Syria - Politics
At gatherings in Syria, politics was often the chief topic of conversation; the Middle Eastern stereotype of fervent political coffeehouse discussions applied to Syria. Politics absorbed much of the active energy of the Syrian male. Most Syrians had strong opinions about what is wrong in Damascus or in their subdistrict centers and about what should be done. Urban Syrians, whether wealthy or poor, educated or illiterate, talk of political personalities and the central government. Rural Syrians talk of local political personalities, agricultural problems, and local politics. However, public criticism of the regime was muted and circumspect. Among the tribes and in more isolated villages, political discussion existed, but primarily on the basis of relations between villagers or tribes. Because of its authoritarian nature, the regime acts irrationally at times, which leads it to lurch towards the use of violence. Despite its monopoly on power, the regime is weak. The regime has systematically destroyed any signs of political life or independent institutions, organizations, parties, or media. The naked will of the regime is the only law. the regime as completely saturated in corruption, another factor militating against its ability to institute real reforms or serve as a transitional government leading to a more open, transparent system.
The Asad regime held power longer than any other Syrian government since independence; its survival is due partly to a strong desire for stability and secularism in a region that has seen many conflicts. The expansion of the government bureaucracy has also created a large class dependent on the regime. The President's strength through early 2011 was partly due to his personal popularity among Syrians who believed he sought to bring change and reform.
Following the onset of Syria’s protests against the dictatorship, however, his strength is due more to the army leadership's continued loyalty and the effectiveness of Syria's large internal security apparatus. The leadership of both is comprised largely of members of Asad's own Alawi sect. The several main branches of the security services operate independently of each other and outside of the legal system. The primarily Alawi irregulars known as “Shabiha” have demonstrated great violence against protesters and those opposing the regime. Each continues to be responsible for human rights violations of greatly escalating levels.
The president and the Ba'ath Party suppress political opposition. Discussion about potential political reform began after President Bashar al-Asad's July 2000 accession to the presidency. During the summer of 2000, Syria saw the emergence of the Damascus Spring (July 2000-February 2001) movement that included increased social and political debate and activities, which continued through autumn 2001 when the government cracked down on its organizers, jailing the most prominent of them.
During 2001, two independent members of parliament, Ma'mun al-Humsy and Riad Seif, who had advocated political reforms, were stripped of their parliamentary immunity and tried and convicted of charges of "attempting to illegally change the constitution." Criticism of economic policies became common in 2010 and 2011, but suggestions by the few independents that the security forces be controlled or greater voice be given to unofficial sources were met with threats.
The Government allowed independent non-NPF candidates to run for a limited allotment of seats in the 250 member People's Council. The allotment of non-NPF deputies was 83, ensuring a permanent absolute majority for the Ba'th Party dominated NPF. Elections for the 250 seats in the People's Council last took place in March 2003. The election could not be characterized as free and fair because the majority of the seats in the People's Council were reserved for members of the ruling National Progressive Front, and the government approved all candidates.
Despite the crackdown, Bashar al-Asad continued to voice support for political and economic reforms in Syria, as he did at the opening of the long-awaited 10th Ba'ath Party Regional Congress in June 2005. There was a sense among activists inside and outside Syria that the release of the Mehlis report on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, combined with increased U.S. pressure on the Syrian government, had made President Bashar al-Asad's regime vulnerable. Former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam left in 2005 because he feared the government would fall and he's the kind of guy that wants to be on the safe side. Also, he thought he could gain followers if the regime fell, and he had political distance from it. This wave of thinking was pervasive even among many Ba'athists. It was precisely this atmosphere Ba'ath party members were responding to when they pushed an economic and political reform agenda during the 2005 Ba'ath Conference.
President Bashar Assad was initially too insecure to remove regime veterans, but later consolidated his position. In 2005 the country's vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam, expressed his intention to resign from his position and from the party. The move signalled that the president Bashar Al Assad, was seeking to consolidate his grip on power. "At the previous congress in 2000 there was already talk in the corridors that a change in the leadership was desired. It is highly probable that this will be implemented at this congress", said George Jabbour, a member of Syria's rubber-stamp parliament and an observer delegate at the congress. People close to Mustafa Tlas, the former defence minister, said he would also quit the regional command. Other figures likely to go include the former prime minister Mustafa Miro. Several other members of the regional command, the Syrian party's highest ruling body, announced their resignation in the four-day congress that started on 06 June 2005, the first since Assad succeeded his father Hafez in 2000.
The Congress ended with an announcement of a new, smaller Regional Command (the most powerful decision-making body in Syria) that excluded long-time hard-liner and just-resigned Vice-President Abdul Halid Khaddam. A powerful Alawite cadre of disaffected, former regime heavyweights, including Ali Duba, Ali Zeyout, Ali Haydar, Izzedine Nasser, and (to a lesser degree) Mohammed Khouli (all military or security officers except Nasser) sympathize with Khaddam and shared his view that regime decision-making under Bashar has been disastrous. Khaddam's criticism of Asad as a weak, indecisive, dangerously inexperienced and impulsive leader highlighted a problem that regime power brokers like SMI head Asif Shawkat and brother Maher al-Asad were already aware of: How does an essentially totalitarian regime function with such a vacuum at the center? The issue was more stark now: Do regime pillars (mostly Alawite) stand with Asad and risk possibly losing power completely, or move against him?
The Congress adopted a package of recommendations including a request that the government "review" the emergency law, allow for new political parties, and undertake a series of economic reforms to improve the investment climate, and limit corruption and waste. Almost two years later, the government had accomplished a handful of modest economic reforms, but the review of the emergency law was not on the table and the political parties law remained on hold until "circumstances permit it," according to the Arabic daily Al-Hayat quoting Asad at a meeting of the Ba'ath Party Central Committee.
The most recent presidential, parliamentary, and local elections took place in 2007. Syrians seemed largely unaware or interested in the elections because they had little faith that representatives will ensure that future legislation takes into account their interests. In a startling official expression of the sad state of electoral politics, an article in an official Syrian newspaper, Al-Thawra, reported that Syrians are not interested in running or voting in parliamentary (or municipal elections) because government institutions do not play their constitutional roles, due to individual incompetence or greed but also because many legislative members "awaited instructions from the parties that nominated them and did not take the initiative." The author urged the need for leaders of the officially-sanctioned National Progressive Front (NPF) to nominate the most qualified candidates for office.
Actually, as is usually the case with quasi-sanctioned political and economic criticism in Syria, the critic emphasizes the least important aspects of the problem. He focuses on issues attributable to personal foibles, rather than to systemic problems or to the role of the regime itself, distracting readers from the underlying problems linked to lack of freedom and regime-emasculated institutions. Nevertheless, Thawra is an official organ and the fact of the criticism is interesting.
About 12 million Syrians were eligible to vote (including Syrian expatriates who would have to return to Syria to cast a ballot), and about 7.6 million election cards had been issued as of late April. Citizens eligible to vote could obtain election cards throughout the voting process. By law, voters were allowed to cast a ballot in any polling place in Syria for candidates in that area so, theoretically, a group of voters from Damascus could legally travel to another part of the country to influence polling results there.
Official Syrian news outlets claimed overall high voter turnout. For example, a news story by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported in its lead: "Citizens throughout all Syrian cities, towns and villages flocked to the polling stations to exercise their right to elect their representatives to the 9th legislative term of the Peoples Assembly." Visits by US and other diplomatic observers to polling places in the Syrian capital and small surrounding cities suggested low voter turnout during the 1.5-day balloting for the People's Assembly.
The government barred international election monitors from entering the country to observe the elections. Local and international human rights advocates judged all three elections as neither free nor fair and stated that they served to reassert the primacy and political monopoly of power Asad and the Ba'ath Party apparatus wielded. Although some opposition groups estimated voter turnout in the presidential election at significantly less than 50 percent, the government's official statistics reported voter turnout to be 96 percent, and President Asad reportedly won 98 percent of the vote. Outside observers uniformly dismissed the voter statistics as fraudulent and not representative of observed participation. Past elections showed that NPF parties, which includes and is headed by the official Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party, always control the 167 seats needed for absolute majority of the 250-member Parliament, while non-NPF, "independent" candidates hold up to 83 legislative seats. The NPF is a coalition of nine officially sanctioned parties.
All parties in the Syrian opposition boycotted the elections, including the Kurdish Future Movement, which dropped out days before balloting, citing an inability to develop a full slate of candidates. The Damascus Declaration group, the heart of the opposition, decided in March after extensive internal conversations to boycott these elections, believing that any participation allowed to it in a such a show enterprise would only lend the regime legitimacy.
The previous constitution provided that the Ba'ath Party is the ruling party and ensures that it has a majority in all government and popular associations, such as workers' and women's groups. Women and minorities generally participated in the political system without formal restriction. During the year a female vice president and three female cabinet ministers were in office. Thirty of the 250 ministers of parliament were women. In addition, the president had two high-ranking female advisors.
There was one Druze and one Kurdish minister in the parliament. Alawites, the ruling religious minority, held a large percentage of cabinet and parliamentary seats. According to human rights observers, ethnic and religious minorities outside the Alawite and Christian communities claimed they had no genuine representation in the government and that minority representatives were often more responsive to the ruling party than to their minority constituencies.
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press. The government significantly restricted these rights in practice, relying when necessary on Emergency Law provisions that suspend such rights and supersede constitutional practices. The government strictly controlled the dissemination of information and prohibited criticism of the government and discussion of sectarian issues, including religious and ethnic minority rights. Authorities detained and abused journalists, writers, and other individuals for expressions of opinion that violated these restrictions, leading them to practice self-censorship. Individuals could not criticize the government publicly or privately without fear of reprisal. The government also attempted to impede criticism through monitoring of political meetings and informer networks.
Syria declared an official state of emergency in 1963, which was changed in April 2011 to a de facto authorization of extraordinary measures by the security forces. Syrian governments have justified martial law by the state of war that continues to exist with Israel and by continuing threats posed by terrorist groups. Emergency Law and penal code articles dealing with crimes against state security allowed the government broad discretion to determine what constitutes illegal expression. The Emergency Law prohibited publication of "false information" that opposes "the goals of the revolution." Penal code articles prohibit acts or speech inciting sectarianism.
The government heavily influenced the media, and the government or the Ba'ath Party owned most newspaper publishing houses. A number of quasi-independent periodicals, usually owned and produced by figures with government connections, are published. The print and electronic media were critical at times of the Ba'ath Party and government performance. They reported openly on a range of social and economic issues, such as corruption in the energy and communications sectors.
The government or the Ba'ath Party owned and operated some radio and most television companies, and the Ministry of Information closely monitored radio and television news and entertainment programs to ensure adherence to government policies. The government did not interfere with broadcasts from abroad. Satellite dishes were widely used and available.
Government forces detained, arrested, and harassed journalists and other writers for works deemed critical of the state. Harassment included banning from the country, firing for association with international organizations, and failing to respond to requests for journalists' accreditation. The government also arrested journalists and others who wrote in Kurdish or in favor of greater Kurdish rights.
When in doubt, local journalists often shied away from criticism, but it was clearly understood that certain subjects were off-limits, such as writing about the Kurds or criticisms of the president and his family, the security services, or the Alawites. Foreign journalists who did not observe these guidelines were barred from the country, and some Syrian journalists lived outside the country and wrote for Internet publications. The law prohibits the publication of "inaccurate" information, particularly if it "causes public unrest, disturbs international relations, violates the dignity of the state or national unity, affects the morale of the armed forces, or inflicts harm on the national economy and the safety of the monetary system."
The constitution provides for the right of assembly, but Emergency Law provisions superseded this right, and the government did not respect it in practice. MOI permission is required for demonstrations or any public gathering of more than three persons. The government required political forums and discussion groups to obtain prior approval for lectures and seminars and to submit lists of all attendees. Several domestic human rights and civil society groups held meetings without registering with the government or obtaining prior approval because they assumed permission would be denied, as has regularly been the case. In many instances the government took steps to disrupt such gatherings or prevent them from occurring. Either the government or the Ba'ath Party authorized and organized most public demonstrations.
However, in the penal code there are a variety of laws under which freedom of assembly is restricted or prevented such as article 308 ("membership in an organization that was created to incite sectarian, racial or religious strife"); article 355 ("attending a meeting that is not of a private nature ... where an individual issues calls for rioting or displays signs that perturb the general safety, or undertakes any form of rioting"); article 336 ("gathering or convoy in a public space is considered a riot if ... (b) there are at least seven people gathered to protest a decision or measure taken by the public authorities or (c) if they are more than 20 people and they appear in a way that can threaten general quiet");and most notably article 288 ("political or social organization or an international group without the permission of the government").
The constitution permits private associations but also grants the government the right to limit their activities. In practice the government restricted freedom of association, requiring prior registration and approval for private associations. The government often denied requests for registration or failed to act on them, presumably on political grounds. None of the approximately 14 local human rights organizations operated with a license during the year. The government continued to block the multi-year effort by journalists to form an association of journalists reporting for regional Arab media.
Syria's government announced 21 April 2014 that presidential elections would be held June 3, giving President Assad the chance to win a third seven-year term in office. The opposition immediately dismissed the election as a farce. Assad had been in power since 2000 when he took office following the death of his father, who had ruled Syria for 30 years. The president won his second term in 2007, taking 97 percent of the vote in an election boycotted by the opposition and one in which he was the only candidate on the ballot.
As expected, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad won a third seven-year term in office, with a reported 89 percent of the vote. Voting took place Tuesday in parts of Syria controlled by the government, but was boycotted by opposition groups in areas they control. Syrian President Bashar al Assad took the oath of office 16 July 2014 for a third seven year term in office, amid a three-year-old civil war across much of the country. Unlike his two previous ceremonies, President Assad took the oath of office at the presidential palace, rather than in front of parliament. Several analysts suggest the move was made for security reasons.
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