Enablers of the Syrian Conflict


The Syrian conflict is a human rights catastrophe. Over the past two years, nearly 70,000 people have died, mostly civilians, including more than 3,700 children, and nearly one million refugees have fled the country. Although both sides of the conflict are responsible for atrocities, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the vast majority. The regime’s security forces have used indiscriminate bombings, intentional mass killings, rape, and torture to kill and brutalize civilians. There is no end in sight.

President Obama has made stopping mass atrocities a “core national security interest” of the United States, which manifestly applies to Syria. As neighboring countries struggle to absorb the nearly one million refugees and regional powers become more involved in the conflict, the possibility of wider violence and instability looms.

Yet U.S. efforts to slow or stop the crisis—diplomacy and sanctions against the regime, primarily—have had little effect. Amid calls to arm the rebels, we urge the United States to approach the conflict from the other end: to choke off the flow of arms, resources, and money to Assad. While no single strategy could resolve this crisis, this low-risk, nonviolent one could help stem the bloodshed and put pressure on Assad to stop the bloodshed.

The Syrian regime’s mass atrocities—like all mass atrocities—are complex, organized crimes requiring the support of third party “enablers.” This report provides both a unique overview of Assad’s enablers and a roadmap the U.S. government can follow to crack down on them.

A number of countries and commercial entities are knowingly or tacitly enabling Assad’s atrocities. For example:

  • Russia has provided military equipment, military advisors, diesel fuel, gasoil, and financial assistance
  • Iran has provided military equipment, advisors, and personnel, diesel fuel, and financial assistance
  • North Korea has provided missile technology, other arms, and technical assistance
  • Venezuela and Angola have sent, or contracted to send, diesel fuel
  • Private entities in Georgia, Lebanon, and Cyprus have reportedly sent or attempted to send diesel fuel
  • An oil trader in South Africa brokered Angola’s fuel deal with Syria
  • A trader in the UAE provided Internet filtering devices made by California’s Blue Coat Systems, Inc.
  • Italy’s Finmeccanica provided radio technology and technical assistance through the Syrian unit of Intracom-Telecom, a Greek company
  • Italy’s Area SpA provided an Internet surveillance system, which relied on technology from California’s NetApp Inc. and Hewlett Packard, France’s Qosmos SA, and Germany’s Ultimaco
  • Safeware AG

Together, these enablers form a supply chain that passes through the legal jurisdictions of a number of countries with whom the United States has a relationship. Not only do many of the arms and other resources headed for Syria traverse the territory of U.S. allies; many ships fly the flags of countries that are allied with the United States or otherwise susceptible to American influence. Also, the supply chain includes commercial entities—such as insurance providers, oil firms, and shell businesses designed to conceal the ownership of ships—that are located in countries where the United States has leverage.

Given its relationships with these countries—as well as its political, economic, and military reach—the United States is particularly well positioned to disrupt the supply chains. U.S. officials could and should enlist these countries in a systematic effort to deny Assad the support that is enabling atrocities.

To bolster this effort, the U.S. government should take the following steps: (For full recommendations, see
page 23):

  • The State Department should publicly and privately pressure enabling countries, share information with the foreign authorities who can aid in disrupting enablers, and direct embassies to collect information on enablers.
  • The Treasury Department should impose sanctions that prevent U.S. entities from doing business with Assad’s enablers and that limit his ability to repatriate funds from oil exports.
  • The Commerce Department should amend the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) to secure control over the delivery of information and communications technology to repressive regimes like Syria. The department should also work with the industry to promote its best practices, to prevent such technology from enabling atrocities.
  • The Department of Defense should void its existing contracts with the enablers of atrocities in Syria and adopt a regulation to prohibit activities with state-owned enterprises, commercial entities, and individuals that enable mass atrocities.
  • Congress should pass legislation targeting the enablers of Syrian atrocities, which, for instance, could require federal contractors to certify that they are not in business with Assad’s enablers and prohibit enabling foreign financial institutions from doing business with American financial institutions.
  • The Atrocity Prevention Board should actively identify enablers and enact measures to disrupt them in early warning stages of atrocities and in ongoing atrocities.

The report expands Human Rights First’s work identifying and tracking the Assad regime’s enablers since 2011. It is based on open source information, which is limited due to the exclusion of most foreign reporters from Syria, the secrecy cloaking intelligence and trade information, and the efforts of enablers to evade detection. The cases documented in this report are representative, not exhaustive.


Published on February 28, 2013


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