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EU still important for Syria, Assad says

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sought to ease tension with the European Union on Thursday after an economic and political deal between the two sides faltered.

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Diplomats in Damascus said the Syrian government has indefinitely postponed signing the deal, known as the association agreement, which was due to be signed in Brussels next week and took almost 7 years of protracted negotiations.

“As long as Europe is interested in peace, which is my priority, I have to have cooperation with Europe, whether it is the European Union or certain other (European) countries,” Assad said after a meeting with Finland’s President Tarja Halonen.

The deal has a political side, calling for respect for human rights and allowing the issue to be raised in bilateral talks as Syrian authorities intensify a campaign of arrests against dissidents and independent figures opposed to the Baath Party, which has ruled Syria since taking power in a 1963 coup.

Syrian officials have not publicly commented on the reasons for not signing the deal, beyond saying that they needed more time to study the agreement, although the draft text was finalised and initialled in a ceremony in Damascus last December.

Assad did not mention the association agreement directly. He said a drive by Syria to strengthen relations with its northern neighbour Turkey in the last several years would not come at the expense of Europe.

“It is self evident that you have to start with your region, but this does not mean that you substitute it with the rest of the world. Europe is our neighbour with more communication means that there is no longer a distant area.”

The agreement qualifies Syria for more aid from the European Union, beyond the 500 million euros (452.2 million pounds) it has received since 1979, and opens the Syrian market further to European goods.

Syria’s trade deficit hit a record of $4 billion (2.4 billion pounds) last year, partly due to more imports from Turkey, which mediated peace talks between Syria and Israel that were suspended last year.

HUMAN RIGHTS DIMENSION

The agreement encountered opposition from the Netherlands, which voiced concerns about Syria’s human rights record and its the rising number of political prisoners. Other European countries argued that it would strengthen the hand of what they termed as reformers within the Syrian government.

Deputy Prime Minister Abdallah al-Dardari, a proponent of economic reform close to Assad, had spearheaded Syria’s efforts to sign the agreement.

The decision ultimately rests with Assad, who has steered Syria out of Western isolation in the past two years and is seeking better ties with the United States and peace with Israel based on the return of the occupied Golan Heights, despite a long standing alliance with Iran.

The diplomats said the agreement would qualify Syria for more economic assistance. But it would also require the two sides to agree on an action plan that several European countries were keen to include human rights, especially after Syrian authorities arrested 78-year-old dissident Haitham Maleh last week.

Maleh is one of the last outspoken critics of the political system inside Syria and winner of the Dutch Geuzen medal in 2006 for his advocacy of freedom and democracy.

Assad has repeatedly said that Syrian dissidents are dealt with fairly by the judiciary and made it clear that his priority was to “maintain national cohesion” in face of what he described as external challenges.

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