With all eyes on Vienna on the eve of a tough new round of talks on Syria's devastating civil war, some Czech diplomats believe a peace deal might eventually end up being sealed in Prague.
As the last diplomatic outpost of the West in Syria, the Czech embassy has become a hub for confidential US and EU communication with the Damascus regime amid moves aimed at ending the four-year conflict.
“We’re trying to use the know-how and information we have to help create a solution” in Syria, Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek told AFP on Friday, but would not be drawn on details.
Weekend talks in Vienna will bring together around 20 countries and international bodies to try to hammer out a roadmap plan to end Syria’s war, which has killed more than 250,000 people and forced millions into exile.
“We have good relations, though complicated, with all players” involved in the conflict, Hynek Kmonicek, a top foreign policy aide to Czech President Milos Zeman, told AFP recently.
He ruled out any talks with the jihadist Islamic State.
Established in 1955 by then-Communist Czechoslovakia — which split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993 — the embassy once mediated hefty weapons sales to Damascus, especially in the 1970s and 1980s.
That long history appears to have put President Bashar al-Assad’s regime at ease in dealing with the Czechs.
The United States on the other hand sees the Czech Republic as a potentially neutral player without strategic interests in the region.
Kmonicek, a former diplomat, also maintains that “the opposition inside Syria regards us as someone who is part of the local political landscape, someone they can talk to, someone they are used to.”
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond who visited Prague on Friday — the eve of key weekend talks on Syria’s future in nearby Vienna — said that “there is a process of engagement not only with the Syrian opposition but also with elements of the Syrian regime.”
“We will be talking to people on both sides and it can only help that we’ve got interlocutors able to engage in these discussions on the ground,” Hammond told reporters.
Czech President Milos Zeman has gone so far as to suggest Prague could play host to a future Syrian peace deal.
“It seems that both parties to the conflict want (the deal) to be signed in Prague,” the veteran leftwinger told reporters during a trip to UN in New York in October.
“They are even beginning to call it the Prague Declaration,” Zeman added after meeting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.
Kmonicek said Syria has been looking for a neutral place to sign the peace deal but stressed Prague would be “no more than the host of the event that would naturally take place under the auspices of the United Nations.”
Any deal would take “months to years” to seal, he added.