even met with the all-powerful Syrian secret service chief, General Ali Mamluk, whose name figures on the EU blacklist.

"The presence of more than a thousand jihadists who have come from Europe to fight in Syria is a serious concern for the countries they come from," said a third Western diplomat.

"That's why the security services of these countries want to resume cooperation with Syria that has been on hold for the last two years."

The diplomat said France, a leading critic of the Syrian regime, sent two of its agents to meet Mamluk and ask if he was ready to resume intelligence cooperation.

"He was very tough. 'We are ready for it, but do we want it? The answer is no. Not while your embassy remains closed'," the diplomat quoted Mamluk as saying.

He said Britain had also approached the Syrian intelligence services, only to receive a similar response.

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