The EU's Dangerous Liaison With Syria
01 June 04
By Nick Lambert - From THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE
[Editor's Note: Mr. Lambert is a director of The European Institute for
Research on the Middle East.]
Just as the United States imposed sanctions on Damascus, the European
Union is finalizing a deal to facilitate trade with Syria.
The EU's diplomatic efforts in the Mediterranean area have been shaped
since 1995 by the so-called Barcelona process, which is designed to
establish closer economic and political ties with 12 Mediterranean
partners. Syria is the only country in that group yet to conclude an
Association Agreement with the Union.
But European governments might wish to consider the following before
rushing to sign up Damascus.
Under President Bashar Assad's iron grip, the most basic freedoms are
banned in Syria. Peaceful demonstrations against the state of emergency,
in force since 1963, continue to be brutally repressed by the police.
Internal opposition, indeed any form of dissent, is not permitted.
Political dissidents can only organize themselves abroad. Yet even outside
the country, Syrian political refugees report that they are "dissuaded"
from protesting against the regime for fear of retaliation against their
families at home. Minorities in Syria, such as the Kurds, are prevented
from speaking their own language and are subject to repression.
Major human rights watchdogs are denied access to Syria. They constantly
report harsh restrictions on basic freedoms in Syria and widespread use of
arbitrary arrest and torture.
The Syrian regime's contempt for human rights is also reflected in its
foreign policy. In clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolution
520, some 20,000 Syrian troops are stationed in Lebanon, allowing Syria to
interfere in all aspects of Lebanon's political and daily life. As in
Damascus, the Syrian-controlled government in Beirut suppresses civil
liberties -- from the control of the media to attacks on political and
individual freedoms. Moreover, Damascus provides political and logistical
support to terrorist organizations, including groups that are on the EU
terrorism blacklist. Some even have their headquarters in Damascus. The
new leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, is based in Damascus. Syria also
supports Hezbollah in Lebanon by facilitating the transfer of
Iranian-supplied weapons and providing it with extensive diplomatic,
political, and logistical assistance. Syria's long-term military
occupation of Lebanon lets Hezbollah undermine the stability of the border
between that country and Israel through terrorism.
Indeed, Syria's support allows Hezbollah to carry out illegal activities
across the world, notably in illegal weapons sales, money laundering and
drug dealing. As a matter of fact, Syria is considered one of the most
significant countries in the Middle East engaged in drug trafficking. In
addition, Syria remains unnervingly attached to its massive arsenal of
chemical and biological weapons, more formidable than those of any other
Arab state, with Scud missile capabilities to carry unconventional
How does the EU intend to help the Syrian people tackle these issues?
Member states appear intent on achieving this by signing an Association
Agreement with the country -- thereby implicitly legitimizing Damascus's
present despotic regime and approving its policies. One might question
whether such an approach has ever been effective in the past in promoting
the rule of law and respect for human rights.
The official position of the European Commission is that the Association
Agreements always contain a "safety net" for deterring partner countries
from violating basic freedoms: the Human Rights clause.
This article foresees the suspension of the Agreement in case of gross
violations of human rights. The problem is, not even once has the EU ever
invoked this clause in the Barcelona process. A similar provision
demanding a commitment from Syria to renounce WMDs is also unlikely to
bring about the desired results.
A much more credible incentive might be to delay conclusion of the
agreement until Syria complies with the EU's democratic standards.
Countries wishing to join the Union have to fulfil the so-called
Copenhagen political criteria of minimum democratic standards before
becoming new members. If Association Agreements equally required such
standards to be reached before they were signed, it might actually
encourage internal reforms.
This is also the position of the exiled Syrian opposition: Farid Ghadry,
president of the U.S.-based Reform Party of Syria, says his party views
the Association Agreement with scepticism because it falls short on WMDs,
human rights, and the occupation of Lebanon. Syria always complained about
the occupation of the Golan Heights by Israel, but it remains silent about
its occupation of a whole country, according to Mr.Ghadry.
Human Rights Watch has also expressed its doubts.
After the Syrian government launched an escalating campaign against
reformists in 2001, Lotte Leicht, HRW Brussels director, declared "the
Syrian government has cracked down hard on advocates of political reform,
human rights, and civil society," and that "the EU must send a clear
message that such actions are unacceptable and will have consequences."
That clear message has never been sent. One might wonder what the
rationale of this approach is. Given the EU's insistence on pushing
through the accord, are we to conclude that Europe is satisfied with
Syria's democratic record?
This is not consistent with a Union "founded on the principles of liberty,
democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule
of law." How the policy toward Syria might match the interests of a Union
which has asserted that promoting these principles is one of the
institutional objectives of its foreign policy, is difficult to see.
The double standard in demanding democracy for accession countries, whilst
ignoring tyranny in those states which are to be associated with the very
same union, is self-evident. Supporting democracy should be equally
applied in the establishment of closer partnerships. If it does not, the
EU's foreign policy will continue to lack real credibility.