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Monday, May 9, 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. Unrest in Syria and the Asad government’s violent response are adding new complexity to the troubled U.S.-Syrian relationship. The Obama Administration’s policy of limited engagement with Syria to address areas of longstanding concern has been met with criticism from some, including some Members of Congress. Critics believe that the Administration should apply further pressure to the Syrian government and consider implementing harsher economic sanctions against it. The use of violence against Syrian protestors has been accompanied by calls for new U.S. sanctions but also some expression of concern by experts that political unrest in Syria could evolve into a broader civil conflict that in turn could destabilize Syria’s neighbors.

Despite its weak military and lackluster economy, Syria has leveraged its geographic location and its foreign policy alignment to remain relevant in Middle Eastern politics. At times, Syria has participated in substantive negotiations with Israel, from whom it seeks the return of the occupied Golan Heights. However, Syria also acts at times as a “spoiler” by hosting U.S.-designated Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas and facilitating the rearmament of Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon. Syria’s long-standing relationship with Iran is of great concern to U.S. strategists, insofar as Syria serves as a conduit for Iranian power projection in the broader Middle East. As the Syrian government has grown more estranged from the United States over the last ten years, Syrian-Iranian relations have improved, and some analysts have called on U.S. policymakers and their regional allies to offer incentives to Syrian leaders in order to realign them away from Iran.

These dynamics are complicated by long-standing U.S. concerns about Syrian sponsorship of terrorism, pursuit of weapons of mass destruction technology, and regional policy in Lebanon and Iraq. A variety of U.S. legislative provisions and executive directives prohibit direct foreign assistance funding 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. Syrian individuals and government officials are subject to targeted financial sanctions pursuant to seven executive orders relating to terrorism, proliferation, and regional security. 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, and several Congressional delegations visited Syria during the 111th Congress. However, prior to the outbreak of the recent unrest, the Administration appeared to be shifting tactically toward applying more pressure on the Syrian government to play a more constructive role in stabilizing Lebanon and advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process. The Asad government’s use of force to contain growing protests across Syria may reshape congressional attitudes toward Syria, which have varied. Some in Congress may choose to impose new sanctions against the Asad regime. Other lawmakers may seek to continue U.S. engagement as a means of mitigating the unpredictable and potentially negative consequences of the unrest. Many observers believe that the violence could preclude a return to engagement and the offering of incentives to address other issues of U.S. concern, absent a fundamental shift in the Syrian government’s actions toward its own citizens.

Date of Report: April 28, 2011
Number of Pages: 29
Order Number: RL33487
Price: $29.95

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