Syria

Not Free
1
100
PR Political Rights -3 40
CL Civil Liberties 4 60
Last Year's Score & Status
1 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

Political rights and civil liberties in Syria are severely compromised by one of the world’s most repressive regimes and by other belligerent forces in an ongoing civil war. The regime prohibits genuine political opposition and harshly suppresses freedoms of speech and assembly. Corruption, enforced disappearances, military trials, and torture are rampant in government-controlled areas. Residents of contested regions or territory held by nonstate actors are subject to additional abuses, including intense and indiscriminate combat, sieges and interruptions of humanitarian aid, and mass displacement.

header2 Key Developments in 2021

  • In May, President Bashar al-Assad won a fourth term in a contest characterized by an uncompetitive slate of challengers, none of whom posed a serious threat to Assad’s rule. The vote was further marred by a law that effectively barred exiles living abroad from participating, and ongoing insecurity. Assad won 95.1 percent of the vote, according to the government.
  • The regime launched a siege against the old quarter of the city of Daraa in the summer, leading to clashes with rebel fighters. In September, the government took control of the quarter after agreeing to a cease-fire negotiated with Russian assistance.
  • Syria was seriously affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with cases rising in Aleppo and Idlib Governorates in August and September. An increase in case counts was reported nationwide by October. Government authorities reported 38,809 cases and 2,182 deaths to the World Health Organization (WHO) by year’s end.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

The president, who dominates the executive branch, is empowered to appoint and dismiss the prime minister and cabinet. In May 2021, President Bashar al-Assad won a fourth seven-year term, with the government reporting that he won 95.1 percent of the vote. Syrians living abroad largely refrained from voting. Balloting was conducted in government-controlled areas, but not in rebel- or Kurdish-held areas.

The election was affected by an uncompetitive slate of candidates. In early May 2021, the Supreme Constitutional Court allowed only three aspiring candidates, including Assad, to contest the election. Opposition candidates were also affected by a law requiring candidates to have lived within Syria for 10 years, effectively disqualifying those in exile. Major democratic states denounced the election as illegitimate.

In June 2020, Assad dismissed Imad Khamis, who had served as prime minister since 2016, and appointed Hussein Arnous, then the water resources minister, to replace him.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

Elections for the 250-seat People’s Council were held in July 2020, though only in areas with a regime presence. These elections were also affected by the widespread displacement of the population. The balloting featured no meaningful competition, as exiled opposition groups did not participate, and the authorities do not tolerate independent political activity in the territory they control. The ruling Baath Party and its National Progressive Front coalition won 183 seats. The remaining 67 seats went to candidates running as independents, though all were considered government loyalists.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0.000 4.004

There is no transparency or accountability surrounding the official electoral process. The executive authorities, acting through the military-security apparatus, effectively grant or withhold permission to participate in elections in government-held areas. Although some provisional local councils outside government-controlled areas have organized rudimentary elections since 2011, ongoing attacks by progovernment forces and militant groups have made such processes untenable.

The government and opposition groups have met with the intention of drafting a new constitution, though a UN special envoy reported that an October 2021 round of talks was unproductive.

Kurdish-held areas have a provisional constitution that allows local elections, but the Democratic Union Party (PYD) exercises ultimate control.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 0.000 4.004

A 2011 decree allowed new political parties to register but also imposed significant obstacles to party formation and prohibited parties based on religion, regional affiliation, and other criteria. In practice, all legal political groups and independents are either part of, allied with, or heavily vetted by the regime.

In Kurdish-held areas, decentralized governance theoretically allows for political competition. In practice, however, politics are dominated by the most powerful group, the PYD, whose affiliated security forces frequently detain political opponents.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0.000 4.004

The Baath Party has governed Syria without interruption since the 1960s, led by Assad or his late father for nearly all of that time. The 2011 decree and 2012 constitutional reforms formally relaxed rules regarding the participation of non-Baathist parties. In practice, the government maintains a powerful intelligence and security apparatus to monitor and punish opposition movements that could meaningfully challenge to Assad’s rule.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 0.000 4.004

In its territory, the regime’s security and intelligence forces, militias, and business allies actively suppress the autonomy of voters and politicians. Foreign actors including Iran, Russia, and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah also exert heavy influence over politics in regime-held areas. In other areas, civilian politics are often subordinated to Turkish-backed armed groups or the PYD.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0.000 4.004

The largely Alawite-led regime presents itself as a protector of that and other religious minorities. In practice, political access depends not on sect but on proximity and loyalty to Assad and his associates. Alawites, Christians, Druze, and members of other smaller sects who are outside Assad’s inner circle are politically disenfranchised. The political elite includes members of the Sunni sect, but the country’s Sunni majority makes up most of the rebel movement and has borne the brunt of state repression as a result.

The opposition’s dwindling territory is divided among Turkish-backed rebels, Islamist militias, and radical jihadist militants, with varying implications for ethnic and religious minorities. The PYD nominally ensures political representation for Arabs but has been accused of mistreating non-Kurdish residents.

Women have equal formal political rights, holding 11.2 percent of the legislature’s seats after the 2020 elections as well as some senior government positions. However, they are typically excluded from political decision-making and have little ability to organize independently amid state and militia repression. All leadership positions in Kurdish-held areas are reportedly shared between a man and a woman, though they have limited autonomy outside PYD-led structures.

C Functioning of Government

C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0 / 4

De facto authority in government-controlled Syria lies with the president—who is not freely elected—and his political, security, and business allies rather than with formal institutions such as the cabinet and parliament. Foreign states like Iran and Russia also wield considerable influence over regime policy. Opposition forces and Kurdish-led fighters have held large swaths of territory with the help of countries including Turkey and the United States, respectively.

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0.000 4.004

De facto authority in government-controlled Syria lies with the president—who is not freely elected—and his political, security, and business allies rather than with formal institutions such as the cabinet and parliament. Foreign states like Iran and Russia also wield considerable influence over regime policy. Opposition forces and Kurdish-led fighters have held large swaths of territory with the help of countries including Turkey and the United States, respectively.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0.000 4.004

The regime and its allies are said to control much of the Syrian economy. The civil war has created new opportunities for corruption among the government, loyalist armed forces, and the private sector. Foreign allies have also benefited from government contracts and trade deals. Basic state services and humanitarian aid are reportedly extended or withheld based on recipients’ demonstrated political loyalty to the Assad regime. COVID-19-related movement restrictions created more opportunities for corruption, as those with means paid bribes to circumvent the rules.

Individuals in government-held territory who seek to expose or criticize official corruption face reprisals including dismissal from employment and detention.

Corruption is also widespread in opposition-held areas. Turkish-backed militias have been accused of looting, extortion, and theft. Local administrators and activists complain that little of the international aid reportedly given to opposition representatives abroad seems to reach them, raising suspicions of graft.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0.000 4.004

The government has long operated with minimal transparency and public accountability, and conditions have worsened during the civil war amid the rise of militias that are nominally loyal to the regime but often free to exploit the population. Officials have broad discretion to withhold government information, and they are not obliged to disclose their assets. Independent civil society groups and media outlets are harshly suppressed and cannot influence or shed light on state policies.

The regime allegedly worked to suppress independent information about the COVID-19 pandemic in Syria when it emerged, in part by warning medical workers not to share their experiences or speak with foreign media outlets. Evidence of strains on the health-care system and an increase in burials suggested much larger numbers of cases and deaths than were reflected in official data.

Add Q
Is the government or occupying power deliberately changing the ethnic composition of a country or territory so as to destroy a culture or tip the political balance in favor of another group? -3.00-3

The Syrian government, Kurdish forces, Turkish-backed opposition forces, and Islamist extremist groups have all sought to alter the ethnic composition of their territories, forcing civilians of all backgrounds to seek safety among their respective religious or ethnic communities and contributing to the demographic shifts wrought by the civil war.

Sunni Arab civilians bear the brunt of attacks by the Alawite-led government and loyalist militias. In 2018, the regime forcibly transferred thousands of civilians—most of them Sunni Arabs—from captured opposition areas to Idlib Governorate after bombing and besieging them. The government targeted Idlib again when it launched offensives against rebel forces there in 2019. As many as 900,000 people were internally displaced.

In late 2019, the Turkish military launched an offensive into northeastern Syria, aiming to create a buffer zone by pushing out its Kurdish adversaries in the area. Turkish-backed militias were subsequently accused of expropriating land and homes.

Sunni Islamist and jihadist groups often persecute religious minorities and Muslims they deem impious. Kurdish militias have been accused of displacing Arab and Turkmen communities in the context of their fight against the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 0.000 4.004

The constitution nominally guarantees freedom of the press, but in practice the media are heavily restricted in government-held areas, and journalists who report critically about the state are subject to censorship, detention, torture, and death in custody. All media must obtain permission to operate from the Interior Ministry. Private media in government-controlled territory are generally owned by figures associated with the regime. Media freedom varies in territory held by other groups, but local outlets are typically under heavy pressure to support the dominant militant faction in the area. Journalists are vulnerable to censorship or intimidation over reporting on COVID-19.

Journalists face physical danger throughout Syria, especially from regime forces and extremist groups. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 139 journalists were killed between 2011 and 2021. Another 9 were missing as of December 2021.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2.002 4.004

While the constitution mandates that the president be a Muslim, there is no state religion, and the regime has generally allowed different confessional groups to practice their faiths as long as their religious activities are not deemed politically subversive. The government monitors mosques and controls the appointment of Muslim religious leaders. Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned, proselytizing is restricted, and conversion of Muslims to other faiths is prohibited. The dominance of extremist groups in opposition-held areas of western Syria has threatened freedom of worship for local residents and displaced people.

IS, which persecuted religious activity that did not conform to its version of Sunni Islam, was militarily defeated in Syria but reportedly remains active as a terrorist and guerrilla force, and it continues to recruit from and intimidate the roughly 62,000 IS suspects and family members held in Kurdish-controlled camps in eastern Syria.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 0.000 4.004

Academic freedom is severely restricted. University professors in government-held areas have been dismissed or imprisoned for expressing dissent, and some have been killed for supporting regime opponents. Combatants on all sides have regularly attacked or commandeered schools. Groups including the PYD—and prior to its military defeats, IS—have set up education systems in their territories that feature pervasive political indoctrination.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1.001 4.004

The government engages in heavy surveillance of private and online discussion and harshly punishes dissent in areas it controls. However, the government has employed its surveillance tools inconsistently in recent years amid deepening criticism from traditionally loyal segments of the population. The environment is somewhat more open in areas where neither the government nor an extremist group has a dominant presence, though the PYD and some opposition factions have allegedly suppressed freedom of speech. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the regime closely monitored medical staff and warned them against speaking about the outbreak or the government’s response.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 0.000 4.004

Freedom of assembly is severely restricted across Syria. Opposition protests in government-held areas have been met with gunfire, mass arrests, and torture of those detained. Jihadist groups, the PYD, and some rebel factions have also used force to quash civilian dissent and demonstrations.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0.000 4.004

The regime generally denies registration to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with reformist or human rights missions and regularly conducts raids and searches to detain civic and political activists. A variety of grassroots civil society networks emerged in many parts of Syria following the 2011 uprising, monitoring human rights abuses. However, such activists face violence, intimidation, and detention by armed groups and must operate secretly in many cases. NGOs that sought to provide aid during the COVID-19 pandemic attracted the suspicion of regime intelligence agencies, deterring more widespread or open activism.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 0.000 4.004

Professional syndicates in state-held areas 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. The war’s economic and political pressures have made functioning labor relations virtually impossible across the country.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 0.000 4.004

The constitution forbids government interference in the civil judiciary, but judges and prosecutors are essentially required to belong to the Baath Party and are in practice beholden to the political leadership.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0.000 4.004

Military officers can try civilians in both conventional military courts and field courts, which lack due process guarantees. Civilians may appeal military court decisions to the military chamber of the Court of Cassation, though its judges are ultimately subordinate to the military. Extremist groups have set up religious courts in their territories, imposing harsh punishments for perceived religious offenses by civilians. The general breakdown of state authority and the proliferation of militias in much of the country has led to arbitrary detentions, summary justice, and extrajudicial penalties by all sides in the civil war.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0.000 4.004

An estimated 500,000 people have been killed in the civil war since 2011. While the fighting subsided following the defeat of IS in 2019 and the 2020 Idlib cease-fire, the regime and insurgent groups frequently target civilians, including through indiscriminate bombardment, extrajudicial killings, and torture of detainees, with the government responsible for most abuses. Regime forces have detained and tortured tens of thousands of people since the war began, and many have died in custody or disappeared.

The regime has been accused of repeatedly using chemical weapons on civilian targets, including during its 2019–20 offensives into Idlib Governorate. Those offensives had killed hundreds of people and displaced hundreds of thousands by the time a cease-fire was declared.

Despite a nominal regime victory in Daraa Governorate in 2018, as well as a Russian-brokered reconciliation agreement, violence involving regime forces and local insurgents continued into 2021. The regime launched a siege against Daraa al-Balad, the old quarter of the city of Daraa, in June. Regime and rebel forces engaged in heavy fighting there beginning in July. In September, the government took control of Daraa al-Balad after agreeing to a deal negotiated with Russian assistance. Some 36,000 were internally displaced by the fighting as of September. A general deterioration of the rule of law has also reportedly contributed to violent criminality in the area.

Although IS lost control of its last population center in 2019, the group has since resorted to guerrilla and terrorist tactics to attack security forces and local civilian leaders. Separately, Turkish military operations in northern Syria have displaced tens of thousands of people and posed a serious threat to civilians living in the affected area.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are at risk of violence. In September 2021, Save the Children reported on incidents where children in the al-Hol and Roj camps were murdered or sexually assaulted.

Capital punishment can be applied expansively. In October 2021, the regime executed 24 people it claimed were responsible for wildfires in 2020, accusing them of terrorism.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 0.000 4.004

Families and networks with ties to the ruling elite receive preferential treatment in legal matters, and are disproportionately Alawite, though Alawites without such connections are far less likely to benefit from any special advantages. Similarly, the armed opposition is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab, and members of this group are consequently likely to face discrimination by the state unless they enjoy close ties with the regime.

The Kurdish minority has faced decades of state discrimination, including restrictions on the Kurdish language and persecution of Kurdish activists, though conditions for Kurds have improved dramatically in areas controlled by Kurdish militias since 2011.

Women are subject to legal and societal inequities, including gender-based disadvantages in social benefits and a severe gender gap in labor force participation. Official mechanisms meant to safeguard women’s rights are reportedly not functional, and the general deterioration of law and order has left women exposed to a range of abuses, particularly at the hands of extremist groups that impose their own interpretations of religious law.

Syrian law discriminates against LGBT+ people. According to the 1949 penal code, “unnatural sexual intercourse” is punishable with up to three years in prison. Individuals suspected of same-sex relations are at risk of execution in areas held by extremist groups.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 0.000 4.004

Ongoing combat and the proliferation of regime and militia checkpoints have severely restricted freedom of movement. The regime imposed curfews and other constraints on travel in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, though enforcement was uneven due to bribery and other factors. Movement restrictions persisted during 2021. In April, the PYD imposed a lockdown within the territory under its control, in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19 during Ramadan.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 6.7 million IDPs were present in Syria in December 2021. Another 5.5 million Syrians have sought refuge abroad. Some Syrians have begun returning to their homes in areas where fighting has subsided, though the 2019 government offensive in Idlib and the 2021 clashes in Daraa displaced large numbers of residents.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 0.000 4.004

Property rights have been routinely disregarded throughout the civil war. Businesses are frequently required to bribe officials to operate and complete bureaucratic procedures. Access to markets dominated by regime members or allies is restricted. Militias also extort businesses and confiscate private property to varying degrees.

Law No. 10 of 2018 allows the state to designate areas for reconstruction and redevelopment by decree; individuals who cannot meet a number of criteria to prove ownership of affected property risk losing it without compensation.

Personal status laws based on Sharia (Islamic law) discriminate against women on inheritance matters, and societal practices further discourage land ownership by women.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1.001 4.004

Perpetrators of “honor crimes” can receive reduced sentences under the penal code, and rapists can avoid punishment by marrying their victims. Women cannot pass citizenship on to their children. Personal status laws for Muslims put women at a disadvantage regarding marriage, divorce, and child custody. Church law governs personal status issues for Christians, in some cases barring divorce. Early and forced marriages are a problem, with displaced families in particular marrying off young daughters as a perceived safeguard against endemic sexual violence or due to economic pressure. Personal social freedoms for women are uneven in areas outside government control, ranging from onerous codes of dress and behavior in extremist-held areas to formal equality under the PYD in Kurdish areas. However, the defeat of IS, setbacks for other extremist groups, and a decline in the scale of fighting over time has reduced the population’s exposure to the most egregious violations of personal social freedoms.

G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 0 / 4

Many armed groups forcibly conscript or use child soldiers. Displaced people are especially vulnerable to labor exploitation and human trafficking, even in relatively stable government-controlled areas, as access to employment and investment is often dependent on personal, political, or communal affiliations. Working conditions were also worsened by the regime’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Syria

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  • Global Freedom Score

    1 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    17 100 not free