MIDDLE EAST: U.S.-Syrian relations

MIDDLE EAST: U.S.-Syrian relations

February 22, 2005 12:40 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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What’s the status of U.S.-Syrian relations?

Very strained. They have rarely been good; Washington has long protested Syria’s occupation of Lebanon and accused Damascus of harboring and supporting various terror groups. U.S. officials lately have insisted that Syria comply with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, approved in September 2004, which called for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. In the latest clash, the United States recalled its ambassador to Syria on February 15 to protest the assassination the day before of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri; U.S. officials say Syria was at least indirectly responsible. Syria’s ambassador to the United States denied his country’s involvement in Hariri’s death. On February 15, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said relations between the United States and Syria "are not improving but are worsening."

What else do Washington and Damascus disagree on?

Washington has accused Syria of harboring Saddam Hussein loyalists and allowing militants to move across the Iraqi border to fight the U.S.-led coalition. Syria has dismissed the accusations, claiming the United States has made it a scapegoat for the U.S. failure to stop the Iraqi insurgency, The Associated Press reports. The United States considers Syria a state sponsor of terrorism, and officials have long said it allows anti-Israel terror groups to operate more or less freely inside its borders, a charge made again in President Bush’s 2005 State of the Union address. Still, Syria is the only country on the terrorism list with which the United States maintains full diplomatic relations. "The U.S. needs Syria to be a positive player in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, so there’s a propensity not to be too extreme," says William L. Nash, John W. Vessey senior fellow and director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

What has the United States done to pressure Syria?

In addition to using the United Nations to urge Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, it has relied on economic sanctions to press Damascus. Because Syria is classified as a state sponsor of terrorism, the sale of any U.S. military equipment to Damascus has been banned since 1986. Syria has received no U.S. foreign aid since 1981. In May 2004, additional sanctions went into effect, mandated by the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act.

What are the new sanctions?

The Syrian Accountability Act demands that Syria "halt all support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, stop its development of weapons of mass destruction," and secure its border with Iraq by halting illegal imports of Iraqi oil and exports of weapons or other military equipment. Until those conditions are met, the act bans all U.S. exports of military and dual-use equipment to Syria and lays out a menu of six additional sanctions, of which President Bush must choose at least two.

In May 2004, Bush banned all U.S. exports to Syria, except food and medicine, and barred Syrian aircraft from U.S. airspace. Using authority granted in the U.S. Patriot Act, he has also demanded U.S. financial institutions sever ties with the Commercial Bank of Syria. The bank, a "rogue financial institution," is accused of money-laundering and terrorism financing, according to Juan Zarate, assistant secretary of the Treasury for terrorist financing. The administration is considering further sanctions as a result of the Hariri assassination, officials say.

What economic effect have the May 2004 sanctions had?

Experts say the sanctions are largely symbolic and have not greatly affected the Syrian economy. Trade between the U.S. and Syria is relatively small, with $211 million in U.S. exports to Syria and $268 million in U.S. imports from Syria in 2004. Much of this trade includes items waived by President Bush under the Syrian Accountability Act, such as aircraft parts, telecommunications equipment, software, and other technology, that were apparently in the process of being sold to Syria when the Syrian Accountability Act was implemented, says Jason Steinbaum, Washington chief of staff for U.S. Representative Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who introduced the bill in Congress. The waivers could also "leave options open for reconciliation and intelligence reasons," in light of the post-September 11 antiterrorism intelligence Syria provided the CIA, says Moshe Maoz, senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.

The ban on Syrian aircraft in U.S. airspace is meaningless, experts say, because there were no active Syrian airline routes to the United States before the sanctions were applied. Syrian businesses can easily circumvent the ban on U.S. ties to the Syrian Commercial bank by switching to other financing sources.

Have they had a political effect?

Yes, by further isolating Syria, some experts say. The Syrian Accountability Act "has put the Syrians on alert," says Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

And the U.N. resolution, which had the strong endorsement of both the United States and France, significantly increased international pressure on Syria, Levitt says. It’s plausible, he says, that the Syrians backed the assassination of Hariri--who opposed Syria’s presence in Lebanon--"to demonstrate that they’re still the sheriff in town."

What’s the history of U.S.-Syrian animosity?

Syria has been on the State Department’s list of terror-sponsoring nations since the list was created in 1979. The United States says Damascus gives military and financial support to anti-Israel groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. The latter has also targeted Americans; before 9/11, it had killed more Americans than any other terror group. The United States opposes Syria’s presence in Lebanon, and accuses Syria of maintaining large stockpiles of chemical weapons and conducting research on biological weapons. It also has human-rights concerns about Syria, an autocratic state ruled by the socialist Baath Party. The government stifles dissent through a powerful state security arm, bars opposition political parties, and routinely tortures prisoners, according to the U.S. State Department.

For its part, Syria has been in a state of war with Israel since 1948 and opposes Washington’s pro-Israel tilt. Syria demands the return of the Golan Heights, a 450-square mile area occupied by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It regards Hezbollah as a legitimate anti-Israel resistance organization and acknowledges supporting it politically, though it has denied providing the group weapons. Similarly, it views Hamas and other Palestinian extremist groups as freedom fighters, but says it hasn’t given them material support. Concerning Lebanon, Syrian officials say their troops have ensured peace since the end of the 1975-90 civil war, and add that the Lebanese have not asked them to leave.

Have the United States and Syria cooperated in the past?

Yes. Syria has participated in on-again, off-again U.S.-brokered peace negotiations with Israel, and fought alongside the United States in the 1990-91 Gulf War to expel Iraq’s troops from Kuwait. U.S.-Syrian relations improved briefly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

What happened after 9/11?

Syrian intelligence gave the United States valuable information about lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta, who had worked in Aleppo in the mid-1990s, and other Qaeda figures. Syria, which held a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council, voted with the United States to approve U.N. Resolution 1441 in November 2002, which found Iraq in "material breach" of previous U.N. resolutions ordering it to disarm. And Syria, in an apparent bid to improve U.S.-Palestinian relations, shuttered the press offices of radical Palestinian organizations based in Damascus in 2002.

Why did the relationship sour again?

The relationship between Syria and the United States has "always been filled with irritation on both sides, but in 2003, we got into a much more dangerous situation due to Syrian actions," says Richard W. Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia. Despite Syria’s November 2002 U.N. vote, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stood out among Arab leaders for his vocal criticism of the Iraq war. U.S. officials accused Syria of providing shelter to high-level Iraqi Baathists--perhaps even Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay--and allowing military equipment and jihadi fighters to cross into Iraq. Of the 248 foreign fighters caught in Iraq by September 26, 2003, 123 of them were Syrian, according to L. Paul Bremer III, then the U.S. administrator in Iraq.

What’s the status of internal reform in Syria?

Syria has been under a state of emergency tantamount to martial law since 1963. A small political and economic elite dominates the country. Most of its members are from President Bashar al-Assad’s Shiite sect, the Alawis, which comprises some 12 percent of the population. His father, President Hafez al-Assad, who was president from 1970-2000, brutally clamped down on internal dissent. Some commentators hoped that his son would move to ease the restrictions imposed during his father’s dictatorship. But after a brief period of apparent reform in 2000, the regime cracked down on political opponents, and economic change remains extremely slow-paced. Some U.S. officials have recently questioned whether Bashar Assad’s control extends throughout all of Syria, and some have raised the possibility that powerful security forces may be acting without his authorization.

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