German-Syrian diplomatic relations in times of civil war: the realities of diplomacy

Published: 29 October 2019  Authors: Stefan Talmon and Julian Craven  DOI: 10.17176/20220122-160710-0

In March 2011, the Syrian civil war started with major unrest in Damascus and Aleppo. With the continuation and intensification of the conflict and the increasing violations by the Syrian Government under President Bashar al-Assad of international humanitarian law and human rights law, the relations between Germany and the Syrian Government deteriorated. On 7 February 2012, Germany expelled four employees of the Syrian embassy in Berlin for taking action in Germany against members of the Syrian opposition. In response to the massacre in the village of Houla on 25 May 2012, where 108 people, including 34 women and 49 children, were killed by Syrian troops and pro-government militias, Germany, together with Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States expelled the heads of the Syrian diplomatic mission in their country.

On 29 May 2012, Federal Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle issued the following statement:

“I have decided to expel the Syrian ambassador in Berlin. Today, State Secretary Haber had the Syrian ambassador summoned to the Federal Foreign Office to inform him of this decision.

Germany is acting in concert with its partners. We are confident that our clear and firm message will not fall on deaf ears in Damascus.

The Syrian regime bears the responsibility for the horrifying events in Houla. Whoever disregards the resolutions of the Security Council and uses heavy weapons against their own people there or elsewhere in Syria must reckon with serious diplomatic and political consequences.

We will also urge the United Nations Security Council to again address the situation in Syria. The international community must use all available means to see that Kofi Annan’s peace plan is fully implemented.

Even before the events in Houla, it was clear that Syria does not have a future under Assad. He must leave to make way for a peaceful transition in Syria.”

The Syrian ambassador was declared persona non grata and was given 72 hours to leave Germany. The Syrian diplomatic mission in Berlin was thus reduced to three diplomats and several non-diplomatic staff. On 29 May 2012, the Assad Government nominated Ms Abir Jarf as a chargé d’affaires ad interim who was later followed as chargé by Ms Lama al Kahni and on 29 March 2016 by Mr Bashar Alassaed.

On 11 November 2012, the Syrian opposition, meeting in Doha, formed the “National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces” or, in short, the Syrian National Coalition” (SNC), a coalition of various groups opposed to Syrian President Assad and his government. The SNC has a president, a political committee and 114-member General Assembly. It was headquartered first in Cairo and later in Istanbul. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) forms the military wing of the SNC.

The formation of the SNC was welcomed by the German Government. Federal Foreign Minister Westerwelle stated on 12 November 2012 that he hoped that “the ‘National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ will emerge as a credible political alternative to the Bashar Assad regime.”

On 10 December 2012, the Council of the European Union recognized the SNC “as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.” Commenting on the decision, Foreign Minister Westerwelle said:

“It is the right time to upgrade the SNC today. We think it will be an important means to promote the process of erosion in the regime of Al Assad. The EU encourages the Coalition to remain committed to the respect of the principles of human rights, inclusivity, democracy and engaging with all opposition groups and all sections of Syrian civil society.”

On the same day, the Federal Foreign Office expelled four more members of the Syrian embassy in Berlin. Foreign Minister Westerwelle explained the move as follows:

“Today’s expulsion of four members of the Syrian Embassy in Berlin is a clear demonstration that we are reducing our dealings with the Assad regime to the absolute minimum. We are counting on the National Coalition to consolidate its position and establish functioning transitional institutions as soon as possible.”

Again, the expelled staff were given 72 hours to leave the country.

The SNC itself claims that it has been recognized by 114 States, including Germany, as “a legitimate representative of the Syrian people”. Twenty States even recognize it as “the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” The SNC Political Committee appoints ambassadors and conducts diplomatic relations with foreign governments.

On 11 July 2013, the SNC opened a “Liaison Office” in Berlin in the presence of several members of the German Federal Foreign Office, including the Federal Foreign Minister’s Personal Representative for the Arab World. The functions of the Liaison Office are described as follows:

“The liaison office coordinates with Syrian initiatives, humanitarian, cultural, and social organizations and links them with German ministries, political parties, civil society organizations, media outlets and the German society. It offers strategic and technical support to strengthen Germany-based humanitarian aid projects and relief initiatives. It further provides support to Syrian refugees and opposition activists in Germany.”

On its German website the Liaison Office presents itself as “National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Office of the Ambassador in Germany”. The head of the Liaison Office, Mr. Bassam Abdullah, is referred to as the “Ambassador in Germany” who represents the SNC as well as the concerns of Syrian nationals in Germany. In this capacity, he maintains relations with German authorities and represents the Syrian revolutionary forces in public events and in the press.

The German Government financially supported the SNC Liaison Office in Berlin from 2016 to 2019 by covering the costs for the consulting services provided by the Office as well as meeting the operating costs of the Office. For example, in 2018, the assistance provided amounted to some 220,000 euros. In 2019, another 140,000 euros were to be made available to the Office. However, in a change of policy the Federal Government announced in October 2019 that it was no longer providing any assistance to the SNC Office in Berlin.

This gave rise to several parliamentary questions on the status of the SNC office in Berlin and its head. In its response, the Federal Government stated on 6 February 2019:

“Bassam Abdullah is not accredited to the Federal Republic of Germany as an ambassador within the meaning of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 18 April 1961. He does not possess a German diplomatic passport.

The abovementioned office does not qualify as premises of a mission within the meaning of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 18 April 1961, which would enjoy special protection in accordance with the provisions of diplomatic law.

As a registered association, the Office of the Syrian National Coalition in Berlin claims to act in an advisory capacity for Syrian nationals in Germany. To the Federal Government’s knowledge, in individual cases the Office produces legally non-binding opinions to Syrian nationals for submission to domestic authorities in passport matters. The decision of whether to take these opinions into consideration is made by the respective aliens department in each individual case. Any circumstances where an individual cannot be expected to visit the Syrian embassy to apply for a passport must, in principle, be set out and proven to the aliens department by the person concerned.”

The Federal Government’s answers made it clear that the Office was neither an “embassy” not its head an “ambassador” and that the Office could not exercise the functions of a diplomatic mission and that, in particular, it could not issue Syrian passports or other official Syrian documents. The premises of the Office and its archives were not inviolable and the members of the staff of the Office did not enjoy any privileges and immunities in Germany.

The answers also revealed that there was still a “Syrian embassy” in Berlin to which Syrian nationals could turn for passports and other consular services. The recognition of the SNC by the German Government in 2012 was a political declaration of support without any legal effect. In particular, political recognition as “as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people” fell way short of recognition as the legitimate representative of Syria or as the new Syrian Government. The European Union chose its words very carefully. By using the term “representatives”, rather than “the representative” or “the sole representative”, it indicated that the SNC was one among several groups representing the legitimate interests of the Syrian people but that it did not have a sole right of representation. Despite all the rhetoric, for Germany the Government of President Assad remained the sole representative of the Syrian State in its diplomatic relations with other States. For that reason, it remained in control of the Syrian embassy in Berlin and the country’s former embassy in Bonn. While political relations with the Assad Government were downgraded to the “absolute minimum”, the embassy was allowed to continue to operate. The Assad Government also remained competent to nominate chargés d’affaires and to replace the diplomats at the Berlin mission. Germany also allowed the Assad Government to increase the staff at the embassy again from two to three diplomats in February 2017 and from three to four diplomats in October 2019.

In view of the fact that the SNC has compromised its position by the FSA taking part in what Germany considered Turkey’s illegal invasion of north eastern Syria in October 2019, and the Assad Government steadily increasing its hold over Syria and consolidating its position, it is more than likely that the realities of diplomacy will sooner or later lead to Germany giving the agrément to a new Assad-appointed ambassador and the disappearance into oblivion of the SNC office in Berlin.

Category: Diplomatic and consular relations

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  • Stefan Talmon

    Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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  • Julian Craven

    Julian Craven is a research assistant at the Institute for Public International Law of the University of Bonn. He studied law at the Humboldt University of Berlin.

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