July 16, 2010

Executive Summary

After Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father as president in July 2000, many people in Syria hoped that the human rights situation would improve. In his first inaugural speech on July 17, al-Asad spoke of the need for “creative thinking,” “the desperate need for constructive criticism,” “transparency,” and “democracy.”[1] A human rights lawyer summed up his initial feelings on the succession, reflecting the mood and aspirations of many others in the country: “Bashar’s inaugural speech provided a space for hope following the totalitarian years of President [Hafez] Asad. It was as if a nightmare was removed.”[2]

Ten years later, these initial hopes remain unfulfilled, and al-Asad’s words have not translated into any kind of government action to promote criticism, transparency, or democracy. This report reviews Syria’s human rights situation in five key areas and proposes concrete recommendations to the Syrian President that are essential to improving Syria’s human rights record.

The Damascus Spring that followed al-Asad’s ascent to power, during which a number of informal groups began meeting in private homes to discuss political reform, was a short-lived experiment; its highpoint was the shutting down of Mazzeh prison in November 2000 and the release of hundreds of political prisoners shortly thereafter. It came to an abrupt end in August 2001; Syria’s prisons are filled again with political prisoners, journalists, and human rights activists (Annex 1 lists 92 political and human rights activists detained since al-Asad’s ascent to power).

Syria’s opaque decision-making process and the lack of public information on policy debates within the regime make it very difficult to know the real reasons that drove Bashar al-Asad to loosen some of the existing restrictions early on, only to clamp down a few months later and to maintain a tight grip ever since. Was al-Asad a true reformer who did not have the capacity early in his reign to take on an entrenched “old guard” that refused any political opening? If so, why has he not implemented these reforms in the ensuing years after he had consolidated his power base and named his own people to key positions? Or was al-Asad’s talk of reform a mere opportunistic act to gain popularity and legitimacy that he never intended to translate into real changes?

There is not enough publicly available information to answer these questions definitively. However, it is clear that after a decade in power, Bashar al-Asad has not taken the steps necessary to truly improve his country’s human rights record. He has focused his efforts on opening up the economy without broadening public freedoms or establishing public institutions that are accountable for their actions. So while visitors to Damascus are likely to stay in smart boutique hotels and dine in shiny new restaurants, ordinary Syrians continue to risk jail merely for criticizing their president, starting a blog, or protesting government policies.

The state of emergency, enacted in 1963, remains in place, and the government continues to rule by emergency powers. Syria’s security agencies, the feared mukhabarat, continue to detain people without arrest warrants, frequently refuse to disclose their whereabouts for weeks and sometimes months, and regularly engage in torture. Special courts set up under Syria’s emergency laws, such as the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), sentence people following unfair trials. Syria is still a de facto single-party state with only the Ba`ath Party holding effective power.

Bashar al-Asad has permitted Syrians to access the internet but his security services detain bloggers and censor popular websites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Blogger (Google’s blogging engine). On September 22, 2001, one year after al-Asad assumed power, the Syrian government adopted a new Press Law (Decree No. 50/2001), which provided the government with sweeping controls over newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals, as well as virtually anything else printed in Syria, from books to pamphlets and posters.

Despite statements by First Lady Asma al-Asad in January 2010 that the government “wanted to open more space for civil society to work,” Syria’s security services continue to deny registration requests for independent non-governmental organizations and none of Syria’s human rights groups are licensed.[3]

The Kurdish minority, estimated to be 10 percent of the population, is denied basic group rights, including the right to learn Kurdish in schools or celebrate Kurdish festivals, such as Nowruz (Kurdish New Year). Official repression of Kurds increased further after Syrian Kurds held large-scale demonstrations, some violent, throughout northern Syria in March 2004 in order to voice long-simmering grievances. Since then, security forces have dispersed Kurdish political and cultural gatherings, sometimes with lethal force, and have detained a number of leading Kurdish political activists, who they have referred to military courts or the SSSC for prosecution under charges of “inciting strife,” or “weakening national sentiment.” Despite repeated promises by al-Asad, an estimated 300,000 stateless Kurds are still waiting for the Syrian government to solve their predicament by granting them citizenship. Most of these had their Syrian citizenship stripped by the Syrian government after an exceptional census in 1962 or are their descendants.

Promises by al-Asad for new laws that would broaden political and civil society participation have not materialized. In March 2005 he promised while speaking to Spanish journalists that “the coming period will be one of freedom for political parties in Syria.”[4] In June 2005 the Ba`ath Party Congress recommended the establishment of a new political party law that would allow the creation of new non-ethnic and non-religious political parties.[5] To date, no new draft law has been officially introduced.

Repression in Syria today may be less severe than during Syria’s darks years in the early 1980s, when security forces carried out large-scale disappearances and extrajudicial killings. But that is hardly an achievement or measure of improvement given the different circumstances. As a prominent dissident told Human Rights Watch recently, “In the 1980s, we went to jail without trial. Now, we get a trial, but we still go to jail.”[6]

In public interviews and speeches, al-Asad has justified the lack of political reforms by either arguing that his priority is economic reform, or by stating that regional circumstances have interfered with his reform agenda. In his second inaugural speech in July 2007, following an endorsement for a second term with 97.6 percent of the vote, al-Asad noted that:

Numerous circumstances hindered some of the political developments which we wanted to achieve. Our supreme objective, amidst the chaos certain parties have been exporting to our region—and which surrounds us now—was to preserve the safety and security of our citizens and maintain the stability our people enjoys.[7]

While there is no doubt that Syria has faced numerous foreign policy challenges in the last decade, from the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 to Syria’s forced withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 and its subsequent isolation by Western powers, these do not explain, let alone justify, the Syrian government’s repressive behavior toward its own citizens.

A review of Syria’s record shows a consistent policy of repressing dissent regardless of international or regional developments. Al-Asad’s crackdown on dissidents began in August 2001, before the United States invaded Iraq, and continued throughout the decade, irrespective of the state of Syria’s relations with the international community. Syria’s emergence from its Western-imposed isolation since 2007 has not improved the situation for Syria’s political and human rights activists.

In March 2007, the European Union reopened its dialogue with Damascus, after it had suspended talks on an EU association agreement in 2005 following the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The US followed suit, with House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi meeting al-Asad in Damascus in April 2007, followed by a visit to Syria in May 2007 by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Yet, in May 2007, Syrian courts sentenced leading dissident Kamal Labwani and prominent political writer Michel Kilo to long jail terms for their peaceful activities, only weeks after jailing human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni.

More recently, Europe’s, and particularly France’s, extensive engagement with Syria following al-Asad’s visit to Paris in July 2008 has not eased Syria’s repression of human rights activism. On July 28, 2009, the government detained Muhanad al-Hasani, a human rights lawyer and the foremost monitor of the State Security Court. Three months later, on October 14, 2009, it detained Haytham al-Maleh, 78, a human rights lawyer who criticized the regime’s policies on an opposition TV station.

Writing ten years ago in June 2000, Riad al-Turk, a prominent Syrian opposition leader and the former secretary general of the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau), asked in an article whether Syria will remain a “Kingdom of Silence”—a country where criticism of government policies is banned. His question still resonates today. Without reform in the five areas outlined in this report, al-Asad’s legacy will merely extend that of his father: government by repression.


[1] Translation of President Bashar al-Asad's July 17, 2001 inauguration speech provided by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), via http://www.al-bab.com/arab/countries/syria/bashar00a.htm.

[2] Human Rights Watch interview with Syrian human rights activist (name withheld), Damascus, November 14, 2006.

[3] Cited in Rami Khouri, “Signals of Change from Syria,” Agence Global, January 27, 2010, http://www.agenceglobal.com/article.asp?id=2244 (accessed June 10, 2010).

[4] Sami Moubayed, “Syria's Ba`athists Loosen the Reins,” Asia Times, April 26, 2005, http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/GD26Ak04.html (accessed May 12, 2010).

[5] Rhonda Roumani,“In Syria, Democrats Chomp at Bit,” Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 2005, http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0923/p06s03-wome.html (accessed May 12, 2010).

[6] Human Rights Watch interview with Syrian political activist, Beirut, April 5, 2010.

[7] Bashar al-Asad’s Second Inaugural Address on July 18, 2007, available at http://www.mideastweb.org/bashar_assad_inauguration_2007.htm (accessed on June 10, 2010).