Syria wary of a raw deal

Damascus has to weigh the political and economic repercussions of a free trade agreement with the European Union to avoid future misunderstandings

Gulf News

On October 8, 2009, the Swedish presidency of the European Union (EU) asked Damascus to send its minister of foreign affairs to sign the Partnership Agreement in Luxembourg on October 26. The Syrian government, which was not consulted about the announcement, stalled at signing the trade deal and asked for more time to study it.

It was a diplomatic way to tell the EU that the date specified was not suitable. "The European decision… has come as a surprise to us… we need more time to think it over," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Mua'allem said in a press conference two days after the invitation was made. Clearly, Syria loathed the way the announcement was made by the EU.

The EU, on the other hand, having seen Syria eager to sign the agreement in the past five years, was perplexed by its response.

Most European diplomats in Damascus, who are accustomed to local culture, would admit that the invitation was made in an awkward manner. Yet, many wonder if that was the key reason that made Syria balk at signing the agreement.

Inside story

In fact, when Syria seemed desperate to sign the trade deal with the EU it was under huge American pressure to change its regional alignment. Some in Washington were even entertaining the idea of a regime change in Damascus.

During the George W. Bush era, Syria was single-mindedly occupied with the political aspect of the trade agreement. It was seen as an effective way to ward off US pressure and neutralise sanctions imposed through the Syria Accountability Act. The economic aspect was hence ignored.

This has changed. The storm has passed and Syria seems to have stepped out of its isolation. As a result, the economic aspect of the agreement has gained the Syrian government's attention and become its number one priority.

The Syrian economy has not exactly benefitted by the easing of trade barriers with other countries. Syrian manufacturers complain that they cannot compete with the better-quality goods flowing into the country from all parts of the Arab world, apart from Turkey and China. Signing the Partnership Agreement with the EU would make things worse.

For the past several decades, Syria's local industry has been surviving only because foreign products have been made expensive by import duties. If the government stops playing nanny, the manufacturing sector may as well collapse.

This would result in tens of thousands of workers losing their livelihoods and transform an economic problem into a social and political crisis. The government is already finding it difficult to create job opportunities for some 400,000 people entering the job market every year.

In addition, Syria will not be adequately compensated for the loss resulting from removing import duties on European products. Syria would get less than Jordan, for example, in terms of direct financial aid and other technical assistance.

Some have even been arguing that the EU has exploited Syria's political conditions to impose unfair terms when the agreement was first signed in the autumn of 2004.

Damascus has also been wary of the political declaration that is appended to the agreement. Although not binding, it deals with sensitive domestic issues such as political pluralism, media freedom, and human rights.

Conditions

On the question of domestic issues, Syria believes that it has been treated unfairly because no such conditions have been imposed on other countries that signed partnership agreements with the EU in the past.

In addition, Syria seems to have been provoked by the Netherlands' double-dealing concerning human rights. Over the past two years, the Netherlands vetoed the Partnership Agreement more than once on the grounds that Damascus should improve its human rights record before it becomes eligible to sign.

Yet, at the Human Rights Council last October, Amsterdam voted against the Goldstone Report, which condemned Israel's violation of human rights in Palestine during the war on Gaza.

Regardless, many believe that the agreement will be signed eventually. The two sides need to handle the issue with care. They need to work quietly to eliminate any misunderstanding concerning both the form and substance of any deal.

 

Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations at Damascus University's Faculty of Political Science and Media in Syria.

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