Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shara is one of the last vestiges of the regime’s old guard and the most powerful Sunni Muslim figure in Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle.
Syrian state television quoted a statement from Shara’s office on Saturday after Arab media reports that he had defected to neighboring Jordan, saying: “Mr. Shara has never thought about leaving the country or going anywhere.”
Shara, 73, who has served for decades under both Assad and his father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad, has only been seen in public a few times since the uprising against Assad’s autocratic rule erupted in March last year.
One draft international resolution had proposed that Assad hand over to his deputy as part of a political transition aimed at ending the conflict that is now in its 18th month.
Rumors that he had abandoned the regime mounted this week after one of his cousins announced his own defection on an Arab television station.
Shara himself was last seen on television at the funeral of four top security chiefs who were killed in a bomb attack in Damascus that dealt a major blow to the regime.
Shara, along with several other top regime figures, was slapped with sanctions by the United States and the European Union in May last year.
“He has no charisma but lots of authority,” said a European diplomat who has met Shara several times.
Shara was born in December 1983 in Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising, and he has found himself torn between his loyalty to the regime and the bloodshed and destruction wreaked on his hometown, European diplomats say.
He had sought to serve as a mediator at the beginning of the crisis but was blocked by regime hardliners including Assad’s feared younger brother Maher al-Assad, the diplomats said.
It was Shara’s undying loyalty to the Baath regime and staunch opposition to the US and Israel that propelled him through the ranks, becoming foreign minister in 1984.
Shara, a married father of two, has served on the ruling Baath party’s central committee ever since it first seized power in 1963.
He was named vice president in charge of foreign affairs in a major reshuffle in February 2006.
Shara is a fierce critic of Israel and has long insisted there can be no compromise over the return of the strategic Golan Heights, which the Jewish state captured in 1967 and unilaterally annexed in 1981.
He is seen as a pragmatic but tough negotiator in a beleaguered regime which even before the uprising had faced increasing isolation over the implication of senior officials in the 2005 murder of Lebanese ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.
Shara enjoyed the confidence of Hafez al-Assad, who entrusted him with secret negotiations with Israel launched in 1991. He headed the Syrian delegation during both the abortive rounds of open peace talks that followed.
His sharp tongue solidified his reputation for vehemently opposing US policies in the Middle East.
Days after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, when Washington accused Damascus of allowing military supplies to transit its territory into Iraq, Shara shot back that he hoped U.S. and British forces would be defeated.
Western diplomats based in the Syrian capital say Shara had become the champion of hardliners within the regime in the last few years, particularly on Lebanon policy.
When the Syrian-backed Shiite militants of Hezbollah sparked a 34-day war with Israel in 2006 with the capture of two Israeli soldiers, Damascus’s foes in the Lebanese cabinet accused Shara of pulling the strings.
“Faruq al-Shara gives the orders, Hezbollah executes them and Lebanon is the hostage,” then communication minister Marwan Hamadeh said.
Shara’s elevation to the vice presidency followed the resignation in June 2005 of veteran incumbent Abdel Halim Khaddam, who broke with the regime soon afterwards and set himself up in self-imposed exile in France.
Khaddam was branded a traitor by Damascus for daring to suggest that Assad had known of the plans to assassinate Hariri.
Shara was born on December 10, 1938. A fluent English speaker, he studied English literature at Damascus university before pursuing a doctorate in international law at the University of London.
Before embarking on a diplomatic career, Shara did a 13-year stint as head of state-owned Syrian Arab Airlines in the British capital.
He joined the diplomatic corps in 1977 as ambassador to Rome, a post he held for three years before becoming minister of state for foreign affairs. In 1983 he briefly took over as acting information minister before being appointed foreign minister the following year.