Posted by Joshua on Saturday, June 20th, 2009
A consensus has been developing among Syria opposition and reform leaders that the EU-Syria Association Agreement that has been on hold since 2004 should be signed. They believe that Syria’s economic opening will lead to greater social liberalism and openness as well. This is the path that the West has pursued with success in China and in Asia more generally. Many argue that intimidation has not worked, so why not try engagement.
The EU-Syrian Association Agreement would encourage various forms of cooperation between the EU and Syria, in particular it would ease tariffs to promote foreign trade and boost investment in industry, tourism and Syria’s financial institutions. But it would also open up cooperation in the arts and less obviously economic spheres of society. Greater economic growth and the expansion of elites and a middle class can only help push forward reform, just at it will surely pull down the walls of mistrust and fear that divide Europe and Syria. Syria’s opposition leaders, disappointed by the failures of the Bush years, are ready for a new strategy of change – one that is not based on intimidation and threats but on the pressure that comes from cooperation, friendship and mutual interest built of positive reinforcement.
In 2004 the progress of the Association Agreement came to a halt when language pertaining to weapons of mass destruction was added to the draft agreement. The Hariri murder in February 2005 gave the coup de grace to the process. Recent understandings between Syria and Lebanon have revived the urgency of getting the agreement back on track. In December 2008 an amended draft of the agreement was initialed, but it remains to be signed by all members of the EU.
Supporters of the process point to the efforts Syria has made in cooperating with European countries to work out a compromise on Lebanon that has permitted the election of a president, the smooth unfolding of parliamentary elections a few weeks ago with no Syrian interference, and a steady increase in Iraqi stability which has been accompanied by a decline in the numbers of recorded infiltrators making their way across the Syrian-Iraqi border.
Syria has also been helping the West in Palestine and looking for openings for itself to negotiate a final peace with Israel. Damascus has pushed for understanding between the PLO and Hamas in Palestine. Only today Abbas was in Damascus to discuss Palestinian unity with President Assad.
Much of this progress between Syria and the West has come about because of President Sarkozy’s bold initiative in breaking with his predecessor’s policy of isolating Syria a year ago. The Doha agreement of May 21, 2008, in which Sarkozy played a key role, was a watershed. Damascus responded positively to promises of cooperation and the political paralysis which had characterized Lebanese affairs for three years ended. Almost immediately Syria and Israel announced the resumption of peace negotiations with Turkey acting as a mediator. President Obama has capitalized on this spirit of compromise which has convinced authorities in Damascus that change can be real. President Assad is eager to push forward with cooperation.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner stated last week during a visit to Syria that the EU-Syria association agreement, which was initialed on 14 December 2008, will be signed in the current year. Mr Dardari said that the agreement was due to be signed in the first half of 2009, but the signatures have not all come in yet. It would be a shame if new restrictive language is added at the last minute that could derail the final signing of the agreement. It is time for a new way forward.