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State Sponsor: Syria

Author: Holly Fletcher
Updated: February 2008

Introduction

Syria continues to be categorized as a state sponsor of terrorism, since its first designation in 1979. According to the State Department, Syria’s government supports U.S.-listed terrorist groups and allows some of these organizations such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to maintain headquarters in Damascus. The 2006 State Department Country Report says the Syrian government remains an active supporter of Hezbollah and has a covert presence in Lebanese politics. According to the report, Syria has suspected ties to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Syria rejects the terrorist categorization, denies involvement in the Hariri killing, and says it regards Hamas, Hezbollah, and other groups on its soil to be legitimate resistance movements aimed at liberating Arab territory held by Israel.

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Does Syria sponsor terrorism?

Yes. Syria, a secular dictatorship accused of committing serious human rights violations by the Human Rights Watch, has been on the State Department list of countries sponsoring terrorism since the list’s inception in 1979. However, Syria has not been directly involved in terrorist operations since 1986, according to the State Department, and the country bars Syria-based groups from launching attacks from Syria or targeting Westerners. Some experts characterize Syria’s involvement in terrorism as “passive support.” Historically, Syria has been involved in numerous past terrorist acts and still supports several terrorist groups. The 2006 Country Report by the state department says the ongoing investigation by the United Nations into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri indicates that Syrian officials were likely involved.

What groups has Syria supported which Washington regards as terrorists?

Syria gives the Lebanese militia Hezbollah political, diplomatic, and organizational aid, according to the State Department. Iranian arms bound for Hezbollah regularly pass through Syria, experts say. Syria, which effectively occupied and controlled neighboring Lebanon from 1990 to 2005, also let Hezbollah operate in Lebanon and attack Israel, often ratcheting up regional tensions.

In late 2006, Syria and Iraq ended a twenty-five-year long break in diplomatic relations, entering into a five-year agreement to cooperate on increasing border control and combating terrorism. Previously, the United States had accused Syria of letting militants supporting the Iraqi insurgency to easily pass through its border. Since the agreement, some have accused Syria of not applying stringent border control.

Syria has also provided training, weapons, safe haven, and logistical support to both leftist and Islamist Palestinian hard-liners. Syria allows several regional terrorist organizations—such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command—to have external headquarters in Damascus, according to the State Department. The Syrian government contends that these headquarters are for political and informational mobility only and that these groups “represent legitimate resistance activity as distinguished from terrorism” according to a 2007 Congressional Research Service report (PDF).

From 1980 until 1998, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which sought an independent Kurdish state, used Syria as a headquarters and base of operations against neighboring Turkey.

How did Syria react to September 11?

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—an ophthalmologist who came to power after the death in June 2000 of his long-ruling father, Hafiz al-Assad—condemned the September 11 attacks. Syria has also reportedly shared some intelligence with the United States about Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, even as Assad’s regime continues to sponsor terrorist groups. In April 2002, President Bush said that the time had come “for Syria to decide which side of the war against terror it is on.” However, U.S.-Syria diplomatic relations remain at low levels despite a pledge from the Syrian government to offer increased protection to U.S. citizens and property within its borders after a 2006 attack on the U.S. embassy, in which the four attackers and a Syrian guard were killed.

Does the Syrian government have ties to al-Qaeda?

No. The secular, Arab nationalist Syrian government is hostile to bin Laden’s Islamist network, which Syria views as a terrorist organization; Damascus differentiates between the Sunni Muslim fundamentalists of al-Qaeda and groups it sees as national liberation movements, such as Hezbollah and Palestinian groups. Also, experts say, Syria, which is ruled mostly by Alawites, an often marginalized Shiite sect, is more broadly concerned that Islamists could rally the country’s Sunni majority against the regime. So in the past, the ruling Baath Party has dealt harshly with domestic Islamists. In 1982, Assad quashed an uprising organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni group, in the central Syrian city of Hama, bulldozing neighborhoods and killing an estimated ten thousand people. The brutal response to the Hama uprising deterred further Islamist activism in Syria, experts say.

Does Syria cooperate with other state sponsors of terrorism?

Yes. Syria and Iran work together over issues related to Hezbollah. The 2007 Congressional Research Service report calls the relationship between the two countries “a marriage of convenience” that stems from geopolitical necessity. In 2004, Syria and Iran signed a mutual defense agreement. The July 2006 Hezbollah strikes on Israel prompted allegations that Syria and Iran were using the group to deflect international attention from other issues, such as Iran's contentious nuclear program. This Backgrounder takes an in-depth look at the Syria-Iran relationship.

Does Syria have weapons of mass destruction?

Yes—and the ballistic missiles to deliver them, according to U.S.defense and intelligence reports. Syria has an active chemical weapons program, including significant reserves of the deadly nerve agent sarin. Its research programs are trying to develop even more toxic nerve agents. It also has a biological weapons program, but experts say Syria is incapable of producing and militarize large quantities of dangerous germs without substantial foreign help.

After an Israeli air strike on a remote Syrian military facility in September 2007, experts speculated that Syria accepted North Korean support in establishing a nuclear program. Syrian officials deny the allegations.

What is Syria’s current relationship with Lebanon?

After twenty-nine years of occupation, Syria was forced out of Lebanon in April 2005 largely due to massive public and international protests. The results of a preliminary UN investigation into the February 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri implicated several top officials in the Syrian government. Following the preliminary report, the United Nations passed a resolution requiring full cooperation from Damascus into the murder investigation.

An indirect actor in the Israel-Hezbollah war in July 2006, Syria continued to financially and politically support Hezbollah’s opposition to the Lebanese government after the conflict ended. Although Syria has officially withdrawn from Lebanon, the State Department says it maintains covert intelligence operations there, and continues to exert some influence, both in politics and through its support of Hezbollah.

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