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Walid Muallem – A Sunni Who Understood His Limits

Ironically, Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister since 2006, died on November 16, 2020, the day marking the 50th anniversary of the 1970 “Corrective Revolution.” The revolution was carried out by Hafez Assad against his comrades and led to the rise of the Assad regime we know today. Was Muallem’s departure on that particular day a coincidence or yet another sign of the end of a regime that has outlived its time? The Corrective Revolution gave rise to a regime that, in order to survive, had to disintegrate Syria into tribes that could be divided and conquered. The Assad dynasty first relied on the help of the Iranians to do so, and then turned to the Russians. From barrel bombs to assassinations, chemical weapons and the mass displacement of citizens, the Assad regime has not shied from using violence to strengthen its power. The truth is that Muallem, a Sunni Muslim who spent most of his life in the inner circles of Damascus, had no significant decision-making authority over the Alawite regime – neither during the Hafez Assad era nor the current Bashar Assad era. Like other Sunnis who rose to fame in Syria under the Assads, Muallem was simply a decorative tool used to polish the regime’s image by allowing it to deny that it was loyal only to Alawites, a sect of Shia Islam. Muallem was among the few urban Sunnis who assumed a prominent position in government. Most other Sunnis in Syria remained powerful only within their own local circles, typically outside the large cities. Those who did rise to fame in places like Damascus were immediately jailed. Muallem knew his limits and learned them early on. After serving as Syria’s ambassador to Washington between 1990 and 1999, he was summoned back to Damascus due to a tip-off that he was growing “too close” to his American counterparts. In fact, Hafez Assad put him in direct competition with Farouk al-Shara, the foreign minister, with Shara coming out victorious. Since his return to Damascus, Muallem played the role he had to play. He demonstrated his loyalty to the Assad family while hiding his true feelings, which were similar to the feelings of every Syrian Sunni toward the regime. He understood what it meant to be a Sunni in the service of Bashar Assad’s regime, and before his, that of Hafez Assad. He knew that the Sunni should negotiate with Israel while the Alawite should remain outside this circle. Therefore, the public negotiations with the Israelis were limited to people like Muallem. Ultimately, he played the sole role of preserving his position. Despite being the highest-ranked official in Syria’s security establishment, he was far from the strongest. The most powerful person has always been the Alawite, who serves as the backbone of the system – which above all else is a family system. – Khairallah Khairallah (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)