Greece’s ministry of foreign affairs announced on Tuesday it was appointing a Special Envoy for Syria, viewed as a step towards full normalization with Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Damascus.
Tasia Athanasiou was named as Greece’s special envoy, having served as ambassador to Syria from 2009 to 2012, before the embassy was closed.
“The Special Envoy’s mandate includes contacts concerning international aspects of the Syria crisis and related humanitarian actions, as well as coordination of actions in view of the efforts towards the reconstruction of Syria,” a foreign ministry statement read.
“Ambassador Tasia Athanasiou served as Greece’s Ambassador to Damascus from 2009 to 2012, when she oversaw the temporary suspension of Greece’s diplomatic mission due to the security conditions at the time.”
It follows the decision of most European countries – including Greece – to cut ties with Damascus following the brutal regime suppression of peaceful protests in 2011 and the brutal military campaign to crush the rebellion in other parts of Syria.
Greek media have interpreted the appointment of the envoy as a step towards full normalisation and that an ambassador will be repointed at the Damascus embassy.
Athanasiou is said to be very familiar with Syrian politics due to his previous posting to Damascus as ambassador. It shows that Greece might be looking at playing a diplomatic role in winding down the conflict. Peace, of course, would only be acceptable to the Syrian regime if it keeps Assad in control.
The Syrian opposition fears that Athens’ decision to renew official ties with Damascus might also help the regime build bridges with other European states.
The mention in the foreign ministry statement that Greece will work towards “reconstruction” in Syria – something unlikely without EU assistance – alludes to this.
There is general consensus among EU nations about maintaing the blacklist on the regime due to the numerous human rights abuses and war crimes committed by Assad’s forces during the nine-year war in Syria – but there have been exceptions.
Hungary’s right-wing government, under populist Prime Minister Victor Orban, announced last September that it planned to appoint charge d’affaires to Damascus, a step towards full diplomatic normalisation.
In January 2019, Italy’s foreign ministry said it would consider becoming the first European country to fully restore ties with Syria. The far-right government in charge at the time has since fallen with no plans by Rome to move towards normalisation.
European governments and movements pushing for normalisation with the Assad regime remain on the fringes of mainstream politics on the continent, mostly the populist and far-right.
The EU has repeatedly said it remains steadfast on not moving towards restoring diplomatic relations with Damascus unless the Assad regime makes substantial political reforms and concessions to the opposition.
Greece has been something of an outlier on the issue of Syria, with the new centre-right government pushing towards political normalisation with Assad.
Ruslan Trad, co-founder of De Re Militari, said that Greece and Syria have long-established relations and the countries’ business and political elites are well-connected.
“Greece is a trading hub in the eastern Mediterranean, important for both Lebanon and Syria, while Cyprus [closely aligned to Athens] is also close and used as logistical hub,” Trad told The New Arab.
“This didn’t change during the war – in opposite, the Syrian regime used Cyprus and Greece as tunnels to Europe. The activities of Syrian businessmen in Greece didn’t stop during the war.”
Phosphates – used for fertiliser – have been one key commodity used by the Syrian regime to help finance its brutal war efforts and Greece has played a key role in this trade, according to a Financial Times report last year.
While Syrian phosphates are not on EU and US sanctions, but there have been steps taken by businesses involved in the trade to minimise their direct links to the Syrian regime.
Exports of this Syrian commodity are often labelled as “Lebanese”, shipped from Lebanon’s Tripoli to Greece for the European market.
Greece and Cyprus’ location and role in eastern Mediterranean geopolitics has made it a target for the Syrian regime, Russia and Hezbollah for financial activities and building influence, Trad said.
Greece was at the centre of the migrant crisis during its own economic crisis, sparked in part by the Assad regime and Islamic State group’s offensives in northern and eastern Syria.
The huge number of refugees still living in Greece – particularly the island of Lesbos – has been used to stir anti-migrant sentiments in the country and across Europe.
Russian media have been accused of playing a key role in spreading and spreading anti-migrant news and sentiments in Greece and Europe.
Greek far-right movement Golden Dawn have been highly-critical of Muslim refugees with Lesbos – an island many refugees are based – described as a new “battleground” for the European far-right.
The issue has also made calls for normalisation with the Syrian regime perhaps more widespread in Greece than in many other European countries. Golden Dawn have been the most vocal supporters of Assad in Greek politics.
The left-wing, former governing party Syriza, was more sympathetic towards the refugees than mainstream political parties and made no attempt to re-establish ties with the Syrian regime, Trad said.
The anti-Assad approach of Syriza was unpopular centre and far-right parties in Greece, given the economic opportunities renewed ties with the Syrian regime might have brought. Normalisation appears to be policy
pursued by the current conservative government.
Greece’s hostile relations with Turkey has also seen Athens take more interest in the Libya war, where Ankara has stepped up its military support for the UN-recognised Government of National Accord in Tripoli, currently besieged by Russian and UAE-backed militia leader Khalifa Haftar.
“Greece wants to oppose Turkish ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean region so we need to look at Libya to connect the dots,” said Trad.
He said that “Greece is pro-Haftar, just because Haftar is anti-Turkey”, and that the GNA threatens Athens’ own economic interests in the Mediterranean.
“Syria is a good opportunity to re-establish some trade links from which both Greece business elite and Syrian will benefit,” he added.