Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
Jeremy M. Sharp
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
 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 6
Israeli 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 grew more estranged from the United States throughout this decade,
Syrian-Iranian relations 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.
In recent months, the Obama Administration and the 111th Congress have increased calls for
greater U.S. engagement with Syria. Several Congressional delegations have visited Syria, and
Administration officials recently held talks with their Syrian counterparts. Whether or not this
dialogue will lead to substantial changes in the U.S.-Syrian bilateral relationship remains to be
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 developments.
Syria 2000-2009: From Isolation to Engagement…………………………………………………………………. 1
A New U.S. Approach Toward Syria?…………………………………………………………………………… 3
Current Issues ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 5
2008-2009 War in Gaza………………………………………………………………………………………………. 5
A Syria-Israel Peace Deal?………………………………………………………………………………………….. 5
Syria’s Role in Lebanon……………………………………………………………………………………………… 6
Iraqi Refugees in Syria……………………………………………………………………………………………….. 7
Clandestine Nuclear Program and the IAEA Investigation………………………………………………. 7
Relations with Iran …………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 9
Syrian Support for Terrorist Activity…………………………………………………………………………….. 9
U.S. Sanctions …………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 10
General Sanctions Applicable to Syria…………………………………………………………………….11
Specific Sanctions Against Syria ………………………………………………………………………….. 12
The 2003 Syria Accountability Act……………………………………………………………………….. 13
Targeted Financial Sanctions ……………………………………………………………………………….. 14
Effect of U.S. Sanctions on Syria’s Economy…………………………………………………………. 16
Recent Congressional Action ………………………………………………………………………………………….. 17
New Legislation…………………………………………………………………………………………………. 17
Syria’s Need for Economic Growth and Reform………………………………………………………………… 17
Internal Political Scene…………………………………………………………………………………………………… 18
Pillars of the Regime………………………………………………………………………………………………… 18
The Alawite Sect ………………………………………………………………………………………………… 18
The Ba’th Party………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 19
The Military and Security Establishment……………………………………………………………….. 19
The Syrian Opposition ……………………………………………………………………………………………… 20
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood ………………………………………………………………………….. 20
The Damascus Declaration ………………………………………………………………………………….. 20
Syrian Dissidents, Exiles, and Defectors Abroad ……………………………………………………. 21
Over the last decade, Syria has been isolated by key international players but has endured their
pressure and now may be poised to benefit from a more advantageous regional political
environment. Syria’s diplomatic relations with the United States spiraled downward nearly ten
years ago after the breakdown of Syrian-Israeli negotiations that had been sponsored by the
Clinton Administration. The ensuing Palestinian intifadah (uprising) in 2000 and Syrian support
for Palestinian terrorist groups, including Hamas, stalled what had been a slow but steady process
of diplomatic engagement with the United States that took place throughout the mid to late 1990s.
Although U.S.-Syrian relations slightly improved following the September 11, 2001 terrorist
attacks (Syria shared intelligence on Al Qaeda with U.S. officials), the U.S. invasion of Iraq,
coupled with the Bush Administration’s formulation of a region-wide democracy promotion
policy that pushed for a reassertion of Lebanese sovereignty from Syria, placed the Asad regime
on the defensive and, for several years, U.S. policymakers openly supported a policy of regime
change in Syria. At the height of U.S. pressure, Congress passed a Syria sanctions bill (Syria
Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003) that curtailed most bilateral
trade and authorized further targeted sanctions against Syrian companies and members of
President Bashar al Asad’s inner circle.
Notwithstanding this deterioration in U.S.-Syrian bilateral relations, Syria had maintained
somewhat better relations with European and Arab states until the 2005 assassination of former
Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, which nearly all experts believe was orchestrated at the
highest levels of the Syrian government. Alleged Syrian complicity in Hariri’s murder delayed the
European Union’s ratification of its Association Agreement with Syria. It angered France, whose
former President Jacques Chirac had been a close friend of Hariri. It also angered the Saudi royal
family, whose leaders had long-established relationships with Hariri and his construction
company, Solidaire. International outrage culminated in a series of United Nations Security
Council resolutions establishing an independent investigation commission and, ultimately, a
tribunal outside of Lebanon to prosecute persons responsible for the Hariri murder.
Events started to turn in Syria’s favor beginning in 2006. The Israel-Hezbollah war that summer
served to remind the international community of how easily Hezbollah can destabilize the
Lebanese-Israeli border. It also emphasized the need for separate Israeli peace deals with Syria
and Lebanon. In addition, sectarian violence in Iraq sparked a reevaluation of U.S. policy there,
as reflected in the 2006 Iraq Study Group Report (ISG), which, among other things, called for
U.S. engagement with Iraq’s neighbors, including Syria and Iran. Previously, Syria, among other
countries, had been frequently accused of destabilizing Iraq and, while the ISG Report did not
absolve the Asad regime for its tacit support of insurgents and foreign fighters, it somewhat
redirected the discourse on Iraqi stability by challenging U.S. policymakers to engage Iraq’s
neighbors constructively rather than merely blame some of them for continued sectarian violence.
Events in Lebanon also worked to Syria’s advantage, culminating in Hezbollah’s “coup” in the
spring of 2008, during which the pro-Western Lebanese government was paralyzed and unable to
forcibly prevent Hezbollah gunmen from taking over wide swaths of Beirut. Syria assisted
mediators in facilitating a reconciliation agreement between the March 14th anti-Syrian coalition,
led by Saad Hariri (Rafiq’s son), and the Hezbollah-led opposition in Doha, Qatar in May 2008.
The “Doha Agreement” solidified the position of Syria’s ally, Hezbollah, in Lebanese domestic
politics and exposed the weaknesses in U.S., European, and Saudi attempts to neutralize Syrian
influence in Lebanon.
Throughout 2008, as Iraq stabilized and reports surfaced of the existence of indirect Syrian-Israeli
negotiations via Turkey, more U.S. foreign policy experts began to argue that an incoming U.S.
administration should incorporate a policy of diplomatic engagement with Syria as part of a
broader reassessment of U.S. strategy in the region. After the conclusion of the Doha agreement,
France reestablished its ties with Syria. As a precondition to improved Franco-Syrian relations,
President Asad pledged to formally establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon.1 Soon thereafter,
the European Union and Syria initialed an updated Association Agreement2 which could
dramatically increase EU-Syrian trade.3 Finally, the UN Development Programme (UNDP)
agreed to partially finance a two-year study of commercial reforms to prepare Syria for accession
to the World Trade Organization (WTO). For years, the United States has blocked any Syrian
attempt to secure membership in the WTO.
Although there have been some notable setbacks to the West’s “courting” of Syria (e.g.,
allegations of a clandestine Syrian nuclear program following Israel’s September 2007 air strike,
continued Syrian human rights violations, an October 2008 U.S. air strike inside Syria against
Iraqi insurgents), advocates of engagement with Syria assert that a normalization of ties with the
Asad regime may not only further Middle East peace, but, more broadly, weaken Iran, the
primary U.S. rival in the region and one of Syria’s key patrons. Whether or not this assumption
will be born out remains an open question. In recent weeks, there have been several developments
in U.S.-Syrian relations.
On February 9, 2009, the Syrian government announced that the U.S. Department of Commerce
had approved an export license of Boeing 747 spare parts to Syria’s national air carrier, Syrianair.4 According to Syria’s Transportation Minister Dr Ya’rub Badr, “We received, through
the Foreign Ministry, the US Commerce Department’s approval of the necessary export license to
repair two Syrian Airlines Boeing 747 planes that were taken out of service because it was not
possible to repair them at that time due to the US embargo. We see this approval as a positive
sign.”5 However, according to one unnamed source, “This was a purely technical decision taken
by the U.S. authorities after a long review. It does not represent any change in the sanctions
regime.”6 In 2008, Syrianair and European aerospace manufacturer Airbus tentatively agreed to a
sale of up to 54 commercial aircraft; however, the completion of the sale may be complicated by
U.S. sanctions since the Airbus planes use U.S. components.
In March 2009, U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs Jeffrey Feltman
(and former U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon) and National Security Council Middle East Director
Daniel Shapiro traveled to Syria for meetings with high level Syrian officials. Their trip followed
an earlier February 2009 meeting between Feltman and Syria’s Ambassador to the United States,
Imad Mustapha. According to Ambassador Feltman, “I don’t want to go into a lot of detail in
what was discussed in diplomatic channels today or elsewhere, but you know, you’ve heard the
Syrians say that they want a stable, secure Iraq…. Both sides say they want a unified Iraq. There
are areas like this where our interests coincide…. And these are areas that we can explore…”7
Despite signs of increased U.S. diplomatic engagement with Syria, there are several key
unresolved questions facing U.S. policy, including:
• Although there is solid U.S. support for a resumption of Syrian-Israeli
negotiations, are Israelis prepared to enter into a peace accord with Syria? What
would Israel gain from such a deal? Would Syria be able or willing to control or
disarm Hezbollah in Lebanon as Israel has demanded?
• Should Syrian-U.S. relations markedly improve, would closer ties to the West
come at the expense of Syria’s ties to Iran? From a geostrategic standpoint, are
Syria and Iran natural allies?
• Would closer Syrian ties to the West come at the expense of Lebanese
sovereignty? Would Syria still be expected to cooperate with the international
investigation/tribunal of the Hariri assassination?
Syria and Israel have never concluded a peace treaty, and Syrian support for Palestinian
militant/terrorist groups, such as Hamas (among others), is its indirect way of maintaining
pressure on Israel. Since 2001, Khaled Meshaal (alt.sp. Meshal or Mish’al), the head of the
Hamas politburo, has lived in exile in Damascus, Syria.
Syria firmly opposed Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Soon after the start of Israeli air
strikes, Syria said that Israel’s December attack “closed the door on the Syrian-Israeli indirect
talks.” After both Israel and Hamas declared a cease-fire, Syria called on its fellow Arab countries
to suspend the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative and demanded, along with Hezbollah and
Iran, the unconditional opening of all Israeli crossings into Gaza, echoing Hamas’s stance.
Although the Gaza war may have temporarily tabled the Israeli-Syrian track, it has sparked some
calls for more engagement with certain elements of Hamas. Although Western governments,
including the United States, have refrained from direct contact with Hamas leaders, should calls
for more engagement with the group grow louder, Syria could play a key role as an intermediary,
though this remains, for the moment, a distant possibility.
The recent war in Gaza has temporarily halted talk of a resumption of direct Syrian-Israeli peace
negotiations. Indirect, Turkish-mediated talks were announced in May 2008. The goal of the four
rounds of talks that were held was to reach common ground on issues relating to an Israeli
withdrawal from the Golan Heights, security arrangements, water, and normalization of
relations—thus moving toward direct negotiations. President Asad has said that eventually direct
negotiations would tackle the details of these matters, but, when dealing with water, Syria would
never compromise on its interpretation of the 1967 borders that stretch to Lake Tiberias (the Sea
of Galilee).
Details of the indirect talks remain unknown. President Asad has publicly stated on several
occasions that he would wait for a new U.S. administration before engaging Israel directly. In late
December 2008, Asad referred twice in public statements to his interest in moving from indirect
talks with Israel to direct peace negotiations. In his statements, Asad reiterated his demands that
direct talks can only take place if Israel assures him that it is prepared to withdraw fully from the
Golan Heights and if the United States agrees to be a sponsor.
The possibility of direct Syrian-Israeli negotiations depends greatly on the outlook of Israel’s next
coalition government. Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been asked to form a government following
the Likud party’s strong showing in Israel’s February Knesset elections, has said that his party
will not cede the Golan Heights. On December 23, 2008, while Prime Minister Olmert was in
Turkey for discussions on negotiations with Syria, Netanyahu remarked:
“We are here to say clearly to the people of Israel and the entire world that the government
of Israel under the Likud’s leadership will remain in the Golan and safeguard it as a strategic asset for the country’s future….It doesn’t matter what Olmert says in Ankara. We say the
government under my leadership will not withdraw from the Golan.”8
In March 2009, Dore Gold, one of Netanyahu’s key advisors, stated that “Netanyahu has made it
clear that presently he would like to focus on the Palestinian track.” He added that those who
“suggest that he will begin by working on the negotiations with Syria are basing themselves on an
inaccurate reading of Netanyahu’s diplomacy in 1998, during his contacts with Damascus.”9
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, could
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 would be politically difficult to conclude
a separate peace agreement with Israel without significant progress on the Israeli-Palestinian
track. Other experts (and some U.S. officials) also oppose separating the Syrian track from the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
During the Bush Administration, U.S. policy toward Lebanon focused on supporting anti-Syrian
political factions. Most experts assert that the May 2008 Doha Agreement, which laid the
groundwork for the foundation of a unity government in which Hezbollah and the opposition
gained a blocking minority (one-third plus one) of cabinet seats, effectively neutralized U.S. and
other outside attempts to isolate Syria’s Lebanese allies.
The outcome of the June 2009 Lebanese parliamentary elections and progress (or lack thereof) on
the United Nations Hariri tribunal may be critical in determining the future direction of Syrian-
Lebanese ties and the overall U.S. policy approach toward the Levant. Some experts believe that
the Syrian-allied opposition – Hezbollah, Michel Aoun10 (the leader of the Free Patriotic
Movement, the largest Christian party in parliament), and Amal (Lebanon’s oldest Shiite party) –
may be poised for a victory.11 For the first time, polls will be held on the same day in all electoral
districts, a result of a new electoral law issued in late September 2008 following an agreement to
redraw the electoral districts. Government officials hope that this change will prevent the
outcomes from one district from affecting voting patterns in the rest of the country. If Syria’s
allies secure a parliamentary majority, continued U.S. support for Lebanon’s economy, civil
society, and armed forces, which has been substantial since 2005, could be in jeopardy.
After months of delay, the Hariri tribunal at the Hague officially commenced on March 1, 2009. It is comprised of seven foreign and four Lebanese judges. Lebanese criminal law will be applied
by the Tribunal subject to the exclusion of penalties such as death penalty and forced labor, which
 are otherwise applicable under the Lebanese law. The issuing of formal charges or the start of an
actual trial are expected to take place over the next several months. Four Lebanese generals have
remained in Lebanese custody without formal charges. Overall, most observers believe that
continued delays in the now nearly four-year Hariri investigation work to the advantage of the
Asad regime, which would like the entire issue to vanish.12
On October 15, 2008, after a series of negotiations, Syria and Lebanon established formal
diplomatic ties for the first time since the two countries gained independence sixty years before.
However, Syria has not sent an ambassador to Beirut, though it has opened an embassy there. In
January 2009 Lebanese diplomat Michel Khoury was named and approved as Lebanon’s
ambassador to Syria.
During the height of sectarian warfare in Iraq between 2006 and 2007, nearly 1.3 million Iraqi
refugees flooded Damascus and its suburbs. Syria contends that it has expended significant
resources in hosting displaced Iraqis with very little acknowledgment or support from the nascent
Iraqi government or international community. Iraqi refugees have settled at least temporarily in
the Damascus suburbs, changing the character of entire neighborhoods and creating strains on the
Syrian domestic economy in the form of inflation, rising rents, housing demands, and impending
water and electricity shortages. The sex trade in Syria has grown, as many Iraqi women work as
prostitutes in Syria.13 The Iraqi refugee population in Syria has many female-headed households
in which mothers lack personal savings and cannot work legally. Syrian authorities maintained an
open door policy regarding new arrivals until they imposed a visa requirement in September
2007, and demanded more Iraqi government and international assistance. So far, the Maliki
government has provided very little, pledging only $15 million to Syria in April 2007. In
addition, Syria’s own cumbersome rules have dissuaded international aid organizations from
working with its inefficient bureaucracy. As a result, international aid organizations claim that
Iraqis in Syria have received insufficient support, though it appears that only the most destitute
have been forced to return to Iraq.
In 2008, as Iraq stabilized, some refugees returned home. According to U.N. statistics, more than
220,000 Iraqis who fled abroad (not just to Syria) or were displaced within the country after the
2003 U.S.-led invasion returned home in 2008. Nevertheless, refugees may still be hesitant to
return because standards of living in Syria are much better than in Iraq.
On September 6, 2007, an Israeli air strike inside Syrian territory destroyed what is now referred
to as Al Kibar, a remote desert facility which may have housed a nuclear reactor. On April 24,
2008, U.S. intelligence officials briefed some Members of Congress and provided a background
news briefing to the media on the nature of the facility. According to reports in the Washington
Post, Syria and North Korea were suspected of collaborating on a secret nuclear program since
1997.14 Since then, senior North Korean officials and scientists from North Korea’s Yongbyon
nuclear complex reportedly visited Syria several times before construction began in Syria at Al
Kibar, between 2001 and 2003. In the spring of 2007, Israel reportedly provided the
Administration with photographs of the interior of the alleged facility still under construction.
According to the Washington Post, the “pictures depicted a site similar to the one at Yongbyon,
which produces plutonium for nuclear weapons.”
In order to stress the imminent danger posed by Syria’s actions, senior U.S. intelligence officials
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.15 Others noted that the reactor there would have ultimately
produced enough plutonium for one or two bombs within a year of becoming operational.16
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 country.17
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
In June 2008, U.N. inspectors visited some areas surrounding Al Kibar. In late 2008, the U.N.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded that the facility had similarities to a
nuclear reactor and chemically processed uranium particles were found at the site, but that a final
determination could be made until Syria provides “the necessary transparency.”18 In a follow-up
report in early 2009, the IAEA said that enough uranium particles had turned up in soil samples to
constitute a “significant” find. In response, Syria claims that the uranium particles came from
depleted uranium used in Israeli munitions. Syria also claims that the site was a conventional
military base, but then disclosed in February 2009 that a new missile facility had been constructed
at Al Kibar.19 According to Gregory Schulte, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, the IAEA’s report
“contributes to the growing evidence of clandestine nuclear activities in Syria…. We must
understand why such (uranium) material — material not previously declared to the IAEA —
existed in Syria and this can only happen if Syria provides the cooperation requested.”20
Syria’s historic rivalry with neighboring Iraq21 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.22 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 a resurgent 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.
Nevertheless, there have been several recent reports of increased Iranian investment and trade
with Syria. In the financial sector, Iran has stated its intention to establish a joint Iranian-Syrian
bank, possibly involving Bank Saderat and the Commercial Bank of Syria – 2 entities which have
been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. In the manufacturing and industrial sectors, the
Iran Khodro Industrial Group has established two car assembly plants in Syria. Iranian companies
also have invested in concrete production, power generation, and urban transportation. In the
energy sector, Syria, Iran, Venezuela and Malaysia 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. Despite increased
Iranian investments, the overall volume of Iranian-Syrian trade remains low. According to the
Economist Intelligence Unit, bilateral trade may total between just $160 and $400 million.23
Ironically, the total volume of U.S. trade with Syria exceeds that of Iran-Syria.
Syria was placed on the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism List in 1979. According
to the U.S. State Department’s most recent annual report on global terrorism, “The Syrian
government has not been implicated directly in an act of terrorism since 198624, although an ongoing UN investigation into the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime
Minister Rafiq Hariri continued to examine Syrian involvement.”25
With the Hariri investigation and possible trial still unresolved, Syria remains indirectly involved
in terrorist activity, as the Asad regime supports terrorist proxy groups to further its foreign policy
aims in the Levant region. For years, Syria has indirectly supported a number of U.S. State
Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), including Hezbollah in Lebanon
and the Palestinian groups Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Popular Front for the
Liberation of Palestine (PLFP), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General
Command (PFLP-GC), all of which have offices in Damascus and operate within Syria’s borders.
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.
U.S. military officials continue to assert that Syria remains the primary transit point for foreign
fighters entering Iraq. According to the latest U.S. Defense Department report on Iraqi stability,
“Syria’s continued tolerance of AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] facilitation activity on its soil obstructs
further progress on both the economic and diplomatic fronts. Syria has made limited and sporadic
efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq by detaining AQI facilitators and operatives,
but it continues to be the primary gateway for foreign fighters entering Iraq.”26
Anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians have accused Syria of sponsoring Fatah al Islam, a militant
Islamic fundamentalist group that fought the Lebanese Army for three months in 2007 from
inside the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al Bared.27 On August 9, 2007, Secretary of State
Rice designated Fatah al Islam as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist Organization. The
designation, among other things, cuts off Fatah al Islam from the U.S. financial system, sanctions
any of its property or interests in the United States, and blocks its members from entry into the
United States. Fatah al Islam was believed by some to have fractured and dispersed after the siege
at Nahr al Bared.
_                 __________
Syria remains a U.S.-designated State Sponsor of Terrorism and is therefore subject to a number
of U.S. sanctions. Moreover, in recent years, 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 expanded U.S. sanctions on Syria. At present, a variety of legislative provisions and
executive directives prohibit U.S. aid to Syria and restrict bilateral trade.28 Principal examples
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 relettered
Section 6(i) as 6(j) and lowered the threshold for notification from $7 million to $1
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].
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.
The Anti-Terrorism and Arms Export Control Amendments Act of 1989 [P.L. 101-222]. Section 4
amended Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act to impose a congressional notification and
licensing requirement for export of goods or technology, irrespective of dollar value, to countries
on the terrorism list, if such exports could contribute to their military capability or enhance their
ability to support terrorism.
Section 4 also prescribed conditions for 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
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 7007 of H.R. 1105, the Omnibus Appropriations bill, FY2009.
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. 109-112 to make its
provisions applicable to Syria as well as Iran. The amended act, known as the Iran and Syria
Nonproliferation Act, requires the President to submit semi-annual reports to designated
congressional committees, identifying any persons involved in arms transfers to or from Iran or
Syria; also, the act authorizes the President to impose various sanctions against such individuals.
_________    ____________________
On December 12, 2003, President Bush signed H.R. 1828, the Syria Accountability and Lebanese
Sovereignty Restoration Act, as P.L. 108-175. H.R. 1828 was passed by the House on October 15,
2003, and the Senate on November 11, 2003. (The House agreed to a Senate amendment
expanding the President’s waiver authority on November 20). This act requires the President to
impose penalties on Syria unless it ceases support for international terrorist groups, ends its
occupation of Lebanon, ceases the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and has
ceased supporting or facilitating terrorist activity in Iraq (Section 5(a) and 5(d)). Sanctions
include bans on the export of military items (already banned under other legislation) and of dual
use items (items with both civil and military applications) to Syria (Section 5(a)(1)). In addition,
the President is required to impose two or more sanctions from a menu of six:
• a ban on all exports to Syria except food and medicine;
• a ban on U.S. businesses operating or investing in Syria;
• a ban on landing in or overflight of the United States by Syrian aircraft;
• reduction of diplomatic contacts with Syria;
• restrictions on travel by Syrian diplomats in the United States; and
• blocking of transactions in Syrian property (Section 5(a)(2)).
_________    ____
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.
In the executive order and in an accompanying letter to Congress, President Bush cited the waiver
authority contained in Section 5(b) of the Syria Accountability Act and stated that he wished to
issue the following waivers on grounds of national security:
• Regarding Section 5(a)(1) and 5(a)(2)(A): The following exports are permitted:
products in support of activities of the U.S. government; medicines otherwise
banned because of potential dual use; aircraft parts necessary for flight safety;
informational materials; telecommunications equipment to promote free flow of
information; certain software and technology; products in support of U.N.
operations; and certain exports of a temporary nature.29
• Regarding Section 5(a)(2)(D): The following operations are permitted:
takeoff/landing of Syrian aircraft chartered to transport Syrian officials on official
business to the United States; takeoff/landing for non-traffic and non-scheduled
stops; takeoff/landing associated with an emergency; and overflights of U.S.
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.30 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 Department:
• 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
29 According to U.S. regulations, any product that contains more than 10% U.S.-origin content, regardless of where it is
made, is not allowed to be exported to Syria. For U.S. commercial licensing prohibitions on exports and re-exports to
Syria, see 15 C.F.R. pt. 736 Supp No. 1.
30 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, P.L. 108-175 (SAA), and section
301 of title 3, United States Code.” Available online at
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.31 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.32
• 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 weapons.33
• 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 E.O.1338).34
• 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.35 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
31 See,
32 See,
33 See,
34 See,
35 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.
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 business.”36 Makhluf is a major stakeholder in Syriatel, the
country’s largest mobile phone operator. In 2008, the Turkish company Turkcell
was in talks to purchase Syriatel, but according to Reuters, negotiations over the
sale were taking longer than expected because some Turkcell executives have
U.S. passports.37 Then, in August 2008, Turkcell said it had frozen its plans for a
venture in Syria amid U.S. opposition to the project. 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,38 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.39
U.S. economic sanctions on Syria have produced mixed results. On the one hand, the Syria
Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003 (P.L. 108-175) and successive
targeted financial sanctions have clearly dissuaded many U.S. and some foreign businesses from
investing in Syria. According to one report, General Electric, the French power company Alstom,
and Japanese-owned Mitsubishi all declined to bid on a Syrian government contract for the
construction of power plants.40 As mentioned above, Turkcell withdrew its bid to purchase
Syriatel in August 2008 after the United States sanctioned Syriatel’s primary stakeholder, Rami
Makluf. U.S. sanctions under the Patriot Act against the Commercial Bank of Syria have deterred
private Western banks from opening branches inside Syria. As Syria’s energy production levels
decline, sanctions have prevented major Western energy companies from making new
investments there, though other foreign companies have supplanted U.S. firms. One company,
Gulfsands Petroleum, moved its principle office to London in order to circumvent U.S. sanctions
against its local partner, Rami Makluf.
On the other hand, U.S. economic sanctions have had a limited impact on U.S.-Syrian bilateral
trade. In fact, because U.S. commodity exports to Syria are permitted under P.L. 108-175, rising
cereal prices and greater U.S. export volumes have combined to actually increase the overall
volume in trade in 2008 (see table below). According to several reports, U.S. brands
manufactured outside the United States are widely available inside Syria. According to one
article, “GM’s cars that are sold in Syria are manufactured in the company’s factories in South
Korea. Another major US company, Coca Cola, uses a bottling factory in Syria itself, while
36 “Sanctions on Businessman Target Syria’s Inner Sanctum,” Washington Post, February 22, 2008.
37 “Turkcell Continues Talks on Syriatel Stake,” Reuters, April 14, 2008.
38 Gulfsands’ chief executive and largest shareholder, John Dorrier, is an American citizen, and the company has
offices in Houston.
39 “Syrian Tycoon Bristles At US Sanctions Against Him,” the Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2008.
40 “Tired of Energy Ills, Syrians Doubt the West Is to Blame,” New York Times, August 15, 2007.
Cargill, an American sugar company, has also invested in a large factory, which is about to open
soon in Syria.” 41 In March 2009, after returning from a recent visit to Syria, Senate Foreign
Relations Chairman John Kerry stated that “Loosening certain sanctions in exchange for
verifiable changes in behavior can actually benefit US businesses…. The sanctions can always be
tightened again if Syria backtracks.”
U.S.-Syrian Trade Statistics 2005-2008
($s in millions)
2005 2006 2007 2008
U.S. Exports to Syria $155.0 $224.3 $361.4 $408.8
U.S. Imports from Syria $323.5 $213.7 $110.5 $352.0
Totals $478.5 $438.0 $471.9 $760.8
Source: TradeStats Express – National Trade Data, Presented by the Office of Trade and Industry
Information (OTII), Manufacturing and Services, International Trade Administration, U.S.
Department of Commerce.
H.R. 1206, 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,
among other things, “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 liberties.”
H.R. 1105, the Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009, includes in an explanatory statement
accompanying the bill a provision appropriating $2.5 million for U.S. State Departmentadministered
democracy and governance programs for Syria.
Although regional politics have heavily influenced Syrian policy in recent years, economic
considerations may be driving Syria’s effort to break out of its diplomatic isolation. Syria is
seeking aid, trade, and foreign investment from the international community to boost its
lackluster, mostly state-controlled economy which is highly dependent on dwindling oil
41 "Politics aside, US-Syrian trade grows," YANIV BERMAN, The Media Line News Agency, Special to The Jerusalem
Post , May 19, 2008.
production. In 2009, a drought, the global economic crisis, and a drop in oil prices has led to
projections of meager Syrian economic growth (just 2.5%) for the remainder of the year. Though
foreign investment from the Arab Gulf States and Iran had been substantial in recent years,
Syria’s poor relationship with the United States and Saudi Arabia has hindered additional
Overall, the government is running large budget deficits (9.8% of GDP in 2008) which are
unsustainable over the long term. Fuel subsidies on imported diesel and other petroleum products
cost the Syrian treasury several billions dollars a year. Poor harvests due to drought have led the
government to increase public sector salaries to alleviate the loss of agricultural income for
farmers, straining the budget even further. In order to reform itself, the Syrian government has
taken steps to reduce public subsidies, privatize state-owned businesses, and enact a new value
added tax. However, according to Syria expert Andrew Tabler, currently at the Washington
Institute for Near East Policy, “The transformation they have in front of them now is enormous….
They must move from a state funded by oil revenues to one funded by taxation, and that has to
play some role in their thinking.”42 Economic reforms may clash with the vested, status quo
interests of Syrian business and political elites with ties to the Asad family. Thus, the key question
facing Syria is whether the regime can modernize society without alienating its key constituents.
The death of Syrian President Hafiz al Asad on June 10, 2000, removed one of the longestserving
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 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 military agencies.
Bushra al Asad & Assef Shawkat – Bushra is the older sister of Bashar, and she is rumored to be a key decisionmaker.
Her husband, Assef Shawkat, is head of military intelligence and part of the President’s inner circle.
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
42 “Syrians See an Economic Side to Peace,” New York Times, July 29, 2008.
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 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 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 secured and toppled 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 to challenge his rule.”43
43 Eyal Zisser, “Where Is Bashar al-Assad Heading?” Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2008.
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 political opposition, including Islamists. Once considered the most imminent threat to
Syrian stability, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, formerly the largest Islamist opposition group,44
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.45 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.
In 2005, a group of 274 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.46
Between 2006 and 2008, authorities arrested a number of high profile activists, many of whom
remain imprisoned. According to Human Rights Watch, these activists include Riad al Seif, 61, a
former member of parliament suffering from prostate cancer, Dr. Kamal Labwani, a physician,
and Michel Kilo and Mahmoud Issa, detainees who have still not been released despite the
44 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 2001.
45 See International Crisis Group (ICG), “Syria Under Bashar (II): Domestic Policy Challenges, ICG Middle East
Report #24, February 2004.
46 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.
decision of the Syrian Court of Cassation to overturn their sentences.47 In a recent interview,
President Asad rejected criticisms of his government’s human rights record stating that “We don’t
allow anyone to make or internal issues a matter for relations. Europeans and Americans
supported the occupation of Iraq. Talking about values has no credibility any more. And after
what happened in Gaza they have no right (to criticize us) at all.”48
            Although it is difficult for opposition activists to organize inside Syria, an array of dissident
groups freely operate abroad, particularly in Western Europe. 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 held regular meetings with Bush
Administration officials from the State Department and National Security Council in order to
discuss ways of promoting democracy in Syria.49
Jeremy M. Sharp
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
47 Others included the group’s leader and only woman Fidaa Horani (the daughter of Akram Horani, one of the founders
of Syria’s Baath Party), and writers Ali Abdullah and Akram Bunni.
48 "Syria’s Strongman ready to woo Obama with both Fists Unclenched," The Guardian (UK), February 17, 2009.
49 “Unlikely Allies: To Check Syria, U.S. Explores Bond With Muslim Brothers,” Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2007.