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Feb 13, 2003 | 17:54 GMT

2 mins read

French Focus on Iraqi Smuggling Might Strain Ties With Syria

A Franco-German proposal to be presented Feb. 14 to the U.N. Security Council will in part seek an agreement with Iraq's neighbors to crack down on smuggled exports of Iraqi oil. The fact that Paris is very publicly making an issue of Iraqi smuggling might indicate a sharp deterioration in French-Syrian relations. Syria is both an historical French ally and the primary beneficiary of smuggled Iraqi oil. It currently smuggles up to 200,000 barrels per day of discounted Iraqi oil via a pipeline from Hadithah to a refinery in Baniyas on the Mediterranean. The Syrian transit route currently is the only major artery for smuggled Iraqi oil, since roads into Turkey and the waterway in the Persian Gulf are being patrolled by coalition forces. France's public call to curtail Iraqi smuggling — thereby significantly harming Syrian economic interests — likely was caused by Damascus' tacit cooperation with U.S. war preparations against Iraq. When it became obvious that opposition to a war was largely futile, Syria reversed its initial position in November and surprisingly voted in favor of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, which called for Iraq to disarm or face military consequences. Shortly afterward, Syrian President Bashar al Assad met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Defense Minister Geoff Hoon and was even received by the royal family. And according to Syrian diplomatic sources, Damascus has agreed to assist the United States in a U.N.-backed war by permitting use of its airspace and shutting down its border with Iraq. Syria primarily wishes to avoid becoming Washington's next target after the war, but it also hopes to maintain its cheap supply of Iraqi oil. The United States for its part has been very quiet on the smuggling issue. Much to Paris' chagrin, the U.S.-led alliance against Iraq has chipped away at one of Frances' major spheres of influence in the Middle East. Assad held a telephone conversation with French President Jacques Chirac on Feb. 12, in which the two talked about the Iraqi crisis and the Franco-German initiative, according to the official Syrian news agency SANA. But any support Paris hopes to get from Damascus will be symbolic at best.

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