As numerous Arab states gradually move toward a re-normalization of official diplomatic relations with the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad, there is almost a consensus throughout the European Union (EU) that this approach is misguided and flawed. Yet at least one EU state has a divergent position: Hungary. 

Diplomatic sources in Europe and Lebanon have stated that populist Prime Minister Viktor Mihály Orbán’s far-right government has drawn up plans for upgrading Budapest’s diplomatic relations with Damascus. This move, involving a proposal to send Hungary’s chargé d’affaires back to Syria, is likely a precursor to Budapest reopening its closed embassy in Damascus. 

There have been other signs of a Hungarian-Syrian rapprochement. Last year, János Budai, Hungary’s coordinator for Syria, spoke at a think-tank event in Damascus that focused on the future of EU-Syrian relations. Additionally, Orbán’s government launched the controversial “golden visa” scheme, as reported by Direkt36 and 444.hu, in which Hungary granted Atiya Khoury residency status. In 2016, the US Treasury sanctioned Khoury for allegedly paying for the Damascus government’s fuel procurements via a company called Moneta Transfer & Exchange.

Although diplomats from EU member-states pay low-profile visits to Syria, most governments in the bloc have refused to re-normalize diplomatic relations with Damascus. Furthermore, during such visits, these European states make commitments to avoid engaging with high-level officials in Assad’s regime. In fact, throughout the Syrian crisis the Czech Republic has been the only EU member to keep its ambassador in Damascus. Romania has kept its ambassador to Syria in Lebanon and Bulgaria has maintained a chargé d’affaires in Damascus. 

The Orbán Context

Orbán’s outreach to Damascus rests heavily on the cause of defending Christianity.

The politics of Hungary’s current leadership is a major variable shaping Budapest’s view on the Syrian crisis. Such outreach to Damascus fits into Orbán’s ideology that rests heavily on the cause of defending Christianity, which informs his pro-Assad narrative that focuses on the plight of Syria’s Christian minority as highlighted by Orbán’s meetings with prominent figures from the war-torn country’s Christian communities.

Orbán, who has capitalized on anti-Muslim bigotry for political purposes, has sealed off Hungary’s southern borders with high-tech fences and referred to migrants entering Europe as a “poison.” 

Xenophobia and Islamophobia are factors too. The influx of Syrians and other displaced persons throughout the past decade has also contributed to the government in Budapest’s perspective on Assad’s re-integration into the international diplomatic order. Since the Syrian crisis erupted, hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees transited Hungary on their way to western European countries such as Germany. Although in recent years, the number of displaced people passing through Hungary has significantly decreased, such a flow of destitute men, women, and children has had repercussions in Hungary. Orbán, who has capitalized on anti-Muslim bigotry for political purposes, has sealed off Hungary’s southern borders with high-tech fences and referred to migrants entering Europe as a “poison.” 

The Hungary Serbia border fortified by a 2nd fence near Gara Hungary

The Hungary-Serbia border fortified by a 2nd fence near Gara, Hungary.

As Nicolai Due-Gundersen explained in September: “Assad removed himself from blame for the Syrian civil war and declared that it was the West’s support of so-called terrorists that fed the refugee crisis. ‘As long as [the West] follows [anti-Assad] propaganda, they will have more refugees,’ he warned, ‘if you are worried about them, stop supporting terrorists.’ Assad’s government continues seducing the West into returning Syrian refugees.”

A Divided Europe

Budapest’s diplomatic overtures to Syria’s government highlight Orbán’s determination to craft a Hungarian foreign policy that breaks from multilateralism and stokes European unravelling. As the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Emile Hokayem explained, Budapest’s potential rapprochement with Damascus is a “stunt based on ideology.” He added that Hungary’s move vis-à-vis Syria would “further erode the EU consensus, but that is in large part because [Germany, France and the UK] are not making [Syria] a priority any more.” 

Doubtless, Orbán’s overtures to Assad annoy and disturb other EU member-states that want to maintain the European bloc’s collective pressure on Assad, even if that amounts to little pressure in practice. Nonetheless, with the EU’s wealthiest and most influential members continuing to deny Damascus funding for construction or diplomatic relations absent any agreement that paves the path for a political transition in Syria, the EU’s members are mostly united in their efforts to keep on trying to isolate Assad’s government while squeezing Syria economically. 

As Hungary moves toward re-normalizing its relationship with Syria’s government, the 64,000-dollar question is how will the rest of the EU respond? Given the positions of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and others in the EU, Hungary will likely receive significant condemnation from within the EU. Put simply, London, Paris, Berlin, as well as Washington, believe that despite Assad’s military achievements, the Syrian head-of-state should not obtain “diplomatic peace” so that Syria’s government remains under enough pressure to make a number of concessions to the West in the form of political compromises. 

There are voices in Europe who believe that Orbán is only being realistic given that Assad’s government is not on the verge of falling from power.

Yet other EU member-states (mainly in eastern Europe) may follow Budapest’s approach to Syria, arguing that the rest of Europe is living with an illusion about the Syrian rebels that prevents the EU from accepting certain facts on the ground in the war-torn country. There are voices in Europe who believe that Orbán is only being realistic given that Assad’s government is not on the verge of falling from power. Although no longer in power, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister of Italy and Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, also took a position on Assad that was more or less in accordance with Orbán’s. 

This author just returned from two weeks of meetings with government officials, scholars, journalists, and foreign policy analysts in Germany and the Netherlands in which discussions focused on Europe’s interests, strategies, visions, and purpose in the Middle East. Regarding the EU and Syria, a common opinion I came across was that gradually the rest of the bloc’s members will shift toward Orbán’s position and eventually re-accept Assad’s “legitimacy.” Many of these experts in Berlin, Amsterdam, and The Hague maintained that it is only a matter of time until European countries re-normalize their diplomatic relations with Assad’s government given the facts on the ground in Syria. 

Ultimately, what is clear is that the EU lacks leverage vis-à-vis Syria. Having counted on the Obama administration to take decisive action to topple Assad’s government, which never happened, and having witnessed Russian and Iranian intervention do much to keep the Syrian regime in power, the European states have failed to obtain any influential role throughout this nightmarish crisis. 

Now with Hungary and Syria’s rapprochement undermining the EU’s collective position against Assad, it is debatable whether Hungary and maybe a few eastern European states should remain isolated within the EU on the Assad issue, or if Budapest is just doing now what all other European capitals must inevitably do later.