Will Syria say ‘Yes I do’ to the EU’s Proposal?


Rouba Al-Fattal
Founding member of the EuroArab Forum
PhD candidate, University of Leuven


Although Syria is a full participant in the Barcelona Process (1995) and a member of the Union for the Mediterranean (2008), current relations between Syria and the EU are still governed by the 1977 Co-operation Agreement. In the absence of an Association Agreement under the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) framework, Syria cannot yet fully benefit from the 2004 European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) Action Plan. However, since 2007, EU-Syria cooperation continues in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy Instrument (ENPI).

Negotiations on an EU-Syria Association Agreement were initiated in 2003 and concluded in October 2004, but the agreement has yet to be signed and ratified. EU-Syria relations were put on ice after the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri (2005), the EU’s support for Beirut’s « cedar revolution » and Syria’s ejection from Lebanon after nearly 30 years. At first the EU and the US, under the Bush administration, tried to isolate and undermine the Syrian regime causing tense relations between Syria and the international community. This international pressure was expected to weaken the Syrian government and maybe even induce a revolution from within. Instead, five years later, the Syrian government is stronger than it was in 2005 and the EU is recognising the country’s strategic importance for the stability and security of the region.

Syria has been politically and economically stable since President Bashar al-Assad took office in 2000. However, the political and socio-economic reforms announced at the beginning of his term are materialising slower than expected. Syria justifies the slow reform and the Emergency Law by national security considerations, including the Middle East conflict. The Syrian government’s reform efforts represent a major challenge to the EU. But despite the lack of substantial reforms on human rights issues, the Kurdish question, corruption, and nepotism the EU has signed the Association Agreement and put it on the table for Syria to sign in October 2009. Surprisingly, it was deferred after President Bashar al-Assad said Syria wanted « to revise » certain clauses, and since then the EU waits in suspense for Syria’s decision on the Agreement. Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, and Deputy Prime Minister, Abdullah Dardari, asked for some time (more than the 20 days first proposed by the EU to look at the text back in October 2009) to review the Agreement. The Syrian government declared that it intends to publish an assessment report, detailing the expected influence of the EU Association Agreement on Syria, after the EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton’s trip to Syria.
From the Syrian government perspective few obstacles stand against the signing of this agreement. Most importantly the fact that the Netherlands and Britain insisted at that time on including a separate document with conditional clauses from the EU partners linking the agreement to Syrian respect for human rights and non-proliferation of Weapons of Mass destruction (WMD). Syria objected that while the Association Agreements between the EU and other Mediterranean partners stated in Article 2 the importance of shared values and respect for human rights, good governance and the rule of law, they did not include the conditional clauses (Articles 4, 5 and 6) that were put on Syria. Muallem said at a news conference with visiting Ashton that both sides « share the same points of view. They want an agreement based on equality, respect for sovereignty and independence, and non-interference in internal affairs. » Despite pressure the strict conditions seem to have been watered down as the language used now is standard to all EU-Med Association Agreements. This gives the impression that Syria is already in the drivers’ seat, yet its reluctance to sign and its demands for more “flexibility” from the EU indicate the regime’s fear to lose sovereignty due to external interference.

Of course there are internal disagreements at the level of decision-makers in Syria over the Association Agreement. The Agreement is foremost seen as the Dardari’s baby by Syrian officialdom. But those who depend financially of their loyalty to Mohammad Hussein, the Syrian Finance Minister, (Dardari’s rival) do not want to see the signing of the agreement. But as far as the elites go, especially those involved in the socio-economic sectors and NGOs’, they are eager to benefit from this agreement with the EU. But even if we see reform on the economic level it will be a long time before we witness political reforms that would significantly improve human rights and democracy in Syria under the strong hold of the current regime.

In order to make this agreement more attractive to the Syria government it looks like the EU will have to exert more flexibility on its political and cultural agenda and turn a blind eye to human rights violations. But if the EU wants to restore its credibility as a democratisation force in the region then its margin of manoeuvre is not that big. Also, if the EU backs on these demands now it does not demonstrate to the Syrian public that much will be improved with entering into an agreement with the EU. The same leading strata of Syrian society will remain to benefit from the economic gains of the interaction, while the reforms remain cosmetic and ineffective at the political and cultural levels. Although prior EU and US total isolation of Syria did not work, it does not mean that the pendulum should shift totally to the other side by accepting Syria as is. A centred position with some pressure on the Syrian government to accept the human rights conditions is necessary. After all, the Syrian regime cannot just refuse signing the agreement (despite its economic benefits) saying out load that it refuses to respect human rights!

As far as the second condition on the non-proliferation of WMD is concerned, it could be either deleted from the text or mitigated as a trust-building mechanism between the EU and Syria, with of course the explicit indication that such development will not be welcomed by the international community. In return the EU may ask for more Syrian support on the Iran nuclear issue. The Syrian government may also be asked to loosen its relations with Iran and its proxy groups in the region. However, it should not be expected of Syria to completely cut it relations with Iran for the time being – because the Syrian government knows that strategically it might need Iran to maintain its influence on its neighbours. Thus, by cooperating with Syria, the EU can regain its importance and effectiveness on the politics of the region.
The fact that Syria is geographically sandwiched between three regional conflicts (Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq) and despite its isolation for five year still maintained its stability is considered remarkable by Western and Arab actors. The new US Ambassador to Syria is for sure going to see a more assertive and stronger Syrian leadership than the one that existed in 2005. But this is the time for the US and the EU to work together to strike the right balance in their Syrian engagement, trying to reform the country slowly but surely in order to maintain the needed regional stability. But it takes two to tango and the question remains whether Syria wants to reciprocate a deeper engagement with the EU by signing the Association Agreement.