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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Syria: Issues for the 112th Congress and Background on U.S. Sanctions

Jeremy M. Sharp
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

This report analyzes bilateral issues between the United States and Syria. With unrest spreading in Syria, this report will be updated to reflect recent developments.

Despite its weak military and lackluster economy, Syria remains relevant in Middle Eastern geopolitics. Syria 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. Syria’s long-standing relationship with the Iranian clerical regime is of great concern to U.S. strategists. As Syria grew more estranged from the United States over the last ten years, 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 consider implementing 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, largely because of the U.S. State Department’s designation of Syria 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 weapons of mass destruction or advanced weapons sales to Syria.

For two years, the Obama Administration attempted to promote some U.S. engagement with Syria. However, the Administration now appears to be somewhat shifting its tactics by applying more pressure on the Syrian government to play a more constructive role in stabilizing Lebanon and advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process. Congressional attitudes toward Syria vary. Some in Congress may choose to impose new sanctions against the Asad regime. Other lawmakers may seek to continue U.S. engagement, as several Congressional delegations visited Syria during the 111th Congress. For the foreseeable future, most analysts agree that relations between the United States and Syria will remain static, as neither government has shown interest in fundamentally altering policies opposed by the other side.

Date of Report: March 28, 2011
Number of Pages: 26
Order Number: RL33487
Price: $29.95

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