The EU's Dangerous Liaison With Syria
01 June 04
[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 warheads.
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.