Normative aspect: D
Final mark: D+
The steps taken by the Czech Republic in Syria are largely inconsistent with its role as a champion of human rights in international politics. The decision to maintain a diplomatic mission in Damascus is becoming difficult to defend, especially in view of what happened in Aleppo at the end of the year and international criticism of the local regime. In this context, Czech activities indicative of attempts to deepen relations with Damascus are also dubious. At home, objective debate on the complex problems associated with the Syrian conflict was eclipsed by opportunism and an inclination to score political points at all costs. Ultimately, not even generous and effective humanitarian assistance can excuse the reluctance to take on an equal share of refugees within the EU.
The war in Syria and its fallout is the most pressing problem that Czech diplomacy faced in the Middle East last year. The Czech Republic continued its flawed engagement in the country and in the development of economic relations with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, yet also provided humanitarian assistance. In this respect, it walked a fine line between the (somewhat) pragmatic decision to keep direct communication channels open with the Syrian government on the one hand and, the preservation of overly warm relations with a regime sanctioned for its war crimes and facing international criticism on the other.
Besides seeking a political solution to the conflict and focusing on humanitarian assistance, Czech representatives persevered with discussions on involvement in the post-war reconstruction of Syria. The fact that trade relations with the Syrian regime were moving forward was demonstrated by the visit (second since 2015) of Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Martin Tlapa to Damascus in October, and by convening a conference for Czech exporters about Syria’s reconstruction in November at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, high-level trade negotiations at a time when the war is far from over are hardly compatible with Czech human rights agenda and give President al-Assad political credit.
The role of the Czech embassy in Syria has come in for particular criticism. While it could be maintained this mission may reflect the Czech Republic’s alliance commitments and facilitate the smoother implementation of humanitarian projects, other activities and public statements by Ambassador Eva Filipi blur the fine line between strategic action and the legitimisation of the authoritarian regime. The Czech position is made all the more untenable by a visit to Damascus by three MPs in December – at a time when the fighting in Aleppo was at its bloodiest – and the Foreign Ministry’s delayed response to these events.
The Czech Republic placed an emphasis on humanitarian assistance, reflecting its priority to address the consequences of the Syrian conflict – especially migration from this area – directly in the region. Through financial support for projects implemented by international and domestic organisations, along with material support, it provided assistance to the local population directly in Syria and to people in refugee camps in surrounding countries. Additionally, the government approved a sum of CZK 195 million in June, earmarked for humanitarian, development, and reconstruction assistance to Syria in 2016-2019.
Nevertheless, efforts to defuse the fallout of the conflict and to better understand the developments on the ground, frequently used by foreign-policy players as arguments in defence of the Czech embassy in Syria, have not spilled over into the domestic political environment. The will to accept Syrian refugees directly in the Czech Republic and to engage in an objective and informed debate on the events there and on migration has yet to materialise.