1999 Scores

Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 7.0
Civil Liberties: 7
Political Rights: 7


Syrian president Hafez al-Assad was elected to a fifth consecutive seven-year term in February 1999. In deteriorating health, Assad continued to quietly groom his son Bashar as a possible presidential successor, further sidelining his brother Rifaat as a candidate for leader of one of the region's most repressive regimes.

Assad reacted favorably to the election of Ehud Barak as Israel's prime minister in May, expressing unusual praise for the new Israeli leader and optimism for a peace deal between Israel and Syria. He authorized the resumption of peace talks with Israel, dispatching his foreign minister Farouq al-Shara to Washington to meet with Barak in December. Syria also moved to improve relations with both Jordan and Iraq during the year. While Syria's control over Lebanon remained strong, its influence over Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas operating in south Lebanon appeared to weaken, raising the specter of a challenge to Damascus's overall ability to dictate regional events at a time of reinvigoration of the Middle East peace process.

Syria faced its worst drought in 25 years in 1999. Lower agricultural exports combined with a stagnant, state-run economy led to calls for economic reform.

Following four centuries of rule under the Ottoman Empire, Syria came under French control after World War I and gained independence in 1941. A 1963 military coup brought the pan-Arab, Socialist Ba'ath party to power. As head of the Ba'ath military wing, Assad took power in a 1970 coup and formally became president of the secular regime in 1971. Members of the Alawite Muslim minority, which constitutes 12 percent of the population, were installed in most key military and intelligence positions.

The 1973 constitution vests executive power in the president, who must be a Muslim and who is nominated by the Ba'ath party to be elected through popular referendum. The 250-member People's assembly holds little independent legislative power.

In the late 1970s, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, drawn from the Sunni majority, carried out antigovernment attacks in several northern and central towns. In 1982, the government sent the army into the northern town of Hama to crush a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion. As many as 20,000 militants and civilians died in the resulting bloodshed, which decisively ended active opposition to the regime to this day.

Assad's reelection in February was by popular referendum. Running unopposed, he captured 99.99 percent of the vote. The ruling National Progressive Front, dominated by the Ba'ath party, continues to hold an overwhelming majority in parliament. The death of Major Basil al-Assad, the president's son and heir apparent, in a 1994 auto accident, has placed the president's other son, Bashar, into the forefront of succession. Assad is reportedly of failing health, and there are growing signs that Bashar, an ophthalmologist by trade, is being groomed for the presidency. In 1998, after quickly climbing Syria's military ranks, Bashar was handed responsibility for overseeing Syria's role in Lebanon. The president's brother, and disgraced former vice president, Rifaat Assad, reportedly attempted in September to promote himself and his son over Bashar in a succession power struggle. According to media reports late in the month, Bashar ordered 600 of his troops to surround Rifaat's home in Latakia in a crackdown to prevent any such challenge.

Until fairly recently, Assad's domestic credibility relied on his hard line against Israel. He previously appeared in no rush to negotiate a settlement leading to the return of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, as this would likely require establishing full diplomatic relations with Jerusalem. However, given his fragile health and determination to smooth the way for a successor, and the election of a pro-peace government in Israel, Assad reportedly wants to preside over a final peace settlement, if only to relieve an untested heir of the contentious task. Assad reacted favorably to the May election of Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, sensing that a return of the Golan was possible. Syria's position hardened over the summer, however, as it became clear Barak intended to negotiate from a fresh position over the Golan, rather than pick up where his Labor party predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, had left off. Syria insists that a deal to return all of the Golan was quietly offered by Rabin before his assassination in 1995. But by December, Syria resumed peace talks with Israel after a hiatus lasting over three years. Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Washington to lay the groundwork for negotiations over the Golan and a final peace arrangement. Prior to losing the Golan in 1967, Syria had used the territory to shell northern Israeli towns.

In March 1999, Syria and Iraq established interest sections in their respective capitals. Relations between the two historic Ba'athist rivals had been severed for the previous 19 years. Syria joined the multinational coalition against Iraq during the 1990-91 Gulf war. In April 1999, reports surfaced that Syria was smuggling oil out of Iraq, in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions levied in the wake of the war. There were signs of improving Syrian relations with Jordan during the year. In February President Assad attended the funeral of his long-time adversary, King Hussein, in Amman. Assad's son Bashar paid a state visit to King Hussein's successor, his 37-year-old son, King Abdullah. The visit was widely seen as emblematic of the emergence of a younger generation of Middle East leaders.

According to media reports in October, Assad's ability to control Hezbollah guerillas fighting in southern Lebanon against Israeli occupation is weakening. Syria reportedly urged Israel not to withdraw from its security zone in Lebanon's south for fear of not being able to fill the power vacuum. Damascus allegedly does not wish to commit troops to the region while the potential for a coup at home exists. Analysts suggested that in the midst of the succession issue, Assad's best assurance of stability at home relied on an Israeli presence in south Lebanon into at least the foreseeable future. Further complicating matters is Iran's support of Hezbollah guerillas. The guerillas are reportedly now receiving arms shipments from Iran via Beirut, rather than Damascus, the traditional transfer point.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Syrians cannot change their government democratically, though they ostensibly vote for the president and the People's assembly. President Assad maintains absolute authority in the military-backed regime. Tightly controlled elections in November 1998 resulted in Assad's National Progressive Front dominating parliament. The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood condemned the elections and called for true political pluralism in Syria.

The Emergency Law, in effect almost continuously since 1963, allows authorities to carry out preventative arrests and to supersede due process safeguards in searches, detentions, and trials in the military-controlled state security courts, which handle political and security cases. Several independent security services operate independently of each other and without judicial oversight. Authorities monitor personal communications and conduct surveillance of suspected security threats.

The judiciary is subservient to the government. Defendants in ordinary civil criminal cases have some due process rights, though there are no jury trials. In state security courts, confessions obtained through torture are generally admitted as evidence. Nevertheless, acquittals have been granted in political cases. Trials in the Economic Security Court, which hears cases involving currency violations and other financial offenses, are also conducted without procedural safeguards. While hundreds of political prisoners were released in 1999 under a presidential amnesty, dozens were arrested on political grounds and hundreds of political prisoners, including Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Kurds, and other prisoners of conscience, remain jailed. In October, Human Rights Watch classified Syria as the only country in the Middle East and North Africa where human rights activists are serving lengthy prison terms. In July, President Assad pardoned all Jordanian and Palestinian prisoners and others who committed crimes before March 11, 1999 (the beginning of Assad's new term). The pardon covered more than 200,000 prisoners jailed for crimes of smuggling, bribery, and fleeing army duty.

Freedom of expression is sharply restricted. All media are owned and operated by the government and the Ba'ath party. Satellite dishes are illegal, although they are increasingly tolerated. As of February, government ministries, some businesses, universities, and hospitals were connected to the Internet, albeit on government-controlled servers. While private access is not sanctioned, some private homes are believed to connect to the Internet via Lebanese service providers. Bashar Assad is leading the drive to connect Syria to the Internet, but the country's ruling structure and intelligence services remain steadfastly against widespread access. The media have increasingly reported on regional issues, including the Middle East peace process, and run a number of articles as well as television programs criticizing official corruption and government inefficiency. Nonetheless, coverage of many topics can result in prosecution. At least ten journalists were imprisoned in Syria in 1999, according to Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists. In June, Syria banned domestic distribution of the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi for publishing articles critical of the regime.

Freedom of assembly is nonexistent. The interior ministry must grant citizens permission to hold meetings, and most public demonstrations are organized by the government or Ba'ath party. Freedom of association is restricted. Private associations must register with the government, which usually grants registration to groups that are nonpolitical.

The state prohibits Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists from worshipping as a community and from owning property. The security apparatus closely monitors the Jewish community, and Jews are generally barred from government employment. They are also the only minority group required to have their religion noted in their passports and identity cards. Religious instruction is mandatory in schools, with government-approved teachers and curricula. Separate classes are provided for Christian and Muslim students.

Although the regime has supported Kurdish struggles abroad, the Kurdish minority in Syria faces cultural and linguistic restrictions, and suspected Kurdish activists are routinely dismissed from schools and jobs. Some 200,000 Kurdish Syrians are stateless and unable to obtain passports, identity cards, or birth certificates as a result of a policy some years ago under which Kurds were stripped of their Syrian nationality. The government never restored their nationality, though the policy ended after the 1960s. As a result, these Kurds are unable to own land, to gain government employment, or to vote.

Traditional norms place Syrian women at a disadvantage in marriage, divorce, and inheritance matters. Syrian law stipulates that an accused rapist can be acquitted if he marries his victim. Violence against women, including rape, is high in Syria. Women also face legal restrictions on passing citizenship on to children.

All unions must belong to the government-controlled General Federation of Trade Unions. By law, the government can nullify any private sector collective bargaining agreement. Strikes are prohibited in the agricultural sector and rarely occur in other sectors owing to previous government crackdowns.

Syria experienced its worst drought in 25 years in 1999. In a country with no industrial zones or modern banking system, farmers make up 30 percent of the Syrian workforce. The state-run economy suffers from corruption, a trend Bashar Assad fought against during the year. Syria restored financial thefts by governmental bodies that occurred in 1998. Calls for economic reform increased in 1999, pertaining specifically to abolishing the prohibition on taking hard currency out of the country.

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