Monday, October 26, 2009

Europe Sells Out to Syria and Gets Slapped: A Middle East Case Study in Begging to Give Something for Nothing

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By Barry Rubin

Ugarte: “But think of all the poor devils who cannot meet Renault’s price. I get it for them for half. Is that so parasitic?”

Rick: “I don’t mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one.” --From the film “Casablanca” 1942

Wow what a great lesson in Middle East politics! Bear with me. The issue seems obscure but the story is a treasure house of dark humor and educational value.

For many years the European Union has talked with Syria about a trade treaty giving Damascus lots of benefits. For some time, the EU balked, insisting that Syria make some commitments on improving human rights in the country. Yet step by step, while Syria did nothing in the way of concessions, the EU gave in until it offered to sign the treaty unconditionally.

And guess what happened? When the EU was ready to sign, Syria said “No!” Get it, the Syrians are getting a big concession which will help their country but they turn it down as insufficient. They get the other side to beg them to accept goodies by merely saying no repeatedly, even though the EU had nothing and Syria had everything to gain.

See any parallels to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Western negotiations with Iran over nuclear weapons, and many other examples?

Before we go any further, ask yourself these questions:

--Who’s stronger economically, Europe or Syria? Europe.

--Who’s in need of this agreement in purely economic terms? Syria.

--Who’s blocking peace in the Middle East, sponsoring terrorism in Iraq, trying to take over Lebanon, helping Iran to get nuclear weapons, repressing dissidents with torture, and responsible for murdering the former Lebanese prime minister and other officials in that country? Syria.

--So who’s making all the concessions and acting as the weaker party? The EU!

Talks have been going on for 5 years. At first, the EU went slow because the United States wanted to isolate Syria, and the EU wanted Damascus to promise not to develop weapons of mass destruction. Since Syria said it would not do so, however, the EU dropped that demand.

Next, the EU conditioned the deal on Syria making promises to observe human rights. Again, though, since the Syrians refused, the British and French became desperate to concede on that issue as well. Why? In large part, they want to play a bigger role in the region. The Netherlands objected but was assuaged with the pledge that if Syria became far more repressive the agreement might be suspended. Don’t hold your breath.
So finally, on October 26, the deal was going to be signed. With the EU pulling out its pens, the Syrians said: Wait a minute, we want to think about it some more.

What a humiliation for the EU but did anyone notice? A Syrian analyst close to the regime explained that Syria is gambling on EU weakness in hopes of getting an even better deal and to show its own power.

The agreement’s benefits for Syria are clear: more aid and investment; better access to EU markets. Given its own weaknesses, Syria’s Soviet-style economy is in bad shape and really needs the deal. In addition, the link with Europe would be a real political victory and a breakout from the regime’s isolation.

True, there are two problems for Syria in the deal but each of them are sort of exceptions that prove the rule.

First, Syrian companies would face increasing competition from EU imports. This proves, however, that the argument about Syria or Iran making nice with the West in exchange for economic openings is not at all necessarily true. Moreover, the more Western investment and interaction there is the weaker the regime’s hold over its own society.

Second, in order to qualify for the deal, Syria has to drop subsidies and alter its tax structure. These changes didn’t hurt the elite but the majority suffered under rising prices. This shows not only how the dictatorship protects its own but that the EU efforts actually hurt average Syrians rather than helped them.

For more details see here and here.

The bottom line is that the West trades off advantages in exchange for little or nothing in the belief that it will moderate extremists. The radicals won’t give an inch, grabbing the benefits and refusing anything in return. If extremist behavior is met with Western concessions, this enforces radicalism rather than encourages moderation: the exact opposite of the policy’s stated intention.

This reminds me of an old psychiatrist’s joke:

“Hit me,” says the masochist.

“No,” responds the sadist.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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