U.S. Economic Sanctions: Syria

The United States has escalated sanctions on Syria in tandem with the regime’s crackdown on domestic opposition culminating in congressional approval of sanctions legislation in August 2012. Sanctions on Syria have been in place since the United States designated the government a state sponsor of terrorism in December 1979.

In 2003, Congress passed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act in response to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. In May 2004, President Bush issued an executive order implementing the law, prohibiting U.S. exports to Syria other than food and medicine – all items on the Commerce Department’s control list – and freezing the assets of certain Syrian individuals and government agencies. In 2006, the Treasury Department barred U.S. banks and their overseas subsidiaries from maintaining a correspondent account with the Commercial Bank of Syria, which was designated as a bank of primary money laundering concern under the Patriot Act. There followed eight executive orders imposing financial sanctions on Syrian individuals and entities for involvement in proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorist associations and destabilizing activities in Iraq and Lebanon.

The escalation of violence in Syria resulted in a steady ratcheting-up of U.S. sanctions. These new “smart sanctions” are targeted at individuals involved in human rights abuses and at financial flows to and from Syria. Beginning in April 2011, President Obama issued a series of executive orders freezing the assets of Syrian officials, of President Assad and his family and banning U.S. business dealings with them. The executive orders prohibit any U.S. person from engaging in or “facilitating” transactions with the Syrian government, all U.S. imports of Syrian petroleum products and prohibits any U.S. person from exporting to or investing in Syria. In August 2011, the United States placed the Commercial Bank of Syria and mobile phone company, Syriatel, owned by a relative of President Assad, on a financial blacklist and blocked the U.S. assets of an additional 30 Syrian officials. In February 2012, the United States closed its embassy in Damascus and recalled all diplomatic personnel.

In April and May of 2012, the president issued two additional executive orders freezing Syrian assets in the United States and targeted entities engaged in the transfer of “sensitive technology,” specifically telecommunications equipment such as computer software used to restrict freedom of expression, and banned those entities from U.S. government procurement. In August 2012, the president signed the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, which codified the sanctions imposed by executive order and created a list of Syrian persons whose assets are frozen and who are denied entry into the United States.