Syria is a republic ruled by the authoritarian regime of President Bashar al-Asad. The president makes key decisions with counsel from a small number of security advisors, ministers, and senior members of the ruling Ba’ath (Arab Socialist Renaissance) Party. The constitution mandates the primacy of Ba’ath Party leaders in state institutions and society. President Asad and party leaders dominate all three branches of government. Asad was confirmed as president for his second seven-year term in a 2007 yes-or-no referendum that was neither free nor fair by international standards. Security forces reported to civilian authorities.
Calls for democratic reform by nonviolent demonstrators began in mid-March and continued through year’s end. The Asad regime used indiscriminate and deadly force to quell such protests, including military assaults on several cities. For example, in late April the regime deprived the southern city of Dara’a of electricity, water, and medical services, and it restricted entry and exit for approximately 20 days while shelling mosques and other civilian targets. The regime maintained the use of deadly force against its citizens despite its agreement to an Arab League plan to engage in reforms and cease killing civilians on November 2. The UN reported that more than 5,000 civilians were killed during the year. When the protests began in March, local committees emerged and took responsibility for organizing events within their own communities. Together the committees formed the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) of Syria.
The three most egregious human rights problems during the year were the regime’s denial of its citizens’ right to peacefully change the government; massive attacks and strategic use of citizen killings as a means of intimidation and control; and denial of civil liberties such as freedom of speech, assembly, and association.
Other serious problems included disappearances; torture and abuse; poor prison and detention center conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; denial of fair public trial; arbitrary interference with privacy; and lack of press, Internet, and academic freedom. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) remained restricted in practice, especially those that attempted to work in the areas of civil society and democracy. The government restricted freedoms of religion and movement. Several groups in society, notably a portion of the Kurdish population, were denied citizenship. There was limited progress on laws combating trafficking in persons. Violence and societal discrimination against women and minorities continued, and workers’ rights remained restricted.
Impunity was pervasive and deeply embedded, as the government made no attempt to punish, arrest, or prosecute officials who violated human rights. Corruption was rampant throughout the government, and the judiciary lacked independence.
According to government-controlled media, armed opposition groups committed numerous conflict-related abuses. Given a lack of corroboration, the uncoordinated nature of armed groups, and the intensity of the conflict in many regions, it was extremely difficult to confirm whether opposition groups had committed human rights violations.