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 Baath (Arab Socialist Renaissance) Party. The constitution mandates the primacy of Baath Party leaders in state institutions and society. President Asad and party leaders dominate all three branches of government. A 2007 yes-or-no referendum that was neither free nor fair by international standards confirmed Asad as president for his second seven-year term. Parliamentary elections held in May were also neither free nor fair by international standards and several opposition groups boycotted them.
Although the government symbolically lifted the emergency law in April, it conducted frequent police and military operations against the civilian population. The Asad regime continued to use indiscriminate and deadly force to quell protests, including military assaults on cities and residential areas throughout the country. For example, beginning in mid-April, the regime attacked civilians in funeral processions, breadlines, schools, places of worship, and hospitals throughout the country, asserting these were rebel safe-havens. In August, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the regime shelled 10 breadlines and bombed the main hospital in Aleppo. The regime maintained the use of deadly force against its citizens in continued violation of international human rights and humanitarian law and its agreement to a November 2011 Arab League plan to engage in reforms and cease killing civilians. More than 576,000 refugees registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in neighboring states and North Africa, and more than 2.5 million were displaced internally. A UN study concluded more than 60,000 persons had died since the beginning of the crisis in March 2011. Their data, drawn from Syrian-based documentation organizations, showed the number of deaths increased from approximately 1,000 per month in summer 2011 to an average of more than 5,000 per month as of July. They also reported the greatest number of reported killings occurred in Homs (12,560), rural areas surrounding Damascus (10,862) and Idlib (7,686), followed by Aleppo (6,188), Daraa (6,034), and Hama (5,080).
The most egregious human rights problems during the year were the regime’s massive, countrywide attacks and strategic use of citizen killings to intimidate and control; specific targeting of activists and their families; and using civilians, including children, as human shields. The government denied citizens’ rights to change their government peacefully. The government denied citizens the right to practice freedom of speech, mobility, association, access to legal representation, and medical assistance.
Other serious problems included kidnappings and disappearances; killing of protesters, bystanders, journalists, and medical professionals; torture and abuse, including of women and children; the use of rape and assault; 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. The government increasingly restricted nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in practice, especially those that attempted to work on civil society and democracy. The regime consistently limited access by medical organizations to those most in need. The government continued to restrict freedoms of religion and movement. There was no 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 did not attempt to punish, arrest, or prosecute officials who violated human rights. The regime often sheltered those in its ranks who committed human rights abuses. Corruption was rampant throughout the government, and the judiciary lacked independence.
According to reports from international media and human rights organizations, armed opposition groups engaged in abuses, including kidnapping, detention, car bombings, summary execution and torture of security force members, government supporters, and persons identified as progovernment militia members, as well as forced evacuations from homes based on sectarian identity.