News > EuroMeSCo Quarterly Seminar - "Capitalising on Euro-Syrian Relations: From Tensions to Cooperation"
EuroMeSCo Quarterly Seminar - "Capitalising on Euro-Syrian Relations: From Tensions to Cooperation"
City of Old DamascusA Quarterly Seminar was held, for the first time ever, in Damascus, on 15-17 May 2008. Addressing the current state of Euro-Syrian relations, it focused on Europe’s policy perspective on the Mediterranean, the regional challenges defining relations with Syria and the cultural impact of globalisation.

This meeting was jointly organised by the EuroMeSCo Secretariat, Lisbon, the Istituto Affari Internazionali, Rome, and the Orient Centre for International Studies, Damascus, with the additional support of the Stiftung Wissenshaft und Politik, Berlin, and the Foreign Policy Institute, Ankara.

To read a report by the EC's Delegation to Syria on this seminar, please click here.

To read a Carnegie Middle East Center article on this seminar, please click here.

Starting from the premise that relations between the European Union and Syria are not as fruitful as they potentially could be, the seminar on “Capitalizing on Euro-Syrian Relations: From Tensions to Cooperation” aimed to outline perspectives for a closer cooperation between the EU and Syria.


The seminar was divided into three sessions, each of which commenced with two presentations, followed by an open discussion. Introductory remarks were delivered by Samir Al Taqi, Director of Ocis, and Roberto Aliboni, IAI’s Vice-President.

During the first session, European Union, Syria and the Mediterranean, participants debated the main features of relations between the EU and Syria. The session opened with presentations by:
• Roberto Aliboni, Vice-President, IAI;
• Marwan Qabalana, Professor of Political Science, Damascus University, Head of the American file, Ocis.
In the following session, Regional Challenges and their Impact on EU-Syrian Relations, discussion focused on the regional environment’s current state, particularly as regards the security dimension and its impact on EU-Syrian relations. This session kicked-off with presentations by:
• Muriel Asseburg, Head of Middle East and Africa division, SWP;
• Samir Al Taqi, Director, Ocis.
In the third and final session, Globalization and Culture, a wide range of issues were discussed, including the cultural relations between Western countries and the Middle East, religion and secularism in Europe and Syria, as well as globalization. Opening presentations were delivered by:
• Ioannis Grigoriadis, Research Fellow, Eliamep, and Lecturer, University of London;
• Samer Ladkany, Head of the European file, Ocis.


Vast room for development in EU-Syria relations
Relations between the EU and Syria are currently underdeveloped. As was pointed out by a participant, Syria and Europe have long-standing cultural ties – ideas such as nationalism or secularism, for example, were first transmitted to Syria by the Europeans. Economic ties are also strong, with the EU being Syria’s most significant trading partner. At the political level, however, cooperation is not as strong. It was agreed that the failure to ratify an Association Agreement (AA) between the two parties was a main reason for this. A participant underlined that certain requirements stipulated by the EU for the signature and ratification of the Agreement are seen by Syria as meddling with its internal affairs. The request to renounce chemical armaments, for instance, would shift the regional balance of power in favour of Israel, which is unacceptable for Syria.
Some believed that Syria is also to blame for the bad shape of EU-Syrian relations. The Barcelona declaration contains explicit recommendations on Lebanon and on weapons of mass destruction, which Syria, as a signatory to the agreement, should comply with rather than accusing the EU of meddling in its internal affairs. Moreover, Syrian resistance to the AA might be due to the fact that the associated liberalization of the economy would probably damage sectors of their national economy.
A participant noted that the failure to ratify the AA is actually against the interests of both the EU and Syria, since freezing economic links for political reasons has often proven counterproductive. It was also added that the EU should intensify its effort to engage Syria, especially given that Syria’s underdevelopment represents a security problem for the EU, as well as for Syria itself. Another participant affirmed that the EU only seems interested in economic links, and subsequently, is not sufficiently engaged in stimulating the region’s political and social development. Middle Eastern countries should therefore assume a more independent stance vis-à-vis Europe and seek to establish stronger relations with other major foreign powers such as China, India or Russia. 

The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership could be redesigned
One participant noted that the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) encompasses and caters for a group of countries that are culturally very different from one another, each with its own specific problems and issues to tackle. This diversity makes it very difficult to cater for all and simultaneously engage each partner within the regional dimension of the EMP. As such, a bilateral approach would probably be more productive. On the other hand, it was retorted, a bilateral approach could prove detrimental to the Barcelona Process as a whole. Another criticism levelled at the EMP, underlined the Partnership’s hierarchical form of organization and its operation on the basis of cultural stereotypes. This character was considered damaging to the EMP’s success, given the discouragement it breeds amongst Arab leaders.
Participants agreed that the EMP has to be made more effective. In order to achieve this, it was suggested that efforts be directed towards conflict resolution, seeing as regional conflicts hamper the development of better relations between the EU and Mediterranean countries. The EU, it was said, could also adopt a more comprehensive approach that reaches beyond the Mediterranean. Such new policies could, a participant observed, be elaborated within the framework of the EU’s new Security Strategy.


The regional context is blocked
The Middle East is, at the moment, heavily destabilized. Major crises in the region demand urgent response. Participants concurred that the Iraqi conflict has had an extremely negative impact throughout the region. It has stimulated social polarization, weakened the democratic structure in neighbouring states, fuelled emerging fundamentalism, and created large numbers of refugees. The Iraqi conflict, along with the Arab-Israeli one, are the most important in the region, particularly since they reinforce the notion of a clash of civilizations.
Moreover, it was agreed that the region lacks established mechanisms of political cooperation and coordination, and that regional politics are determined by the balance of power. Given the present state of insecurity and instability, the chances of building a coherent regional security system are very slim. For these reasons, participants felt that the engagement of foreign powers, particularly of the EU, is needed to solve the different regional problems in evidence. Furthermore, other external actors, such as Russia, stand to play a positive role. It was however observed that the powers within the region remain the main players, and thus that they are the ones who must assume the final responsibility.

Syria can and should be engaged
Syria is currently facing a number of key challenges. These include accelerating internal economic reforms, striking a peace deal with Israel, avoiding international isolation, diminishing the impact of the international tribunal’s decision concerning the Hariri assassination, and managing the negative consequences of the Iraq war.
The US adopted a policy of isolation towards Syria due to their disagreements about Iraq and Syria’s close relationship with Iran. Isolating Syria has nonetheless proved detrimental to the peace process and, as was underlined by a participant, has brought no positive results. Syria will seek to overcome western isolation but not at any cost, seeing as the regime’s legitimacy resides primarily in its foreign policy. What western powers should do, it was argued, is engage Syria in a permanent dialogue, without imposing any preconditions and without expecting short-term gains. Western powers, in fact, have a concrete interest in stabilizing Syria.

The EU needs to adopt a more solid, cooperative approach in the region
It was generally recognized that the EU is at the moment unable to exercise a strong role in the Middle East. A participant even characterized European policy in the region as “non-existent”. Many felt that EU action in the Middle East is subjugated by US policy in the region. It was added that politically the EU restricts itself by following the US’ divisive approach, yet Europe continues to cooperate economically and provide aid, which seems a somewhat contradictory approach. It was noted that even in the Annapolis conference the EU took a backseat and let the US lead the conference.
It was deemed that Europe should provide a fresh, alternative approach to the region. There was agreement, in fact, that the current US approach based on the isolation of regional players such as Syria and Hamas has failed. The American engagement in the Middle East, it was said, lacks strategic vision. Another participant added that stronger EU involvement in the region would be welcome by Syria, which sees the EU as a potential counterweight to US hegemony. At the minimum, the EU could pressurise the US to adopt a more cooperative and inclusive approach instead of the divisive strategy it currently favours. It was however remarked that the EU will not be able to influence the United States in a significant way, given that the US evaluates all regional conflicts within the framework of its own confrontation with Iran. Finally, a participant said that the EU should strive to balance its normative policies with a geopolitical approach.


Europe will have to make more of an effort to integrate Muslim minorities
Given the numbers of European Muslims and Muslim immigrants to Europe, Europe, a participant affirmed, is an increasingly Mediterranean entity. All believe that European countries should make a wholehearted effort to integrate Muslim minorities. In order to do this, European governments will have to balance respect for cultural diversity with concerns regarding social cohesion, seek to accommodate for these cultural differences, and also recognize Islam’s pluralism.

Negative stereotypes about Arabs are still widespread
Negative stereotypes about Arabs remain dangerously widespread in the Western world, influencing the very same policymakers who should be aiming to cooperate with their Arab counterparts, a situation with serious negative political consequences. It was argued that negative cultural stereotypes such as these are consciously generated to legitimize interference in other countries’ affairs – a conclusion dismissed by other participants, who stated that the construction of stereotypes is a natural process, which originally served the purpose of instilling suspicion to protect primitive men from any potential enemies. Today, stereotypes are often culturally entrenched, but can be fought with improved knowledge.
The typical image of Arabs in the Western world was predominantly positive before 1948, a participant observed. Today, this same image is largely negative, often associated with terrorism, war, and dictatorships. It would be possible to shift these stereotypes once again, even if only by paying closer attention to the way we express ourselves in order to avoid oversimplifications, which often rely on stereotypes.

Europe and Arab countries should cooperate to fight religious and cultural fundamentalism
The experience of moderate, European religious parties, such as the Italian and German Christian Democracy, could prove a useful example for Arab moderate Muslim parties. The same could be said of the Turkish AKP Party. On the other hand, Arab countries could help Europe counter the spread of fundamentalist versions of Islam. For example, it was proposed that Syria encourage moderate Syrian Imams to influence their European counterparts, especially since the expression of Islam predominant in Syria has a more pragmatic and moderate character.


Oktay Aksoy
, Ambassador; Senior Researcher, Foreign Policy Institute, Bilkent University, Ankara.
Samir Altaqi, Director, Orient Centre for International Studies, Damascus.
Roberto Aliboni, Vice-President, Istituto Affari Internazionali, Rome.
Muriel Asseburg, Head of Middle East and Africa Division, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Berlin.
Ioannis Grigoriadis, Research Fellow, Eliamep, Athens; Lecturer, University of London.
Samer Ladkany, Head of the European file, Orient Centre for International Studies, Damascus.
Sami Moubaid, Professor, alQalmoon University, Damascus.
Marwan Qabalan, Professor, Damascus University, Head of the American file, Orient Centre for International Studies, Damascus.
Elias Samoo, Senior Research Fellow, Orient Centre for International Studies, Damascus.
Ziad Arbash, Senior Research Fellow, Orient Centre for International Studies, Damascus.
Hala Barbara, Head of International Law file, Orient Centre for International Studies, Damascus.
Tahseen Halabee, Senior Research Fellow, Orient Centre for International Studies, Damascus.
Taleb Ibrahim, Senior Research Fellow, Orient Centre for International Studies, Damascus.
Gonçalo Santa Clara Gomes, Ambassador; Senior Project Manager, EuroMeSCo Secretariat, Lisbon.
Tobias Schumacher, Deputy Project Manager, EuroMeSCo Secretariat, Lisbon.
Hani Khouri, Senior Research Fellow, Orient Centre for International Studies, Damascus.
Maria Alkaial, Executive Researcher, Orient Centre for International Studies, Damascus.
Maysaa Ismael, Executive Research Fellow, Orient Centre for International Studies, Damascus.

Rapporteur: Valerio Briani, Research Assistant, Istituto Affari Internazionali, Rome.