What Impact Will Syria’s New Foreign Minister Have?

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has appointed Faisal Mekded as his country’s new Foreign Minister, replacing Walid al-Moallem who died almost a week ago, according to Al-Jazeera. 

Mekded has some big shoes to fill as al-Moallem was an adept and stalwart supporter of Assad’s regime. The former foreign minister held his job throughout the last decade, and survived several reshuffles before he died at the age of 79.

The Syrian Government did not specify the cause of al-Moallem’s death, but his health was understood to have been deteriorating for some time.

Mekded is an Experienced Politician

The 66-year-old Mekded also possesses significant political experience. He started his career at the Syrian Foreign Ministry in 1994 and has been deputy foreign minister since 2006.

He shadowed Moallem at most conferences and meetings, and stepped in to make statements when the latter’s health began to deteriorate.

Syria’s new Foreign Minister has an enormous task ahead of him regarding improving his country’s stature in the world. The Syrian Government remains isolated internationally, despite recent attempts to normalize ties with Gulf countries.

Yet the good news for Mekded is that both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain rebuilt their relationships with Syria while Moallem served as the nation’s foreign minister. The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018, followed by Bahrain.

Cooperative Opportunities Abound for Mekded

In March, the Syrian President and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan spoke on the phone in March for the first time since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.

As Daniel L. Byman argues for the Brookings Institute, the likelihood is that Syria will remain weak in the near- and mid-term, and probably for another decade. The country is exhausted by civil war and riven by ethnic and communal divisions, its military is paralyzed, and domestic stability will remain the dominant military concern.

The Assad regime does not control the entire country due to interference from foreign powers such as Russia and Iran. These rival states could support warlords or rebel groups against the government to prolong the civil war.

If Mekded is serious about improving Syria’s presence on the regional stage, he should look beyond depending upon Iran for stability. The new Foreign Minister can achieve this aim by uniting Sunnis, Alawites, and others under a common banner: the desire to gradually reduce Tehran’s influence and increase Syria’s self-sufficiency.

Other nations such as Egypt and the UAE may look to strengthen their relationship with Syria as well if Mekded manages to achieve this aim.

Mekded is Unlikely to Improve Syria’s International Reputation

Neighboring states like Jordan fear continued instability in Syria, and Germany’s politicians are facing domestic pressure due to the presence of Syrian refugees in their country. Mekded could bring up the refugee crisis in negotiations, demanding more aid for them should they return, and also pressure for humane treatment for any who return.

Despite this, none of these developments would return Syria to its pre-war status, but they would allow Damascus to increase its autonomy should Mekded choose to adopt these ideas.

Mekded’s Likely Trajectory Going Forward: More of the Same

But considering Mekded has served as Moallem’s deputy for the last decade, the reality is that he will continue with the latter’s legacy. During an interview with the RIA Novosti state news agency in 2018, Mekded revealed that he did not believe that both Russia and Iran were violating Syria’s sovereignty, and that he wanted nations which are opposed to terrorism to remain in the country. Syrian citizens should therefore expect more of the same from their new Foreign Minister.

A new ministerial appointment is always an opportunity for a preexisting government to change its approach to a specific policy, but given Mekded’s track record and loyalty to Moallem and his policies in office, he will probably do nothing to improve Syria’s position on the global stage.

Nonetheless, there are many opportunities Syria can take advantage of, and time will tell whether the new Foreign Minister will exploit them.