German Foreign Minister Fischer focused on economic ties between Syria and the EU as well as concerns over human rights and weapons of mass destruction in Syria during a visit to Damascus Saturday.
Fischer, left, with Syrian counterpart Farouk al-Sharaa
As part of an ongoing five-day, five-nation tour of the Middle East focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on economic and political modernization of the region, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on Saturday.
Topping the agenda were economic partnership talks that were started in 1998 between the EU and the Syria. Fischer, who arrived in Damascus from Lebanon, indicated the two sides had smoothed over the sticking points in the dialogue and were close to finding common ground.
"The agreement is important for Syria to develop its relations with its European partners," Fischer said at a joint press conference with Syrian counterpart Farouk al-Sharaa. "There is a great opportunity (to sign the agreement) for both Syrians and Europeans," Fischer said.
Fischer: WMD clause has to be respected
At the same time, Fischer stressed that Damascus had to agree to renouncing weapons of mass destruction -- a demand that Syria rejected last year -- before an agreement promoting bilateral trade could be sealed.
"We have an interest in finalizing the Association Agreement, but for us it is crucial that the clause about weapons of mass destruction will also be accepted," Fischer told reporters after meeting with al-Sharaa.
Last December, the EU Commission negotiated a treaty text with Syria governing economic relations, but it was slammed by Holland, Denmark, Great Britain and Germany for falling short of an EU commitment to make the fight against weapons of mass destruction a key plank of ties with third countries.
However diplomats say that Syria has since changed its position over WMD after it was hit by sanctions imposed by the US in May for Damascus' support for anti-Israeli groups. Syria also stands accused of doing too little to secure its border with Iraq and for an alleged pursuit of unconventional weapons.
"A great opportunity for Syria"
The agreement negotiations are being conducted with the framework of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnerships set up at the Barcelona conference in 1995 between the then 15 EU members and 12 Mediterranean partners. The main aim is to promote prosperity and stability in the Mediterranean region.
The EU believes that including Syria in bilateral relations would promote economic and political reform as well as human rights in the country and prevent if from further isolation. Syria is in need of western funds to modernize its infrastructure and stimulate its economy.
Syrian President Bashar Assad meets German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in Damascus on Saturday.
On Saturday, Fischer emphasized that the EU clause on Syria's renunciation of WMD would not be diluted, contradicting a statement by Syrian counterpart al-Sharaa in July that the EU was reconsidering the controversial clause, which he called an Israeli demand.
"It is for the European Union important to reach an agreement about this clause, not to water down this clause," Fischer said. "I think it is a great opportunity and this opportunity should be used by our counterparts here in Syria," Fischer added.
"Problems with human rights"
At the same time, the German foreign minister mentioned "problems with human rights", an issue which has been underlined repeatedly by human rights groups around the world.
"We have an interest in the opening of Syrian society, the economy. We see problems, bureaucratic problems. We see problems with respect to human rights," Fischer said, adding that Europe hoped for significant improvement in the area.
Calling the talks with Syrian leaders "open and constructive", Fischer also said Syria could play "a constructive role through supporting efforts to move forward towards peace and for the Israelis to withdraw from Gaza Strip."
Europe wants to play a constructive role in ending the Middle East conflict, he said, "not only because we want to be helpful to you, but also (because) these conflicts are related in one way or another to Europe's security."
Fischer heads to Jordan on Sunday.