Human Rights Developments
Celebrating his twentieth anniversary in power, President Hafez al-Asad of Syria strengthened his ties with the United States, restored relations with Britain, broadened his control over Lebanon, won large amounts of new aid from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and even met in November with President Bush. Once seen as an enemy of the West, Asad became a Western ally when he sent his troops to join the US-led campaign against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. For human rights advocates, however, neither President Asad's anniversary nor his diplomatic successes were cause for jubilation: Syria's long-standing and serious rights violations continued unabated. Expectations that President Asad might relax his harsh rule were quashed in the spring, when a major speech affirmed an uncompromising line and defended the national State of Emergency which has suspended legal and constitutional protections since 1963.
At least twelve different security agencies -- including Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, General Intelligence and Political Security -- continued to keep tight screws on Syrian dissent in 1990. Arresting suspects mostly singly or in twos and threes (in previous years there had sometimes been big roundups), security forces interrogated at least 1,000 people and took several hundred into long-term custody for their nonviolent association and expression. Virtually none of those arrested were formally charged, tried or sentenced, and many remained in indefinite incarceration.
Some 7,500 political prisoners continued to languish in Syrian jails at the end of 1990. Of these, at least 2,500 were held in Tadmur Military Prison, notorious for its bad conditions and the harsh treatment that prisoners must endure, and over 2,000 were in Syrian detention facilities in Lebanon. (By year's end, some two-thirds of Lebanon was effectively under the control of Syrian troops, which had maintained a large presence in the country since 1976. Hundreds of other prisoners, including some abducted from Lebanon, were jailed in al-Mezze Military Prison, al-'Adra Prison, Saydnaya Prison, Kafr Sussa Detention Center, the Military Interrogation Branch's prison and other facilities in Syria.
At least 21 persons, including former President Dr. Nur al-Din al-Atassi, have been locked away for over 20 years and at least five others for 18 years or more. Hundreds of others have been imprisoned since the early 1980s, including 90 doctors and 70 engineers.
Syrian interrogators continued regularly to torture and severely mistreat prisoners. Munir Fransis, a 30-year-old engineer taken prisoner in early April, died of internal bleeding in Muwassa'a Hospital of Damascus on about April 14 after an extremely severe beating. Authorities reportedly later arrested a doctor at the hospital because he refused to sign a certificate that the prisoner had died of natural causes. Security forces had arrested Fransis along with 14 others in late March in the town of Yabrud, north of Damascus, after slogans apeared on town walls comparing Asad with Nicolae Ceausescu, the fallen Romanian dictator. Among those arrested was Samir Haddad, 33, also an engineer from Yabrud. Shortly afterward he was reported in critical condition due to kidney failure and other physical damage, almost certainly resulting from torture.
Syrian prisoners sometimes have died soon after release or suffer permanent injury from mistreatment while incarcerated. Khidr Jabr, a former Syrian army officer, died on March 23, one week after his release from custody, apparently as a result of injuries sustained during his 12-year imprisonment for allegedly belonging to the League for Communist Action. Security forces have regularly tortured Riyad al-Turk, a lawyer and general secretary of the opposition Communist Party-Political Bureau, since he was imprisoned in 1980, breaking his bones, impairing his hearing and eyesight, and weakening his heart. The torturers have so systematically ruined his body that they had to rush him to the hospital on at least six occasions when he was on the verge of death, most recently in 1988. Many rights organizations have taken up his case, but Syrian authorities have refused out of hand even to consider his release.
Needless to say, Syrian citizens continued to be denied freedom of association and freedom to form political parties. In fact, the mere possession of opposition publications has been grounds for arrest and imprisonment. The government and the ruling Ba'th Party still control all "private" organizations, including trade unions, professional societies, cultural associations -- even sports and recreational clubs.
The Asad regime has also imposed tough censorship on mass media and book publishers as well as restrictions on imports of books, magazines and all other written or visual materials. For example, the authorities have banned Nujum al-Nahar, an international prize-winning film by Syrian director Osama Muhammad, as well as a number of other books and films by distinguished Syrian intellectuals.
The Asad regime also continued to discriminate against several minorities, while filling its ranks with an inner-circle of privileged 'Alawis, the President's minority group. Officials continued to block the free expression of Kurdish language and culture, and to deny tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds their citizenship rights. Bars on travel and emigration for Syrian Jews remained in place. And an estimated 2,500 of Syria's 30,000-strong Palestinian population continued to be imprisoned and mistreated for non-violent political expression.
There were some small cracks in this system of repression and political control. In December 1989 for the first time in over a decade, a small number of mothers and wives of political prisoners and the disappeared assembled in protest in front of the Presidential Palace. In an unusual act of restraint, security forces did not interfere, nor, according to available information, were the participants later arrested or victimized. On December 10, 1989, International Human Rights Day, a new Syrian human rights group, the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (Lajan al-Difa' 'an al-Hurriat al-Dimoqratia wa Huquq al-Insan fi Suria), issued a communiqué announcing its formation. The new group, said to be composed of committees in a number of Syrian cities, remained clandestine in 1990. On March 8, it issued a second communiqué on the 27th anniversary of the State of Emergency, followed by others during the course of the year, including an open letter to members of the new People's Assembly in late September. Committees also formed in Paris and other cities abroad.
According to various sources, including the French weekly L'Express, Syrian women held another demonstration on February 19, demanding the release of political prisoners. As many as 100 women, from several Syrian cities and various political orientations, assembled in front of the Presidential Palace and asked to see Asad. When officials denied their request, the women refused to disperse and some cried out in protest. Police then violently broke up the demonstration, and three women had to be taken to the hospital with injuries.
According to Damascus radio, the Syrian cabinet in January abolished all martial law requirements "except those relating to state security." As a result, martial law no longer applied to those committing economic crimes, such as smuggling, official corruption, hoarding scarce goods and speculating on the currency black market -- offenses which previously had brought the death penalty in some cases. But most applications of martial law remain unchanged, including those directed to expression and association deemed to threaten state security. In a similar move in March, the government restricted the application of State of Emergency regulations to "security" issues, again leaving the most objectionable parts of the law in place.
Two Communist Party leaders belonging to the official National Progressive Front made statements in February revealing that pressure for democratization has developed within the ruling coalition. In an interview with the Kuwaiti publication al-Watan, Yusuf Faisal called for a "party system based on pluralism and allowing public freedoms," while Khaled Bakdash stated that "martial law must be lifted and the supremacy of the law respected in every area."34
On March 4, President Asad announced special new courts to investigate cases of abuse of authority by civil servants, principally corruption, though theoretically abuses of human rights as well.35 Well informed sources in Damascus reported that the government had also given the go-ahead to several new political parties, including a Nasirist party, a "moderate" Islamic party, and a liberal pro-business party.36 By the end of 1990, however, no new party had become visibly active. Nor had the courts tackled serious governmental wrongdoing.
On March 8, President Asad gave a long-awaited speech on the anniversary of the Ba'th Party's seizure of power in 1963.. While some observers expected some democratic initiatives, the speech contained nothing new. In fact, President Asad gave a lengthy justification for the State of Emergency and its continuation in force.37
Since the previous term of the People's Assembly (the Syrian parliament) expired in the spring, the government held new elections on May 22. It also increased the number of assembly seats from 195 to 250 "to provide more seats for independents." Syria has not seen free elections since the 1950s and the Assembly has been largely a rubber stamp, but some observers thought Asad would use the balloting to broaden his political base and encourage a modest increase in political pluralism.
Decree No. 5, issued in March, granted most Syrian citizens of voting age (without a criminal record) the right to present themselves as candidates.38 In practice, they could only run as individuals -- independent of any party affiliation -- unless they were running under the banner of the ruling National Progressive Front, whose parties alone retained the right to field candidates.
Over 9,000 candidates ran for office during the three-week official campaign period, including (in addition to Front candidates) many business figures and professionals, members of well known families, and traditional leaders. Because opposition parties could not run candidates, relatively few politically controversial candidates -- for example, those known as human rights advocates or as sympathetic to opposition candidates -- presented themselves. In addition, the authorities weeded out some of the more controversial candidates by forcing 43 independents to withdraw. At least one person who put forward his candidacy -- Faisal Kheir Beik -- ended up in jail. An independent candidate from Jabla, an 'Alawi area south of Lataqia on the Mediterranean coast. Beik was arrested just before the elections, and by the end of 1990, more than seven months later, had still not been released. He had not been charged or tried.
Campaign posters, including many by independents, covered walls and lampposts throughout Syria's cities. Although only the Front could hold legal campaign rallies, candidates held receptions in private homes and some wealthier ones gave banquets. Many candidates criticized corruption, shortages, inflation and the lack of democracy, but not in ways that challenged the regime. Expressions of fidelity to President Asad were commonplace campaign rhetoric, among independents as well as Front candidates.
During the campaign, the controlled press predictably avoided controversial issues, such as any hint of criticism of the security services, the armed forces, Asad, or Syrian foreign policy. However, the editors of two official newspapers, Tishrin and al-Thawra, provided space to the two Communist Parties, as members of the Front, to make electoral commentary. The parties used the opportunity to call for freedom of the press and an end to martial law. The demand for freedom of the press was particularly appropriate since the party's own newspaper, reportedly deprived of newsprint by the government, could publish only sporadically during the election campaign.
The results of the polling presented no great surprises. A high Ba'th Party official, Dr. Sulaiman Qaddash, had announced well before the elections that independents would win a third of the seats and the Front two-thirds. The official tally reflected these proportions almost exactly -- 84 independents and 166 Front candidates. The Ba'th Party won 134 seats, giving it a comfortable majority even without its allies in the Front.
One independent elected from Damascus had close ties to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a right-wing Lebanese party favoring the incorporation of Lebanon into Syria. In addition, three independents elected from the Kurdish regions north of Aleppo were identified with the left-wing Kurdish Worker's Party of Turkey. Both parties, though allies of the regime, had no previous access to the Assembly. Given these results, and the many traditional leaders and business figures entering the new parliament as independents, Asad seems to have cautiously broadened his base, while making few real concessions to democracy.
Only a handful of cases of obvious fraud in the vote counting came to light. The President's brother, Jamil al-Asad, was elected in Lataqia with more votes than there had been voters. When the error was discovered, officials felt obliged to organize a second election.
Possibly in partial response to a campaign by barred parties for a boycott by voters, turnout was sparse, forcing elections to be extended to a second day. According to official figures, the turnout was 40 percent of the eligible voters. Those who observed empty polling stations in Damascus and other Syrian cities guessed that the turnout was considerably lower -- probably 10 to 20 percent.
In late August, international newspapers carried stories of popular discontent with the Asad regime's support for the United States, Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab states opposing Iraq's annexation of Kuwait. Especially at issue was the dispatch of Syrian troops to Saudi Arabia. Many Arab newspapers, including the Saudi newspaper al-Hayat, reported demonstrations on August 25 in Deir al-Zor and other towns near the Syrian-Iraqi border. The Syrian government was also said to have reinforced its military units in the areas of unrest, dispatching 5,000 troops that had been stationed near Homs.39 Damascus promptly denied these reports. With very tight security in eastern Syria, Middle East Watch has been unable to confirm these reports, except the dispatch of troops to the border area. Security forces made tens of arrests in late August, but it appears that no large and organized demonstrations took place.
As in previous years, many of Syria's worst rights abuses in 1990 occurred in Syrian-occupied Lebanon. There, Syrian troops and Syrian-supported militias attacked unarmed civilians, carried out summary executions, and abducted Palestinian, Lebanese and other nationals. Two Syrian security forces -- Special Forces and Military Intelligence -- operated extensively in Lebanon, and the head of Military Intelligence, Gen. Ghazi Kana'an, was widely considered to exercise paramount authority.
Syrian security personnel detained and arrested hundreds, normally without charge or trial, and routinely mistreated and tortured prisoners during interrogation. In addition to a number of local interrogation centers, including al-Mafraza in West Beirut and Madrasa al-Amrikan in Tripoli, Syrian security forces maintained a large center for interrogation and detention in the Lebanese town of 'Anjar, near the Syrian border.
By transporting important prisoners to Damascus, Syrian forces routinely violate the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, a treaty ratified by Syria, which sets forth standards governing an occupying power. Once in Syria, the prisoners face further interrogation and detention in such grim facilities as al-Mezze Prison and the Military Interrogation Branch's prison. Syrian security forces also reportedly seized property, extorted protection money and used violence to settle private scores with inhabitants of the areas of Lebanon under their control. They also were deeply involved in Lebanon's increasing opium cultivation and heroin production.40
On October 13, Syrian forces, along with elements of the Lebanese army under the authority of Lebanese President Elias Hrawi, attacked the forces of rebel Gen. Michel 'Aoun and his predominantly Maronite Christian supporters in East Beirut and a surrounding enclave. The Syrians and their allies defeated the 'Aoun forces in a major assault that day. Widespread reports suggested that during and immediately after the offensive, on October 13 and 14, Syrian forces and a pro-Damascus Christian militia headed by Elie Hobeika executed at least 240 prisoners, including civilians, in the area of 'Aoun's headquarters in Ba'bda and in the nearby towns of Dahr al-Wahash, Bsous, Houmal and Beit Meri.41
By the end of 1990, according to many reports, Syrian forces had largely withdrawn from the Metn area where they had committed the worst abuses. They installed in their place two pro-Syrian militias -- the forces of Elie Hobeika and those of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The return of these forces, which had been ousted from the area by local residents several years earlier, stirred fears of further reprisals against those considered anti-Syrian. (Hobeika's forces earned a grim reputation in 1982 as authors of the Sabra and Shatilla massacres.) Although the Lebanese government set up a joint Syrian-Lebanese commission of inquiry into the events of October 13 and 14, few thought that it would produce anything other than a cover-up.42
Syrian forces were also said to have abducted 14 high-ranking Lebanese military officers loyal to Gen. 'Aoun. One was released into the custody of the Lebanese authorities and the remaining 13 were said to be in detention in various Syrian prisons. Among those held were: Gen. Fouad 'Aoun, Col. Amer Shehab, Col. Karam Moussaba', Lt. Col. Fouad Ashkar and Lt. Col. Fayez Karam.
At year's end, Syrian forces controlled the Greater Beirut area and were extending their occupation to areas in the north and south. All of Lebanon, with the exception of the Israeli "security zone" in the south, was believed likely to fall under Syrian authority. The international media generally greeted this as a welcome end to sectarian strife and rule by the Lebanese militias. But Syria's long record of rights violations in Lebanon, including those that took place in 1990, gives cause for grave concern.
The Bush administration's relations with Syria warmed rapidly throughout 1990, although US sanctions based on Syria's "evident support for international terrorism" remained in place. Among the reasons were reduced Soviet support for the Syrian regime, and a US desire to pursue the Mideast peace process, reduce the anarchy in Lebanon, and seek release of the Western hostages being held there. As ties improved, the administration remained largely silent on Syria's human rights violations, with the exception of a forthright catalogue of Syrian abuses published in February in the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.
As in the past, the State Department claimed to be expressing human rights concerns privately to the Syrian government. Off the record, US officials said that public diplomacy would only be counterproductive in the Syrian case; they talked of a "major démarche" to Syria on rights issues.
Had the US government chosen to defend human rights in Syria, it would have been in a strong position to do so. With declining support from the Soviet Union and a weak domestic economy, Syria keenly pursued closer ties with the West, an end to sanctions and renewed economic assistance. President Asad, a longtime enemy of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, needed no coaxing to join the international coalition to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait. In light of the gravity of Syrian abuses which the State Department's own Country Reports amply documented, the lack of serious public diplomatic efforts revealed the low priority that the Bush administration gave to Syrian human rights.
In contrast to 1989, when closer ties met opposition among US lawmakers, members of Congress and other well known political figures joined in the parade of visitors to Damascus in 1990. Senator Arlen Specter traveled to Damascus as leader of a delegation on January 14-15, returning with Senator Richard Shelby for more talks on January 30.43 On March 14-16, former President Jimmy Carter visited Damascus, followed on April 8-9 by another high-level congressional delegation led by Senator Robert Dole.44 And on May 24-25 a delegation led by former Senator Charles Percy also stopped off in Damascus.
All delegations met President Asad and Foreign Minister Faruq Shara'. Middle East Watch learned that closer US-Syrian ties were typically on the agenda, as were Syrian hopes for broadened economic links and renewed economic aid. On April 9, Damascus Radio reported on President Asad's meeting with the Dole group and affirmed that the President was seeking better relations with the United States.45
Meanwhile, the State Department conducted its own intense diplomacy with Damascus, led by US Ambassador to Syria Edward Djerijian. One positive result was the release in late April of two US citizens held hostage in Lebanon. US officials, including President Bush, publicly thanked President Asad for these releases. In late May, veteran journalist Patrick Seale said talks between Washington and Damascus were of "unprecedented intimacy."46 Rumors began to circulate that relations would soon be normalized and sanctions abandoned. Damascus gave further sign of its good will by appointing its first ambassador to Washington in several years. The new envoy, Walid Mu'allim, took up his post in Washington on June 14.
US-Syrian relations warmed still further after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The Bush administration enlisted Syrian support and military forces for the campaign to roll back Iraq, securing Syrian agreement for an initial contingent of 3,000 to 4,000 Syrian troops and up to a full division later. From that time forward, US-Syrian relations edged toward an overt alliance. In late August, Ambassador Djerijian told a visiting journalist: "The US-Syrian relationship has really evolved. We have built up a dialogue, a relationship in which both sides have interests in common ground."47
In mid-September, Secretary of State James Baker paid a visit to Damascus which included a four-and-a-half hour meeting with President Asad followed by an airport press conference. In conversations with a reporter before his official meetings, Secretary Baker admitted that President Asad's record was something of an embarrassment, commenting that "we are not embracing Syria and everything it has done." However, he emphasized the many advantages of dealing with Asad, noting that "Syria has been very supportive" of US policy goals.48 The Baker visit was followed on November 7 by a visit by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs John Kelly.
These meetings -- and the general climate of relations between the two countries -- produced a remarkable lack of official commentary on Syria's human rights record. At most, the State Department mentioned Syrian "support for terrorism" as a barrier to normalized relations and economic assistance. Even that did not stop Syria from benefiting from a large new aid package rumored to be $1 billion or more given by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait's government in exile -- aid which was unlikely to have been given without US agreement.49
Many observers believe that Syria's greatly expanded occupation in Lebanon was another payoff for closer relations with the United States. Although the State Department has denied any prior US approval of the Syrian move to oust Gen. 'Aoun, knowledgeable sources agreed that Syria could not -- and would not -- have extended its position in Lebanon without at least tacit US blessing.50 Not surprisingly, Syria's rights violations in Lebanon were downplayed in most official US commentary, which referred to Syria's "presence" in the country rather than its "occupation" and which spoke in such upbeat phrases as, "this ends a sad chapter of Lebanon's history." After the reported October 13-14 execution of at least 240 civilian and military prisoners following the defeat of Gen. 'Aoun's forces, a State Department spokesman said the US had told Syria that it had a special responsibility to ensure that such abuses did not take place in areas of Lebanon which its forces control.
The culmination of this rapproachment took place on November 23, when President Bush met with President Asad on the way home from a Thanksgiving visit to US troops in the Persian Gulf. While the meeting was a clear plum for Asad, the Bush administration took steps to limit the political damage. The meeting took place in Geneva, not Damascus -- a sign that Bush did not want to identify himself too closely with the Syrian leader. By announcing the meeting only two days beforehand and holding it just after Thanksgiving, the White House was able to minimize publicity, and avoid some of the inevitable embarrassing comparisons between Asad and another nearby rights violator: Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.
The Bush-Asad meeting, after at least two years of nego-tiations, marked a historic turn in US-Syrian relations. More than 13 years had passed since Asad had last met a US chief executive. In the meantime, Syria had often been castigated by Congress and the White House. Now, in the midst of smiles, hand-shakes and expressions of mutual support, Syria was Washington's friend, and human rights violations passed unmentioned.
The Work of Middle East Watch
On September 9, Middle East Watch published a major report entitled Human Rights in Syria. Based on a three-week clandestine visit to Syria and extensive interviews with exiles and other sources outside the country, the report documented the sorry history of rights violations under Assad's rule -- the routine torture, deaths in custody, disappearances, family hostages and collective punishment. It named and described the major security services, prisons and interrogation centers, and gave a detailed estimate of the number of political prisoners and their places of incarceration. The report also discussed the legal system, the state of emergency and the special courts, as well as the widespread practice of detention without charge or trial. And it provided information on the persecution of minorities, restrictions on all forms of association and broad censorship. The report concluded with an analysis of US-Syrian relations, raising questions about the emerging alliance and its impact on Syrian human rights practices.
An op-ed article in the Washington Post later that month, on the eve of Secretary Baker's visit to Damascus, drew attention to the charges inherent in the US policy of establishing close ties with Syria without exacting a price in terms of improved human rights for Syrians themselves. The parallel drawn with the US experience with Saddam Hussein in Iraq proved to be a thesis which found a strong echo in Congress and elsewhere in the US media.
Middle East Watch has now embarked on researching Syria's record of human rights violations in Lebanon. Some two thirds of Lebanon -- historically claimed as part of "Greater Syria" -- has been controlled by Syrian forces for the past 15 years. The consolidation of Lebanese President Hrwawi's authority, following the surrender of the rebel Christian, Gen. 'Aoun, in the fall served also to strengthen Syria's own grip on the country's institutions. In the aftermath of 'Aoun's surrender, we documented the murder of dozens of captured soldiers and civilans loyal to the Christian leaders.
40 See Middle East Watch, Human Rights in Syria, September 1990, Appendix VI, pp. 194-97. The US State Department's annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report documents the growth in opium cultivation and draws links to the Syrian government. When asked about Syrian drug connections, even for background only, State Department officials tended to respond with a brisk "no comment."
41 Amnesty International expressed concern at "over thirty" cases of extrajudicial executions. The international press as well as Lebanese and other private sources suggested that the toll of executions was in the range of 240, including women, children, priests and other noncombatants. These reports also included allegations of looting and sexual abuse.
43 Senator Specter, a strong supporter of Israel, urged other Republic senators to talk to President Asad as well, according to sources in Senator Robert Dole's office. Senator Specter also wrote letters to several major newspapers, including the New York Times, urging more dialogue with Asad in the interest of the peace process.