- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2003

NICOSIA, Cyprus — The European Union’s efforts to establish closer ties with Syria are creating an additional source of tension with the United States, diplomats say.

While Washington continues to accuse Syria of harboring terrorist organizations, the EU is on the verge of signing an economic cooperation agreement with the government of President Bashar Assad.

The agreement is part of a political and economic rapprochement between Europe and Syria, which opposed the war in Iraq and predicted the collapse of the “road map” peace plan in the Middle East urged by President Bush.

On Oct. 8, the House International Relations Committee voted to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria. The decision reflected Washington’s frustration with Syria’s unswerving opposition to U.S. peacemaking efforts in the Middle East.

The United States also accused Syria of holding in its banks an estimated $3 billion of Iraqi funds. Some U.S. officials say the funds could be used to finance terrorist attacks by Palestinian extremists.

The EU considers most American claims about Syria to be exaggerated and is increasingly distancing itself from such a policy, thus contributing to the difficulties in trans-Atlantic relations.

Despite U.S. dissatisfaction, an economic association agreement between the EU and Syria aimed at creating a free-trade zone in the Mediterranean area is moving toward conclusion. So far, however, trade with Syria represents less than 1 percent of the EU’s total.

A recent state visit to Syria by King Juan Carlos of Spain, accompanied by a meeting of Spanish and Syrian businessmen, added a boost to the Syrian-EU rapprochement. The meeting prompted Mr. Assad to make yet another pledge to reduce bureaucracy and pave the way to foreign investments.

“Syria is open for cooperation and we will remove all difficulties,” Mr. Assad said at the business meeting.

Several European government and business circles feel Mr. Assad, who inherited power from his late father, Hafez, is on the right track. Some refer to him as a reformer, although human rights organizations still consider the Syrian regime to be oppressive.

An EU official said recently that human rights and a clause on rejecting terrorism are “not negotiable,” but cautioned that enforcing them might prove to be difficult.

“If there is a deterioration, a flagrant deterioration, then we can suspend the agreement,” the official added. “Change [in Syria] must come from within and, basically, we do not believe in policies of isolation.”

Mr. Assad appeared strengthened by the growing European support and last week reiterated his accusation that the United States, “by occupying Iraq has turned itself into a local authority.”

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