Not since the disappearance of Iran’s Brigadier General Al-Reza Asgari in Turkey in 2007, has a political departure puzzled the Middle East like that of Syria’s Jihad Makdissi, the former foreign ministry spokesperson of the Assad government. He disappeared after leaving his position last December.
The mystery of Makdissi’s whereabouts got a boost in the last few days after U.S. envoy to Syria Robert Ford told CNN that the former Syrian official “has fled to the U.S. as a refugee,” only to be contradicted by the State Department hours later reiterating that “Makdissi is not in the United States and Ambassador Ford misspoke.”
What we know on Makdissi’s whereabouts
There have been plenty of rumors since Reuters broke the story on December 3rd. While Makdissi has not appeared publicly and no confirmation has been provided on his locale since then, few conclusions can be drawn on the case:
-Makdissi is neither in Syria nor anymore part of the regime.
Whether he was “sacked” in the words of Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV, or “on a long vacation” as Syria’s Al-Watan declared, or “defected” as diplomatic sources told both Reuters and The Guardian, the reports all confirm that Makdissi is no more the spokesperson of the Syrian foreign ministry.
The former official is also out of Syria. Reports have indicated that his house was burnt in the Mezzeh neighborhood of Damascus, the day following his departure. It is also safe to assume that the Syrian regime would not have spared an effort to have Makdissi appear publicly if he were still in the country or part of the government.
Rumors on the defection of Syrian Vice President Farouk Al-Sharaa, or Syria’s former ambassador to France Lamia Shakkour, or the alleged death of the interior minister Mohammed Al-Shaar, were immediately refuted by the regime either through public appearances or media interviews.
-It is also most likely that Makdissi departed from Beirut.
Even with Hezbollah’s strong security presence at Beirut’s airport, all of the major reports have indicated that Makdissi left from there. Many Syrian officials and activists live in or visit Lebanon today. Makdissi’s kids were also attending school in the Lebanese capital and both his family and him are confirmed to be out of the country.
-Makdissi is unlikely in a country close to Assad.
It’s more common than not that those who break with their government don’t end up in capitals friendly with the country of origin. Cubans mostly come to the United States, and the Americans who defected during the Cold War ended up in the former Soviet Union or vice versa.
Makdissi is less likely to be in Tehran or Moscow or Caracas, as he could be risking -incase the goal is defecting- being handed back to the Syrian regime.
Most of the officials or Assad family members who left Syria since the crisis began, have ended up in either Qatar, or Jordan or Turkey or France or the UAE. In Makdissi’s case, the initial reports pointed to capitals closer to the opposition than to the regime (London, Washington). The U.S. State Department said on December 5th that “we understand he’s in London,” but then denied it the next day by saying that it was another mis-statement and “those reports are not true.”
Makdissi, an Insider
Makdissi has inside knowledge on Assad, and the Chemical Weapons program . It was his July 23rd comments, saying that “all of these types of (chemical) weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression,” that got him in trouble with his bosses in Damascus. Syria had not acknowledged with such clarity before having this weaponry and officials including Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem tried to walk back Makdissi’s comments afterwards.
Still, Makdissi, who joined the Syrian government in 1998, remained active on behalf of the regime after his controversy. The spokesperson was part of the Syrian delegation to the UNGA meetings in New York in late September, and engaged with followers on twitter and Facebook until November 23rd, two weeks before his departure.
The Guardian reported on December 24th that Makdissi is “cooperating with U.S. intelligence agencies who helped him flee.” Makdissi, who comes from Christian roots, had close ties to the Assads. His soft spoken tone as well as fluency in English made him a great asset for the regime.
There is a strong possibility that Makdissi will eventually speak out. Those who know the former official, speak of an ambitious character. His strong media presence , and twitter exchanges with Syrians voicing discontent over the violence and calling for dialogue can offer him a comeback into Syrian politics. Unlike General Saghir who has completely disappeared and his fate is still unknown, it is fair to assume that Makdissi will return to the public sphere after the situation clears up in Syria or have a role in an upcoming transition.
Until then, expect more rumors, mis-statements, and leaks from London to Washington to Damascus and even from the small Lebanese suburb of Broumana, where apparently Assem Qansoe, a close ally of the Syrian regime, spotted Makdissi “dining” seven weeks ago.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam