Hungary to Appoint Syria Diplomat in Thawing of Ties

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Hungary is planning to appoint a diplomat to carry out "consular duties" in Damascus next year, the first time an EU member state is to upgrade its diplomatic presence in Syria since the start of the war.

"Starting next year, Hungary will delegate a diplomat who will occasionally visit Syria to make follow ups on humanitarian support and to conduct consular duties," Hungary's foreign ministry said in a statement to AFP on Wednesday.

The ministry said Budapest provides humanitarian aid for Christians in the Middle East, including in Syria, while a "considerable number" of Syrian students study in Hungary on scholarships.

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

Romania technically still has an embassy in Syria, but the 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 brutal regime crackdown. Since then, 370,000 people have been killed and millions displaced.

A source close to the Hungarian government told AFP that Budapest was considering engaging Assad to better help Christians, as well as "be ahead of" other EU countries possibly re-opening ties for economic opportunities.

"Many people in (the ruling party) Fidesz and in the government think that the question of engaging Assad is not a question of if, but when it is going to happen," he said.

Led by nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary has often been at loggerheads with other EU members and the EU itself on what Orban calls its pro-immigration stance and other issues.