SYRIA AND SYRIAN-CONTROLLED LEBANON
Human Rights Developments in Syria
During 1991, Syria took steps to improve its long dismal human rights record. In May, the government of President Hafez al-Asad released around 1,500 Palestinian detainees, and between November 28 and December 18, it pardoned over 3,500 Syrian political prisoners. It is too early to determine whether these releases mark a new trend, since Syria continues to hold without trial over 2,500 detainees _ some held since President Asad assumed power in November 1970.129
The Syrian government still denies the freedoms of expression and association to its twelve million citizens and puts severe restrictions on democratic participation in government. Despite recent gestures of political liberalization, real power remains in the hands of President Asad, who was confirmed for a fourth seven-year term (1992-99) by an officially reported 99.98 percent of the vote in a December 2 referendum in which he was the only candidate.
The government in 1991 succeeded in concluding two pacts with the Lebanese government of President Elias el-Hrawi that, in effect, recognize Syria's hegemony over Lebanon. Ostensibly limited to security and foreign-policy issues, the accords in practice give Syria the opportunity to restrict a range of human rights.
The state of emergency declared in Syria in March 1963 when the Baath Party first seized power and extended regularly thereafter gives Syrian security agencies free rein to arrest and detain suspected political opponents. Using a complicated web of martial-law regulations enacted under state-of-emergency powers, Syrian security forces have detained without trial thousands of prisoners, many of whom have been held in prolonged incommunicado detention. The scope of the state of emergency and martial law regulations was narrowed in 1990 and 1991 to permit the civilian courts to treat cases of embezzlement, smuggling, rations violations and other economic crimes as well as cases of official corruption _ offenses which previously would have elicited the death penalty for serious offenders. However, cases relating to "state security" are still governed by martial-law rules. State-security crimes are loosely defined to include speaking out critically about the regime or joining outlawed political organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Party for Communist Action (PCA). Entrusted with carrying out the government policy of stamping out dissent are a dozen secret-police organizations employing thousands of agents and informers throughout Syria and Lebanon.
The release in May of some 1,500 Palestinian detainees was apparently a result of the growing detente between the Syrian government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in preparation for the Middle East peace talks. During the first ten months of the year, a total of 182 Syrian political detainees _ 127 from the banned Party for Communist Action (PCA) and thirty from the Muslim Brotherhood _ were also released.
The pardon of 3,500 Syrian political detainees near the end of the year was unprecedented. In the last week of November, some seven hundred detainees were released, immediately before the December 2 popular referendum on President Asad's fourth term. According to preliminary reports received by Middle East Watch, those released included opponents of the Persian Gulf war detained earlier in the year, four Jews detained in 1990 and 1991 for trying to emigrate without permission, and other recent detainees. Among the released were over thirty women arrested between 1984 and 1987, including Mona al-Ahmar, Sana' Huwaijeh, Wafa' Idris, Zahra Kurdiyyeh, Rana Mahfouz, Lina al-Mir and engineer Hind al-Qahwaji.
On December 17, Muhammed Harba, Syria's minister of interior, announced that President Asad had pardoned 2,864 prisoners who had been detained "for acts committed against the state's security." Those pardoned were to be freed immediately. Diplomatic sources told Reuters that most of those pardoned were members of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood who had committed armed attacks against the state.130 Syrian officials contacted by Middle East Watch put the number pardoned at 2,826. They also confirmed that the pardoned included Muslim Brotherhood and PCA members. Among those released were artists and writers associated with PCA, including Ali Sabr Darwish, Qassi al-Jundi, Ali al-Shehabi, Mustafa Latheqani and Abdel-Hakim Qtaifan. Thirty leaders of the Popular Nasserist Organization, an opposition group, including lawyer Muhammed Dakkou, journalist Abdel-Karim Jabr, Dr. Khaled al-Nasser, Dr. Mahmoud al-Oryan, and engineers Badreddin Fattal and Ali Ghabshah, were also pardoned.
Senior officials of the pre-Asad regime _ some in detention for over twenty years _ were not included in the amnesty. For example, Ahmed al-Swaidani, a former leader of the ruling Baath Party, entered his twenty-third year in prison, while former Syrian President Nour el-Din al-Atasi and twelve of his ministers and senior supporters entered their twenty-first year in prison; none has been tried. In addition, dozens of long-term convicted political prisoners await release long after their sentences have expired. One is Mustafa Khalil Brayez, who was abducted in 1970 while in self-imposed exile in Lebanon and sentenced to fifteen years in prison for writing Suqut al-Jaulan (The Fall of the Golan Heights). The book blamed Hafez al-Asad, then minister of defense, for the military defeat at the hands of Israeli forces in June 1967. After Brayez's sentence expired in August 1985, his family lost contact with him and his whereabouts were unknown for several years. In November 1991, Middle East Watch received reports that he was being held in the general wing of al-Mezze prison in Damascus.
New political prisoners in 1991 include four members of the Workers Revolutionary Party and twenty-nine from the Arab Socialist Union Party (ASU). They were arrested even though the parties themselves are legal, apparently because they had distributed leaflets criticizing the Baath Party's monopoly of power. Among the ASU members arrested were Ahmed al-Khatib, a lawyer; his son, Tha'ir; and Najib al-Derdem, also a jurist. Hassan Isma`il Abdel Azim, a member of the ASU Politburo, was detained for two months during 1991 and then released. ASU publishing equipment was also confiscated.
With the Syrian government having joined the anti-Iraq alliance in the Persian Gulf conflict, scores of people were arrested and some detained for opposition to the Gulf war. In late January 1991, when fifty-three members of the Syrian Lawyers Association signed a statement criticizing the war, they were summoned before security officials and questioned, and some were arrested. The same fate befell fifty-two writers and artists who signed an anti-war protest.
Torture is routinely used in Syrian prisons to extract confessions. It is also used as a form of extrajudicial punishment that can be applied throughout a detainee's incarceration, leading to death or permanent injury in many cases. As in previous years, there were a number of deaths in custody, or soon after a prisoner's release from injuries believed to have been sustained while in prison. Jamal Hassino, a PCA member, was arrested in April 1990 as he was distributing leaflets protesting the death in detention of Khedher Jabar, another member of the party. Hassino was released in July 1991 but died a month later at the age of forty. Syrian human rights monitors believe that Hassino died as a result of severe torture received while in custody. Cases of death in custody in 1991 reported to Middle East Watch by Syrian human rights activists include those of Adnan Sa`ud, detained since September 1990, and Hussein Zaidan, who had been in prison since 1970. In neither case was an independent investigation conducted to determine the cause of death.
Reports from released prisoners describe unsanitary and overcrowded conditions in most Syrian prisons, with substandard food and bedding. It can take months, and even years, for the family of some political prisoners to be notified that their relative is in custody. Family visits are denied for many, especially those in military prisons. The largest and most notorious military prison is at Tadmur, where its 2,500 inmates are rarely allowed family visits. No improvement in these conditions was reported during the year.
Although the scope of political participation improved modestly during the year, as described below, the Syrian government's legendary ruthlessness in stamping out opposition continued to lead political opponents either to cease public adversarial political activity or to go into exile. Political opponents still remember the drastic actions taken by the Syrian government from 1980 to 1982 against the Muslim Brotherhood and the PCA. During the spring of 1981, after some Muslim Brotherhood elements were suspected of committing terrorist acts against government and party officials, security forces swept through the city of Hama, a stronghold of the Brotherhood, and killed hundreds of suspected members. When that did not end the Brotherhood's opposition, the Syrian army laid siege to the city in January and February 1982, and then shelled its residential neighborhoods. The historic downtown area was flattened, and other areas were similarly savaged. Approximately ten thousand residents are believed to have been killed and many more made homeless.
Members and sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood are still persecuted _ even though some of its influential leaders, mainly in the Aleppo branch, were permitted to issue public statements supporting the government's controversial stand in the Gulf war. During 1991, thirty people were known to have been arrested and accused of belonging to the Brotherhood. By December, about 2,500 were believed to be in Syrian prisons on suspicion of belonging to this organization.
As the second most significant opposition group, the PCA continued to encounter persecution, particularly of its grassroots members. During the year, 129 are known to have been arrested for alleged membership in the party, making a total of seven hundred party followers who are believed to remain in detention. Most PCA leaders, who were arrested in 1980 and 1981, are still being held.
The Syrian Ministry of Information owns and runs most of the media outlets, including all television and radio stations and most newspapers. The closely monitored media practice self-censorship to adhere closely to the prescribed government line. Syrian journalists and writers, most of whom are on the government payroll, are kept in line through a combination of threats and rewards. Books and films, whether published in Syria or abroad, are heavily censored.
Foreign reporters' access to Syria is extremely limited and, when allowed, tightly controlled. Over the past decade, intimidation has been used to censor the foreign press, including by assassinating a number of leading foreign journalists. Syrian agents are believed to have been behind the 1980 assassination of Riad Taha, president of the Lebanese Journalists Association; the 1981 killing of Selim al-Lawzi, editor-in-chief of al-Hawadeth (Events), a widely circulated conservative Lebanese weekly; and the 1985 murder of Michel al-Nimri, the Palestinian editor-in-chief of al-Nashra (The Bulletin), a pro-PLO monthly published in Greece. All three journalists were vocal critics of the Asad regime. Syria is also assumed to have been behind the 1985 abduction in Lebanon, and the subsequent death in captivity, of the French writer Michel Seurat, who gathered considerable evidence of Syrian human rights abuses.
A number of writers and journalists have been held without trial for many years. Mustafa Khalil Brayez, discussed above, has been in prison since 1970. Marwan Hamawi, former head of the official Syrian news agency, has been held since 1975 on suspicion of pro-Iraqi Baath sympathies. Anwar Badr, Ridha Haddad and `Imad Naddaf, all journalists previously with official media organs, are in detention for their alleged sympathy for the banned PCA.
During the Gulf war, as mentioned earlier, a group of writers critical of Syria's participation in the anti-Iraq alliance were questioned and some briefly detained. The government's reaction was remarkable only in that it was milder than its reactions to similar protests in the past, especially whenever sympathy to the rival Iraqi Baathist regime was suspected. Because of the controversial nature of Syria's decision to join the alliance, and President Asad's apparent awareness of the need to placate substantial public opposition to the U.S. stance in the Gulf war, the Syrian leader toured the country to defend his policies at public rallies.
Freedom of association traditionally has been severely limited in Syria. The government exercises tight control over the granting of operating permits for any organization. Professional groups, such as the lawyers and medical associations, have been terrorized by the security apparatus when they have voiced the mildest criticism of the regime.
However, changes for nonpolitical associations may be in the offing. In late 1991, the official Syrian press ran unprecedented calls for democratization of the trade unions and popular organizations. It remains to be seen whether these calls, expected to be taken up by the forthcoming Baath Party quadrennial meeting in early 1992, will lead to genuine freedom of operation for these associations. But the signals indicate a willingness to loosen controls.
Political life in Syria is highly restricted, with the Baath Party dominating virtually all institutions, including the country's tame parliament. With the exception of the parties that make up the National Progressive Front, political organizations are not allowed to operate legally in Syria. Of the twelve traditional opposition parties, the activities of only two minor parties are tolerated: the Arab Socialist Union and the Revolutionary Workers Party.131
In May 1990, in the most recent national elections for the People's Assembly, nine thousand candidates ran for office. But opposition parties were not allowed to field candidates and more than forty independent candidates were forced by the government to withdraw. Only the Baath Party, which is headed by President Asad, and its junior partners in the National Progressive Front were allowed to hold campaign rallies. The turnout was poor _ only forty percent of the eligible voters, according to official figures _ and the balloting was fraught with irregularities. Of the 250 seats contested, the Front won 166, including 134 by the Baath Party, guaranteeing that the People's Assembly would continue to be a rubber stamp for President Asad's policies.
These elections were nevertheless significant in that independents won eighty-four parliamentary seats _ an unprecedented one-third of the People's Assembly. It was also significant that the Baath Party gained barely half the seats, less than in any previous parliamentary election.
While these elections showed a limited official willingness to widen political representation, presidential elections remain mere formalities. On November 17, 1991, the People's Assembly unanimously approved President Asad, who was the only candidate, for a fourth seven-year term after his current term expires on February 29, 1992. Through a recent constitutional amendment approved at the behest of the ruling Baath Party, the election was moved forward from January 1992 to November 1991 to coincide with the anniversary of the 1970 coup that brought Asad to power.132
In the four presidential elections since Asad came to power in 1970, he won 99.2 percent of the vote in 1971, 99.6 percent in 1978, and 99.9 percent in 1985, according to official tallies; on December 2, 1991, the officially reported percentage in favor of ratifying a new presidential term for Asad was 99.98. In each election, Asad was the only candidate.
In a further indication of what may be a desire to open up the Syrian political process without a loss of actual power, President Asad alluded in a June speech to the need to "increase popular participation in political decision-making." This issue is on the agenda of both the Baath Party's forthcoming quadrennial meeting and the National Progressive Front's first-ever convention, both expected in early 1992. The Front, which is dominated by the Baath Party but includes a number of smaller parties, is reported also to be studying the possibility of expanding its membership by allowing new parties and independent individuals to join.
During 1991, without granting formal permission, the government appeared to tolerate the activity of two new small parties: the Arab Democratic Party (al-Hizb al-Democrati al-Arabi) and the National Solidarity Party (Hizb al-Tadhamun al-Watani). Their meetings were not disrupted and their members were able to distribute leaflets without adverse consequences. Both parties, which have announced their loyalty to President Asad, favor more economic liberalism and political pluralism than the Baath Party.
In preparation for the forthcoming Baath Party meeting, the official press has published proposals to enhance the role of the People's Assembly in scrutinizing government action and producing legislation. Toward the end of 1991, phrases such as "political pluralism," "parliamentary scrutiny" and "requirements of the changed circumstances" regularly appeared in the government-run media, indicating a degree of at least tacit official approval of these concepts. Another proposal would give permission to the minor parties of the National Progressive Front to publish their own newspapers.
Also scheduled for discussion before the Party meeting is a proposal for "energizing trade unions." Trade unions _ currently mere extensions of the formal government and Baath Party structure _ are being called upon to exercise internal democracy and to include in their ranks independents and members of parties other than the Baath and its Front partners. How far this process will be permitted to go, especially if the new blood challenges the ruling political orthodoxy, remains to be seen.
Although the Syrian government is not formally based on sectarian lines, most of the senior positions in the government, especially in the military and security fields, are dominated by members of the Alawi sect, a mainly Syrian-based offshoot of Islam that is close to the Shi`a branch. The Alawis constitute only twelve percent of the population; seventy-six percent of Syrians belong to the mainstream Sunni branch of Islam, with sizable Christian and Druze communities accounting for an additional eight and three percent. Most Syrians feel, with some justification, that Alawis, who for centuries had been an underclass, now enjoy undue influence and the fruits of a deliberate government policy of favoritism.
The largely Sunni Kurds, at eight percent, constitute the largest ethnic minority. For many years, Syria's 950,000 Kurds bore the brunt of the government's policy of "Arabization." Thousands were arbitrarily deprived of their Syrian citizenship in the 1960s, and many others were forcibly resettled in the 1970s and replaced by an "Arab belt" near Syria's northern border. While the resettlement policies have been discontinued, cultural expression by Kurds is limited to their villages. Political expression is tolerated only for Kurds opposed to the Iraqi and Turkish governments. In the 1990 elections, however, a significant number of Kurdish politicians were elected to the People's Assembly, for the first time in a generation. Among them was Hamid Haj Darwish, secretary of the Syrian branch of the Kurdish Democratic Party, the principal standard-bearer of Kurdish nationalism throughout the region.
The Jewish community, which has shrunk to less than four thousand, is subject to close surveillance, and its political activity and freedom of emigration are tightly restricted. In May 1991, Eli and Selim Swed, two Syrian Jewish brothers arrested in November 1987, were sentenced after a secret trial to six-and-a-half years in prison, including the years they had spent in detention prior to trial, for allegedly having visited Israel _ an illegal act under Syrian law.
On November 28, 1991, two Syrian Jewish citizens, Rahmoun Darwish and Joseph Sabato, were released. They had been held without trial since September 25, 1990, when they were arrested with their families as they were trying to flee Syria. Also, on November 28, Syrian Jewish brothers Subhe and Sa`id Kastika were released after being detained without trial since May 1, 1991 for trying to leave the country without permission. Their wives and children, who were arrested with them, were released in late May.
Human Rights Developments in Syrian-Controlled Lebanon
The Lebanese government, headed by President Elias el-Hrawi, was installed in November 1989. Until October 1990, however, it was forced to coexist with the rival government of General Michel Aoun, the Maronite army leader appointed prime minister by former President Amin Gemayel in the last hours of his administration. The rivalry between the two feeble governments in West and East Beirut marked the nadir of the long Lebanese descent into near anarchy that began with the outbreak of civil war in April 1975.
The fifteen-year civil war wreaked havoc on the once flourishing Lebanese civil society, destroying what had been the cultural center of the Arab world, a haven of free speech and coexistence between different ethnic and religious groups. Human rights values were a chief victim of the internecine fighting, which was epitomized by spates of hostage-taking, first among rival Lebanese factions and later from the Western expatriate community.
In June 1976, with at least tacit encouragement from the United States, Syria sent its army into Lebanon as part of Arab League efforts to stop the fighting and preserve the Maronite-dominated status quo. Since then, Syrian forces _ today some forty thousand _ have effectively controlled most of Lebanese territory. Their human rights practices in Lebanon mirror their government's behavior in Syria itself, although in recent years the record of violations in Syrian-controlled Lebanon has been worse than in Syria.
Syrian forces in Lebanon have detained without trial thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian opponents, close to 1,500 of whom are believed to remain in prison. Many are known to have been transferred to Syrian prisons, in violation of international law prohibiting their transfer outside occupied territory.133 Syria has never allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross or any other independent organization to visit its detention centers. Neither has it provided any accounting of those detained by its forces.
During 1991, Lebanon took significant steps toward restoring normal life. Most government agencies resumed operation and the parliament met regularly after the appointment of forty new deputies in June to fill vacancies.134 Although the Lebanese government has yet to re-establish effective control outside the perimeter of Beirut, it has sanctioned Syria's close involvement in Lebanese affairs through three major documents: the October 1989 Ta'if Accord, the May 1991 Lebanese-Syrian Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination Treaty, and the September 1991 Lebanese-Syrian Security Agreement.
On October 16, 1991, the Security Agreement was endorsed at the first meeting of the newly formed Lebanese-Syrian Higher Council. The Council is headed by the presidents of the two countries and includes the highest officials of each government. In implementing the Ta'if Accord, the bulk of Syrian forces are scheduled to be redeployed outside Greater Beirut, where most of Lebanon's population is concentrated, before the end of 1991. But as of early December, the redeployment had not taken place. Even if it occurs, the redeployment is not expected to diminish Syrian influence on security matters in Lebanon, including in the Beirut area.
In October 1990, Syrian forces and a pro-Syrian Maronite militia led by Eli Hobeika took joint action against rebel General Michel Aoun. In retaliation for alleged unwarranted killings by Aoun's forces of Syrian troops involved in the retaking of Aoun's last stronghold, scores of his supporters were executed on the spot and others left to die. Both the Syrian and Lebanese governments continue to refuse to investigate the circumstances of these killings, and have stymied family efforts to obtain independent verification of the causes of death.
Michel Aoun took refuge in the French Embassy on October 13, 1990 and was allowed to leave for France on August 29, 1991, two days after the Lebanese government granted him a conditional pardon. Two of his close aides, `Isam Abu Jamra and Edgar Ma`louf, were also pardoned. However, during much of 1991 suspected Aoun supporters were regularly rounded up by Lebanese security forces, aided, according to Lebanese sources, by Syrian intelligence officers. In late July, about forty were arrested in Kesrouan, north of Beirut, following the distribution of leaflets supporting Aoun and criticizing President Hrawi and the Maronite patriarch. Also in late July, other arrests of some twelve people accused of distributing illegally produced Lebanese banknotes carrying pictures of the ousted general took place in the port city of Jounieh. On August 1, a further fifty-eight Aoun supporters were arrested as they held a demonstration in Ashqout. There have been credible reports from their families that those detained have been tortured; the families also complain that the prisoners have been denied legal counsel and family visiting rights.
On August 26, 1991, the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies, Lebanon's parliament, approved a controversial amnesty for crimes committed during the civil war. The amnesty applies to all crimes committed before March 28, 1991, except for massacres and assassinations or attempted assassinations of political leaders, religious figures and diplomats. The amnesty thus absolves all those responsible for a range of killing, torture, hostage-taking and other abuses.
In addition to Aoun supporters, Syria still detains close to 1,400 other Lebanese and Palestinian residents of Lebanon. The Lebanese government has failed to press publicly for their release or trial under Lebanese law.
Syrian forces in Lebanon have been implicated in the murder of a number of Lebanese leaders and journalists who dared to challenge Syria's policies. These forces used kidnapping and assassination to silence critics _ with considerable success. A dozen highly publicized assassinations of prominent politicians, journalists and scholars who spoke critically of the Asad regime took place between 1972 and 1989. In May 1989, Subhi al-Saleh, an independent and widely respected Lebanese Muslim scholar, was reportedly killed by Syrian agents, apparently because of his support for the reunification of a Lebanon independent of Syria. As a result of this terror campaign, the Lebanese press, once the least restrained in the Arab world, has been forced to toe a Syrian-drawn line, leave Syrian-controlled Lebanon, or cease functioning.
During 1991, the Lebanese government did Syria's bidding by exerting pressure on the local press to refrain from criticizing Syria. In September, Maurice Khawwam, Lebanon's chief public prosecutor, sent a letter to the Lebanese Journalists Association giving notice of the prosecutor's intention to reactivate restrictive press laws. Khawwam reminded journalists:
[O]ne of the forbidden topics explicitly banned in Legislative Decree No. 104 of June 3, 1977 is the critical discussion of the president of the Lebanese Republic or of presidents of foreign countries. Such criticism has caused Lebanon in the past many negative repercussions which we want to avoid repeating. I especially would like to draw your attention to Article 23 of Decree 104, which stipulates that 'Should a publication critically discuss the person of the president of a foreign country, the public prosecutor shall initiate prosecution even when there is no complaint from the aggrieved party.'
The public prosecutor served notice on the editors that he intended to prosecute violators vigorously. It was widely understood by journalists that the main object of this directive was to stop criticism of Syrian policies in Lebanon.
The recently signed, but still officially secret, Lebanese-Syrian Security Agreement stipulates a ban on "all military, security, political and media activity that might harm" either country, according to texts published in Lebanese newspapers. The agreement also reportedly requires both countries to "refuse to give refuge to, facilitate the passage of, or provide protection to persons and organizations that work against the other state's security." These terms may be intended primarily to prevent Syrian exiles from operating in Lebanon. The ban on "political and media activity" provides additional legal cover for the de facto ban that Syria has enforced in most of Lebanon since 1976 on political opposition to Syria.
Parliamentary elections in Lebanon were last held in 1972, prior to the outbreak of the civil war. Between 1972 and 1991, the Chamber of Deputies lost thirty-one of its ninety-nine members, mostly to natural causes. On June 6, 1991, the Lebanese government filled these vacancies. It also appointed nine additional deputies to occupy the seats created by the Ta'if Accord of 1989, to redress the imbalance between Christians and Muslims in the sectarian-based allocation of seats. The total number of seats was increased from 99 to 108, divided equally between Christians and Muslims, instead of the old five-to-four Christian-to-Muslim ratio. However, the accord left intact the traditional sectarian division of government employment, which in the past led to charges of discrimination against the smaller of the fourteen recognized sects.
Although no date has been set, the Lebanese government has promised new elections in the summer of 1992. The conduct of these elections will be an important indicator of Lebanon's (and Syria's) commitment to democracy in Lebanon.
Stateless residents of Lebanon _ the Wadi Khaled Arabs in northern Lebanon, the Maslakh Arabs of Beirut and long-term Kurdish residents of Lebanon _ are denied Lebanese citizenship and the rights and privileges deriving from citizenship, such as the right of political participation and the right to freedom of travel, as well as authorization to seek employment without a work permit. In the past, successive Lebanese governments promised to resolve the legal limbo of the stateless in Lebanon but nothing transpired. In a positive development, on July 3, 1991, the Lebanese government abolished a 1983 regulation forbidding non-Lebanese from working in fifty-one specified trades.
Most Palestinians in Lebanon came as refugees displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948. Prior to the Lebanese civil war, they were treated as foreign residents for the purpose of employment and other aspects of their lives. In addition, their movement was restricted and they were subjected to arbitrary arrest and intimidation by Lebanese security forces.
As the Lebanese government prepares to reassert its control over all of Lebanon, the Palestinian community is justifiably concerned about a return to pre-civil war practices. Despite promises by the Lebanese government to improve Palestinian access to employment and to form a Lebanese-Palestinian committee to study other civil rights, the 300,000-strong Palestinian community in Lebanon is apprehensive about the future. The heavy-handed manner in which the Lebanese army wrested control, in early July, of Palestinian-dominated areas of southern Lebanon around Sidon and Tyre, where large refugee camps are controlled by Palestinian armed factions, resulted in fifty-two killed, 184 wounded, and 574 Palestinians taken prisoner during three days of fighting; most of these appear to have been combatants.
Most Palestinians arrested during the Lebanese army's takeover of the south have been released, but that only partially reassured the Palestinian community. On July 30, Palestinian representatives met Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karameh and Speaker of the Parliament Hussein al-Husseini. Meetings with other senior officials followed on August 16 but have yet to produce a consensus on Palestinian civil rights in Lebanon. As a result, the potential for conflict between the Palestinian community and the Lebanese army, backed by Syria, remains high.
The fifteen-year civil war led to the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese, many of whom are now trying to re-establish themselves in Lebanon. The war also caused the internal displacement of more than 200,000 persons, as Lebanese of different sects left their homes to avoid collective retaliation. Christian families fled Muslim-dominated areas such as Damour, south of Beirut, and mountainous villages in the Druze-dominated southern Shouf region. Muslims fled the suburbs of East Beirut and other Maronite-dominated areas. Muslims also fled southern villages in Israel's self-declared security zone and the surrounding areas. Return of the displaced persons to their previous homes is hampered by the still-shaky truce among the different militias, and the seemingly low priority given to this matter by the Lebanese and Syrian governments.
The Right to Monitor
On December 10, 1989, an independent group, Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria, was established. While it has been able to operate active branches in Paris and Geneva, the group has had to maintain a clandestine presence in Syria itself. Since April 1990, it has published a regular Arabic-language bulletin, Saut al-Democratiyya (Voice of Democracy).
There are also a number of external organizations that monitor human rights of specific groups in Syria, such as Kurds and Jews. There are also monitoring committees specializing in prisoners of particular political groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Party of Communist Action, and the Baath Party-Iraq Branch, as well as Palestinian prisoners. All of these groups are based outside the country, as the Syrian government does not permit the open operation of any human rights organization.
Although Syria has ratified several key human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it does not allow independent monitoring of its compliance with these instruments. Similarly, although it has signed the four Geneva Conventions, it does not allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit its Lebanese and Palestinian detainees captured in Lebanon.
Independent Lebanese human rights groups usually operate outside the country for fear of almost-certain Syrian retribution. A center for human rights, which prefers not to publicize its identity, is based at one of Lebanon's universities but has had to conduct most of its activities abroad. Another group, Lebanon Information Processing Service, gathers and distributes information on Lebanon through a monthly bulletin, paying particular attention to humanitarian and human rights issues; it is based in London to maintain its freedom of operation. The Council of Lebanese American Organizations, based in the United States, represents those loyal to ousted General Michel Aoun and reports on human rights abuses by Syrian forces in Lebanon from a Maronite viewpoint.
Middle East Watch's repeated efforts to visit Syria or to solicit information from the Syrian government have been met by a wall of silence. As a result, most of Middle East Watch's reporting on Syria has been based on exile testimony and on an unofficial visit to the country.
U.S. policy toward Syria in 1991 appeared driven by three overriding factors. Paramount during the first two months of the year was the goal of maintaining the alliance formed the previous fall to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. For the rest of the year, U.S. policy was principally guided by the goals of assuring Syria's participation in the Middle East peace process and securing the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. In working toward these three goals, U.S. officials refrained from voicing public criticism of most human rights violations by the Syrian government, whether in Syria or in Lebanon.
U.S.-Syrian relations have improved considerably under the Bush Administration. The two governments worked closely in Lebanon, both in opposing General Michel Aoun's rebellion and supporting the Ta'if Accord concluded in October 1989 to settle the Lebanese civil war. They also supported the presidential candidacy of René Mou`awwadh and, after he was assassinated, the candidacy and presidency of Elias el-Hrawi. U.S. support _ against the wishes of its allies France and Israel _ was key in garnering international recognition of the Syrian-backed Hrawi government.
Syria's decision to join the anti-Iraq military coalition further improved bilateral relations. In November 1990, to consolidate the new alliance, President Bush met in Damascus with President Asad, the Syrian leader's first meeting with a U.S. president since 1977. In addition to committing its forces to fight alongside U.S. troops, hitherto unthinkable, Syria helped to convince its ally Iran to remain on the sidelines of the conflict.
Syrian cooperation with the United States in the release of Western hostages held in Lebanon was acknowledged by U.S. officials throughout the year. In a September 19 press conference in Damascus held jointly by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara`, the only human rights issue mentioned by either official was the release of Western hostages. According to Secretary Baker, "President Hafez al-Asad pointed out that he and the Syrian government will do their best to help obtain the release of the hostages without conditions. He will keep us informed in case of any developments." This cooperation was crowned with the release of Terry Anderson, the last American hostage, on December 4, 1991. During none of Secretary Baker's seven visits to Damascus in 1991 did he comment publicly on any human right violations by the Syrian government.135
In an apparent indication of the Bush Administration's desire not to upset relations with Syria, the Syrian government has been cleared, for the time being at least, of involvement in the bombing in 1988 of the Pan Am passenger plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270. Until the indictment of two Libyan intelligence officers in connection with the bombing, Syria had been deemed the state most likely to have been responsible. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), led by former Syrian army officer Ahmed Jibril, was the main suspect named by British and German investigators. The PFLP-GC is based in Damascus and has many of its facilities in Syria and the Syrian-controlled parts of Lebanon. It also has close ties to the Iranian government. The Asad government has consistently rebuffed U.S. efforts to secure the closure of the PFLP-GC's bases, which the U.S. government regards as terrorist training facilities. According to Syria, the organization is engaged in legitimate military activity against Israel.
In May 1991, Morris Busby, a counterterrorism adviser to Secretary Baker, led a high-level delegation to Syria to discuss "the general question of terrorism." Despite press speculation that Syria may be dropped from the U.S. list of states supporting terrorism, it remains on the list along with Cuba, Iran, Libya and North Korea. In September, a U.S. State Department official told Middle East Watch that the United States and Syria have "great differences on the issue of terrorism," explaining that the Syrian government "has kept the entire terrorism structure intact both in Syria and in the areas under its control in Lebanon." In a November 20 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, Edward Djerejian, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, said that the United States was not planning to remove Syria from the list of terrorist nations.
The Bush Administration's quiet but assiduous cultivation of President Asad gained a considerable reward when Syria agreed to attend the U.S.- and Soviet-convened Middle East peace conference, which opened in Madrid on October 30. In the November 20 House subcommittee hearing, Secretary Djerejian made clear that this goal had been paramount in the Administration's policy toward Syria. His lengthy opening statement outlining U.S. priorities in the region made no mention of human rights.
Responding to questions raised during the hearing _ his first since he became assistant secretary after years as ambassador to Syria _ Secretary Djerejian said that the Administration's "level-headed" approach to Syria had been based on asking the "fundamental questions." These, he spelled out, were: "Do we have any mutuality of interests in the Gulf? Do we have any mutuality of interests in Lebanon? Do we have any mutuality of interests in the Arab-Israeli peace process?" As a result of this pragmatic approach, he said, three things were achieved: the signing of the Ta'if agreement, Syria's joining the U.S. alliance in the Gulf, and Syrian attendance at the Madrid Middle East peace conference. In answer to a question, Secretary Djerejian also mentioned that the United States had obtained a commitment from the Syrian government to permit family reunification by easing travel restrictions for its Jewish citizens.
Syria reaped significant benefits from its role in the Gulf crisis. It was able to crush the rebellion of General Aoun in October 1990, and impose its choice of government in Lebanon, without censure from the United States for the excessive loss of life that occurred. Syria also received substantial economic aid from U.S. allies in Western Europe, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
In April 1991, Saudi Arabia agreed to finance a $1 billion arms package to provide Syria with advanced Scud-C missiles, SU-24 fighter planes, M-9 missiles and T-72 tanks from a number of sources including China, Czechoslovakia, North Korea and the Soviet Union. U.S. pressure on Czechoslovakia to back down from the deal prompted the official Syrian press to criticize the United States in terms not heard since the formation of the alliance between the two countries during the Gulf crisis. Despite the reported U.S. pressure, Czechoslovakia in May reiterated its intention to go ahead with the deal.
There are also indications that U.S.-Syrian trade was encouraged by the improved atmosphere. In April 1991, it was announced that Baxter International, a large U.S. medical-supply company, had reached agreement with Syria to build a pharmaceutical plant to supply the Syrian armed forces' hospitals with intravenous solutions.
Demands by U.S. labor groups to deny Syria trade privileges under the General System of Preferences (GSP) have yet to produce results. Since 1988, the AFL-CIO has petitioned the U.S. trade representative under Sections 502 and 504 of the U.S. Trade Act of 1974 to remove Syria from the list of GSP-eligible countries for its failure to adhere to minimum worker-rights standards and because of its links with terrorism. In April 1991, in response to the AFL-CIO's 1990 petition, the White House ordered a review of Syria's eligibility. Two months later, U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills ruled in Syria's favor, the fourth consecutive rejection of the AFL-CIO's petition.
Since 1989, the United States has intensified its pressure on the Syrian government to curtail drug trafficking from Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon in which Syrian army officers have been implicated. In 1991, these efforts included an August visit by a congressional delegation led by Representative Charles Rangel to discuss the problem of drug trafficking. A State Department official told Middle East Watch that until Syria cracked down on the drug trade, there would not be any U.S. aid or multilateral loans to Syria, meaning that the United States would use its influence or its veto to block loans to Syria by international lending agencies. Probably as a result of these pressures, the Syrian authorities made several announcements during the year of major drug raids in Lebanon and the confiscation of drugs smuggled from Lebanon into Syria. On September 2, Syrian and Lebanese troops conducted a concerted operation to destroy hashish plantations in the western Beqa` valley.
The Work of Middle East Watch
Following the release of its major September 1990 report, Human Rights in Syria, which documented human rights violations in Syria under the Asad regime, Middle East Watch continued to monitor the observance of human rights in Syria and Syrian-controlled Lebanon. In September 1991, Yale University Press published an updated version of the report under the title, Syria Unmasked: the Suppression of Human Rights by the Asad Regime.
In October 1991, Middle East Watch sent a letter to Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam asking for clarification of the case of Eli and Selim Swed, the two Syrian Jewish brothers who were convicted and sentenced in a secret trial to six-and-a-half years in prison for reportedly traveling to Israel.
On October 28, Middle East Watch released a newsletter, "The Madrid Peace Conference: The Human Rights Record of the Principal Regional Parties," which included chapters on Syria and Lebanon. The newsletter documented human rights abuses by the conference participants and called on them to include a discussion of human rights in their bilateral negotiations.
During the conference, Middle East Watch representatives contacted various delegates to impress on them the importance of human rights as an element of the peace process. An informal meeting was held with members of the Syrian delegation, including Nusrat Haider, head of the Constitutional Court, the country's top judicial official, who offered to discuss Syria's legal system with Middle East Watch representatives if they came to Syria.
Despite this invitation, it was unclear whether visa approval would be granted to a Middle East Watch mission to enter the country. By the end of 1991, there had been no opportunity to test the offer. However, on July 18, Middle East Watch had written to Ambassador Waled al-Moualem in Washington asking permission to conduct a mission later in the year; no reply was ever received, just as no reply was given to earlier attempts to contact the Syrian government during research for our September 1990 report.
During 1991, Middle East Watch worked closely with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists to help secure the release of the Western hostages being held in Lebanon and of all other detainees being held outside the framework of law. Regular meetings were held on the subject with U.S. officials and with Washington- and New York-based foreign diplomats; the subject was also raised in meetings in Tehran with senior Foreign Ministry officials. An opinion article was published in The New York Times in July calling for all illegally held detainees in Lebanon to be put on the same footing in the carefully orchestrated package deal then being worked out with all parties to the hostage affair by U.N. Secretary-General Javiér Perez de Cuellar.
On December 5, Middle East Watch issued a public statement welcoming the release of Terry Anderson, the last American hostage held in Lebanon. The statement called for the release of all Lebanese (and Palestinian residents of Lebanon) being held illegally by Syria and Israel. It called on Syria and Israel to allow immediate visits to all detainees by family members and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Middle East Watch also called on the Hrawi government to establish a tracing agency for the thousands who disappeared during the Lebanese civil war and are still missing.
Middle East Watch's estimate of the number of political prisoners held in Syria is conservative. In its annual report issued on December 13, the major Syrian human rights group, Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights, put the number of political detainees at 14,000, over and above an estimated 3,000 suspected dissidents who disappeared without trace.
Reuters, December 17, 1991; Associated Press, December 17, 1991; the official Syrian Arab News Agency, December 17, 1991.
Although the two parties are allowed to operate, thirty-three of their members are known to have been arrested in 1991 for distributing documents critical of the ruling Baath Party.
Syria's 1973 constitution mandates holding a presidential election every seven years but no earlier than sixty days before the expiration of the president's term. Since Asad's current term ends on February 29, 1992, elections would have to have been held after January 1. The constitutional amendment allowed holding a new election within 120 days of the end of the previous term, making it possible to hold the election on November 17, 1991.
See Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which both Lebanon and Syria have ratified.
The Lebanese government is acutely strapped for the funds needed to resume normal operations. In August 1991, it announced that its new budget of LL 1,153 billion (the equivalent of $1.28 billion) will have a projected deficit of sixty-two percent.
According to a report in the French daily Libération, U.S. officials provided the Syrian government with a list of 1,900 political prisoners and requested their release. (Daniel le Gac, "Le dilemma du général Assad," November 7, 1991) But State Department officials contacted by Middle East Watch denied the report. They did confirm that the issue of political prisoners was raised by the United States in a formal démarche, in which a small number of long-term prisoners were named.