Europe’s New Middle East Darling

Friday, November 19, 2004

By Nir Boms and Erick Stakelbeck

With Yasser Arafat’s death, Europe has lost its oldest and dearest Arab despot. But the race to replace him as the European Union’s favored Middle East tyrant has already begun – and we seem to have a winner. Late last month, just days before Arafat was flown to Paris to receive medical treatment, the European Commission and Syria signed an “Association Agreement” that strengthened Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad’s iron grip on power. Amazingly, this significant development was all but ignored by the Western media.

Over the past several months, a combination of American sanctions, pressure from Syrian pro-democracy activists and a long overdue U.N. resolution (co-sponsored by France and the U.S.) calling for the immediate withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon had seriously weakened Assad’s regime. His continued support for Islamist terrorism and the insurgency in Iraq, combined with Syria’s struggling economy and high unemployment rate, only made matters worse for the young dictator.

But just in his hour of greatest despair, the EU inexplicably came to his rescue, providing Assad with a much-needed life line. The association agreement between the EU and Syria, signed in Brussels on Oct. 19, completed the EU’s “Euro-Mediterranean Partnership” to strengthen economic and political ties in the region. The EU cited Syria’s supposedly newfound commitment to fight terrorism and promote human rights to justify the deal with Damascus. The facts, however, don’t support the EU’s view of things – Syria’s record in these two areas is abysmal.

Although the Bush administration has repeatedly warned Assad to stop the infiltration of terrorists from Syria into Iraq and close the Damascus offices of terrorist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, little has changed in this regard. In recent weeks, American troops stationed along Iraq’s border with Syria have complained of mortar attacks directed at U.S. and Iraqi positions from within Syrian territory, presumably by Islamist terrorists. While it’s unlikely that the Syrian military is directly involved in these attacks, they could certainly not take place without the military’s tacit support. Syria is a tightly controlled police state based on the same Baa’th ideology of Saddam’s Iraq – nothing happens there without approval from Damascus.

Despite repeated American warnings, the Assad regime has chosen to promote chaos in Iraq, with some reports even suggesting that remnants of the Iraqi Baa’th Party are directing the terror and insurgency there from within Syria. The announcement on Nov. 7 by Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara that Syria plans to sign a border cooperation deal with the new Iraqi government in the coming months will do little to allay American concerns. Indeed, American troops reportedly had to close a portion of the Iraq/Syria border due to security issues. And earlier this month, Iraqi government television broadcast the confessions of 19 foreign insurgents captured in Iraq, five of whom were Syrian.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect is a story the Washington Times reported in late October. According to the paper, Russian special forces, working with Iraqi intelligence, had moved a large cache of arms from Iraq’s Al-Qaqaa facility to Syria at the outset of the Iraq War. This report followed months of speculation that Iraqi WMDs had been transported to Syria by Saddam Hussein’s regime just prior to the U.S. invasion. In addition, a report in German daily Die Welt last month said that Syria, in conjunction with the Sudanese government, had recently tested chemical weapons on Sudanese civilians in the embattled Darfur region, murdering dozens.

This brings us to another serious problem: Syria’s WMDs programs. In testimony before the U.S. House International Relations Committee, Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton said that Syria has one of the most advanced chemical weapons programs in the Middle East, with “a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin that can be delivered by aircraft or ballistic missiles.” Mr. Bolton also stated that Syria is “continuing to develop an offensive biological weapons capability” and has developed long-range Scud missiles with which to deliver them. The fight against WMD proliferation is, at least officially, one of the EU’s main foreign policy priorities. So there was much squabbling about the precise wording of the clause in the agreement designed to commit the Syrians to the same goals. In the end, however, the parties agreed on very vague language and the agreement itself lacks any monitoring system to verify Syrian compliance. Europe’s answer to the threat of WMDs in the hands of ruthless dictators with close ties to terrorists is to present them with a lucrative free trade agreement. In exchange the Europeans receive an unverifiable promise from the dictator to behave and “to take action towards” signing international non-proliferation treaties. The world is still waiting, by the way, for Assad to honor another treaty obligation, the one his father gave 15 years ago to leave Lebanon.

On the human rights front, things don’t look much better. Since coming to power in 2000, Assad has often spoken of fostering a more open, democratic society and of respecting the rights of all Syrians. But despite Assad’s flowery rhetoric, Syria remains a bastion of repression.

Just last month, Syrian authorities closed down a leading pro-democracy website, www.liberalsyria.com, and arrested its founder, Nabil Fayyed, on the specious charge of “publishing forbidden content.” The following week, a prominent Syrian Kurdish pro-democracy activist, Mas’oud Hamid, was sentenced to five years in prison for his alleged involvement in a vaguely defined “secret organization.” Of course, neither Mr. Hamid nor Mr. Fayyed received mention in the 1450-page association agreement, which demands from Syria to respect human rights and democratic principles.

From its stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Iraq and beyond, the EU — in its push to become a global counterweight to the United States — has proven more than willing to embrace tyrants and terrorists. In helping to revitalize the Assad regime, the EU has not only let down all the courageous pro-democracy activists who are risking their lives in Syria — it has also made the world less safe.

Mr. Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Mr. Stakelbeck is senior writer at the Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based counter-terrorism research insute.

 

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