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Should the EU have taken the road to Damascus sooner?

Relations between the EU and Syria have warmed considerably of late. However, a partnership deal remains on hold after Damascus delayed signing the accord. Deutsche Welle asked experts about the implications.

Bashir al Assad

Assad's move took Brussels by surprise

As part of the Syria's continuing international rehabilitation, EU diplomats were poised recently to put their pen to an association agreement with the previously isolated regime. The accord would have brought the country into the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP).

Member states had agreed it was time to engage in dialog with a country that is recognized as a key player in the Middle East because of its role in Lebanon and Iraq, its relationship with Iran and, as the base of Hamas, its influence on Palestinian politics.

Under the association agreement, Syria would have gained financial and trade incentives in exchange for commitments to political and economic reforms.

President Bashar al-Assad's insistence that Damascus must first review the document has clearly taken Brussels aback.

Syria shows its displeasure

Euromed logo

The EU has association agreements with many countries in the region

Middle East expert Muriel Asseburg is less surprised. “This is a tit-for-tat reaction. The European has reopened negotiations and dragged its feet with regards to the agreement on three occasions in the past,” Asseburg, who is head of the Middle East Africa division at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) in Berlin, told Deutsche Welle.

Damascus and the EU drew up their first draft partnership pact back in 2004. However, it subsequently hit a number of snags because of opposition from some EU member states.

Despite Syria accepting an additional clause in 2004 about weapons of mass destruction after pressure from states such as Britain, the accord was never signed and remained on ice until 2008.

The lowpoint of bilateral relations came in 2005 when the EU froze relations with Damascus in 2005 after the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria was widely blamed for orchestrating the killing, although it denies any involvement.

Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri

Syria was believed to be behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri.

This year, EU states agreed to move toward a deal after appending a 1,000 page memorandum of understanding to the agreement at Dutch behest. It would allow the EU to suspend relations with Syria in the event of human rights violations.

"The Syrians are annoyed because the EU has politicized negotiations and imposed the most stringent conditions with regards to weapons of mass destruction and human rights of all upon them. They want to make clear that they are not prepared to eat humble pie,” said Asseburg.

At present, Europe has association agreements with all other countries in the region, apart from Libya. There have been numerous human rights abuses in many of them and yet no serious move has been made to terminate these accords, leaving the EU open to charges of double standards.

Temporary setback?

Whether Assad's decision not to sign the deal is just a temporary blip, or a more serious setback is not yet clear, according to Clara O-Donnell, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform (CEF). “It could be a short-term issue. It could be quite legitimate. They might just want to time to go through this very long document. Or Syria could want to stall as part of a long-term trend,” she told Deutsche Welle.

Second-guessing what is going on inside this secretive, authoritarian regime is extremely difficult, according to Thomas Richter, research fellow at the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies in Hamburg. “You can't look in. It's like a big black box. Even for people like us who are concerned with the country on a daily basis.”

Richter believes that the next few years will see more progress in improving relations between the EU and Syria. But he does not expect short-term results.

Too little, too late?

While the European Union may now have reached a common position on how it would like to proceed towards Syria, Damascus has not been standing still in the meantime.

“You could say the EU has missed the boat in some respects," said SWP expert Asseburg. “Over the last few years, Syria has diversified its foreign relations - not only deepening them with Iran, but also developing closer links with Turkey and some Asian states, such as Malaysia.”

This means that the EU now has less scope to shape relations with Syria and influence developments there, according to Asseburg. “The EU was too slow because there was no consensus among the member states about how to treat Syria,” she said.

The country's status as a transit land for Islamist militants and foreign fighters entering Iraq and Lebanon makes it an important partner for the West.

While Germany and Italy have been pressing for a policy of dialog for some time, there was more reluctance, at times, from Britain, the Netherlands and France.

US pips Europe to the post

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses an audience at the Cairo University in Cairo

Obama is also reframing US policy toward the Muslim world

The shift in policy under the Obama administration also means that Syria is less interested in Europe than they were a few years ago. Although US sanctions are still in force against Syria, the new US president has indicated his intention to return an ambassador to the country. As a negotiator in the Middle East peace process, the United States clearly carry more weight than the EU.

Against this background, Richter sees Assad's veto of the association agreement as a possible negotiating strategy to win more concessions from the EU. Resistance to the accord could also come from elements within the bureaucracy who see its economic reforms as a threat to their commercial monopolies.

While the GIGA expert believes it is "regrettable" that the EU might have missed certain chances because of the protracted negotiations with Syria, he attributes it, in part, to the unwieldy nature of the bloc. “It is incredibly difficult to coordinate foreign policy. Other states are more efficient in that respect,” he added.

But has the EU really exhausted all its possibilities? Clara O'Donnell thinks not.

The European Union is Syria's biggest trading partner and could possibly play a stronger role if it made more use of its economic leverage, the CEF researcher believes.

“If it were to beef up its incentives it would have more traction,” she said. The offer of improved visa facilitation and more access to EU's agriculture market might be two policies that could give the EU more bargaining power in the region as a whole, according to O'Donnell.

Author: Julie Gregson
Editor: Rob Mudge

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