President Obama Announces U.S. Sanctions Against Syria

May 2, 2011

“The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of force by the Syrian government against demonstrators.  This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now. We regret the loss of life and our thoughts are with the families and loved ones of the victims, and with the Syrian people in this challenging time.”[1]

After President Obama’s April 22nd statement, the Syrian crackdown intensified, especially in Dara’a, the city at the heart of Syrian uprising.  One recent news report identified Syrian military forces firing upon protesters armed only with olive branches.[2]  With a total death toll reportedly more than 500 since protests began,[3] President Obama issued an Executive Order targeting persons and entities associated with human rights abuses in Syria.

The spread of protests and violence to Syria during the Arab Spring presents unique challenges to the Obama Administration, given that Syria shares a border with Israel, has close relations with Iran, and its links with terrorist groups like Hamas and Hizbollah.  The policy challenges in Syria have perhaps become even more complicated by President Obama’s announcement that Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by U.S. forces.  This Client Alert reviews the history of Syrian sanctions, and provides more detailed information on the sanctions recently announced by the President.

Brief Review of Prior Syrian Sanctions

Syrian sanctions derive from the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003.[4]  The SAA directed sanctions to deal with both the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, and Syrian interference with reconstruction efforts in Iraq.  Among its provisions, the SAA prohibited exports to Syria of items on the United States Munitions List or the Commerce Control List.  Additionally, the SAA directed the President to impose two other sanctions from among a list provided in the SAA.

President George W. Bush implemented the SAA through Executive Order 13338, of May 11, 2004.[5]  For the two additional sanctions required by the SAA, President Bush chose a ban on U.S. exports to Syria, other than food and medicine, and a prohibition on Syrian aircraft landing in, or overflying, the United States.  Executive Order 13338 also directed the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to block the property of Syrian parties involved in terrorism support, acquisition of certain classes of weapons, undermining Iraqi reconstruction, of contributing to Syria’s security presence in Lebanon.

Following Executive Order 13338, the Office of Foreign Assets Control issued the Syrian Sanctions Regulations in April 2005.[6]  President Bush also issued two additional Executive Orders covering Syrian sanctions while in office.  Executive Order 13399 blocked U.S. property of Syrian interests involved in the February 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.[7]  And Executive Order 13460 modified the terms of Executive Order 13338 to reflect the end of U.S.-led reconstruction efforts in Iraq, and the establishment of a new permanent Iraqi government.

President Obama’s April 29, 2011 Executive Order

The April 29, 2011 Executive Order addresses the recent violent oppression of protest by the Syrian government.  Specifically, the Executive Order condemns the:

“Government of Syria’s human rights abuses, including those related to the repression of the people of Syria, manifested most recently by the use of violence and torture against, and arbitrary arrests and detentions of, peaceful protestors by police, security forces, and other entities that have engaged in human rights abuses.”[8]

The newly issued Executive Order blocks the U.S. property interests, or property interests that come into the possession or control of United States persons, wherever located, of specified parties, as listed in an Annex to the Executive Order.  Along with the White House’s explanations of why they are listed, the parties are:[9]

Mahir al-Asad:  The brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and brigade commander in the Syrian Army’s 4th Armored Division, who has played a leading role in the Syrian regime’s actions in Dar’a, where protesters have been killed by Syrian security forces.

Atif Najib:  A cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, Najib was the head of the Political Security Directorate (PSD) for Dar’a Province during March 2011, when protesters were killed there by Syrian security forces.

Ali Mamluk:  Director of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate (GID).

Syrian General Intelligence Directorate (GID):  The overarching civilian intelligence service in Syria.  The GID represses internal dissent and monitors individual citizens, and has been involved in the Syrian regime’s actions in Dar’a where protesters were killed by Syrian security services.

Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF):  Iran is providing material support to the Syrian government related to cracking down on unrest in Syria.  The conduit for this Iranian material support to the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate is the IRGC-QF.  Despite the Government of Iran’s public rhetoric claiming revolutionary solidarity with people throughout the region, Iran’s actions in support of the Syrian regime place it in stark opposition to the will of the Syrian people.  The IRGC-QF is a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is considered the military vanguard of Iran.  The IRGC-QF was designated by the Treasury Department in October 2007 for providing material support to terrorist groups around the world, including the Taliban, Lebanese Hizballah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

In addition to the parties listed in the Annex, the Executive Order further permits the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to block the property of parties found:

(i) to be responsible for or complicit in, or responsible for ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, or to have participated in, the commission of human rights abuses in Syria, including those related to repression;

(ii) to be a senior official of an entity whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order;

(iii) to have materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services in support of, the Syrian repression, or any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to Executive Order 13338, Executive Order 13460, or this order; or

(iv) to be owned or controlled by, or to have acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to Executive Order 13460 or this order.


Syria represents a particularly unique foreign policy challenge.  Syria is designated by the U.S. State Department as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, and is already subject to a robust sanctions program.  As a result, the economic levers available as behavior-shaping tools are limited.  Additionally, any decision to use military force in Syria must be approached with great caution.  In Libya, Western governments moved quickly to use military force to respond to a violent crackdown.  But the projected knock-on effects of military action in Libya were limited in magnitude and narrow in scope.  By contrast, Syria’s proximity to Israel, alliance with Iran, and association with major terrorist groups all suggest that use of military force in Syria would more likely lead to unforeseen region-wide consequences.

  [1]   The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Statement by the President on Syria, Apr. 22, 2011, available at (accessed May 2, 2011).

  [2]   Anthony Shadid, Syrian Forces Shoot at Protesters in Dara’a Siege, New York Times, Apr. 29, 2011, available at (accessed May 2, 2011).

  [3]   See, e.g., Massoud Derhally and Vivian Salama, Syrian Tanks Shell City’s Main Square as Army Reinforces Troops, May 1, 2011, available at 2011-04-30/syria-death-toll-said-to-top-550-since-demonstrations-began.html (accessed May 2, 2011).

  [4]   Pub. L. 108-175, 117 Stat. 2882, codified at 22 U.S.C. Section 2151. (“SAA”).

  [5]   69 Fed. Reg. 26751 (May, 13, 2004).

  [6]   70 Fed. Reg. 17203 (Apr. 5, 2005).

  [7]   71 Fed. Reg. 25059 (Apr. 28, 2006).

  [8]   The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Executive Order, Blocking Property of Certain Persons with Respect to Human Rights Abuses in Syria, Apr. 29, 2011, available at: (accessed May 2, 2011).

  [9]   The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Fact Sheet: Executive Order, Syria Human Rights Abuses, Apr. 29, 2011, available at (accessed May 2, 2011).

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher’s lawyers are available to assist with any questions you may have regarding these issues.  For further information, please contact the Gibson Dunn lawyer with whom you work or any of the following:

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John J. Sullivan – Washington, D.C. (202-955-8565, [email protected])
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