Hungary's foreign minister defends plan to appoint Syria diplomat

Move criticised by US and caused concern among other EU countries

epa07832326 Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary, Peter Szijjarto, speaks at the official opening of the 'German-Hungarian Forum - Youth, Dialogue.Future', in Berlin, Germany, 10 September 2019. Exactly on the day of the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Hungarian western border the forum promotes the development of the German-Hungarian relations.  EPA/FELIPE TRUEBA

Hungary on Thursday rejected western criticism of its plan to send a diplomat to Syria next year, the first time an EU state will upgrade its diplomatic presence there since the start of the war.

Hungary will send a diplomat to Syria to follow up on humanitarian support for Christian communities and conduct consular duties, its Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday.

The move has been criticised by the US and caused unease in some EU capitals.

But Peter Szijjarto, the Hungarian Foreign Minister, said criticism of the plan was unfair.

"If it's a problem that a Hungarian diplomat travels there a couple of times a year, then what do they tell our Central European friends who still have their embassies?" Mr Szijjarto asked.

"Let's not apply double standards."

Only the Czech Republic still has an embassy in Damascus, while other EU countries, the US and Canada are among those that have closed their missions, breaking off relations with the regime of President Bashar Al Assad.

Romania technically still has an embassy in Syria but its ambassador is based in Beirut. Bulgaria has a charge d'affaires.

EU countries have in the past sent envoys to Syria but not for consular purposes, with their duties limited to talks on aid and policy.

Syria's conflict flared in 2011 with anti-government demonstrations that sparked a regime crackdown.

Since then, 370,000 people have been killed and millions displaced.

Hungary was one of the first EU countries to reopen its Baghdad embassy after the Iraq war, and later opened a consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil in line with the interests of Hungarian oil and gas giant MOL, said Daniel Bartha, of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy.

"It is typical of the multi-vectoral Hungarian foreign policy that seeks diplomatic gains by breaking consensus and co-operation in the EU and Nato, the alliances Hungary officially belongs to," said Daniel Hegedus, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund in the US.