Syria, the U.S. and Terrorism

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 19

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Israel was not alone in the Middle East in trying to tie its wagon to the Bush administration’s ensuing war on terrorism. Syria, too, sought to underline its own hostility to militant Islam, reminding Washington that it had fought the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s. As Bouthaina Shaaban, then spokesman of the Syrian Foreign Ministry, told this author in late 2003, “We fought it before the U.S. did.” [1]

Indeed, following 9/11 there were reports of Syrian-American cooperation, particularly in intelligence. In late 2002, it was announced that the Syrians had in their custody Muhammad Haydar al-Zammar, arrested in Morocco the previous May. Zammar was a Syrian Islamist who allegedly played a key role in the al-Qaeda Hamburg cell involved in the 9/11 attacks. The Moroccans sent him to Syria with Washington’s knowledge. While the Americans were not allowed to interview him, they did pass on questions to Syrian intelligence. The Syrians also are said to have provided the U.S. information on other Islamists in Germany, including a Hamburg-based Syrian businessman, Mamoun al-Darkazanli, alleged to have served as a financial conduit to al-Qaeda. [2]

There was also more advanced institutional cooperation. In July 2003, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote: “Within weeks of the September 11th attacks, the FBI and the CIA, with Syria’s permission, began intelligence-gathering operations in Aleppo, near the Turkish border.” [3] A former high-level intelligence official described the Aleppo channel as great. Hersh outlined the Syrian motivation. Aleppo was the subject of Mohammed Atta’s dissertation on urban planning, and he traveled there twice in the mid-1990s. “At every stage in Atta’s journey is the Muslim Brotherhood,” a former CIA officer who served undercover in Damascus told this author. “He went through Spain in touch with the Brotherhood in Hamburg.”

U.S. officials have repeatedly declared that Syrian cooperation had benefited Americans. For example, in June 2003 Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East William Burns noted that, “The cooperation the Syrians have provided in their own self-interest on Al-Qaeda has saved American lives.” [4] However, by then the Syrians were, paradoxically, already in the American’s crosshairs – thanks mainly to the upper hand gained by an anti-Syrian coalition in Washington and growing anger at what some regarded as hostile Syrian behavior in Iraq.

Iraq and U.S. displeasure with Syria

Even before the Iraq war, there were powerful voices in Washington, particularly among Israel’s supporters and in the neo-conservative camp, unhappy with the US-Syrian rapprochement. By the latter half of 2002, as the Bush administration edged closer to war in Iraq, the Syrian-American relationship began straining severely.

There were several reasons for this, beyond the antipathy toward Syria in some quarters in Washington. Even though Syria was regarded as an occasional ally in the war on terror, the U.S. did not remove it from the State Department’s list of terrorism sponsors. The administration demanded that Syria give up its support for and close down the Damascus offices of Palestinian groups on the list, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Washington also remains particularly keen to force the Syrians into giving up their support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is believed to have thousands of rockets pointed at Israel from southern Lebanon.

A Syrian-American rift also developed when the U.S. sought a United Nations mandate to go to war in Iraq in November 2002. Syria, which was on the Security Council at the time, opposed a resolution that would authorize war and sided with France and other council members in passing a compromise resolution, Resolution 1441. The Syrians saw the resolution as a means of averting war, not an implicit trigger for one in case of Iraqi non-compliance with its provisions.

Exacerbating Syrian-American relations was the fact that Washington accused Damascus of going around the U.N. boycott of Iraq through its illegal importation of Iraqi oil, particularly through the Kirkuk-Banyas pipeline. The subsidy factor from these transactions earned Syria some $1bn per year. [5] On his first trip to the Middle East in early 2001, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell asked the Syrians to turn the tap off. Syrian President Bashar Assad promised to do so, but never followed up.

Syria’s contrary approach to Iraq drove a wedge between Damascus and Washington, though reportedly intelligence cooperation continued. As Seymour Hersh wrote, “[B]y early 2002 Syria had emerged as one of the CIA’s most effective intelligence allies in the fight against al-Qaeda, providing an outpouring of information that came to an end only with the invasion of Iraq.” [6] The relationship was apparently sustained by the CIA, and reportedly was resumed after the war. [7]

That said, the Iraq war tipped the balance in the direction of those in the Bush administration who opposed further collaboration with Syria. Both during the war and in the days following its end, senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, accused Syria of allowing insurgents to cross its border into Iraq. Furthermore, senior Syrian officials were said to have supplied the Iraqis with night-vision equipment. While there appeared little likelihood the U.S. would expand military operations to Syria, there was much information coming out of Washington suggesting that some in the administration wanted to do just that.

On June 18, 2003, the most serious American-Syrian confrontation took place along the Syrian-Iraqi border. An American military force thought it had spotted a convoy of vehicles spiriting Iraqi officials into Syria. U.S. helicopters attacked the vehicles and American forces entered into Syrian territory. Up to 80 Syrians may have been killed, and the Americans captured several Syrian border guards. While Damascus played down the incident, some observers saw the episode as an effort by those hostile to Syria in the administration to intimidate Syria. Indeed, relations subsequently worsened, despite past Syrian help on terrorism and the receding prospects for a full-scale U.S. attack on Syria.

Holding Syria accountable

Between 2003 and 2004, the U.S. helped pass two formal documents that all but dissipated the goodwill Syria had built up in collaborating with Washington’s war on terrorism. In a sense, they highlighted a developing American technique, one particularly obvious in the aftermath of the Iraq war, namely, Washington’s holding a stick over Syria’s head, while at the same time maintaining a dialogue with it, albeit one with little negotiation. (As proof of the latter, a persistent Syrian demand that the U.S. sponsor negotiations on the future of the Golan Heights has been largely ignored by the Bush administration.)

The centerpiece of the American effort was the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003. This legislation demanded that Syria, among other things, “Halt support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, [and] stop its development of weapons of mass destruction.” The act threatened sanctions in the event of non-compliance. The administration supported the legislation when it realized it might alter Syrian behavior on Iraq and its support for Hezbollah and Palestinian groups. In May, Washington imposed sanctions on Syria under the legislation.

Significantly, when Israel responded to an attack by bombing an alleged Palestinian base inside Syria in October 2003, the U.S. administration did condemn the action. While Syria did little to fundamentally alter its behavior, it realized that its own margin to react to future such attacks was relatively limited. And while Washington subsequently sought to engage Syria more, the option of striking at Syria remains one Israel, and by extension the U.S., will retain.

Finally, in early September, the U.S. and France co-sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 1559, raising the heat on Syria by demanding it pull out of Lebanon and respect Lebanese sovereignty. More specifically, it called for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias, a clear reference to Hezbollah and Palestinian groups. In early October, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan issued a report on the implications of the resolution. His conclusion was that he could not say that Syria and Lebanon had implemented its provisions. He left it to the Security Council, however, to decide on how to act on Resolution 1559, a decision due to be made this week. This was a further step in the gradual isolation of Syria from the post-9/11 consensus. Significantly, it also showed Washington’s willingness to intervene more forcefully in the bilateral Syrian-Lebanese relationship.

What lies ahead? Much will depend on the U.S. presidential election. Yet, whichever administration finds itself in power, Washington will continue to regard Syria as a sponsor of terrorism for as long as it continues to defend Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Syria, in turn, will, for domestic and regional reasons, resist shifting course. The main reason for this is that it considers these groups as its only serious bargaining chip if talks resume with Israel on the Golan. This virtually guarantees more American pressure on Syria in the future, regardless of whether Syria did or did not “save American lives.”


1. Interview with Bouthaina Shaaban, November 23, 2002.

2. Syria/US: Iraq differences threaten terrorism cooperation, Oxford Analytica, October 18, 2002. Available online at:

3. Seymour M. Hersh, The Syrian Bet, The New Yorker, July 28, 2003. Available online at:

4. Opening statement for hearing on Syria-U.S. policy directions, U.S. Senate, October 30, 2003. Available online at:

5. Economist Intelligence Unit, Syria Country Report. November 2002. A European diplomat in Damascus told me in December 2002 that a well-informed Syrian source stated that at the end of November 2002, Syrian imports of Iraqi oil had reached 200,000 b/d, suggesting an expansion of oil imports over previous months.

6. Hersh, op. cit.

7. Interview with Seymour Hersh, March 2004. He said that according to his sources the CIA. still has a small station in Aleppo.