Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Moalem dies aged 79

Al Moalem backed President Bashar Al Assad's violent suppression of protests

Syria's long-time foreign minister Walid Al Moalem, a staunch defender of President Bashar Al Assad's crackdown on peaceful protesters that sparked a decade-long conflict, has died, state TV reported early on Monday.

There were no details on the cause of death, but the 79-year old had for years been in poor health with heart problems.

Al Moalem was appointed foreign minister in 2006 and also held the post of deputy prime minister.

Born in Damascus in 1941, Al Moalem later moved to Egypt, where he studied economics at Cairo University. A year after his graduation, he joined the Syrian Arab Baath Party, representing the regime in Saudi Arabia, England and Spain, among other countries.

After spending time in Communist Eastern Europe, Al Moalem worked his way through the ranks of the Foreign Ministry, holding a number of bureaucratic positions before becoming ambassador to Washington from 1990 to 2000. He became a deputy foreign minister, overseeing Damascus’ interests in Lebanon, in 2005.

During this time, he represented Syria at international conferences including the 2006 meeting of the Organisation for Islamic Co-operation.

According to a leaked US State Department cable on the event, Mr Al Moalem was working on strengthening his country’s ties with Turkey and Jordan. At the time, some observers hoped the rule of Bashar Al Assad would take the country towards a more moderate regional position.

The cable noted that Mr Al Moalem supported Iran’s nuclear programme and “reiterated Syria's support for the Iraqi people's aspirations to achieve national reconciliation”. The Syrian government was later accused of allowing terrorists to cross into Iraq to attack American-led coalition forces, a campaign which also claimed thousands of civilian lives.

Following Bashar Al Assad’s violent crackdown on protesters during the 2011 uprising, Al Moalem was sanctioned by the US Treasury.

But he remained defiant during the course of the country’s bloody civil war, telling the UN Assembly in 2012 that terrorism in Syria was "externally supported" and was "accompanied by unprecedented media provocation based on igniting religious extremism sponsored by well-known states in the region".

After 2011, these arguments were largely ignored as the government stepped up aerial bombardment of cities and the country's refugee population surpassed 12 million.

As international condemnation of the violence grew, in particular outrage following chemical attacks by government forces - something Mr Al Moalem blamed on rebel groups, Syria faced increasing isolation.

It is expected that Mr Al Moalem will be replaced by Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, who is also a staunch supporter of Iran.