During the latest round of U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva, a top diplomat of the Assad regime said he is not willing to deal with the opposition’s main negotiator until he shaves off his beard.
Bashar Jaafari, who has been the Syrian representative at the United Nations for a decade, was directing his fury at Mohammed Alloush, the head of the opposition delegation known as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC). Syrian government officials, including President Bashar Assad, have always considered their opponents as fundamentalist radicals who are focused on conquering the country.
“We will not engage with this terrorist in direct talks, with this terrorist in particular, and so there won’t be any direct talks unless this terrorist apologizes and also shaves off his beard,” Jaafari said in Arabic.
Jaafari himself has a neatly cropped beard, but his facial hair is of a different order than that of Alloush, a devout Sunni Muslim and member of Jaish al-Islam, a powerful opposition faction. Secular, authoritarian regimes around the world have always ordered that beards like that of Alloush be trimmed or fully shaved.
The two sides are not meeting each other in direct discussions but rather are engaging in “proximity talks,” where they sit down with interlocutors who are trying to broker a settlement to the vicious half-decade Syrian war that has killed over 250,000 people, left over a million wounded and 23 million displaced.
As The Washington Post’s Hugh Naylor reported from Geneva, Jaafari has foiled the talks by repeatedly complaining about the composition of the HNC and pointing to the supposedly dangerous radicalism of its members.
“No Syrian faction can monopolize the representation of all the opposition,” he said.
Beyond the rhetoric, Jaafari and Alloush personify Syria’s sharp and increasingly sectarian divide. The former is a strongminded defender of Assad, who, like Jaafari, is also a member of the minority Alawite sect. He is married to an Iranian, holds a doctorate in political science from the Sorbonne University in Paris and is fluent in French, English and Persian (in addition to Arabic).
Alloush, meanwhile, spent years studying religious jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia. He was a relative unknown and only appointed to the top negotiating post in the wake of the death of his cousin Zahran Alloush, the similarly bearded leader of Jaish al-Islam who was killed in an airstrike last December. The move was perceived by some, including figures within the group, as a deliberately provocative act.