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The Multiparty System: Country Studies - Syria

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 7 Political Rights, 7 Civil Liberties (Not Free)


Syria is a predominantly Arab republic named for an older geographic region that also includes modern Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. Although its venerable cities were once cosmopolitan and economically vibrant, Syria today is among the most closed societies in the world. Its authoritarian political structure and constitution are similar to those of Communist states, built around the ideology and leadership of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath (or "Renaissance") Party. The government's control over political, social, and economic life is extensive, and freedoms of speech, assembly, and association are sharply restricted.


The military plays a prominent role in Syria, in part because it has maintained a war posture vis-à-vis Israel since the latter's founding in 1948. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and formally annexed the territory in 1981, although that move is not recognized internationally. Syrian forces occupied much of Lebanon from 1976 to 2005, ostensibly to help calm its civil war, and its security services have been tied to several assassinations of anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians, most notably former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Syria is among the world's poorer countries, ranked 70th in nominal GDP ($35 billion) and 137th in nominal GNI per capita ($1,570) in 2006. Its PPP GNI per capita was ranked 145th in the world, at $3,930.


Early History

Syria's capital, Damascus, is the oldest known continuously inhabited city, dating to the fourth millennium BC. The country's territory was home to a long succession of ancient city-states and empires, and 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, and they in turn were displaced by Alexander the Great and his successors two centuries later.

Syria'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, battling the Parthian and then the Sassanian empires on its eastern borders until the Muslim Arab conquest in the seventh century AD. 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 750. The region experienced periods of both prosperity and disorder over the following centuries, with migrations of Turks from Central Asia, Christian and Mongol invasions, and domination by the Muslim rulers of Egypt. 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 fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Prince Faisal of the Hashemite family, who had led British-backed Arab forces out of the Hejaz region on the Arabian Peninsula and fought Ottoman troops during the war, entered Damascus in 1918 and soon established an Arab kingdom there, even as French troops occupied the coast. To the dismay of Arab nationalists, the League of Nations in 1920 established mandates dividing the entire region between Great Britain, which controlled what is now Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq; and France, which controlled Syria and Lebanon. France squelched Faisal's new state in Syria, though Great Britain later made him king of Iraq and his brother 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 its collaborationist Vichy regime but 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. Violence broke out as France sought certain concessions before withdrawing, but its forces finally evacuated in 1946. Unstable civilian rule by conservative elements and defeat on the battlefield by the new state of Israel led to a series of military coups beginning in 1949. Additional coups followed in 1951 and 1954, and during this period the Ba'ath Party, espousing Arab nationalism and socialism, rose to political prominence. Syria joined Egypt in 1958 to form the United Arab Republic, in part to suppress the growing influence of the Communist Party. However, Syrian leaders chafed under the domination of Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser, and the country withdrew in 1961 to form a new Syrian Arab Republic. In the context of the Cold War, Syria since the mid-1950s had aligned itself with the Soviet Union as opposed to the former colonial powers, France and Great Britain, and their ally the United States. The latter three were also seen as sponsors of Israel.

The Ba'ath Coup and the Assad Family Dynasty

After the reassertion of Syrian independence in 1961, another series of coups ended in 1963 with the restoration to power of the Ba'ath Party. The Ba'ath Party in Iraq had come to power a month earlier, but the relationship between two branches was marked more by rivalry than cooperation.

After the reassertion of Syrian independence in 1961, another series of coups ended in 1963 with the restoration to power of the Ba'ath Party.
Factional strife within the Syrian Ba'ath Party led to a violent 1966 coup and the establishment of a more radical, leftist Ba'ath government, but its leaders were discredited by the country's 1967 defeat by Israel (which has occupied the Golan Heights ever since) and a disastrous military intervention in Jordan in 1970. Shortly thereafter, Minister of Defense Hafiz al-Assad seized power, representing an ideologically moderate Ba'ath faction based in the military and his minority Alawite sect. Assad remained in power through controlled elections until his death in 2000, ending the frequent coups that had roiled the country since independence. He suppressed political dissent and ruthlessly crushed an Islamist uprising in the city of Hama in 1982, leaving an estimated 25,000 people dead. Bashar al-Assad replaced his late father as president in 2000, in what amounted to a dynastic succession.

Hafiz al-Assad portrayed on a roadside billboard

Multiparty System

The System of Ba'ath Control

There is no functioning multiparty system in Syria. In the parliament, the Ba'ath Party leads a majority coalition of loyal leftist parties called the National Progressive Front, and all other lawmakers are "independents" who have been vetted by the authorities. Power is concentrated in the hands of the president, who is nominated to seven-year terms by the Ba'ath Party leadership and the parliament before being confirmed in a referendum that lacks any other candidates. The 1973 constitution explicitly establishes 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 Soviet Union or China. 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 components.

Individual advancement through the ranks of the party, government, and military depends largely on loyalty and personal connections. Hafiz al-Assad favored members of his Alawite sect, which makes up an estimated 11 percent of the population. One of the most serious attempts at organized opposition to Assad's rule arose from the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Muslim group that advocates an Islamic state. Sunni Muslims constitute 74 percent of the population, and many deny that Alawites are true Muslims. Although the Ba'ath Party is ideologically secular, the Syrian constitution states that the president must be a Muslim; this would appear to be a concession to Sunni Islamists, but given Assad's hold on the presidency, it effectively asserts that Alawites are Muslims. The Muslim Brotherhood's open domestic opposition culminated in the 1982 Hama uprising, the brutal suppression of which deterred subsequent unrest. The ethnic Kurdish minority has also mounted periodic demonstrations or uprisings and faced harsh government reprisals. Concentrated in the northeast, adjacent to Kurdish populations in Turkey and Iraq, it is often seen by the Ba'athist authorities as a threat to Syria's Arab identity and territorial integrity.

Although the Ba'ath Party is ideologically secular, the Syrian constitution states that the president must be a Muslim...
Syrian Intervention Abroad

In 1976, Syria intervened in the Lebanese civil war, which had broken out the year before. Over the next three decades, long after the fighting had subsided, Syrian troops and intelligence agents remained in the country and allowed Damascus to dominate its politics and economy. Syria was forced to withdraw its forces in 2005 in response to international and Lebanese outcry over the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. The slain Sunni Muslim politician had opposed the Syrian occupation, and United Nations investigators uncovered evidence connecting the murder to the Syrian leadership. Still, the two countries have intertwined economies, a mixed population (more than half a million Syrians are thought to be working in Lebanon), and a number of outstanding security concerns. Syria is believed to provide support for Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim militia that has clashed with Israel, challenged the government in Beirut, and controlled much of southern Lebanon since its inception in the 1980s.

Rafiq al-Hariri

In the wider region, Ba'athist Syria has attempted to position itself as the champion of Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause against Israel. It has participated in the major Arab-Israeli wars, spending heavily on Soviet-made arms, and hosts a number of Palestinian militant and terrorist organizations. However, Syria has often harmed its relations with other Arab countries by pursuing a maverick foreign policy. For instance, it supported non-Arab Iran in the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war. It has also been isolated since Egypt and Jordan reached peace agreements with Israel, leaving it as the only hostile state on Israel's borders.

Bashar al-Assad

The first six months after Hafiz al-Assad's death and replacement by his son in 2000 were marked by relatively open public discussion and dialogue, the release of some 600 political prisoners, and initial steps at reform. But the so-called Damascus Spring ended almost as quickly as it began, with renewed repression and arrests of many of those who had voiced support for reform and democracy. A small number of activists continue to challenge the regime by defending human rights and building civic networks.

Bashar al-Assad has generally attempted to continue his father's foreign policy. He has been implicated in the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, and critics claim that Syria is responsible for the rash of other bombings and assassinations that have struck Lebanon in recent years. The Syrian leadership has resisted efforts to launch a United Nations tribunal that would bring the Hariri case to trial. In addition, Syria continues to cooperate with Iran, support Hezbollah, and host Palestinian militants, and it has been accused of allowing arms and insurgents to flow over the border into Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of that country in 2003. Tentative gestures toward potential peace talks with Israel have yielded little progress.