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French Version

EU adds to Syria's international woes

Brussels links Euro-med accord with damascus' politics in lebanon

The EU finally broke cover this week in announcing it will not sign a billion-dollar trade pact with Syria until key European demands on Lebanon are met.

The EU has insisted on a full withdrawal from Lebanon and parliamentary elections without interference from Syria. Without the deal, the Syrian economy will lose an important lifeline, but more importantly, the EU's decision signals that the international isolation of the Syrian government will increase.

Syria had hoped that signing the agreement, which gives Damascus greater access to EU markets, would drive a wedge between Europe and America.

Demanding that Syria tighten its borders with Iraq and stop supporting anti-Israel groups such as Hizbullah, the U.S. has imposed a raft of sanctions on Damascus, which does not mean much economically, but puts a political squeeze on Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Europe, though, continued to pursue a different strategy of engagement with Syria, even initialing the trade pact last October - a month after Resolution 1559 was passed. The association agreement involves billions of dollars of aid to Damascus as well as the creation of an EU-Syrian free trade zone.

But finally, the EU seems to have lost patience, as The Daily Star first predicted last month.

Frank Hesske, EU ambassador to Syria, said this week: "I don't see how we could consider a signature earlier than ... fulfillment of these two conditions: full, verifiable withdrawal of troops and intelligence services and the issue of what we really see on the ground, free, transparent elections or not."

The deal is still in administrative limbo, awaiting translation of its 1,500 pages into EU languages. It must be unanimously passed by all 25 EU members and could be signed at the earliest by June. Syria has a positive trade balance with the EU of about $1 billion, largely due to its petroleum exports, but its economy is suffering from a negative growth rate and high unemployment.

When The Daily Star first queried European officials last month, they hinted that signing the agreement would be contingent on whether Syria withdraws its troops from Lebanon.

But the Europeans are expanding their scope and toughening their line against Damascus. Now, they're insisting on a second condition: that Syria respects free and transparent elections in Lebanon, which the Lebanese opposition is already accusing the Syrian-backed Karami government of delaying.

Last week, the EU enraged Damascus by inviting Syrian opposition leader Farid Ghadry, who recently met top U.S. State Department officials in Washington, to Brussels to argue his case for why the agreement should be delayed.

Ghadry, who heads the Reform Party of Syria, said the treaty shouldn't be ratified until Syria improves its human rights record and introduces democratic reforms.

According to Ghadry, the trade agreement is a key opportunity to pressure Damascus, which is the only country in the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership - which brings together 25 EU countries and their 12 Mediterranean neighbors - not to sign an agreement.

"The regime of Assad is desperate to sign the agreement because it shows that it can isolate the Europeans from the Americans," Ghadry told The Daily Star.

Ghadry said: "Not only will it give Syria an economic boost that we think will again only benefit the elite but it will also give the regime a political boost, something the Reform Party of Syria does not want at this time.

"The EU trade with Syria represents approximately 40 percent of Syria's GDP, so it's very important for them."

Ghadry urged the EU to leverage the trade agreement not just to free Lebanon from Assad's grip but to improve its human rights record.

"The only reform possible is the lifting of the emergency laws, release of all prisoners, changing the Constitution to accept all political parties and dismantling the intelligence services," said Ghadry.

"If these are done, then we can start a meaningful dialogue to transition the country into a full-fledged democracy."

Ghadry's demands are further than the EU has signaled it is willing to push. It doesn't seem likely, though, that the agreement will be signed before June, when the EU presidency changes hands and new political priorities could come into play.

Until then, Syria's pariah status will continue, unless, of course, it shows a willingness to cooperate fully in Lebanon.

Beirut,04 11 2005
Will Rasmussen
The Daily Star
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