Order Code RL33487
Syria: U.S. Relations and Bilateral Issues
April 13, 2007
Jeremy M. Sharp and Alfred B. Prados
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Syria: U.S. Relations and Bilateral Issues
An array of bilateral issues continues to affect relations between the United
States and Syria: the course of Arab-Israeli talks; questions of arms proliferation;
Syrian connections with terrorist activity; Syria’s role in Lebanon; and Syria’s
opposition to the U.S. occupation in Iraq. A variety of U.S. legislative provisions and
executive directives prohibit direct aid to Syria and restrict bilateral trade relations
between the two countries, largely because of Syria’s designation by the U.S. State
Department as a sponsor of international terrorism. Syria has reportedly cooperated
with the United States in investigating Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization in
the aftermath of the September 11 attacks but has been unwilling to sever
connections with some other terrorist organizations. Also, after Operation Iraqi
Freedom began in March 2003, senior U.S. officials warned Syria to stop permitting
transit of military supplies and volunteer fighters through Syria to Iraq. Syria has
denied these allegations and cited measures it has taken to tighten its borders.
The assassination on February 14, 2005, of former Lebanese Prime Minister
Rafiq Hariri, who had become a vocal critic of Syria’s military force presence in
Lebanon, drew widespread suspicions of Syrian involvement among some Lebanese
and within the international community. The initial report of a U.N. Commission on
October 19, 2005, stated “there is converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and
Syrian involvement” in the Hariri assassination. Investigation by the Commission
continues. Meanwhile, under increasing domestic and international pressure, Syria
withdrew its forces from Lebanon in April 2005 in accordance with U.N. Security
Council Resolution 1559.
On December 12, 2003, President Bush signed the Syria Accountability Act,
H.R. 1828, as P.L. 108-175, which imposed additional economic sanctions against
Syria. The Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, FY2006, signed by the President
as P.L. 109-102, on November 14, 2005, repeats previous bans on U.S. aid to Syria
but contains a provision authorizing at least $6,550,000 for programs to support
democracy in Syria and Iran.
Since the summer 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, U.S. officials have increased their
criticism of Syria’s political and logistical support for Hezbollah. U.S. officials and
Members of Congress have blamed Syria for acting as a conduit for the transfer of
rockets and other arms to Hezbollah units, thereby enabling Hezbollah units to
engage in military action against Israeli targets. After the passage of U.N. Security
Council Resolution 1701, which called for cessation of hostilities and other measures
to bring about peace in the region, the leaders of Syria and Iran claimed a victory,
maintaining that their protégé, Hezbollah, had compelled Israel to accept a partial
withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
In December 2006, the Iraq Study Group (ISG) Report recommended that the
United States engage Syria in a regional dialogue on the situation in Iraq in order to
avert further sectarian strife and regional war. The ISG also called for a resumption
in the Arab-Israeli peace process and recommended that such a process involve all
parties including Syria.
Internal Political Scene . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
The Asad Regime . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Pillars of the Regime . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
The Alawite Sect . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
The Ba’th Party . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
The Military and Security Establishment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
Other Support Groups . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
The Syrian Opposition . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Syrian Dissidents, Exiles, and Defectors Abroad . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Domestic Challenges . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Syria’s Stagnant Economy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
A Future Without Oil? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Economic Reform . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
Sectarian and Ethnic Divisions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
The Status of Kurds in Syria . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Syrian-U.S. Bilateral Issues . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Syria and Its Role in Lebanon . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Syria and the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
The Hariri Investigation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
An International Tribunal? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
Relations with Iraq . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
Evolving Syrian Policies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
Syrian Perspectives and Demographic Concerns . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Economic Factors . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
Syrian Policy Responses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
Relations with Iran . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Arms Proliferation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Chemical and Biological . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Nuclear . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
Missiles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
Russian Arms Sales to Syria . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
Terrorist Activity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Attack on U.S. Embassy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
The Israeli-Syrian Track . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
Syrian Overtures? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
U.S. Policy Toward Syria . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
Syria’s Diplomatic Isolation? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
U.S. Sanctions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
General Sanctions Applicable to Syria . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
Specific Sanctions Against Syria . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
Congressional Action . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
Foreign Operations Appropriations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
The Syria Accountability Act . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
Syria: U.S. Relations and Bilateral Issues
Internal Political Scene
The Asad Regime
The death of Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad on June 10, 2000, removed one of
the longest serving heads of state in the Middle East and a key figure in regional
affairs. The late President Asad, a former air force commander and minister of
defense, came to power in a bloodless coup in November 1970 and was elected to
repetitive seven-year terms thereafter by referendum, most recently in 1999.
Hardworking, ascetic, and usually cautious, the late President exercised uncontested
authority through his personal prestige, his control of the armed forces and other
centers of power, and his success in exploiting regional developments to Syria’s
advantage. Although maintaining that he had inaugurated a Syrian version of
perestroika through political reforms and approval of a nominal (and severely
restricted) multi-party system, the elder Asad seems to have done little to open up
what remained an authoritarian regime.
President Bashar al -Asad, who succeeded his father in 2000 in a smooth transfer
of power, has pursued some economic reforms, but many observers believe he
remains less capable than his father and circumscribed by other power elites who
have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. An ophthalmologist who had
held the rank of colonel in the Syrian Army, Bashar had no government position at
the time of his father’s death. The new president initially permitted somewhat freer
discussion of political issues; however, starting in 2001, probably under conservative
pressure, the government curtailed opposition activities. Observers have described
President Bashar al -Asad’s modernization programs as akin to the Chinese model,
with emphasis on economic reform while retaining one-party rule.
Key Members of the Asad Family
Bashar al -Asad - The 41-year old President of Syria and married to Asma’ al -Akhras, a
British-born Syrian Sunni Muslim and formerly an investment banker at J.P. Morgan.
Maher al -Asad - The younger brother of Bashar, he heads the Presidential Guard and other
Bushra al -Asad & Assef Shawkat - Bushra is the older sister of Bashar, and she is rumored to
be a key decision-maker. Her husband, Assef Shawkat, is head of military intelligence and part
of the President’s inner circle .
Pillars of the Regime
The Alawite Sect. The Alawite religious sect, which evolved from the Shi’ite
sect of Islam, constitutes approximately 12% of the Syrian population. Formerly the
most economically deprived and socially disadvantaged group in Syria, the Alawites
rose rapidly in the ranks of the military establishment and the ruling Ba’th Party in
the 1960s and have dominated political life in Syria since then. The Alawite
community as a whole, and the Asad family in particular, constituted an important
power base for the late President Hafiz al -Asad and at least for the time being have
rallied behind his son and successor. Though committed to maintaining the primacy
of the Alawite community, the Asads have sought with some success to coopt
support from other sects; many senior positions, including that of prime minister, are
ordinarily held by members of the Sunni Muslim majority. However, most key
positions, particularly in the security institutions, remain in Alawite hands, and some
observers believe that any weakening of the central regime or an outbreak of political
turmoil could precipitate a power struggle between entrenched Alawites and the
majority Sunni Muslims, who comprise over 70% of the population. Others see the
possibility of a split within the Alawite community itself, possibly over succession
issues. 1 In the past, sectarian cohesiveness has been sufficient to avoid a major split
within the Alawite leadership.
The Ba’th Party. The socialist, pan-Arab Ba’th Party, whose rival wing
governed Iraq before the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, came to power in
Syria in 1963. Although the Syrian Constitution specifies a leading role for the Ba’th
Party and the party provides the regime with political legitimacy, the Ba’th is more
an instrument for the execution of policy than an originator of policy. Many Ba’thists
are not Alawites, but there is a complex synergistic relationship between the party
and the community, and one commentator, writing some years ago, went so far as to
say that “it is not, in any real sense, the Ba’thists who run this country. It is the
Alawites....” 2 Another commentator describes the system as “Alawi-dominated
Ba’thist rule.” 3
Still, barring a major governmental change, a Syrian leader would need to enjoy
the support of the Ba’th Party apparatus. The party’s top decision-making body,
known as the “Regional Command,” sits at the top of Syria’s policy-making process,
and membership in this body is a stepping stone to top positions in Syria. In June
2000, when senior Syrian officials were orchestrating the succession of Bashar alAsad to the presidency after the death of his father, one of their first steps was to
arrange for Bashar to be elected Secretary General of the Regional Command,
A power struggle involving both the Asad family and senior officers from other Alawite
families took place in the early 1980s. Van Dam, Nikolaos, The Struggle for Power in
Syria. New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1996. pp. 118-135. Later, after the death of President
Hafiz al-Asad in 2000, there was brief concern that the late president’s exiled brother might
seek the presidency; however, this did not materialize.
David Hirst, The Guardian, June 26, 1979.
Van Dam, p. 100.
replacing his late father. Other vacancies were filled by officials supportive of the
The Military and Security Establishment. The role of the armed forces
and national security services has figured prominently in most Syrian regimes and
predates by some years the establishment of the Ba’thist regime. Factionalism within
the armed forces was a key cause of instability in Syria in the past, as military cliques
jockeyed for power and made and unmade governments with considerable frequency.
This situation changed abruptly after 1970 as the elder Asad gained a position of
unquestioned supremacy over the military and security forces. The late President
appointed long-standing supporters, particularly from his Alawite sect, to key
military command positions and sensitive intelligence posts, thereby creating a
military elite that could be relied upon to help maintain the Asad regime in power.
President Bashar al -Asad does not have the deep connections to the Syrian
armed forces that his father had. Upon the death of his older brother Basil, who had
been considered the heir apparent, Bashar returned from advanced medical studies
in London to Damascus in 1994 at the late President Asad’s request and held several
military positions, notably as commander of the Presidential Guards with the rank of
colonel. Upon his elevation to the Presidency, Bashar inherited a ready-made
politico-military apparatus that assured a smooth succession but also limited the new
President’s freedom of action, in the view of some commentators. Several key
officials, including Syria’s long-time minister of defense, have retired, as the
President has sought to put his own stamp on the government , but some observers
doubt that the “old guard” has yielded that much power. There appear to be
conflicting viewpoints as to whether “a new leadership is indeed emerging,” or
whether recent changes are “simply the natural erosion created by senior officers
reaching retirement age.”4
Other Support Groups
Although the preceding entities have long formed the mainstay of the Syrian
regime, there are other groups on which Syria’s leadership can rely to some degree
to broaden its support base. During his multi-term tenure, the late President Hafiz alAsad was able to garner support from various ethnic, sectarian, and socio-economic
groups not necessarily represented in his core constituency. Various motives
influenced members of such groups to support or acquiesce in the Asad regime.
Some welcomed the relative stability of the Asad regime after two decades of
instability and repetitive military coups. Others felt a sense of pride in Asad’s
consistently nationalist stands on regional issues. Secular-minded Syrians and
members of religious minority groups approved of his opposition to a theocratic state
and his measures to suppress the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. Still others
were overawed by pervasive and often heavy-handed police and security controls.
It appears that for the time being at least, the younger Asad has benefitted from these
sources of additional support that his late father was able to coopt. At the same time,
some observers have warned that discontent is growing as a result of the President’s
Michael Collins Dunn, “Changes to the Old Guard,” The Estimate, June 28, 2004.
“apparent inability to curb the excesses of the powerful and super-rich clique of
The Syrian Opposition
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Since the rise of political Islam as an
opposition vehicle in the Middle East decades ago, culminating in the 1979
overthrow of the Shah of Iran, U.S. policymakers have been concerned that secular
Arab dictatorships like Syria would face rising opposition from Islamist groups
seeking their overthrow. Although Syria faced violent challenges from such groups
during the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, the Syrian security state has by and large
succeeded in eliminating any organized Islamist opposition. Once considered the
most imminent threat to Syrian stability, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, formerly
the largest Islamist opposition group, 6 has been largely in exile since its crushing
defeat at the hands of the Asad regime in 1982, when Syrian forces attacked the
Brotherhood’s stronghold in the city of Hama and killed approximately 10,000
people. Since then, the government has attempted to coopt the forces of political
Islam by continuing to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood and keep its activists in
prison, while promoting Islam as a social force for national unification. 7 Over the
past twenty years, the Syrian government has financed the construction of new
mosques, aired more Islamic programming on state television, loosened restrictions
on public religious celebrations and weddings, and monitored the sermons of clerics,
many of whom are on the state’s payroll. At the same time, the Syrian government,
like other dictatorships in the region, has used the threat of “homegrown” Islamist
violence in order to justify one-party rule and has frequently exaggerated its threat
in order to bolster its own appeal to Western governments. Syria has received some
favorable attention for its reported cooperation with U.S. intelligence agencies in
detaining and tracking Al Qaeda operatives in the Middle East and in Europe,
although some U.S. officials have discounted these contributions.
Syrian Dissidents, Exiles, and Defectors Abroad. In March 2006,
former Syrian Vice-President Abd -al-Halim Khaddam and Sadr -al-Din al -Bayanuni,
the London-based leader of Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, formed The National
Salvation Front (NSF), a coalition of secular and Islamist opposition activists based
primarily outside of Syria. The NSF, which attempts to bridge the gap between
religious and secular Syrians, is non-sectarian though its membership appears to be
mostly Sunni. It has called for the peaceful removal of the Asad regime without
outside intervention, though some analysts doubt that the NSF will be able to make
inroads within Syrian society due to the regime’s effective security apparatus. In
2006, Syrian authorities prevented many dissidents from leaving Syria.
Nicholas Blanford, “As Reform Falters, Syrian Elite Tighten Grip,” The Christian Science
Monitor, Sept. 30, 2003, p. 6.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, an off-shoot of its larger Egyptian counterpart, has been
banned in Syria since 1958, and according to a 1980 law (Emergency Law #49), known
membership in the group is punishable by execution. See, Ghada Hashem Telhami, “Syria:
Islam, Arab Nationalism and the Military,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 8, Iss. 4; Dec. 2001.
See International Crisis Group (ICG), “Syria Under Bashar (II): Domestic Policy
Challenges, ICG Middle East Report #24, Feb. 2004.
Other Syrian expatriates in the West have started to take a more active role in
encouraging the United States and Europe to pressure the Syrian government. In
2003, a U.S.-based Syrian, Farid Ghadry, started the Reform Party of Syria (RPS),
an opposition party that is committed to seeing a “ New Syria,” which embraces real
democratic and economic reforms. 8 Some analysts believe that the Syrian exile
groups have little credibility inside Syria and have adopted the techniques of Iraqi
exile groups, such as the Iraqi National Congress.
Syria’s Stagnant Economy
Since the end of Soviet
Snapshot of the Syrian Economy
financial and military support for
Syria in the late 1980s, many
observers have questioned the
GDP Per Capita:
ability of the Syrian economy to
grow on its own and keep pace
with its rapidly rising population.
Syria’s economy is still
Source: World Bank
dominated by an inefficient
public sector, which employs
73% of the labor force but only
generates 33% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 9 With a bloated bureaucracy that
is slow to respond to commercial opportunities, Syria receives little foreign
investment and depends heavily on remittances from Syrians working abroad. Public
subsidies for oil and other basic commodities constitute a significant percentage of
GDP. Corruption is endemic, costing Syria an estimated $4 billion annually. 10 The
national budget devotes an estimated 40%-50% of government revenue to military
and intelligence spending, leaving little for infrastructure investment and education.
Some speculate that Syria faces a potential “day of reckoning,” when the government
may have to cope with an economy that can no longer keep pace with population
growth or depend on dwindling oil reserves for revenues.
A Future Without Oil? Syria’s largely state-controlled economy depends on
revenues from its domestic oil production, which accounts for an estimated 40%-50%
of state income and 60%-70% of Syrian exports. Syria has one of the smallest known
reserves of oil in the Middle East, and most energy experts believe that, barring
significant new discoveries, Syria will exhaust its oil reserves in the coming decades,
thereby depriving Syria’s largely state-based economy of badly needed revenues.
The International Monetary Fund forecasts that Syria will become a net importer of
For more information on the RPS, see their website at [http://reformsyria.org/].
Euro-Med Partnership, “Country Strategy Paper 2002-2006,” no date.
“Prospects 2004: Shifts Likely on Arab-Israeli Front,” Oxford Analytica, Dec. 22, 2003.
oil by 2010.11 Syria lost a valuable source of extra oil income when the United States
halted illegal shipments of Iraqi oil to Syria after the U.S. invasion in April 2003.12
Income from Syrian oil revenues is already on the decline, as Syrian population
growth has forced more oil to be allocated for domestic consumption rather than
international export.13 Syria’s natural gas industry is, for the moment, a more
promising source of government revenue, as several international companies have
made investments in gas field development and processing.
Economic Reform. President Asad has attempted to liberalize some sectors
of the Syrian economy, and in recent years, the banking industry has been partially
privatized, customs duties have been reduced, and foreign investment has increased,
particularly from Persian Gulf states. Nevertheless, the expansion of the Syrian
private sector may simply be a technique to enrich traditional members of the elite
who are looking to gain new footholds in certain industries.
Sectarian and Ethnic Divisions
As in several countries in the Middle
East, the Syrian population is divided along
both ethnic and religious sectarian lines. A
majority of Syrians, roughly 90% of the
population, are ethnic Arabs; however, the
country contains small ethnic minorities,
notably Kurds. Historically, Syrian Kurds
have been much more passive than their
fellow Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran;
however, some observers speculate that
Syrian Kurds are becoming more assertive
Religions in Syria
Source: U.S. State Dept.
“Syria’s Foreign Policies Impede Economic Progress, Dardari Says,” Bloomberg.com,
Oct. 17, 2006.
From 2000 - 2003, Iraq under Saddam Hussein had reportedly been providing Syria with
between 120,000- 200,000 barrels per day at discounted prices from a pipeline between the
northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk and the Syrian port of Banias. These deliveries were in
violation of U.N. sanctions against Iraq and allowed Syria to export more of its own oil for
sale on the international market. Over the past few years, Syrian oil production has
averaged around 415,000 barrels per day. Overall, some estimate that the 2003 Iraq war cost
Syria at least $2 billion a year, of which $1 billion came from reduced trade and the other
$1 billion from the lost illegal oil deliveries. See “Syrian Reforms Gain Momentum in
Wake of War,” Washington Post, May 12, 2003.
With no recent major discoveries of oil and natural gas, Syria hopes to attract investment
from foreign energy companies in order to acquire the technology required to extract more
oil and gas from existing sites. Due to U.S.-Syrian tensions and the prospect of additional
U.S.-imposed sanctions, most U.S. energy corporations have sold their assets in Syria.
Gulfsands Petroleum remains in Syria and owns a 50% working interest and is the operator
of Block 26 in North East Syria. In 2007, Gulfsands discovered new oil fields off the coast.
Marathon Oil Corporation maintains a minor stake in a natural gas production sharing
contract with Petro-Canada. Other foreign energy firms in Syria include Royal Dutch Shell,
Petro-Canada, India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corp. (ONGC), China National Petroleum Corp.
(CNPC), Total (France), and Stroitransgas (Russia).
and influenced by the advances made by their ethnic kin in neighboring countries.
Of more importance in Syria are religious sectarian divisions. In addition to the
majority Sunni Muslims, who comprise over 70% of the population, Syria contains
several religious sectarian minorities including three small sects related to Islam
(Alawites, Druze, and Ismailis) and several Christian denominations. Despite the
secular nature of the Ba’thist regime, religious sects are important in Syria as
symbols of group identity and determinants of political orientation. 14
The Status of Kurds in Syria. Since its independence in 1946, Syria has
defined itself as an Arab state, despite the presence of a large, ethnically distinct
Kurdish population in Damascus and in several non-contiguous areas along Syria’s
border with Turkey and Iraq. Syria’s Kurds are the largest distinct ethnic/linguistic
minority in Syria (7%-10% of total population), of which several hundred thousand
have been denied Syrian citizenship under a 1962 census that determined that some
Kurds were “alien infiltrators,” who illegally entered Syria from Turkey. 15 Syrian
Kurds inhabit agriculturally rich areas, which also contain several of Syria’s most
valuable oil and natural gas fields. In an attempt to curb Kurdish demands for greater
autonomy, successive Syrian governments since the 1950s have periodically arrested
Kurdish political leaders, confiscated some Kurdish land and redistributed it to
Syrian Arabs in an attempt to “Arabize” Kurdish regions, and bribed local Kurdish
tribal leaders in order to foster disunity among various Kurdish groups. 16
Syrian-U.S. Bilateral Issues
The United States and Syria have long had an uneasy relationship , and the JulyAugust 2006 fighting in Lebanon has had a further adverse effect on this relationship.
In recent years, Syria has been at the forefront of a number of important U.S. policy
issues in the Middle East, and the two sides have been at odds on such issues as the
Arab-Israeli conflict, the former Syrian occupation of Lebanon, the war on terror, and
U.S. allegations that Syria has failed to curb infiltration of foreign fighters across the
border into Iraq. Also, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and
Administration efforts to foster democracy in the Middle East region, U.S. officials
have spoken out against authoritarian regimes like Syria and promoted reform in the
“broader Middle East.” After the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese
There are several other very small ethnic minorities (Circassians, Turcomans, Armenians)
and a minuscule Jewish community; most Jews left Syria after the removal of travel
restrictions on them in the 1990s.
George, Allen. Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom, London: Zed Books Ltd, 2003. p. 5
Scholars note that Syrian Kurds, unlike Iraqi Kurds, have had greater difficulty in forging
a unified movement due to local feuds, geographic boundaries, divisions between urbanrural Kurds, and Syrian government policies to divide Syria’s Kurds. See Gary C. Gambill,
“The Kurdish Reawakening in Syria, Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, vol. 6, no. 4, Apr.
2004. Additionally, some observers caution that, although Syria’s Kurds face restrictions
against publishing in Kurdish, restrictions on citizenship and restrictions on property
ownership, overall, the plight of Syria’s Kurds does not drastically differ from the economic
hardship faced by many average Syrian Arabs. See Tish Durkin, “A Separate State for the
Kurds? Some Would Settle for Asphalt,”National Journal, vol. 34, no. 6, Nov. 16, 2002.
Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, widely blamed on Syrian agents, Secretary of State Rice
recalled U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey to Washington for consultations;
Ambassador Scobey has not returned and has reportedly been reassigned to Baghdad.
Currently, an array of U.S. legislative provisions and executive directives
prohibit direct aid to Syria and restrict bilateral trade between the two countries,
owing in great part to Syria’s designation by the U.S. State Department as a state
sponsor of international terrorism. The Syria Accountability Act of 2003 reinforces
existing bans on aid and restrictions on trade and contains some additional sanctions
(see below). At this time, Syria’s role in Lebanon is of particular concern to U.S.
Syria and Its Role in Lebanon
A cornerstone of Syrian foreign policy is to dominate the internal affairs of
Lebanon. For many hard-line Syrian politicians, Lebanon is considered an appendage
of the Syrian state , and to this day, there is no official Syrian diplomatic
representation in Beirut. From a geo-strategic standpoint, Lebanon is considered
Syria’s “soft underbelly”and a potential invasion route for Israel. The Lebanese
economy also is deeply penetrated by pro-Syrian business interests.
Syria emerged as a key, if indirect, actor in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon-Hezbollah
crisis, primarily though its role as a source and conduit for the delivery of rockets and
other mainly Iranian weaponry to Hezbollah units in southern Lebanon; some believe
Syria is still shipping weapons from its own inventories to Hezbollah as well. The
Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 gave Syria an opportunity for the first time to
station troops in Lebanon, ostensibly as part of an Arab League peacekeeping force.
Despite a provision in a 1989 accord (known as the Ta’if Agreement) calling for
redeployment of Syrian forces within two years, these forces remained in Lebanon,
albeit at somewhat reduced levels, until forced to withdraw in April 2005 by
international pressure and by a popular outcry in Lebanon over alleged Syrian
complicity in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. 17 At the
time, many observers interpreted the Syrian withdrawal and subsequent election of
an anti-Syrian majority in the Lebanese parliament as a major setback for Syria’s
ambitions in the region, and some even predicted that the Syrian regime of President
Bashar al -Asad might have been seriously weakened in backing down under external
pressure. In fact, however, Syria retained some assets in Lebanon, particularly the
militant Shiite Muslim organization Hezbollah, which refused to relinquish its arms
and continued to support Syria’s agenda by periodically attacking Israeli military
positions near the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Syria and the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War. After the passage on August
11 of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which brought about a cease-fire to the
month-long clashes between Israel and Hezbollah, the leaders of Syria and Iran
claimed a victory, maintaining that their protégé, Hezbollah, had compelled Israel to
Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon was one of the terms of U.N. Security Council
Resolution 1559. For more information, see CRS Report RL33509, Lebanon, by Alfred B.
accept a partial withdrawal of its forces from southern Lebanon, and some
commentators have agreed that Syria and Iran may have gained as a result of the
war. 18 In a speech on August 15, 2006, celebrating Hezbollah’s “victory,” Syrian
President Bashar al -Asad derided U.S. claims of creating a new Middle East as an
“illusion” and warned Israel that “that “future generations in the Arab world will find
a way to defeat Israel.” Some U.N. peacekeeping experts and former U.S.
ambassadors with experience in the Middle East expressed the view that failure to
involve Syria in the drafting and implementation of the cease-fire resolution will
make it more difficult to carry out the terms of the agreement. One former U.N.
peacekeeping official said it would be “humanly impossible” to cut off the flow of
arms to Hezbollah without Syrian help, 19 commenting on the task of interdicting
Lebanon’s porous 230-mile border with Syria and 140-mile Mediterranean coast line.
Observers have noted that “Syria appears anxious to reassert its claim as a
crucial guarantor of stability in the Middle East.” So far, by employing Hezbollah
as a proxy against Israel, Syrian policy appears to have reaped benefits without
incurring any retaliatory attacks on Syrian territory. Some observers have suggested,
however, that Syria’s leadership is playing a dangerous game that could lead to
reprisals against Syria itself.20 Others question the amount of authority that Syria
ultimately holds over Hezbollah. Some contend that although Syria and Hezbollah
have shared interests in Lebanon, Hezbollah has grown more independent of
Damascus in recent years.
The Hariri Investigation. Shortly after the February 2005 assassination of
former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, the United States, France, and others
in the international community were afforded an opportunity to strengthen antiSyrian elements inside Lebanon by conducting an international investigation into
alleged Syrian involvement in the assassination. On April 7, 2006, as domestic and
international outrage mounted, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution
(UNSCR) 1595, under which the council decided to “establish an international
independent investigation Commission (‘the Commission’ or UNIIIC) based in
Lebanon to assist the Lebanese authorities in their investigation of all aspects of this
terrorist act, including to help identify its perpetrators, sponsors, organizers and
Since then, the investigation, first headed by Berlin prosecutor Detlev Mehlis
and now conducted by Serge Brammertz, a Belgian prosecutor with the International
Criminal Court, has uncovered a number of details pointing to possible Syrian high
level government involvement in the assassination. Some of the Commission’s
findings include the following:
“Iran And Syria Claim Victory For Hezbollah,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 16, 2006.
“Emerging UN Force for Lebanon Doomed by Sidelining Syria: Ex-diplomats,” Agence
France-Presse News Wires, Aug. 17, 2006. The speaker added that “[y]ou cannot control
the border with Syria” [without Syrian cooperation].
Kim Murphy, “Crisis May Put Syria Back In Political Mix,” Los Angeles Times, July 18,
“There is converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian
involvement in this terrorist act.... Given the infiltration of Lebanese
institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence
services working in tandem, it would be difficult to envisage a
scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been
carried out without their knowledge.”
There are a considerable number of links between the Hariri case
and six of 15 other attacks against anti-Syrian Lebanese personalities
or entities in the last two years.
“According to Brammertz, “We have a clearer idea of the political
context in which the crime occurred.... We believe ...that the motive
is most likely linked to his political activities.”
Overall, it would appear that Syria has been somewhat successful in surviving
the intense international scrutiny that has surrounded its alleged involvement in
Hariri’s assassination. Media coverage of the investigation has waned in recent
months, as events in Iraq and southern Lebanon have eclipsed it. In March 2007, the
Security Council extended the Commission’s mandate until June 15, 2008.
An International Tribunal? U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1644 and
1664 adopted on March 29, 2006, directed the U.N. Secretary General to negotiate
an agreement with the government of Lebanon aimed at establishing an international
tribunal to try suspects in the Hariri assassination. Since then, steps to establish a
tribunal have moved forward, but the issue has paralyzed the Lebanese government
due to Syrian-Hezbollah complicity in attempting to sabotage the Lebanese
government’s approval of the tribunal. Under the terms of the proposed tribunal,
Lebanese and international judges would preside over the trial but cannot try or
question heads of state. The Lebanese government must approve the tribunal in a
cabinet vote, and the Lebanese parliament must pass it into law. On November 25,
2006, the cabinet approved the proposed establishment of the tribunal, but Hezbollah
street protests and pledges by the Nabih Berri, the Lebanese Shiite Speaker of
Parliament, not to raise the bill for a vote in parliament, have dampened prospects for
the convening of a tribunal. In March 2007, 70 pro-government Lebanese members
of parliament petitioned the United Nations to establish a tribunal under the
authorization of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Four pro-Syrian
Lebanese generals have been in jail for 14 months awaiting trial due to allegations
of their involvement in the assassination.
Relations with Iraq
Evolving Syrian Policies. For many years, Syria and Iraq had an uneven and
often troubled relationship, stemming from political disputes, border tensions,
demographic differences, and personal animosity between the country’s former
leaders: the late Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad and former Iraqi President Saddam
Hussein. Moreover, the two countries were governed by rival wings of the pan-Arab
Ba’th Party. In the late 1990s, bilateral relations improved markedly, primarily in the
economic sphere. Syria opposed the U.S. decision to launch Operation Iraqi
Freedom, which overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein. Since then, the United
States has accused Syria of instigating or allowing the transfer of weaponry through
Syria to Iraq and permitting foreign fighters to transit Syria to Iraq to join the antiU.S. insurgency. Syrian officials maintain that, despite their efforts, they have found
it difficult to secure the porous 375-mile Syrian-Iraqi border and say they have
increased border patrols and barriers to block border crossings. Syria has seemed to
be walking a somewhat delicate path in handling its relations with Iraq; on the one
hand, Syria has reestablished diplomatic relations with Iraq for the first time since the
early 1980s, while on the other hand, it has maintained relationships with a variety
of groups seeking to disrupt U.S. attempts at Iraqi institution building.
Figure 1. Map of Syria
Syrian Perspectives and Demographic Concerns. These apparent
inconsistencies may reflect to some degree Syria’s ambivalent views of Iraq and the
U.S.-supported Iraqi regime. The Syrian regime sees Iraq as an important
neighboring state with which it shares many affinities but which it regards as a
potential threat and a rival for leadership in the Arab world. Syrian concerns over
Iraq are heightened by the ethnic-sectarian divisions that dominate both societies.
Syria’s Alawite leadership does not necessarily have a favorite among Iraq’s Sunnis,
Shiites, and Kurds, but is anxious that Iraq’s leadership be amenable to Syrian
regional goals. Also, given Syria’s long-standing reliance on Iran for regional
political support, Syrian leaders are likely to accept and support a degree of Iranian
influence over the already Shiite dominated post-war Iraqi government, especially
given parallel Syrian and Iranian goals in Lebanon. By the same token, Syria is
inclined to support the goals of the radical Lebanese Shiite fundamentalist
organization Hezbollah not only in Lebanon but in Iraq as well.
Economic Factors. Economic relations between Syria and Iraq are built on
a variety of largely unofficial contacts, including illicit trade, smuggling, and influx
of refugees. A partial rapprochement between the two countries began in the late
1990s with the resumption of oil shipments on the order of 200,000 barrels per day
from Iraq to Syria; these shipments were halted by allied coalition forces after the
overthrow of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, but limited commercial ties continued
in other sectors, particularly through traditional barter and low-level trade between
tribal groups straddling the Syrian-Iraqi border. In a related vein, the large-scale
disruption of the Iraqi economy and mounting security threats following the
overthrow of Saddam Hussein have created a new dimension to Syrian-Iraqi
economic relations in the form of a mass movement of Iraqi refugees seeking to
escape privation and insecurity, particularly to Syria and Jordan. Syrian officials
reportedly estimate that as many as a million Iraqi refugees have settled at least
temporarily in the Damascus suburbs, changing the character of entire neighborhoods
and creating strains on the Syrian domestic economy in the form of rising rents,
housing demands, and impending water and electricity shortages.21 So far, Syrian
authorities have kept on open door policy regarding these new arrivals; however,
there are increasing concerns that the ethnic/sectarian and political factional disputes
among Iraqis could be transferred to the Iraqi refugee communities in Syria as well.
The Syrian government has sought assistance from the international community in
dealing with the Iraqi refugee issue. In March 2007, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, U.S.
Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, met with Syrian
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad in Damascus reportedly to discuss refugee
Syrian Policy Responses. The development of future Syrian policy toward
Iraq depends on a number of complex variables, including the stability and
orientation of the Syrian regime itself and the course of events in Iraq. Syrian goals
in Iraq are in some ways obscure, and there are significant differences among outside
observers over what the present Syrian regime is seeking and what type of outcome
a future Syrian regime might want to see. Some commentators believe that neither
Syria nor Iran wants to see Iraq fragment along the lines of Lebanon during its 15year civil war, with Sunnis and Shiites locked in continued and apparently openended fighting. Others counter that Syria seems inclined to continue fomenting strife
in Iraq in an effort to tie down U.S. resources, while gaining a free hand to recoup its
lost ground in Lebanon over the past two years.22 There is also a possibility that
significant differences over Iraq exist within the Syrian policy-making community
Hassan M. Fattah, “Uneasy Exiles Await Those Who Flee the Chaos in Iraq,” New York
Times, Dec. 8, 2006; Chris Morris, “Iraq Violence Sparks Exodus to Syria,” BBC News,
Dec. 13, 2006. In its Background Note: Syria, updated in October 2006, the U.S. State
Department cites a much smaller figure of 100,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria.
For further discussion, see Evan Thomas, “So Now What, Mr. President,” Newsweek, Dec.
11, 2006, pp. 36-37.
and that the young and relatively inexperienced Syrian president, Dr. Bashar al-Asad,
is vacillating among various policy options, giving the impression of a contradictory
approach to Syria’s Iraq policy.
Relations with Iran
Syria’s historic rivalry with neighboring Iraq created opportunities for improved
Syrian relations with Iran, another natural rival of Iraq. The Syrian-Iranian alliance
has always been considered a “marriage of convenience,” as both countries share
regional strategic interests rather than religious or cultural similarities. In recent
years, as Syria has grown more estranged from the West, Syrian-Iranian relations
have improved, and some analysts have called on U.S. policymakers to “flip” Syria
and woo it away from Iran. Reliable information on the extent of Iranian influence
in Syria is difficult to quantify. According to one report, Iran has developed close
ties with Syrian intelligence, providing gear and training, and sharing listening posts
to monitor Israel. 23 Other analysts assert that Syrian-Iranian business ties are
expanding, as some reports indicate that Iran has proposed new investments in Syria
ranging between one billion and three billion dollars. According to one observer, “If
those investments are implemented over the next two to three years, it will allow Iran
to replace or offset a lot of the influence Saudi Arabia traditionally has had in
Over the past three decades, Syria has acquired an arsenal of chemical weapons
(CW) and surface-to-surface missiles, reportedly has conducted research and
development in biological weapons (BW), and may be interested in a nuclear
weapons capability. Its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, however,
are hampered by limited resources and reliance on external sources of supply.
Emphasis has been on the development of CW and missile capabilities — sometimes
described as “poor man’s nuclear weapons.” In the past, there has been little
evidence of intent on Syria’s part to acquire nuclear weapons; rather, Syria has
sought to build up its CW and missile capabilities as a “force equalizer” to counter
Israeli nuclear capabilities.
Chemical and Biological. Syria, which has not signed the Chemical
Weapons Convention, reportedly has a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin and may be
working on a more toxic and persistent nerve agent like VX. Syria is reported to
have three production facilities for chemical weapons but remains dependent on
external sources for key elements of its CW program including precursor chemicals
and key production equipment. Little information is available on Syrian biological
programs; however, the preparers of a 2003 unclassified CIA study on Syrian
proliferation estimate that “Syria probably also continued to develop a BW
capability.” Syria has signed, but not ratified, the Biological Weapons Convention.
“Iran’s Strong Ties With Syria Complicate U.S. Overtures,” New York Times, Dec. 28,
“Syria Seeks to Gain from Regional Tumult,” Christian Science Monitor, Mar. 7, 2007.
Nuclear. Syria has one small Chinese-supplied nuclear research reactor, which
is under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. For several years,
there have been occasional reports of Syrian-Russian cooperation on civilian nuclear
power, but no agreement has ever been fully implemented. In 1998, Russia agreed
to supply Syria with a 25 MW light water reactor but plans soon stalled. In 2003, the
Russian Foreign Ministry prematurely announced on its website a new SyrianRussian deal to construct a $2 billion nuclear facility in Syria. The announcement
was removed from the website, and Russia has reportedly retracted the deal. Syria
acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1969; however, U.S. officials
have expressed concern that Syria, like Iran, has not signed the IAEA Additional
Protocol, which provides for short-notice inspections of nuclear facilities.
Missiles. Syria has one of the largest missile inventories in the Middle East,
consisting of several hundred short-to-medium range ballistic missiles and cruise
missiles. Once reliant on the former Soviet Union, Syria has turned more recently
to Iran, North Korea, and China for assistance with its missile programs. According
to Israeli media sources, Syria recently test-fired two Scud-D ballistic missiles whose
range would reach most of Israel.25
Russian Arms Sales to Syria. Over the past several years, Russia and Syria
have concluded several significant arms deals in a revival of their once dormant
business relationship. Successive visits by President Asad to Russia have resulted in
the cancellation of nearly 73% of Syria’s $13.4 billion debt to Russia from previous
arms agreements. Although details are scant on the specifics of new Syrian
purchases, several press reports indicate that Syria has recently acquired sophisticated
Russian anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. According to Jane’s Intelligence Digest,
Syria acquired 9M133 Kornet and 9M131 Metis anti-tank missiles from Russia in
2003 for a reported $73 million. 26 Despite strong U.S. and Israeli objections, Russia
also has sold Syria 9K38 Igla (SA-18 ‘Grouse’) low-altitude surface-to-air missiles.
Israel contends that Syria may transfer these missiles to Hezbollah. During the
summer 2006 war in Lebanon, Hezbollah militants reportedly used Syrian-supplied,
Russian-manufactured anti-tank missiles against Israeli Merkava tanks, disabling
several of them. 27 In February 2007, media reports suggested that Syria may purchase
new stockpiles of Russian anti-tank missiles.
Since 2004, Syria has sought to purchase Iskander E short-range ballistic
missiles from Russia. The United States and Israel have adamantly protested against
such a deal, arguing that if the Syrians were to deploy this system close to Israel’s
“Israeli Paper Reports Syrian Upgraded Scud Launch; DM Warning on Arms to
Lebanon,” Yedi’ot Aharonot (in Hebrew), Open Source Center, Document ID:
“Intelligence Pointers - Syrian Missile Order Sparks Israel Concern,” Jane’s Intelligence
Digest, Mar. 9, 2007.
According to one account, crates of anti-tank missiles, with shipping documents showing
they were procured from Russia by Syria, were found near the Saluki River in southern
Lebanon, where Hezbollah struck an Israeli armored column with missile fire during the
summer 2006 war. See “Claim: Syria-Russia Missile Deal Close,” United Press
International, Feb. 22, 2007.
borders, it would severely disrupt the balance of power in the region. In April 2005,
Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he understood Israeli security concerns
and would not sell Syria long-range missiles. At this time, it is unclear whether
Russia sold Syria the Iskander E system, which, with its maximum range of 175
miles, would appear able to reach significant parts of Israel.
In January 2007, under the legal authority set forth in the 2005 Iran and Syria
Nonproliferation Act (P.L. 109-112), the Administration imposed sanctions against
three Russian companies (Rosoboronexport, Tula Instrument-Making Design Bureau,
and Kolomna Machine-Building Design Bureau) for WMD or advanced weapons
sales to Syria. 28 The sanctions ban U.S. government business and support to the
companies for two years and block U.S. firms from selling them items that require
Since 1979, Syria has appeared regularly on a list of countries, currently five ,
that the U.S. State Department identifies as sponsors of international terrorism.
According to the State Department’s most recent annual report on global terrorism
(Country Reports on Terrorism, 2005, published on April 28, 2006), Syria has not
been implicated directly in an act of terrorism since 1986, when Syrian intelligence
was reportedly involved in an abortive attempt to bomb an El Al airliner in London .
The report states, however, that Syria has continued to provide political and material
support for Palestinian groups that have committed terrorist acts, and allows them to
maintain offices in Damascus. The report also notes that Syria continued to permit
Iranian resupply via Damascus of the Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim militia Hezbollah in
Lebanon. Syria admits its support for Palestinians pursuing armed struggle in Israeli
occupied territories and for Hezbollah raids against Israeli forces on the Lebanese
border, but insists that these actions represent legitimate resistance activity as
distinguished from terrorism.
Attack on U.S. Embassy. Syria and the United States still appear to face
some common terrorist threats emanating from groups like Al Qaeda, and Syrian
officials seem committed to protecting U.S. officials in Syria. On September 12,
2006, four armed terrorists tried to storm the U.S. embassy in Damascus. During the
abortive attack, three of the perpetrators were killed; the fourth died of his wounds
the following day. There was no immediate claim of responsibility. The Syrian
Minister of the Interior described the perpetrators as “takfiris”or Islamic extremists,
and the Syrian Ambassador to the United States voiced suspicions of an Al -Qaeda
offshoot called Jund al-Sham (“Soldiers of Greater Syria”), noting that Jund alSham has been blamed for several attacks on Syria in recent years. 29 A U.S. State
The Bush Administration also imposed sanctions on a fourth Russian entity (Alexei
Safonov), three Chinese companies (Zibo Chemical, China National Aerotechnology, and
China National Electrical), and one North Korean entity (Korean Mining and Industrial
Development) for weapons sales to Iran.
The U.S. State Department in the 2005 edition of its annual publication Country Reports
on Terrorism (released on Apr. 28, 2006) briefly mentions Jund al-Sham as a group
Department spokesman described the perpetrators as “unknown assailants.” U.S.
officials praised Syrian security forces for repelling the attack, and Secretary of State
Rice commented that “t]he Syrians reacted to this attack in a way that helped to
secure our people, and we very much appreciate that.” White House press secretary
Tony Snow stated that “Syrian officials came to [the] aid of the Americans ... The
U.S. Government is grateful for the assistance the Syrians provided in going after the
Snow cautioned, however, that Syrian cooperation in this instance “does not
mean they are an ally,” while expressing the hope that Syria might become one in the
future. 31 On its part, the Syrian embassy in Washington added that “[i]t is regrettable
that U.S. policies in the Middle East have fueled extremism, terrorism and anti-U.S.
Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations33
The Israeli-Syrian Track. The Israeli-Syrian track of the peace process
focuses on the Golan Heights, 450 square miles of land along the border that Israel
seized in 1967. Syria seeks to regain sovereignty over the Golan, which Israel
effectively annexed in 1981 by applying its law and administration there. Other
governments, including the United States, have not recognized Israel’s action.
During the peace process of the 1990s, Israel and Syria discussed the Golan
Heights, and the late Syrian President Hafez al Asad told President Clinton on two
occasions that he was committed to “normal peaceful relations” with Israel in return
for its full withdrawal from the Golan. Asad never expressed his ideas publicly,
leaving it to his interlocutors to convey them. In the talks, Israel conveyed its
concerns about security and sought early warning sites and greater demilitarization
on Syria’s side of the border. After the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister
Yitzhak Rabin, Asad claimed that Rabin had promised total withdrawal to the June
4, 1967, border; but Israeli negotiators maintained that Rabin had only suggested
possible full withdrawal if Syria met Israel’s security and normalization needs, which
Syria did not do. An Israeli law passed in January 1999 requires that a majority in
the Israeli Knesset (parliament) and a national referendum approve the return of any
associated with the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of the terrorist group Al Qaeda
Dan Murphy and Rhonda Roumani, “Embassy Attack Puts Syria on Alert,” The Christian
Science Monitor, Sept. 13, 2006. The authors comment that “[w]hile this was first and
foremost an attack on the US, it is also a major embarrassment for the [secular] government
Sam F. Ghattas, “Gunmen Repelled at U.S. Embassy in Syria,” Associated Press, Sept.
Craig S. Smith, “Gunmen in Syria Hit U.S. Embassy; 3 Attackers Die,” New York Tiimes,
Sept. 13, 2006.
For more information, see CRS Report RL33530, Israeli-Arab Negotiations: Background,
Conflicts, and U.S. Policy, by Carol Migdalovitz.
part of the Golan Heights to Syria. The last Israeli-Syrian negotiations were held in
January 2000. The main unresolved issue appears to have been Israel’s reluctance
to withdraw to the June 1967 border and cede access to the Sea of Galilee to Syria.
Since the breakdown in talks, both sides have periodically called to resume
negotiations. Successive Israeli leaders have demanded that Syria first end support
for Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups that reject the peace process as well
as for Hezbollah and sever its ties with Iran. Syria has insisted that talks resume
(without pre-conditions) where the most recent U.S.-sponsored discussions left off
Syrian Overtures? A series of developments have led some officials and
outside observers to call for a resumption of the Israeli-Syrian peace talks. The 2006
Israeli-Hezbollah war re-focused international attention on Syria’s role in either
instigating or mitigating conflict on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. In the
weeks following the August 2006 cease-fire, some Israeli commentators and military
officials have called on Israel to resume negotiations over the Golan Heights in order
to gain Syrian cooperation in stabilizing southern Lebanon and containing Hezbollah.
In December 2006, the Iraq Study Group (ISG) Report recommended that the United
States engage Syria in a regional dialogue on the situation in Iraq in order to avert
further sectarian strife and regional war. The ISG also called for a resumption in the
Arab-Israeli peace process and recommended that such a process involve all parties,
including Syria. In January 2007, the Israeli daily Haaretz published a report
claiming that private Israeli and Syrian citizens drafted a secret document that calls
for returning the Golan Heights to Syria and offers a possible outline for peace
Syrian leaders have attempted to capitalize on this changing atmosphere by
suggesting that their government is ready to resume negotiations. In November 2006,
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Moualem stated that “we hope to have in 2007 a
peace process to settle the issue.... We appreciate the Israeli voices who call for the
resumption of the peace process with Syria.” Some analysts have questioned the
sincerity of such statements, and an Israeli military intelligence assessment has
predicted that Syria and Hezbollah might start a war of attrition against Israel within
the next two years. Israel believes that Syria may be bluffing and is trying to improve
its public image. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has stated that although Israel
should carefully and quietly examine all Syrian proposals, “Syria’s happy smile
campaign toward Israel and the West is meant to lift threats, which they believe to
exist on the Syrian regime and state, posed by Israel and certain countries in the
West.” 34 In an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica, President Asad dared
the Israeli prime minister to “call Syria’s bluff,” stating that there are no obstacles to
“achieving peace to restore Syria’s lands.”35 Syria has sent mixed signals on the issue
of negotiations. In one interview, President Asad stated:
“Livni Urges Israeli Gov’t To ‘Carefully Examine’ Syrian Proposal To Renew Talks,”
Ha’aretz, Dec. 20, 2006.
“Prime Minister Olmert Rebuffs Syrian Overtures Amid Israeli Debate,” Open Source
Center, Document ID# FEA20061220054546, Dec. 19, 2006.
We believe that since Israel abandoned the peace process, specifically when
Sharon’s government came to power, there will be no peace in the foreseeable
future. The arrival of Sharon’s government was a sign that Israel, all Israel,
abandoned the peace process. The new US Administration came to strengthen
this Syrian belief; namely, that there will be no peace in the foreseeable future.
It is natural for one to expect war if there is no peace. What does a state of nowar-no-peace mean? It means either war or peace. So we began to prepare
within our capabilities.... But as for us in Syria, we always say that the peace
process is the natural solution that entails no high costs for the entire region, not
only for Syria.36
The Bush Administration has repeatedly stated that there is no point in resuming
Israeli-Syrian negotiations over the Golan Heights so long as Syria sponsors
terrorism, a position that Israel has taken over the last five years. According to U.S.
National Security Advisor Steven Hadley, “This is not a Syria that is on an agenda
to bring peace and stability to the region, and I think Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert
said, under those circumstances, with that kind of Syrian policy, how can you talk
about negotiating on the Golan Heights? Seems to me that’s a sensible position.”37
During a recent visit to Israel, Secretary Rice allegedly argued that peace talks with
Syria would reward Asad for backing Hezbollah and maintaining ties with Iran.38
U.S. Policy Toward Syria
Presently, there is a vigorous debate in U.S. foreign policy circles over the future
of U.S.-Syrian relations. Although speculation over possible U.S. military action to
topple the Asad regime has abated, many officials continue to advocate a hard-line
approach to Syria, asserting that pressure through a combination of diplomatic
isolation and targeted sanctions can achieve the desired results of ending Syria’s
support for terrorism, its domination of Lebanon, its interference in Iraq, and its
obstinacy toward the Arab-Israeli peace process. Others contend that quiet diplomacy
aimed at encouraging Syria to play a constructive role in regional affairs could yield
benefits. Proponents of this approach do not advocate the immediate termination of
sanctions without further action on Syria’s part; however, they support wider contacts
between U.S. and Syrian diplomatic and security officials to discuss sensitive issues,
seek common ground, and identify possible areas of cooperation.
Syria’s Diplomatic Isolation?
Diplomatic isolation of Syria has somewhat eroded in recent months. In
December 2006, the Iraq Study Group (ISG) Report recommended that the United
States engage Syria in a regional dialogue on the situation in Iraq in order to avert
further sectarian strife and regional war. The ISG also called for a resumption in the
“Syria’s Al-Asad Says War With Israel Possible,” Al-Anba (Kuwait), Oct. 7, 2006. Open
Source Center Document # FEA20061009028540.
“Chirac: France, U.S. Agree There Is No Point Talking to Syria,” Ha’aretz, Nov. 29,
“Syria: Businessman’s Backdoor Peacemaking,” Newsweek, Apr. 16, 2007.
Arab-Israeli peace process and recommended that such a process involve all parties,
including Syria. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, several other House members,
and Senators Bill Nelson, John Kerry, Christopher Dodd and Arlen Specter all have
recently visited Syria and met with President Bashar al -Asad. In what was the first
high-level visit by an EU official to Syria in more than two years, EU foreign policy
chief Javier Solana met with Syria foreign officials in an attempt to dissuade Syria
from intervening in Lebanese affairs. According to Solana, “In order to resume the
relationship, we have to have a frank and sincere discussion about things that can
change ... and we have to see how the behavior of our friends in Syria may change.”
Many analysts believe that President Asad’s strategy is to endure the foreign
pressure against his regime while actively seeking to undermine Western attempts to
pull Lebanon away from Syria’s orbit.
Because of a number of legal restrictions and U.S. sanctions, many resulting
from Syria’s designation as a country supportive of international terrorism, Syria is
no longer eligible to receive U.S. foreign assistance. Between 1950 and 1981, the
United States provided a total of $627.4 million in aid to Syria: $34.0 million in
development assistance, $438.0 million in economic support, and $155.4 million in
food assistance. Most of this aid was provided during a brief warming trend in
bilateral relations between 1974 and 1979. Significant projects funded under U.S.
aid included water supply, irrigation, rural roads and electrification, and health and
agricultural research. No aid has been provided to Syria since 1981, when the last
aid programs were closed out. At present, a variety of legislative provisions and
executive directives prohibit U.S. aid to Syria and restrict bilateral trade. Principal
General Sanctions Applicable to Syria.
The International Security Assistance and Arms Export Control Act of 1976
[P.L. 94-329]. Section 303 of this act [90 Stat. 753-754] required termination of
foreign assistance to countries that aid or abet international terrorism. This provision
was incorporated into the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 as Section 620A [22 USC
2371]. (Syria was not affected by this ban until 1979, as explained below.)
The International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977 [Title II of P.L.
95-223 (codified at 50 U.S.C. § 1701 et seq.)]. Under the International Emergency
Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), the President has broad powers pursuant to a
declaration of a national emergency with respect to a threat “which has its source in
whole or substantial part outside the United States, to the national security, foreign
policy, or economy of the United States.” These powers include the ability to seize
foreign assets under U.S. jurisdiction, to prohibit any transactions in foreign
exchange, to prohibit payments between financial institutions involving foreign
currency, and to prohibit the import or export of foreign currency.
In January 2007, the U.S. Treasury Department designated three Syrian entities,
the Syrian Higher Institute of Applied Science and Technology, the Electronics
Institute, and the National Standards and Calibration Laboratory, as weapons
proliferators under an executive order based on the authority vested to the President
under IEEPA. The three state-sponsored institutions are divisions of Syria’s
Scientific Studies and Research Center, which was designated by President Bush as
a weapons proliferator in June 2005 for research on the development of biological
and chemical weapons.
The Export Administration Act of 1979 [P.L. 96-72]. Section 6(i) of this act [93
Stat. 515] required the Secretary of Commerce and the Secretary of State to notify
Congress before licensing export of goods or technology valued at more than $7
million to countries determined to have supported acts of international terrorism.
(Amendments adopted in 1985 and 1986 re-lettered Section 6(i) as 6(j) and lowered
the threshold for notification from $7 million to $1 million.)
A by-product of these two laws was the so-called state sponsors of terrorism list.
This list is prepared annually by the State Department in accordance with Section 6(j)
of the Export Administration Act. The list identifies those countries that repeatedly
have provided support for acts of international terrorism. Syria has appeared on this
list ever since it was first prepared in 1979; it appears most recently in the State
Department’s annual publication Country Reports on Terrorism, 2005, published on
April 28, 2006. Syria’s inclusion on this list in 1979 triggered the above-mentioned
aid sanctions under P.L. 94-329 and trade restrictions under P.L. 96-72.
Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986 [P.L. 99-399].
Section 509(a) of this act [100 Stat. 853] amended Section 40 of the Arms Export
Control Act to prohibit export of items on the munitions list to countries determined
to be supportive of international terrorism, thus banning any U.S. military equipment
sales to Syria. (This ban was reaffirmed by the Anti-Terrorism and Arms Export
Amendments Act of 1989 — see below.) Also, 10 U.S.C. 2249a bans obligation of
U.S. Defense Department funds for assistance to countries on the terrorism list.
Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986 [P.L. 99-509]. Section 8041(a) of
this act [100 Stat. 1962] amended the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 to deny foreign
tax credits on income or war profits from countries identified by the Secretary of
State as supporting international terrorism. [26 USC 901].
The Anti-Terrorism and Arms Export Control Amendments Act of 1989 [P.L.
101- 222]. Section 4 amended Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act to
impose a congressional notification and licensing requirement for export of goods or
technology, irrespective of dollar value, to countries on the terrorism list, if such
exports could contribute to their military capability or enhance their ability to support
Section 4 also prescribed conditions for removing a country from the terrorism
list: prior notification by the President to the Speaker of the House of Representatives
and the chairmen of two specified committees of the Senate. In conjunction with the
requisite notification, the President must certify that the country has met several
conditions that clearly indicate it is no longer involved in supporting terrorist activity.
(In some cases, certification must be provided 45 days in advance of removal of a
country from the terrorist list.)
The Anti-Economic Discrimination Act of 1994 [Part C, P.L. 103-236, the
Foreign Relations Authorization Act, FY1994-1995]. Section 564(a) bans the sale
or lease of U.S. defense articles and services to any country that questions U.S. firms
about their compliance with the Arab boycott of Israel. Section 564(b) contains
provisions for a presidential waiver, but no such waiver has been exercised in Syria’s
case. Again, this provision is moot in Syria’s case because of other prohibitions
already in effect.
The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 [P.L. 104-132]. This
act requires the President to withhold aid to third countries that provide assistance
(Section 325) or lethal military equipment (Section 326) to countries on the terrorism
list, but allows the President to waive this provisions on grounds of national interest.
A similar provision banning aid to third countries that sell lethal equipment to
countries on the terrorism list is contained in Section 549 of the Foreign Operations
Appropriation Act for FY2001 (H.R. 5526, passed by reference in H.R. 4811, which
was signed by President Clinton as P.L. 106-429 on November 6, 2000).
Also, Section 321 of P.L. 104-132 makes it a criminal offense for U.S. persons
(citizens or resident aliens) to engage in financial transactions with governments of
countries on the terrorism list, except as provided in regulations issued by the
Department of the Treasury in consultation with the Secretary of State. In the case
of Syria, the implementing regulation prohibits such transactions “with respect to
which the United States person knows or has reasonable cause to believe that the
financial transaction poses a risk of furthering terrorist acts in the United States.” (31
CFR 596, published in the Federal Register August 23, 1996, p. 43462.) In the fall
of 1996, the then Chairman of the House International Relations Committee
reportedly protested to then President Clinton over the Treasury Department’s
implementing regulation, which he described as a “special loophole” for Syria. Since
then, several measures have been introduced in previous Congresses to forbid
virtually all financial transactions with Syria but none were enacted.
Section 531 of the Consolidated Appropriations Resolution, 2003 (P.L. 108-7)
bans aid to countries not in compliance with U.N. Security Council sanctions against
Iraq. This ban would be applicable to exports of Iraqi oil through Syria or to reported
shipments of military equipment via Syria to Iraq; however, it may be moot following
the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
Specific Sanctions Against Syria.
In addition to the general sanctions listed above, specific provisions in foreign
assistance appropriations enacted since 1981 have barred Syria by name from
receiving U.S. aid. The most recent ban appears in H.R. 3057 (P.L. 109-102 — see
below). Section 512 of P.L. 109-102, sometimes known as the Brooke Amendment
after an earlier version of this provision, bans assistance to any country in default to
the United States for over a year. Section 307 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961,
amended by Section 431 of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for
FY1994-1995 (P.L. 103-236, April 30, 1994), requires the United States to withhold
a proportionate share of contributions to international organizations for programs that
benefit eight specified countries or entities, including Syria.
The Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000, P.L. 106-178, was amended by P.L. 109112 to make its provisions applicable to Syria as well as Iran. The amended act,
known as the Iran and Syria Nonproliferation Act, requires the President to submit
semi-annual reports to designated congressional committees, identifying any persons
involved in arms transfers to or from Iran or Syria; also, the act authorizes the
President to impose various sanctions against such individuals.
Foreign Operations Appropriations
H.R. 3057, the FY2006 Foreign Operations Appropriation Act, repeats previous
bans on aid to Syria (Section 507); however, it also contains a provision requiring
that not less than $6,550,000 be made available for programs supporting democracy
in Syria and Iran, as well as unspecified amounts of additional funds under this act
to support democracy, governance, human rights, and rule of law programs for these
two countries. President Bush signed the bill as P.L. 109-102 on November 14,
2005. The Senate version of H.R. 5522, the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act,
FY2007, repeats the previous bans on aid to Syria (Section 507) and contains $1.5
million for democracy programs.
A December 2006 article in Time Magazine disclosed Administration proposals
to use U.S. democracy promotion funds to support Syrian exiles and activists. 39 Some
of these proposals include funding election monitoring activities, specific opposition
groups, and public opinion polling. According to the article, U.S. funds may
reportedly be channeled through the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEIP) office
at the State Department.
The Syria Accountability Act
On December 12, 2003, President Bush signed H.R. 1828, the Syria
Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, as P.L. 108-175. H.R.
1828 was passed by the House on October 15, 2003, and the Senate on November 11,
2003. (The House agreed to a Senate amendment expanding the President’s waiver
authority on November 20.) This act requires the President to impose penalties on
Syria unless it ceases support for international terrorist groups, ends its occupation
of Lebanon, ceases the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and
has ceased supporting or facilitating terrorist activity in Iraq (Section 5(a) and 5(d)).
Sanctions include bans on the export of military items (already banned under other
legislation) and of dual use items (items with both civil and military applications) to
Syria (Section 5(a)(1)). In addition, the President is required to impose two or more
sanctions from a menu of six:
a ban on all exports to Syria except food and medicine;
a ban on U.S. businesses operating or investing in Syria;
“Syria in Bush’s Cross Hairs,” Time, Dec. 19, 2006.
a ban on landing in or overflight of the United States by Syrian
reduction of diplomatic contacts with Syria;
restrictions on travel by Syrian diplomats in the United States; and
blocking of transactions in Syrian property (Section 5(a)(2)).
Implementation. On May 11, 2004, President Bush issued Executive Order
13338, implementing the provisions of P.L. 108-175, including the bans on
munitions and dual use items (Section 5(a)(1)) and two sanctions from the menu of
six listed in Section 5(a)(2). The two sanctions he chose were the ban on exports to
Syria other than food and medicine (Section 5(a)(2)(A) and the ban on Syrian aircraft
landing in or overflying the United States (Section 5(a)(2)(D). In issuing his
executive order, the President stated that Syria has failed to take significant, concrete
steps to address the concerns that led to the enactment of the Syria Accountability
Act. The President also imposed two additional sanctions based on other legislation.
Under Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act, he instructed the
Treasury Department to prepare a rule requiring U.S. financial
institutions to sever correspondent accounts with the Commercial
Bank of Syria because of money laundering concerns.
Under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA),
he issued instructions to freeze assets of certain Syrian individuals
and government entities involved in supporting policies inimical to
the United States.
Waivers. In the executive order and in an accompanying letter to Congress,
the President cited the waiver authority contained in Section 5(b) of the Syria
Accountability Act and stated that he is issuing the following waivers on grounds of
Regarding Section 5(a)(1) and 5(a)(2)(A): The following exports are
permitted: products in support of activities of the U.S. government;
medicines otherwise banned because of potential dual use; aircraft
parts necessary for flight safety; informational materials;
telecommunications equipment to promote free flow of information;
certain software and technology; products in support of U.N.
operations; and certain exports of a temporary nature.
Regarding Section 5(a)(2)(D): The following operations are
permitted: takeoff/landing of Syrian aircraft chartered to transport
Syrian officials on official business to the United States;
takeoff/landing for non-traffic and non-scheduled stops;
takeoff/landing associated with an emergency; and overflights of
Implications. The practical effects of implementing the Syria Accountability
Act are likely to be limited, at least in the short term. First, as noted above, relatively
few U.S. firms operate in Syria, and the trade bans contained in this act do not
prohibit their operating in Syria. Fewer U.S. companies may want to operate in Syria
in view of the new trade restrictions, and firms that continue to do so may have to
rely on foreign suppliers to service their contracts, according to a State Department
official as reported in the press. 40 Second, the volume of U.S.-Syrian trade is already
limited. Syria’s main import from the United States is cereals, which are permitted
under the act. Third, Syrian aircraft do not normally fly to or over the United States,
and the President has invoked waivers to permit them to do so under exceptional
circumstances. Fourth, waivers cover several categories of equipment, such as
telecommunications equipment and aircraft parts; one sanctions specialist believes
that products either permitted under the new legislation or covered by waivers
constitute a large portion of the more than $200 million that Syria imports from the
United States. 41
Further Steps. Some U.S. officials favor further tightening sanctions against
Syria in view of reports that it is facilitating or permitting Iraqi insurgents to operate
in Syria. On December 23, 2004, then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard
Armitage reportedly warned Syria that the Administration might impose new
sanctions if Syria failed to clamp down on fugitive Iraqi ex-officials. Press reports
in early January 2005 indicated that the Administration is considering further limits
on financial transactions with Syrian banks. 42 During her confirmation hearings on
January 18, 2005, then Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice warned that
Syria risked “long-term bad relations” with the United States and additional sanctions
because of its policies regarding terrorism and Iraq. In his State of the Union address
on February 2, 2005, the President stated that “Syria still allows its territory, and
parts of Lebanon to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace
in the region.” He noted that Congress had passed the Syria Accountability Act and
that the Administration is applying it. Syrian Ambassador to the United States Imad
Mustapha expressed disappointment over President Bush’s portrayal of Syria as a
hindrance to peace and added that Syria continues to possess “the will to engage with
the United States.”
Extension. In a notice dated May 5, 2005, the President extended by one year
the national emergency blocking the property of certain individuals and prohibiting
exports to Syria under Executive Order (E.O.) 13338 (see above). He noted that the
actions and policies of the government of Syria continued to pose an unusual and
extraordinary threat. In a notice dated April 25, 2006, the President issued E.O.
13399 to extend the state of emergency for an additional year. Also, in a notice dated
June 30, 2005, under the provisions of E.O. 13338, the U.S. Treasury Department
designated two senior Syrian officials involved in Lebanon affairs, Syria’s then
Interior Minister and its head of military intelligence in Lebanon (respectively the late
General Kanaan and General Ghazali, see above), as Specially Designated Nationals,
thereby freezing any assets they may have in the United States and banning U.S.
transactions with them. On January 18, 2006, the Treasury Department took the
Christopher Marquis, “Bush Imposes Sanctions on Syria, Citing Ties to Terrorism,” New
York Times, May 12, 2004.
Glenn Kessler, “President Imposes Sanctions On Syria,” Washington Post, May 12, 2004.
Douglas Jehl, “U.S. Said to Weigh Sanctions on Syria Over Iraqi Network,” New York
Times, Jan. 5, 2005.
same actions against the President’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, chief of military
intelligence. Meanwhile on June 9, 2005, the Treasury Department blocked property
and interests of a Syrian company, SES International Corp., and two of its officials
under E.O. 13315, which blocks property of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein
and of his former regime. Subsequently, on August 15, the U.S. Treasury Department
froze assets of two other senior Syrian officers: Major General Hisham Ikhtiyar, for
contributing to Syria’s support of foreign terrorist organizations including Hezbollah;
and Brigadier General Jama’a Jama’a, for playing a central part in Syria’s
intelligence operations in Lebanon during the Syrian occupation.