Syrian Support for Terrorism

Testimony by Ambassador Philip C. Wilcox, Jr., Coordinator for Counterterrorism, before the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, Washington, DC.

Mr. Chairman,

Thank you for your invitation to address this Committee in support of your inquiry into Syrian policy.

As you know, Secretary Christopher will testify on July 31 and can discuss Syria and other Middle East issues, including the peace process. Regarding terrorism, which is my area of responsibility, the Administration shares the Committee's concerns addressed in your letter of July 22 to the Department about Syrian support for terrorism. This is an important element in our dialogue with the government of Syria. Indeed, the United States has made clear to the Syrians on numerous occasions and at the highest levels that their support for international terrorist groups is a serious impediment to our bilateral relationship.

Today I will discuss the basis for Syria's inclusion on the list of countries designated by the Secretary of State as state sponsors of terrorism. I will also outline the measures the U.S. has taken in response to Syria's policy, including economic sanctions and diplomatic measures. Finally, I will describe our views on Syria's support for groups which are involved in terrorism today.

Syria is one of the original countries to be placed on the list of state sponsors that was adopted in 1979 pursuant to Section 6 of the Export Administration Act. The criteria for including a country on the terrorism list include, but are not limited to, whether the country provides terrorists sanctuary from extradition or prosecution; arms, explosives and other lethal substances; logistical support; safe houses or headquarters; planning, training or other assistance for terrorist activities; and direct or indirect financial backing.

Syria continues to provide safe haven and logistic support to a variety of terrorist groups, both Arab and non-Arab, such as the Kurdish PKK. Several of these groups maintain a presence in Damascus and terrorist training facilities or forces in Syria. Terrorist groups also have bases in parts of Lebanon either controlled or strongly influenced by Syria. Personnel of several other international terrorist groups are allowed to transit Syria. Syria does not define the activities of the groups as "terrorism." We strongly disagree.

The Palestinian group Hamas openly operates a political office in Damascus, where it maintains close contacts with Iranian officials and other rejectionist groups. The leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which, like Hamas, has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Israel, is resident in Damascus. Damascus has allowed the Iranian-backed Hizballah terrorist organization to operate freely from areas of Lebanon under Syrian control; Syria also permits Iran to resupply periodically Hizballah through Damascus airport. We have described these facts in our annual report to Congress "Patterns of Global Terrorism."

Mr. Chairman, I can assure you that the President and the Secretary of State view with utmost seriousness these aspects of Syrian policy. Our policy is designed to influence Syrian policy, to the extent that it is possible for the United States to do so, and we believe it is the correct approach. We think our policy has had an impact on Syria. I should also reiterate that we have no evidence of direct Syrian involvement in terrorist acts since 1986, in contrast to some other states designated as sponsors of terrorism such as Iran, Iraq, and Libya. Syria has used its influence from time to time to restrain Hizballah rocket attacks across the Israeli border. For example, as a result of Secretary Christopher's diplomacy in April, Syria persuaded the Hizballah to cease firing Katyusha rockets across the Lebanese border into Israel. The Syrian government has also demonstrated that it can use its influence to deter Palestinian rejectionist groups resident in Syria to avoid acts of international terrorism outside Israel and the West Bank and Gaza.

However, Syria will remain on our list of state sponsors of terrorism until it brings to an end all support for terrorist organizations, which I have described. We have repeatedly made this clear in our diplomatic contacts with Syria, including those at the highest levels.

In addition to our diplomatic efforts we have worked to change Syrian policy by other means as well. We have adopted a series of stringent economic sanctions that flow from Syria's inclusion on the terrorism list. Most of them are triggered by the Anti-Terrorism and Arms Export Control Act of 1989, which consolidated many of the previously enacted counterterrorism sanctions in legislation.

The basic features of the sanctions are: prohibitions of U.S. economic assistance and military sales, controls on dual-use equipment which could support terrorism or military activities, and prohibitions on U.S. Government support for multilateral economic assistance.

These sanctions will continue to apply to Syria until it ends its support for terrorist groups and is no longer designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. As you know from the statutes that this Committee helped draft, a country cannot be removed from the terrorism list without meeting certain requirements, including a Presidential determination and 45 days advance notification to Congress.

The U.S. Government's policy opposing Syria's support for terrorism has been constant. It has been reiterated publicly. And President Clinton, Secretary Christopher and other U.S. officials have emphasized to Syria the seriousness of this problem in U.S.-Syrian relations. We have made clear our view that the terrorist groups which are allowed to operate within Syria and parts of Lebanon under Syrian influence are a threat to Syria's neighbors, to the peace process, and to the stability of the region.

In recent years, the great majority of the nations of the world have joined an international consensus that terrorism, whatever its motive, is an unacceptable tool of politics. The opposition to terrorism by most governments of the Middle East who recognize that it is a threat to their societies, as well as to the region, has added strength and impetus to the Middle East Peace Process. Syria is a strategically-located state with the potential for positive participation in the Middle East, and it has been an important participant in the peace process. We have urged Syria to join its neighbors and the rest of the international community in opposing all forms of terrorism, and to change its policies accordingly.