2001 Scores

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

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Syria received an upward trend arrow due to a small relaxation of controls over freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.


Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad died in June after 30 years of authoritarian rule, but not before overseeing a government changeover and cabinet reshuffle. His son, 34-year-old Bashar, whom the elder Assad had groomed as his eventual replacement, assumed power in a smooth succession immediately following his father's death. The new Western-educated and seemingly reform-minded Syrian leader relaxed his country's longtime repression of all forms of free expression and vowed to implement much needed economic reforms. He also granted amnesty to some 600 political prisoners during the year. However, Bashar's latitude for implementing sweeping change is curtailed by those grown accustomed to benefiting from the repressive status quo. Many analysts predict Bashar will be forced to walk a tightrope in the foreseeable future as he balances modernizing his country with placating his foes. Peace talks with Israel remained stalled during the year over disagreement on final border arrangements for the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Syria faced renewed and more extensive calls for withdrawal of its forces from Lebanon during the year, especially once Israel withdrew its troops from that country in May.

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 Baath Party to power. As head of the Baath military wing, Hafez al-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 and continue to hold those positions today.

The 1973 constitution vests executive power in the president, who must be a Muslim and who is nominated by the Baath Party to be elected through popular referendum. The 250-member People's Assembly holds little independent legislative power. The minimum age for president was lowered in June from 40 to 34, when Bashar al-Assad, at age 34, assumed the presidency.

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.

Syria's new president continued with the anticorruption drive initiated by his father in February, when many officials perceived to be opponents of Bashar were purged from their posts. Those thought to pose a threat to lucrative trade routes controlled by the Assad family were also removed. A new cabinet was installed in March, ushering in younger leaders intent on fulfilling much needed social and economic reforms and determined to root out corruption. Government estimates put the cost of corruption at $50,000 per day. Former Prime Minister Mahmoud el-Zoubi was expelled from the Baath party and summoned to trial in May on embezzlement charges, but committed suicide upon receiving the court summons.

In June, after Bashar became president, the 90-member central committee of the governing Baath party was overhauled with the election of 62 new members, among them top army officials, indicating a concerted effort on the new president's part to ensure loyalty at the highest levels of government and to consolidate his rule.

Intensive peace negotiations with Israel broke down in January over disagreements on final borders around the Golan Heights. A March summit between U.S. president Bill Clinton and Hafez al-Assad, designed to sound out the Syrian leader on his peace terms and jump-start negotiations with Israel, failed to produce any forward momentum. The key sticking point centered on which country should control a strip of shoreline along the eastern edge of the Sea of Galilee, located below the western slopes of the Golan. The sea serves as Israel's primary fresh water source. Israel has agreed in principle to a return of all of the Golan in return for security guarantees. Prior to losing the Golan in 1967, Syria had used the territory to shell northern Israeli towns.

The specter of war between Syria and Israel appeared to grow late in the year. In October, at an Islamic nations conference called in the midst of raging violence in the Palestinian territories, Syria called for an end to the normalization of relations between Arab and Muslim states and Israel. Syria, which continues to maintain its 35,000-strong troop presence in Lebanon, appeared to authorize Hezbollah guerilla attacks against Israeli forces – including kidnapping of soldiers – from southern Lebanon, ostensibly as a pressure tactic to force Israel to return the Golan Heights on Syrian terms. President Assad publicly praised Hezbollah for its attacks. In November, an Israeli Army intelligence assessment concluded that Syria would go to war should Israel retaliate for Hezbollah attacks by striking Syrian interests in Lebanon. Syria remains on the U.S. State Department list of states that support terrorism, and continues to support radical Palestinian terror groups opposed to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Syria faced growing calls within Lebanon for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from that country. Israeli troops pulled out of their self-declared "security zone" in southern Lebanon in May, thus ostensibly removing Syria's justification for its troop presence, according to many analysts. Many felt more emboldened in criticizing the Syrian presence with Bashar in power; his father had dealt harshly with any dissent related to Syria's Lebanese occupation. Indeed, calls for independence from Syria cut across Lebanon's political spectrum and were loudest among the Maronite Christian community. In September, a previously unknown group called Citizens for a Free and Sovereign Lebanon carried out attacks against Syrian nationals in Lebanon. However, Lebanon's parliamentary elections in 2000 did demonstrate the country's fealty to Syria, with most members of parliament maintaining close ties with the Syrian regime.

Syria proceeded to cement its warming relations with Iraq during the year. In February the two countries formally reestablished diplomatic ties, which had been severed in 1980 at the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war. Syria's upgrade in relations with Iraq were for largely geopolitical and economic reasons. Both countries rely on water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, whose headwaters sit in Turkey, where dam construction on the rivers is underway. The Syrian move toward Iraq was also seen as a way to counter Iran's influence in Lebanon; Iran supports Hezbollah and would be uneasy about any Syrian efforts to rein in the guerilla group. Syria also reportedly held secret talks with the Iraqi leadership to ensure Iraq's backing in the event of a Syrian-Israeli war. In November, Syria and Iraq reopened a petroleum pipeline running between the two countries. As a result, Syria is technically in violation of United Nations (UN) sanctions against Iraq. The proceeds from the sale of oil will probably be used to finance President Assad's new job-creation plan. His stated goal is to create 440,000 much needed jobs for unemployed young people. Many analysts commented that Bashar's hold on power depended on the success of the jobs plan.

Syria's economy is characterized by antiquated infrastructure and an overbearing and corrupt bureaucracy. There are no industrial zones; nor is there a modern banking system. Agriculture accounts for roughly 50 percent of exchange earnings and exports, and farmers make up 30 percent of the Syrian workforce, a segment of the economy hit hard by a 1999 drought. Oil accounts for approximately half of the country's exports, but many predict Syria will have to import oil within ten years as fields dry up. With the population growing two times faster than the economy, Bashar al-Assad has stated his intention to combat corruption and attract foreign investment. In April he liberalized the rules against holding foreign currency and narrowed the powers of the economic security courts. Towards the end of the year, however, his drive to modernize the economy appeared to taper off, leading to speculation that he faces significant challenges from those used to benefiting from a closed, statist economy.

Syria is known to be a major transit point of processed opiates, including heroin, from Central Asia. It is estimated the country earns $1 billion a year on drug smuggling to the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa. Hafez al-Assad was known to use the lucrative drug income to pay off allies and opponents alike, a practice many predict Bashar will follow, especially in the short term while his hold on power remains more precarious.

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.

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.

While hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars, President Assad authorized the amnesty of almost half of them – approximately 600 – in November 2000. Previously, in July, he had ordered the release of members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood and Communists. The move, albeit a continuation of a process of gradual prisoner releases begun by his late father, was seen as consistent with Bashar's attempts to liberalize Syrian society.

While freedom of expression is sharply restricted, there were growing signs during the year that critical voices have earned greater tolerance under the new president. Writers, actors, lawyers, journalists, and artists put forward a petition calling for a free press, political reform, an end to martial law, the creation of independent political parties, and the release of political prisoners. Critiques of the Syrian economy also appeared in state-run newspapers after the death of Hafez al-Assad. Notably, no one was punished for speaking out on these issues. All media remain owned and operated by the government and the Baath Party. Satellite dishes are illegal, although they are increasingly tolerated.

Despite the apparent gains in press freedoms, Syrian journalist Nizar Nayyuf remained in a Damascus prison during the year. According to Reporters Sans Frontières, Nayyuf is in extremely grave condition and close to death. His jailers, who have demanded he declare as "false" his past statements regarding Syria's human rights record, have repeatedly tortured him.

Internet access in Syria remains inchoate and highly restricted. Government ministries, some businesses, universities, and hospitals are connected to the Internet, although on government-controlled servers. While private access is not sanctioned, some private homes are believed to be connected to the Internet via Lebanese service providers. The government reduced the monthly fees for Internet accounts by half in July, although most private citizens cannot afford them. Bashar al-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.

Freedom of assembly is largely nonexistent. Technically, the interior ministry must grant citizens permission to hold meetings, and the government or Baath Party organizes most public demonstrations. However, with Bashar now in power, citizens feel more emboldened to meet and criticize the government. In October, Syrian intellectuals began meeting regularly to debate issues surrounding social, economic, and political reform. They have issued calls for the creation of civil institutions such as an independent press, trade unions and associations, and political parties. 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 worshiping as a community and from owning property. The security apparatus closely monitors the tiny 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.

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