Watching Syrians get slaughtered by their own rulers and hearing the outraged statements from European leaders about Syrian atrocities one would think that Syria had it coming. After all, a regime cannot send tanks and helicopter gunships to raze its own cities to the ground and expect Europe's elected politicians to turn a blind eye. In fact, much of the European self-righteousness on Syria is a welcome, but late, departure from a decade of efforts to engage Bashar al-Assad's murderous regime.
Syria is the only Mediterranean country not to have an Association Agreement with the European Union. You could be excused if you thought that this dubious privilege was the result of Syria's decades-long flirtation with Iran and its terrorist proxies, Hamas and Hizbollah; its meddling in the internal affairs of Lebanon; its role in the 2005 assassination of the Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri; and its human rights record, which was abysmal enough even before Bashar al-Assad ordered his security forces to massacre many thousands of civilians to stem the tide of the Arab spring.
You would be wrong. According to the European External Action Service website: "In October 2009, the EU Member States unanimously agreed that they wish to sign the EU-Syria Association Agreement. The Syrian authorities replied to the EU Council's invitation to sign with a request for time to further examine the Agreement." The EU should thank the Syrian authorities, then, for having spared it a significant embarrassment.
Had it been left to Brussels, engagement would have gone much further — as attested by the hundreds of millions of euros Europe has poured into the Syrian economy through a multiplicity of "soft-power" channels. Between 2000 and 2009, for example, the European Investment Bank granted the Syrian government more than €1.4 billion in long-term loans.
To be fair, the Association Agreement, which the EU initialled in 2004, did encounter some resistance. Still, engaging Syria was always flavour of the month because, as then EU Commissioner for External Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, told the European Parliament in October 2006: "It is not by cutting off contacts that we will achieve much progress. With no dialogue, we have no influence." The European Commission was reluctant but not totally averse to signing off the agreement. The European Parliament was keen. A recommendation to conclude the Association Agreement signed by Belgian Socialist Véronique De Keyser noted: "Syria is currently in a period of transition which may lead it towards a social market economy, a more democratic political regime and greater respect for human rights... The future Association Agreement and the strengthening of relations between the European Union and Syria in permanent mutual respect may enable this development to be sustained." As blood flows inside Syria, one can only speculate how much European engagement enabled "this development to be sustained".
Never mind that the writing was on the wall all along. The European Parliament embraced De Keyser's recommendations and even requested "the [EU] Council to consider additional incentives and benefits for Syria, going beyond those granted through the Association Agreement, in order to encourage Syria to review its current foreign policy and regional alignment in ways that will help promote regional peace, stability and prosperity and, in particular, recognition of the State of Israel's right to exist and support by Syria for progress in the Middle East peace process."
This enthusiasm for giving Syria benefits, perks, honours and hall passes was not limited to the vapid and largely ineffectual European Parliament. Bashar al-Assad was a guest of honour of French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the ill-fated launch of the Mediterranean Union in Paris in July 2008. Former Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero visited Damascus in October 2009, where he announced: "No one can ignore the reality that Syria is a regional power and an active state that should be taken into consideration." Had it not been for the rivers of blood now drowning Syria at the behest of its regime, the honeymoon with the Damascus tyrant would still be continuing.
Europe has travelled a long way since then from the delusional notion that by engaging Syria its rulers would somehow become gentler and open to domestic reforms. To their credit, in the year since the uprising began European leaders have placed crippling sanctions on the Syrian regime. It is not at all clear, though, that the moral clarity which eluded them for so long has now convinced them of the futility of engaging with dictators. It should have done — and it is not too late to turn around and admit how wrong they were.