Hungary’s PM defends plan to appoint Syria diplomat


Hungary rejected Thursday criticism of a plan by Budapest to send a diplomat to Syria next year, the first time an EU member state is to upgrade its diplomatic presence there since the start of the war.

Starting next year Hungary will send a diplomat to Syria to follow up on humanitarian support for Christian communities there and conduct consular duties, the foreign ministry said Wednesday.

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The move has been slammed by the US and caused unease in some western EU capitals.

“We urge all states against reestablishing or upgrading their diplomatic relations or economic cooperation with the (President Bashar al-Assad) regime,” said a statement from the US Embassy in Budapest sent to AFP.

“Such actions undercut efforts to move toward a permanent, peaceful, and political solution to the Syrian conflict,” it said.

A diplomat from a western EU country told AFP that “we are concerned because of the signal of legitimisation and normalisation it would send to the regime”.

But Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto blasted the criticism as “very unfair”. 

“If it’s a problem that a Hungarian diplomat travels there a couple of times a year, then what do they tell our Central European friends who still have their embassies? Let’s not apply double standards,” he said.

Only the Czech Republic still has an embassy in Damascus, while other EU countries, the US and Canada are among those which have closed their missions, breaking off relations with the Assad regime.

Romania technically still has an embassy in Syria, but the ambassador is based in Beirut. Bulgaria has a charge d’affaires.

EU countries have in the past sent envoys to Syria, but not for consular purposes, with their duties limited to talks on aid and policy.

Syria‘s conflict flared in 2011 with anti-government demonstrations that sparked a brutal regime crackdown. Since then, 370,000 people have been killed and millions displaced.

The upgrading of diplomatic engagement with Damascus is likely “in line with hopes of staying close to business opportunities,” Daniel Bartha, an analyst with the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy, told AFP. 

Hungary was one of the first EU countries to reopen its Baghdad embassy after the Iraq war, and later opened a consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil in line with the interests of Hungarian oil and gas giant MOL, Bartha said. 

The move is “typical of the multi-vectoral Hungarian foreign policy that seeks diplomatic gains by breaking consensus and cooperation in EU and NATO, the alliances Hungary officially belongs to,” said Daniel Hegedus, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“It fits well to the Russian foreign policy priorities striving for the re-establishment of the Assad regime’s international recognition,” he said.

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