Freedom in the World
Freedoms of expression, association, and assembly remained tightly restricted throughout 2009, especially with regard to certain groups, such as the Kurdish minority. Syria’s opposition in exile split during the year, ending an uneasy alliance between secularists and Islamists. On the international front, Syria and Lebanon exchanged ambassadors, and although the United States announced that it would send an ambassador to Damascus, none had been named by year’s end.
Syria’s diplomatic isolation eased somewhat in 2009. High-ranking officials from the United States met with Syrian leaders for the first time since 2005, Washington pledged to return an ambassador to Damascus, and Saudi Arabian diplomats held talks with Syrian officials. However, the U.S. ambassador had not been named by year’s end, the United States renewed existing sanctions on Syria, and progress on an Association Agreement with the European Union stalled.
Syria is not an electoral democracy. Under the 1973 constitution, 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.
The government has appointed some women to senior positions, including one of the two vice presidential posts. However, women remain underrepresented, holding 12.4 percent of the seats in the legislature. 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 are generally barred from leaving the country with their children without proof of the father’s permission. Violence against women is common, particularly in rural areas. The government imposed two-year minimum prison sentences for killings classified as “honor crimes” in 2009; previously there had been a maximum one-year sentence. State-run media estimate that there are 40 such killings each year, whereas women’s rights groups put the figure at 200. Personal status law for Muslim women 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. A draft personal status law introduced in 2009 was subsequently withdrawn after women’s rights activists criticized its content and Christians denounced it as an attempt to take authority away from their respective churches.