Syria

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

While the constitution provides for limited freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, the regime severely restricted this right, often terrorizing, abusing, arresting, or killing those who attempted to exercise this right.

Freedom of Expression: The law contains a number of speech offenses that limit the freedom of expression, including provisions criminalizing expression that, for example, “weakens the national sentiment” in times of war or defames the president, courts, military, or public authorities. The law imposes a one- to three-year sentence on anyone who criticizes or insults the president. The regime routinely characterized expression as illegal, and individuals could not criticize the regime publicly or privately without fear of reprisal. The regime also stifled criticism by broadly invoking provisions of law prohibiting acts or speech inciting sectarianism. The regime monitored political meetings and relied on informer networks.

Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Although the law provides for the “right to access information about public affairs” and bans “the arrest, questioning, or searching of journalists,” press and media restrictions outweighed freedoms. The law contains many restrictions on freedom of expression for the press, including provisions criminalizing, for example, the dissemination of false or exaggerated news that “weakens the spirit of the nation” or the broadcasting abroad of false or exaggerated news that “tarnishes” the country’s reputation. The law bars publication of content that affects “national unity and national security,” harms state symbols, defames religions, or incites sectarian strife or “hate crimes.” The law further forbids publication of any information about the armed forces. The law criminalizes the publication on social media of false news that causes fear and panic, with prison sentences up to 15 years with hard labor. Individuals found responsible for broadcasting of false or exaggerated news abroad that undermines the prestige of the state, or its financial standing, are subject to a minimum prison sentence of six months in addition to a fine. The law similarly criminalizes the broadcasting of false news or claims that undermine confidence in the “state currency.”

The regime continued to exercise extensive control over local print and broadcast media, and the law imposes strict punishment for reporters who do not reveal their sources in response to regime requests.

The SNHR reported that only print publications whose reporting promoted and defended the regime remained in circulation. Books critical of the regime were illegal. The regime owned some radio stations and most local television companies, and the Ministry of Information closely monitored all radio and television news broadcasts and entertainment programs for adherence to regime policies. Despite restrictions on ownership and use, citizens widely used satellite dishes, although the regime jammed some Arabic-language networks.

Violence and Harassment: Regime forces reportedly detained, arrested, harassed, and killed journalists and other writers for works deemed critical of the state as well as journalists associated with networks favorable to the regime (see section 1.c.). Harassment included intimidation, banning individuals from the country, dismissing journalists from their positions, and ignoring requests for continued accreditation. YouTubers and other citizen journalists were routinely detained, intimidated, and tortured, both by the regime and extremist groups.

The regime and, to a lesser extent, HTS and other armed groups routinely targeted and killed both local and foreign journalists, according to the COI, Freedom House, and the CPJ. The CPJ estimated that at least 139 journalists were killed since 2011. The SNHR documented more than 710 journalists and media workers killed between March 2011 and November and attributed 551 citizen journalist deaths in that period to regime forces.

In July Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported freelance photographer Homam al-Asi was killed during an artillery bombardment while covering rescue operations by members of the White Helmets.

According to NGO reports, the regime routinely arrested journalists who were either associated with or writing in favor of the opposition and instigated attacks against foreign press outlets throughout the country. RSF reported that more than 300 journalists had been arrested by the regime and more than 100 abducted by other parties to the conflict since the start of the conflict in 2011. The SNHR recorded at least 1,210 cases of arrests and abductions of journalists and media workers by parties to the conflict between March 2011 and November. According to the SNHR, 432 of these individuals remained under arrest or forcibly disappeared, including 17 foreign journalists. The SNHR attributed 357 of the arrests and abductions to the regime, seven to the SDF, 12 to armed opposition groups, 48 to ISIS, and eight to HTS.

RSF reported that regime authorities in January detained Hala Jerf, a Damascus-based television presenter, after she published comments on social media concerning the decline of living standards in Syria. According to the Syrian Journalists Union, Jerf was being investigated under the cybercrime law that prohibits statements that “undermine national sentiment.” Media outlets reported Jerf was released in May.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: According to Freedom House, the regime enforced censorship of news sites and social media content more stringently in regime-controlled areas. The regime continued to block circumvention tools used to access censored content, internet security software that can prevent state surveillance, and other applications that enable anonymous communications. The Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE) and private internet service providers (ISPs) implemented censorship using various commercially available software programs. Decisions surrounding online censorship lacked transparency, and ISPs did not publicize the details of how blocking was implemented or which websites were banned. The STE was known to implement blocking decisions; it was unclear which state agency typically made the decisions, although security and intelligence bodies were believed to play an important role. Websites covering politics, minorities, human rights, foreign affairs, and other sensitive topics were censored or blocked outright.

The regime continued to strictly control the dissemination of information, including on developments regarding fighting between the regime and the armed opposition and the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and prohibited most criticism of the regime and discussion of sectarian matters, including sectarian tensions and problems facing religious and ethnic minority communities. The Ministries of Information and Culture censored domestic and foreign publications prior to circulation or importation, including through the General Corporation for the Distribution of Publications, and prevented circulation of content determined critical or sensitive. The regime prohibited publication or distribution of any material security officials deemed threatening or embarrassing to the regime. Censorship was usually more stringent for materials in Arabic.

Local journalists reported they engaged in extensive self-censorship on subjects such as criticism of the president and his family, the security services, Alawite religious groups, and the spread of COVID-19.

Despite regime censorship and a campaign of intimidation to suppress information regarding the spread of COVID-19, medical workers reported the virus spread quickly across the country and that government hospitals were overwhelmed. In January PHR reported that the regime pressured medical professionals to suppress reporting on the spread of COVID-19. PHR assessed the regime’s persecution and intimidation “hindered physicians from sharing potentially life-saving information” and had “grave consequences for the country’s ability to cope and effectively save the lives of thousands of its citizens.” Civil society reported that the regime continued to list pneumonia as the cause of death for individuals suspected to have died from COVID-19.

In March RSF reported journalists fled the advance of regime troops, fearing imprisonment as soon as the regime controlled the province. RSF assessed the regime’s persecution of journalists for more than 10 years justified their fears, especially since many of them had covered the uprising from its outset, helped to document the regime’s human rights violations, and risked severe reprisals if identified with the opposition. In March VOA News reported that many journalists who decided to stay in areas recaptured by regime forces experienced retaliation from the regime and their affiliates.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes libel, slander, insult, defamation, and blasphemy, and the regime continued to use such provisions to restrict public discussion and to detain, arrest, and imprison journalists perceived to have opposed the regime.

National Security: The regime regularly cited laws protecting national security to restrict media criticism of regime policies or public officials.

Nongovernmental Impact: According to Freedom House, media freedom varied in territory held by armed opposition groups, but local outlets were typically under heavy pressure to support the dominant militant faction. The CPJ and RSF reported that extremist opposition groups, such as HTS, detained, tortured, and harassed journalists (see section 1.g.) and posed a serious threat to press and media freedoms. The SNHR documented the death of eight journalists at the hands of HTS since the start of the conflict. The COI stated in September that HTS targeted journalists and activists, particularly women, in Idlib to restrict freedom of expression, imposing regulations designed to restrict the ability of media workers to travel and report.

In May the SNHR reported that media activist Amer al-Asi was forcibly disappeared by police affiliated with HTS after he was summoned to an HTS police station in Idlib. In its September report, the COI similarly documented the case of a journalist summoned to HTS’ “prosecutor’s office” to appear on allegations of defamation after he criticized online marriage procedures in Idlib. The journalist was forced to put his thumbprint on a document containing a confession and was transferred to an underground facility before he was released days later following mounting public pressure.

Media outlets, human rights organizations, and the COI reported that HTS members detained civilians who spoke out against the group in what the COI described as a “systematic effort to stifle political dissent.”

The regime limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

The constitution provides for freedom of movement “within the territories of the state unless restricted by a judicial decision or by the implementation of laws,” but the regime, HTS, and other armed groups restricted internal movement and travel and instituted security checkpoints to monitor such travel throughout the regions under their respective control. Regime attacks on Idlib Governorate restricted freedom of movement and resulted in documented cases of death, starvation, and severe malnutrition, while fear of death and regime retribution resulted in mass civilian displacement and additional breakdowns in service provision and humanitarian assistance (see section 1.g.).

In-country Movement: In areas outside of regime control, regime forces blocked humanitarian access, leading to severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care, and death. The violence, coupled with significant cultural pressure, severely restricted the movement of women in many areas. Additionally, the law allows certain male relatives to place travel bans on women.

The regime expanded security checkpoints into civilian areas to monitor and limit movement, and the COI reported regime security officials detained, forcibly conscripted, and extorted residents at checkpoints, at times impeding civilians’ access to health care and education. Regime forces used violence to prevent protests, enforce curfews, target opposition forces, and in some cases prevent civilians from fleeing besieged towns. The regime also barred foreign diplomats, including delegations from the United Nations and the OPCW IIT, from visiting most parts of the country and rarely granted them permission to travel outside Damascus. The consistently high level and unpredictability of violence severely restricted movement throughout the country.

In areas they controlled, armed opposition groups and terrorist groups such as HTS also restricted movement, including with checkpoints (see section 1.g.). The COI reported in February that HTS imposed severe restrictions on women and girls’ freedom of movement, harassing unaccompanied women and denying them access to public life. NGOs continued to report that HTS also attempted to control and interfere with the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

While the Syrian Democratic Council and the SDF generally supported IDP communities in the northeast, human rights organizations reported that SANES restricted the movement of more than 10,000 foreign women and children suspected to be affiliated with ISIS in the al-Hol displaced persons camp. The COI reported in February that children faced problems related to obtaining identity documentation, noting that the lack of birth registration papers, in some cases because parents were unable to register, jeopardized their rights to a nationality.

Foreign Travel: While citizens have the right to travel internationally, the regime denied passports and other vital documents, based on the applicant’s political views, association, or perceived association with or support for opposition groups, or ties to geographic areas where the opposition dominated. Additionally, the regime often banned travel by human rights or civil society activists, their families, and affiliates. The regime comprehensively banned international travel of opposition members, often targeting any such individual who attempted to travel. Local media and human rights groups repeatedly stated that opposition activists and their families hesitated to leave the country, fearing attacks and arbitrary detention at airports and border crossings. The regime also imposed exit visa requirements and routinely closed the Damascus airport and border crossings, claiming the closures were due to violence or threats of violence. Syrian passports cost between $800 to $2,000, which many found prohibitive. Many citizens reportedly learned of the ban against their travel only when authorities stopped them at points of departure. The regime reportedly applied travel bans without explanation or explicit duration, including in cases when individuals sought to travel for health reasons.

The regime also often refused to allow some citizens to return, while other Syrians who fled to neighboring countries reportedly feared retribution by the regime should they return.  In September Amnesty International reported that returning Syrian refugees faced detention, abuse, and torture upon their re-entry.  Regime authorities targeted returnees for having fled the country and accused them of treason and support of terrorist activity.  Amnesty International reported five cases of detainees dying in custody after returning to the country during the year.

In February the regime announced it was amending the military conscription law to allow for the immediate seizure of assets of men who evaded military conscription and failed to pay military exemption fees (see section 1.e., Efforts to Control Mobility). According to HRW the amendment grants the Ministry of Finance the power to confiscate and sell an individual’s property without providing notice or giving the individual the opportunity to challenge the decision. HRW reported this was an obstacle for Syrians considering returning to the country, particularly men who fled to avoid military conscription.

Women older than 18 have the legal right to travel without the permission of male relatives, but a husband may file a request with the Interior Ministry to prohibit his wife from departing the country. Syrians born abroad to parents who fled the conflict and remained in refugee camps generally did not have access to Syrian citizenship documents. The regime allowed Syrians living outside of the country whose passports had expired to renew their passports at consulates. Many who fled as refugees, however, feared reporting to the regime against which they may have protested or feared the regime could direct reprisals against family members still in the country.

Violence and instability continued to be the primary cause for displacement, most often Syrians fleeing regime and Russian aerial attacks, including more than 37,000 persons who were displaced in Daraa between July and August. Years of fighting repeatedly displaced persons, with each displacement further depleting family assets. The UN estimated more than 6.7 million IDPs were in the country and 5.9 million individuals needed acute assistance. According to UNOCHA, in April the humanitarian community tracked 34,000 IDP movements across the country and 12,000 spontaneous IDP returnees. Approximately 6,000 of these returns were recorded within and between Aleppo and Idlib Governorates. Spontaneous IDP return movements in areas other than the northwest remained very low.

The crisis inside the country continued to meet the UN criteria for a level three response – the classification for response to the most severe, large-scale humanitarian crises. UN humanitarian officials reported most IDPs sought shelter with host communities or in collective centers, abandoned buildings, or informal camps.

The regime generally did not provide sustainable access to services for IDPs, offer IDPs assistance, facilitate humanitarian assistance for IDPs, or provide consistent protection. The regime forcibly displaced populations from besieged areas and restricted movement of IDPs. The regime did not promote the safe, voluntary, and dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs, and in some cases authorities refused to allow IDPs to return home. In its February report, the COI determined that IDPs were “routinely denied return to their places of origin” due to regime restrictions and fear of arrest in retaken or formerly besieged areas, including Rif Damashq, Daraa, Quneitra, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo. According to NGOs PAX and Impunity Watch, the regime’s confiscation of property from Syrians perceived to threaten the regime’s authority presented an increasingly grave impediment to the return of refugees and IDPs (see section 1.e., Property Restitution).

Persons with a backlog of service bills or back taxes who were unable to pay their debt to the regime were given a brief window to leave their property, while intelligence forces summarily seized homes and businesses of some former opposition members.

Humanitarian actors noted that access remained a key obstacle to assisting vulnerable persons in areas controlled by the regime and nonregime actors. The regime routinely disrupted the supply of humanitarian aid, including medical assistance, to areas under siege as well as to newly recaptured areas (see section 1.g.). NGOs operating from Damascus faced regime obstruction and interference in attempting to provide humanitarian assistance. UN agencies and NGOs sought to increase the flow of assistance to opposition-held areas subject to regime offensives to meet growing humanitarian needs, but the regime continued to restrict cross-line operations originating from Damascus. In July the Russian government threatened to veto a draft UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution to authorize UN cross-border humanitarian aid through the Bab al-Hawa and Yaroubiya crossings in the northwest and northeast. The UNSC ultimately approved UNSC Resolution 2585 reauthorizing the use of one crossing, Bab al-Hawa, for 12 months.

Turkey placed restrictions on the provision of humanitarian and stabilization aid to areas of the northeast from Turkey. Jordan placed restrictions on the provision of humanitarian aid to the Rukban displacement camp near its border with Syria.

The regime and Russian government routinely refused to approve UN requests for assistance delivery to the Rukban camp. The most recent UN convoy to Rukban took place in 2019. Armed opposition groups and terrorist groups such as HTS also impeded humanitarian assistance to IDPs. The COI and humanitarian actors reported HTS attempted to control and interfere with the delivery of aid and services in areas of the northwest, including by confiscating food items or distributing them on a “preferential basis” within their groups. NGOs continued to report bureaucratic difficulties in working with the HTS-affiliated Salvation Government, which impeded delivery of services in the camps.

The SDF and SDC generally facilitated the safe and voluntary return of IDPs during the year, particularly to Deir Ez-Zour and Raqqa.

The regime inconsistently cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The regime provided some cooperation to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which assisted Palestinian refugees in the country.

UNHCR maintained that conditions for Syrian refugee return to the country in safety and dignity were not yet in place and did not promote or facilitate the return of refugees to the country during the year. The COI and various NGOs, including Amnesty International and HRW, reported cases of the regime subjecting returning refugees to arbitrary detention and torture, even in cases where reconciliation agreements were in place (see section 2.d.). Throughout the year, however, the regime and Russian government maintained a diplomatic campaign to encourage the return of refugees to the country. The Russian government reportedly sought to use the return of Syrian refugees to secure international donations for Syrian reconstruction efforts.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the regime has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR and UNRWA were able to maintain limited protection space for refugees and asylum seekers, although violence hampered access to vulnerable populations. In coordination with both local and international NGOs, the United Nations continued to provide such individuals essential services and assistance.

Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: Both regime and opposition forces reportedly besieged, shelled, and otherwise made inaccessible some Palestinian refugee camps, neighborhoods, and sites, which resulted in severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care and humanitarian assistance, and civilian deaths. As of 2019, the UN estimated that at least 120,000 Palestinian refugees had been displaced from Syria since 2011.

Employment: The law does not explicitly grant refugees, except for Palestinians, the right to work. While the regime rarely granted non-Palestinian refugees a work permit, many refugees found work in the informal sector as guards, construction workers, and street vendors and in other manual jobs.

Access to Basic Services: The law allows for the issuance of identity cards to Palestinian refugees and the same access to basic services provided to citizens. The regime also allowed Iraqi refugees access to publicly available services, such as health care and education, but residency permits were available only to refugees who entered the country legally and possessed a valid passport, which did not include all refugees. The lack of access to residency permits issued by authorities exposed refugees to risks of harassment and exploitation and severely affected their access to public services. The approximately 23,600 non-Palestinian refugees and asylum seekers in the country faced growing protection risks, multiple displacements, tightened security procedures at checkpoints, and difficulty obtaining required residency permits, all of which resulted in restrictions on their freedom of movement.

Following the 1962 census, approximately 150,000 Kurds lost their citizenship. A legislative decree had ordained a single-day census in 1962, and the government executed it unannounced to the inhabitants of al-Hasakah Governorate. Persons not registered for any reason or without all required paperwork lost their Syrian citizenship from that day onward. The government at the time argued it based its decision on a 1945 wave of alleged illegal immigration of Kurds from neighboring states, including Turkey, to al-Hasakah, where they allegedly “fraudulently” registered as Syrian citizens. In a similar fashion, authorities recorded anyone who refused to participate as “undocumented.” Because of this loss of citizenship, these Kurds and their descendants lacked identity cards and could not access government services, including health care and education. They also faced social and economic discrimination. Stateless Kurds do not have the right to inherit or bequeath assets, and their lack of citizenship or identity documents restricted their travel to and from the country.

In 2011 President Assad decreed that stateless Kurds in al-Hasakah who were registered as “foreigners” could apply for citizenship. It was unclear how many Kurds benefited from the decree. UNHCR reported in 2015 that approximately 40,000 of these Kurds remained unable to obtain citizenship. Likewise, the decree did not extend to the approximately 160,000 “unregistered” stateless Kurds. The change from 150,000 to 160,000 reflected an estimated increase in population since the 1962 census.

Children derive citizenship solely from their father. Because women cannot confer nationality on their children, an unknown number of children whose fathers were missing or deceased due to the continuing conflict were at risk of statelessness. Mothers could not pass citizenship to children born outside the country, including in neighboring countries hosting refugee camps. Children who left the country during the conflict also experienced difficulties obtaining identification necessary to prove citizenship and obtain services.

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