Zapatero sent envoy on secret Syria peace mission

Assad regime "disconnected from reality," Bernadino León concluded after plan for democratic transition fell flat

Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero last June sent Spanish diplomat Bernardino León on an unofficial visit to Damascus in hopes of convincing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to accept a plan that would put an end to the violence that, according the UN, has claimed more than 2,000 civilian lives since March.

Sources have told EL PAÍS that León, who is now EU Special Representative for the Southern Mediterranean Region, used his own passport (rather than his diplomatic one) to travel under the radar, and that he met unofficially in the private residences of higher-ups in the Assad regime who have the Syrian president's ear.

The mission was the last that León, a close advisor to Zapatero, would carry out for the Spanish prime minister before being appointed to his new position at the end of June, and was an indication of the special relationship Spain has had with the Middle Eastern country since the time of the Spanish Transition. Indeed, until June, Zapatero maintained telephone contact with Assad, whom Spain may be willing to provide with asylum if the regime falls.

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Zapatero's three-point plan included the immediate cessation of all state repression, the holding of a transitional conference in Madrid with all the parties involved in the conflict, and the formation of a new government with widespread representation. Upon León's return, however, he explained that his efforts had fallen on deaf ears. "My audience was disconnected from reality," he reportedly said.