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United States and Syria

Almost any Syrian family has some relative living and prospering in the US. Many Syrians dream of following these relatives to the US and view it as a land of opportunity and freedom, leading many Syrians to distinguish between US Government policies and the American people. A cleavage exists between those who endorse working with the US and those who are suspicious of US Government intentions and do not want to be associated with American policy or projects. For every activist who harbor some reservations about US policies but are generally well disposed to the US, there are others who are more hostile and deeply skeptical about any benefits that could accrue to Syrian civil society (and to a better future in Syria) from cooperating with the US. Some of these are much more pro-European.

A common claim heard in Damascus is that Syria is second only to India as a source of foreign-born doctors working in the US. While this statistic is apocryphal, the numbers from the NIV database clearly demonstrate that doctors are a valuable Syrian export. Doctors receive the vast majority of the H1-B visas and nearly half of the J-1 visas issued at Embassy Damascus. They are likewise responsible for a substantial portion of the B-1/B-2 visas issued at Post. Syrian doctors typically remain in the U.S. at least until they naturalize, spending part of that time working in underserved areas. In addition to contributing their talents to the U.S. medical field, many have donated their time and money to improving healthcare in Syria.

Anti-American sentiment, and in particular, anti-US Government sentiment, is not new in Syria. It has been a constant on the political landscape since the creation of the state of Israel and the rise of pan-Arab nationalism in the 1950's. In both the ruling Ba'ath Party and among the opposition parties of the National Democratic Coalition, there remain ideological vestiges of this anti-Americanism. Long-standing sympathy by Syrians for the Palestinians, reinforced by the widespread perception of unconditional U.S. support for Israel, has fed this anti-American sentiment over the years.

The war in Iraq and the U.S.-led war on terrorism have more recently caused a spike in anti-American sentiment in Syria. The popular consensus among Syrians is that the U.S. has unjustifiably occupied Iraq and brought instability, chaos, and bloodshed, in order to implement a new regional order. Syrians' fears of such chaos, including the potential dismemberment of their own country, have also fed this anti-American sentiment. In addition, many Syrians view the war on terror as a U.S. crusade against Islam.

Relations between the United States and Syria, severed in 1967, were resumed in June 1974, following the achievement of the Syrian-Israeli disengagement agreement. In 1990-91, Syria cooperated with the United States as a member of the multinational coalition of forces in the Gulf War. The United States and Syria also consulted closely on the Taif Accord ending the civil war in Lebanon. In 1991, President Asad made a historic decision to accept President George H.W. Bush's invitation to attend a Middle East peace conference and to engage in subsequent bilateral negotiations with Israel. Syria's efforts to secure the release of Western hostages held in Lebanon and its lifting of restrictions on travel by Syrian Jews helped to further improve relations between Syria and the United States. There were several presidential summits; the last one occurred when President Bill Clinton met the late President Hafiz al-Asad in Geneva in March 2000. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the Syrian Government began limited cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Syria has been on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism since the list's inception in 1979. Because of its continuing support and safe haven for terrorist organizations, Syria is subject to legislatively mandated penalties, including export sanctions under the Syrian Accountability Act and ineligibility to receive most forms of U.S. aid or to purchase U.S. military equipment. In 1986, the United States withdrew its ambassador and imposed additional administrative sanctions on Syria in response to evidence of direct Syrian involvement in an attempt to blow up an Israeli airplane. A U.S. ambassador returned to Damascus in 1987, partially in response to positive Syrian actions against terrorism such as expelling the Abu Nidal Organization from Syria and helping free an American hostage earlier that year.

Relations cooled as a consequence of U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003, declined following the imposition of U.S. economic sanctions in May 2004, and worsened further in February 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri. Issues of U.S. concern included the Syrian Government's failure to prevent Syria from becoming a major transit point for foreign fighters entering Iraq, its refusal to deport from Syria former Saddam Hussein regime elements supporting the insurgency in Iraq, its ongoing interference in Lebanese affairs, its protection of the leadership of Palestinian rejectionist groups in Damascus, its deplorable human rights record, and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. In May 2004, the U.S. Government, pursuant to the provisions of the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, imposed sanctions on Syria which banned nearly all exports to Syria except food and medicine. In February 2005, in the wake of the Hariri assassination, the United States recalled its ambassador to Washington.

Anti-American sentiment in Syria rose dramatically in July 2006 as Syrians were transfixed by daily emotional television coverage of the human cost and widespread destruction in Lebanon caused by the Israeli retaliation against Hizballah. The Israeli response was viewed overwhelmingly as disproportionate. The US was perceived, for the first time, as using Israel's military might to impose its own agenda on Lebanon and the region, chiefly the implementation of UNSCR 1559 (and the disarming of Hizballah), along with US plans for "a new Middle East." "It turns out that Israel is an instrument of US policy after all," and not vice versa, noted economist (and former Deputy Minister of Planning) Riad Abrash. Others like influential Sunni religious leader Salah Kuftaro criticized the US bitterly for its failure to utter "a word of denunciation" about the death and destruction caused in Lebanon.

On September 12, 2006 the U.S. Embassy was attacked by four armed assailants with guns, grenades, and a car bomb (which failed to detonate). Syrian security forces successfully countered the attack, killing all four attackers. Two other Syrians killed during the attack were a government security guard and a passerby. The Syrian Government publicly stated that terrorists had carried out the attack. The U.S. Government did not receive an official Syrian Government assessment of the motives or organization behind the attack, but security was upgraded at U.S. facilities. Both the Syrian ambassador to the U.S., Imad Mustapha (withdrawn in December 2011), and President Bashar al-Asad, however, blamed U.S. foreign policy in the region for contributing to the incident. After a military action occurred at the Iraq-Syria border in October 2008, in which purportedly there were several Syrian casualties, the Syrian Government ordered the closure of the Damascus Community School, the American Language Center (ALC), and the American Cultural Center (ACC). The school and the language center were allowed to reopen in fall 2010, but both minimized activities at the beginning of 2012 due to security concerns.

After 2009, the United States attempted to engage with Syria to find areas of mutual interest, reduce regional tensions, and promote Middle East peace. These efforts included congressional and executive meetings with senior Syrian officials, including President Asad, and the return of a U.S. Ambassador to Damascus. After a five-year hiatus, the Obama Administration nominated Robert Ford as U.S. Ambassador to Syria, making the case that a U.S. Ambassador on the ground would not be a reward to the regime in Syria, but rather would represent a tool to advance U.S. interests.

Senior members of the Ba'ath party, the armed forces, and the intelligence services were opposed to improved ties with the U.S. because such an opening would inevitably bring about reforms that would endanger their protected positions.

In March 2011, a group of Syrian students were arrested in the southern city of Dara’a for writing political graffiti on walls, and the government’s mishandling of its security response gave rise to ever-increasing demonstrations around the country. The key commercial cities of Aleppo and Damascus remained relatively quiet until December 2011, when larger demonstrations and explosions occurred, challenging the government’s claim that the opposition was small groups funded by other countries. The United Nations stated that 5,000 had been killed in the uprising’s 10-month history, and a monitoring mission from the Arab League could not verify that the Syrian Government was implementing Arab League-mandated plans to end repression.

Rising bilateral tensions since March 2011 due to the regime’s vicious repression halted efforts to find common ground, and the U.S. Government has repeatedly called for President Bashar al-Asad to step aside and allow a representative government to be formed. Strong sanctions, implemented in coordination with countries in Europe, Asia, and the Arab world, have put pressure on the regime’s ability to continue its crackdown on opponents. In late January 2012, the Arab League called on the United Nations Security Council to condemn Syria’s actions and to demand a rapid transition to an interim government.

Following an attack on the U.S. Embassy and Ambassador’s residence on July 11, 2011, the embassy reduced non-U.S. citizen services and instituted more stringent security procedures. As incitement and harassment of embassy personnel increased, U.S. officers were gradually evacuated. On February 6, 2012, the United States temporarily suspended embassy operations and removed all U.S. direct hire personnel from Syria.

On December 22, 2010, the US Senate passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 71 (112th Congress), a bipartisan resolution recognizing that it is in the national interest of the United States to prevent and mitigate acts of genocide and other mass atrocities against civilians. On August 4, 2011, President Barack Obama issued Presidential Study Directive–10 (PSD–10), stating, “Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.”

The United States has been directly and indirectly involved in the Syrian conflict since 2011, when a popular uprising turned the Arab country into a bloody battlefield for varying interest groups. All along, various stakeholders, including the Syrian people have looked up to Washington, hoping it plays a decisive role in ending the violence that eventually left half a million people dead and pushed 5.6 million more to take refuge abroad.

On May 18, 2011, President Obama signed Executive Order 13573, targeting senior officials of the Government of Syria due to the Government’s continuing escalation of violence against the people of Syria. On April 29, 2011, President Obama signed Executive Order 13572, imposing sanctions on certain individuals and entities in the annex to the order and providing the authority to designate persons responsible for human rights abuses in Syria, including those related to repressing the people of Syria. On February 4, 2012, President Obama stated that Bashar al-Assad “has no right to lead Syria and has lost all legitimacy with his people and the international community”.

On February 17, 2012, the Senate passed Senate Resolution 379 (112th Congress), stating that the “gross human rights violations perpetuated by the Government of Syria against the people of Syria represent a grave risk to regional peace and stability”.

On February 28, 2012, Secretary of State Clinton, in testimony before the Subcommittee on the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs of the Committee on Appropriations of the Senate concerning Bashar al-Assad, testified that, “based on the definitions of war criminal and crimes against humanity, there would be an argument to be made that he would fit into that category”.

On March 6, 2012, General Mattis testified before the Committee on Armed Services of the Senate that the fall of the Bashar al-Assad regime would represent “the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years”.

On March 6, 2012 U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) stated that " if requested by the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, the United States should help organize an international effort to protect civilian population centers in Syria through airstrikes on Assad’s forces. To be clear: This will first require the United States and our partners to suppress the Syrian regime’s air defenses in at least part of the country. This should not mean the United States must act alone. Any intervention should include Arab partners such as Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Jordan, and Qatar, and willing allies in the E.U. and NATO, the most important of which in this case is Turkey. "

On 19 February 2013 the United States accounced it was providing an additional $19 million in humanitarian assistance in response to urgent needs emanating from the brutal conflict in Syria. On January 29, President Obama announced an additional $155 million to help those suffering inside Syria and refugees in the neighboring countries. Today’s announcement brings the United States’ total contribution of humanitarian support in response to this crisis to nearly $385 million.

On March 18, 2013 U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the Obama administration did not oppose moves by the United Kingdom and France to arm opponents of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The United States already cooperates with Arab allies arming the Syrian opposition, so Kerry said Washington has no objection to Europeans doing the same. 'President Obama has made it clear that the United States does not stand in the way of other countries that made a decision to provide arms, whether it is France or Britain or others,' said Kerry. Kerry said there is a military imbalance in Syria, with President Bashar al-Assad receiving help from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. That imbalance is creating what he called a 'global catastrophe' of Syrian refugees fleeing to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

The United States supported a unified, free, prosperous, and inclusive Syria that respects the rights of all its citizens and becomes a force for stability and peace in the region, rather than a threat to its own people and the region.

Russia entered the Syrian conflict in September 2015 and shifted the balance of power in favor of the Assad regime when it was reportedly on the brink of collapsing, which unleashed barrel bombs and relentless airstrikes against civilian areas. By then the US had shifted focus to counter Daesh, which had emerged a year earlier and quickly took control of large chunks of land in Syria and Iraq. US forces built a number of airfields and bases in northeastern Syria and began coordinating with the YPG to fight Daesh.

After Syrian opposition began gaining territory in 2012, there was intense debate within the Obama administration if the US should support them militarily. Besides battle gear, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supplied small arms and ammunition to the opposition in a covert operation on several occasions. But the weapons such as the much-needed stinger missiles to take down jets were never provided despite repeated pleas from the opposition groups.

Obama and his advisors insisted that any aid or assistance should go only to moderate opposition who were continuously vetted for their ideology in a time-consuming exercise. The US administration also failed to understand the ground realities in Syria where the brutal crackdown of the regime slowly decimated the moderate opposition, leaving the ground open for extremists to exploit.

In September 2015, a senior US commander told the Senate that an attempt to create a moderate force of rebels ended in failure. The US spent $500 million to train and equip 5,000-6,000 fighters to take on Daesh but only four or five actually showed up for the fight. Analysts had hoped the US would punish Assad for dropping barrel bombs and chemical weapons on civilian territories. But except for a few strikes, the US did nothing to deter the regime, which was backed by well-trained Iranian militias. In mid-2017, the US stopped its program to fund and train opposition factions, something which it had been doing since 2013 in half-hearted support.

Throughout the conflict, more than five million Syrian people continued to seek refuge in other countries. But it was Turkey which was left to meet the needs of 3.6 million of them. The number of Syrian refugees allowed into the United States in fiscal 2016 was 12,587. In fiscal 2018, the United States admitted 62. The US says it has spent more than $9 billion on humanitarian assistance programme while Turkey says it’s expenditure on housing the refugees comes to around $40 billion.

Donald Trump said 11 November 2016 the United States should fight the Daesh terrorist group, but stop attacking the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In his first interview since his election, Trump told The Wall Street Journal that he has had "an opposite view of many people regarding Syria." Trump suggested a sharper focus on fighting the terrorist group rather than trying to oust President Assad. The president-elect criticized the Obama administration's policy of attempting to find "moderate Syrian opposition groups" to boost fighting against Assad, saying he will seek a possible rapprochement with Russia and find a solution for the Syrian conflict.

"My attitude was you're fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS [Daesh], and you have to get rid of ISIS…Now we're backing rebels against Syria, and we have no idea who these people are," he told the Journal on Friday. During his final presidential debate with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Trump emphasized that his priority in Syria would be to eliminate Daesh and not to out Assad.

The United States said 30 March 2017 that it was no longer focused on ousting President Bashar al-Assad as it seeks a new strategy to end Syria's civil war. American officials shifted away from the former insistence that he must go for some time, and now they made it explicit. The US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley condemned Assad's history of human rights abuses against his own people. But she said Washington would focus on working with powers like Turkey and Russia to seek a political settlement, rather than focusing on Assad. "You pick and choose your battles," Haley told reporters. "And when we're looking at this, it's about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out."

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also addressed the future of Assad at a news conference in Turkey. "I think the... longer term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people," Tillerson said, standing alongside Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. The comment reflected language long used by Assad's ally Russia, whose assistance Washington is courting.

The United States on 17 June 2020 announced highly anticipated economic sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his regime and anyone who attempts to do business with them to deny revenue and support to the Assad regime. US President Donald Trump signed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, also referred to as the Caesar Act, six months ago. Much discussion revolved around the law and what and who it targets. In its first batch, Washington slapped 39 designations on individuals and entities Wednesday in what it said was the “beginning of what will be a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure to deny the Assad regime revenue and support.” Among the most notorious names to be sanctioned were Assad himself, his wife Asma, his younger brother Maher and their sister Bushra.

In the statement released by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he made a “special note” of Asma’s designation for the first. Pompeo said that with the support of “her husband and members of her Akhras family has become one of Syria’s most notorious war profiteers. Now anyone doing business with any of these persons or entities is at risk of sanctions.”

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Page last modified: 01-09-2020 20:41:37 ZULU