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    Middle East
     Oct 29, 2009
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 trans-national projects".

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 West."

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 treaty's text.

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 two-state solution."

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 by Brussels.

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 [1], 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.

1. Brussels buckles, Damascus deliberates The Guardian, October 25, 2009.

Sakhr Al-Makhadhi is a London-based British-Arab freelance journalist.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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