The Syrians of Bulgaria: Shawarma Diplomacy
(continued from Divided, Depleted and Dispirited - The Syrians of Bulgaria)
The Syrian opposition in Bulgaria argues it successfully pushed Sofia to take its side as the crisis deepened back home.
Bulgaria‘s usually mute foreign policy has been unusually proactive in Syria, with Sofia among the first to take diplomatic action against the regime in Damascus back in 2011. Large quantities of weapons bought by the Pentagon and Saudi Arabia have also passed through Bulgaria for Syrian rebels since 2013, making it a pivotal country for the opposition.
In 2014, Ataka, a newspaper owned by a Bulgarian nationalist party of the same name which backs Syrian President Assad, published an emotional opinion piece on its front page accusing "the shawarma maker Abu Kamal" of "dictating Bulgaria’s foreign policy".
Abu Kamal dismisses the reports but, intriguingly, a customer of the kebab shop in the early years of the Syrian war was the Arabic-speaking Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov, who led the aggressive anti-Assad policy.
Less than a month after the protests began in 2011, Mladenov had already visited Damascus to talk with Assad.
In a letter addressed to the Syrian community in Bulgaria dated April 16, 2011, Mladenov assured them that he would work "so that violence stops in Syria and reforms are initiated".
And not long afterwards, Burhan Ghalioun, who at the time headed the opposition body named the Syrian National Council, arrived in Sofia for two official visits. The day after the second trip, on May 29, Bulgaria joined a group of 10 countries who told their Syrian ambassador to leave, citing "a response to the Houla massacre" earlier that month as the official reason. A week later, Bulgaria was one of 17 states whose ambassadors or chargés d'affaires in Syria were declared persona non grata.
Bulgaria then recognized the opposition within several months. Mohamed Ibrahim, of the pro-Assad Association of Syrians in Bulgaria said the government in Sofia was siding with the"10 percent of Syrians [who reject him] against the other 90 percent".
Responding to BIRN in writing, Mladenov, who is now the UN special coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, said he was not swayed by lobbying from pro or anti Assad factions in Bulgaria’s Syrian community.
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