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EU, Syria Look To Boost Relations

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad urged Europe on Monday to play a more active role in the Middle East peace process, as a top EU official said during a visit to Damascus that a long-delayed partnership agreement with Syria could come to fruition in the coming months.
(AP Photo/Thierry Charlier)
Assad held talks Monday with EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner (at left), who also met Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, Vice Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah al-Dardari and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.

"The President asserted the importance of the European Union's role in helping the countries of the region in reaching solutions for the problems they are facing," an official told CBS News on condition of anonymity.

"There was an agreement of viewpoints on the necessity of lifting Israel's blockade on the Palestinian people in Gaza and opening all the crossing points to allow a good living for the people," said an official statement, carried by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.

Ferrero-Waldner commended Syria's "positive and vital" role in the Middle East, according to the statement.

Her two-day visit to Syria, the first by an EU Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy, was meant to discuss how to the relationship between the European bloc and Syria could be boosted, according to Western diplomats.

"This is an extremely essential visit. I am so relieved over the efforts exerted from both sides for signing the partnership agreement, which would take place in the near future, maybe in the coming few months," Ferrero-Waldner told reporters.

She said the agreement would be the right platform for the EU to develop closer ties with Syria and support its ongoing economic reforms. Progress on Syrian-European cooperation had been frozen for years due to political disputes.

Signing of the controversial pact, which the EU and Syria drew up in 2004, will put an end to five years of frosty relations that reached a low point with the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Elements inside Syria were widely suspected of playing a role in the killing, though the government has consistently denied any involvement.

The Association Agreement, which envisages European financial aid in return for Syria making further economic reforms, was revised and initialed by the European Commission and Damascus last December. The text of the agreement is now under consideration by the representatives of the 27 EU member states.

The EU currently has active Association Agreements with most non-member Mediterranean countries, but not with Syria or Libya. A deal with Libya is also being negotiated.

If signed, the agreement would be the latest in a series of cost-free diplomatic gains for Damascus as the country's leaders attempt to shed their pariah image in the region and rebuild relationships with the West.

Ferrero-Waldner praised Syria for its "constructive" role in the region on issues ranging from the establishment of diplomatic relations with Lebanon, the resumption of indirect peace talks with Israel, and Damascus' help in reaching a cease-fire in the recent Gaza war.

Syria and Israel held a series of indirect contacts through Turkish mediators last year aimed at preparing for a resumption of peace negotiations broken off in 2000. Damascus suspended the talks in December, judging that the "Israeli aggression" on Gaza had made their continuation impossible, but has since expressed readiness to renew them when a new Israeli government takes office in the wake of last week's general election.

The EU outreach comes in harmony with conciliatory moves from the U.S., where President Obama's administration has made a concerted break with George W. Bush's policy of isolating Damascus.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is to meet Assad next week in the Syrian capital, the latest in a series of U.S. congressional envoys to visit the country since Mr. Obama took office.

Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, has visited Syria twice before and has repeatedly called for the U.S. to send a new ambassador to Damascus. The Bush administration recalled America's ambassador after the assassination of Hariri.

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