Order Code IB92075
CRS Issue Brief for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Syria: U.S. Relations and Bilateral Issues
Updated June 6, 2006
Alfred B. Prados
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
MOST RECENT DEVELOPMENTS
BACKGROUND AND ANALYSIS
Syrian-U.S. Bilateral Issues
Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations
Syrian Role in Lebanon
Assassination of Hariri and Aftermath
The Mehlis Report
Further Investigations and Revelations
Recent Activity Involving the U.N. Security Council: Resolution 1680
Relations with Iraq
Accusations of Syrian Interference
Weapons of Mass Destruction & Ballistic Missiles
U.S. Aid and Sanctions
General Sanctions Applicable to Syria
Specific Sanctions Against Syria
Recent Congressional Action
Foreign Operations Appropriations
The Syria Accountability Act
Syria: U.S. Relations and Bilateral Issues
Syria, governed by President Hafiz
al-Asad from 1970 until his death in June
2000, is a prominent player in the Middle East
scene. Within the region, a number of border
disputes, problems of resource allocation, and
political rivalries have caused frequent tensions between Syria and its neighbors. In
particular, the Syrian Golan Heights territory,
which Israel has occupied since 1967, has
been one of the most intractable issues in the
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.
An array of bilateral issues continue 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, due
largely to 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. During a
visit to Damascus on May 3, 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell warned Syria to
withdraw support from terrorist organizations
and has repeated the warning since then.
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 denied these allegations.
Congressional Research Service
On December 12, 2003, President Bush
signed the Syria Accountability Act, H.R.
1828, as P.L. 108-175. This act imposes
additional sanctions against Syria unless it
halts support for terrorism, withdraws troops
from Lebanon, ends its occupation of Lebanon, ceases development of weapons of mass
destruction (WMD), and ceases support for
terrorist activity in Iraq. Subsequently, on
May 11, 2004, the President issued Executive
Order 13338 to implement the provisions of
this law, and on May 5, 2005, he extended the
order for another year.
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.
The Library of Congress
MOST RECENT DEVELOPMENTS
On April 23, 2006, Syrian President Asad agreed after several months’ delay to meet
with the Belgian prosecutor, Sergio Brammertz, who is heading a U.N. commission
investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, an act widely
blamed on Syrian agents.
On May 17, 2006, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1680 as a follow-up
to a previous resolution (1559) that had called among other things for withdrawal of Syrian
troops from Lebanon and also called for disarming militias in Lebanon. Resolution 1680
noted that some provisions of 1559 had been carried out but others had not, notably the
disarmament of militias. The resolution calls on Syria to prevent movement of arms into
Lebanon, “strongly encourages” Syria to respond positively to the request by Lebanon to
delineate their common border and establish full diplomatic relations, and calls for the
disbandment of all militias inside Lebanon. Syrian officials rejected the resolution as “an
unjustifiable pressure tool and aggravation that complicates matters rather than solving
BACKGROUND AND ANALYSIS
The death of Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad in June 2000 after a 30-year presidency
removed a key figure in the affairs of Syria and the region. His son and successor President
Bashar al-Asad does not yet appear to have acquired the uncontested power that his father
exercised. Although U.S.-Syrian relations improved somewhat in the 1990s, further strains
appeared after the breakdown in Syrian-Israeli negotiations in 2000, Syria’s opposition to a
U.S. military campaign in Iraq, and disagreements over Syria’s former role in Lebanon.
Members of Congress have periodically introduced legislation to tighten U.S. sanctions
against Syria or to condition relaxation of existing restrictions on further changes in Syrian
Syrian-U.S. Bilateral Issues
Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations
Syrian-Israeli negotiations remain deadlocked over Syria’s demand that Israel withdraw
unconditionally from the Golan Heights, a 450-square mile portion of southwestern Syria
that Israel occupied during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The late President Hafiz al-Asad said
he accepted the principle of “full withdrawal for full peace” and would establish peaceful,
normal relations with Israel in return for Israeli’s withdrawal from Golan. Israeli leaders
either reject withdrawal or accept partial withdrawal. The two sides also disagree on what
would constitute full withdrawal because of slightly differing boundary lines defined in the
past. Both sides have suggested a resumption of talks; however, Israel believes talks should
begin without pre-conditions, while Syria has insisted that talks resume where the most
recent U.S.-sponsored discussions left off in 2000. For more information, see CRS Issue
Brief IB91137, The Middle East Peace Talks, by Carol Migdalovitz.
Syrian Role in Lebanon
Syria deployed forces to Lebanon in 1976 during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990,
ostensibly under an Arab League peacekeeping mandate. An Arab League sponsored
agreement reached at Taif, Saudi Arabia in 1989 provided, among other things, for the
redeployment of Syrian troops to eastern Lebanon within two years followed by further
anticipated withdrawals; however, these terms were not fully implemented. Although Syrian
troop strength in Lebanon reportedly declined from 35,000-40,000 in the late 1970s to
approximately 14,000 by early 2005, Syria continued to exercise controlling influence over
Lebanon’s domestic politics and regional policies. Though supported by some Lebanese
including many Shi’ite Muslims, the Syrian presence was resented by much of the Christian
community and increasingly by the Druze and Sunni Muslim communities as well. Also at
issue is Syrian support for the Shi’ite Muslim militia Hizballah, which has continued to
launch attacks against Israeli troops in the Lebanese border area and in a small disputed
adjacent enclave known as the Shib’a Farms.
Resolution 1559. On September 3, 2004, apparently under pressure from Syria, the
Lebanese parliament adopted an amendment extending Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s
six-year term by an additional three years. Many Lebanese, especially from the Christian and
Druze religious communities, opposed this step, which drew criticism from western countries
as well. On the day before the parliamentary vote, the U.N. Security Council adopted
Resolution 1559, sponsored by the United States and France, calling for “a free and fair
electoral process in Lebanon’s upcoming presidential election ... without foreign
interference” and calling upon “all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon.”
Syria’s U.N. ambassador maintained that “Syria is not a foreign force in Lebanon, it is there
at the request of the Lebanese government,” while Lebanon’s pro-Syrian government
described the resolution as interference in the internal affairs of Lebanon.1
Assassination of Hariri and Aftermath. On February 14, 2005, a powerful car
bomb exploded in Beirut’s hotel district, killing former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq
Hariri. An opponent of the Syrian-backed extension of President Lahoud’s term, Hariri had
resigned on October 20, 2004 and subsequently joined an opposition group calling for the
withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.2 Many Lebanese opposition groups
demonstrated against Syria and the pro-Syrian Lebanese government, charging its leaders
with responsibility for Hariri’s death. Syrian and Lebanese officials denied involvement and
condemned the bombing. Although U.S. officials said the identity of the perpetrators had not
yet been determined, State Department officials expressed outrage to the Syrian government
and on February 15, 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recalled the U.S.
Ambassador to Syria for urgent consultations. On February 23, President Bush said Syria
must pull both its military forces and its intelligence personnel out of Lebanon.
On two previous occasions, in 1948 and in 1995, terms of Lebanese presidents have been extended.
While still prime minister, Hariri had reluctantly voted for the extension of Lahoud’s term after a
meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad in late August 2004. According to a Paris-based
newsletter, Intelligence Online, at the meeting Asad used threatening language that Hariri
surreptitiously captured with a “recording pen” and subsequently passed to the presidents of the
United States, France, and Pakistan. Therese Sfeir, “Kuwaiti Paper Claims Syria Ready to Cut Deal
with France over Hariri Investigation,” The Daily Star — Beirut, Sept. 19, 2005.
Investigations. A statement by the President of the U.N. Security Council on
February 25, although it did not mention Syria by name, condemned the assassination and
requested the Secretary General “to report urgently on the circumstances, causes and
consequences of this terrorist act.” In accordance with this request, a U.N. fact-finding team
visited Lebanon and concluded that “the Lebanese investigation process suffers from serious
flaws and has neither the capacity nor the commitment to reach a satisfactory and credible
conclusion.” Accordingly, on April 7, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1595,
under which the council decided to”establish an international independent investigation
Commission (“the Commission”) 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 accomplices.” The resolution requests the Commission to complete
its work within three months from the date it commences operations, authorizes the Secretary
General to extend the Commission’s mandate for another period of up to three months, and
requests an oral update every two months while the Commission is functioning. The U.N.
Secretary General informed members of the Security Council that the Commission, headed
by veteran German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, was fully operational as of June 16, 2005. On
September 8, 2005, the Commission requested a 40-day extension to complete its work.
Subsequently, from September 20-23, members of the commission visited Damascus, where
they reportedly interviewed eight senior Syrian military and security officials including the
last two Syrian chiefs of intelligence in Lebanon, one of whom had become Syria’s Minister
The Mehlis Report. Tensions mounted as reports circulated that Syrian and Lebanese
officials would be implicated in the findings of the Mehlis Commission. After encountering
initial resistance from Syria, members of the commission visited Damascus from September
20-23. There they interviewed senior Syrian military and security officials including the last
two Syrian chiefs of intelligence in Lebanon, who were widely regarded as the effective
viceroys of Lebanon during their respective tenures: Generals Rustom Ghazali and Ghazi
Kanaan. Kanaan, who was reassigned to Syria in 2002 and appointed minister of the interior,
apparently committed suicide in October 2005. Some observers speculate that Kanaan was
killed or forced to commit suicide by Syrian authorities because of what he might reveal —
or might have revealed — about Syrian involvement in the Hariri assassination or that he
chose to take his own life because he feared that he would become the scapegoat for Syrian
actions in Lebanon. Kanaan is not mentioned in the Commission’s report of October 19 (see
The 54-page Mehlis report, submitted to the U.N. Security Council on October 19, did
not result in a conclusive finding of culpability. The report did state that “there is converging
evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in this terrorist act.” The report
notes a pervasive presence of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon at the time, and adds
that “[G]iven 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.” An
earlier unpublished version of the Mehlis report is said to have listed the names of five of the
senior officers, including President Asad’s brother, Maher al-Asad, and the President’s
brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, chief of military intelligence and widely considered the
second most powerful official in the regime. The Commission also stated that the
investigation is not complete and more leads need to be followed. U.N. Secretary General
Kofi Annan extended the Commission’s mandate until December 15.
On October 31, 2005, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1636,
which requires Syria to cooperate “fully and unconditionally” with the Mehlis investigation
into the assassination of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri or face unspecified
“further action.” By dropping a threat of specific economic sanctions that appeared in earlier
drafts, the sponsors of the resolution were able to attract support from Russia and China
while leaving the door open to the imposition of sanctions at a later date. U.S. officials noted
that the resolution was adopted under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which gives the
Council power to impose penalties, including use of military force.3 After temporizing, Syria
acceded to a request by the Mehlis Commission to make five Syrian officials available for
questioning by the commission at U.N. offices in Vienna, Austria. The Syrians, whose
names were not announced, were reportedly intelligence and security officials, including
former Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon Rustom Ghazali; meetings took place between
December 5 and 7. In the meantime, a former key witness in the Mehlis report and selfdescribed Syrian intelligence agent — Hussam Tahir Hussam — recanted his testimony on
November 28 on Syrian television, saying that Lebanese officials had forced him to implicate
Syria under a combination of duress and bribery. Lebanese officials have rejected the revised
statement, and Mehlis expressed doubts about the witness’s veracity.
On December 12, 2005, the Mehlis commission submitted a follow-on report, which
states that “[t]he Commission’s conclusions set out in its previous report ... remain valid.”
According to the follow-on report, the Commission interviewed additional witnesses (for a
total of 500 as of December 12), identified 19 suspects (reportedly including the five Syrian
officers interviewed in Vienna), and reviewed additional documentation. Statements by two
of the suspects indicated that all Syrian intelligence documents concerning Lebanon had been
burned. Also, the head of a separate Syrian investigative commission informed the Mehlis
Commission that no material regarding the Hariri assassination had been found in Syrian
archives. The Mehlis follow-on report further expresses the view that Hussam, the witness
who recanted his statement, “is being manipulated by the Syrian authorities.” The report
stated that “[t]he detailed information [from the additional statements and documents
reviewed by the commission] points directly at perpetrators, sponsors and organizers of an
organized operation aiming at killing Mr. Hariri, including the recruitment of special agents
by the Lebanese and Syrian intelligence services.” On December 15, the U.N. Security
Council adopted Resolution 1644, which extended the mandate of the Independent
Commission by another six months until June 15, 2006, as recommended by the
Commission’s report. In January 2006, Mehlis resigned in order to return to his position in
Germany and was succeeded by Serge Brammertz, a Belgian prosecutor serving with the
International Criminal Court.
Further Investigations and Revelations. On March 14, 2006, Brammertz
released his first progress report to the U.N. Security Council. The report emphasized
technical aspects of the investigation and did not contain specific accusations. Syrian
spokesmen put a positive interpretation on the Brammertz report, describing it as “realistic”
and having “a lot of professionalism” (Dow Jones & Co., Inc., March 15, 2006). Early in
2006, the Commission met with several Syrian officials, including newly appointed foreign
minister Walid al-Mouallem, who told a Lebanese TV station on March 5 that “[w]e will
cooperate with this commission.” President Asad, who had temporized for several months
Warren Hoge, “U.N. Tells Syria to Stop Impeding Slaying Inquiry,” New York Times, Nov. 1, 2005.
over the Commission’s demand to interview him, agreed to meet Brammertz pursuant to an
understanding that will give the Commission access to individuals, sites, and information,
including the head of state (Paragraphs 91-95 of the Brammertz report). Subsequently, news
media reported that Brammertz met with the Syrian President and Vice President in
Damascus on April 23; however, the news reports did not give details on the course of the
Meanwhile, in an interview in Paris broadcast on December 30 by UAE-based news
channel al-Arabiya TV, former Syrian Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam made serious
accusations against the Syrian regime, recounting threats voiced by Asad in a conversation
with Hariri to “crush whoever acts against our decision” [to extend Lebanese President
Lahoud’s term of office]. Khaddam, a former pillar of the Syrian regime who resigned his
post as Vice President in June 2005 after serving in that position for 22 years, expressed the
view that no security apparatus in Syria could make a unilateral decision to conduct an
assassination. Syria’s ruling Ba’th Party voted to expel Khaddam after his al-Arabiya
interview, members of Syria’s loyalist parliament called for Khaddam to be tried for treason,
and the Syrian government reportedly froze Khaddam’s assets. Khaddam further stated that
he is forming a government in exile, but response has been cool, even from anti-Syrian
Lebanese factions and from Syria’s small opposition groups. Khaddam’s defection helped
precipitate a government reshuffle in which former Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shar’a,
generally regarded as a hard liner, became Vice President and was replaced by Mouallem in
his previous position as foreign minister. A leading Beirut newspaper interpreted the
reshuffle as reflecting determination on Asad’s part to resist international pressures, although
the new foreign minister is described as a moderate.
Withdrawals. After mounting pressures from the United States and key members of
the international community (including France, Germany, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt)
and at the urging of U.N. officials, President Asad gradually began to withdraw his forces.
On April 26, 2005, the Syrian foreign minister informed the U.N. Secretary General and the
President of the Security Council that Syrian forces “have fully withdrawn all their military
and security apparatus and assets to their positions in Syria on April 26, 2005....” In his first
semi-annual report on the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559, dated April
26, the Secretary General said he had been unable to confirm the withdrawal and had
dispatched a U.N. mission to verify whether there had been a full and complete withdrawal.
The Secretary General told reporters on May 23 the team had verified Syria’s withdrawal of
military forces from Lebanon except for one town in dispute, but could not conclude with
certainty that all Syrian intelligence personnel had left. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice said Syria must also remove its intelligence forces. On June 10, following accusations
of Syrian involvement in the murder of prominent anti-Syrian Lebanese personalities, the
Secretary General announced that he was sending the verification team back to Lebanon to
see if Syrian intelligence agents were still in the country.
The team returned on July 11 and subsequently submitted a report to Annan. In his
second semi-annual report on implementation of Resolution 1559, submitted on October 26,
2005, Annan reported that “[o]verall, the team corroborated its earlier conclusion that there
was no remaining visible or significant Syrian intelligence presence or activity in Lebanon,
though the distinctly close historical and other ties between the Syrian Arab Republic and
Lebanon also had to be taken into account when assessing a possibly ongoing influence of
Syrian intelligence in Lebanon.” According to the Secretary General, the team
acknowledged some credible reports that Syrian intelligence continued to influence events
in Lebanon but that most of these reports were exaggerated. The Secretary General noted
that other requirements of Resolution 1559 remained to be implemented, particularly
disbanding and disarming Lebanese and non-Lebanese militia (notably Hizballah and several
Palestinian groups) and extension of Lebanese government control throughout all of the
country.4 The third semi-annual report, submitted to the Security Council on April 19, came
to largely similar conclusions.
Although Syrian forces had departed Lebanon before the Lebanese parliamentary
elections in late May and June 2006, some observers think Syrian officials may be trying to
circumvent the effect of the withdrawal by maintaining their influence through contacts they
have acquired over the years in the Lebanese bureaucracy and security services.5 While antiSyrian candidates secured a comfortable majority (72 out of 128) in the new parliament, the
strong showing by a largely Shi’ite Muslim bloc in southern Lebanon resulted in the
reelection of a pro-Syrian parliamentary speaker (a Shi’ite post under Lebanon’s unique
system), while the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud remains in office. Other
commentators have expressed concern that Syria’s withdrawal could leave a security gap in
Lebanon, lead Asad to reinforce his power base by more repressive domestic policies (as he
has reportedly been doing since late 2005), or weaken Asad’s position, possibly leaving the
country vulnerable to some type of Islamist rule.
Recent Activity Involving the U.N. Security Council: Resolution 1680. As
concerns continued over a possible Syrian “shadow” presence in Lebanon, sentiment began
to build among some members of the Security Council to consider further follow-up action.
Speaking to reporters on April 26, 2006, U.S. Ambassador John Bolton suggested that
another Security Council resolution might be appropriate as a means of “highlighting the
areas of deficiency in Syria’s performance under 1559 and possibly under 1595 as well” to
show the Council’s “continuing resolve” on the question of Lebanon. After further
consultation among U.S., British, and French representatives, on May 17, 2006, the Security
Council adopted Resolution 1680 by a vote of 13 to 0. Russia and China, which had favored
a Security Council presidential statement rather than another resolution, abstained. The
resolution noted progress in implementing provisions of Resolution 1559 but noted with
regret that some provisions of Resolution 1559 have not yet been met. The resolution calls
on Syria to prevent movement of arms into Lebanon, “strongly encourages” Syria to respond
positively to the request by Lebanon to delineate their common border and establish full
diplomatic relations, and calls for the disbandment of all militias inside Lebanon. Resolution
1680 does not mention Iran by name; however, the resolution “welcomes” the third semiannual report of the U.N. Secretary General (Resolution 1559), which in turn speaks of the
“necessary cooperation of all other relevant parties, including the Syrian Arab Republic and
the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Ambassador Bolton stated that “that reference makes it
unambiguously clear that Iran is referred to” by Resolution 1680.6
Text of report is attached to U.N. Security Council document S/2005/673, Oct. 26, 2005.
Robin Wright, “Syria Moves to Keep Control of Lebanon,” Washington Post, Mar. 31, 2005.
Warren Hoge, “U.N. Council Urges Syria to Set Ties With Lebanon,” New York Times, May 18,
Syrian officials and supporters rejected the resolution. Syria’s Foreign Ministry issued
a statement saying that it “constitutes an unjustifiable pressure tool and aggravation that
complicates matters rather than solving them.” A pro-Syrian Lebanese political party
described Resolution 1680 as “a dangerous precedent that violates sovereignty of countries.”7
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador said he disagreed with using the Security Council as a medium
for Syrian-Lebanese discussion, while the Chinese Deputy Ambassador said China does not
believe the Security Council should get involved in bilateral issues.
Relations with Iraq
Infiltrators. U.S. officials continue to charge that Syria is allowing pro-Saddam
volunteers from various Arab countries including Syria itself to cross its 375-mile border into
Iraq. In its annual publication Country Reports on Terrorism: 2005 (published on April 28,
2006), the U.S. State Department said Syria has tried to limit the movement of foreign
fighters into Iraq. In April 2005, U.S. officers described some Iraqi border guard units
patrolling segments of Iraq’s border with Syria and Jordan as undermanned, under-equipped,
and under-motivated or intimidated.8 With regard to charges that Syria provides a base of
operations for Iraqi insurgents, Syrian officials maintain that it is difficult to monitor the Iraqi
community; there are reportedly 250,000 to 300,000 Iraqis in Syria (some sources estimate
a wider spread of 200,000 to 500,000).
Subsequently there have been mixed signals from Washington and Damascus. In early
July 2005, some sources reported that Syria has increased its support for the Iraqi insurgency,
while others stated that Syria has recently gone on the offensive against foreign fighters
seeking to cross the border into Iraq. Those who espouse the former view quote U.S.
officials as describing Syria as a “hub” for foreign recruits supporting the Iraqi insurgency;
the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, for example, has accused Syria of allowing terrorists to operate
training camps within Syria for insurgents bound for Iraq. Those with a different view point
to recent reports of clashes between Syrian security forces and militants connected to the
Iraqi insurgency. Still others noted a Syrian announcement of the arrest of militants
belonging to a group called the Levant Army, reportedly linked to the Iraqi insurgency and
to perpetrators of a suicide bombing in Qatar. (“Syrians Clash With Fighters Linked to the
Iraqi Insurgency,” New York Times, July 5, 2005; “Syria Seen Stepping Up Aid to IraqBound Insurgents,” Washington Times, July 6, 2005, “Syria Clashes Hint at Growing Islamic
Extremist Problem,” Associated Press (Dow Jones), July 5, 2005.) An August 1, 2005,
article in Defense News quotes the Syrian deputy foreign minister as citing several recent
steps Syria has taken to reduce infiltration: 5,000 Syrian guards staffing posts with 25 rear
support positions and conducting 50 moving patrols per day; detention of 1,240 foreign
fighters and 4,000 Syrian nationals trying to enter Iraq to join the insurgency; a survey of
Syrian night vision needs by a British team in 2004. In an October 5, 2005 letter from the
Syrian Ambassador in Washington to a Member of Congress, the Ambassador noted several
recent steps taken by Syria to secure its borders, including the following:9
American Embassy, Damascus, Syria, via LOC Cairo, Damascus Media Reaction, May 29, 2006.
James Janega, “Too Much Border, Not Enough Patrol,” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 19, 2005.
The Ambassador’s letter represented a response to an inquiry by 100 Members of Congress.
Increasing border troops from “a few hundred to 10,000 in the last two
Building sand barriers, raising their height to 12 feet along a 130-mile
segment of border;
Installing barbed wire, in some cases double-layered; and
Erecting approximately 540 military outposts, at intervals ranging from 400
to 3,000 meters, depending on the sensitivity of the area.
The Ambassador added that, as a result of these measures, Syria had captured 1,500
individuals trying to cross the border, handed them back to authorities of their countries, or
put them in prison.
Equipment. During the year preceding Operation Iraqi Freedom, there were reports
that Syria had become a conduit for shipments of military equipment from eastern European
countries to Iraq. Most of these shipments allegedly consisted of anti-aircraft missiles,
guidance systems for SCUD surface to surface missiles, anti-aircraft guns, radar, and jet and
tank engines. During the war, Secretary Rumsfeld told reporters on March 28, 2003 that
military supplies including night vision goggles were being shipped from Syria to Iraq.
Conversely, Israeli sources cited reports that Iraqi chemical and biological weapons were
being shipped from Iraq to Syria for safekeeping. At the time, U.S. General Richard B.
Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there was no evidence so far that Iraqi
WMD had been moved to another country. In September 16, 2003 testimony before the
House International Relations Committee (Subcommittee on Middle East and Central Asia),
then Under Secretary of State John Bolton mentioned reports that Iraq had moved its WMD
to Syria to hide them from U.N. inspectors but said the United States had been unable to
confirm such transfers.
Accusations of Syrian Interference. U.S. and Iraqi officials have accused Syria
on several occasions since late 2004 of interfering in Iraq and aiding Abu Musab Zarqawi,
the head of an Al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq. The Iraqi Ambassador to Syria, for example, said
U.S. and Iraqi troops had captured photos of Syrian officials during combat operations in an
insurgent stronghold in Iraq in November.10 On December 16, 2004, President Bush warned
Syria and Iran that “meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq is not in their interests.” His
warning followed an accusation by then Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan that Syria is
aiding Zarqawi and agents of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The Syrian Foreign
Ministry dismissed Shaalan’s remarks as “baseless accusations” but did not refer to President
Bush’s remarks. Following reports of a secret meeting in Syria held by Zarqawi and key
aides during April 2005, week-long fighting took place along the Syrian border in mid-May,
resulting in hundreds of deaths including nine U.S. Marines. According to a press report on
May 18, an unnamed U.S. official characterized Syria as a main conduit for pro-Zarqawi
fighters entering Iraq. In a meeting with an Iraqi official on May 20, U.S. Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice criticized Syria for “allowing its territory to be used to organize terrorist
attacks against innocent Iraqis” and added that Syria “should not think itself immune from
Available on the following website: [http://faculty-staff.ou.edu/L/Joshua.M.Landis-1/syriablog/].
Nicholas Blanford, “More Signs of Syria Turn up in Iraq,” Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 23,
the way that the region is going.” She pointed to other Syrian policies regarding terrorism,
Lebanon, and Palestinian affairs, and said Syria must realize “that it is clearly out of step
with where the region is going.” On May 20, 2005, the Syrian Ambassador to the United
States told the New York Times that Syria has “severed all links” with U.S. military
representatives and the Central Intelligence Agency during the last 10 days because of what
he called unjust allegations of Syrian support to the Iraqi insurgency.
Weapons of Mass Destruction & Ballistic Missiles. U.S. officials and many
informed observers believe Syria has one of the more extensive chemical weapons programs
in the region. Syria considers its chemical stockpile as a “force equalizer” to counter Israeli
nuclear capabilities. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Anthony
Cordesman, an expert on Middle East security issues at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies (CSIS), said “Syria has chemical weapons, including warheads with
cluster and aerosol delivery capability, and seems to be developing biological weapons.
Syria’s chemical weapons include both mustard and nerve agents. Its missiles include 18
obsolescent SS-21 launchers, at least 26 Scud and B launchers, and possibly converted Sepal
and Styx cruise missiles and missiles.”11 Syria is not a signatory to Chemical Weapons
Convention, which prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical
Syria has one small Chinese-supplied nuclear research reactor, which is under
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Syria and Russia have agreed on
a draft program for cooperation on civil nuclear power. According to a 2003 CIA assessment
of Syria’s nuclear program, “broader access to foreign expertise provides opportunities for
Syria to expand its indigenous capabilities and we are monitoring Syrian nuclear intentions
with concern.” Syria acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1969; however, U.S.
Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton has expressed concern that Syria, like Iran,
has not signed the IAEA Additional Protocol, which provides for short-notice inspections
of nuclear facilities.
Conventional Threats. Most military experts believe that the war-fighting capability
of Syria’s bloated armed forces has declined over the last decade due to the loss of Russian
support following the end of the Cold War, budget constraints, corruption, and the lack of
operational experience. The strongest elements in the Syrian armed forces are its Republican
Guard and special forces divisions. Syrian intelligence and paramilitary forces also continue
to threaten U.S. and Israeli interests in the region. Even after its withdrawal in 2005, Syria
may still have intelligence assets in Lebanon, where it has long been accused of conducting
political assassinations and working with terrorist groups.
Statement of Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair, Strategy Center for Strategic and
International Studies, Committee on House Armed Services, Middle East and Africa Threat Panel,
September 28, 2005.
Debt. Largely as a result of military purchases, Syria incurred a debt of approximately
$13.4 billion to the former Soviet Union, a debt that the successor Russian Federation has
now inherited. Without providing details, both presidents expressed satisfaction that the two
sides had “resolved the problem of Syria’s debts to the Russian Federation. We have
resolved it on a compromise base acceptable for both parties...” (Putin’s words. Asad
commented that “we approached the solution to a long-standing issue — Syria’s debt to
Russia.”) According to several press articles, Putin agreed to write off $9.8 billion or
approximately 73% of the debt.12 Some speculate that Putin was motivated by prospects of
new arms purchases from Syria, while others suggest that political and strategic benefts that
may accrue to Russia are more important than economic benefits.13
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 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 Hizballah in Lebanon. Syria admits its support for Palestinians pursuing armed
struggle in Israeli occupied territories and for Hizballah raids against Israeli forces on the
Lebanese border, but insists that these actions represent legitimate resistance activity as
distinguished from terrorism.
Al Qaeda. In some instances, Syria has cooperated with the United States against
terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda. With a few exceptions such as Hamas and
Hizballah, the generally secular Syrian government tends to regard Islamic fundamentalist
organizations as destabilizing, although there have been indications since early 2006 that the
Syrian regime has been courting Islamists as a counterweight to other internal dissident
groups.14 Since the September 11 attacks, a number of reports, including the State
Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism, 2005, indicate that Syria has cooperated with
the United States and other foreign governments against Al Qaeda and other terrorist
organizations in the past, while discouraging signs of public support for Al Qaeda. Earlier,
on June 18, 2002, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns was quoted as telling a
congressional committee that “the cooperation the Syrians have provided in their own selfinterest on Al Qaeda has saved American lives.” According to a more recent news report,
Syria helped unravel a plot by an Al Qaeda group in Canada to attack U.S. and Canadian
Neil King, Jr. and Gregory L. White, “U.S. Reviews Russia Ties Amid Rising Tensions,” The
Asian Wall Street Journal, Jan. 27, 2005. “Russia Writes off $9.8 Billion of Syrian Debt,” The
Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon), Jan. 26, 2005.
“Syria, Russia Might Both Gain By Improved Relationship,” Dow Jones International News, Jan.
Christine Spolar, “Syria’s strange political spring,” Chicago Tribune, May 28, 2006.
government installations.15 Details regarding the type of support provided by the Syrians,
however, have been lacking, and some Members of Congress have expressed the view that
Syrian cooperation against Al Qaeda has waned or has been exaggerated. According to the
2005 terrorist report (see above), in May 2005 the Syrian government ended intelligence
cooperation, citing U.S. complaints that Syrian cooperation against border crossings into Iraq
U.S. Aid and Sanctions
Since 1950, the United States has provided a total of $627.5 million in aid to Syria:
$34.0 million in development assistance, $438.0 million in economic support, $155.4 million
in food assistance, and $61 thousand in military training 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 examples follow.
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 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, 2004, published on April 27, 2005. 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.
“Syrian Reforms Gain Momentum In Wake Of War,” Washington Post, May 12, 2003.
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 terrorism.
Section 4 also prescribed conditions for removal of 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. 106429 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. Several
subsequent measures were introduced in previous Congresses to forbid virtually all financial
transactions with Syria but were not 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.
Recent Congressional Action
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 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
a ban on landing in or overflight of the United States by Syrian aircraft;
reduction of diplomatic contacts with Syria;
restrictions on travel by Syrian diplomats in the United States
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
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
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 national security:
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 U.S.
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.16 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
Christopher Marquis, “Bush Imposes Sanctions on Syria, Citing Ties to Terrorism,” New York
Times, May 12, 2004.
fly to or over United States, and the President has invoked waivers to permit them to do so
under exceptional circumstances. Fourth, waivers cover several categories of equipment —
telecommunications equipment, 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 which Syria imports from the United States.17
Further Steps. Some U.S. officials favor tightening sanctions against Syria further
in view of reports that it is facilitating or permitting Iraqi insurgents to operate in Syria. On
December 23, 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 indicate that the Administration is
considering further limits on financial transactions with Syrian banks.18 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 March 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 continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat.
Subsequently on 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 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.
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.