Syria, Iraq sign agreement for free trade zone
Damascus and Baghdad signed a free trade agreement Wednesday in a move that is more symbolic than practical in the short term but should later allow the Iraqi economy some respite from the international embargo.
The "accord protocol" was signed by Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Mustapha Miro and Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan at the end of the latter's three-day visit.
Ramadan said during the signing ceremony that the agreement has to wait "for the administrative formalities to be defined" for it to be put into practice, without specifying how long that will take. He presented the accord as "an essential step on the road to Arab economic unity and the setting up of an Arab common market."
Miro said it represents "a serious move for cooperation" allowing the Arabs "to face the challenges of globalization and from the giant economic blocs."
The Syrian prime minister called for "the setting up of joint enterprises and the strengthening of cooperation between investors and businessmen" from the two countries. The deal will eventually enable their products to move freely across their common border without customs duties or import licenses.
Bilateral trade is currently worth $500 million, and is nearly all one-way —from Syria to Iraq.
The President of the Syrian Union of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Rateb Shallah, told AFP that the agreement will not have an immediate impact on bilateral trade. He said that Syrian exports are controlled by the United Nations "oil for food" program, which only allows essential items into sanctions-hit Iraq.
He said that under that program Syria is selling Iraq food and clothing, while it imports virtually nothing from Iraq. "The deal is limited but we hope that it will have an effect later," he added.
Ramadan's visit should provide the basis for better cooperation with Syrian companies, some of which he saw during his stay.
Separately in Baghdad, an Iraqi official announced Wednesday that Iraq and Syria have reached agreement on the use of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and have called for Turkey to take part in their water-sharing negotiations.
The official said the irrigation ministers of Iraq and Syria, Mahmud Diab Al-Ahmad and Taha Atrash respectively, signed the agreement in the Iraqi capital on Tuesday.
The accord covers "a formula for sharing the waters of the Euphrates between Iraq, Syria and Turkey and an agreement to draw up a formula on sharing the Tigris waters between Iraq and Syria," he said.
The two-way agreement would serve as "a basis for discussions with Turkey to reach a definitive accord on sharing the waters" of the two rivers, the official told AFP.
On Tuesday, Syrian Economics and Foreign Trade Minister Mohammad Imadi spoke of a "desire" by Iraq to import Syrian-made products on a large scale, and even to take on the total production of some companies.
Syria and Iraq also believe that the free trade agreement could pave the way for a common market allowing free movement of capital and labor.
The deal is similar to the one Iraq signed with Egypt January 18. Baghdad is also planning a free trade agreement with Jordan. These agreements are presented in Baghdad as another step towards wearing down the United Nations embargo on Iraq imposed after its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.
Syria and Iraq are ruled by rival factions of the Pan-Arab Baath party, and started to move closer together in 1997. They had cut off diplomatic ties in 1980, when Damascus sided with Tehran at the start of the Iran-Iraq war. — (AFP, Damascus)
by Roueida Mabardi
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)