Syria’s political unrest is mounting pressure on the United States to respond to the violent crackdown on civilians. But U.S. policies of limited engagement and economic sanctions against Syria present obstacles for action.
While the U.S. is providing significant support to some of the new political groups in the Middle East, like Egypt and Libya, its role in Syria has been stunted by aid restrictions. Syria’s sponsorship of terrorist groups resulted in economic sanctions that render it ineligible for aid.
Reports suggest up to 500 civilians have been killed, but the Assad government has refused to release all of the bodies of protesters, so the death toll could be even higher. Long-term instability in Syria has the potential to affect other U.S. foreign policy goals, such as countering Hezbollah, limiting Iranian influence and Arab-Israeli cooperation.
The administration may be drafting sanctions against President Assad’s family. While the effect of financial sanctions is limited, it may encourage those countries with deeper financial relationships with Syria to act.
“U.S. sanctions against Syria have clearly dissuaded some U.S. and some foreign businesses from investing in Syria,” the Congressional Research Service report said. But the economic sanctions are not as thorough as they appear. A number of exceptions allow millions in trade between the countries. In 2010, imports from Syria and U.S. exports to the country topped out at $934.9 million.
The U.S. agriculture sector has squeezed passed Syrian export restrictions, according to a CRS report. The U.S. is the top corn supplier to Syria, and corn sales to Syria doubled from $51 million in 2001 to $102 million in 2005. Soybean exports also increased from approximately $1 million in 2001 to $28 million in 2005. A severe drought in eastern Syria has harmed the country’s farming base.
A democratic Syria could present new opportunities for the U.S. to strengthen ties in the region, but that scenario currently seems unlikely. Many experts remain doubtful that the opposition groups can overthrow Assad without creating deep instability within the country or upsetting the delicate balance between competing ethnic groups.
FAST FACT: In the past, the U.S. provided aid to Syria. Between 1950 and 1981, a total of $627.4 million in aid went to Syria for development assistance, economic support, food assistance and other aid projects. No aid has been provided to Syria since 1981.