Americans, Need Help in Syria? Call the Czechs.
Prague parlays its unique position in Syria into being America's protecting power.
U.S. efforts to craft some sort of Syria policy have meant dealing with a roster of well-known countries: Syria, of course, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and more. But there’s one more for that list: the Czech Republic.
Since 2012, the skeleton-staffed Czech Embassy in embattled Damascus has been acting as a protecting power for the mighty United States, the same way that Sweden does in North Korea and Switzerland in Iran (both Sweden and Switzerland do the same for other countries). It is a reflection of the small European country’s ability to juggle both continued access to the Assad regime and warm ties with Washington.
That diplomatic reach is a reflection, in part, of decades-old ties between what used to be Czechoslovakia and the regime of Bashar al-Assad’s father.
Czechoslovakia — which, granted, was a different country and a different, communist regime — was a major economic partner of and arms exporter to Syria for decades, before and during the Assad years. Trade increased fivefold just between 1952 and 1956, and continued for decades, anchored by visits to Czechoslovakia by Hafez al-Assad, despite tumult in both countries. This continued even after the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc: In 1991, Prague was still greenlighting the the export of tanks to Syria.
After the end of communism, and especially once the Czechs joined the European Union in 2004, its policy toward Syria moved more in line with that of Brussels — but Prague never abandoned Damascus entirely.
“The policy [toward Syria] changed considerably after the fall of communism in 1989. Since then, Israel became our key ally in the region. At the same time, we kept our traditionally good relations with the Arab countries, including Syria,” a diplomat with the Czech Embassy in Washington, D.C. told Foreign Policy.
Even as practically every other western embassy in Damascus shuttered its doors, the Czechs decided to stay in town — in part to act as a protecting power for the United States. “We believe that the Syrian conflict does not have a military solution, but only a political one,” the Czech diplomat said.
Holding down the fort for the United States is Eva Filipi, the only European ambassador physically left in Damascus. Filipi, at about 70 years old and sporting a blonde, banged bob has worked as journalist, a translator, an interpreter, the chargé d’affaires for the Czech Embassy in Iraq, the ambassador to Lebanon, and the ambassador to Turkey. At present, however, she is hunkered down in Damascus.
But how did the United States come to ask the Czechs, with their colorful Syrian backstory, in the first place?
As the Syrian civil war ramped up in 2011, the United States decided to withdraw its diplomats for their safety; then-U.S. ambassador Robert Ford was attacked in his car by a pro-regime mob in September of that year. By early 2012, the United States had decided to shutter its embassy in Damascus altogether. That meant it would need to find another country that could pinch hit and handle consular responsibilities for U.S. citizens in emergencies.
Ford and his team drew up a list of potential protecting states that Washington might approve. They checked with several European countries, but “several on the list were themselves going to close if we closed,” Ford, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told FP in a phone interview. He knew Filippi from 2011 and 2012, when the two worked together in the small community of Western diplomats in Damascus.
“Eva said hers would stay open,” he said.
The Czech government felt it had good contacts with the various parties and groups in Syria, and that there was still work to be done by them there. “Eva had better insight into Syrian government thinking,” Ford recalled. The United States had little access to the wary regime of Bashar al-Assad — especially after August of 2011, when U.S. President Barack Obama said the Assad regime had no legitimacy.
Also, the Czech Republic is now a member of the European Union and NATO, and, Ford stressed, equally committed to stopping the carnage in Syria.
So partly by default — almost no embassies remained open — and partly out of affinity, the Czechs became Washington’s choice to take on the unusual role of a new protecting power. (It’s a rare addition. Switzerland and Sweden have done so for decades. Turkey briefly played this role for the United States in Libya in 2011.)
“I think that’s because, in general, we have a very good relationship with the Czech Republic,” Ford said.
Proximity didn’t hurt. The Czech Embassy is a few blocks from its U.S. counterpart in Damascus, and part of what the Czechs do as protecting power — aside from offering consular services for dual U.S. citizens — is looking after U.S. facilities on the ground.
“Eva has been a channel for US requests for information about American citizens [including dual citizens] in Syria,” Ford said. “I still think that’s useful, to have that channel.” The Czechs set up video conferencing with the U.S. State Department to offer more insight into how things were on the ground, giving U.S. policymakers a clearer idea of what is really going on in government-held areas.
And it’s not an easy lift for the small Czech mission: Of its eight staffers, including the ambassador, one is detailed to work full time on U.S. interests.
Filipi does not, however, negotiate on behalf of the United States. “The protecting power is a standard diplomatic instrument and does not require both countries to follow exactly the same political lines,” the Czech Embassy told FP.
“Our work with the Czech government on Syria has brought our two countries even closer together,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement. “We are extremely grateful for the assistance she and the entire Czech U.S. Interests Section provide to U.S. citizens in Syria, and we look forward to continued cooperation.”
The Czechs have played an important role in Syria beyond just providing a diplomatic assist to Washington, Ford noted. The Czech government implemented its first humanitarian projects in 2016 and, since then, delivered humanitarian aid to Syria in January, March, and July of this year. In January, Czech diplomats secured the release of a Polish national who had been in a Syrian prison since 2015.
But the Czech presence in Syria is not without its controversy back home.
Czech outlet Respekt, for example, has published articles suggesting Czech presence there legitimizes the Assad regime, and that Filipi is insufficiently critical of Assad, who has ruled over Syria while a civil war killed hundreds of thousands of his own people.
Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaorálek suggested in April that the embassy might be closed if it were shown Assad used chemical weapons against civilians. Some in the Czech parliament suggested a Russian veto in the United Nations would be reason enough.
“The minute Russia uses its right of veto in the U.N., Ambassador Filipi should come home,” Ivan Gabal, deputy in parliament’s lower house, said. “And I would make that clear in advance both to the Russians and to Bashar Assad.”
But Filipi was there before the civil war began, and, according to at least one Czech diplomat, should remain there until it ends — meaning the United States will maintain a tiny, invaluable diplomatic bridgehead in the country.
Hynek Kmonicek, Czech ambassador to the United States, who has known Filipi for years, was working for the Czech president when he sent her to Damascus in 2010. Kmonicek says he now tells her, “I sent you to a spa city. You’ll stay there until it’s a spa city again.”
Photo credit: MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images
Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin