Deadly gas attack in Syria fuels debate regarding Czech embassy in Damascus

Victim of a suspected chemical attack in Idlib province, Syria, photo: CTK

The Czech Republic has joined widespread condemnation of Tuesday’s toxic gas attack in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province that left 100 people dead and 400 injured, many of them children. Speaking at an international conference in aid of Syria, Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaorálek said that if it were confirmed that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against innocent civilians Prague would consider resolute action, including the possibility of closing its embassy in Damascus.

Victim of a suspected chemical attack in Idlib province,  Syria,  photo: CTK
News of Tuesday’s deadly attack in Idlib province sent shockwaves around the world and raised calls for an independent investigation into the incident. Speaking to journalists in Brussels on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Zaorálek said that, should it be confirmed that President Assad’s regime was responsible for this atrocity, Prague would respond with “resolute action”.

“If the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its people then I consider that a crime of such magnitude that we could not remain silent in the face of it. Such a crime is so heinous, so unbelievable that it would require resolute action.”

Asked whether he would be ready to close the Czech embassy in Syria – the sole diplomatic representation for the EU and the US still functioning in the country – Mr. Zaorálek said it would be one of the options considered. The statement sparked heated debate in Czech political circles as to whether, under the circumstances, Prague should pull its diplomatic staff out of Syria for good.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said that, while the Czech government strongly condemned the use of chemical weapons, the closure of the Czech embassy in Syria would not be a good move. “It would mean that we would have even less information regarding what is going on in Syria and fewer means to influence anything in the country; the embassy must remain open,” the prime minister argued, noting that it was moreover the sole distributer of EU aid to the Syrian people.

Not everyone agrees. Lower house deputy Ivan Gabal says there are limits as to what can be tolerated in return for having a “liaison officer” in Damascus.

Turkish medics check a victim of alleged chemical weapons attacks in Idlib,  at a local hospital in Reyhanli, Turkey,  photo: CTK
“If Russia vetoes the UN resolution then that would be indirect proof that it does not want to admit co-responsibility for the actions of the Assad regime. For me that would be the breaking point. The minute Russia uses its right of veto in the UN, Ambassador Filipi should come home. And I would make that clear in advance both to the Russians and to Bashar Assad.”

Foreign Minister Zaorálek is refusing to speculate on the possibility of such a move. Speaking on Czech Television on Wednesday night the foreign minister said it was not possible to say at this point where the blame lay and the Czech Republic would wait for evidence before deciding on its response. The response will be adequate to the findings, the minister said.