The Multiparty System: Country Studies — Syria

 Syria Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Not Free. Freedom Ranking: 7; Political Rights: 7; Civil Liberties 7.



The territory of Syria was a central pathway of ancient civilizations. It was conquered by Hittite, Persian, Greek, and Roman armies and subsequently was ruled by Persian, Arab, Turkic, Mongol, and Ottoman empires. In the modern era, Syria was under French administration through a League of Nations mandate until it gained independence in 1944. Since a 1963 coup brought the Arab Socialist Ba'ath (Renaissance) Party to power, Syria has been among the most repressive countries in the world. In response to a peaceful protest movement in 2011 arising from the Arab Spring, state security forces acted with brutal force, provoking an armed uprising against the rule of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. In this conflict, the military and police have used indiscriminate force against civilians in fighting with guerilla armies, which have also violated laws of war. According to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, 470,000 people have died as a result of the war, more than three million people have gone into exile, and 6.5 million people are internally displaced, mostly by actions of the government but also due to those of armed fighters, especially those of the Islamic State, which seized significant territory. Many of the country’s cities and much of its ancient heritage has been destroyed. Tens of thousands have been imprisoned and subjected to brutality and torture. A U.N. investigation confirmed that the regime used chemical weapons in 2013 in attacking a rebel-held Damascus suburb; other chemical weapons attacks have been reported. Rebel armies initially seized significant territories, but the Syrian armed forces, now aided by Russian military intervention, reestablished military control over much of Syria by the end of 2015 and early 2016. 

Since 1963, elections have been controlled by the Ba’ath party; no other parties have competed for power. The government fully dominates political, social, and economic life. Freedoms of speech, assembly, and association are sharply curtailed. Military and security forces have repressed all dissent. Freedom House has consistently ranked Syria as “not free,” among the world’s worst dictatorships. Transparency International ranks Syria among the most corrupt countries (173rd out of 176 countries). 

Syria, the 89th largest country in the world by area (186 million square miles), borders Turkey to the North, Iraq to the East, and Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel to the west and south. The official population estimate in 2016 was 18.5 million people (a decline of 4 million since 2012), with 75 percent classified as Sunni Muslim, 13 percent Shi’a (largely Alawite), 10 percent Christian, and 3 percent Druze (a minority Arab group with polyconfessional beliefs). Ethnic Kurds, ten percent of the population, are counted among Sunni Muslims. In 2010, before the uprising, the IMF ranked Syria 110th out of 180 countries and territories in GDP per capita (about $5,200 per annum). From this time, the economic situation has deteriorated markedly. 


Early History 

Syria's capital, Damascus, is the world’s oldest known continuously inhabited city, dating to the fourth millennium BC. Home to a long succession of ancient city-states and empires, Syria stood at the crossroads of civilizations based in Egypt, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia. The Persians, coming from farther east in what is now Iran, conquered the entire region in the sixth century BC. Two centuries later, they were displaced by Alexander the Great and his successors.'s capital, Damascus, is the oldest known continuously inhabited city, dating to the fourth millennium BC.

The Romans took control of Syria in the first century BC. The Arab conquest in the seventh century AD led to the population’s conversion to Islam. Damascus served as the capital of the Muslim world in its first century, under the Umayyad caliphate, but it lost prominence when the Baghdad-based Abbasid caliphate was established in AD 750. The region experienced periods of both prosperity and disorder over the following centuries, including migrations of Turks from Central Asia, Christian and Mongol invasions, and Egyptian domination. The Turkish Ottoman Empire conquered Syria in 1516 and maintained at least nominal control over the territory until 1918.  

Colonialism and Dictatorship

Syria's modern history begins after the final fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Prince Faisal of the Hashemite family, had led British-backed Arab forces out of the Arabian Peninsula in fighting Ottoman troops during the war. His forces entered Damascus in 1918 and soon established an Arab kingdom there, even as French troops occupied the coast. Against the will of Arab nationalists, the League of Nations in 1920 established mandates dividing the entire region between Great Britain (controlling Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq) and France (controlling Syria and Lebanon). France squelched Faisal's new state in Syria (the United Kingdom later made Faisal king of Iraq and his brother the ruler of Jordan). Nationalist unrest continued, however, and French officials took grudging steps toward granting Syrian independence. 

When France fell to Nazi Germany in 1940, Syria came under the administration of the collaborationist Vichy regime but then was captured by British and Free French forces in 1941. After holding elections in 1943, Syria received international recognition as an independent republic in 1944 and joined the United Nations in 1945. French forces fully evacuated the next year. Unstable civilian rule and defeat on the battlefield in 1948 by the new state of Israel led to a series of military coups in 1949, 1951, and 1954. As part of the pan-Arab movement, Syria joined Egypt in 1958 to form the United Arab Republic. In part, this was done to suppress the growing influence of the Syrian Communist Party. However, Syrian leaders chafed under the domination of Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser and the country withdrew from the UAR in 1961 to form a new Syrian Arab Republic. Syria aligned itself with the Soviet Union as opposed to its former colonial powers, France and Great Britain, which were seen as sponsors of Israel, with which Syria remained in a state of war. The post-Soviet Russian Federation continues to be one of Syria’s main allies in the region. 

The Ba'ath Coup and the Assad Family Dynasty

After Syrian independence was re-established in 1961, another series of coups ended in 1963 with the Ba'ath Party, which espoused Arab nationalism and socialism, restored to power. (The Ba'ath Party in Iraq came to power a month earlier, but the two Ba’ath branches did not cooperate.) Assad ended the pattern of frequent coups that had roiled the country since independence by ruthlessly suppressing political dissent. . . .

Minister of Defense Hafez al-Assad seized power following the country's defeat in the 1967 war with Israel (which seized the strategic Golan Heights from Syria) and a subsequent disastrous military intervention against the King of Jordan in 1970. Assad appeared to represent an ideologically moderate Ba'ath faction based in his own minority Alawite sect, a mystical branch of Shi’a Islam. Remaining in power thirty years until his death in 2000, Assad ended the pattern of frequent coups that had roiled the country since independence by ruthlessly suppressing political dissent. The most significant challenge to his rule was an Islamist uprising by Sunni adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in 1982, which Assad put down with a fierce military attack that left an estimated 20,000 people dead. In a dynastic succession, Bashar al-Assad, the middle son of Hafez, replaced his late father as president in 2000. (Bashar’s younger brother, Maher, is commander of Syria’s Republican Guard; the eldest brother died in a car accident.)

Syrian Intervention and Regional Alliances

Ba'athist Syria positioned itself as the champion of Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause against Israel. Syria was a major participant in all the Arab-Israeli wars against Israel (1948, 1967, and 1973) and under the Ba’athist regime it hosted a number of Palestinian militant and terrorist organizations on its territory. When Syria backed non-Arab Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, however, it harmed its relations with other Arab states and its standing as an Arab leader. Iran’s government continues to be a key ally of Syria’s Shi’ite leadership. Before the recent uprising, Syria had secret peace talks with Israel about the return of the Golan Heights, but these broke down after being publicized.

Syria’s main interest in the region has been neighboring Lebanon. In 1976, Syria intervened in Lebanon’s civil war, which had broken out among ethnic and religious factions the year before. Over the next three decades, even after the fighting had subsided, Syria’s troops and intelligence agents remained in the country and Damascus dominated Lebanon’s politics and economy. During this time, Syria supported the buildup of Hezbollah, a Shi’ite terrorist organization that arose after Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982 (see Country Study of Israel). Syria was pressured to withdraw its forces from Lebanon in 2005 due to the international and Lebanese outcry over involvement by Syria’s intelligence services in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, a Sunni Muslim politician who opposed the Syrian occupation. Syria has continued to interfere in Lebanese politics through Hezbollah, which was also implicated in the Hariri assassination but nevertheless took part in forming subsequent governments. Hezbollah forces are currently fighting in Syria against rebel forces.

Hafez al-Assad portrayed on a roadside billboard

Multiparty System 

There is no functioning multiparty system in Syria. In the 250-seat unicameral parliament, the Ba'ath Party leads the National Progressive Front, which includes several loyal leftist parties. Any lawmakers not in the Front are "independents" who have been carefully vetted by the authorities. Elections were formally held in 2012 but boycotted by the opposition, resulting in 173 members from the Front (166 from the Ba’ath party) and 77 so-called independents. Power is concentrated in the hands of the president. Previously, the president was nominated to a seven-year term by the Ba'ath Party leadership and formally approved by the parliament before being confirmed in a referendum that lacked any other candidates. Changes made to the constitution in 2012 introduced the limited possibility for competition in direct elections and a two-term limit. Bashar al Assad ignored the term-limit rule in order to for a third term in 2014, which he won overwhelmingly with only token opposition. The 1973 constitution explicitly established the Ba'ath Party as the "leading party in the society and the state," a position similar to that of the Communist Party in the constitution of the former Soviet Union. Criticism of the government or suspected disloyalty brings quick reprisals, including arrest, torture, and murder. Control is maintained through an elaborate internal security network incorporating police, intelligence, and military forces and a network of civilian agents. 

Individual advancement through the ranks of the party, government, and military has depended on loyalty and personal connections. Hafez al-Assad favored members of his Alawite sect, a mystical Shi’a group making up 12 percent of the population. This practice has been continued by Bashar, although he is also allied with several Sunni groups that receive patronage. 

The Assad Succession 

At first, the succession of Bashar al-Assad to power brought some hope of change. In his first six months in office in 2000, al-Assad ordered the release of 600 political prisoners, allowed relatively open public discussion and dialogue, and took some initial steps at reform. It was a period some referred to as “the Damascus Spring.” But it ended quickly with al-Assad ordering renewed repression and arrests of many of those he had encouraged to speak up for reform. A small number of activists continued to challenge the regime internally by defending human rights and building civic networks, but many activists emigrated to oppose the regime from abroad. Thereafter, al-Assad reinforced the state’s repressive apparatus and maintained the minority Alawites’ control over police, security, and other government functions. Internationally, he resisted the U.N.’s investigation into the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri in 2005 (see above). Syria continued to interfere in Lebanon’s internal affairs and arm the militant Hezbollah Shi’ite movement. [The Damascus Spring] ended quickly with al-Assad ordering renewed repression and arrests of many of those who he had encouraged to voice support for reform and democracy.

The Arab Spring Uprising, Assad’s Crackdown, and the Civil War

Following popular pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern countries in late 2010 and early 2011, Bashar al-Assad hinted at making mild changes to the constitution. When no action was taken, large numbers of people took to the streets in March 2011 in pro-democracy protests in Damascus and the city of Deraa to demand the release of political prisoners and a new constitution. Al-Assad ordered tanks and soldiers to put down the protests in Deraa and authorized police to fire on protesters in Damascus. Subsequent protests in Damascus and other cities were mostly met with brute force, although some protests were so massive that the government allowed them to take place without attack. In June 2011, claiming that armed attacks on security forces had killed 120 soldiers, al-Assad, announced an all-out war on the opposition. The government began military actions in the northwest city of Jisr al-Sigur followed by attacks on other cities where a new Free Syrian Army, made up of government deserters and volunteers, emerged. In October 2011, the Syrian National Council was formed made up of moderate and mostly secular domestic and exile groups to coordinate opposition actions to the regime. The Syrian government cracked down on all dissent, while the military stepped up attacks on major cities where rebels were active, such as Homs, killing indiscriminately and firing without regard to civilians or historical sites.

Current Issues

On August 21, 2013, chemical weapons were used in an attack on rebel-controlled areas on the outskirts of Damascus, killing up to 1,400 civilians, many of them women and children. The use of chemical weapons in the attack was confirmed by a U.N. weapons inspectors’ report issued a month later (see Resources). Chemical weapons use in the Syrian conflict had been reported previously, but not confirmed. The August 21 attack prompted the threat of military force by US President Obama, who had previously stated he would act to stop the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. A U.S. air strike was forestalled by an agreement reached with the Russian Federation and the Syrian government to surrender and eliminate all chemical weapons stockpiles by Syria (reported to be third largest in the world). The Syrian government also agreed to sign the international treaty banning chemical weapons. UN inspectors confirmed that the Assad government generally complied with the terms of the U.S.-Russia agreement, but there have continued to be unconfirmed reports of the use of chemical weapons.

At the outset of the civil war, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) showed surprising durability and strength. It withstood heavy assaults by Syrian government troops, tanks, artillery, and planes to keep hold of key cities and areas. Most of the FSA’s leaders joined with other groups in exile to form an opposition alliance called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC), headquartered in Turkey and recognized by some foreign governments as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Its aim was to negotiate an end to the Assad regime and to establish a democratic government. The stability of the SOC, however, was difficult to maintain amid leadership changes and an inability to extend its authority to govern rebel-held territories. The SOC lost control over more extremist groups within the armed uprising that rapidly grew in strength. By mid-2014, the Syrian government reestablished military control over much of the country, but rebel forces maintained hold of key areas.

The extremist groups, mostly tied to the al Qaeda terrorist network, formally broke from the National Coalition in 2014 to form a rebel alliance committed to establishing a caliphate in Greater Syria. These forces also committed brutality against civilians (carrying out beheadings and amputations) and often battled with the secular FSA rather than the Syrian army. In June 2014, the largest and most extreme group, the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS), suddenly expanded its holdings in eastern Syria to occupy significant Sunni-populated territories in Iraq. Having separated from al Qaeda, ISIS declared itself the ruler of a new Sunni caliphate called the Islamic State and carried out multiple atrocities against both Iraqis and Syrians. It especially targeted Shi’a, Yazidi, and Kurdish minorities as well as Sunnis violating its strict Islamic laws. In response to the atrocities and the threat to the stability of Iraq, the US organized a coalition of NATO and Middle Eastern countries to carry out sustained air strikes against the Islamic State and also increased its assistance to Iraq’s military and less extreme rebel forces in Syria. The al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front has nominally rejoined the secular opposition for purposes of international negotiations but continues attacks on the FSA. The Islamic State, while losing 40 percent of its territory since the US-led military campaign against it was launched, has expanded terror operations to other countries and carried out multiple terrorist attacks in France, the US, Turkey, and Egypt.

President Bashar al-Assad has refused to resign and has defied all international initiatives to bring an end to the violence even as the death toll and other impacts from his government’s military actions mounted. Despite a two-term limit established in a revised 2012 constitution, he insisted on obtaining a third term as president in early June 2014 “elections,” which were fully controlled and had only token opposition. Syria’s allies, Russia and China, prevented stronger international sanctions from being imposed by the United Nations, while the Russian government continued to provide arms to the Assad regime. In late 2015, as reports increased that Syria’s armed forces had weakened from defections and fighting, the Russian Federation established air, ground and naval bases in Syria and began coordinated military strikes with the Syrian government against opposition forces. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that the operations were directed at defeating the Islamic State, but in fact most were aimed against positions held by the FSA. Putin has subsequently withdrawn much of the Russian military force but Russian air strikes continue to support Syrian government forces, which have retaken several key cities and other rebel-held territory.

After failing in two previous efforts at peace talks in 2013 and 2014-15, the UN attempted to restart talks a third time in early 2016 to resolve the conflict. Although a cease-fire was negotiated with the assistance of the US Secretary of State, Syrian military attacks continued, including on rebel-held parts of Syria’s second largest city, Aleppo. Peace talks were quickly suspended when the Syrian government refused to halt its increasingly successful military operations.

The Humanitarian and Refugee Crisis

The civil war in Syria, and especially the unchecked brutality of the Syrian government against its own people, has resulted in one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes since the end of World War II.

The UN Human Rights Council’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (IICI), established in 2011, continued its mandate to chronicle human rights abuses by the government. In its 7th report, issued in February 2014, the Commission totaled its findings over three years: more than 6.5 million people had been internally displaced; more than 2.6 million people, half of them children, had fled to neighboring countries; and nearly 150,000 people had been killed. The numbers only continued to rise. In early 2016, the Syrian Center for Policy Research issued a report that 470,000 people had died as a result of the war, including from starvation. The UN estimated that four million people have gone into exile while a total of 12 million people have been displaced. In February 2016, the IICI’s 10th report detailed the systematic arrest and torture of tens of thousands of Syrians. Most have died in imprisonment or were left to die from wounds inflicted by torture. The IICI wrote that this was just “one part of a broader campaign of murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts.”

By the summer of 2015, conditions in refugee camps in neighboring countries as well as the internal situation in Syria, propelled up to one million Syrians to join others fleeing conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, and north Africa to try to gain refuge in Europe. This mass migration brought about the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Some European countries closed their borders and even countries welcoming the refugees, like Germany, were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the migration and took action to halt the refugee flow from refugee camps in Turkey (see also Country Study of Turkey). The denial of access to international humanitarian groups in Syria by the government and some rebel groups, especially IS, raised the danger of increased starvation and the spread of disease. It is estimated that there are approximately four million refugees in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. In addition to the humanitarian catastrophe, much of Syria’s ancient historical sites, which were preserved over millennia, have been ruined in indiscriminate warfare by the Syrian government or deliberately destroyed by the Islamic State.