The Daily Star | Beirut | 28 July 2004
Damascus seizes chance to claim victory
By Nicholas Blanford
Special to The Daily Star
BEIRUT: The European Union has "somewhat diluted" a clause calling on Syria to revoke its alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program which has been blocking the signing of a joint political and economic pact, a European diplomat said Tuesday.
But the diplomat added that the long-awaited EU-Mediterranean partnership agreement with Syria would not be signed without the clause.
"Some compromises have been agreed upon to make everyone happy," the Beirut-based diplomat said. "There’s no distance from the previous stand. It’s a somewhat diluted standard clause. But the Syrians are exploiting this to the maximum."
The diplomat was responding to comments made Monday by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Sharaa who said that the EU had recognized it had made a "mistake" by insisting on the WMD clause which includes removing Syria’s long-range missiles.
"I believe they (the Europeans) have started to shift closer to our point of view, and I do not rule out that between now and September there may be a new thing regarding the Syrian European partnership, toward signing," Sharaa said in a speech in Damascus.
Syria began talks with the EU in October 1997 to join the partnership program, a pact covering trade, aid and cultural relations as well as a political and security dialogue. It is the only forum outside the United Nations where Syria sits at the same table as Israel. Syria is the last of the 12 Mediterranean partners to sign the deal.
The two sides announced in December that major negotiations were over, but in May, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands insisted on a firmer commitment from Damascus to renounce WMD.
Last year, the EU decided to add the renunciation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as a standard clause in agreements with third countries.
Syria is accused of possessing the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the Middle East, including warheads for Scud ballistic missiles filled with Sarin, VX and mustard gas.
Syria has not confirmed it possesses chemical weapons, but it says it has a right to defend itself against Israel, which is widely believed to have in excess of 200 nuclear weapons.
Syria argues that the EU never forced a WMD clause on Israel, the only country in the Middle East suspected of possessing a nuclear arsenal. Israel signed its partnership agreement with the EU in 2000.
The Beirut-based diplomat said that talks since May had resulted in Damascus softening its objections to the clause.
"Syria originally flatly refused to talk about it. But there was a slight rephrasing of the clause from the EU side, so they softened a bit," the diplomat said. "It was really the Syrians that gave in, not the EU."
Emma Udwin, the Brussels-based EU spokeswoman for external affairs, said that the union’s position on the WMD clause has not changed.
"The EU’s position is known to the Syrians. An agreement was reached in May on how to approach the negotiations," Udwin said without confirming whether the wording of the clause had been changed.
The United States has placed strong pressure on Syria, accusing it of being a rogue state that harbors "terrorist" organizations, seeks WMD, and hinders the stabilization of Iraq. In May, Washington slapped sanctions on Damascus, banning all exports to Syria except for food and medicine.
However, the pressure from the US appears to have encouraged Syria to hasten the process of finalizing the agreement.
"Syria will benefit in the short-term politically - by countering US pressure and showing that Syria is not isolated - and economically, because it will instigate the process of economic reform," said Nabil Sukkar, an economist and managing director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment.
He said that Syria had made a "strategic decision" to conclude the agreement with the EU and had proven more amenable in the negotiations over the contentious subject of agricultural trade than all other Mediterranean partners.
"Signing the agreement will give reformists the strength to say that we must carry out economic reforms to honor our international obligations," Sukkar said. "It will be disastrous for Syria to sign the agreement but not go ahead with economic reforms."