Syria: Background and U.S. Relations
Syria: Background and U.S. Relations
Updated May 1, 2008
Jeremy M. Sharp
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Syria: Background and U.S. Relations
Despite its weak military and lackluster economy, Syria remains relevant in
Middle Eastern geopolitics. The Asad regime has its hands in each of the four major
active or potential zones of conflict in the region (Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, and
Iran). In the Levant, Syrian leaders aim to dominate the internal politics of Lebanon,
and have been accused of involvement in the assassination of four parliamentarians
and former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The Asad regime has resisted U.S. and
French attempts to bolster the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fouad
Siniora, believing that it can weather the storm of U.S. pressure over time. Syria also
plays a key role in the Middle East peace process, acting at times as a “spoiler” by
sponsoring Palestinian militants and facilitating the rearmament of Hezbollah. At
other times, it has participated in substantive negotiations with Israel, most recently
in 1999-2000. A September 6Israeli air strike against an alleged nascent Syrian
nuclear facility heightened an already tense atmosphere between the two countries,
though most experts believe that neither side desires a new war. Regarding Iraq, the
Iraqi refugee crisis has affected Syria far more than Syria has influenced internal Iraqi
politics since the fall of Saddam Hussein. There now may be close to 1.4 million
Iraqis inside Syria, many of whom face the dim prospect of remaining in permanent
exile. Finally, Syria’s longstanding relationship with the Iranian clerical regime is of
great concern to U.S. strategists. As Syria has grown more estranged from the United
States, Syrian-Iranian relations have improved, and some analysts have called on U.S.
policymakers to woo Syrian leaders away from Iran. Others believe that the
Administration should go even further in pressuring the Syrian government and
should consider implementing even harsher economic sanctions against it.
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. 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. In recent years, the Administration has designated several
Syrian entities as weapons proliferators and sanctioned several Russian companies
for alleged WMD or advanced weapons sales to Syria. Annual foreign operations
appropriations legislation also has contained provisions designating several million
dollars annually for programs to support democracy in Syria.
This report analyzes an array of bilateral issues that continue to affect relations
between the United States and Syria. It will be updated periodically to reflect recent
Latest Developments ...............................................1
Alleged Syria-North Korean Nuclear Cooperation................1
Internal Political Scene.............................................3
Pillars of the Regime...........................................4
The Alawite Sect..........................................4
The Ba’th Party...........................................4
The Military and Security Establishment........................5
The Syrian Opposition..........................................6
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood..............................6
The Damascus Declaration..................................6
Syrian Dissidents, Exiles, and Defectors Abroad.................7
Syria’s Stagnant Economy.......................................7
A Future Without Oil?......................................8
Syrian-U.S. Bilateral Issues..........................................9
Syria and Its Role in Lebanon....................................9
Syria and Hezbollah........................................9
Syrian Attempts to Bring Down the Lebanese Government........10
The Hariri Investigation and Alleged Syrian Involvement.........11
The International Tribunal..................................12
Relations with Iran............................................14
Syrian Support for Terrorist Activity..............................14
Chemical and Biological...................................15
North Korean-Syrian Missile Cooperation.....................17
Relations with Russia..........................................18
Russian Arms Sales to Syria................................18
Syria and the Middle East Peace Process...........................19
Iraqi Refugees in Syria.........................................22
U.S. Policy Toward Syria...........................................24
General Sanctions Applicable to Syria........................26
Specific Sanctions Against Syria.............................27
The 2003 Syria Accountability Act ...............................28
Targeted Financial Sanctions....................................30
Recent Congressional Action........................................32
Syria: Background and U.S. Relations
Alleged Syria-North Korean Nuclear Cooperation. On April 24, 2008,
CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, Director of National Intelligence Michael
McConnell, and National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley privately briefed
Members of Congress on North Korea’s alleged role in constructing a reactor in
northeastern Syria that was destroyed in an Israeli air strike on September 6, 2007.
This marked the first time that the United States had officially provided details on
both the Israeli operation and the nature of the targeted facility. Following the closed-
door briefings, U.S. intelligence officials provided a background news briefing to the
media which has since reported extensively on the subject.
According to the Washington Post, Syria and North Korea were suspected of
collaborating on a secret nuclear program since 1997.1 Since then, senior North
Korean officials2 and scientists from North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex
reportedly visited Syria several times before construction began in Syria at a remote
desert facility, known as Al Kibar, between 2001 and 2003.3 In the spring of 2007,
Israel reportedly provided the Administration with photographs of the interior of the
alleged facility still under construction.4 According to the Washington Post, the
“pictures depicted a site similar to the one at Yongbyon, which produces plutonium
for nuclear weapons.” According to the New York Times, the photographs “clearly
show the rods that control the heat in a nuclear reactor;” as both the Yongbyon and
Al Kibar reactors had a virtually identical configuration and number of holes for fuel
In reaction to the briefings, the Syrian government denounced the U.S. evidence
and accused the United States of helping Israel to carry out the September 2007 raid.
1 “U.S. Details Reactor in Syria,” Washington Post, April 25, 2008.
2 One photograph presented to Congress showed a North Korean official with the director
of Syria’s nuclear agency. The North Korean official was identified as Chon Chibu, who,
according to the presentation, is the manager of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear plant.
Other observers have disputed that Chibu was in the photograph.
3 In October 2007, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) and several
media outlets published several reports containing satellite imagery of the Syrian facility.
According to one account, American analysts had looked carefully at the site in 2003, but
were unsure then whether it posed a nuclear threat. See, “Yet Another Photo of Site in Syria,
Yet More Questions,” New York Times, October 27, 2007.
4 CIA graphic presentation and photographs of Al Kibar are available online at
5 “Government Releases Images of Syrian Reactor,” New York Times, April 25, 2008.
Although the Administration has acknowledged discussing policy options with Israeli
leaders prior the September 2007 attack, senior U.S. officials have denied any covert
U.S. role in the bombing, stating that Israel proceeded “without a green light from
us.... None was asked for, none was given.”6
Since the U.S. intelligence briefing on April 24, many observers have accepted
the Administration’s evidence of Syrian-North Korean nuclear collaboration, though
some skeptics have argued that Syria lacked the technical capacity to build a nuclear
weapon and posed no imminent danger to Israel that would have justified the
September 2007 attack. According to David Albright, a nuclear expert at the Institute
for Science and International Security, the information “provides dramatic
confirmation that the Syrian site ... was a nuclear reactor,” but the “U.S. does not
have any indication of how Syria would fuel this reactor, and no information that
North Korea had already, or intended, to provide the reactor’s fuel.” In order to create
weapons-grade plutonium, Syria would have needed to acquire uranium fuel and then
have it reprocessed, either at a facility inside Syria or elsewhere. After their briefings
to Congress, senior U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged that “there was no sign
that Syria had built an operation to convert the spent fuel from the plant into
weapons-grade plutonium, but that they had told President Bush last year that they
could think of no other explanation for the reactor.”7
In order to stress the imminent danger posed by Syria’s actions, senior U.S.
intelligence officials have repeatedly stressed that Al Kibar was nearly operational
at the time of the Israeli strike. U.S. officials were quoted saying that, before the
Israeli bombing, Al Kibar was within weeks or months of becoming operational.8
Others have noted that the reactor there would have ultimately produced enough
plutonium for one or two bombs within a year of becoming operational.9 Several days
after the intelligence briefings, Japanese public broadcaster NHK, citing South
Korean intelligence officials, reported that 10 North Koreans working at Al Kibar
had died in the September 2007 air raid and that the dead included officials of the
North Korea's communist party unit that exports weapons and military technology
and members of the North Korean military unit which made nuclear facilities in the
Although the new information on Al Kibar may, in the short term, dramatically
affect U.S. efforts to broker a nuclear disarmament deal with North Korea, analysts
also have raised a number of questions on how these new developments will impact
the Middle East. Although the possibility of a Syrian-Israeli military confrontation
over the September attack remains slim, the Israeli defense establishment has been
6 “US Never Gave Israel Green Light for Syria Strike: US Official,” Agence France Presse,
April 24, 2008.
7 New York Times, April 25, 2008, op.cit.
8 “US Shows Evidence of Alleged Syria-N. Korea Nuke Collaboration,” Associated Press,
April 24, 2008.
9 “Hayden: Syrian Site Could Have Produced Fuel for 2 Weapons,” Associated Press, April
10 “N.Koreans May Have Died in Israel Raid in Syria: NHK,” Reuters, April 28, 2008.
concerned that public confirmation of Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation
would embarrass Syria and possibly force President Bashar al Asad to retaliate
against Israel in order to save face.11 While there has been no military response from
Syria, President Asad stated,“Retaliate doesn’t mean missile for missile and bomb
for bomb.... We have our means to retaliate, maybe politically, maybe in other ways.
But we have the right to retaliate in different means.” The Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese
border had been tense after the 2006 summer war, and there were scattered reports
indicating that the Israeli military had heightened its state of alert and that the Syrians
had increased their defensive fortifications near the border. Nevertheless, a major
confrontation appears unlikely. In the past, Syria has used proxies, such as Hezbollah
and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to carry out reprisal terrorist operations against Israel
rather than use its own military or intelligence forces.
For many experts, the Israeli attack has implications that go far beyond Syrian-
Israeli relations. Although the veil of secrecy surrounding the attack may reflect U.S.
efforts not to derail ongoing Middle East peace negotiations, the attack has been
largely seen through the prism of restoring Israeli deterrence at a time when some
analysts expect Israel to take action against Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities.
Though a strike against Iran would be far more difficult than the September 6
bombing or even Israel’s strike against the Osirak nuclear facility in Iraq in 1981,
Israel’s bombing may be intended to send a signal to its opponents in the region that
it has the will to act, if necessary unilaterally, to stop Iran and others from developing
an advanced nuclear weapons program.
Mughniyeh Assasination. On February 13, 2008, Imad Mughniyeh,
Hezbollah’s long-time special operations or intelligence chief, was killed in a car
bombing in an upscale residential neighborhood in Damascus, Syria. Mughniyeh was
responsible for high profile terrorist attacks against Americans, Israelis, and other
foreign nationals. U.S. officials assert that he was behind the bombings of the United
States Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983. Mughniyeh also
was reported to be behind the kidnapping of western hostages in Beirut during the
1980s. No one has claimed responsibility for his killing, though Syria and Iran have
launched a “joint” investigation and may publicly announce their findings in the
weeks to come. Many analysts have speculated that Israel may be behind the
operation, though some experts believe that Syria itself could have had a hand in
Mughniyeh’s murder. Days after the bombing, Hezbollah held a funeral for
Mughniyeh and threatened to retaliate against Israel.
Internal Political Scene
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. 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
11 “Public Status of US Congress Hearing on IAF Syria Bombing Still Undecided,”
Jerusalem Post, April 15, 2008.
Syria’s advantage. President Bashar al Asad, who succeeded his father in 2000 in a
smooth transfer of power, inherited a ready-made politico-military apparatus his
father helped build. Although Bashar is generally considered to be less ruthless and
calculating than his father, he has essentially sought to preserve the status quo and,
above all else, maintain regime stability.
Key Members of the Asad Family
Bashar al Asad - The 41-year old President of Syria is 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.
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. 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 al Asad 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, replacing his late father.
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.
According to one Syria expert, “Within the military, Bashar has replicated the
patron-client relationship wielded so effectively by his father. Despite repeated
rumors about tension within the Assad family, there is no evidence that any rival —
most notably Asaf Shawkat, Bashar’s brother-in-law and the head of the Shu’bat
al-Mukhabarat al-‘Askariyya (military security department), or Bashar’s younger
brother Mahir, an officer in a Republican Guards division — has sufficient power to12
challenge his rule.”
Figure 1. Map of Syria
12 Eyal Zisser, “Where Is Bashar al-Assad Heading?” Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2008.
The Syrian Opposition
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Over the last half-century, political
Islamist groups have risen to challenge entrenched Middle Eastern monarchical and
authoritarian regimes, a process which culminated in the 1979 overthrow of the Shah
of Iran. Since then, 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 largest13
Islamist opposition group, 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.14 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.
The Damascus Declaration. In 2005, a group of civil society activists,
reformers, communists, Kurdish rights advocates, Islamists, and intellectuals signed
the Damascus Declaration, a document calling for the Syrian government to end the
decades-old state of emergency and allow greater freedom of speech. Soon thereafter,
many of these same signatories crafted the National Council of the Damascus
Declaration, a quasi-political party that has since met periodically to push for
political reform inside Syria. However, many observers suggest that the Damascus
Declaration lacks a popular base of support amongst the Syrian people and remains
an elite-dominated organization.15 After several members of the National Council
were arrested in December 2007, President Bush stated that “The brave men and
13 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; December
14 See International Crisis Group (ICG), “Syria Under Bashar (II): Domestic Policy
Challenges, ICG Middle East Report #24, February 2004.
15 Joe Macaron, “Syria: The Opposition and its Troubled Relationship with Washington,”
Arab Reform Bulletin, February 2008, Volume 6, Issue 1, published by the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace.
women who formed this Council reflect the desires of the majority of Syrian people
to live in freedom, democracy, and peace, both at home and alongside their neighbors
in the region. The Syrian regime continues to hold hundreds of prisoners of
conscience and has arrested more than thirty National Council members in the past
few days. All those detained should be released immediately.”16
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. Syrian
authorities have prevented many dissidents from leaving Syria. Reportedly, the NSF
has held regular meetings with U.S. officials from the State Department and National
Security Council in order to discuss new ways of promoting democracy in Syria.17
Syria’s Stagnant Economy
Since the end of SovietSnapshot of the Syrian Economy
financial and military support for
Syria in the late 1980s, manyTotal Population:19.3 million
observers have questioned theGDP Per Capita:$1,380
ability of the Syrian economy toGDP Growth:3.5-4.2%
grow on its own and keep pacePopulation Growth:2.5%
with its rapidly rising population.Inflation:6.6-7.0%
Syria’s economy is stillSource: World Bank
dominated by an inefficient
public sector, which employs 1.4
million civil servants out of a
workforce of 5.3 million.18 Corruption is endemic. The national budget devotes an
estimated 40%-50% of government revenue to military and intelligence spending,
leaving little for infrastructure investment and education. 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 and drain the national budget.19 Rising fuel import costs are expected to push
the budget deficit to close to a record 10 percent of gross domestic product in 2008.
According to Abdulla Dardari, Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, “The
16 Statement by the President, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary,
December 14, 2007.
17 “Unlikely Allies: To Check Syria, U.S. Explores Bond With Muslim Brothers,” Wall
Street Journal, July 25, 2007.
18 “A Defining Moment,” Middle East Economic Digest, November 16, 2007.
19 Fuel oil is now routinely smuggled into Lebanon from Syria.
system of energy subsidies is no longer viable. In 2008, $7 billion will be spent on
subsidies. That is not a number any developing country can sustain.” 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. The influx of nearly 1.5 million Iraqi
refugees into Syria also has severely strained the mostly state-run economy.
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. In
2007, Syria became a net importer of oil, and production fell to an average of
380,000 barrels per day (bpd), down from 400,000 bpd in 2006.20 Syria continues to
deplete its modest reserves (2.5 billion barrels), as technological problems and a lack
of investment have led to a decline in production.
Syria lost a valuable source of extra oil income when the United States halted21
illegal shipments of Iraqi oil to Syria after the U.S. invasion in April 2003. In
September 2007, Iraqi Oil Minister Hussein Shahristani remarked that the pipeline
20 Syria reached peak production in 1995 with output of around 596,000 bpd.
21 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.
could be reopened, but “there is damage.... Terrorists have been attacking it....
Significant portions have to be replaced.... We have agreed with the Syrians to
inspect it.... But that will take some time.”22 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 export.23 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
Syrian-U.S. Bilateral Issues
Syria and Its Role in Lebanon
A cornerstone of Syrian foreign policy is domination of the internal affairs of
Lebanon. Many hard-line Syrian nationalists consider Lebanon to be an appendage
of the Syrian state and, to this day, there is no official Syrian diplomatic
representation in Beirut. From a geostrategic 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 and Hezbollah. Observers have noted that Hezbollah provides Syria
with strategic depth in Lebanon and serves as a valuable ally against Israel. Given
Syria’s conventional military weakness vis-à-vis Israel, Syria has used Hezbollah as
a proxy against its neighbor, though some analysts 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. According to one recent analysis of the Hezbollah-
Syrian relationship, “Hizbullah is even less likely to endanger itself on behalf of the
secular Syrian regime, and for Damascus, Hizbullah has been little more than an
instrument for manipulating Lebanese affairs and to use against Israel. Hizbullah
Deputy Secretary-General Na’im Qassem’s response, when asked in September 2007
about a possible reaction to an attack on Iran or Syria, is noteworthy: ‘The state that
comes under attack is responsible for responding to the attack and defending24
22 “Iraq Admits it will Take Time to Reopen Syria Pipeline,” Agence France Presse,
September 8, 2007.
23 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.
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
24 Abbas William Samii, “A Stable Structure on Shifting Sands: Assessing the Hizbullah-
Iran-Syria Relationship,” Middle East Journal, Volume 62, NO.1, Winter 2008.
Syria is an important interlocutor between Iran and its Hezbollah protégés;
Iranian weapons transit through Syria on their way to Hezbollah caches in Lebanon.
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. In March
2007, Israeli officials presented the U.N. Security Council and foreign governments
with evidence and pictures of trucks crossing from Syria into Lebanon and unloading
weapons.25 One former U.N. peacekeeping official said it would be “humanly
impossible” to cut off the flow of arms to Hezbollah without Syrian help,26
commenting on the task of interdicting Lebanon’s porous 230-mile border with Syria
and 140-mile Mediterranean coast line.
On April 15, 2008, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Syria was still
supplying weapons to Hezbollah, asserting “[United Nations Security Council]
Resolution 1701 is not being applied.... The transfer of rockets from Syria to Lebanon
is continuing and Hezbollah's military build-up is continuing.” A month earlier,
Israel reportedly had warned Syria (through a European intermediary) that it would
hold Damascus accountable if Hezbollah launched attacks against it in revenge for
the February 2008 killing of Imad Mughniyeh,27 Hezbollah's long-time special
operations or intelligence chief.28 After Mughniyeh’s mysterious murder in
Damascus, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused Israel of carrying out the
operation and vowed revenge. In early April 2008, Israel conducted a number of
disaster response drills in preparation for a potential future conflict with either
Hezbollah, Syria, or both. During the week-long drills, a large portion of Israel’s
population participated in civil defense exercises that authorities said were an attempt
to apply the lessons learned during Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah.
Syrian Attempts to Bring Down the Lebanese Government.
Lebanon’s government is in crisis. Formed after the murder of former Prime Minister
Rafiq Hariri and the subsequent and historic 2005 election that brought an anti-Syrian
majority (known as the March 14 coalition) into power, the government has
witnessed cabinet resignations, assassinations of its politicians, labor strikes, a war
25 “Ban in Lebanon: Arms Smuggling from Syria could Threaten Cease-Fire,” Ha’aretz,
March 31, 2007.
26 “Emerging UN Force for Lebanon Doomed by Sidelining Syria: Ex-diplomats,” Agence
France-Presse News Wires, August 17, 2006. The speaker added that “[y]ou cannot control
the border with Syria” [without Syrian cooperation].
27 On February 13, 2008, Imad Mughniyeh was killed in a car bombing in Damascus, Syria.
Mughniyeh had been responsible for high profile terrorist attacks against Americans,
Israelis, and other foreign nationals. U.S. officials assert that he was behind the bombings
of the United States Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983. Mughniyeh
also was reported to be behind the kidnapping of western hostages in Beirut during the
1980s. No one has claimed responsibility for his killing. Many analysts have speculated that
Israel had carried out the operation, though some believe that Syria itself or another Arab
state could have had a hand in Mughniyeh's murder. Days after the bombing, Hezbollah held
a funeral for Mughniyeh and threatened to retaliate against Israel.
28 “Israel Secretly Warned Syria about Hezbollah,” Reuters, March 14, 2008.
with Israel, an insurrection by foreign and Palestinian militants, and a protracted
political struggle over the presidency during the past two years. Some Lebanese
leaders believe Syria, its intelligence services, and its Lebanese allies are behind
these crises. Although anti-Syrian Lebanese leaders sometimes exaggerate Syria's
reach, most analysts believe that Syria and its supporters in the opposition (e.g.,
Hezbollah, retired General Michel Aoun) intend to bring down Prime Minister
Siniora's government using all means necessary. Whether this opposition coalition
would remain united in the event of an end to Siniora's rule is questionable.
The latest phase of the crisis is focused on the selection of a Lebanese president.
The term of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud expired in late November 2007.
Army commander Michel Suleiman is now the consensus presidential candidate;
however, the 128-member parliament, which must elect a Maronite Christian
president based on the unwritten 1943 National Covenant, has repeatedly postponed
an election due to infighting between March 14 and the opposition over cabinet seats.
Hezbollah has demanded that it receive control of one-third plus one of the cabinet
seats. This arrangement potentially would allow Hezbollah to veto certain policies.
Hezbollah would like to block any attempt by the government to disarm its militia,
as called for by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 and subsequent
Security Council statements.29 In addition, Hezbollah likely would seek to thwart any
future Lebanese government cooperation with the UN-sponsored international
tribunal, which was established to prosecute persons responsible for the Hariri
Overall, there is no consensus over whether the continuing political stalemate
will lead to a resumption in sectarian violence. In January 2008, seven Lebanese
Shiite men were killed by the army during a protest by Shiites over power cuts.30 The
army, still led by Suleiman, pledged to investigate the incident and no further
violence ensued. Nevertheless, the rearmament of Lebanese factions remains a
The Hariri Investigation and Alleged Syrian Involvement. 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 anti-Syrian elements inside Lebanon by conducting an
international investigation into alleged Syrian involvement in the assassination.32 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
29 Associated Press, “U.N. Security Council Calls on Hezbollah to Disarm,” April 15, 2008.
30 “Beirut Shootings Hit Shi'ite Trust in Army,”Reuters, January 31, 2008.
31 International Research Center, “The Formation and Rearming of Militias Threatens
Lebanon’s Security,” Transnational Security Issues Reports, March 21, 2008, accessed on
Open Source Center.
32 Since late 2005, four Lebanese generals have been detained without charge for their
alleged role in the Hariri assassination. Generals Jamil Sayyed, Ali Hajj, Raymond Azar,
and Mustafa Hamdan were formerly the heads of various military and intelligence agencies
“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 accomplices.”
Berlin prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who served as the first chief investigator,
released several preliminary findings early on that suggested possible Syrian
involvement in Hariri’s murder. In an October 2005 report, dubbed the “Mehlis
Report,” the prosecutor wrote that “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.”
An initial release of the Mehlis report contained the names of senior Syrian officials,
including Syria’s military intelligence chief, Asef Shawkat, the president’s
brother-in-law. These names were omitted from the report’s final draft.
Serge Brammertz, a Belgian prosecutor with the International Criminal Court,
succeeded Mehlis, though his findings were less specific than his predecessor.
Brammertz noted on several occasions that Syria had cooperated with his
investigation, and he never specifically named any suspects. In a January 2008
interview, Mehlis criticized the slow pace of Brammertz’s investigation, saying that
“I haven’t seen a word in his reports during the past two years confirming that he has
Brammertz was replaced at the end of 2007 by Canadian prosecutor Daniel
Bellemare. 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 March 2007, the Security Council extended the Commission’s mandate
until June 15, 2008.
The International Tribunal. On May 30, 2007, a divided U.N. Security
Council voted by 10 to 0 with 5 abstentions (Russia, China, South Africa, Indonesia,
and Qatar) to adopt Resolution 1757, which establishes a tribunal outside of Lebanon
to prosecute persons responsible for the Hariri murder of February 14, 2005.34 The
resolution contains a detailed annex covering the establishment of the tribunal. Syria
has adamantly refused to acknowledge the legality of the tribunal and has stated that
33 “The Journal Interview with Detlev Mehlis: Justice for Lebanon,” Wall Street Journal
Europe, January 28, 2008.
34 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.
Syria’s allies in Lebanon managed to obstruct the government’s approval of the tribunal,
which was approved by the cabinet but never raised in parliament. After months of
wrangling, 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.
if solid evidence is produced against its nationals, it will try them at home. Currently,
the United Nations is working on the details of the tribunal procedures, as it seeks
funding and a panel of international and Lebanese judges. The United States has
pledged $13 million toward the tribunal, which will be funded by contributions both
from the international community and the Lebanese government.
In April 2008, a key witness in the Hariri investigation disappeared. Mohammed
Zuheir al-Saddiq, a former member of Syria's security services who was detained in
October 2005 in a Paris suburb in connection with the Hariri murder, reportedly
disappeared from his home and was in hiding fearing an attempt on his life.
According to various news accounts, Saddiq said that Syrian President Bashar al
Asad and his Lebanese counterpart Emile Lahoud ordered Hariri's killing.35
Political Assassinations. Since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime
Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, Syria has been repeatedly accused of using
assassination as a tactic to intimidate and silence anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians,
journalists, and activists. Several anti-Syrian figures were killed on or around dates
related to the ongoing investigation of Hariri’s murder and subsequent efforts to
establish an international tribunal to try his suspected killers. To date, several
prominent Lebanese individuals have been killed, including four members of36
parliament. They include:
!Samir Kassir (June 2, 2005) - columnist for the independent
!George Hawi (June 21, 2005) - former Communist Party secretary
!Gebran Tueni (December 12, 2005) - former editor and publisher of
An-Nahar, also served in parliament,
!Pierre Gemayel (November 21, 2006) - industry minister, member
of the anti-Syrian bloc in parliament, and member of a prominent
!Walid Eido (June 13, 2007) - member of the anti-Syrian bloc in
!Antoine Ghanem (September 19, 2007) - parliamentarian and
member of the Phalange Party, a partner in the ruling anti-Syrian
!Brigadier General Francois al-Hajj (December 12, 2007) - head of
the Lebanese Army’s operations.
35 “Hariri Probe Witness Hiding in Europe: Report, Agence France Presse, April 10, 2008.
36 Currently, the anti-Syrian bloc in parliament controls 68 seats in the 128-seat legislature.
!Wisam Eid (January 25, 2008) - captain in a Lebanese police
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 have
placed a higher value on regional strategic interests rather than shared cultural and
religious affinities.37 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. Others assert that the
foundation of the Syrian-Iranian relationship — a shared concern over Iraq, support
for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and countering Israel — is deeply rooted in the geopolitics
of the region and cannot be easily overturned.
Reliable information on the extent of Iranian influence in Syria is difficult to
quantify.38 Nevertheless, there have been several recent reports of increased Iranian
investment and trade with Syria. In the manufacturing and industrial sectors, Iran has
proposed to build car manufacturing plants in Syria, establish an industrial zone for
Iranian companies in Damascus, invest in concrete production and power generation,
and overhaul Syria’s urban transportation network. In the energy sector, Syria, Iran,
Venezuela and Malaysia recently established a joint petroleum refinery in Homs,
Syria. In addition, Iran, Turkey, and Syria reached a new natural gas deal that would
allow Iran to export 105 billion cubic feet of natural gas annually to Syria via Turkey.
Syrian-Iranian military cooperation also may be expanding. During a visit to
Damascus in the summer of 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
reportedly offered to provide Syria with $1 billion in military aid with which Syria
would purchase tanks, MIG-31 fighter jets, and anti-ship missiles from Russia and
Syrian Support for Terrorist Activity
Since 1979, Syria has appeared regularly on a list of countries, currently five
(Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan are the others) 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, 2006,
published on April 30, 2007), “The Syrian government continued to provide political
37 Thousands of Iranian Shiites do visit Syria annually on pilgrimages to several famous
shrines and mosques.
38 One expert on Syria’s economy, Andrew Tabler, estimates that in 2007 Iran invested $400
million in Syria, which is equal to 66 percent of Arab and half of all non-Arab investment
in the country. See, “Getting Down to Business, The U.S. and Syria,” International Herald
Tribune, September 15, 2007.
39 “Report: Iran Offers Syria $1b. in Aid not to Negotiate with Israel,” Jerusalem Post, July
and material support to Hezbollah and political support to Palestinian terrorist
groups.” The report also notes that although 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, “preliminary findings of
a UN investigation into the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime
Minister Rafik Hariri indicated a strong likelihood of official Syrian
involvement.”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. Since 2001, Khaled Meshaal, the head of the Hamas
politburo, has lived in exile in Damascus, Syria.40
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
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. In July 2007, an explosion at a secret military facility
in Aleppo reportedly killed 15 people and injured close to 50. After months of
secrecy surrounding the blast, Syrian officials acknowledged that the explosion
occurred while attempting to weaponise a Scud-C missile with mustard gas, which
is banned under international law.41 Most of those killed in the blast died as a result
of exposure to VX and Sarin nerve agents and mustard blister agents. According to
Janes Defence Weekly, “Other Iranian engineers were seriously injured with chemical42
burns to exposed body parts not protected by safety overalls.”
Overall, little information is available on Syrian biological programs; however,
the preparers of a 2003 unclassified CIA study on Syrian proliferation estimate that
40 Meshaal was based in Jordan until 1999 when he was expelled by Jordan’s King Abdullah
II. After two years in Doha, Qatar, he moved to Syria.
41 “Syria Blast ‘Linked to Chemical Weapons’, Included Iranians: Report, Agence France
Presse, September 19, 2007.
42 “Explosion aborts CW project run by Iran and Syria,” Janes Defence Weekly, September
“Syria probably also continued to develop a BW capability.”43 Syria has signed, but
not ratified, the Biological Weapons Convention.
Nuclear. Syria, a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has
one small Chinese-supplied nuclear research reactor, which is under International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Syria ratified the Nuclear Non-
Proliferation Treaty in 1969; however, U.S. officials have expressed concern that
Syria has not signed the IAEA Additional Protocol which augments the IAEA’s
ability to investigate a country’s nuclear programs by, for example, providing for
shorter-notice inspections of nuclear facilities.
The IAEA has been investigating whether several countries, including Syria,
were involved in a nuclear technology procurement network run by former Pakistani
nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan.44 In a December 2007 interview with the
Austrian newspaper Die Press, President Asad admitted that back in 2001,
representatives of Khan had approached Syria, though Asad claimed that he had
rejected those overtures, stating that “In 2001, we received a letter from a man
introducing himself as Khan. We do not know if the letter was genuine or if it was
an Israeli trap.... Anyhow, we rejected the offer. We are not interested in nuclear
weapons or a nuclear facility, and I never met Khan.”45 Officials sometimes name
Syria as a country seeking nuclear weapons. According to a 2004 unclassified Central
Intelligence Agency report on Syria, “Pakistani investigators in late January 2004
said they had ‘confirmation’ of an IAEA allegation that A.Q. Khan offered nuclear
technology and hardware to Syria, according to Pakistani press, and we are concerned
that expertise or technology could have been transferred. We continue to monitor
Syrian nuclear intentions with concern.”46 However, two former National Security
Council officials have argued that a Syrian nuclear weapons program is unlikely. One
former NSC official, Flynt Leverett, said in 2005 that “I guess it’s theoretically
possible the Syrians have it, but I don’t know that we really have the evidence to
indicate that they have it.”47 More recently, former official Gary Samore said in a
September 19 interview that “the Syrians have never, as far as we know, developed
a nuclear weapons program.”48
43 Attachment A, Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology
Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 July
Through 31 December 2003.
44 See Paul Kerr, “IAEA: Egypt’s Reporting Failures ‘Matter of Concern’,” Arms Control
Today, March 2005.
45 “Assad says in 2001 He Rejected Offer from Pakistani Smugglers to Buy Nukes,”
Jerusalem Post, December 20, 2007.
46 Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons
of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 January-31 December 2004,
[Released May 2006 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence]. Available online
47 “Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire,” The Brookings Institution, The Saban Center,
April 25, 2005.
48 Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, www.CFR.org, “Samore: A Syrian-North Korean
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 Syrian-Russian deal to construct a $2 billion nuclear
facility in Syria. The announcement was removed from the website, and Russia has
reportedly retracted the deal.
Missiles. Syria has one of the largest missile inventories in the Middle East,
consisting of several hundred short-to-medium range ballistic missiles and artillery
rockets similar to those fired by Hezbollah during the 2006 summer war. According
to one recent report, Syria possesses “200 Scud-Bs, 60-120 Scud-Cs, and a smaller
number of Scud-Ds, which are kept in hardened underground shelters located in
hillsides and tunnels in various parts of the country.”49 The Soviet Union, Syria’s
longtime patron until its dissolution, sold Syria billions of dollars worth of military
equipment, providing them, among other things, with SS-21 “Scarab” short-range
missiles (range of 70km). Since 2004, Syria has sought to purchase Iskander E (SS-
26 “Stone”) 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 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. Russia also pledged in 2007 not to sell either Iran or Syria the S-300PMU-2
Favorit, an advanced long-range Russian air defense system capable of
simultaneously tracking multiple targets.
North Korean-Syrian Missile Cooperation. Once reliant almost
exclusively on the former Soviet Union, Syria turned to North Korea for assistance
with its missile programs. According to a September 2007 report in the Jerusalem
Post, Syrian purchases of North Korean Scud-C missiles and launchers began in
1991with a deal for hundreds of millions of dollars.50 In subsequent years, Syria and
North Korea reached deals to send missile-production and assembly equipment to
manufacture Scud-Cs and Scud-Ds to Syria with assistance from resident North
Korean engineers who helped upgrade and test the ballistic missiles.51
Nuclear Relationship?” September 19, 2007.
[ ht t p: / / www.cf r .or g/ publ i cat i on/ 14250/ syr i anor t h_kor ea.ht ml ?br eadcr umb=% 2F]
49 Michael Eisenstadt, “Syria’s Strategic Weapons Programs,”Policywatch #1288, The
Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 20, 2007.
50 “The secretive Syrian-N. Korean alliance. Overseas sources show the history and scale
of missile cooperation, Jerusalem Post, September 19, 2007.
51 “Expanding Iran-Syria Ties Draw Israeli Alarm,’ Agence France Presse, October 1, 2007.
Relations with Russia
The former Soviet Union was a longtime ally of Syria and a main supplier of
arms to the Syrian military.52 Soviet advisors and military personnel were welcomed
by the late Syrian President Hafiz al Asad, even as Soviet relations with other Arab
governments, such as Egypt, deteriorated after successive Arab defeats at the hands
of the Israeli military in 1967 and 1973 respectively. After Syrian forces clashed
with Israeli troops during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Soviet Union re-
supplied Syria with an entire new air force and replaced those tanks lost during the
conflict. Soviet military sales to Syria in the 1970s and 1980s were extensive, as the
Soviet Union accounted for 90% of all Syrian arms import during that period.
The collapse of the former Soviet Union deprived Syria of its superpower patron
and of a reliable source of military and economic assistance. Both logistical and
political factors limited the amount of aid the successor Russian Federation could or
would extend to Syria, as the Russian economy eroded and Russia pursued a partial
rapprochement with the United States. Syrian insolvency, coupled with a large
Syrian debt to the former Soviet Union for military equipment previously bought,
was also an obstacle to further Syrian arms purchases from Russia (see below).
Periodic sales of older Soviet equipment to Syria continued, however, sometimes
through former Soviet satellite states or newly emerging states. In the late 1990s,
Russian officials began to talk of reviving former Syrian-Soviet military links and
helping Syria modernize its inventory of older Soviet equipment, much of which had
become obsolescent. Journalists speculate that a closer relationship with a former
key Middle East client state would help Russian President Vladimir Putin obtain a
foothold in a strategically important region where U.S. influence is on the rise.
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 dormant53
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 in54
2003 for a reported $73 million. 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
52 The USSR first supplied Syria with military assistance in 1956 and economic aid in 1957.
53 Russian-Syrian cooperation goes well beyond arms sales. In August 2007, Russia
announced its intention to reestablish two Cold War era naval bases in Syria at the ports of
Tartus and Latakia in the eastern Mediterranean. Many military experts believe that a
Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean would be of more symbolic rather than
strategic value. Others suggest that the bases, which have been in disuse since 1991, could
allow the Russian navy to disrupt the Caspian oil pipeline which flows from Baku in
Azerbaijan to the terminus of Ceyhan in Turkey.
54 “Intelligence Pointers - Syrian Missile Order Sparks Israel Concern,” Jane’s Intelligence
Digest, March 9, 2007.
summer 2006 war in Lebanon, Hezbollah militants reportedly used Syrian-supplied,
Russian-manufactured anti-tank missiles against Israeli Merkava tanks, disabling
several of them.55 In February 2007, media reports suggested that Syria may purchase
new stockpiles of Russian anti-tank missiles.
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.56 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
Syria and the Middle East Peace Process
The Israeli-Syrian track of the peace process focuses on the Golan Heights, 450
square miles of land along the border that Israel seized during the June 1967 Six Day
War. 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.
1994-2000. Syria participated in the 1991 Madrid peace conference, where it
supported an end to the state of belligerency with Israel, but not a peace treaty,
preferred a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, and rejected separate agreements
between Israel and Arab parties. For both Syria and Israel, attending the U.S.-Soviet
sponsored Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991 had the pragmatic effect of
extending an indirect form of mutual recognition and each accepting the other’s right
to exist. The two governments continued the bilateral talks begun at Madrid with a
series of meetings between diplomats and military officers in Washington. U.S.
leaders, including former Presidents Clinton and Bush, former Secretaries of State
James Baker and Warren Christopher, former Assistant Secretaries Robert H.
Pelletreau, Edward Djerejian, and Richard Murphy, and former special envoy Dennis
Ross, met with Syrian and Israeli leaders in Damascus, Jerusalem, and Washington
to facilitate peace talks, serve as messengers between the parties, and act as mediators
offering compromises to resolve disputes.
55 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, February 22, 2007.
56 On April 2, 1999, the Clinton Administration imposed sanctions on three Russian firms
— Tula Design Bureau, Volsky Mechanical Plant, and Central Research Institute for
Machine Tool Engineering — for supplying antitank weapons to Syria. The Clinton
Administration also had determined that the Russian government was involved in the
transfer but waived sanctions against the Russian government on grounds of national
During the Clinton Administration, Syria gradually supported the opening of a
bilateral Syrian-Israeli track with the United States serving as a facilitator of the
negotiations. On January 16, 1994, during a meeting in Geneva, President Clinton
reported that former Syrian leader Hafiz al Asad had told him that Syria was ready
to talk about “normal peaceful relations” with Israel. Asad never expressed his ideas
publicly, leaving it to his interlocutors to convey them.
On May 24, 1994, Israel and Syria announced terms of reference for military
talks under U.S. auspices. 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 (November 1995),
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. Talks resumed at the Wye Plantation in Maryland in December 1995, but were
suspended in February/March 1996 when Israeli negotiators went home after a series
of suicide bombings in Israel. Several of the bombings were perpetrated by
Palestinian terrorist groups based in Damascus, Syria.
A new Israeli government, formed in 1996 and led by Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu, called for negotiations, but said that the Golan is essential to Israel’s
security and water needs and that retaining Israeli sovereignty over the Golan would
be the basis for an arrangement with Syria. Asad would not agree to talks unless
Israel honored prior understandings, which, in his view, were based on a total
withdrawal to the June 1967 borders.
More than three years would pass until a new Israeli government, led by Ehud
Barak, would resume negotiations with Syria.57 In June 1999, Israeli Prime
Minister-elect Barak and Asad exchanged compliments via British writer Patrick
Seale. (Asad’s biographer) Israel and Syria later agreed to restart talks from "the
point where they left off," with each side defining the point to its satisfaction. Barak
and the Syrian Foreign Minister met in Washington on December 15-16, 1999, and
in Shepherdstown, WV, from January 3-10, 2000. President Clinton intervened. On
January 7, a reported U.S. summary revealed Israeli success in delaying discussion
of borders and winning concessions on normal relations and an early-warning station.
Reportedly because of Syrian anger over this leak, talks scheduled to resume on
January 19, 2000 were "postponed indefinitely."
In late February 2000, Prime Minister Barak informed his cabinet that former
Israeli leaders, including Yitzhak Rabin, had given guarantees that Israel would fully
withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for Syrian security commitments.58
However, in his discussions with President Clinton over approaching upcoming
negotiations with Asad in Geneva, Barak reportedly asked Clinton to develop a
compromise proposal that did not include a full Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967
57 An Israeli law passed on January 26, 1999 requires a 61-member Knesset (parliament)
majority and a national referendum to approve the return of any part of the Golan Heights.
58 “Rabin Vowed to Pull Back from Golan, Barak Says,” New York Times, February 28,
border.59 On March 26, 2000, President Clinton met Asad in Geneva. A White House
spokesman reported "significant differences remain" and that it would not be
productive for talks to resume. Barak indicated that disagreements centered on
Israel's reluctance to withdraw to the June 1967 border and cede access to the Sea of
Galilee, on security arrangements, and on the early-warning station. Syria agreed that
the border/Sea issue had been the main obstacle.
Hafiz Al Asad died on June 10, 2000; his son, Bashar, succeeded him. Ariel
Sharon became Prime Minister of Israel in February 2001 and vowed to retain the
Golan. In a December 1 New York Times interview, Bashar al Asad said that he was
ready to resume negotiations from where they had broken off. Sharon responded that
Syria first must stop supporting Hezbollah and Palestinian terror organizations.
Many experts believe that Israel and Syria had come extremely close to
finalizing a peace deal. According to former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator
Unfortunately, the history of peacemaking, especially between Israel and Syria,
suggests that opportunities are fleeting and fragile. They are easily lost. After the
Rabin assassination, there was a moment. Asad was not up to moving quickly,
but the original talks at the Wye River Plantation showed great promise. If not
for the four Hamas bombings in Israel in nine days in 1996, there might well
have been a deal in that election year. If not for Barak’s cold feet, there might60
have been a deal in January of 2000.
Since the breakdown in talks eight years ago, Israel and Syria have periodically
called for negotiations to resume. 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 from the point where the U.S.-sponsored
negotiations left off in 2000.
Recent Developments. 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 January
2007, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz published a report about private Israeli and Syrian
citizens who had drafted a document that calls on Israel to return the Golan Heights
to Syria and offers a possible outline for peace negotiations.
Syrian leaders have attempted to capitalize on this changing atmosphere by
suggesting that their government is ready to resume negotiations. Israel believes that
Syria may be bluffing and trying to improve its public image. The Bush
Administration has repeatedly stated that there is no point in resuming Israeli-Syrian
59 William B. Quandt, Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Since 1967, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press and University of California
60 Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace.
New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004, p.589.
negotiations over the Golan Heights as long as Syria sponsors terrorism, a position
that Israel has taken over the last five years. During a 2007 visit to Israel, U.S.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argued that peace talks with Syria would reward
Syrian President Bashar Al Asad for backing Hezbollah and maintaining ties with
Iran. However, in September 2007, two months prior to the launch of a
U.S.-sponsored international Middle East peace meeting, Rice remarked that "We're
not standing in the way. If Israel and Syria believe that they can come to agreement,
then they should come to agreement.... We haven't seen anything in Syrian behavior
to this point that suggests that Syria is doing anything but acting in a destabilizing
way in the Middle East.... But, you know, the United States is never going to stand
in the way of states that want to make peace."
After months of speculation, Syria agreed to attend the U.S.-sponsored
Annapolis peace summit in November 2007. It sent a deputy foreign minister to the
meeting, and his presence sparked speculation about a possible resumption of
Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Nevertheless, in the weeks following Annapolis, official
Israeli and Syrian statements downplayed a possible thaw in relations. President Asad
remarked, “It is perhaps too late to talk about peace in the last year of this U.S.
Administration. It will be preoccupied with elections.” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert also concluded, “Conditions are not yet at the point for talks with Syria....
There's enough that we will have to do that will be heartbreaking,”61 probably
referring to ongoing talks with the Palestinians. In recent months, the Israeli, Syrian,
and Turkish press have mentioned that the Turkish government is attempting to
facilitate a resumption in the Israeli-Syrian peace track.62
While many experts believe that the foundation for an Israeli-Syrian deal exists,
larger strategic issues continue to divide the parties. From Israel’s standpoint, there
is concern about Syria’s ability to guarantee that it would rein in Iranian-supported
Hezbollah and prevent future attacks against Israel. From Syria's standpoint, a peace
agreement with Israel, even a cold peace, would change the entire orientation of its
foreign policy away from Iran, a change the Asad regime may be unwilling to make
without guarantees of diplomatic and financial support from the United States and
Europe. Furthermore, Syria may insist that it will be politically difficult to conclude
a separate peace agreement with Israel without significant progress on the
Iraqi Refugees in Syria
Of all of Iraq’s neighbors, Syria has absorbed the most Iraqi refugees (1.3
million est.).63 Several suburban Damascus neighborhoods, such as Saida Zeinab and
61 "A Payoff for Syrians: Seats at the Table, at Least," New York Times, November 30, 2007.
62 “Columnist Comments on Turkey's Mediation Between Syria, Israel,” Hurriyet (Istanbul),
accessed via Open Source Center, Document ID#GMP20080407016004, March 31, 2008.
63 As of January 2008, UNHCR has registered over 142,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria. In the
past, the fear of coming forward and facing deportation has kept Iraqis from approaching
UNHCR and documenting their plight. Now, as families deplete their savings, many more
Jeramana, have been completely overtaken by Iraqi refugees.64 Reportedly, Iraqi
political parties and religious groups have opened up liaison offices in Syria to
service their fellow co-religionists. According to one writer’s account, “For those
Iraqis who do make it to Syria, there is little assistance. Some rely on the same
political parties they know from Iraq.”65
Iraqis who have settled in and around Damascus have sought refuge from
sectarian violence and random street crime, conditions that are contained by an
authoritarian Syrian police state. In addition, it had been far easier for Iraqis to cross
over the border into Syria and settle there without fear of deportation. However, in
late 2007, the Iraqi government demanded that Syria tighten its border controls and
stem the flow of refugees heading for Damascus. Reportedly, Iraqi Prime Minister
Nuri al Maliki told the Syrian government that the constant flow of refugees
undermined his government’s efforts to stabilize Iraq.66As a result, the Syrian
government imposed a new visa regulation in October 2007 requiring that all Iraqi
passport holders obtain a special visa at the Syrian embassy in Baghdad before
attempting to cross the border. While there are some exceptions to this new policy
and Iraqis are still coming to Syria, the overall number of Iraqi refugees entering
Syria has since declined.67
Iraqi refugees in Syria, like in other neighboring countries, have had difficulty
adapting to their new life circumstances. Though many Iraqis have enough personal
savings to pay for food and shelter, more and more refugees are now returning to Iraq
after having depleted their resources. According to a recent UNHCR survey in Syria,
46%of those Iraqis returning to their homeland said that they could no longer afford
to live in Syria.68 33% of Iraqi surveyed claimed that their financial resources will
last for three months or less, with 24% relying on remittances from family abroad to
survive. Housing shortages in Iraqi neighborhoods have led to soaring rents. In order
to assist the most destitute, aid agencies have begun issuing ATM cards to some
refugees to pay for their basic needs. Other organizations have established food
distribution programs in Syria.
In Syria, thousands of Iraqi women and girls have turned to prostitution to
support their families, as Iraqis are barred from working there legally. According to
one aide worker in Syria, “I met three sisters-in-law recently who were living
are registering in order to receive certain aid benefits.
64 Many Iraqis, particularly Shiites, were already familiar with the capital city of Damascus
due to the presence of the shrine of Saida Zeinab (the Prophet' Muhammad’s granddaughter)
65 Nir Rosen, “No Going Back,” Boston Review, September/October 2007.
66 “Syria Shuts Main Exit From War for Iraqis,” New York Times, October 21, 2007.
67 Iraqis can obtain a business and student visa for entering Syria. In addition, parents with
children in Syrian schools and individuals seeking certain medical treatments also are
allowed to enter Syria.
68 “More Iraqis heading to Syria than returning home: UN,” Agence France Presse, February
together and all prostituting themselves.... They would go out on alternate nights,
each woman took her turn, and then divide the money to feed all the children.”69 Each
month, the Syrian police detain and deport hundreds of Iraqi women engaged in
The Syrian government has sought assistance from the international community
in dealing with the Iraqi refugee issue. As a U.S. State Department-designated State
Sponsor of Terrorism, Syria is ineligible for U.S. bilateral assistance. Syria claims
that because it provides public subsidies for common household necessities such as
bread and fuel, the rising demand for such benefits due to the influx of Iraqis is
straining the national budget and costing Syria several billion dollars a year.
U.S. Policy Toward Syria
The collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process post-2000, the subsequent start
of the second Palestinian intifada, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the 2003
Iraq war, and Syria’s reaction to the Bush Administration’s policy toward Lebanon,
have all hurt U.S.-Syrian relations. Some U.S. officials have argued that the United
States should press for a change in Syrian behavior by pressuring the regime from
within and by isolating it internationally. After the February 2005 assassination of
former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, widely blamed on Syrian agents,
Secretary of State Rice recalled U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey to Washington
for consultations; to date, the State Department has not sent a replacement.
After the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war, which was widely perceived as a setback
for Israel and for U.S. efforts to stabilize Lebanon, criticism of Administration policy
toward Syria grew. Some experts suggested that the United States resume normal
diplomatic relations with Syria and engage the Asad regime in a broader dialogue.
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 it involve all parties, including
Syria. Advocates of this approach believe that renewed U.S.-Syrian relations could
renew Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations, secure Syrian support in stabilizing Iraq, and
ensure Syrian assistance in isolating Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. 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.
In recent months, both advocates of engaging Syria and proponents of additional
sanctions have proposed new actions. H.R. 2332, the 2007 Syria Accountability and
Liberation Act, would place new sanctions on countries and individuals who help
Syria gain access to weapons of mass destruction. It also calls for sanctions against
those who invest $5 million or more in Syria’s energy sector. On the other hand, a
69 “Iraqi women survive in Damascus by prostituting themselves,” International Herald
Tribune, May 28, 2007.
bipartisan group of high- level U.S. foreign policy experts recently sent a letter to
President Bush stating that “We commend the Administration for its decision to
invite Syria to the [Annapolis] conference; it should be followed by genuine
engagement. A breakthrough on this track could profoundly alter the regional
landscape. At a minimum, the conference should launch Israeli-Syrian talks under
In order to compel Syrian cooperation on issues of importance to U.S. national
security policy in the Middle East, the Bush Administration and Congress have
expanded U.S. sanctions on Syria. Analysts are divided over whether economic
pressure on the Asad regime has been effective in achieving U.S. goals. On the one
hand, it appears that sanctions have deterred American companies from investing in
Syria’s energy and industrial sectors. According to one report, General Electric
recently declined to bid on a Syrian government contract for the construction of
power plants and then it persuaded Japanese-owned Mitsubishi not do bid either.71
On the other hand, the dollar value of U.S.-Syrian trade has increased in recent years
(see table below). Reportedly, U.S.-made electronics are smuggled into Syria from
U.S.-Syrian Trade Statistics 2006-2007
($s in millions)
U.S. Exports to Syria$221.4$356.7
U.S. Imports from Syria$188.4$159.4
Source: U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) Interactive Tariff and Trade DataWeb,
accessible at [http://www.dataweb.usitc.gov].
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
70 “'Failure Risks Devastating Consequences,'” The New York Review of Books, Volume 54,
Number 17, November 8, 2007. By Zbigniew Brzezinski, Lee Hamilton, Carla Hills, Nancy
Kassebaum-Baker, Thomas R. Pickering, Brent Scowcroft et al.
71 “Tired of Energy Ills, Syrians Doubt the West Is to Blame,” New York Times, August 15,
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.
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 provision 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
Appropriations 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 Section 607 of P.L.110-161, the FY2008 Consolidated Appropriations
Act. This section, 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. 109-
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.
The 2003 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.
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
!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.72 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 Syria imports from the United States.73
72 Christopher Marquis, “Bush Imposes Sanctions on Syria, Citing Ties to Terrorism,” New
York Times, May 12, 2004.
73 Glenn Kessler, “President Imposes Sanctions On Syria,” Washington Post, May 12, 2004.
Targeted Financial Sanctions
Since the initial implementation of the Syria Accountability Act (in Executive
Order 13338 dated May 2004), the President has repeatedly taken action to sanction
individual members of the Asad regime’s inner circle.74 E.O. 13338 declared a
national emergency with respect to Syria and authorized the Secretary of the Treasury
to block the property of individual Syrians. Based on section 202(d) of the National
Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1622(d)), the President has annually extended his
authority to block the property of individual Syrians (first on May 5, 2005, then again
on April 25, 2006, and lastly on May 8, 2007). When issuing each extension, the
President has noted that the actions and policies of the government of Syria continued
to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat.
The following individuals and entities have been targeted by the U.S. Treasury
!On June 30, 2005, 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), as
Specially Designated Nationals, thereby freezing any assets they may
have in the United States and banning any U.S. persons, including
U.S. financial institutions outside of the United States, from
conducting transactions with them.75 Kanaan allegedly committed
suicide in October 2005, though some have speculated that he may
have been murdered.
!On January 18, 2006, U.S. Treasury Department took the same
actions against the President’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, chief
of military intelligence.
!On August 15, 2006, the U.S. Treasury Department froze assets of
two other senior Syrian officers: Major General Hisham Ikhtiyar, for
allegedly contributing to Syria’s support of foreign terrorist
organizations including Hezbollah; and Brigadier General Jama’a
Jama’a, for allegedly playing a central part in Syria’s intelligence
operations in Lebanon during the Syrian occupation.76
74 According to the original text of E.O. 13338, the President’s authority to declare a
national emergency authorizing the blocking of property of certain persons and prohibiting
the exportation or re-exportation of certain goods to Syria is based on “The Constitution and
the laws of the United States of America, including the International Emergency Economic
Powers Act (50 U.S.C. 1701 et seq.) (IEEPA), the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C.
1601 et seq.) (NEA), the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act
of 2003, Public Law 108-175 (SAA), and section 301 of title 3, United States Code.”
Available online at [http://www.treas.gov/offices/enforcement/ofac/legal/eo/13338.pdf]
75 See, [http://www.treas.gov/press/releases/js2617.htm]
76 See, [http://www.treas.gov/press/releases/hp60.htm]
!On January 4, 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 (E.O.13382) 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
!On August 1, 2007, the President issued E.O. 13441 blocking the
property of persons undermining the sovereignty of Lebanon or its
democratic processes and institutions. On November 5, 2007, the
U.S. Treasury Department designated four individuals reportedly
affiliated with the Syrian regime's efforts to reassert Syrian control
over the Lebanese political system, including Assaad Halim Hardan,
Wi'am Wahhab and Hafiz Makhluf (under the authority of
E.O.13441) and Muhammad Nasif Khayrbik (under the authority of
!On February 13, 2008, President Bush issued another Order
(E.O.13460) blocking the property of senior Syrian officials.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the order “targets
individuals and entities determined to be responsible for or who
have benefitted from the public corruption of senior officials of the
Syrian regime. The order also revises a provision in Executive Order
13338 to block the property of Syrian officials who have undermined
U.S. and international efforts to stabilize Iraq.79 One week later,
under the authority of E.O.13460, the U.S. Treasury Department
froze the U.S. assets and restricted the financial transactions of Rami
Makhluf, the 38 year-old cousin of President Bashar al Asad.
Makhluf is a powerful Syrian businessman who serves as an
interlocutor between foreign investors and Syrian companies.
According to one report, “Since a military coup in 1969, the Asads
have controlled politics while the Makhlufs have been big business
players. The tradition continues in the next generation, with Bashar
al-Assad (sic) as president and Rami Makhluf as a leading force in
77 See, [http://www.treas.gov/press/releases/hp216.htm]
78 See, [http://www.treas.gov/press/releases/hp666.htm]
79 A previous executive order, E.O. 13315, blocks property of former Iraqi President Saddam
Hussein and members of his former regime. On June 9, 2005, the Treasury Department
blocked property and interests of a Syrian company, SES International Corp., and two of its
officials under the authority of E.O.13315.
80 “Sanctions on Businessman Target Syria's Inner Sanctum,” Washington Post, February
!Makhluf is a major stakeholder in Syriatel, the country’s largest
mobile phone operator, which is reportedly being sold to the Turkish
company Turkcell. According to Reuters, negotiations over the sale
were taking longer than expected because some Turkcell executives
have U.S. passports.81 Makluf’s holding company, Cham, is
involved in several other large deals, including an agreement with
Syria's state airline and a Kuwaiti company to set up a new airline.
Several months ago, Dubai-based real-estate company Emaar
Properties announced it had agreed to set up a $100 million venture
with Cham to develop real estate projects in Syria. Makhluf also is
a minority shareholder in Gulfsands Petroleum,82 a publicly-traded,
United Kingdom-incorporated energy company. According to the
Wall Street Journal, a Gulfsands executive said the Treasury
Department's sanctioning of Makhlouf would have no impact on the
company pursuing its partnership with Cham.83
Recent Congressional Action
New Legislation. H.R. 2332, the Syria Accountability and Liberation Act,
would place new sanctions on countries and individuals who help Syria gain access
to weapons of mass destruction. It also calls for sanctions against those who invest
$5 million or more in Syria’s energy sector. The bill also states that existing U.S.
sanctions shall remain in effect until the President certifies that Syria has “ceased
support for terrorism, has dismantled biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons
programs and has committed to combat their proliferation, respects the boundaries
and sovereignty of all neighboring countries, and upholds human rights and civil
H.Res. 738 (passed by the House on October 15, 2007), among other things,
condemns the campaign of murder, terror, and intimidation aimed at overthrowing
the democratically-elected government of Lebanon and establishing a new Lebanese
government subservient to the will and interests of Syria and Iran. S.Res.353 (passed
by the Senate on October 18, 2007), among other things, condemns the Governments
of Syria and Iran for their undue material interference in the internal political affairs
of Lebanon, including in the election of a new president, and for their repeated
violations of the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon, and calls on the
Governments of Syria and Iran to comply with United Nations Security Council
Resolution 1701, particularly with respect to preventing unauthorized shipment of
arms into Lebanon.
81 “Turkcell Continues Talks on Syriatel Stake,” Reuters, April 14, 2008.
82 Gulfsands' chief executive and largest shareholder, John Dorrier, is an American
citizen, and the company has offices in Houston.
83 “Syrian Tycoon Bristles At US Sanctions Against Him,” the Wall Street Journal, March