Czechia, Syria’s diplomatic ally in the heart of Europe

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CELIA PÉREZ CARRASCOSA

The Arab Spring came to Syria through protests and riots in March 2011. Those protests triggered a war in the cradle of civilisation which is still being fought. In response to this conflict, one of the measures taken by the USA and the EU was to close their embassies in Damascus.

However, there was a state which did not follow Brussels’ steps: the Czech Republic. Prague not only keeps diplomatic relations with the Arab Syrian Republic, but it is the only EU country which has maintained its ambassador, Eva Filipi, in the Syrian capital since the beginning of the war.

The Czech position has intensified relations between the Czech Republic and Syria. However, the ties which join both date back to the Cold War. A period in which the former Czechoslovakia and a young Arab state began to engage in trade relations.

First steps

Parliamentary elections in May 1946 in Czechoslovakia handed victory to the Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSČ), with Klement Gottwald as Prime Minister and Edvard Beneš as President, who was not a communist. This is one of the reasons why Prague was one of the governments that formed the Eastern Bloc.

The Western Bloc and the Eastern Bloc. Wikiwand

In the same year Syria became independent from France. During the first years of independence and under the government of Adib Bin Hassan Al-Shishakli, Damascus established good relations with Western countries. However, in 1954 there was a government change in Syria which eased the rapprochement to the USSR. In addition, Prague had just concluded its first weapons deal with Cairo. Consequently, Czechoslovakia opened its embassy in Damascus in 1955. A year later, in 1956, Syria received its first Czechoslovak weapons order[1].

Pablo Sapag, tenured professor at Complutense University of Madrid (UCM) and author of Syria in perspective (Ediciones Complutense) thinks that: «if Czechoslovakia had not belonged to the Eastern Bloc, it is possible that it would have had difficulties in reaching those trade agreements». However, Sapag underlines that in the second half of the ’50s and early ’60s it would not have been difficult, given that «Syria had not decided its strategic policy towards the Blocs».

On the other hand, the professor highlights that the government change in Syria helped with relations between both countries. In spite of that, during the administration of Al-Shishakli this Arab country was very young and it had not found its place on the international scene. «The Middle East region was experiencing a certain lack of definition. Not even the USA and the USSR had consolidated their positions on it. Even less so was Czechoslovakia going to» stresses the expert.

Czechoslovakia was one of the communist bloc members which exported more weapons. Principally relations between the two countries were based on buying and selling military equipment. The Slavic country exported military aircraft L-29 Delfín, fighter planes MIG-15 and tanks T-34 and T-35, among other things to Syria[2]. Moreover, Czechoslovakia provided military training to the Arab country. For its part, Czechoslovakia imported cotton, lentils, wool, leather, oil and exotic woods[3].

The trade agreements were not limited to arms, but as early as 1956 both countries started to cooperate in the development of Syrian industry. Czechoslovakia helped Syria to build an oil refinery, a power plant and a sugar factory in Homs; three radio stations and a tyre factory in Ilama; four sugar refineries and a brewery in Damascus; two shoe factories, one in Homs and one in Damascus; and another power plant in Hama[4], amongst others.

In addition to weapon supply and the shared anti-imperialist feeling towards the USA, the author of Syria in perspective points out that the relations were also strengthened for other reasons. In this way, the professor explains: «Syria starts an embryonic industrialisation which a small but industrialised, such as Czechoslovakia, could offer advice about and help with more efficiently that the USSR and others states. In a certain way, two small countries aware of their history and sense of independence became complementary in several aspects». Sapag also emphasises that both Damascus and Prague wanted to maintain their own image at an international level despite the bloc policy imposing certain limits.

Czechoslovakia opens door to Syrian students

In addition to the military training on Syrian soil, in the 1970’s the professors of the Homs Military Academy [5]were trained at Antonín Zápotocký Military Academy in Brno – nowadays the Brno Defence University – in technology and engineering.

Furthermore, Milan Vyhlídal, a professor at the Department of Military History at Brno Defence University, explains that Syrian students studied at the Brno Military Academy to complete their military education. In fact, as he says in his thesis[6], as early as 1963 forty Syrian students enrolled in the academy. This educational cooperation continued during the 1980s and ended in 1990. In total, 753 Syrian students passed through the Antonín Zápatocký Military Academy.

According to the Brno Defence University professor, there were also programmes for civilians at any university in the country, not just for defence professionals. Thus, many Syrian architects, doctors or dentists were trained in Czechoslovakia. In addition, Vyhlídal says that in 1961 the November 17 University was established in Prague, where many people from North Africa and the Middle East, known as the MENA region, studied. This university closed in 1974. He emphasises that the student projects were not aimed especially at Syrians, but also at other countries in the MENA region.

MENA region. Wikipedia

These educational programmes created a link between the two countries since several Syrians stayed in the current Czech Republic after finishing their studies. Many of them got married and had children. For this reason, there are quite a few Czechs of Syrian descent, such as the politician and doctor Raduan Nwelati or the Czech actress Martha Issová.

Six-Day War

The Six-Day War took place at the beginning of June 1967. This armed conflict confronted the State of Israel against an Arab coalition made up of Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. This war is included in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Soviet position did not satisfy the Arab countries, since, as Sapag says, «it recommended to Egypt and Syria a certain appeasement towards the State of Israel». Czechoslovakia supported the USSR’s position and considered that «Syria and Egypt were not yet ready to engage in direct warfare with Israel, amongst other things because of the mistrust that still existed between Damascus and Cairo after the failed experiment of the United Arab Republic (1958-1961), which Czechoslovak diplomacy followed and analysed closely,»  explains the professor.

Despite this, relations between the two countries were not hampered. In fact, Syria became one of the largest economic partners of the Slavic country. At the end of the war, Václav Pleskot, Secretary of State in the Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry, visited Damascus. There he met with Syrian Prime Minister, Yusuf Zuaiyyin, and Defence Minister, Hafez al-Assad. Together they reached new agreements on arms supplies and industrialisation[7].

It is worth noting that relations between the Czechoslovak Communist Party and the Syrian Communist Party were not the only close relations, but that the Syrian Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party was also well attuned to the Czechoslovak communists.

In fact, Zuaiyyin belonged to the Ba’ath Party and relations were quite strong. Later, in 1971, Hafez al-Assad came to power. During his administration, relations between the two countries were intensified and Syria became Czechoslovakia’s largest Arab customer for arms[8]. At the same time, Damascus became even closer to the Eastern Bloc, allowing Prague to have more influence in the country.

Dissolution of Czechoslovakia

In 1989 Syria accumulated a debt to Czechoslovakia of US$900 million which it finished paying off between 2005 and 2010[9]. In Sapag’s opinion, one of the reasons why the two states maintained good relations was because they were both patient and understanding of each other in terms of payment and delivery dates.

After the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992, relations between the two countries cooled slightly as the Czech Republic became part of the Washington orbit. However, they continued to be economic partners. As Sapag notes: “The arms industry is one of the industries that most strengthens relations of mutual dependence in the long term”.  The complexity of technology, training and ongoing technical assistance “makes it difficult to change suppliers overnight”

In addition to the arms business, the UCM professor states that the fact that they are small countries means that they maintain horizontal relations that make it easier for them to “act independently of the major international alignments”. Therefore, “if they play their cards right, they can profile themselves as independent states in the face of pressure from the big powers and thus increase their international visibility and weight”, Sapag says.

Syrian crisis

On 15th March 2011 protests began in the Syrian city of Daraa and quickly spread throughout the original ancient Umayyad land. To this day it is an unresolved conflict in which various international actors have played, or are playing, their cards, whether they are states such as Turkey, the USA, Russia, Iran or Israel; international organisations such as the UN or the Arab League; or the European Union, the only supranational international organisation. According to various sources, around 380,000 people have died in the war.

Military situation in Syria. December 2019. Wikipedia

As already mentioned, in 2012 the USA and the EU closed their embassies in Damascus, thus expressing their disapproval of President Bashar al-Assad arguing that the Syrian government was violent and lacked popular support[10].

Nevertheless, the Czech Republic acted independently and kept its ambassador, Eva Filipi, in Damascus, being the only EU state which has never interrupted its diplomatic presence in Syria since the beginning of the crisis.

In a Česká televize interview with Bashar al-Assad in 2015[11], the Syrian president appreciated the Czech decision to keep their ambassador in Damascus. According to al-Assad, many Western countries believed the propaganda that was promulgated to distort what was really happening in Syria. From his point of view, the Czech position does not mean that it supports the Syrian Government, but it is logical that relations should be maintained in order to find out what is really happening in the country.

In addition, the Syrian president noted that the Czech Republic, being a small country, was under pressure from Western countries, including the USA, to submit to orders from Brussels. However, it was strong enough to make its own decision, which meant a lot to Syria.

Sapag argues that Filipi played a key role. Based on her extensive experience in the region, she advised the Czech government to stay in Damascus. The expert points out that the French government ignored its diplomats on Syrian soil, who, like Filipi, “drew a much more realistic picture about the situation in Syria, where it was clear that the government and President Bashar al-Assad had much more support than was believed”.

On the other hand, the fact that the Czech embassy remains open there is also an advantage for the EU and the US. In this way both Brussels and Washington “have an indirect presence in Damascus”, Sapag states.

Since then there have been several meetings between diplomats and representatives of the Czech and Syrian governments. In addition, Miloš Zeman, the President of the Czech Republic, argues that the logical thing to do is to support al-Assad against the terrorists, as he considers that most of them are extremist groups[12]. The Czech Republic has been advocating a political and diplomatic solution in Syria since the beginning of the crisis, since it maintains that the fundamental thing is to end the armed conflict.  Furthermore, Zeman condemned the air attack carried out by the USA, France and the UK in Syria on 14 April 2018[13].

Martin Tlapa, Czech Deputy Foreign Minister, and Faisal al-Miqdad, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister, in Prague. 2016. Czech News Agency (ČTK)

When Turkey intervened in northern Syria in October 2019, the Czech Republic was one of the first EU countries to urge measures against Turkish action and stated that such action was contrary to international law. In fact, Prague cancelled arms sales to Ankara.[14]

In Sapag’s opinion, both the Czech Republic and Syria are opposed to the radical political Islamism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The UCM professor also reminds us that the Ottoman occupation of parts of Slovakia in the 16th and 17th centuries “makes Czechs understand better the historical and psychological misgivings that current Turkish policies continue to provoke in most Syrians”.

Czechia has been providing humanitarian aid to Syria since 2013 and helping in its reconstruction since 2016. In addition, in 2017 both countries reached an agreement through which the Czech Republic would collaborate with Syria in the protection and rehabilitation of antiquities[15].

According to Sapag, trade links have increased due to Czech participation in the last three occurrences of the Damascus International Fair. As a result, Czechia and its companies are playing an important role in the reconstruction of Syria, which is favourable to both countries. Sapag emphasises that the Czech Republic has made an independent reading of the reality in Syria. Therefore, “Czech diplomacy has set a great example in professionalism in Syria and now we see the benefits of intelligently developed state policies”, says the professor.

The Czech Republic, a small country and a member of the EU, stands firm in its decision on the Syrian crisis. This shows its strong capacity for analysis and reflection. At the same time, Prague has managed to revive bilateral relations that were extremely good just 30 years ago. Now, as in the past, Syria needs Czech help, which benefits both countries. Now, as in the past, the mature Arab state establishes once again strong diplomatic ties in the heart of Europe.

Esta obra está bajo una Licencia Creative Commons Atribución-NoComercial-SinDerivadas 4.0 Internacional.

[1]Czechoslovakia and Arms Deliveries to Syria 1955-1989 Jan Adamec Cairn.Info 2013 https://www.cairn.info/revue-les-cahiers-irice-2013-1-page-69.htm#

[2]Czechoslovakia and Arms Deliveries to Syria 1955-1989 Jan Adamec Cairn.Info 2013 https://www.cairn.info/revue-les-cahiers-irice-2013-1-page-69.htm#

[3]  Československá pomoc při výstavbě vojenského školství v arabském světě v letech 1948 – 1989 Milan Vyhlídal 2010 https://is.muni.cz/th/k5ezh/Diplomova_prace.pdf

[4] Czechoslovakia’s main objectives in the Middle East during the Cold War Lukács Krajcsír http://publicatio.bibl.u-szeged.hu/9484/14/3022376.pdf

[5]  Československá pomoc při výstavbě vojenského školství v arabském světě v letech 1948 – 1989 Milan Vyhlídal 2010 https://is.muni.cz/th/k5ezh/Diplomova_prace.pdf

[6]  Československá pomoc při výstavbě vojenského školství v arabském světě v letech 1948 – 1989 Milan Vyhlídal 2010 https://is.muni.cz/th/k5ezh/Diplomova_prace.pdf

[7] Czechoslovakia and Arms Deliveries to Syria 1955-1989 Jan Adamec Cairn.Info 2013 https://www.cairn.info/revue-les-cahiers-irice-2013-1-page-69.htm#

[8] Czechoslovakia and Arms Deliveries to Syria 1955-1989 Jan Adamec Cairn.Info 2013 https://www.cairn.info/revue-les-cahiers-irice-2013-1-page-69.htm#

[9] Sýrie padá do války, dluh Česku ještě stihla splatit Aktuálně.cz 21/06/11 https://zpravy.aktualne.cz/zahranici/syrie-pada-do-valky-dluh-cesku-jeste-stihla-splatit/r~i:article:704643/

[10]  España cierra su embajada en Damasco en repulsa por la represión de El Asad El País 06/03/12 https://elpais.com/politica/2012/03/06/actualidad/1331024829_729822.html

[11] Rozhovor s Bašárem Asadem Česká televize (2015) https://www.ceskatelevize.cz/porady/10997918455-mimoradne-porady-ct24/215411034000172-rozhovor-s-basarem-asadem/

[12]  Presidente checo dice que ya no existen milicianos que pertenecen a la “oposición siria” SANA (Agencia Árabe Siria de Noticias) 30/09/15 https://sana.sy/es/?p=30790

[13] Czech president condemns U.S.-led air strikes on Syria Xinhuanet 15/04/2018 http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-04/15/c_137111591.htm

[14] Chequia suspende exportación de armas a Turquía Radio Prague 15/10/2019 https://www.radio.cz/es/rubrica/notas/chequia-suspende-exportacion-de-armas-a-turquia

[15] Un acuerdo de colaboración con República Checa para proteger y rehabilitar las antigüedades en Siria SANA (Agencia Árabe Siria de Noticias) 18/11/2017  https://sanasyria.org/es/?p=726

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