Reuters | Sun 13 Jul 2008
EU says early partnership pact possible with Syria
By David Brunnstrom
PARIS, July 13 (Reuters) — The European Union could sign a long-stalled partnership pact with Syria this year, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said on Sunday at a Paris summit that marked a new detente between Europe and Damascus.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, among 40 leaders in Paris for the launch of a new "Union for the Mediterranean", was emerging from isolation in the West three years after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, which many believe was orchestrated from Damascus. Syria denies any involvement.
Solana did not rule out the signature by the end of the year of an already-drafted association pact between EU and Syria which was put on hold in the turbulence after Hariri’s death.
"It will depend very much of the behaviour of everybody from here, let’s say until the end of the year," Solana said, hailing the agreement on the exchange of ambassadors as significant.
Asked if it was possible to sign the accord by then, he told reporters: "I don’t want to say if it’s possible today or tomorrow, but I think it’s possible."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters later she had insisted in a meeting with the Syrian leader "that we (the EU) want to see deeds".
Neither Solana nor Merkel specified what conditions they were putting on further rapprochement but the EU is concerned that it should prevent arm smuggling across its borders to Lebanon’s Hezbollah group which is backed by Syria and Iran.
Syria and Israel recently began indirect peace talks with Turkish mediation, but EU diplomats have highlighted the role of President Nicolas Sarkozy — whose country holds the rotating presidency of the bloc — in a shift in EU thinking on Syria.
The French leader booked a first success on Saturday when he hosted talks between Assad and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, who agreed to normalise relations between Damascus and Beirut for the first time since independence in 1943.
"France is basically saying, ’Let’s test this guy’. The hope is that the test will be a positive one," a diplomat said.
However on Saturday Assad played down prospects of any early breakthrough with Israel.
He said he did not expect direct negotiations with Israel for the next six months until U.S. President George W. Bush is out of office because the current administration was not interested in Middle East peace.
(Additional reporting by Mark John and Ilona Wissenbach; Editing by Mariam Karouny)