Freedom in the World
Syria received a downward trend arrow due to rising sectarian violence and displacement, including targeted attacks on Sunni Muslim populations that oppose the regime.
The civil war that gripped Syria in 2011 continued in 2012, devastating the country and leading to widespread displacement and regional instability. More than 45,000 people were believed to have been killed—many of them civilians—in the conflict by the end of 2012, and thousands of others were injured, missing, or arrested. More than 470,000 Syrian refugees were registered with the United Nations in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, while tens of thousands more crossed borders without registering. In addition, over 2.5 million Syrians inside the country required aid, including over 1.5 million internally displaced persons. International efforts to broker a cease-fire or political agreement between the regime and opposition forces failed, and the war took on an increasingly sectarian tone.
The modern state of Syria was established as a League of Nations mandate under French control after World War I and gained formal independence in 1946. Periods of military and elected civilian rule alternated until the Arab Socialist Baath Party seized power in a 1963 coup, transforming Syria into a one-party state governed under emergency law. During the 1960s, power shifted from the party’s civilian ideologues to army officers, most of whom were Alawites (adherents of a heterodox Islamic sect that makes up 12 percent of the population). This trend culminated in General Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power in 1970.
The regime cultivated a base of support that spanned sectarian and ethnic divisions, but relied on Alawite domination of the security establishment and the forcible suppression of dissent. In 1982, government forces stormed the city of Hama to crush a rebellion by the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, killing as many as 20,000 insurgents and civilians.
Bashar al-Assad took power after his father’s death in 2000, pledging to liberalize Syria’s politics and economy. The first six months of his presidency featured the release of political prisoners, the return of exiled dissidents, and open discussion of the country’s problems. But in February 2001, the regime began to reverse this so-called Damascus Spring. Leading reformists were arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, while others faced constant surveillance and intimidation by the secret police.
Reinvigorated by the toppling of Iraq’s Baathist regime in 2003, Syria’s dissidents began cooperating and pushing for the release of political prisoners, the cancellation of the emergency law, and the legalization of opposition parties. Despite hints that sweeping political reforms would be drafted at a major Baath Party conference in 2005, no substantial measures were taken. In October 2005, representatives of all three segments of the opposition—Islamists, Kurds, and secular liberals—signed the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change (DDDNC), which called for the country’s leaders to step down and endorsed a broad set of liberal democratic principles.
In May 2006, a number of Syrian political and human rights activists signed the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, which called for a change in Syrian-Lebanese relations and the recognition of Lebanese sovereignty. Many who signed were detained or sentenced to prison in a renewed crackdown on personal freedoms.
Al-Assad won another presidential term in 2007, with 97.6 percent of the vote. In results that were similarly predetermined, the ruling Baath-dominated coalition won the majority of seats in that year’s parliamentary and municipal polls. Meanwhile, supporters of the DDDNC formed governing bodies for their alliance and renewed their activities, prompting another government crackdown. Over the subsequent three years, the state continued to suppress dissenting views and punish government opponents. Nevertheless, the United States and European countries took tentative steps in 2010 to improve relations with Damascus.
The regime’s brutal response to an antigovernment uprising in 2011 dashed any hopes of further progress in its foreign relations. The initially peaceful protests were sparked by the detention and reported torture of several children for writing antigovernment graffiti in the southern city of Dara’a in March, and they soon spread to central cities like Hama and Homs, as well as towns along the Syrian-Turkish border. The authorities’ extensive use of live fire and military hardware against civilian demonstrators led small groups of soldiers to desert and organize antigovernment militias. Fighting between the two sides soon escalated into a civil war.
Despite the regime’s consistent claims that it was under attack from foreign-backed terrorists, not a domestic opposition with political aims, the government made some symbolic concessions in 2011, including repealing the country’s long-standing emergency law and revising the constitution. The new charter, which removed language cementing the Baath Party’s leadership role and added a two-term limit for presidents, was adopted with a reported 89 percent of the vote in a February 2012 referendum that the opposition dismissed as a sham. Parliamentary elections were held in May amid open warfare and an opposition boycott, producing a legislature that included only the Baath Party and allied factions with 168 seats, progovernment independents with 77 seats, and a nominal opposition group with five seats.
As the fighting wore on, high-ranking government and military officials continued to defect. Most notably, Riyad Farid Hijab, the prime minister since June, fled to Jordan in August. However, the opposition remained relatively disorganized. Many local militias were loosely affiliated with the Turkey-based Free Syrian Army, while others, particularly hardline Salafi-jihadi factions like Jabhat al-Nusra, cooperated with fellow rebel groups on an ad hoc basis. Various civilian opposition organizations continued to operate as well, including a national network of Local Coordination Committees and the Syrian National Council, a grouping of exiled political leaders based in Turkey.
The conflict greatly increased in tempo and violence over the course of the year, with the government using airstrikes, artillery bombardments, and even ballistic missiles to devastate rebel-held neighborhoods, and some opposition groups engaging in car bombings near government buildings. Regular massacres of civilians were reported. By year’s end, the conflict was estimated to have caused over 45,000 deaths and displaced over 1.5 million people within Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians also fled to neighboring countries, straining those governments’ resources and testing their political stability.
UN-led efforts to forge a cease-fire agreement made little progress during the year. UN General Assembly resolutions passed in February and August condemned the Syrian government for its conduct in the war and called on al-Assad to resign as part of political transition, but Russia and China blocked any stronger action against Damascus at the UN Security Council.
At a gathering in Qatar in November 2012, a broad array of opposition military and political groups active both inside and outside Syria formed a new umbrella organization, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The entity was designed to replace the discredited Syrian National Council as the opposition’s diplomatic representative and improve coordination of funding and military supplies from Western and Arab donor countries. Key Islamist militias refused to join the group. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime reportedly continued to receive military aid from Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Syria is not an electoral democracy. The president is nominated by the ruling Baath Party and approved by popular referendum for seven-year terms. In practice, these referendums are orchestrated by the regime, as are elections for the 250-seat, unicameral People’s Council, whose members serve four-year terms and hold little independent legislative power. Almost all power rests in the executive branch.
Political parties based on religious, tribal, or regional affiliation are banned. Until a 2011 decree allowed the formation of new parties, the only legal factions were the Baath Party and its several small coalition partners in the ruling National Progressive Front (NPF). Independent candidates, who are heavily vetted and closely allied with the regime, are permitted to contest about a third of the People’s Council seats. A 2012 constitutional referendum relaxed rules regarding the participation of non-Baathist parties and imposed a limit of two terms on the presidency, but parliamentary elections in May resulted in minimal changes to the composition of the government.
Corruption is widespread and rarely carries serious punishment, and bribery is often necessary to navigate the bureaucracy. Regime officials and their families benefit from a range of illicit economic activities. Syria was ranked 144 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is heavily restricted. The penal code and a 2001 Publications Law criminalize the publication of material that harms national unity, tarnishes the state’s image, or threatens the “goals of the revolution.” A 2011 media law contained similar, broadly-worded content restrictions, and journalists continued to be detained despite its provisions barring arrests or imprisonment for press offenses. Apart from a few stations with non-news formats, all broadcast media are state owned. However, satellite dishes are common, giving most Syrians access to foreign broadcasts. More than a dozen privately-owned newspapers and magazines had opened in the years before the 2011 uprising, but their news coverage is tightly circumscribed. In areas under tenuous rebel control, opposition-oriented media outlets have begun to emerge, for the most part in print or online.
Journalists were frequently killed, tortured, jailed, or reported missing during 2012. Reporters Without Borders estimated in December that at least 18 professional journalists from domestic and international outlets had been killed by regime and opposition forces since the conflict began in 2011. This number does not include over 40 citizen journalists who have been targeted and killed because of their role in disseminating information. Foreign journalists continue to face detention and travel restrictions, and some—such as American freelance journalist Austin Tice, who was abducted by progovernment forces in August—remained missing at year’s end. Meanwhile, numerous domestic reporters and citizen journalists have been detained and subjected to torture and military tribunals for their coverage.
Most Syrians access the internet through state-run servers, which block more than 200 sites associated with the opposition, Kurdish politics, Islamic organizations, human rights, and certain foreign news services, particularly those in Lebanon. Social-networking and video-sharing websites were unblocked in 2011, but they have been used to track and punish opposition supporters and activists. Online communications are reportedly monitored by intelligence agencies, and the government has fostered self-censorship through intimidation. The Syrian Electronic Army, a progovernment hacking group, has attacked opposition websites with apparent backing from the regime.
Although the constitution requires that the president be a Muslim, there is no state religion in Syria, and freedom of worship is generally respected. However, the government tightly monitors mosques and controls the appointment of Muslim religious leaders. All non-worship meetings of religious groups require permits. Mosques have frequently become sites of violence since 2011, as government forces attempt to prevent gatherings of worshipers from turning into protests. The Alawite minority dominates the internal security forces and the officer corps of the military, while Sunni Muslims make up the bulk of rebel forces. The conflict has taken on an increasingly sectarian character, with Sunni-populated areas bearing the brunt of government attacks, some Islamist factions declaring their hostility toward minorities and secularists, and civilians of all confessions seeking safety among their respective groups.
Academic freedom is heavily restricted. Several private universities have been founded in recent years, and the extent of academic freedom within them varies. University professors have been dismissed or imprisoned for expressing dissent, and some have been killed in response to their outspoken support for regime opponents. Education in general has been greatly disrupted by the civil war.
Freedom of assembly is closely circumscribed. Public demonstrations are illegal without official permission, which is typically granted only to progovernment groups. The security services intensified their ban on public and private gatherings starting in 2006, forbidding any group of five or more people from discussing political and economic topics. Surveillance and extensive informant networks have enforced this rule and, until the 2011 uprising, ensured that a culture of self-censorship and fear prevailed. Illegal protests have since been met with gunfire, arrests, and alleged torture.
Freedom of association is severely restricted. All nongovernmental organizations must register with the government, which generally denies registration to reformist or human rights groups. Leaders of unlicensed human rights groups have frequently been jailed for publicizing state abuses. Despite grave risks, opposition activist networks have continued to operate across Syria since 2011.
Professional syndicates are controlled by the Baath Party, and all labor unions must belong to the General Federation of Trade Unions, a nominally independent grouping that the government uses to control union activity. Strikes in nonagricultural sectors are legal, but they rarely occur.
While the lower courts in previous years operated with some independence and generally safeguarded ordinary defendants’ rights, politically sensitive cases were usually tried by the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), an exceptional tribunal appointed by the executive branch that denied the right to appeal, limited access to legal counsel, tried many cases behind closed doors, and routinely accepted confessions obtained through torture. The SSSC was abolished in response to the uprisings in 2011, but this did not bring any tangible gains in the rights of the accused.
The security agencies, which operate independently of the judiciary, routinely extract confessions by torturing suspects and detaining their family members. The government lifted its emergency law in April 2011, but security agencies still have virtually unlimited authority to arrest suspects and hold them incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge. Political activists are often monitored and harassed by security services even after release from prison. At the end of 2012, an estimated 100,000 people were missing or detained for political reasons. Extrajudicial killings have also increased dramatically since the civil conflict began.
The Kurdish minority faces severe restrictions on cultural and linguistic expression. The 2001 press law requires that owners and top editors of print publications be Arabs. Kurdish exile groups estimate that as many as 300,000 Syrian Kurds have traditionally been unable to obtain citizenship, passports, identity cards, or birth certificates, preventing them from owning land, obtaining government employment, and voting. Suspected Kurdish activists are routinely dismissed from schools and public-sector jobs. While the government pledged in 2011 to give citizenship rights to thousands of Kurds in eastern Syria, conditions for Kurds remained harsh, and Kurdish militias have taken up arms to defend their areas amid the civil war.
The proliferation of military checkpoints, open fighting, and general insecurity have severely restricted travel and the movement of vital supplies since 2011, affecting resident civilians, the internally displaced, and those attempting to flee abroad.
While Syria was one of the first Arab countries to grant female suffrage, women remain underrepresented in Syrian politics and government. They hold 12 percent of the seats in the legislature, though the government has appointed some women to senior positions, including one of the two vice presidential posts. The government provides women with equal access to education, but many discriminatory laws remain in force. A husband may request that the Interior Ministry block his wife from traveling abroad, and women, unlike men, are generally barred from taking their children out of the country without proof of the spouse’s permission. Violence against women is common, particularly in rural areas. Perpetrators of killings classified as “honor crimes” are punished with reduced sentences ranging from five to seven years in prison. Women’s rights groups estimate that there are hundreds of such killings each year. Personal status law for Muslims is governed by Sharia (Islamic law) and is discriminatory in marriage, divorce, and inheritance matters. Church law governs personal status issues for Christians, in some cases barring divorce. Homosexual acts are punishable with up to three years in prison.