President Bashar Assad has ruled the Syrian Arab Republic since 2000. The constitution mandates the primacy of Baath Party leaders in state institutions and society, and Assad and Baath party leaders dominate all three branches of government. An uprising against the government that began in 2011 continued throughout the year. The 2014 presidential election and the April 2016 parliamentary elections resulted in the election of Assad and 200 People’s Council (Syrian parliament) seats for the Baath Party-led National Progressive Front, respectively. Both elections took place in an environment of widespread government coercion, and many Syrians residing in opposition-held territory did not participate in the elections. Observers did not consider the elections free or fair.
The government maintained control over its uniformed military, police, and state security forces, but it did not maintain effective control over foreign and domestic military or paramilitary organizations. These included Russian armed forces; Hizballah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; nonuniformed progovernment militias, such as the National Defense Forces; and the Bustan Charitable Association, or “shabiha.”
The most significant human rights abuses included unlawful and arbitrary killings by the government and its allies resulting from atrocities they committed during the conflict, including the repeated use of chemical weapons, including sarin and chlorine, against civilians, widespread “barrel bombing” of civilians and residential areas, systematic attacks on civilian infrastructure, attacks on medical facilities, extrajudicial executions, rape, including of children, as a weapon of war; massacres, starvation and displacement of local civilian populations; mass forced disappearances; thousands of cases of torture, including sexual violence; harsh and life threatening conditions in prisons and detention centers, including deliberate denial of medical care; widespread arbitrary arrest and detention; tens of thousands of political prisoners; pervasive interference with privacy; recruitment and use of child soldiers; severe restrictions on freedoms of expression, including internet access, assembly, association, and movement; denial of humanitarian access to civilians, including displaced persons; rampant corruption; criminalization of same sex sexual activity and violence against LGBTI persons by government and extremist forces; and severe restrictions on workers’ rights.
The government took no steps to investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights violations or abuses. Impunity was pervasive and deeply embedded in the security forces and elsewhere in the government.
Government-linked paramilitary groups reportedly engaged in frequent violations and abuses, including massacres, indiscriminate killings, kidnapping of civilians, arbitrary detentions, and rape as a war tactic. Government-affiliated militias, including the terrorist organization Lebanese Hizballah, supported by Iran, repeatedly targeted civilians. Armed terrorist groups, such as the al-Qa’ida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), also committed a wide range of human rights abuses, including massacres, bombings, and kidnappings; unlawful detention; torture; unlawful killings; and forced evacuations from homes based on sectarian identity. While the government and its allies were responsible for most of the killings, the Islamic State extremist group ISIS committed massive abuses in territories it controlled in the Raqqa and Deir al-Zour Governorates. Human trafficking and the forcible recruitment and use of children in the conflict increased. There were reports of systematic rape and forced marriages of women and girls for sexual slavery among ISIS fighters. On August 15, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that “ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in areas it controls or has controlled. ISIS is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups, and in some cases against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities.”
There also were reports of Kurdish forces displacing Arab residents after liberating areas from ISIS. During the year reports from local media and Syrian human rights groups indicated that Kurdish authorities arrested local civil council leaders, journalists, and other civilians. There were reports alleging that some members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Syrian Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and other minorities that included members of the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG), engaged in forced conscription, to include limited conscription of children, as well as reports alleging isolated incidents of torture and at least one incident of extrajudicial killing of persons suspected of ISIS affiliation by those who appeared to belong to the SDF based on their statements or their uniforms.