Syria | Freedom House

Countries at the Crossroads



Countries at the Crossroads 2005

2005 Scores

Accountability and Public Voice
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)


Civil Liberties
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)


Rule of Law
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)


Anti-Corruption and Transparency
(0 = WORST, 7 = BEST)


On June 10, 2000, Hafiz al-'Asad, the president of the Syrian Arab Republic since an intra-Ba'ath party coup in November 1970, died after a long illness. The next day his eldest surviving son, Bashar al-'Asad, was unanimously chosen by the ruling Ba'ath party as the only nominee for president. The parliament quickly amended Article 83 of the Syrian constitution to decrease the minimum age for the president of the republic from 40 to 34, Bashar's age at the time. On June 24, he was elected secretary-general of the Ba'th, in effect the head of the party, at the Ninth Regional Congress meeting, the first such gathering of the Ba'th party to be held in 15 years. The meeting had already been scheduled prior to Hafiz al-'Asad's death; in the aftermath, however, the meeting clearly gained increased importance by providing a timely imprimatur for Bashar. Three days later the Syrian parliament voted "yes" to the nomination, and in a nationwide referendum on July 11, Bashar received nearly all of the votes in support of his presidency. Bashar al-'Asad officially took the constitutional oath of office and delivered his inaugural speech on July 17, 2000.

Bashar al-'Asad has been called the reluctant president, someone who was untested, inexperienced, and maybe even ill prepared to lead the country in what is a very difficult and often dangerous domestic and regional environment. Bashar is a licensed ophthalmologist who had been engaged in advanced studies at the Western Eye Hospital in London before he returned to Syria in January 1994, soon after his elder brother, Basil al-'Asad, was killed in a car accident. Throughout the 1990s Hafiz al-'Asad was reported to have been in ill health, and Basil was commonly thought to have been the anointed successor, as his official responsibilities and profile had increased in the years before his death. Subsequently, Bashar assumed most of Basil's official positions and rose through the ranks in the military; again, it was putatively assumed that Bashar was being groomed to succeed his father. It seemed to be a race against time to build up Bashar's credentials and support base within Syria to the point where he could successfully and smoothly succeed his father when the moment came.

The 'Asad family are Alawis (Alawites), members of a minority Islamic sect who make up approximately 11 percent of Syria's population. Long an underprivileged minority in Syria, Alawis came to dominate the military after the First World War and then entered politics through an alliance with the rising Ba'ath party after independence. They have a preeminent power base in Syria, including most of the important positions in the military and mukhabarat (security/intelligence) apparatus, and they are determined not to give this up.

In the end, while the transition seemed to be devoid of any overt political struggle - thus indicating the path had indeed been cleared adequately - a number of questions remained regarding Bashar's readiness and ability to rule as well as reign. In particular, questions arose with respect to the string of regional and international events that occurred soon after he came to office and that have directly affected his position: the beginning of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000, the events of 9/11 and the U.S. war in Afghanistan in 2001, and, finally, the U.S. war against Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent instability in Syria's neighbor to the east. Thus, President Bashar was forced to get his feet wet in Middle East politics very quickly.

Because of Bashar's relative youth as well as the fact that he was an ophthalmologist, computer nerd, and avowed modernizer, it seemed to many in and outside Syria that he might help the country break away from the ossified and stagnant political and economic system he inherited from his father. There were some immediate positive signals in the first six months or so of his tenure, the so-called Damascus Spring. However, since then there has been a period of retrenchment - the so-called Damascus Winter - that harkens back to his father's time in power. This has led to the vexing question of whether Bashar really does have the willingness and/or ability to implement the type of political and economic reforms many expected when he came to power, or whether Syria will continue to muddle along as it has done in the past while the regional and international context in which it finds itself continues to deteriorate.

Accountability and Public Voice: 

According to the 1973 constitution, Syria is a Socialist Popular Democratic Republic. However, in actuality it is an authoritarian regime with only some of the trappings of democracy. Article 2 of the constitution states that Syria's "system of government is republican and sovereignty is exercised by the people," but in practice the people have no avenue or recourse to change the government, and candidates for election are vetted by the party and government. While the constitution technically allows for a multiparty pluralist system, Syria is in effect a one-party authoritarian structure.

The constitution establishes the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The unicameral parliament consists of 250 representatives elected by popular vote every four years. The parliament proposes the candidacy of the president, proposes and votes on laws (which are generated by the executive branch and/or the Ba'ath party), discusses cabinet policy, and approves the budget. The constitution mandates that the Ba'ath party receive at least one-half of the parliamentary seats. Currently the ruling coalition, the National Progressive Front (NPF) - which is dominated by the Ba'ath party and includes six other leftist and communist parties - holds 167 seats while non-NPF independents, all of whom are vetted by the government, hold 83 seats. The last parliamentary elections were in 2003.

The president is elected to a seven-year renewable term after nomination by the Regional Command of the Ba'ath party and the parliament. The president, the party, and the cabinet can issue legislation whether or not the parliament is in session. The late President Hafiz al-'Asad was confirmed by unopposed referenda five times, usually garnering 99 percent approval. Bashar ran unopposed following his father's death and received 97.29 percent of the vote in a national referendum. Political opposition to the president is not tolerated, except for that of the so-called loyal opposition within the parliament. The parliament provides no check on the president.

The 21-member Regional Command of the Ba'ath party retains decision-making authority over the cabinet and the ministries. Several members of the cabinet are also in the Regional Command. This includes President Bashar, who is the head of the party as secretary-general. Bashar is trying to transform the party into a more advisory body within the government rather than an entity that interferes with and dictates government policy, as has often been the case in the past. In late 2000 Bashar decided that the 21 members of the Regional Command should be elected by Ba'ath party membership rather than appointed, although all candidates must be approved first by the secretary-general of the party (i.e., Bashar). In July 2000, in addition to Bashar, 11 new members were elected to the Regional Command, most of whom were considered to be technocrats and supporters of change. However, all had been longtime party cadres, and the prime stalwarts of Hafiz al-'aAsad's regime - the so-called old guard - retained their positions, so it appears that the body is not as reformist as many had hoped at first.

Decree No. 39 of 1958, Syria's Law of Association, requires every civil organization to register and obtain a license from the Ministry of Social Affairs. In the months following Bashar's assumption of the presidency, hundreds of civil society organizations, most operating from within the homes of the organizers, received licenses. Today, registration is approved only for those groups that have official support. An organization cannot receive funds from foreign donors unless it is officially recognized by the government; as a result, many organizations suffer from lack of funds. Asma al-'Asad, the president's wife, is very active in advocating the growth of nongovernmental organizations in Syria. In particular, she has taken a leading role in the Fund for the Integrated Rural Development of Syria (FIRDOS), a group that facilitates rural development in Syria.[1] Nevertheless, civil society has little opportunity to influence policy.

During the Damascus Spring after Hafiz al-'Asad's death, Bashar al-'Asad promoted freer and more pluralistic media in Syria. For the first time in 40 years private newspapers were licensed and public criticism of the regime was permitted, even from state-controlled entities. Although publications that criticized the government - including the hugely popular satirical weekly al-Dumari (The Lamplighter), which ceased publication in April 2003 due to government pressure - have since struggled against the restrictions of the regime, the fact that such criticism was permitted for some time indicates that there may be some cracks in the armor of political repression.

The crackdown on journalism became evident with Decree 50 of 2001. This law enables privately owned newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals to seek licenses to publish, but they essentially do so only at the discretion of the government. The prime minister's office can deny licenses for reasons "related to the public interest." In addition, the decree prohibits articles and reports about "national security, national unity, and details of secret trials." It also established harsh criminal penalties for publishing "falsehoods and fabricated reports."[2] In effect, editors oppose regime policies only when they have official instructions to do so.

The state runs the Syrian media. Lebanese newspapers and pan-Arab satellite news channels such as al-Jazeera, both widely available in Syria, allow open political discussion and criticism of the government to continue. In addition, the Syrian government has allowed a good bit more criticism of the Ba'ath party in 2003 - 2004; in fact, the editor of the party newspaper wrote a series of articles severely criticizing the party. [Editor's note: In October 2004 this editor became the new minister of information, a sign that Bashar wants to revamp the party and its role.]

And although the government is the sole official internet provider and restricts access to politically sensitive material, President Bashar's aggressive push to bring Syria into the computer and Internet age has meant that the flow of information into Syria from the outside has further widened; many Syrians go online with a Lebanese Internet service provider and have unbridled access to the Worldwide Web.[3]

Civil Liberties: 

Bashar al-'Asad's inaugural speech was, by Syrian standards, a remarkably enlightened one that even criticized certain past policies. However, the new reformists in the government were more technocrats than pro-democracy elements, tasked by Bashar with modernizing Syria, implementing administrative reform in the ministries, and devising ways to improve the moribund state of the economy. They did not enact political reform to advance civil liberties.

One of the regime's prime weapons against internal dissent has been Decree No. 51 as amended and promulgated on March 9, 1963, one day after the Ba'ath party came to power in Syria. It declared a state of emergency that was ostensibly designed to thwart the military threat emanating from Israel but instead has been used to stifle and eliminate internal challenges to the regime. The Syrian leadership considers the decree a fundamental right as recognized in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which allows states to violate its provisions "in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed."[4] Under this provision, the martial law administrator (the prime minister) and his deputy (the minister of interior) are empowered to issue wide-ranging written orders restricting freedom in all areas of life. President Bashar al-'Asad has admitted that mistakes have been made with Decree 51 and that government officials have abused the law for their own purposes. While not committing himself to lifting the law once and for all, he has told journalists and others that it should be used to genuinely protect the people and not to abuse them.[5] However, given the current international environment and the uncertainty regarding the stability and strength of the regime, Decree 51 is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future. Arbitrary arrests, detention, imprisonment, and lack of due process still occur, although not as much as under Hafiz al-'Asad.

One of the hallmarks of the Damascus Spring was the November 2000 closing of the infamous Mezzeh prison and the release of some 600 political prisoners, reportedly the first time the Syrian government acknowledged holding prisoners for political reasons.[6] Over the next two years, a number of leading political activists, many of whom had been in and out of prison for two decades and some of whom had been released during the Damascus Spring, were again arrested in a sporadic fashion, including the parliamentarians Riyad Seif and Ma'mun al-Humsi. Most of the activists arrested were again sent to prison, although under less harsh terms and in less severe conditions than during their previous stays. This may be because of increased international scrutiny in addition to the less overtly repressive nature of Bashar al-'Asad's regime as compared with his father's. In July 2004, President Bashar decreed an amnesty for more than 250 political prisoners who would be released in stages to mark the fourth anniversary of his accession to power.[7] However, almost all of those who were incarcerated during the crackdown on the Damascus Spring are still imprisoned.[8]

Article 25 of the constitution stipulates that citizens are equal before the law, and various articles of the penal code prescribe penalties for discrimination.[9] However, civil society organizations regularly demand equal treatment of women in their statements and manifestos, suggesting that the protection of women's rights and minority groups lags behind constitutionally mandated prescriptions. Syria supports women's rights to a greater degree than most Middle East states. Labor Act No. 91 of 1959 enshrines gender equality in the workplace, and Legislative Decree No. 4 of 1972 confirms equal remuneration between men and women. The Electoral Law promulgated in Decree No. 26 of 1973 grants women the right to vote in public elections and to stand as candidates in elections to the parliament, where they currently constitute over 10 percent of the total membership. Women have held a small number of ministerial positions over the years and are represented in the cabinet. Nevertheless, a number of discriminatory laws and practices remain in place, especially in personal status issues that fall under the Shari'a courts. For example, women are discriminated against in initiation of divorce proceedings and child custody rights. In the case of the more constructive laws that are in place, the primary reasons for their failure are police deficiencies, lack of enforcement provisions, and a reluctance on the part of victims to report discrimination.

Syria's 1.5 million to 2 million Kurds do not publicly seek an independent state. They demand the right to teach their language, which is denied them by law, as well as full citizenship, which is required for state education and employment, for some 290,000 Kurds classified as stateless based on a 1962 survey.[10] Tensions between Arabs and Syrian Kurds have been ongoing. In March 2004 Kurdish riots and demonstrations took place, apparently sparked by events in Kurdish areas in neighboring Iraq. The July 2004 amnesty included about 100 Kurds who had been arrested after clashes with security forces in which 40 people were killed after a soccer match in Qamishli.

Syria is the only Arab country other than Lebanon whose constitution does not establish Islam as the state religion, although it does require the president to be a Muslim. The secular philosophy of the ruling Ba'ath party as well as the fact that the government is controlled by a minority Islamic sect, the Alawis (Alawites), ensures better protection of religious freedom, as well as women's rights, than in most Arab countries. Generally speaking, the country's Christian minority groups (about 10 percent of the population) and small Jewish enclave have been free to practice their religion without government restrictions and interference.

On July 19, 2004, the president enacted a new law to protect the rights of disabled Syrians and to provide them with education, job training, and financial support. Currently, very few government buildings and public areas are accessible to people with disabilities, and the Ministry of Social Affairs has yet to issue detailed instructions on what sort of accommodations will be required under the new law. The Syrian government provides free medical care and social services to people with disabilities, but nearly all of those resources are available only in Damascus, far from most affected people. The government also operates rehabilitation facilities for victims of land mines in Syrian Golan.[11]

In February 2001, the ministry of social affairs announced that political forums (discussion groups, often with guest speakers) could not meet without its permission (as opposed to receiving licenses), which would only be granted if specific information was provided as to the location of the meeting and who was attending. Demonstrations are permitted only with the permission of the government, and often they are arranged by the government for public show. There are no free trade unions, but there is a government-controlled labor union.

Civil society activists have been more circumspect in their actions since the Damascus Spring, but they have also continued to maintain pressure on the regime. The fear factor that existed under Hafiz al-'Asad seems to have dissipated. While Syria may not be more politically open than it was before Bashar came to power, it is less ruthlessly authoritarian.

Rule of Law: 

The Syrian legal system is primarily based on civil law, heavily influenced by the French during the mandate period from 1923 to 1946, when the French were the supervisory power and controlled the central governing administration. It is also drawn in part from Egyptian law - particularly as a result of Syria's merger with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961 - and Islamic law (Shari'a). Syria has separate secular and religious courts. Civil and criminal cases are heard in secular courts. The Shari'a courts handle personal, family, and religious matters in cases involving Muslims and between Muslims and non-Muslims. Doctrinal courts hear cases involving primarily members of the Druze Islamic sect, and spiritual courts settle personal status cases for Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims.

The State of Emergency Act (Decree No. 51) as amended in March 1963 is an exceptional constitutional regime (see "Civil Liberties"). Under the act, Supreme State Security Courts (SSC) were implemented by decree in 1968 and in principle follow the procedures of the ordinary courts. The SSC consist of two divisions, in each of which three judges preside, one of whom is a military judge. Their judgments are considered final but are not enforceable until they have been ratified by the president, who has the right to annul the ruling, order a retrial, or reduce or commute the sentence. Defendants - who are almost exclusively political prisoners - appearing before the SSC are guaranteed the same right of defense that they would enjoy before ordinary courts, but rarely have defendants been accorded these rights, especially as the trials were off-limits to public scrutiny. However, a number of the trials of activists in the SSC were opened to certain journalists and representatives of foreign embassies between 2001 and 2004. A number of Kurds arrested in the March 2004 disturbances were tried in the SSC under cloak of secrecy and reportedly not allowed to see their families; visits from lawyers were carefully monitored.[12]

The judicial system is generally corrupt and inefficient. Guilt must be proven in the normal legal process, but this does not hold in the SSC. Citizens have the right to counsel in all courts but often do not have access to one in the SSC, and in the normal judicial process they often have incompetent or corrupt counsel because of the nature of the system. In most cases independent counsel is appointed, except, again, in the SSC, in which someone may be appointed only to give the pretense of meeting the citizen's supposed right to counsel.

Article 131 of the constitution stipulates that "The judiciary shall be independent, its independence being guaranteed by the President of the Republic with the assistance of the Higher Council of the Judiciary." Administrative authority of the judiciary is vested in the Higher Council of the Judiciary, which has power of appointment, promotion, and transfer of judges. The council is presided over by the minister of justice and includes the president. The highest constitutionally ordained judicial body in the country is the Supreme Constitutional Court, to which the five justices are appointed by the president for four-year terms. This court rules on the constitutionality of laws and election disputes and can try officials of the state, including the president, for criminal offenses.[13]

In practice, there is very little judicial independence, especially above the lower-court level. Particularly with Decree 51 in place, the executive branch wields far too much power over the judiciary, and judges' appointments and decisions at all levels are ultimately subject to the approval of the executive branch and/or martial law representatives. In the lower-level courts, corruption is rampant, with the size of payments made to intermediaries representing judges dependent on the offense. Business and government connections play a major role in determining guilt or innocence, or even whether charges should be filed. At lower levels prosecutors have some independence depending upon the case; in the higher courts and more high-profile cases prosecutors can come under considerable government pressure or even pressure from powerful families. Capital crimes, especially murder, are less susceptible to corruption except in cases that involve a powerful figure or powerful family. Public officials and ruling party actors are prosecuted for abuse of power and corruption but almost always at the behest of the executive for political reasons rather than driven by the judiciary. The educational system overall in Syria is extremely lacking in skills training, and lawyers and judges are for the most part ill prepared. Judges are often chosen based on loyalty to the regime and/or the Ba'ath party. Thus, the system generates a vicious cycle of judicial incompetence and lethargy.

Governmental authorities generally comply with judicial decisions unless they run up against the policies of the government; however, this usually does not happen as the verdicts in cases of note are determined a priori, thereby precluding the need for the executive to waive or reverse a decision. Overall the system is weak, corrupt, and inefficient, by default leaving real judicial powers to the executive branch of government.

The military/security apparatus has tremendous influence over the judicial and legislative branches and even at times over the executive branch, which it essentially serves. It has a kind of symbiotic relationship with private business interests in Syria, creating avenues of influence and enrichment extending in both directions and discouraging the emergence of an independent business class. The military is intimately involved in the political process, often vetting candidates in and outside the Ba'a'th party for elected and appointed positions.

The presence of between 13,000 and 16,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon has also created something of a sinecure for the military/security apparatus. The troop presence has been used to enrich certain elements in the military and in the government while providing some relief to Syria's unemployment problems, as there are an estimated one million Syrian workers in Lebanon. Although it has supplied an element of stability in Lebanon for more than twenty years, it is not uncontroversial. [Editor's note: the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Harriri in February 2005 brought the Syrian presence in Lebanon into question even more. Many believe that even if Syria was not directly responsible for the slaying, its presence in Lebanon contributed to the situation. As such, local, regional, and international calls for Syria to remove its troops from Lebanon have grown louder.]

The right to own property is guaranteed in the constitution. The state protects property rights and contracts fairly adequately once they are consummated; the process leading up to this point, however, is often fraught with corrupt practices. Under martial law, the state reserves the right to confiscate property and holdings. It presumably addresses discrepancies on these issues in a way that best serves its interests rather than according to official property law. Stateless Kurds cannot own property.

Anti-Corruption and Transparency: 

Syria is well known for its corrupt business environment. The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index of 2004 gave Syria a 3.4 score on a 10-point scale, according the country a rank of 71 out of 146 countries.[14] As in most countries where the public sector plays a dominant role in the economy, the opportunities for corruption are numerous.

The most common form of corruption is through what is called wasta, or the use of influence and/or connections to consummate business deals and other types of favors. It is almost an accepted form of doing business in Syria, but it establishes prescribed entrances into the Syrian economy that dampen any free market tendencies. One cannot enter into a private or public sector business situation of any significance without local mediators (who some have called the 5-percenters), who often multiply as the business relationship deepens; indeed, the mediator provides access to decision makers for those who would not otherwise have it. In reality, wasta is an additional form of control by the state, fragmenting bourgeois and upper bourgeois classes who might in its absence coalesce into a recognizable pressure group. In addition, it spreads the wealth to certain classes, supplements the income of government officials tied into the 5-percenter organizations, and gives more people an interest in maintaining the current regime.

The public sector in Syria, as a creation of the Ba'athist socialist doctrine of the 1960s, is dominant in the country in most industries and as such creates consistent opportunities for corruption. Licensing, bureaucratic regulations, and the like are oppressive, inefficiently applied, and subject to bribes. The black market economy, especially the portions that have become intertwined with Lebanese business transactions, competes with the legal economy in terms of overall domestic product.

The state has launched a program to promote integrity and honesty in Syrian society in an attempt to weed out corruption as a socially accepted practice, but so far legislative progress has been limited. A number of ministries are now hiring based on merit rather than connections, but the process is far from being judged successful at this time. There are anticorruption laws on the books, but they are applied selectively by the regime only when cronies behave in an irresponsible, abusive fashion or to destroy someone politically through often-fabricated charges. The arbitrary and selective application of anticorruption drives tends to keep regime elements within accepted parameters. Individuals involved in high-profile corruption cases cannot feel secure, as their fate - good or bad - is ultimately left to the discretion of the regime, the military-security apparatus, and/or the predetermined judicial or martial law system. Human Rights Watch reported in 2002 that people who protested against nepotism and corruption in Syria faced unfair trials on charges that included "endangering state unity" and "trying to change the constitution by illegal means."[15] Corruption allegations are often accompanied by media coverage, although the latter, as it is state controlled, is usually orchestrated by the government to legitimate its charges and reinforce its anticorruption campaign.

Allegations of widespread cronyism and nepotism abound in Syria. Under the regime of Hafiz al-'Asad, the price for the unswerving loyalty of his inner circle of subordinates was allowing them a virtual free hand to enrich themselves through mostly corrupt methods of controlling business opportunities in Syria. Wealth was funneled into the hands of some very powerful families who were either in or well connected to the government. Ba'ath party members and sons or daughters of high-level officials and rich families have received preferential treatment in higher education, although the current regime is trying to raise the standards for Ba'ath party cadres incrementally before they are automatically accepted into the university.

Bashar al-'Asad came into office known as someone who was decidedly against corruption, having headed a well-publicized anticorruption campaign in the year or so before ascending to the presidency (although his critics contend this was as much an attempt to help clear the path for his succession by removing potential adversaries on charges of corruption as a vehicle to stamp out unsavory business practices). Some reports suggest that overt corruption has receded in Syria since Bashar came to power, but corruption via cronyism still exists at the highest levels. This centers primarily around the powerful Makhluf family, in particular Rami Makluf, who runs SyriaTel; Bashar's mother is from the Makhluf family. Syrians have generally embraced anticorruption campaigns by the government, but Bashar's progress in this area has been hindered. This is in part because he has yet to secure the unquestioned legitimacy and support base that would allow him to adopt such tough measures. From all indications, he is incrementally attempting to create a critical mass of support in the government and in the party that will allow him to implement judicial reform and anticorruption policies.

The tax administrator does not implement an effective internal audit. Tax collection is inefficient and subject to political interference. There is no auditing body outside the executive branch for this purpose. Some regulatory committees with supervisory capacities exist, but they are largely subject to corruption and government pressure.

Transparency in the Syrian judicial and business environments is minimal. The current regime, with French and British assistance, is attempting to put in place some mechanisms in the judicial and financial sectors (with the recent establishment of the first four private banks) that will create more transparency in order to build a more business-friendly environment for foreign investment and the return of expatriate capital. Citizens can petition for information, but often their petitions are ignored or fall victim to the bloated and inefficient bureaucracy.

The budget-making process is officially subject to both parliamentary approval and the input of the Ba'ath party Regional Command and as such appears comprehensive. However, in practice the parliament acts as a rubber stamp for the party and the executive on this issue. The government does not publish accounting expenditures in a timely fashion on a coordinated basis; however, expenditures are detailed periodically through the state-controlled media. The state officially has an open bidding process and promotes a competitive environment, but these are hindered by the influence of political connections and under-the-table payments.

Foreign assistance from international institutions is minimal in Syria; therefore, the state's obligation to administer and distribute this aid legally is under very little scrutiny. Private assistance and grants from foreign countries to the government are more the norm and are distributed at the discretion of the government. Funds are generally put toward the most pressing needs at any given time, but sometimes they are put toward projects that are run by elements in the regime.

  • The dominant role of the Ba’ath party in Syria needs to be reduced by allowing real opposition parties to participate in the national assembly and accelerating the current program of transforming the party apparatus toward a more advisory capacity. This will facilitate the transition to a truly pluralistic democratic society based on free and fair elections of parliamentary members as well as the president.
  • Press and media freedoms need to be re-instituted as they existed during the period of the Damascus Spring, especially freedom for independent private newspapers, an end to censorship, and freedom of association for civil society forums and their allied publications. In the long run, this will provide an effective institutionalized voice of criticism and opposition.
  • Bashar al-’Asad needs to exercise more leadership in the short term to accelerate positive change in the economic, social, and political spheres by explicitly laying out his vision for democratic reform. He should encourage the formulation of systematic development plans and programs in general and in specific ministries for comprehensive economic and institutional reform and remove from their positions elements that oppose his reform efforts.
  • It is imperative for the Syrian regime to eliminate the state of emergency and afford its citizens their full range of rights.
  • The Syrian government should increase its efforts to abolish human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests of political activists as well as the mechanisms of torture and political repression, by safeguarding the rights of individuals to due process and representation as articulated in the constitution.
  • The formation of civil society organizations and political forums should not be restricted by the government.
  • The government must implement existing and new laws on freedom of association, freedom of speech, and the right to due process to protect political freedoms.
  • The state security courts must be abolished through revocation of the State Emergency Law. This would scale back the mechanisms of control emanating from the military-security apparatus, de-link the executive from the judiciary branch, and begin to protect Syrian citizens from the arbitrary power of the government.
  • President Bashar al-’Asad needs to reinforce the independence of the judiciary by encouraging legislation that will remove the office of the president from the Higher Council of the Judiciary and make his appointments to the Higher Council and the Supreme Constitutional Court subject to approval by an independent parliament.
  • Syria needs to vastly improve its training of lawyers and judges, starting with education reform in the universities beyond technological modernization.
  • President Bashar al-’Asad needs to mobilize popular sentiment against corruption to continue his anticorruption campaigns in a more systematic fashion.
  • Judicial reform is required to prosecute corruption fairly, particularly to make the justice system truly independent of the executive branch and the Ba’ath party.
  • A more open, regulated, and transparent bidding process is required for international contracts.
  • The government should submit to international arbitration in disputed business cases.

[1] Interview with Asma al-'Asad, Damascus, Syria, 3 June 2004.

[2] "Attacks on the Press 2003" (New York: Committee to Protect Journalists, Middle East and North Africa, March 2004),

[3] For instance, the World Bank Development Data Group estimates that the number of Internet users in Syria increased from close to none in 1995 to 60,000 by 2001, a figure that almost certainly has at least doubled since then.

[4] "International covenant on civil and political rights: Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties under Article 40 of the Covenant; Second periodic report of States parties due in 1984 - Syrian Arab Republic" (Geneva: United Nations, Human Rights Committee, 19 January 2000),

[5] Interview with President Bashar al-'Asad, Damascus, Syria, 26 May 2004.

[6] "Syria: U.S. Relations and Bilateral Issues" (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, Issue Brief for Congress, 15 November 2002), 10.

[7] The Jordan Times, 21 July 2004.

[8] Ibid.

[9] "International covenant" (UN, 19 January 2000).

[10] The Jordan Times, 30 August 2004.

[11] "Landmine Monitor Report 2004: Syria" (New York: International Campaign to Ban Landmines, 2004),

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] "Corruption Perceptions Index 2004" (Berlin: Transparency International, July 2004).

[15] World Report 2002 (New York: Human Rights Watch, February 2003).