MOST RECENT DEVELOPMENTS
BACKGROUND AND ANALYSIS
SUMMARYU.S.-Syrian relations have been marred by longstanding disagreements over regional and international policy. Bilateral relations have warmed somewhat as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria's participation in the allied coalition against Iraq, and Syrian agreement to participate in Arab-Israeli peace talks. This thaw in bilateral relations has created some concern in Congress that the Administration may have made unpublicized commitments to Syria in return for its support on Iraq and the peace talks. Several legislative initiatives have sought to make any relaxation of aid and trade restrictions conditional on further changes in Syrian policies.
Syria, governed since 1970 by President Hafiz al-Asad, is a prominent player in the Middle East scene. Within the region, a number of border disputes, problems of resource allocation, and political rivalries have caused frequent tensions between Syria and its neighbors. In particular, the Syrian Golan Heights territory, which Israel occupied in 1967, has been one of the most intractable issues in the Arab-Israeli dispute. Syria has participated in the bilateral Arab-Israeli peace talks sponsored by the United States and Russia and continues to support a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict; however, Syrian-Israeli talks have been largely deadlocked over issues of withdrawal of occupied territory and security guarantees. Israel suspended the most recent bilateral talks on March 4, 1996, after Syria failed to issue a clear condemnation of a series of terrorist bombings that killed a total of 58 Israelis. Positions on both sides seem to have hardened since the Israeli elections in May 1996, which brought the more hard line Likud Party to power. An array of bilateral issues continue to affect relations between the United States and Syria: the course of Arab-Israeli talks; questions of arms proliferation; Syrian connections with terrorist activity and involvement in narcotics traffic; Syria's human rights record; treatment of the Syrian Jewish community; and Syria's role in Lebanon (although release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon has removed a longstanding irritant in U.S.-Syrian relations). A variety of U.S. legislative provisions and executive directives prohibit direct aid to Syria and restrict bilateral trade relations between the two countries. Current legislation in general continues these restrictions.
An issue for U.S. policy makers is the degree to which the Administration should go in seeking to enlist Syrian support for U.S. endeavors in the Middle East. Many U.S. observers question the sincerity of President Asad's recent gestures toward the United States and doubt that they augur a fundamental reorientation in Syrian policies. They believe removal of legislative sanctions should be contingent on evidence of improvements in Syria's human rights record, a clear renunciation of terrorism and narcotics trafficking, and reversal of other policies injurious to U.S. interests. Others believe Syria's decision to join the allied coalition and participate in Arab-Israeli talks provide opportunities for further cooperation in achieving U.S. regional objectives. They favor quiet diplomacy aimed at encouraging Syria to play a constructive and responsible role in the Middle East, and prefer to give the Administration the flexibility to apply or ease sanctions as developments warrant.
MOST RECENT DEVELOPMENTSBetween late August and mid-September, Syria redeployed approximately 12,000 troops, including an armored brigade and special forces units, from central Lebanon in a southeasterly direction to locations closer to the Israeli occupied Golan Heights territory, spurring Israeli concern over a possible attack. Syrian spokesmen first said the movements were part of a routine troop rotation and an on-going redeployment of Syrian forces in Lebanon; on September 22, however, the Syrian Minister of Information described the redeployment as a defensive measure in response to threatening moves by Israel, and on October 6, Syria's Minister of Defense warned that Israel would incur heavy losses if it launched "a military adventure." On October 29, however, the Syrian Foreign Minister said allegations that Syria was planning an attack on Israel were baseless, and his statement was welcomed by the Israeli Prime Minister. Also on October 29, a U.S. State Department spokesman expressed the view that there was no cause for undue concern over the situation at this time. On November 21, a U.S. Senator suggested that President Clinton invite the leaders of Syria and Israel to the White House for a summit conference to pursue the stalled peace process.
BACKGROUND AND ANALYSIS
U.S.-Syrian relations, frequently strained by longstanding disagreements over regional and international policy, have warmed somewhat as a result of several developments: the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria's participation in the allied coalition against Iraq in 1990-91, and Syrian agreement to participate in Arab-Israeli peace talks. This thaw in bilateral relations has led some Members of Congress to inquire whether or not the Administration has made any private commitments to Syria, such as an undertaking to relax economic sanctions, in return for Syrian support on regional issues. Several legislative proposals have sought to condition relaxation of aid and trade restrictions on further changes in Syrian policy. The Administration, though not inclined to lift sanctions on Syria at this time, believes it is in U.S. interests to encourage Syria to play a positive role in postwar Persian Gulf security arrangements and in the ArabIsraeli peace process. The issue for U.S. policy makers is the degree to which the United States should work for better relations with Syria in an effort to enlist Syrian cooperation on regional issues.
Syria achieved independence after World War II, following four centuries of Ottoman Turkish domination and over two decades of semi-colonial administration by France. Under a succession of weak, unstable governments Syria moved generally to the left until 1970, when the then Minister of Defense and Air Force Commander, Lt. General Hafiz al-Asad, assumed power in a bloodless coup. President Asad, who was elected to his fourth term in 1992 by Syria's mainly consultative parliament, exercises ultimate authority through his personal prestige and through his control of the ruling Arab Socialist Resurrection (Ba'th) Party, the military establishment, and the intelligence apparatus which form the triple pillars of the regime. President Asad also has strong support among the members of his Alawite religious sect, which comprises approximately 12% of the population but is disproportionately represented in the country's political and military institutions. Currently 66 years old, an exceptionally hard worker, and reportedly suffering from some health problems, President Asad does not have a clearly designated successor; commentators variously suggest that he might be followed by one of several relatives or a collective leadership.
For much of its existence, Syria has faced economic difficulties and problems in its foreign relations. The economy, long based on agriculture and commerce, is dominated by an inefficient public sector, excessive central planning, and administrative controls. The regime has begun to promote the private sector through deregulation and various incentives. Also, revenue sources have increased somewhat with the advent of oil production (580,000 barrels per day) and renewed aid from leading Arab oil producers. Syria's relations with its neighbors have been marred by border problems (with Turkey and Israel), disputes over water sharing (with Turkey and Iraq), and political differences (sometimes with Jordan and especially with Iraq, which is governed by a rival wing of the Ba'th Party). Syria maintains a dominant influence over Lebanon through its troop presence in that country, and aroused widespread opposition among other Arab states by its support of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Subsequently, however, Syrian relations with Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula states markedly improved, especially after Syria joined the allied coalition against Iraq during the Gulf crisis. [For further background on Syria, see CRS Report 91-468 F, Syria: Background and Status, June 7, 1991, by Alfred B. Prados.] Syria continues to maintain a strategic relationship with Iran.
Friction with Turkey has increased during 1996. Syria (like several other Arab states) has taken exception to a recent Turkish-Israeli military cooperation agreement concluded early in 1996, reportedly providing for Israeli access to Turkish airspace and airfields, Israeli training of Turkish Air Force units, joint military exercises in both countries, and intelligence sharing. Press reports on April 10, 1996 indicated that Syria and Greece were considering a military cooperation agreement, perhaps in an effort to counter the Turkish-Israeli pact. In early June, newspapers reported indications that Syria suspects Turkey of complicity in several unexplained explosions that occurred in Syria during the late spring, including one apparently aimed at President Asad. According to press reports, Syrian authorities have arrested about 600 people in connection with these explosions, largely from among Syria's small ethnic Turkish community. Despite hostility toward Iraq, Syria opposes any steps to partition it. Syrian official media criticized U.S. missile strikes against Iraq following the Iraqi incursion into Kurdish areas on August 31, and expressed opposition to Turkish plans to establish a buffer zone inside northern Iraq.
In October 1991, President Asad agreed to attend the peace talks inaugurated in Madrid under U.S. and (then) Soviet sponsorship. Since then, Syrian representatives have attended intermittent bilateral talks with Israeli counterparts. Syria has refused so far to participate in the other phase of U.S.-Russian sponsored negotiations -- the multilateral talks on regional issues -- until there is tangible progress on territorial issues. The most recent bilateral talks between Syria and Israel took place under U.S. auspices at Wye Plantation Conference Center in Maryland during the periods December 27, 1995-January 5, 1996; January 24-February 1, 1996; and February 28- March 4, 1996. Both diplomatic and military experts from the two countries attended the Maryland talks, which reportedly covered a range of issues including security, economic development, and water rights. Israel suspended its participation on March 4, 1996, after Syria failed to issue a clear condemnation of four bombings by the militant Palestinian organization, Hamas, that killed an estimated 62 people in three Israeli cities. [For more information, see CRS Issue Brief 91137, The Middle East Peace Talks, by Carol Migdalovitz.]
The Golan Heights Territory. During the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel occupied a 450-square mile portion of southwestern Syria known as the Golan Heights. (Syria recovered a tiny segment of this territory including the abandoned town of Qunaytra as part of a U.S.-brokered disengagement agreement following the October 1973 war.) On December 14, 1981, the Israeli Knesset voted 63-21 to extend Israeli law to the Golan Heights, thereby effectively annexing this territory. (No other country has recognized the Israeli de facto annexation.) An estimated 117,500 Arabs (100,000 Syrians and 17,500 Palestinians) fled from Golan after its occupation by Israel in 1967. The remaining population consists of approximately 15,000-18,000 Arabs, mostly belonging to the Druze minority, and some 12,000-16,000 Jews (including 1,000 Soviet immigrants) who have settled there since 1967. An additional complication involves disposition of several small enclaves that were part of the pre-1948 Palestine mandate territory but came under Syrian control between 1948 and 1967; Israel, Syria, and the Palestinians all advance claims to these areas.
Issues and Positions. Syria believes that Israel is bound to return this territory under the provisions of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories occupied in the June 1967 war. The Labor Party, which governed Israel from 1992 to 1996, believes Resolution 242 means withdrawal from some, but not necessarily all Arab territories occupied in 1967; Labor leaders indicated a willingness to withdraw from at least some portion of Golan in return for full diplomatic relations with Syria and security guarantees. The conservative Likud Party, which came to power in Israel after elections in May 1996, takes the position that Israel has complied with Resolution 242 by returning the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, and is unwilling to return any of the Golan territory. Israeli leaders of both parties have long regarded the Golan Heights territory as being of vital strategic importance because of its commanding terrain.
Between 1992 and 1996, while the Israeli Labor Party was in power, Syria and Israel remained deadlocked over two basic issues: Syria's demand for unconditional Israel withdrawal from the Golan territory, as well as southern Lebanon; and Israel's insistence on a prior Syrian commitment to establish full diplomatic and economic relations before any withdrawal takes place. In a meeting with President Clinton on October 28, 1994, President Asad stated Syria's position as follows: "I also reaffirmed to President Clinton Syria's readiness to commit itself to the objective requirements of peace, emanating from the principle of full withdrawal for full peace, through the establishment of peaceful, normal relations with Israel in return for Israel's full withdrawal from the Golan to the line of June 4, 1967, and from southern Lebanon." Israeli leaders sought a more detailed explanation of Syria's concept of full peace. Ancillary issues included the timing of any Israeli withdrawal that might take place; security guarantees for Israel; the size of demilitarized or limited armament zones on each side of the border; and sharing of water resources.
Monitoring an Agreement on the Golan. U.S. and Israeli officials have raised informally the subject of security arrangements and the possibility of an international monitoring or peacekeeping force in the event of an agreement on full or partial Israeli withdrawal from the Golan territory. On October 4, 1994, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Robert M. Pelletreau, replying to a question from a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the U.S. Government has received no specific request from either side for U.S. troops to help monitor a settlement, but would be prepared to consider such a request "in accordance with our constitutional processes" (i.e., appropriate consultation with Congress) if it received one. Secretary Pelletreau reiterated this position in response to congressional hearings on April 6, 1995, adding that "There is ample time for very complete consultations with Congress on the question of any kind of a U.S. presence on the Golan" after the parties have decided what type of international force they might request. On January 9, 1995, then Secretary of Defense William Perry noted that U.S. participants in such a force "would not be security forces.... [They] would be strictly monitors to monitor the peace process and if the parties ask us to do that, we're certainly prepared to consider that request" after consulting with Congress. A year later, on January 8, 1996, following the first round of Maryland talks, Secretary Perry reiterated this position.
On January 9, 1995, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives voiced reservations over stationing U.S. troops on Golan, saying that he was "not closing the door" but that the United States would need to examine such a proposal and consider worst case scenarios. In a January 11, 1995 press interview, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee expressed the view that if Syria and Israel "cannot make a deal without a payoff, or troops, or both, from the United States, I would not favor a deal and there should not be one." Supporters of a U.S. role believe U.S. participation would be an important factor in obtaining a Syrian-Israeli agreement on Golan; they point out that a U.S. contingent has been pivotal to the success of the Multinational Force Organization which monitors the Sinai agreement between Israel and Egypt. Opponents believe that the Sinai and Golan situations are not comparable and fear that assigning a U.S. contingent to Golan would overextend U.S. forces, expose U.S. troops to undue risk, undermine U.S. commitments to Israel, and embroil the United States directly in the event of a future outbreak of hostilities. [For further information on a potential U.S. role on Golan, see CRS Report 95-308 F, The Golan Heights, February 24, 1995, by Clyde Mark.]
Israeli Elections. Since the Israeli elections of May 29, 1996, Syrian and Israeli positions appear to have hardened. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who formed a government on June 18, 1996, rejects the principle of exchanging land for peace, which the previous Labor Government had accepted. According to press reports, Netanyahu during his July visit to Washington told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Israel wants to retain the Syrian Golan Heights territory which it occupied in 1967, for security reasons; in a comment directed toward Syria, he reportedly went on to say: "You say it [Golan] is all yours and we say it is all ours." Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has called Syria a base for terror, and reportedly urged the United States to invoke additional sanctions against Syria. Netanyahu has suggested resuming talks with Syria on ancillary issues such as security, water resources, and Lebanon (see below), in lieu of the Golan territory. On October 28, however, Israel's Minister of Defense hinted that the Israeli administration might be willing to discuss some territorial concession (probably very limited) on the Golan. Also, the Israeli Foreign Minister expressed the view on December 11, that peace with Syria would be impossible without some territorial compromise.
Syria, on its part, associated itself with resolutions adopted at an Arab summit conference in Cairo, Egypt on June 21-23, calling for Arab states to review and reconsider steps taken so far under the Arab-Israeli peace process if Israel fails to implement previous agreements. On July 30, the Syrian Armed Forces Chief listed five preconditions for restarting Israeli-Syrian peace talks: insistence on Israeli withdrawal to pre-June 1967 borders; no secret talks; no partial or unilateral deals; affirmation that security is linked to peace; and equal treatment of each side's security concerns. On August 27, Syria's Foreign Minister said Syria is prepared to resume talks with Israel from the point at which they stopped in March 1996, but "not from the zero point," implying that talks must be based on the land-for-peace formula provisionally endorsed by Israel's previous government. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Syrian readiness to resume talks but rejected any preconditions. The Chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence , after meeting both President Asad and Prime Minister Netanyahu in late August, reported a "big gap" between the positions of the two leaders, and tensions between the two countries increased following some subsequent Syrian troop movements (see below).
Syrian Army units moved into large parts of northeastern and central Lebanon shortly after civil strife began in that country in 1975. A Syrian force of approximately 35,000- 40,000 has remained there since 1976, ostensibly under an Arab League peace-keeping mandate. Meanwhile, Israel occupied a portion of Lebanon between 1982 and 1985, and has maintained a 9-mile wide security zone in southern Lebanon since then. At an Arab League sponsored meeting at Taif, Saudi Arabia in October 1989, the Lebanese Parliament agreed on a revised formula for power sharing within the Lebanese Government; it also adopted a plan for reestablishment of central authority and phased Syrian redeployment to the eastern Bekaa Valley within two years of the agreement's implementation, after which Lebanon and Syria would agree on the ultimate status of Syrian forces in eastern Lebanon.
U.S. Administrations and Members of Congress have expressed the view that Syrian forces should have redeployed in accordance with the Taif Agreement by 1992, and have also criticized Syrian toleration of the presence of the pro-Iranian Hizballah militia in southern Lebanon. Syrian officials and pro-Syrian Lebanese have countered that not all conditions of the Taif Agreement have been met so far; that the Lebanese Armed Forces are not yet capable of maintaining internal security; that Syrian forces should remain in Lebanon as long as Israel maintains its security zone in southern Lebanon; and that Hizballah activity constitutes legitimate resistance activity in southern Lebanon as long as Israeli forces are present. [For further information on the Syrian role in Lebanon, see CRS Issue Brief 89118, Lebanon: The Current Crisis, by Clyde R. Mark.]
Fighting in April 1996. In early April 1996, Hizballah forces based in southern Lebanon began firing rockets at Israeli forces in Israel's self-proclaimed security zone in southern Lebanon and in some cases at northern Israel as well. Israel responded with aerial and artillery bombardments aimed at Hizballah targets in southern Lebanon over an 18-day period (Operation "Grapes of Wrath"); approximately 200 Lebanese were killed, including 102 civilians sheltering at a U.N. base which was hit by Israeli strikes (Israeli spokesmen have said the base was hit by mistake). A U.S. brokered cease-fire, which became effective on April 27, provided that (1) Israeli forces and forces cooperating with them would not fire on civilian targets in Lebanon, (2) armed groups in Lebanese would not fire on targets in Israel, and (3) a committee consisting of the United States, France, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel would be established to monitor compliance with the agreement. This five-party committee became operational on July 12. Syria maintains that the committee's mission should be purely military and not a substitute for bilateral peace talks, while the United States and Israel would like it to have a broader mission.
The "Lebanon First" Proposal. In late July 1996, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu suggested that negotiations should center on security guarantees that would enable Israel to withdraw from its security zone in southern Lebanon. On August 2, he spelled out his terms by saying that "If we know that Hizballah is disarmed in Lebanon, that it won't attack us anymore, and that a proper arrangement is made for our allies in Lebanon [referring to a pro-Israeli Lebanese militia in the south], then we have no reason to be in Lebanon." In addition, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai told reporters on August 14 that all foreign forces (presumably including Syrian forces) should withdraw from Lebanon. Syrian spokesmen have rejected this initiative as a ruse to avoid resuming negotiations over withdrawal from the Golan territory. On August 8, President Asad replied to the "Lebanon First" proposal by saying "Syria and Lebanon first -- at the same time, in the same steps." Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shar' added on August 12 that "If Israel really wants to pull out of Lebanon, it does not need agreement with anyone."
Syrian Troop Movements. Between late August and mid-September, Syria redeployed approximately 12,000 troops, including an armored brigade and special forces units, from central Lebanon in a southeasterly direction to locations closer to the Israeli occupied Golan Heights territory, spurring Israeli concern over a possible attack. On September 17, Prime Minister Netanyahu described the troop movements as a Syrian attempt to pressure Israel into territorial concessions. Syrian spokesmen said the movements were part of a routine troop rotation and an on-going redeployment of Syrian forces in Lebanon. On September 22, however, Syria's Information Minister described Syrian troop movements as a defensive measure in response to threatening moves by Israel, and on October 6, Syria's Minister of Defense warned that Israel would incur heavy losses if it launched "a military adventure." On October 29, however, the Syrian Foreign Minister said allegations that Syria was planning an attack on Israel were baseless, and his statement was welcomed by the Israeli Prime Minister. Also on October 29, a U.S. State Department spokesman expressed the view that there was no cause for undue concern over the situation at this time.
In November and December, Syrian and Israeli officials continued to accuse the other of obstructing the peace process. On November 21, U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, after visiting both President Asad and Prime Minister Netanyahu, suggested that President Clinton invite both leaders to the White House for a summit conference to pursue the stalled peace process.
For many years the Soviet Union was Syria's main source of military hardware, enabling Syria to acquire arms inventories comparable to those of Israel. Soviet deliveries began to taper off after 1985, as former President Gorbachev began to retrench on Middle East commitments. Syrian arms purchase agreements from the former Soviet Union dropped from $5.2 billion in the four-year period 1986-1989 to $0.5 billion for the four-year period 1990-1993. Moreover, financial subsidies to Syria from Arab Gulf states declined as the Soviet role diminished. Since 1990, however, Syria has apparently has applied some funds it received from wealthy Arab donors for its role in the allied coalition to additional arms purchases, reportedly including up to 300 T72 tanks from Czechoslovakia, additional combat aircraft from the former Soviet Union, missile sub-systems and technology from China, and SCUD surface-to-surface missiles from North Korea. Russia reportedly was still maintaining 2,400 military advisors in Syria in mid-1993 [Congressional Record, June 15, 1993, p. H3589]. In May 1994, Russia reportedly wrote off $10 billion of Syrian military debt inherited from the former Soviet Union and agreed to sell an estimated $500 million worth of defensive equipment to Syria.
Syria has approached Argentina about the purchase of a nuclear reactor for medical research, but the Argentine Foreign Minister stated on July 23, 1995 that such a sale would not occur unless Syria and Israel reached a peace agreement. On June 4, 1996. a German magazine quoted alleged U.S. intelligence reports that Syria was building a poison gas factory near the northwestern city of Aleppo. According to July 1996 press articles citing U.S. intelligence sources, the Chinese manufacturer of M-11 missiles sent a shipment of military cargo possibly containing missile related components to Syria. The U.S. State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency declined comment. On September 14, Hong Kong customs agents seized a shipment of artillery weapons en route from North Korea to Syria.
U.S. officials are concerned that Syrian acquisition of additional weapons including improved missiles will cause further regional tensions, increase potential threats to Israel, and undermine arms control efforts. The Administration has urged suppliers to refrain from delivering destabilizing weapons to the region. The conference report to H.R. 3610, the Omnibus Appropriation Act for FY1997, expressed deep concern about continued reports that China has provided ballistic missile technology to Syria. Syria resents what it regards as U.S. interference in its attempts to resupply its armed forces. Also, Syria, like Egypt, has taken the position that it will refuse to support indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) until Israel signs the treaty, and Syria has criticized the Arab League for not passing a binding resolution requiring all member states to adopt the same position.
Allegations of Syrian involvement with terrorist groups have been a longstanding point of contention between Washington and Damascus. Some observers believe Syria was involved in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks by Shi'ite Muslim militants in Lebanon, although others have blamed Iran, which had closer ties with the group responsible for this atrocity. Syrian intelligence was implicated in an abortive attempt to place a bomb on an El Al airliner in London in 1986, after which the United States withdrew its ambassador to Syria for a year. Initial reports indicated that the destruction of the Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in December 1988 was the work of a Palestinian group headquartered in Damascus and responsive to Syria; subsequent international police investigations have led the international community to charge Libya with responsibility [see below], but some observers continue to believe there was a Syrian or Iranian connection. Turkey has long complained that Syria supports the separatist Kurdish Labor Party (PKK), which the U.S. State Department lists as a terrorist organization.
Since 1979, Syria has appeared regularly on a list of countries which the State Department identifies as supportive of international terrorism (see below). According to the State Department's April 1996 report on terrorism, "There is no evidence that Syrian officials have been directly involved in planning or executing terrorist attacks since 1986 .... At the same time, Syria provides safehaven and support for several groups that engage in international terrorism." The report mentions several radical Palestinian or pro-Iranian groups (including the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas organization) and the Japanese Red Army. Syria maintains that it is prepared to expel Palestinian and other groups if provided with direct evidence of their involvement in terrorist activity. On the other hand, Syria acknowledges its support for Palestinians pursuing armed struggle in Israeli occupied territories and for Shi'ite Muslim militias resisting the Israeli military presence in southern Lebanon; Syria claims that such operations constitute legitimate resistance activity, as distinguished from terrorism.
After the bombing of a hotel housing U.S. military personnel near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia on June 25, 1996, U.S. officials reportedly said individuals involved in preparations for the bombing had passed through Syria and perhaps other countries on their way to Dhahran. On July 7, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States asserted that Syria was definitely not involved in the plot, although he said he could not rule out other countries. According to a Washington Post report on November 1, 1996, further investigations by Saudi Arabian officials suggest involvement by Iran and possible involvement or foreknowledge by Syria; however, the report quotes U.S. officials as saying that they have formed no conclusions so far about the identity of those responsible for the Dhahran bombing.
Syrian officials have pressed to have Syria removed from the State Department's list of countries providing support to international terrorism. The April 19965 State Department report acknowledges some steps by Syria to restrain terrorist groups but has not yet dropped Syria from the terrorism list. President Asad said he and President Clinton "did not discuss terrorism as a separate title" in their October 1994 meeting, but President Clinton quoted Asad as voicing opposition to the killing of innocent civilians wherever it occurs. During a congressional committee hearing on July 25, the U.S. State Department coordinator for counterterrorism expressed the view that "our policy has had an impact on Syria," noting that Syria has demonstrated its ability to restrain Hizballah and other extremist groups when motivated to do so.
Syria is not known to be a drug producing country or a site for international money laundering; however, it is a transit country for the drug trade and a suspected site for refining small amounts of narcotics. Much of this traffic originates in Lebanon's Bekaa (Biqa') Valley, an area generally under Syrian occupation, and Syrian officials are widely reported to have profited from facilitating the sale and transit of Lebanese-produced hashish and heroin destined for Europe and the United States. These and other substances (morphine base, opium, psychotropic substances) also enter Syria via Turkey and Southwest Asia en route to other markets in the Middle East, including the Persian Gulf states. Since 1987, Syria has been cited in an annual Presidential Determination as a country that has not made sufficient efforts to curb production or transit of narcotics in areas under its control (see below).
Syria is a party to the 1961 narcotics convention, to its amending 1972 protocol, and to the 1971 convention on psychotropic substances, and has ratified the 1988 U.N. Convention on narcotics. Syrian officials have stated their willingness to expand cooperation with other governments and international organizations in the war against drugs. Law No. 2, which took effect in July 1993, prescribes the death penalty for cultivating or dealing in narcotics, and President Asad reportedly has ordered security forces to crack down on drug smugglers, regardless of family connections, and relatives of the President have been arrested.
In a February 1995 report, the Administration noted some progress by Syria in 1994 in attempting to counter narcotics traffic: increased cooperation with Lebanese authorities to eradicate opium poppy and cannabis cultivation in the largely Syrian-controlled Biqa (Bekaa) Valley in Lebanon; increased seizures of cocaine, heroin, and hashish; and more arrests of drug traffickers in Syria and Lebanon. On the other hand, the Administration stated that the overall flow of narcotics did not diminish in 1994; neither Syrian nor Lebanese authorities moved successfully against cocaine and heroin laboratories; and no corruption charges were brought against any Syrian governmental or military officials in 1994, despite continuing reports of complicity by Syrian officials in drug traffic. According to a March 1, 1996 Presidential Determination (see below), Syria has not taken adequate steps to control narcotics traffic.
Syria has been under a state of emergency tantamount to martial law since 1963, except for a brief interval in 1973-1974. In its annual 1994 report to Congress on human rights practices (published in February 1995), the State Department has commented: "Serious abuses include the widespread use of torture; arbitrary arrest and detention without trial; continued imprisonment after prisoners have served their sentences; unfair trials in state security cases; the denial of freedoms of speech, press, and association; abuses committed under the state of emergency, and suppression of workers' rights." Particularly serious human rights violations took place in the northern cities of Aleppo and Hama in 1980 and 1982, respectively, when the Government suppressed uprisings by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups with much violence. Estimates of the number killed in Hama by government forces range from 3,000 (from Syrian Government sources) to 20,000 (from some independent sources). Syrian officials have pointed out, however, that by acting quickly to suppress Muslim extremists in the early 1980s, the Syrian regime has spared the country from the outbreaks of Islamic fundamentalist violence that have currently marred domestic tranquility in Egypt, Algeria, and other North African countries.
Syria denies that it holds political prisoners, and claims that persons are detained only for criminal or security offenses; however, some sources believe at least 7,000 such prisoners were held as of early 1991, including over 2,000 in detention facilities in Lebanon. Since then, the government has announced three amnesties resulting in the release of a total of 4,018 prisoners and detainees (December 1991 -- 2,864; March 1992 -- 600; December 1992 -- 554) accused of offenses against state security. Small groups were reportedly released in 1993, and another 300 in 1994. On November 29, 1995, Amnesty International welcomed the release by Syria of "hundreds" of political prisoners in an amnesty marking the 25th anniversary of President Asad's assumption of power November 16, 1970); according to a January 7, 1996 news report, those released included 1,200 members and supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. It is believed, however, that some individuals have continued to be arrested for security offenses.
Syria supports freedom of religion and women's rights to a greater degree than do many Middle East governments. In accordance with the largely secular philosophy of the ruling Ba'th Party, the country's Christian community and tiny Jewish minority (see below) have been free to practice their religion without interference; some Christians have held high-level positions in the government and armed forces. (Official toleration does not extend to two sects that are considered subversive: Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists.) Syrian law specifies equal rights for women; Government policies stipulate equal pay for similar work; the Government discourages conservative religiously based restrictions on women; and women serve in governmental and diplomatic posts, including two cabinet ministers.
On April 27, 1992, President Asad issued an order lifting travel restrictions and real estate controls on the Syrian Jewish community, and the government intermittently began permitting Syrian Jews to travel abroad freely. On February 24, 1994, Syria's Deputy Chief Rabbi announced that the Syrian Government had issued exit visas to all the estimated 1,000 Jews remaining in Syria; he added that three or four Syrian Jewish families had returned to Syria after facing financial and language problems abroad. According to the State Department human rights report published in February 1995, the Syrian Government "completed issuance of travel permits to all Jews wishing them." By October 1994, Israeli officials estimated that 3,670 Jews had left Syria since April 1992, about one third of whom had secretly moved to Israel. In the same month, a Syrian Jewish businessman said approximately 400 Jews remained in Syria of their own accord, since all of them had exit visas. Some Syrian Jews hesitate to leave their relatively prosperous lives in Syria, especially since the liberal decrees of April 1992, for a more uncertain economic future abroad, and some have remained because of age, health, or reluctance to move. Others want to join relatives and friends who have already departed, and fear a return to earlier repression if Asad should pass from the scene.
Since 1950, the United States has provided a total of $627.5 million in aid to Syria: $34.0 million in development assistance, $438.0 million in economic support, $155.4 million in food assistance, and $61 thousand in military training assistance. Most of this aid was provided during a brief 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. At present, a variety of legislative provisions and executive directives prohibit U.S. aid to Syria and restrict bilateral trade relations.
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.) Most recently, this prohibition has been restated in Section 529 of the Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act for FY1995 (P.L. 103-306).
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 re-lettered Section 6(i) as 6(j) and lowered the threshold for notification from $7 million to $1 million.)
A by-product of these two laws was the so-called "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 Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1994, published in April 1995. 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.)
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].
Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 [P.L. 99-570]. Section 2005 of this act [100 Stat. 3207] required a Presidential certification citing those drug-producing or drug transit countries that have cooperated with the United States or taken adequate steps on their own to control narcotics production, trafficking, or money laundering. (This requirement was incorporated as Section 481 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 -- 22 USC 2291. These provisions were modified by the International Narcotics Control Act of 1992 -- P.L. 102-583 -- and incorporated as Section 490 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.)
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act created another list, the "narcotics list." This list groups narcotics-producing or narcotics transit countries into three categories: (1) those countries certified as having cooperated fully in controlling drug production or trafficking; (2) countries that have failed to meet that standard but are exempt from accompanying U.S. sanctions because of vital U.S. interests; and (3) countries that have failed to meet that standard and are not exempt from U.S. sanctions. Annual Presidential Determinations (PDs) since 1987 have listed Syria in the third category, most recently, PD 96-13 of March 1, 1996. Though moot in the case of Syria because of other prohibitions already in effect, countries not certified are subject to both mandatory sanctions (generally involving suspension of aid) and discretionary sanctions (involving trade restrictions). (See also U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, International Narcotics Control and Foreign Assistance Certification: Requirements, Procedures, Timetables, and Guidance, Senate Print 100-83, 100th Cong., 2d Sess., Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988.)
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 removal of 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. In PD 95-20 of May 1, 1995, President Clinton exempted 21 countries from the application of this law, but did not include Syria among the countries thus exempted. 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] 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 and Sudan, 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 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 latest ban appears in H.R. 3610, the Omnibus Appropriations Act for FY1997 (P.L. 104-208, September 30, 1996). Section 507 bars the obligation or expenditure of funds appropriated under this act for any direct assistance or reparations to eight specified countries, including Syria. Section 523 also prohibits indirect assistance or reparations to seven specified countries including Syria; however, it provides for a Presidential waiver, which has been exercised in previous years on grounds that withholding funds to multilateral development banks and other international organizations and programs under this limitation would be contrary to the national interest (the most recent waiver of this provision was issued by PD 96-19 of March 19, 1996, which applied to the predecessor act, P.L. 104-107). Section 527 directs U.S. representatives to vote against aid to countries identified as supporting international terrorism by international financial institutions; this provision does not allow for a Presidential waiver. Section 527 bans bilateral aid to countries identified as supporting international terrorism. Section 307 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as 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.
Drawing on appropriate legislation, the Administration has imposed detailed trade restrictions on exports to Syria. Under Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act of 1979, trade controls were instituted after Syria was designated as a country supporting international terrorism in 1979, and further controls were imposed after Syrian intelligence was implicated in an abortive airline bombing in 1986. At present, the Department of Commerce lists 33 categories of exports requiring a validated license for shipment to Syria; these include aircraft, vessels, most vehicles, parts, machine tools, computer equipment, and other high technology goods. (Routine exports like foodstuffs are exempt from these controls.) Moreover, Commerce Department guidelines specify that applications for licenses will generally be denied except for medical equipment, items under pre-1986 contracts, and U.S.-origin goods largely incorporated into foreign products. According to Department of Commerce, during FY1994, export licenses valued at $31 million were approved for Syria, consisting mainly of parts for U.S.-manufactured aircraft previously sold, computer equipment, and oil well perforators. Re-export licenses valued at $45.3 million were also approved for Syria during FY1994, much of this amount representing a one-time transfer of three aging U.S.-made Boeing 727 airliners from Kuwait to Syria. Licenses for export or re-export of goods valued at $0.6 million to Syria were denied during FY1994.
Syria continues to be eligible for small programs not funded by the Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act. For example, small groups of Syrian government and professional representatives have visited the United States on orientation tours under the International Visitor Program, which is administered by the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and funded under Department of State appropriations. In each of fiscal years 1991 through 1994, 14 Syrians participated (or were scheduled to participate) in the International Visitor Program at approximate annual costs of $105,000 (FY1991), $113,681 (FY1992), $115,948 (FY1993), and $115,948 (FY1994); 17 were scheduled in FY1995 at an estimated cost of $123,930; and 17 are scheduled in FY1996 at an estimated cost of $122,873.
With the improvement in U.S.-Syrian relations since mid-1990, some Members of Congress have expressed periodic concerns that the Administration may have made undisclosed commitments to Syria in return for its support of the allied coalition during the Gulf war and its subsequent agreement to attend peace talks with Israel. In response to a query from a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on October 4, 1994, about the possibility of removing Syria from the terrorism list, Assistant Secretary Pelletreau said this would not be done as long as Syria provides safehaven and support to terrorist organizations; however, he added that "It is our hope that over time, as progress in the peace process continues, that Syrian policies toward these organizations will also change, and that this would give way to an eventual removal of Syria from the terrorism list." In a January 11, 1995 press interview, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee implicated Syria in the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks bombing and the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing and stated that "the Syrian government has American blood on its hands." In a March 24 interview he stated that "apparently, they [the Syrians] were involved also in the attack on Pan Am 103, that killed 270 innocent people" and added that he is "unalterably opposed" to any U.S. aid to Syria in connection with a Syrian-Israeli peace accord.
Several legislative proposals introduced in the 104th Congress would prohibit aid to Russia if it provided material that could be used to develop mass destruction weapons or advanced conventional weapons to countries on the terrorism list (H.R. 519); would prohibit arms sales to 12 named countries (including Syria) unless the President certifies that a state of war does not exist between them and Israel (H.R. 1189); and criticize Syria for granting safehaven and support to the Palestinian fundamentalist group Hamas (S.Res. 67). The Foreign Operations Appropriation Act for FY1997, H.R. 3540, repeats the ban on direct assistance to seven named countries including Syria (Section 507) and bars indirect assistance to seven countries including Syria (Section 523). (The Senate version lists eight countries including Syria in Section 507, and places the ban on indirect assistance in Section 524). H.R. 3540 passed the House of Representatives on June 11, 1996, by a vote of 366-57 (Roll no. 228). The Senate passed an amended version on July 26, 1996, by a vote of 93-7 (Roll call no. 248). Pertinent provisions of these acts were subsequently incorporated in H.R. 3610, the Omnibus Appropriation Act for FY1997, which was passed by the House and Senate, respectively, on September 28 and September 30, 1996, and signed by the President on September 30 as P.L. 104-208 (see above).
Debate continues within the U.S. Administration and Congress over the lengths to which the United States should go in seeking to enlist Syrian support for U.S. endeavors in the Middle East. According to one theory, normal bilateral relations should be contingent upon improvements in Syria's human rights record, a clear renunciation of terrorism and narcotics trafficking, and reversal of other policies deemed inimical to U.S. interests. Advocates of this view are particularly concerned over any possibility that the Administration has made promises to ease sanctions (for example, removing Syria from the terrorism or narcotics list) to obtain Syrian cooperation in regional affairs. They tend to discourage bilateral contacts such as visits by Syrian officials, which they see as a potential vehicle for trapping the Administration into premature concessions. They favor continued legislation to ensure that relaxation of sanctions can occur only with congressional approval.
Those who support this first approach see little prospect for a long-term relationship with the Syrian regime, which they consider basically antithetical to U.S. interests and values. They see Syria's alignment with the coalition and agreement to attend peace talks as tactical moves that offered Syria an end to regional isolation, a free hand in Lebanon, and access to financial support from the Gulf states. They point to Syria's previous lack of flexibility on Arab-Israeli issues, periodic bellicose pronouncements from Damascus, strident criticism of the new Israeli leadership elected in 1996, and ongoing rearmament programs as indications that Syria will remain a threat to regional stability. They warn that efforts to bring about a closer relationship with President Asad risk repeating the earlier disastrous policy of courting Saddam Husayn.
According to a second theory, quiet diplomacy aimed at encouraging Syria to play a constructive and responsible role in regional affairs could yield benefits. Proponents of this approach do not advocate the immediate termination of sanctions (such as removing Syria from the "black" lists) without further action on Syria's part; however, they support wider contacts between diplomatic and security officials of the two countries to discuss sensitive issues, seek common ground, and identify possible areas of cooperation. They favor a series of small, reciprocal steps that could lead to a warmer relationship over time. Rather than legislative sanctions, they generally prefer an arrangement under which the Administration has the flexibility to apply or ease sanctions in accordance with the current state of bilateral relations.
Those who favor the second approach believe that a better relationship with Syria could enhance prospects for achieving U.S. objectives. They see Syria as a useful counterweight to Iraq and a potential contributor to security arrangements in the Gulf region. More important, they see Syrian support as an essential ingredient in the search for an Arab-Israeli settlement; previous peace efforts, like the Camp David Accords of 1978 and the Reagan plan of 1982, have shown that a lasting solution is unlikely without Syrian involvement. Advocates of this approach point out that President Asad, though a difficult negotiator, has proven generally reliable in honoring agreements once he has accepted them. (For example, Syria has routinely observed the terms of the 1974 disengagement agreement in the Golan region.) They believe the future course of U.S.-Syrian relations will affect significantly the outlook for regional security and lasting peace in the Middle East.