US Turns Up the Heat on Syrian Foreign Minister

By Patrick Goodenough | September 1, 2011 | 2:40 AM EDT

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem welcomes then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Damascus on April 3, 2007. Pelosi became the highest ranking U.S. politician to visit Syria since 2003. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)

( – Drawing a distinction between senior Libyan regime officials who defected during the crisis there and senior Syrian ones who have not, the U.S. government launched a stinging attack on President Bashar Assad’s foreign minister Wednesday, a day after imposing sanctions on him.

“Here’s what I have to say about Walid Muallem,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a press briefing. “He has played a key role in trying to insulate the Assad regime from the implications of its own brutality by devoting himself strenuously to trying to hide the Assad regime’s capability in the murder and torture of Syrian citizens.”

“Muallem bears personal responsibility as well for the crimes committed. He’s intervened with counterparts to try to prevent the U.N. Security Council from taking action,” she continued.

“We saw people in the [Muammar] Gadaffi circle demonstrate a clear understanding of right and wrong when the tide began to turn there. They chose to defect. That has not yet happened with senior members of the Assad regime. Muallem remains unapologetic, he remains as a shameless tool and a mouthpiece of Assad and his regime.”

Nuland also accused the Syrian foreign minister of playing an important role in securing Iran’s involvement in helping Assad’s violent repression of anti-government protests.

He has also served as one of the key links between Damascus and Tehran, and he’s strengthened Assad’s reliance on Iranian equipment and advice in his relentless crackdown on the Syrian people,” she said, adding later that Muallem had “an overly cozy and dangerous relationship with Iran.”

On Tuesday the Treasury Department widened existing sanctions against Damascus to cover Muallem, Assad’s advisor Bouthaina Shaaban and Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul Karim Ali.

Undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence David Cohen described the three as “principal defenders of the regime’s activities.” U.S. citizens may no longer engage in any business transactions with them and any assets they may have in the U.S. are frozen.

Muallem, a member of Assad’s Ba’ath party, has been foreign minister since 2006. He served as ambassador to the United States from 1990-1999, a period during which bilateral relations improved in the aftermath of Syria’s participation in the Gulf War coalition and subsequent Mideast peace conference in Madrid.

Muallem’s earlier diplomatic postings in the 1960s and 70s included Romania, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Britain and Tanzania, according to his official biography.

Then Foreign Minister Mussa Kussa speaks to reporters at a Tripoli hotel on March 7, railing against a Western "conspiracy" against Libya. Three weeks later he defected. (AP Photo / Ben Curtis, file)

Muallem met with U.S. ambassador Robert Ford as recently as August 11, when according to the State Department Ford warned that Syria would face increasing pressure, including more economic sanctions from the U.S. and others, if the violence does not end.

Asked whether the new stance regarding Muallem would affect chances of further meetings with Ford, Nuland said there was no blanket policy ruling out any future exchanges.

“These are financial sanctions – they are not diplomatic sanctions,” she said.

On March 30 – six weeks after the Libyan uprising began and 11 days after the NATO intervention was launched – Muammar Gaddafi’s foreign minister, Mussa Kussa, defected and flew to Britain.

Several weeks earlier, a number of Libyan diplomats had also changed sides, including envoys to the Arab League and the United Nations.

In Syria, although there have been reports of soldiers and some Ba’ath party members abandoning the regime – reports denied by Damascus – no senior officials are known to have defected during the five-and-a-half month crisis.

“We hope that those in Syria who are still clinging to an Assad future understand that there is a positive future for them in a democratic Syria and they’ll get on the right side of history,” Nuland said.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow