Britain says Syria deal worth waiting for
By Sakhr Al-Makhadhi
LONDON - Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband insists that efforts to
strengthen Europe's ties with Syria are not on hold, as Damascus calls for a
delay in signing a long-awaited association agreement.
The agreement will make Syria a member of the European Union's Euro-Med
partnership, which includes all 27 states of the European Union, along with 16
partners across the Southern Mediterranean and the Middle East. It aims to
raise the political level of the strategic relationship between the EU and its
southern neighbors. According to the EU, it "offers more balanced governance,
increased visibility to its citizens and a commitment to tangible, regional and
Talks with the EU were frozen in 2004, apparently after pressure
from the George W Bush White House. Without warning, Brussels announced at the
start of October that it was ready to finalize the agreement.
Syria complained that it was being given just days to read over the document
before the ceremony in Luxembourg, which was due to take place this week.
Damascus is making it clear that this isn't a now-or-never moment for the
association agreement. It doesn't want to be rushed into a deal which could
have wide-reaching economic and political implications.
Britain insists the delay is no cause for concern. "I think that the outreach
to Syria is very, very important," Miliband told Asia Times Online, "and so I
will look carefully at what the Syrian government says about its decision but I
think that it's very important that it's properly engaged with."
Syria will be one of the final countries to have an association agreement with
the EU. Most other Mediterranean countries have signed similar deals. The aim
is to create a loose economic and political union at Europe's fringes - in
effect building an outer ring around the EU.
Syria expert Professor Joshua Landis says Damascus wants to be sure the
agreement will be a partnership of equals. "Syria remains a country that is
deeply distrustful of 'imperialism' and anything that reminds it of
imperialism,” he said. “It does not like to make itself vulnerable to the
The deal will give Syrian companies preferential access to Europe's markets.
But it will also open up Syria's economy to EU businesses. And that could be
one reason for the delay - to assess the potential impact that the agreement
will have on Syrian jobs. Syria would also get greater access to EU markets,
increased aid and support for cultural, health and social programs. For the EU,
promoting good governance, democratization and human rights are included in the
Europe, though, is keen to push ahead with its second layer of the EU. Miliband
says a pan-Arab agreement is key to peace in Palestine and Israel: "I have
spent a good part of the last couple of years talking about the importance of a
regional approach to Middle Eastern issues. I talk about a 23 state solution in
the Middle East - 22 Arab states plus Palestine with Israel, not just the
Syria is aware that the association agreement is about much more than trade,
and it is making it clear that it does not want its content or timing dictated
And Syria can afford to wait. The international environment has changed
dramatically in the five years since the agreement was last on the table.
America is on the verge of sending an ambassador back to Damascus, Syria has
taken part in indirect talks with Israel to regain the occupied Golan Heights
and a string of world leaders have been landing in Damascus, culminating with
French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit one year ago.
According to a repot in the Guardian , the EU's primary motivation behind
the treaty is political:
Despite being the greatest trade partner to
the Middle East, and plowing huge quantities of aid into the region (notably
the Palestinian Authority), the EU is increasingly impotent in affecting its
politics. Nicholas Sarkozy has led a renewed desire to correct this, both by
pushing his idea of a Mediterranean Union and his personal goal of increasing
France's traditional influence in Syria and Lebanon. The treaty with Damascus
therefore represents a chance to re-establish the union's clout in the region.
While talks with the EU were on hold, Syria has been busy focusing on its own
neighborhood. Syria's ambassador to Britain, Sami Khiyami, says his country
wants to be at the center of a new regional understanding - bringing together
Turkey, Iran and the Arab world.
And on that front, things are moving fast. Syria and Turkey have just created a
visa-free zone. And in the space of a few months, Syria and Saudi Arabia have
staged a dramatic reconciliation.
Miliband's conciliatory approach appears to show that the EU realizes it cannot
take Syria for granted.