Syria | Freedom House

Countries at the Crossroads



Countries at the Crossroads 2007

2007 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)


Syria has been a stable authoritarian state since 1970, when Hafiz al-Asad assumed power and consolidated rule under the Ba’ath party. After his death in 2000, his son Bashar al-Asad took over as Syria’s president.

The February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut presented a turning point for the Syrian regime. Regional and international pressure on Damascus had been building even prior to the assassination, with the passage of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1559 the previous fall in response to Syria’s role in the extraconstitutional extension of pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s tenure in office. The resolution called for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon as well as the disarmament of all militias in the country, but it was widely understood to be aimed at Syria and the pro-Syrian Shiite Islamist movement Hezbollah. Following Hariri’s death, calls for Damascus to change its behavior increased exponentially, as did its regional and international isolation. The tumult of the last two years has, if anything, made Syria’s domestic political environment more restrictive.

The Syrian regime condemned Hariri’s murder and vehemently denied any responsibility for it, but the mounting international pressure compelled Bashar to withdraw all Syrian forces from Lebanon. The last troops left in April 2005, ending an almost thirty-year presence. In October, Detlev Mehlis, the UN representative in charge of investigating the Hariri case, submitted his preliminary report to the UN Security Council, in effect concluding that the assassination could not have occurred without Syrian connivance. The report cited a trail of evidence that led to the heart of the regime in Damascus, implicating the powerful head of Syrian intelligence, Asef Shawkat (the president’s brother-in-law), and Bashar’s younger brother, Maher al-Asad. It remains unclear whether Bashar was directly involved in ordering the assassination.

While calls in the United States for regime change in Damascus intensified, press reports indicated that Israel was against this, preferring the status quo to the chaos that could follow any sudden intervention. Nonetheless, Bashar al-Asad’s rule was extremely uncertain for a time, and he has been reconsolidating his domestic position since the international pressure peaked. He has tightened state control in the country and shifted his rhetoric to emphasize Syrian over Arab nationalism, though he has also resorted to anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans that are popular in the Arab street.

Bashar astutely utilized the nationalistic response to UN and U.S. pressure and shored up support for his regime, especially after the perceived victory of Hezbollah in its conflict with Israel in July and August 2006. In February 2006, he shuffled his cabinet and the top ranks of the military-security apparatus. The cabinet has been given more authority than any other in recent memory, suggesting that Bashar has confidence in the security of his own position. Whether this can be leveraged into fresh domestic reforms or renewed peace negotiations with Israel depends on a variety of factors, but the regime has repeatedly indicated that it would welcome a resumption of talks on a regional peace accord that had broken off in 1999 and 2000.

During his first years in power, Bashar was dismissed by some observers as an inexperienced leader who lacked the aptitude to rule Syria and navigate the politics of the wider region. However, his ability to survive subsequent crises has largely dispelled such assessments. Meanwhile, optimists inside and outside Syria seized on Bashar’s relative youth, his training as an ophthalmologist, and his stated fondness for computer technology and modernization, hoping that he might lead the country away from the ossified political and economic system he inherited from his father. Indeed, during the first six months of his tenure, dubbed the Damascus Spring, an unprecedented political opening led to discussion salons, critical content in the newspapers, and releases of political prisoners. The period of retrenchment that followed has disappointed those who expected meaningful and lasting progress, but it is not surprising given the depth of the country’s problems and the volatility of the region. There have been some significant reforms, particularly in government administration, banking, monetary structure, and education, but changes in the crucial political and judicial spheres have been largely cosmetic.

Accountability and Public Voice: 

According to the 1973 constitution, Syria is a Socialist Popular Democratic Republic. The charter allows for a multiparty, pluralist system and states that “sovereignty is exercised by the people.” However, in actuality Syria is governed by a one-party, authoritarian regime with only some of the trappings of democracy. The people have no practical ability to change their leaders, and candidates for election are vetted by the ruling party and government.

In the run-up to the 2007 elections the government altered the Election Law of 1973 to limit campaign expenditures to US$58,000 per person. While the official rationale was to combat corruption and level the playing field for candidates, commentators suggest that it was primarily intended to prevent opposition candidates receiving financial support from outside sources, such as the US government.[1]

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 or the Ba’ath party), discusses cabinet policy, and approves the budget. Moreover, the constitution guarantees that the Ba’ath party receives at least half of the parliamentary seats. Currently, the ruling National Progressive Front (NPF), a coalition dominated by the Ba’ath party that includes six other leftist parties, holds 167 seats. Non-NPF independents, all of whom are vetted by the government, hold the remaining 83 seats.

A new law on political parties was passed in March 2006, creating the surface features of a multiparty system. While it represents a small step toward true pluralism, the law contains a number of qualifications that appear to undermine its positive effect. For example, the legislation stipulates that the founder of any new party should be someone who “has not acted in behavior that is opposed to the ‘Revolution of March 8’” (the March 8, 1963, revolution that brought the Ba’ath party to power in Syria). Article 17 of the new law states that it is “prohibited to relaunch any party that was disbanded before the year 1963,” a provision that is clearly aimed at the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Therefore, the only parties operating before 1963 that are legally allowed to participate are the Ba’ath, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), and the Communist Party.

A coalition of Syrian exiles and opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and former Syrian vice president ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam, has come together in recent years with the goal—tacitly supported by the United States—of overthrowing the current Syrian regime. As a result, the government has imposed certain restrictions on expressing dissent both inside and outside the country, and has barred domestic groups from receiving funding from external sources. For example, Human Rights Watch documented the arrest of twenty-six democracy activists in Syria during the first three months of 2006.[2] In addition, Ammar Qurabi, former spokesman for the Arab Organization for Human Rights, and Samir Nashar, head of the Alliance of Free Nationalists and a member of the Provisional Committee for the Damascus Declaration, were arrested in March 2006 after attending conferences in the United States and Europe. Both were released quickly but still face potential charges.[3] In May 2006, a group of twelve Syrian activists were arrested for signing a petition on May 12 that called for Syria to recognize Lebanon’s independence. Those arrested included prominent activists Michel Kilo and Anwar al-Bunni. Kilo was charged with “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false or exaggerated news that can affect the standing of the state.”[4]

The state has utilized other methods of suppressing dissent as well. A number of individuals have been prevented from leaving the country, according to Human Rights Watch. Among them are Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, Suheir al-Atassi, head of the Jamal al-Atassi Forum for Democratic Dialogue (which was shut down in 2005), and Walid al-Bunni, a physician who was a founder of the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society.[5] As Joe Stork, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, said in July 2006, “These travel bans are a crude attempt to prevent Syrian civil society activists from interacting with the outside world. Shy of putting these activists in jail, the Syrian government is instead putting them under a type of national house arrest.”[6]

The president is elected to a renewable, seven-year 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 in office five times, standing unopposed in successive referendums and 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, which provides no institutional check on the executive. The next presidential election is scheduled for the summer of 2007, and it appears that Bashar will run unopposed in a referendum format.

[UPDATE: On May 27, 2007, Bashar al-Asad was elected by referendum to a second seven-year term as president. Official results gave him a 97.62 percent “yes” vote on turnout of over 95 percent. The opposition and dissidents urged a boycott of the vote.]

The Ba’ath party, particularly the party’s Regional Command, retains substantial decision-making authority over the cabinet and the ministries. Several members of the cabinet are also in the Regional Command, and Bashar is the party’s secretary general. He has attempted to transform the Ba’ath party into an advisory body within the government rather than an entity that interferes with or dictates government policy, as has often been the case in the past. At the Ba’ath party congress in June 2005, the size of the Regional Command was reduced to 16 members, and a number of the old guard, including longtime vice president ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam, were removed from their positions. This reinforced Bashar’s attempts to strengthen the cabinet at the expense of the Regional Command. A further reshuffling in February 2006 resulted in Bashar’s most loyal cabinet to date, filled mostly by technocrats with the ultimate goal of economic and administrative rather than political reform. It is also the most independent cabinet under Bashar, with individual ministers designing their own portfolios and reorganizing their particular ministries. However, the most important decisions, particularly in the foreign policy arena, still rest with the president, his small circle of advisers, and elements of the Regional Command and military-security apparatus.

There have been recent improvements in the selection of the civil service, with a 2003 purge taking place aimed at officials who had been accused of corruption. In general, however, selection for government positions is not entirely transparent or merit-based.[7]

Decree 39 of 1958, Syria’s Law of Association, requires every civil organization to register with 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, only those groups that suit the government’s political interests receive licenses. 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 primarily through microfinance. Nevertheless, the fact that she is the president’s wife casts doubt on the organization’s independence. Civil society activists have been able to maintain some pressure on the regime, but they have become more cautious in recent years, particularly since late 2005. On the whole, civil society has little opportunity to influence policy.

During the Damascus Spring, Bashar 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 edifice of political repression. The media can criticize in general terms corruption, economic performance, and bureaucratic inefficiency because these themes coincide with regime discourse; however, the criticisms must not go so far as to implicate high-ranking officials by name. Similarly, criticism regarding religion or central political or foreign policy issues is usually off-limits.

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 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 establishes harsh criminal penalties for publishing “falsehoods and fabricated reports.”[8] In effect, editors express opposition to regime policies only when they have official instructions to do so. In recent years this crackdown has intensified, with a particular focus on online journalists (see below).

The state runs the Syrian media, but 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 permitted more criticism of the Ba’ath party in 2003–04; in fact, the editor of the party newspaper wrote a series of articles severely criticizing the party, and in October 2004 this editor became the new minister of information, a sign that Bashar wanted to revamp the party and its role. After the Hariri assassination, however, the government reversed the trend toward more open criticism, due both to real and perceived threats to the regime. Media outlets have since adopted a Syrian nationalist tone, echoing the position of the government, and both foreign and domestic newspapers are censored by the Ba’ath party before distribution.[9]

Although the state is the sole official internet provider and restricts access to politically sensitive material, Bashar’s aggressive push to bring Syria into the computer and internet age has widened the flow of information from abroad. He has significantly increased times the number of computers available at state universities, and many Syrians go online through Lebanese internet service providers and have unlimited access to the web. Unfortunately, the spread of the internet is hampered by most residents’ inability to afford personal computers and internet service. The authorities have also reportedly intervened in a number of instances in recent months to suppress freedom of expression on the internet.[10] In addition to blocking access to opposition, and Israeli and Kurdish websites, there has been a crackdown on cyber-journalists who criticize the regime. Following arrests in 2005 and 2007 there are now 4 cyber-journalists in prison. The prisoners include a Kurdish blogger who was held in secret without access to a lawyer.[11]

Civil Liberties: 

Bashar al-Asad’s inaugural speech was, by Syrian standards, remarkably enlightened, and even criticized certain past policies. However, the new reformists in the government were more technocrats than democracy proponents; Bashar tasked them with modernizing Syria, implementing administrative reform in the ministries, and devising ways to improve the moribund economy. They did not introduce political reform to advance civil liberties.

One of the regime’s prime weapons against internal dissent has been Decree 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 deal with the Israeli military threat but has instead been used to stifle internal political challenges. The Syrian leadership considers the decree a fundamental right recognized in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which allows states to violate its main provisions “in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed.”[13] Under Decree 51, the Martial Law Administrator (the prime minister) and his deputy (the interior minister) are empowered to issue wide-ranging orders restricting freedom in all areas of life.

Bashar 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 decree, he has told journalists and others that it should be used to genuinely protect the people and not to abuse them.[14] However, given the current international environment, Decree 51 is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Arbitrary arrests and violations of due process still occur, although most agree that the problem is not as severe as under Hafiz al-Asad. As detailed in the previous section, human rights activists report that government arrests and harassment of members of the political opposition have measurably increased in connection with the added international pressure over Lebanon. At the same time, there have been enhanced efforts by Syrian exile groups to unify, publish joint declarations, and combine their activities to overthrow the regime. As Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari stated in an interview, “The survival of this regime and the stability of this country was threatened out loud and openly. There were invitations for foreign armies to come and invade Syria. So you could expect sometimes an overreaction, or a reaction, to something that is really happening.” [15] Accordingly, the authorities since early 2005 have prohibited civil society and democracy activists from traveling outside the country. For those who are detained by the regime, both criminals and dissidents, conditions are bleak: Syrian prisons are overcrowded and inmates are often denied food and basic medical treatment. Moreover, the Syrian government prohibits all independent monitoring of prisons, and torture is frequently inflicted upon detainees.

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.[16] Over the next several 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 the sentences and conditions were less severe than on previous occasions. In January 2006 Seif and al-Humsi were released for a second time. In July 2004, Bashar decreed an amnesty for more than 250 political prisoners, who would be released in stages to mark the fourth anniversary of his presidency; 190 more were released in late 2006 during the Muslim Eid celebrations. Those released include cyber-dissident and journalist Ali Sayed al-Shihabi.[17] Despite these periodic gestures, political space has clearly been restricted by the regime due to perceived external threats operating through the domestic and exiled opposition.

Article 25 of the constitution stipulates that citizens are equal before the law, and various articles of the penal code prescribe penalties for discrimination. Syria supports women’s rights to a greater degree than most Middle Eastern states, but civil society organizations regularly demand equal treatment of women in their statements and manifestos, suggesting that enforcement lags behind constitutional mandates.

Although unevenly applied, Labor Act 91 of 1959 enshrines gender equality in the workplace, and Legislative Decree 4 of 1972 confirms equal remuneration for men and women. The Electoral Law promulgated in Decree 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 hold 10 percent of the seats. Women also hold ministerial positions, are represented in the cabinet, and in 2006 al-Asad appointed Syria’s first female vice president, former culture minister Najah Al-Attar.[18] Nevertheless, a number of discriminatory laws and practices remain in place, especially on personal status issues, such as divorce and child custody, that fall under the jurisdiction of Sharia (Islamic law) courts. In 2004 Syrian mothers submitted a petition to the government to alter citizenship laws that prevent a mother from passing Syrian nationality onto her children even if they are born in Syria; however, the government delayed addressing the petition for “political reasons.”[19] A similar lack of progress has been seen with new anti-trafficking legislation that was promised in 2005, with no new laws being drafted as of March 2007, despite Syria being one of the main destinations for trafficked women from Iraq.[20]

Syria’s 1.5 million to 2 million ethnic Kurds for the most part do not seek an independent state. They demand the right to teach their language, which is denied by law, as well as full citizenship, which is required for state education and employment. A 1962 census rendered many Kurds stateless, leading to a current population of some 300,000 resident Kurds who lack Syrian citizenship.[21] Tensions between Arabs and Kurds have persisted. In March 2004 Kurds mounted riots and demonstrations, apparently inspired by events in the Kurdish areas of 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 following a soccer match in Qamishli. An uneasy truce has prevailed since the 2004 violence, and the regime has attempted over the last year to implement agricultural improvements to benefit the rural population, particularly in the Kurdish areas of the northeast.

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. As with women’s rights, the secular philosophy of the ruling Ba’ath party and dominant role played by members of the minority Alawi Muslim sect ensure better protection of religious freedom than in most Arab countries. Generally, the country’s Christian minority groups (about 10 percent of the population) and the small Jewish community have been free to practice their religions without government interference.

There is mounting concern over the spread of Islamist groups that oppose the regime and support jihadist insurgents in Iraq. It is difficult to assess the strength of Islamists in Syria because the state prevents most expressions of political dissent, such as demonstrations or protests. However, evidence of growing Islamism includes the appearance of more women wearing the veil, more muscular speeches by imams in mosques, and a few violent incidents. The regime appears to have been caught somewhat off-guard by these trends, and it has at least tolerated the Iraqi insurgency in the face of popular support, but the authorities are generally effective at repressing and infiltrating domestic Islamist opposition groups. Potential rebels are also deterred by the example of the 1982 Hama incident, in which government forces crushed that city’s Islamist resistance, leaving between 10,000 and 20,000 people dead.

Through its control of the media, the state is able to promote a more quietist form of Islam. Moreover, the state-appointed ‘ulama (religious scholars) tend to promote ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, as advocated by the highly respected late mufti of Syria, Ahmad Kuftaro. The government has also been able to isolate its domestic Islamist opponents to some extent by supporting foreign, anti-Israeli Islamist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, both of which have opted to participate in the electoral process in recent years.

Finally, roughly half of the population belongs to groups that would not welcome the creation of a radical Sunni Islamic republic in Syria, including non-Arab ethnic minorities, non-Muslim religious minorities, minority Muslim sects, popular and typically moderate Sufi Muslim organizations, and the secularized business class. These groups provide the regime with something of a buffer against Sunni extremists. On the other hand, the government’s attempts to co-opt Islamist elements, in part by constructing more mosques and revising the religious education curriculum, may over the long term create an environment more conducive to the rise of an influential Islamist opposition, as happened in Egypt. This possibility is enhanced by the repression of secular prodemocracy reformists and the country’s halting economic performance.[22]

On July 19, 2004, the president enacted a law to protect the rights of Syrians with disabilities and 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 law. In addition to the legislation the government provides tax incentives for businesses to employ disabled people.[23] The Syrian government provides free medical care and social services to people with disabilities and since the 2004 law, resources that were previously concentrated in Damascus have become more widely available, especially in provinces with a high concentration of landmine victims. The government also operates dedicated rehabilitation facilities for these victims in the Syrian Golan, and in 2006 the government re-energized its landmine education program in schools.[24]

In February 2001, the Ministry of Social Affairs announced that political forums (discussion groups, often with guest speakers) could not meet without its permission, which would only be granted if specific information was provided as to the location of the meeting and who was attending. Unauthorized demonstrations are prohibited, and protests or rallies for certain causes are often arranged by the government. There are no free trade unions, but there is a government-controlled labor union.

Any form of unofficial protest against the government is usually met with arrests or state-sponsored violence. In March 2006, the government organized a violent counter-protest to disrupt a peaceful demonstration against the Emergency Law. In the same month, tear gas was used and seventy-five Kurds were arrested in Aleppo during Kurdish New Year celebrations. The government also uses the law as a tool to curtail freedom of association. In 2006 the Supreme State Security Court handed down several death sentences for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been a crime eligible for capital punishment since 1980.[25]

Rule of Law: 

The Syrian legal system is primarily based on civil law, and was heavily influenced by the period of French rule that stretched from 1920 to 1946. It is also drawn in part from Egyptian law—particularly as a result of Syria’s temporary merger with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic (1958–61)—and from Sharia. Syria has separate secular and religious courts. Civil and criminal cases are heard in secular courts, while the Sharia courts handle personal, family, and religious matters in cases between Muslims or between Muslims and non-Muslims. Doctrinal courts hear cases primarily involving members of the Druze sect, and spiritual courts settle personal status cases for Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims.

Under the 1963 State of Emergency Act (Decree 51), Supreme State Security Courts were established in 1968 and in principle follow the procedures of the ordinary courts. The security courts consist of two divisions, each with a presiding panel of three judges, 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 them, order retrials, or commute the sentences. Defendants appearing before the security courts (who are almost exclusively political prisoners) are guaranteed the same rights that they would enjoy before ordinary courts, but such rights are rarely observed by the authorities, especially because the trials are closed to the public. A number of activists’ security court trials were opened to certain journalists and foreign diplomats between 2001 and 2004, but this practice seems to have been abandoned since that time. Many Kurds arrested in the March 2004 disturbances were secretly tried in the security courts and were reportedly not allowed to see their families; visits from lawyers were carefully monitored.

The executive branch continued to use the court system to crack down on political opponents in 2005–2006. The security courts were employed in March 2006 to suppress a Kurdish party, and in December 2006 five alleged Islamists were sentenced for membership in “a secret group aimed at changing the economic and social nature of the state.” As part of the fallout from the Hariri assassination, former vice president ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam was charged in April 2006 with inciting a foreign attack against Syria and plotting to take power. In December 2005, Khaddam stated that Bashar had threatened Hariri before the assassination.

The judicial system is generally corrupt, inefficient, and rife with political influence. Guilt must be proven in the normal legal process, but not in the state security courts. Citizens have the right to counsel in all courts, but in practice they are often denied genuine legal assistance in the security courts and receive incompetent or corrupt counsel in the ordinary courts. The international community’s calls to try the Syrians implicated in the Hariri assassination in an international criminal tribunal hint at widespread doubts about the impartiality of the Syrian courts.

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.” The council is responsible for the administration of the judiciary, and has the authority to appoint, promote, and transfer judges. It 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, whose 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.

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 or martial-law representatives. In the lower courts, corruption is rampant, with the size of bribes dependent on the alleged offense. Proceedings for capital crimes, especially murder, are less susceptible to corruption, unless a powerful political or economic figure is involved. Business and government connections play a major role in the determination of guilt or innocence, or even whether charges should be filed. Prosecutors have some independence at lower levels and in minor cases, but in the higher courts and in high-profile cases they can come under considerable pressure from the government or powerful families. Public officials and ruling-party actors are prosecuted for abuse of power and corruption, but these cases are almost always initiated by the executive for political reasons. The judiciary has been criticized by Amnesty International for using confessions and evidence obtained through torture. There are laws in place that outlaw torture and make evidence gained from it inadmissible; however, these are generally ignored and in practice, state actors involved in torture or inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners are not held accountable for their actions.[26]

The educational system 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. Thus, the system generates a vicious circle of judicial incompetence and lethargy. The regime understands these shortcomings, and with the assistance of French consultants it has attempted to implement reforms. One manifestation of this effort was the government’s removal in late 2005 of 81 judges, presumably for incompetence or corruption. The government also overhauled wages, taxes, and insurance for the judicial branch in order to improve judges’ standard of living, attract more qualified personnel, and inhibit corrupt activities. Critics of the regime contend that the effort simply reinforced executive interference in judicial affairs.[27]

Since the government tends to exert its influence before court decisions are issued, there is seldom any cause for the authorities to waive or reverse judges’ rulings. The case of Michel Kilo, mentioned above, demonstrated the persistence of the state in judicial matters; he was charged and imprisoned a second time after spending 10 months in jail and winning release on bail following his initial arraignment.

The military-security apparatus has tremendous influence over the judicial and legislative branches and at times even 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 that extend in both directions and discourage the emergence of an independent business class. The military is intimately involved in the political process, often vetting candidates both within and outside the Ba’ath party for elected and appointed positions.

The right to own property is guaranteed in the constitution. The state for the most part protects property rights and contracts 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 for the public good. Individuals have the right to reasonable compensation, but many claim that the restitution is not fair and very few legal appeals have been successful.

Anti-Corruption and Transparency: 

Syria is well known for its corrupt business environment. Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index gave Syria a score of 2.9 on a 10-point scale, according the country a rank of 93 out of 163 countries surveyed.[28] As in most countries where the public sector plays a dominant role in the economy, the opportunities for corruption are numerous.

Syria is classified as a middle-income country by the World Bank, with a per capita income of US$1,570. Depending on the source, the economy was expected to expand in 2006–2007 by between 1.5 percent and 3 percent. The recent rise in global oil prices has compensated for Syria’s dwindling production, now less than 400,000 barrels per day. It is estimated that Syria, barring new discoveries, will become a net importer of oil in a few years, with domestic production running out in the 2020s. The country will be forced to diversify and modernize its economy before that deadline, moving away from oil and traditional agriculture and developing new products for export.

The government publicly embraced the transition to a market-oriented economy (or what it calls a “social market economy”) at the Ba’ath party congress in June 2005, and it has instituted some measures to attract much-needed foreign investment, such as reducing tariffs on imports. The regime has also relaxed foreign currency rules with a view to establishing an inter-bank market; issued a decree on October 2, 2006, authorizing the establishment of the long-awaited stock market; worked toward reducing unemployment, currently estimated at about 20 percent; and implemented other reforms to move toward a normal monetary system.

The most common form of corruption is wasta, or the use of influence and personal connections to consummate business deals and other types of favors. It is almost an accepted form of doing business in Syria, but it restricts access to the Syrian economy and dampens any free-market tendencies. One cannot enter into a private or public-sector business agreement of any significance without local mediators (often called 5-percenters), who tend to multiply as the business relationship deepens. In reality, wasta is a form of control by the state, fragmenting bourgeois and upper-bourgeois classes who might otherwise coalesce into a recognizable pressure group. In addition, it spreads 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, a creation of the Ba’athist socialist doctrine of the 1960s, is dominant in most industries and creates consistent opportunities for corruption. Licensing and bureaucratic regulations are oppressive, inefficiently applied, and subject to bribery. The black-market economy, especially the portions that have become intertwined with Lebanese business transactions (although those are more circumscribed since the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon), competes with the legal economy in terms of overall domestic product.

The state launched a program to promote integrity and honesty in Syrian society soon after Bashar came to power. There was little progress between 2000 and 2005, although further promises of reform came with the 10th 5-year plan, which was announced in 2006. Legislative progress on the issue has been limited and there were further calls from the Ba’ath party to introduce stronger anticorruption mechanisms in 2005.[29] A number of ministries are now hiring based on merit rather than connections, though the process is far from being judged successful at this time. There have been a number of purges conducted by the government since 2003 aimed at combating corruption. These include the arrest of the head of the Court of Cassation and his deputy on corruption charges in 2005 and a purge of public employees from the civil service and military in late 2003.[30] However, anticorruption laws are applied selectively, either for political reasons or to punish cronies who behave in an irresponsible, abusive fashion. Individuals involved in high-profile corruption cases are ultimately at the mercy of the regime, the military-security apparatus, and the judicial mechanisms they control. Corruption allegations are often accompanied by media coverage, although the latter, as it is state controlled, is usually orchestrated by the government to legitimize its charges and reinforce its anticorruption credentials.

In theory, the constitution outlaws conflicts of interest by preventing members of the Council of Ministers from sitting on the board of directors of any private company or being involved in government contracts for services. Similarly, the constitution prohibits members of the Assembly using their position to their advantage in any activity.[31] However, allegations of cronyism and nepotism abound in Syria. Under the regime of Hafiz al-Asad, senior officials who displayed unswerving loyalty to the president were allowed to enrich themselves through mostly corrupt methods. Wealth was funneled into the hands of powerful families who were either in or closely linked to the government. Ba’ath party members, the sons and daughters of high-level officials, and rich families have received preferential treatment in higher education, although the current regime is trying to incrementally raise the standards for Ba’ath party cadres before they are automatically accepted into universities.

Bashar al-Asad led a well-publicized anticorruption campaign shortly before ascending to the presidency, although his critics contend that this was designed in part to remove potential opponents of his pending succession. Most reports suggest that overt corruption has receded in Syria since Bashar came to power, but cronyism still exists at the highest levels. This centers primarily on the powerful Makhluf family, in particular Rami Makhluf, Bashar’s first cousin, who runs the telecommunications firm SyriaTel.

Syrians have generally embraced government anticorruption campaigns, but Bashar’s progress in this area has been hindered. He is apparently attempting to create a critical mass of support in the government and the party that will allow him to implement judicial reform and anticorruption policies. He has gone a long way toward accomplishing this, especially with actions taken at the Ba’ath party regional congress in 2005 and the cabinet shake-up in early 2006, but the hostile regional and international environment has compelled him to sacrifice reform for regime support and stability. It has been reported that a human rights activist was jailed for 5 years for criticizing SyriaTel, suggesting that those who identify corrupt practices may face repercussions from the state if the criticism lands too close to home.[32]

The tax administrator does not implement effective internal audits. Tax collection is inefficient and subject to political interference, and there is no auditing body outside the executive branch to address the problem. Some regulatory committees with supervisory capacities exist, but they are largely hamstrung by corruption and government pressure. While citizens can petition for information, their requests are often ignored or fall victim to the bloated and inefficient bureaucracy.

Transparency in the Syrian judicial and business environments is minimal. The current regime, with French and British assistance, has taken some steps in the judicial and financial sectors (such as the establishment of private banks and free-trade industrial zones) that will create more transparency and attract investment. The UN Program on Governance in the Arab Region has launched a number of projects in cooperation with the Syrian Government to promote good governance and combat corruption, including reform of the Customs Directorate and support in implementing the 10th Five-Year Plan, which reiterated Bashar’s intent to combat corruption.[33]

The budget-making process is officially subject to both parliamentary approval and the input of the Ba’ath party Regional Command, but in practice the parliament acts as a rubber stamp for the party and the executive. The government does not publish accounting expenditures in a timely or coordinated fashion; however, expenditures are detailed periodically through the state-controlled media. The state’s ostensibly open and competitive bidding process for contracts and procurements is hindered by the influence of political connections and under-the-table payments. Many terms for procurement bids are less than forty-five days, advantaging those who are already favored by the government and implying that outcomes are often predetermined.[34]

Syria does not receive much aid from international institutions; therefore, the state’s performance in administering and distributing such funds legally receives very little scrutiny. Private assistance and grants from foreign countries to the government are more common, and the funds are distributed at the government’s discretion. The money is generally put toward the most pressing needs at any given time, but sometimes they are funneled to projects run by well-placed individuals.

  • In cooperation with the United Nations or nongovernmental organizations outside the country, the government should offer workshops and training programs to prepare Syrians to run political campaigns and hold municipal and parliamentary elections.
  • Media freedom needs to be restored and protected by law. Reforms should ensure freedom for independent private newspapers, an end to censorship, freedom of association for civil society forums and their allied publications, and freedom to travel to foreign conferences without fear of arrest upon returning to Syria.
  • Bashar must publicly guarantee the government’s adherence to Article 38 of Syria’s constitution, which states that “every citizen has the right to freely and openly express his views in words, in writing, and through all other means of expression.” The authorities should also fulfill their obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.\
  • It is imperative for the Syrian regime to declare an end to the state of emergency.
  • The Syrian government should increase its efforts to eliminate human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests of political activists, torture, and inhumane prison conditions, in part by upholding the individual rights articulated in the constitution.
  • The government should lift its restrictions on the formation of civil society organizations and political forums. This would create space for secular political discussion and check the growth of radical groups.
  • The government must implement new and existing laws to protect freedom of association, freedom of speech, and the right to due process in accordance with the Syrian constitution and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.
  • The state security courts must be abolished through revocation of the state of emergency. This would scale back the mechanisms of control emanating from the military-security apparatus, help decouple the executive from the judiciary, and begin to protect Syrian citizens from the arbitrary use of state power.
  • Bashar al-Asad should reinforce the independence of the judiciary by encouraging legislation that removes the office of the president from the Higher Council of the Judiciary and makes his appointments to the council and the Supreme Constitutional Court subject to approval by an independent parliament.
  • Syria needs to continue to improve its training of lawyers and judges, starting with educational reform in the universities that extends beyond technological modernization.
  • The regime must continue to adopt the recommendations of outside consultants as part of its systematic reform of the judicial branch. The removal of the 81 judges in 2005, if done for the proper reasons, sends a powerful signal that incompetence and corruption will not be tolerated. On the other hand, the regime must be careful not to not overstep its bounds through undue meddling in the judicial arena.
  • The government should create an independent agency tasked with enforcing the conflict of interest regulations.
  • The authorities should reform the bidding process for international contracts to increase transparency and regulatory oversight.
  • The state should create appropriate mechanisms to enable citizens and journalists to effectively petition for and obtain government information.

David Schnecker, “Why Syrian Elections Matter” (Washington D.C: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 20 April 2007),

[2] Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Recent Arrests and Detentions of Syrian Activists,” news release, 11 April 2006,

[3] Ibid.

[4] HRW, “Syria: Free Activists Detained Over Petition,” news release, 20 May 2006,

[5] HRW, “Syria: Civil Society Activists Barred From Traveling,” news release, 12 July 2006,

[6] Ibid. See this site as well for the names of a number of other prominent Syrian activists who have been prevented from traveling outside of the country, including Riyad Seif, who was released from jail in January 2006 after five years in prison following the crackdown after the Damascus Spring.

[7] The Fund for Peace Syria Country Profile 2006 (Washington D.C.: The Fund for Peace),

[8] Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Attacks on the Press in 2003 (New York: CPJ, March 2004),

[9] Reporters Without Borders, Syria Country Report 2006 (Paris: Rapporteurs Sans Frontiers)

[10] For example, see the International Freedom of Expression Exchange’s news releases for Syria from January through April 2007, available at

[11] Reporters Without Borders Syria Country Report 2007 (Paris: Rapporteurs Sans Frontiers)

[12] HRW, “Recent Arrests and Detentions of Syrian Activists.”

[13] Syrian Arab Republic, 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),

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

[15] Michael Slackman, “Syria Imposing Stronger Curbs on Opposition,” New York Times, 5 April 2006.

[16] Congressional Research Service (CRS), Syria: U.S. Relations and Bilateral Issues (Washington, DC: CRS, 15 November 2002), 10.

[17]“Syria: 190 Political Prisoners Released: Hundreds Remain”, Amnesty International, 4November 2005; The Syria News Wire, 18 January 2006, “Political Prisoners Released: Riyad Sayf and Mamun Homsi..

[18]Arab News, 24 March 2006.

[19] Women Living Under Muslim Laws, “Syria: Women’s Rights Activists Face Resistance,” 4 March 2006,

[20]IRIN Humanitarian News and Analysis, “Sex Traffickers Target Women In War-Torn Iraq” (New York: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs),

[21] Maureen Lynch and Perveen Ali, Buried Alive: Stateless Kurds in Syria,” (Washington D.C.: Refugees International), 14 February 2006.

[22] For a cogent analysis of Islamist forces in Syria, see Stephen Ulph, Jihadi After Action Report: Syria (West Point, N.Y.: U.S. Military Academy, Combating Terrorism Center, November 2006).

[23] “Learning to Live With Disability”, Syria-Today, August 2006,

[24] Landmine Monitor, Report 2006 (New York: International Campaign to Ban Landmines, 2006),

[25]“Learning to Live With Disability”, Syria-Today, August 2006,

[26] Amnesty International, “Unfair trial and sentencing of Muhammad Haydar Zammar” (London: Amnesty International) press release, 22 March 2007

[27] Chris Buell, “Syria Sacks 81 Judges in Set of Judicial Reforms,” (University of Pittsburgh: Jurist), 5 October 2005.

[28] Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index 2006 (Berlin: Transparency International, 2006), In 2004, Syria ranked 71 out of 146 countries, with a score of 3.4. So while Syria’s position relative to the total number of ranked countries remained about the same, the score—utilizing a variety of indices on corruption and the business environment—decreased in absolute terms. By comparison, the United States ranked 20 with a 7.3 score in 2006, Jordan at 40 with a 5.3 score, Lebanon at 63 with 3.6, Iran at 105 with 2.7, and Iraq at 160 with a 1.9 score. Tied for first were Finland, Iceland, and New Zealand with a 9.6 score.

[29] United Nations Development Project,

[30] United Nations Program on Governance in the Arab Region

[31] Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic articles 120 and 68(1) respectively.

[32] “Who’s Who in Syria’s Leadership,” BBC News, 3 March 2005