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 dominated all three branches of government as an authoritarian regime. An uprising against the regime that began in 2011 continued throughout the year. The 2014 presidential election resulted in the re-election of Assad, and the Baath Party-led National Progressive Front won 177 of the 250 seats in the People’s Council 2020 parliamentary elections. These elections took place in an environment of widespread regime 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 regime’s multiple security branches traditionally operated autonomously with no defined boundaries between their areas of jurisdiction. Regime-affiliated militia, such as the National Defense Forces, integrated with other regime-affiliated forces and performed similar roles without defined jurisdiction. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the uniformed military, police, and state security forces but possessed limited influence over foreign military or paramilitary organizations operating in the country, including proregime forces such as the Russian armed forces, Iran-affiliated Hizballah, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Regime and proregime forces continued major aerial and ground offensives initiated in 2019 to recapture areas of northwest Syria, killing thousands of civilians and forcing nearly one million persons to flee before the brokering of a ceasefire in March, which largely held through the remainder of the year. The assault, involving the use of heavy weapons, devastated the civilian infrastructure in the affected areas and exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation. Syrian and Russian airstrikes repeatedly struck civilian sites, including hospitals, markets, schools, settlements for internally displaced persons, and farms, many of which were included in UN deconfliction lists. As of August the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported there were 6.6 million internally displaced persons, 2.6 million of whom were children, and more than 5.5 million Syrian registered refugees outside the country. The UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria found it probable that the regime, its Russian allies, and other proregime forces committed attacks “marked by war crimes” that “may amount to crimes against humanity” during these attacks.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the regime; forced disappearances by the regime; torture, including torture involving sexual violence; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including denial of medical care; prolonged arbitrary detention; political prisoners and detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious abuses in internal conflict, including aerial and ground attacks impacting civilians and civilian infrastructure including schools, markets, and hospitals; serious restrictions on free expression, including restrictions on the press and access to the internet, censorship, and site blocking; substantial suppression of the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; undue restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections, including severe restrictions on political participation; high-level and widespread corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; coerced abortion; unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers by the regime and other armed actors; trafficking in persons; violence and severe discrimination targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; existence and use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and severe restrictions on workers’ rights.
The regime took no steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights violations or abuses. Impunity was pervasive and deeply embedded in the security and intelligence forces and elsewhere in the regime.
Regime-linked paramilitary groups reportedly engaged in frequent violations and abuses, including massacres; indiscriminate killings; kidnapping of civilians; extreme physical abuse, including sexual violence; and unlawful detentions. Regime-aligned militias, including Hizballah, repeatedly launched attacks that killed and injured civilians.
Russian forces were implicated in the deaths of civilians resulting from airstrikes characterized by the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria as indiscriminate and resulting in the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure, particularly during support of the regime’s military campaign in northwest Syria. These airstrikes destroyed hospitals, shelters, markets, homes, and other integral civilian facilities, damaging medical supplies and equipment and shutting down vital health-care networks, and followed a well documented pattern of attacks with serious and deleterious humanitarian and civilian impact.
The unstable security situation in areas under the control of armed opposition groups continued to foster an environment in which human rights abuses were committed, including killings, extreme physical abuse, and detention.
Armed terrorist groups, such as al-Qa’ida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), committed a wide range of abuses, including unlawful killings and kidnappings, unlawful detention, extreme physical abuse, deaths of civilians during attacks described by the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria as indiscriminate, and forced evacuations from homes based on sectarian identity. Despite the territorial defeat of ISIS in 2019, the group continued to carry out unlawful killings, bombings, and kidnappings, sometimes targeting civilians. The Carnegie Corporation assessed that ISIS benefited from a security vacuum left by the various military forces reducing activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Turkish-supported Syrian armed opposition groups in northern Syria committed human rights abuses, reportedly targeting Kurdish and Yezidi residents and other civilians, including the arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance of civilians, torture, sexual violence, forced evacuations from homes, looting and seizure of private property, transfer of detained civilians across the border into Turkey, the cutting of water to civilian populations, recruitment of child soldiers, and the looting and desecration of religious shrines.
Elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Syrian Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and other minority groups that included members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, reportedly engaged in human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, acts of corruption, and restrictions on freedom of assembly.
The UN Commission of Inquiry and human rights groups reported that perpetrators often acted with a sense of impunity, and the vast majority of abuses committed since 2011 went uninvestigated.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were numerous reports that the regime and its agents, as well as other armed actors, committed arbitrary or unlawful killings in relation to the conflict (see section 1.g.). No internal governmental bodies meaningfully investigated whether security force killings were justifiable and pursued prosecutions.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), more than 227,180 civilians were killed in the conflict from 2011 to December. Other groups estimated this number exceeded 550,000. This discrepancy was due in part to the vast number of disappeared, many of whom remained missing.
During the year the SNHR reported 1,462 civilians were killed, including at least 200 women and 218 children. The majority of these deaths occurred at the beginning of the year, during a military operation led by the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies against the areas in and around Idlib.
The regime continued to commit extrajudicial killings and to cause the death of large numbers of civilians throughout regime-controlled territories. For example, Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) reported that the Eighth Brigade of the Fifth Assault Corps of the Syrian Arab Army entered al-Quraya on March 27, killed six armed residents in the fighting, and later summarily executed five men and detained others.
The UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria (COI) and numerous human rights groups reported the regime continued to torture and kill persons in detention facilities. According to the SNHR, more than 14,500 individuals died due to torture between 2011 and December, including 179 children and 91 women; the SNHR attributed approximately 99 percent of all cases to regime forces, including 115 deaths during the year (see section 1.c.).
Despite a ceasefire established in March, the regime maintained its use of helicopters and airplanes to conduct aerial bombardment and shelling, killing hundreds of civilians during the year. In 2019 the UN secretary-general established a Board of Inquiry (BOI) to investigate attacks on civilian sites shared between humanitarian groups and military actors for the purpose of deconfliction from September 2018 through 2019 in northwest Syria. In April the BOI concluded that, in four of the seven incidents investigated, it “was highly probable” the Assad regime and its allies were responsible for attacks on UN deconflicted hospitals. In March the COI reporting on Idlib determined there were reasonable grounds to believe Russian forces were guilty of the war crime of “launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas” and that “progovernment forces repeatedly committed the war crime of deliberately attacking protected objects and intentionally attacking medical personnel. In attacking hospitals, medical units, and health-care personnel, progovernment forces violated binding international humanitarian law to care for the sick and wounded and committed the war crime of attacking protected objects.”
Other actors in the conflict were also implicated in extrajudicial killings (see section 1.g.).
There were numerous reports of forced disappearances by or on behalf of regime authorities, and the vast majority of those disappeared since the start of the conflict remained missing. Human rights groups’ estimates of the number of disappearances since 2011 varied widely, but all estimates pointed to disappearances as a common practice. The SNHR reported approximately 1,185 forced disappearances during the year and documented at least 149,360 Syrians were detained or forcibly disappeared between 2011 and December, with the regime responsible for at least 88 percent of those detentions. The regime targeted medical personnel and critics, including journalists and protesters, as well as their families and associates. Most disappearances reported by Syrian and international human rights documentation groups appeared to be politically motivated, and a number of prominent political prisoners remained missing (see section 1.e.).
In July, Syrian journalist Wafa Ali Mustafa told the UN Security Council the number of detained and disappeared was still growing as the regime continued to use detention “as a weapon to terrorize civilians.” As of December the regime issued nearly 17 amnesty decrees, the last of which was in March and included only a small number of cases heard by the Counter-Terrorism Court and military field courts. The decree excluded the vast majority of detainees who were never formally convicted of a crime in any court of law and were classified by the international community as unacknowledged detainees or forcibly disappeared.
The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) reported in August that it had requested information from the regime on 113 individuals whom the regime reportedly subjected to enforced disappearance between May 2019 and May 2020. The UNWGEID received no response from the regime on these or other outstanding cases. The UNWGEID also received reports of disappearances, including women and children, perpetrated by various armed groups, including those affiliated with the Turkish armed forces.
According to the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity, in February the regime released the bodies of Maher Suleiman al-Dali and Ahmad Ali al-Awad, who were arresting after defecting from the Syrian army. Both had signed reconciliation agreements.
Throughout the year the regime continued publishing notifications of detainees’ deaths in regime detention facilities. According to Families for Freedom, many families were unaware of the status of their detained family members and learned that relatives they believed to be alive had died months or even years earlier. In many cases the regime had denied the presence of these individuals in its detention centers until it released death notifications. The SNHR recorded at least 970 of these notifications but estimated that the number of detainees certified as dead was in the thousands. The regime did not announce publication of notifications on updated state registers, return bodies to families, or disclose locations where remains were interred.
For example, the SNHR received information in June that Wesam Fawwaz Mer’i al-Haj Ali, a college student detained and forcibly disappeared by regime forces in 2013, had died in regime custody. As was frequently the case, the regime did not provide Wesam’s body to the family or officially inform the family of the timing or manner of his death, although the SNHR reported it was likely due to torture.
The COI noted that the families of disappeared persons often feared approaching authorities to inquire about the locations of their relatives; those who did so had to pay large bribes to learn the locations of relatives or faced systematic refusal by authorities to disclose information about the fate of disappeared individuals.
Some terrorist groups and armed opposition groups not affiliated with the regime also reportedly abducted individuals, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected regime affiliates, journalists, and activists (see section 1.g.).
The regime made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such actions.
The law prohibits torture and other cruel or degrading treatment or punishment and provides up to three years’ imprisonment for violations. Human rights activists, the COI, and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), however, reported thousands of credible cases of regime authorities engaging in systematic torture, abuse, and mistreatment to punish perceived opponents, including during interrogations, a systematic regime practice documented throughout the conflict and even prior to 2011. The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights assessed that, while individuals were often tortured in order to obtain information, the primary purpose of the regime’s use of torture during interrogations was to terrorize and humiliate detainees.
While most accounts concerned male detainees, there were increased reports of female detainees suffering abuse in regime custody during the year. Activists maintained that many instances of abuse went unreported. Some declined to allow reporting of their names or details of their cases due to fear of regime reprisal. Many torture victims reportedly died in custody (see section 1.a.).
A military defector, nicknamed “Caesar,” testified outside the country in April that he had been ordered to take photographs of the bodies of victims–including thousands of photographs he later smuggled out of the country–who had been detained, tortured, and extrajudicially killed in regime detention centers between 2011 and 2013. Caesar said the bodies had signs of burning, strangulation, and whipping with cables. NGOs continued to report various forms of torture, including forcing objects into the rectum and vagina, hyperextending the spine, and putting the victim onto the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts. The Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison described the testimonies of 14 former detainees held by the regime in Sednaya Prison and reported prison officials subjected detainees to a wide range of torture as an interrogation tactic and, at times, for no reason at all. The SNHR documented the deaths of at least 33 individuals between March and June, including one woman, due to torture and medical negligence in regime detention centers. For example, the State Security Force arrested Mahmoud Abdul Majid al-Rahil from Daraa on May 4, returning his body to his family three days later. Al-Rahil, whose body bore signs of torture, had previously settled his legal and security status with the regime via a reconciliation agreement and was not engaged in military activity at the time of his arrest. In May the SNHR interviewed 96 individuals released under the March amnesty decree, all of whom had been arrested for their connection to protests. Many reported being subjected to torture by regime security forces as a method for extracting confessions to “terrorism” related crimes.
The COI and Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported regular use of torture against perceived regime opponents at checkpoints and regime facilities run by the Air Force, Political Security Division, General Security Directorate, and Military Intelligence Directorate. Human rights groups identified numerous detention facilities where torture occurred, including the Mezzeh airport detention facility; Military Security Branches 215, 227, 235, 248, and 291; Adra Prison; Sednaya Prison; the Harasta Air Force Intelligence Branch; Harasta Military Hospital; Mezzeh Military Hospital 601; and the Tishreen Military Hospital.
The SNHR estimated that parties of the conflict committed at least 11,520 acts of sexual violence between 2011 and December. Regime forces were responsible for at least 8,020 cases of sexual violence between 2011 and December, including 879 cases inside detention centers and 443 violations against girls younger than age 18. American University’s Syrian Initiative to Combat Sexual and Gender-based Violence stated that regime authorities subjected men, women, and children in detention to sexual and gender-based violence, including rape, sexual torture and abuse, and other forms of humiliating and degrading treatment.
In July, HRW reported the regime and, to a lesser extent, nonstate actors subjected men, boys, transgender women, and nonbinary persons to sexual violence during detention, and that this violence was perpetrated with the intent to torture and terrorize detainees. Those interviewed by HRW described being subjected to rape, threat of rape, genital violence, forced nudity, and sexual harassment. One interviewee, 28-year-old Yousef, stated he was detained by regime intelligence agencies and, once his sexual orientation was revealed, the interrogations increased drastically, accompanied by torture and sexual violence designed to humiliate detainees, particularly those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) assessed in June that the regime perpetrated violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including the detention and torture of medical workers, intending to “make delivery of health care a crime and to criminalize doctors for treating people.”
There continued to be a significant number of reports of abuse of children by the regime. Officials reportedly targeted and tortured children because of their familial relationships, or assumed relationships, with political dissidents, members of the armed opposition, and activist groups. According to reliable witnesses, authorities continued to hold a number of children to compel parents and other relatives associated with opposition fighters to surrender to authorities. According to the SNHR’s database, at least 4,815 children were still detained or forcibly disappeared as of September, with at least 100 of those detentions having taken place during the year. In January the COI issued a special report on abuses against children throughout the conflict in Syria. The report noted that regime coerces detained boys as young as 12, subjecting them to severe beatings and torture and denying them access to food, water, sanitation, and medical care. The COI also noted the presence of male and female detainees as young as age 11 recorded in Security Branches 215, 227, 235, and 248 in Damascus. The COI reported that children were made to witness the torture and other abuses inflicted on family members and, on occasions, were forced to inflict torture on other detainees. One COI interviewee described how a 16-year-old boy was forced to electrocute the genitals of another detainee.
The COI reported that, beginning in 2011 and continuing throughout the conflict, security forces subjected detainees to mistreatment in military hospitals, often obstructing medical care or exacerbating existing injuries as a technique of abuse and interrogation.
Numerous human rights organizations concluded that regime forces continued to inflict systematic, officially sanctioned torture on civilians in detention with impunity. There were no known prosecutions or convictions in the country of security force personnel for abuses and no reported regime actions to increase respect for human rights by the security forces.
In April the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany, initiated the first trial for state-sponsored torture in Syria, charging former regime officials Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib. Raslan was charged with crimes against humanity, rape, aggravated sexual assault, and 58 murders at Branch 251, where he allegedly oversaw the torture of at least 4,000 individuals between April 2011 and September 2012. Al-Gharib was charged with aiding and abetting in crimes against humanity and complicity in some 30 cases of torture.
Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and in many instances were life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical and psychological abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) assessed in April the conditions in regime prisons were alarming and presented unique risks of a COVID-19 outbreak. The SNHR estimated at least 149,360 Syrians were in detention centers or forcibly disappeared, with the regime responsible for at least 88 percent of those detentions.
Physical Conditions: Prison facilities were grossly overcrowded. Authorities commonly held juveniles, adults, pretrial detainees, and convicted prisoners together in inadequate spaces. Poor conditions in detention centers were so consistent that the COI concluded they reflected state policy. Human rights groups reported that authorities continued to hold children in prison with adults.
Reports from the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) suggested that there continued to be many informal detention sites and that authorities held thousands of prisoners in converted military bases and in civilian infrastructure, such as schools and stadiums, and in unknown locations. Activists asserted the regime housed arrested protesters in factories and vacant warehouses that were overcrowded and lacked adequate sanitary facilities.
In some cases authorities transferred detainees from unofficial holding areas to intelligence services facilities. Detention conditions at security and intelligence service facilities continued to be the harshest, especially for political or national security prisoners. Facilities lacked proper ventilation, lighting, access to potable water or adequate food, medical staff and equipment, and sufficient sleeping quarters.
Inside prisons and detention centers, the prevalence of death from disease remained high due to unsanitary conditions and the withholding of food, medical care, and medication. Local NGOs and medical professionals reported authorities denied medical care to prisoners with pre-existing health needs, such as diabetes, asthma, and breast cancer, and often denied pregnant women any medical care. Released prisoners commonly reported sickness and injury resulting from such conditions. One former detainee, Omar Alshogre, testified the regime detained him as a minor in 2012 and subjected him to extensive torture, including at Branch 215 where he was held in an underground prison cell with hundreds of other detainees. He said malnutrition and disease, including tuberculosis, was prevalent among the detainees.
Information on conditions and care for prisoners with disabilities was unavailable. The OHCHR reported in April that Syrian detainees with disabilities and underlying health conditions were particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
According to the COI, conditions in detention centers run by nonstate actors, such as the al-Qa’ida-linked HTS, violated international law (see section 1.g.).
Administration: There were no credible mechanisms or avenues for prisoners to complain or submit grievances, and authorities routinely failed to investigate allegations or document complaints or grievances. Activists reported there was no ombudsman to serve on behalf of prisoners and detainees. The law provides for prompt access to family members, but NGOs and families reported inconsistent application of the law, with most families waiting years to see relatives and, in many cases, never being able to visit them at all without bribing regime officials.
In areas where regime control was weak or nonexistent, localized corrections structures emerged. Reports of control and oversight varied, and both civilian and religious leaders were in charge of facility administration. Former police forces or members of armed opposition groups operated facilities in areas under the control of opposition forces. Nonstate actors often did not respect due process and lacked training to run facilities.
Independent Monitoring: The regime prohibited independent monitoring of prison or detention center conditions, and diplomatic and consular officials had no greater access than in previous years. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) suspended its visits to formal prisons in 2016 and reported making limited progress on restoring family links to relatives in detention. The ICRC was unable to visit intelligence and military detention centers during the year.
The ICRC and Red Crescent continued to negotiate with all parties to gain access to detention centers across the country but were unable to gain access to any regime-controlled facilities during the year. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) provided the ICRC and UN-supported NGOs access to SDF prisons during the year.
Reportedly, the regime often failed to notify foreign governments when it arrested, detained, released, or deported their citizens, especially when the case involved political or national security charges. The regime also failed to provide consular access to foreign citizens known to be in its prisons and, on numerous occasions, claimed these individuals were not in its custody or even in the country.
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but a 2011 decree allows the regime to detain suspects for up to 60 days without charge if suspected of “terrorism” and related offenses. The COI and various NGOs, activists, and former detainees reported police held many individuals for longer periods or indefinitely. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the regime did not observe this requirement. Arbitrary arrests continued during the year, according to the COI, local news sources, and various human rights organizations.
The law generally requires a warrant for arrest in criminal cases, but police often cited emergency or national security justifications for acting without a warrant, which was permitted under the law. Under the constitution and code of criminal procedure, for example, defendants must be informed of the reasons for their arrest, and they are entitled to legal aid and are presumed innocent until convicted by a court in a fair trial. Civil and criminal defendants have the right to bail hearings and possible release from pretrial detention on their own recognizance, but the regime applied the law inconsistently. At the initial court hearing, which could be months or years after the arrest, the accused may retain an attorney at personal expense or the court may appoint an attorney, although authorities did not ensure lawyers’ access to their clients before trial. The ICTJ reported the accused were generally tried without a lawyer and denied the right to present a defense. Judges usually followed the intelligence director’s sentence recommendations, even though it was widely known many confessions were made under torture.
In cases involving political or national security offenses, authorities reportedly often made arrests in secret, with cases assigned in an apparently arbitrary manner to the Counterterrorism Court (CTC), courts-martial, or criminal courts. The CTC, military field courts, and military courts are exempted from following the same procedures as ordinary courts, allowing them to operate outside of the code of criminal procedure and deny basic rights guaranteed to defendants. Numerous human rights organizations asserted that trials before these courts were unfair and summary in nature. The regime reportedly detained suspects incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge or trial and denied them the right to a judicial determination of their pretrial detention. In most cases authorities reportedly did not identify themselves or inform detainees of charges against them until their arraignment, often months or years after their arrest. Of the former detainees interviewed by ICTJ, mostly from Sednaya Prison, 99 percent said they were never provided paperwork describing the charges against them during their entire period of detention.
NGOs such as the STJ and the Office of Daraa Martyrs confirmed that reported intelligence branches had arrested at least 500 Syrians who had signed reconciliation agreements with the regime during the last two years. The Office of Daraa Martyrs stated reconciliation agreements did not include amnesty for crimes other than opposing the government; therefore, the regime often fabricated criminal charges against former opposition members. Organizations such as Amnesty International also charged the regime with breaking terms of surrender deals and arresting civilians in Homs, Daraa, and the Damascus countryside.
Arbitrary Arrest: According to NGO reports and confirmed by regime memoranda secured and released by human rights documentation groups, the security branches secretly ordered many arrests and detentions. In areas under regime control, security forces engaged in arbitrary arrests. Activists and international humanitarian organizations stated that regime forces continued to conduct security raids in response to antigovernment protests.
Estimates varied widely on the number of Syrians remaining in arbitrary detention, as the regime continued to withhold information on the status of the vast majority of detainees. Between the start of the conflict in 2011 and March, the SNHR reported at least 149,360 arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances; it attributed 88 percent of these cases to the regime.
In May the ICTJ issued a report stating that the Syrian Arab Army and the four main security services–Political Security Directorate, General Intelligence Directorate, Military Intelligence Directorate, and Air Force Intelligence Directorate–were responsible for the majority of arbitrary arrests and detentions, often on fabricated charges. The SNHR reported that regime forces and proregime militias were responsible for nearly 500 cases of arbitrary arrest in the first half of the year, including eight minors and 11 women. The COI stated regime forces and affiliated militias continued to hold tens of thousands of persons arbitrarily or unlawfully in official and makeshift detention facilities. It further reported that women with familial ties to opposition fighters or defectors were detained for intelligence-gathering purposes or retribution.
In June, Amnesty International reported regime security forces arrested 11 men for participating in peaceful protests in Sweida. The regime threatened to send eight of them to the “antiterrorism” court in Damascus if protests in Sweida continued. The regime reportedly carried out a campaign of raids and arrests in Douma, arresting 12 civilians in June and taking them to an undisclosed location.
The PHR reported that regime forces continued to target specifically health-care workers because of their status as medical professionals and their real or perceived involvement in the provision of health services to opposition members and sympathizers. Survivors reported the regime relied on torture to coerce medical workers to confess to crimes they did not commit and gather information on other health workers and healthcare activities. Additionally, human rights activists said the regime was arresting health-care providers who spoke to international media outlets about the COVID-19 crisis or contradicted the tightly controlled narrative on the impact of the pandemic on the country.
The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) reported authorities continued to arrest men and boys arbitrarily at checkpoints, often citing no reason for their arrest or solely for being of military age. Some who had previously settled their security status with the regime via reconciliation agreements were then transferred to a long-term detention facility or forcibly disappeared.
The HRW reported regime intelligence branches were arbitrarily detaining and disappearing persons in areas retaken by the regime, in violation of reconciliation agreements. The COI reported fear of such arbitrary arrests and detention deterred internally displaced persons (IDPs) from returning to their homes in areas retaken by regime forces.
There also were instances of nonstate armed groups reportedly engaging in arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention (see section 1.g.). The STJ reported that Turkish-supported armed opposition groups (TSOs) detained residents based on their affiliation with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (SNES). For example, the STJ reported that civil police affiliated with the Syrian National Army (SNA), a coalition of Syrian armed opposition groups receiving support from the government of Turkey, arbitrarily arrested Kurdish civilians Samia Alo, Abdulhamid Shaiko, Mustafa Ahmad Ibrahim, Abdulrahamn Mustafa Alo, and Rashid Mustafa Ibo in an April 8 raid, demanding their families pay a fine to secure their release.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention remained a serious problem. Authorities reportedly held thousands of detainees incommunicado for months or years before releasing them without charge or bringing them to trial, while many detainees died in prison (see section 1.a.). A shortage of available courts and lack of legal provisions for speedy trial or plea bargaining contributed to lengthy pretrial detentions. There were numerous reported instances when the length of detention exceeded the sentence for the crime. Percentages for the prison and detainee population held in pretrial detention and the length of time held were not available. Syrian human rights groups continued to highlight the plight of detainees and advocate for their release.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: By law persons arrested or detained, regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention and any delay in obtaining judicial process. If the court finds that authorities detained persons unlawfully, they are entitled to prompt release, compensation, or both. Few detainees, however, had the ability to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court or obtain prompt release and compensation for unlawful detention.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but authorities regularly subjected courts to political influence and prosecutors and defense attorneys to intimidation and abuse. Outcomes of cases where defendants were affiliated with the opposition appeared predetermined, and defendants could sometimes bribe judicial officials and prosecutors. The SNHR reported regime authorities detained and denied access to fair public trial at least 1,730 individuals during the year, including those associated with NGOs, human rights activists, journalists, relief workers, religious figures, and medical providers.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair trial. The judiciary generally did not enforce this right, and the regime did not respect judicial independence.
The constitution presumes that defendants are innocent until proven guilty, but numerous reports indicated the CTC or courts-martial did not respect this right. Defendants have the right to prompt, detailed notification of the charges against them, with interpretation as necessary, although authorities did not enforce this right, and a number of detainees and their families reported the accused were unaware of the charges against them. Trials involving juveniles or sexual offenses, or those referred to the CTC or courts-martial, are held via video conference instead of in person. The law entitles defendants representation of their choice, but it does not permit legal representation for defendants accused of spying. The courts appoint lawyers for indigents.
The ICTJ reported that, in the majority of cases involving individuals arrested by regime intelligence branches, defendants were held incommunicado throughout their detention and denied access to a lawyer. The SNHR reported detainees on trial in military courts were often transferred to unknown locations without notification to their attorneys or families. Numerous NGOs reported families of individuals detained by the regime continued to be unable to access information on the status of their relatives.
Human rights groups reported that in some cases the regime provided prosecution case files to defense lawyers that did not include any evidence, if they provided anything at all. By law defendants may present witnesses and evidence or confront the prosecution witnesses, but authorities often did not respect this right. Defendants may not legally be compelled to testify or confess guilt, but family members and NGOs routinely reported defendants were tortured and intimidated to acquire information and force confessions, as described in a May ICTJ report.
Convicted persons may appeal verdicts to a provincial appeals court and ultimately to the Court of Cassation. Not all citizens enjoyed these rights equally, in part because interpretations of religious law provide the basis for elements of family and criminal law and discriminate against women. Some personal status laws apply sharia (Islamic law) regardless of the religion of those involved.
Additionally, media and NGO reports suggested the regime denied some, and in certain cases all, of these protections to those accused of political crimes, violence against the regime, or providing humanitarian assistance to civilians in opposition-held areas. Sentences for persons accused of antigovernment activity tended to be harsh, if they reached trial, with violent and nonviolent offenders receiving similar punishments. The regime did not permit defendants before the CTC to have effective legal representation. Although activists reported individuals charged under the counterterrorism law could retain attorneys to move their trial date, according to the International Legal Assistance Consortium, authorities did not allow them to speak during proceedings or retain copies of documents from the court’s file.
In opposition-controlled areas, legal or trial procedures varied by locale and the armed group in control. Local human rights organizations reported that local governing structures assumed these responsibilities. NGOs reported that civilians administered these processes employing customary sharia laws in some cases and national laws in others. Sentencing by opposition sharia councils sometimes resulted in public executions, without an appeals process or visits by family members.
According to local NGOs, opposition-run sharia councils continued to discriminate against women, not allowing them to serve as judges or lawyers or to visit detainees.
In the territories they controlled, Kurdish authorities continued to implement a legal code based on the “Social Charter.” Reports described the Social Charter as a mix of Syrian criminal and civil law with laws concerning divorce, marriage, weapons ownership, and tax evasion drawn from EU law, but without certain fair trial standards–such as the prohibition on arbitrary detention, the right to judicial review, and the right to appoint a lawyer. The justice system consisted of courts, legal committees, and investigative bodies.
Human rights groups and media organizations continued to report that the HTS denied those it had detained the opportunity in its sharia courts to challenge the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention. The HTS reportedly permitted confessions obtained through torture and executed or forcibly disappeared perceived opponents and their families.
Tens of thousands of men, women, and children from former ISIS held areas remained in the overcrowded al-Hol camp, administered by an international NGO with security assistance provided by the SDF, where living conditions remained challenging. While basic humanitarian needs were met, services were at times reduced at times due to COVID-19, security incidents persisted, and camp residents did not have freedom of movement.
The SDF reportedly provided information to the COI on its procedure for the return of al-Hol inhabitants and facilitated the return of approximately 1,500 inhabitants between December 2019 and February.
There were numerous reports of political prisoners and detainees. The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression reported the regime continued to detain civilians systematically. At greatest risk were those perceived to oppose the regime, including peaceful demonstrators, human rights activists, and political dissidents and their families. The four government intelligence agencies–Air Force, Military, Political Security, and General–were responsible for most such arrests and detentions.
Authorities continued to refuse to divulge information regarding the numbers or names of persons detained on political or security-related charges. Human rights groups noted detainees included doctors, humanitarian aid providers, human rights defenders, and journalists.
Prison conditions for political or national security prisoners, especially accused opposition members, reportedly continued to be much worse than those for common criminals. According to local NGOs, authorities deliberately placed political prisoners in crowded cells with convicted and alleged felons and subjected them to verbal and physical threats and widespread torture. Political prisoners also reported they often slept on the ground due to lack of beds and faced frequent searches. According to reports from families, particularly the Families for Freedom collective, authorities refused many political prisoners’ access to family and counsel. Some former detainees and human rights observers reported the regime denied political prisoners access to reading materials, including the Quran, and prohibited them from praying in their cells.
Many prominent civilian activists and journalists detained or forcibly disappeared following the 2011 protests reportedly remained in detention. There were no known developments in the majority of cases of reported disappearances from prior years, including the following persons believed forcibly disappeared by regime forces: nonviolent protester Abdel Aziz Kamal al-Rihawi; Alawite opposition figure Abdel Aziz al-Khair; Kurdish activist Berazani Karro; Yassin Ziadeh, brother of dissident Radwan Ziadeh; human rights lawyer Khalil Ma’touq and his assistant, Mohamed Zaza; human rights activist Adel Barazi; and peace activist and theater director Zaki Kordillo and his son, Mihyar Kordillo.
NGOs continued to report the regime used the counterterrorism law to arrest and convict nonviolent activists on charges of aiding terrorists in trials that violated basic due process rights. Although authorities reportedly brought charges under the guise of countering violent militancy, allegations included peaceful acts such as distributing humanitarian aid, participating in protests, and documenting human rights abuses.
Amnesty: The regime had issued 17 amnesty decrees since 2011, but decrees generally resulted in the release of limited numbers of ordinary criminals. These amnesties excluded detainees who had not been charged with any crimes, which comprised the majority in regime detention. In May the SNHR reported the regime only released 96 detainees in the two months following the March amnesty announcement, arbitrarily detaining 113 others within that same period. Limited releases of detainees occurred within the framework of localized settlement agreements with the regime. During the year regime forces violated prior amnesty agreements by conducting raids and arrest campaigns against civilians and former members of armed opposition factions in areas with signed settlement agreements with the regime.
Regime civil remedies for human rights violations were functionally nonexistent. In areas under their control, opposition groups did not organize consistent civil judicial procedures. The HTS and other extremist groups had no known civil judicial mechanisms in the territories they controlled.
In the areas of northeastern Syria under the control of the SNES, civilian peace and reconciliation committees reportedly resolved civil disputes before elevating them to a court.
Regime security forces routinely seized detainees’ property, personal items, and electronics. The law also provides for the confiscation of movable and immovable property of persons convicted of terrorism, a common charge for political opponents and other detainees since 2012. Security forces did not catalog these items in accordance with the law, and although detained individuals had the right to retrieve their confiscated belongings after release, authorities often did not return the property. According to media reports and activists, regime forces also seized property left by refugees and IDPs. The CTC could try cases in the absence of the defendant, thus providing legal cover for confiscation of such property left by refugees and IDPs. The situation was further complicated due to the destruction of court records and property registries in opposition-held areas in the years following the 2011 uprising.
The regime continued to use Decree 66 to “redesign unauthorized or illegal housing areas” and replace them with “modern” real estate projects. In May the Carnegie Middle East Center called the “Marota City” project in Damascus “the blueprint for future regime-led reconstruction process in Syria used to consolidate its authoritarian rule and crush dissent.” The regime gave residents of the area, known as Bastin al-Razi, 30 days to prove their property rights, an impossible timeframe for those detained, internally displaced, or outside the country due to the conflict.
The regime also continued to implement Law No. 10 to create “redevelopment zones” for reconstruction. Property owners were notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or lose ownership to the state. In January 2019 the regime extended the window from 30 days to one year for citizens to prove they own land being seized for development under Law No. 10, but the NGO PAX reported it was nearly impossible for thousands of refugees and IDPs to claim their property. Refugees and IDPs reportedly feared regime retribution should they attempt to claim their property, and others were unable to assert their housing, land, and property rights due to land zoning, titling, and documentation requirements. Despite the existence of an appeals process, the SJAC expressed serious concern the law was being implemented in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.
In August the European Institute of Peace (EIP) reported the regime had prevented IDPs from returning to Wadi Barada, an area formerly held by the opposition where extensive demolitions subsequently took place. It was estimated more than 10,000 displaced residents were unable to return to their homes in Wadi Barada.
The EIP interviewed a former Ain al-Fijeh resident who had received a notice of the regime’s intent to seize his property on charges of supporting terrorism. The resident stated that even his settlement agreement would not be accepted until he surrendered, despite previous regime promises to IDPs that they could return to their homes during settlement negotiations.
Armed groups also reportedly seized residents’ properties. In September the COI reported it had “corroborated repeated patterns of systematic looting and property appropriation” by SNA members in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn and that “after civilian property was looted, SNA fighters and their families occupied houses after civilians had fled, or ultimately coerced residents, primarily of Kurdish origin, to flee their homes, through threats, extortion, murder, abduction, torture, and detention.” The COI also reported TSO looting and seizures of schools, businesses, and agricultural machinery.
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary searches, but the regime routinely failed to respect these prohibitions. Police and other security services frequently bypassed search warrant requirements in criminal cases by citing security reasons or emergency grounds for entry into private property. Arbitrary home raids occurred in large cities and towns of most governorates where the regime maintained a presence, usually following antigovernment protests, opposition attacks against regime targets, or resumption of regime control.
The regime continued to open mail addressed to both citizens and foreign residents and routinely monitored internet communications, including email (see section 2.a.).
As described in COI reports, the regime employed informer systems against political opponents and perceived national security threats.
The regime reportedly punished large numbers of family members for offenses allegedly committed by their relatives. Numerous reports confirmed that the regime continued to punish entire families placed arbitrarily on a list of alleged terrorists by freezing their assets. The EIP interviewed a resident of Ain al-Fijeh who reported being arbitrarily detained for six months by regime security forces after several of his family members fled to Idlib.
g. Abuses in Internal Conflict
The regime, proregime militias such as the National Defense Forces, opposition groups, the SDF, and violent extremist groups, such as the HTS and ISIS, as well as foreign terrorist groups such as Hizballah, continued to participate in armed combat throughout the year. The governments of Russia, Turkey, and Iran participated in armed combat and supported armed groups operating in the country.
The most egregious human rights violations and abuses stemmed from the regime’s systemic disregard for the safety and well-being of its people. These abuses manifested themselves in a complete denial of citizens’ ability to choose their government peacefully, law enforcement authorities refusing to protect the majority of individuals from state and nonstate violence, and the use of violence against civilians and civilian institutions. Numerous reports, such as the September COI report, indicated the regime continued to arbitrarily and unlawfully kill, torture, and detain persons, notably including refugees and IDPs who voluntarily returned to regime-controlled territories. Attacks impacting and destroying civilian infrastructure including schools, hospitals, places of worship, water and electrical stations, bakeries, markets, civil defense force centers, densely populated residential areas, and houses were common throughout the country.
As of September there were more than 5.5 million Syrian refugees registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in neighboring countries and 6.6 million IDPs. UNHCR also estimated that as of September there were 11.1 million persons in need of humanitarian assistance, including 1.1 million in hard-to-reach, besieged areas.
Killings: The regime reportedly committed the majority of killings throughout the year (see section 1.a.).
Media sources and human rights groups varied in their estimates of how many persons had been killed since the beginning of the conflict in 2011; the United Nations stopped publishing estimates of the death toll in 2016. The SNHR estimated more than 220,000 civilians were killed within that time, and other groups attributed more than 550,000 killings to the conflict. This discrepancy was largely due to the large number of missing and disappeared Syrians, whose fates remained unknown. The SNHR attributed 91 percent of civilian deaths to regime and proregime forces.
Regime and proregime forces reportedly attacked civilians in hospitals, residential areas, schools, and settlements for IDPs and Palestinian refugee camps throughout the year; these attacks included bombardment with barrel bombs. These forces used the massacre of civilians, as well as their forced displacement, rape, starvation, and protracted sieges that occasionally forced local surrenders, as military tactics.
Reports from NGOs and a July COI report indicated that in Idlib, hostilities escalated from the beginning of the year until a ceasefire was brokered between Turkey and Russia in March. Before the ceasefire began, airstrikes by regime and proregime forces caused hundreds of civilian deaths in Idlib.
The SNHR reported the regime and Russian forces carried out at least 490 cluster munition attacks from 2011 to December, comprising the majority of cluster munition attacks during that period. The group also reported that attacks launched by these forces resulted in the deaths of at least 1,030 civilians, including 382 children and 217 women, as well as injuries to approximately 4,350 civilians. For example, the SNHR reported that six civilians, including a child and four women, were killed when a fixed-wing warplane believed to be Russian fired missiles on Jedraya on February 5.
Aerial and ground offensives throughout the demilitarized zone destroyed civilian infrastructure including “deconflicted” hospitals, schools, marketplaces, and farmlands. In April the BOI found it “highly probable” that the regime carried out attacks that impacted three health-care facilities, a school, and a refuge for children in northwest Syria, despite these locations coordinates being deconflicted between the United Nations and Russia.
In July the COI issued a report investigating incidents in northwest Syria, finding that the regime and proregime forces were responsible for 534 of the 582 confirmed civilian casualties since the beginning of the year. The COI reported that it had “reasonable grounds to believe that proregime forces committed the war crimes of deliberately attacking medical personnel and facilities by conducting airstrikes,” as well as “the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks resulting in death or injury to civilians,” and “that members of progovernment forces, and in particular the 25th Special Mission Forces Division, committed the war crime of pillage.” The COI further stated that proregime forces likely committed “the war crime of spreading terror among the civilian population.” The report noted that “progovernment forces carried out attacks consistent with clear patterns previously documented by COI, affecting markets and medical facilities,” and that “attacks on schools have emerged as one of the most vicious patterns in the Syrian conflict.”
On January 5, as proregime forces intensified efforts to recapture the town of Ariha, six aircraft launched munitions that damaged a water distribution point where civilians had gathered to collect water, in addition to damaging residential homes, a kindergarten, and a mosque, killing at least 13 civilians. On March 5, far from the front lines of the contested area, proregime forces conducted airstrikes on a poultry farm in Marat Misrin where displaced civilians had been relocated, killing at least 16 civilians, including eight women and three children. The COI indicated in its July report there was reason to believe that Russian Aerospace Forces conducted two consecutive airstrikes in this incident.
Although no use of prohibited chemical weapons was reported during the year, in April the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) concluded there were reasonable grounds to believe the regime was responsible for three chemical weapons attacks on Ltamenah in 2017. These attacks preceded the more deadly sarin attack in nearby Khan Shaykhun less than two weeks later and were part of the same concerted campaign of terror perpetrated by the Assad regime.
Additionally, the PHR, SNHR, and other NGOs concluded that Russia and the regime targeted humanitarian workers, such as the Syria Civil Defense (The White Helmets) as they attempted to save victims in affected communities. In February the Washington Post reported that airstrikes and shelling killed aid and medical workers attempting to help civilians in Idlib. Most of the 10,000 aid workers in the area were displaced by the regime’s offensive in the first few months of the year, including 15 percent of the International Rescue Committee staff.
There were numerous reports of deaths in regime custody, notably at the Mezzeh airport detention facility, Military Security Branches 215 and 235, and Sednaya Prison, by execution without due process, torture, and deaths from other forms of abuse, such as malnutrition and lack of medical care (see section 1.a.). In most cases authorities reportedly did not return the bodies of deceased detainees to their families.
Violent extremist groups were also responsible for killings during the year. The SNHR attributed 17 civilian deaths to the HTS in the first half of the year. The HTS arbitrarily detained 19-year-old Mohammed Tano in late 2019 and in April condemned him to death for blasphemy, although activists suspected the HTS executed him after discovering texts criticizing HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani. In May the online news outlet Middle East Eye reported the HTS killed a civilian in Idlib while using force to disperse a protest. In June the SNHR reported the HTS executed a university student by firing squad at a detention center after detaining him during a raid on his home. There was no trial, and his family was never given his body for burial. In July the COI reported the HTS launched antiregime attacks that affected civilians in regime-controlled areas. On January 21, a nine-year-old boy was killed by a mortar attack reportedly originating from the HTS-controlled part of Aleppo. The COI’s July report found “there are reasonable grounds to believe that members of the HTS committed the war crimes of murder and of passing sentences and carrying out executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court as well as the war crime of cruel treatment, ill-treatment and torture.”
The Wilson Center reported in September that ISIS was responsible for 640 attacks in Syria from October 2019 through June, often targeting civilians, persons suspected of collaborating with security forces and groups that ISIS deemed to be apostates.
Russia, Iran, and Turkey were involved in fighting in Syria during the year. The COI blamed Russia for aerial attacks in northwest Syria throughout the year. Eyewitnesses, a local human rights monitor, and local media reported that an attack carried out by Turkish forces or TSOs on October 16 struck a rural area killing a young boy and injuring others in Ain Issa; the circumstances of this event are in dispute. Official Turkish government sources reported responding to enemy fire on the date in question and in the area that corresponds with this event, with four to six People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters reportedly “neutralized,” a term Turkish authorities used to mean killed, captured, or otherwise removed from the battlefield. The Turkish government considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. According to media, YPG forces have also reportedly fired on Turkish and TSO forces following Turkey’s October 2019 incursion into northeast Syria and in November and December 2020 during fighting in the vicinity of Ayn Issa, including near civilian infrastructure.
During the year TSOs were allegedly engaged in extrajudicial killings. For example, in May the STJ reported TSO Sultan Murad detained and executed Ibrahim al-Youssef, after a failed extortion attempt. In August the Kurdish National Council and the Afrin Post reported that TSO Faylaq al-Sham militants killed a 63-year-old Kurdish Yezidi civilian, Nouri Jammou Omar Sharaf, following an unsuccessful extortion attempt. Human rights monitors also reported several instances of individuals dying under torture in Firqat al-Hamza and SNA Military Police detention. During the year the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), to whom the SNA nominally reports, announced the establishment of a commission within its Ministry of Defense to investigate serious allegations of abuses. The SIG sentenced one SNA fighter to a life sentence for the 2019 killing of the Kurdish politician and secretary general of the Future Syria political party, Hevrin Khalaf, and a range of other SNA abuses committed during Operation Peace Spring; however, the SIG did not publicly announce this sentencing and subsequently reduced the sentence to 10 years. Human rights and documentation groups expressed a lack of confidence in the credibility of the SIG’s accountability effort.
COI, the SNHR, and other human rights groups reported multiple car bombings, other attacks involving improvised explosive devices, and intra-TSO fighting in TSO-held areas in northern Syria, which resulted in dozens of civilian deaths, and noted the rise in such attacks during the year. While there was generally a lack of attribution for these attacks, Turkish government officials alleged most attacks were carried out by groups affiliated with PKK.
Abductions: Regime and proregime forces reportedly were responsible for the vast majority of disappearances during the year (see section 1.b.).
Armed groups not affiliated with the regime also reportedly abducted individuals, targeting religious leaders, aid workers, suspected regime affiliates, journalists, and activists.
The COI noted in its March and September reports that the HTS routinely detained and tortured civilians in territory in northwest Syria under HTS control. According to the COI and HRW, the HTS detained political opponents, perceived regime supporters and their families, journalists, activists, and humanitarian workers critical of the HTS or perceived as affiliated with other rebel groups at odds with the HTS in Idlib. The SNHR reported that approximately 2,115 persons remained in HTS detention as of August, among them political and media activists, 45 of whom reportedly died in detention. For example, the SNHR reported that in August the HTS abducted a pharmacist and director of the midwifery institute in Idlib, Mustafa al-Jazi. His fate remained unknown.
Although ISIS no longer controlled significant territory, the fate of 8,143 individuals forcibly disappeared by ISIS since 2014 remained unknown, according to the SNHR. Among those abducted in northern Iraq were an estimated 6,000 women and children, mainly Yezidis, who ISIS reportedly transferred to Syria and sold as sex slaves, forced into nominal marriage to ISIS fighters, or gave as “gifts” to ISIS commanders. The Yezidi organization Yazda reported more than 3,000 Yezidi women and children had since escaped, been liberated in SDF military operations, or been released from captivity, but almost 2,800 remained unaccounted for.
There were no updates in the kidnappings of the following persons believed to have been abducted by ISIS, armed opposition, or unidentified armed groups during the conflict: activists Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamada, Samira Khalil, and Nazim Hamadi; religious leaders Bolous Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim; and peace activist Paulo Dall’Oglio.
The COI reported the SDF continued to arrest civilians, including women and children, and hold them in detention without charge. In March the SNHR reported that since the start of the crisis in 2011, more than 3,000 Syrians, including 169 women and 602 children, were still missing after being detained or forcibly disappeared by the SDF. The SNHR and STJ reported instances of SDF fighters detaining civilians, including journalists, human rights activists, opposition party members, and persons affiliated with the SNA. In some instances the location of the detainees remained unknown. For example, the SNHR reported the SDF detained Muhammad Muhsen al-Ibrahim in March 2019 in a raid on his home in Deir Ez-Zour. The SDF did not provide information on al-Ibrahim’s status until September, when the family learned of his death in detention. The SDF continued to allow the ICRC into detention facilities to monitor and report on conditions. In September the SDF stated they had begun to investigate all charges against their forces outlined in the COI report.
The COI, HRW, Amnesty International, and Syrian human rights monitors reported multiple first-hand accounts of kidnapping and arbitrary detention by TSOs, including the groups Sultan Murad, Faylaq al-Sham, Firqat al-Hamza, and al-Jabha al-Shamiya, and the SNA’s Military Police. The SNHR attributed 185 arbitrary detentions and abductions in the first half of the year to TSO-aligned SNA fighters. The COI, STJ, the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), and other monitors documented a trend of TSO kidnappings of women in Afrin, where some women remained missing for years.
According to the COI, areas where TSOs were active continued to face instability due to increased infighting between the groups during the year. Victims of abductions by TSOs were often of Kurdish or Yezidi origin or were activists openly critical of TSOs or persons perceived to be affiliated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) or previous Kurdish administration of Afrin. The Afrin Human Rights Organization, the VDC, and Iraqi media outlet Rudaw reported the February 27 kidnapping of Areen Dali Hassan, a Yezidi woman, in Afrin City. Areen was believed to be in Firqat al-Hamza captivity in the “Castle Prison” in al-Basuta in Afrin District. In June, Families for Freedom and a coalition of 11 other human rights groups reported that fighting between Jaysh al-Islam and Firqat al-Hamza resulted in the deaths of three civilians and led to the discovery of at least eight women in degrading conditions in Firqat al-Hamza captivity.
The COI reported in September on the transfer of Syrians detained by SNA fighters to the custody of the government of Turkey, indicating collaboration and joint operations between the Turkish government and the SNA which could, if any members were shown to be acting under the effective command and control of Turkish forces, “entail criminal responsibility for commanders who knew or should have known about the crimes, or failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or repress their commission.” The Turkish government denied these reports and denied responsibility for Syrian opposition or TSO conduct but broadly acknowledged the need for investigations and accountability related to such reports and relayed that the Turkish-supported SNA had established mechanisms for investigation and discipline. The government of Turkey stated its own conduct in the operation was consistent with international law and that the military took care to avoid civilian casualties throughout.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: According to the COI and reliable NGO reports, the regime and its affiliated militias consistently engaged in physical abuse, punishment, and torture of opposition fighters and civilians (see sections 1.c. and 1.d.). Numerous organizations and former detainees reported that nearly all detainees in regime detention experienced physical abuse and torture at some point during their detention.
As of March the SNHR estimated parties of the conflict committed at least 11,523 incidents of sexual violence since March 2011. Regime forces and affiliated militias were responsible for the vast majority of these offenses–more than 8,000 incidents in total–including more than 800 incidents inside detention centers and more than 400 against girls younger than age 18 years. The SNHR also reported 3,487 incidents of sexual violence by ISIS and 12 incidents by the SDF. Numerous NGOs reported that persons in areas retaken by regime forces remained reluctant to discuss events occurring in these areas due to fear of reprisals. The Syrian Initiative to Combat Sexual and Gender-based Violence reported most sexual and gender-based abuses by regime forces during the year occurred at checkpoints or in detention (see section 1.d.). In August the SNHR and the All Survivors Project issued a joint statement to the UN Human Rights Council on the prevalence of sexual abuse and rape as a tool of torture used by the regime against men and boys.
There were also reports of armed opposition groups engaging in physical abuse, punishment, and treatment equivalent to torture, primarily targeting suspected regime agents and collaborators, proregime militias, and rival armed groups. Between 2011 and June, the SNHR attributed more than 43 deaths due to torture to armed opposition groups, more than 26 to the HTS (including one child), and more than 33 to ISIS, including a child and 13 women. The SNHR attributed 52 deaths to torture by Kurdish forces.
The SDF was also implicated in several instances of torture, with the SNHR reporting the group used torture as a means of extracting confessions during interrogations. On January 29, the SNHR reported it had received notification that Fajr Ibrahim died in custody allegedly as the result of medical negligence, after being detained by the SDF in February. The SNHR also reported detainee Mua’th al-Muhammad al-Kal from Raqqa, reportedly detained in February for transferring money to ISIS-affiliated family members, asserted that while imprisoned, he was left in solitary confinement without food and was subjected to beating and torture for several days. The SNHR also reported video surveillance obtained in March showed severe overcrowding in Ghwayran Prison. In September the COI reported several instances of repeated torture of detainees in SDF prisons. The SDF continued to implement protocols to ensure torture was not used as an interrogation technique and initiated investigations into specific incidents of torture presented by the COI. In September the SDF also stated they had begun to investigate all charges against their forces outlined in the COI report.
According to the SNHR’s June report on the use of torture in Syria, the HTS continued to carryout detentions and kidnappings of local political opponents and journalists. In June the SNHR reported that members of HTS arrested human rights activist Omar al-Eis and kept him in solitary detention for 126 days. Al-Eis reported hearing sounds of torture every day at the Uqab Prison. In April, HTS fighters abducted Hassan Salh Abs from Sarmin. On April 20, his family received information he had been tortured to death at an HTS detention center. Human rights groups continued to report that the HTS officially denounces secularism and routinely detained and tortured journalists, activists, and other civilians in territory it controlled who were deemed to be have violated the group’s stringent interpretation of sharia. Employing sharia courts, the HTS reportedly denied those arrested the opportunity to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention, permitted confessions obtained through torture, and executed or forcibly disappeared perceived opponents and their families. Media organizations also documented the forced conversion of Druze and Alawite civilians by the HTS, detaining or disappearing those refusing to comply.
The COI, OHCHR, and human rights groups reported that, since January 2018, TSO groups had allegedly participated in the torture and killings of civilians in Afrin and, since October 2019, in the areas taken during Turkish Operation Peace Spring. The COI reported in March, “there are reasonable grounds to believe that members of armed groups under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army committed the war crimes of hostage-taking, cruel treatment, ill-treatment and torture” in Afrin and the Operation Peace Spring area. The COI in September reported the torture and rape of minors in TSO detention and “corroborated widespread arbitrary deprivation of liberty perpetrated by various Syrian National Army brigades in the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions.” The Violations Documentation Center and local media reported in July that SNA-affiliated Firqat al-Hamza had tortured Mahmoud Hassan Omri, a 27-year-old man with a disability, to death in Ras al-Ayn after forcibly disappearing him in November 2019 when he sought to return to his home, which had been seized by the group.
Child Soldiers: Several sources documented the continued unlawful recruitment and use of children in combat. The UN special representative on children and armed conflict reported in its annual report that at least 820 children had been recruited as child soldiers during the reporting period. According to HRW and the COI, numerous groups and factions failed to prevent the enlistment of minors, while elements affiliated with the SDF, the SNA, as well as ISIS and the HTS, actively recruited children as fighters. The COI reported that armed groups “recruited, trained, and used children in active combat roles.”
The UN General Assembly’s annual Children and Armed Conflict report to the secretary-general reported the recruitment and use of 820 children (765 boys, and 55 girls) in the conflict between January and December of 2019. According to the report, 798 of the children served in combat roles and 147 were younger than age 15. The report attributed 283 verified cases to SDF-affiliated groups; 245 to the HTS; 191 to Free Syria Army-affiliated groups; 26 to Ahrar al-Sham; one to ISIS; 17 to Jaysh al-Islam; three to Nur al-Din al-Zanki; and 10 to regime forces.
In January the COI reported it continued receiving reports of young boys, some considered by persons who saw them to not be older than age 13, observed at checkpoints staffed by the regime and associated militia in Hama. One interviewee explained to the COI how one of the boys, age 16, joined the regime military forces after ISIS killed his brothers.
The COI continued to receive reports of children being recruited by HTS in Idlib governorate, as proregime forces intensified their offensive. In Aleppo boys between 13 to 17 years of age joined armed groups. One interviewee described the case of a 14-year-old boy who joined Ahrar al-Sham in 2018 along with his older brother to participate in operation “Olive Branch” and served at a checkpoint in Aleppo.
In 2019 the SDF signed an action plan with the UN secretary-general’s special representative for children and armed conflict to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children, as well as to identify and separate boys and girls within the group’s ranks and to put in place protection and disciplinary measures related to child recruitment and use. The SDF continued to implement an order banning the recruitment and use in combat of anyone younger than 18, ordering the military records office to verify the ages of those currently enlisted, requiring the release of any conscripted children to their families or to educational authorities in northeast Syria, and ending salary payments. The SDF order also prohibited using children for spying, to act as guards, or to deliver supplies to combatants. The order makes military commanders responsible for appointing ombudsmen to receive complaints of child recruitment and ordered punitive measures against commanders who failed to comply with the ban on child recruitment. During the year the SDF screened out more than 250 minors seeking to join its ranks and continued to develop and refine an age screening mechanism in coordination with the United Nations.
The United Nations confirmed the SDF had demobilized 86 minors (56 girls and 30 boys) during the year and, working with the SNES, returned these minors to their families for community-based reintegration, pursuant to UN requests. In 2019 also the SDF demobilized 86 children.
The SDF and SNES in August announced the establishment of the Complaints Mechanism, a key component of the child soldier demobilization initiative, which provides parents a single SNES and SDF point of contact to inquire about, identify, and demobilize minors from the SDF. The United Nations reported 10 children were recently returned to their parents through this mechanism.
In August the SDF publicly announced it would cease its use of schools for military purposes; the United Nations subsequently confirmed the SDF withdrew from 16 of 28 schools it identified as under SDF use for military purposes, as well as from two other schools.
Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: In January the COI reported, “warring parties have looted and vandalized educational establishments and used schools for military purposes, including as depots, barracks, sniper posts, temporary bases or launching sites. Repeated attacks on educational facilities combined with the complete breakdown of the education system have minimized the opportunities for children to resume their studies and improve prospects for their future.” The COI further concluded it had documented “instances where Government forces deliberately attacked schools, and therefore committed the war crimes of deliberately targeting a civilian object and deliberately attacking civilians.”
In cities where sieges ended and the regime regained control, the SNHR reported the regime and its allies frequently imposed new collective measures to punish communities by restricting humanitarian access; looting and pillaging; expropriating property; extorting funds; engaging in arbitrary detentions and widespread forcible conscription; detaining, disappearing, or forcibly displacing individuals; engaging in repressive measures aimed at silencing media activists; and destroying evidence of war crimes.
The United Nations estimated that violence in Idlib displaced more than 900,000 persons–80 percent women and children–since December 2019.
According to Amnesty International and numerous other human rights and humanitarian groups, those trapped in the area were crammed into close quarters with IDPs and vulnerable to the regime’s and Russia’s campaign of aerial bombardments impacting civilian infrastructure. The White Helmets documented more than 2,200 airstrikes in January and February, including 32 cluster-bomb attacks and 605 barrel bombs in Idlib, along with Aleppo and Hama. UN officials throughout the year voiced grave concerns about the situation for civilians caught in the Idlib siege. Cross-border assistance remained the only means of reaching persons in and around Idlib.
HRW and various media organizations found that the regime implemented a policy and legal framework to manipulate humanitarian assistance and reconstruction funding to benefit itself, punish perceived opponents, and reward those loyal to it. The regime regularly restricted humanitarian organizations’ access to communities in need of aid, selectively approved humanitarian projects, and required organizations to partner with vetted local actors to ensure that the humanitarian response was siphoned centrally through and for the benefit of the state apparatus, at the cost of preventing aid from reaching the population unimpeded. Organizations continued to report that entities such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) faced difficulties accessing areas retaken by the regime.
The regime frequently blocked access for humanitarian assistance and removed items such as medical supplies from convoys headed to civilian areas, particularly areas held by opposition groups. Foreign Policy and HRW reported that the regime had weaponized humanitarian assistance, only allowing the delivery of assistance to loyalist-held areas through regime organizations such as the Syria Trust for Development, which was led by Bashar Assad’s wife, or the SARC.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), more than half of all health facilities were closed or partially functioning, and hundreds of health-care workers had been killed during the conflict. NGOs and media outlets documented repeated and continuing attacks on health facilities and other civilian infrastructure in northwest Syria perpetrated by regime and Russian forces. From March 2011 through March 2020, the PHR reported 595 attacks on at least 350 separate health facilities and documented the killing of 923 medical personnel, with regime and Russian forces responsible for 91 percent of attacks (301 by regime forces and 229 by either Russian or regime forces). In Idlib medical professionals continued to be injured and killed throughout the year. The COI concluded this pattern of attack strongly suggested proregime forces systematically targeted medical facilities and that such acts constituted war crimes. The BOI further reported that Russian and regime forces launched attacks that devastated medical facilities and networks in Idlib. In June, Russia informed the United Nations it would no longer participate in the UN deconfliction mechanism.
The COI reported that the above incidents followed a well documented pattern of attacks with humanitarian and civilian impact conducted by the regime, with Russian and Iranian support.
The 2018 COI report further detailed a practice in which, after hostilities ceased and local truces were implemented, regime and proregime forces required certain individuals from the previously besieged areas to undergo a reconciliation process as a condition to remain in their homes. The option to reconcile reportedly often was not offered to health-care personnel, local council members, relief workers, activists, dissidents, and family members of fighters. In effect, the COI assessed, the “reconciliation process” induced displacement in the form of organized evacuations of those deemed insufficiently loyal to the regime and served as a regime strategy for punishing those individuals. Various sources continued to report cases during the year in which the regime targeted persons who agreed to reconciliation agreements (see sections 1.b., 1.d., and 1.e.).
Regime forces and armed groups also pillaged and destroyed property, including homes, farms, and businesses of their perceived opponents.
The COI and NGOs such as PAX indicated that, taken together with steps such as the enactment of Law No. 10 on the confiscation of unregistered properties, the forcible displacements may fit into a wider plan to strip those displaced of their property rights, transfer populations, and enrich the regime and its closest allies (see section 1.e.).
While the government pushed forward to recapture areas around the M5 highway at the beginning of the year, armed groups such as the HTS launched counterattacks against government positions in Idlib, Aleppo. These attacks, although much fewer and smaller in scale than those by the regime and proregime forces, caused some civilian casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure. The COI reported that on February 5, armed groups fired three rockets impacting a densely populated area in the government-controlled Hamdaniya neighborhood of western Aleppo. This attack damaged a hospital and residential home and killed a family of five. The COI described this attack as “indiscriminate, indirect artillery fire of area weapons into densely populated civilian areas.” The COI also reported the HTS sought to intimidate the local population from expressing dissent by beating and detaining participants during protests throughout the year. In April, HTS forces killed a man while breaking up a demonstration. The COI stated the HTS detained journalists and NGO workers for weeks on the basis of their criticism of HTS activities and that HTS had shot and killed detainees trying to escape during airstrikes on the Qasimiah detention facility on January 17. The COI reported other HTS abuses as well, including looting in Atarib, attempts to control and interfere with the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and preventing large numbers of girls from attending school.
The COI and international and Syrian NGOs such as the STJ reported throughout the year that TSO groups had engaged in the systematic looting, seizure, appropriation, and destruction of civilian homes and religious sites, particularly those of Kurds and Yezidis, resulting in significant civilian displacement. TSOs also reportedly continued to bar returnees from their properties in northern Syria and informed them that their real or presumed support for the YPG precluded them from living in the area. Confiscated homes were marked with graffiti and then used by armed groups for military purposes or as housing for fighters and their families. According to numerous organizations, including STJ, VDC, and al-Monitor, TSOs, including Firqat al-Hamza and Sultan Murad, seized agricultural machinery, water tanks, and other private property in Ras al-Ayn and sold it back to owners. Firqat al-Hamza and Ahrar al-Sharqiya reportedly seized homes and clinics and then charged their owners rent. In August and September, the COI, media organization The Syria Report, and the STJ reported the Syrian Interim Government’s Ras al-Ayn Local Council seized two private properties owned by Kurdish residents in Ras al-Ayn and that the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, a Turkish NGO, then converted the properties into religious centers without compensating the owners, despite petitions made to the Council. The governor of Turkey’s Sanliurfa Province delivered remarks in June for the ribbon-cutting ceremony of one of these converted sites.
TSOs continued to interfere with and disrupt water access to parts of northeast Syria despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The OHCHR reported in September that “Turkish-affiliated armed groups, which control the Alouk water pumping station in Ras al-Ain, have repeatedly disrupted water supplies, affecting access to water for up to one million individuals in the city of al-Hassakeh and surrounding areas, including extremely vulnerable displaced persons in various IDP camps.” According to NGO reporting, Alouk Station was offline for 55 percent of the time between October 2019 and August due to TSO denial of access to maintenance crews and deliberate shutdown of the station. Turkish authorities alleged the frequent shutdowns resulted from inadequate power being provided to the plant from a power generation facility in SDF-controlled area, a claim disputed by the United Nations and NGOs present in northeast Syria.
The COI reported in September that SNA members looted and destroyed religious and archaeological sites in the Afrin region, including Yezidi shrines and graveyards, as well as sites protected by UNESCO. In April the NGO Ezdina documented the destruction of Yezidi shrines in Afrin by TSOs, including the shrines of Sheikh Junaid, Sheikh Hussein, Gilkhan, and Sheikh Rikab. In July the NGO Bellingcat reported on the destruction of multiple Yezidi shrines and graves in Afrin, including Qibar cemetery. These organizations also reported cases where TSOs imposed restrictions on religious freedom and harassed Yezidis.
In August, Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported continued abuses against the Christian community, including the detention of Radwan Mohammad by Faylaq al-Sham in Afrin on charges of apostasy after he refused to hand his school building over to the group for conversion into an Islamic school. In July, Faylaq al-Sham also prevented Mohammad from preparing his wife’s body for burial due to her faith.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the regime severely restricted this right, often terrorizing, abusing, arresting, or killing those who attempted to exercise this right.
Freedom of Speech: 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. For example, Article 376 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 invoking provisions of law prohibiting acts or speech inciting sectarianism. The regime monitored political meetings and relied on informer networks.
Freedom of Press and 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. Article 287 stipulates that the broadcasting of false or exaggerated news abroad that undermines the prestige of the state or its financial standing is subject to a minimum prison sentence of six months in addition to a fine. Article 309 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 SJAC noted accounts of the regime pressuring doctors, journalists, and patients to suppress reporting on the spread of COVID-19, including one journalist at a state-owned media outlet who was barred from reporting on COVID-19 deaths.
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 Arab networks.
Violence and Harassment: Regime forces reportedly detained, arrested, and harassed journalists and other writers for works deemed critical of the state as well as journalists associated with networks favorable to the regime. 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. 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. Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported that regime authorities in May arbitrarily detained Nada Mashraki, who worked as an editor for Latakkia News Network, after she published a story about judicial corruption. Mashraki was released a month later.
RSF reported that 28 journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants remained imprisoned, although it did not specify by whom. The reason for arrests was often unclear. The SNHR reported that at least 350 citizen journalists remained missing as of May after being arbitrarily detained by the regime since the beginning of the conflict.
The regime and, to a lesser extent, the HTS and other armed groups routinely targeted and killed both local and foreign journalists, according to the COI, Freedom House, and the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ). The CPJ estimated that at least 137 journalists were killed since 2011, while the SNHR estimated more than 707 citizen journalists were killed between March 2011 and May. The SNHR attributed 573 of citizen journalist deaths from 2011 and through 2020 to regime and proregime forces, including 47 individuals who died due to torture.
During the year the CPJ and RSF documented the deaths of two journalists by Russian forces. A Russian airstrike killed Abdul Nasser Haj Hamdan on February 20 while he was documenting the bombardment of Ma’arat al-Naasan in northern Idlib governorate; another Russian airstrike killed freelance photographer Amjad Anas Aktalati on February 4 in Ariha, south of Idlib.
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. Censorship was implemented by the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE) and private internet service provider (ISP) 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 control strictly 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 problems, including religious and ethnic minority rights and tensions. 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.
According to National Public Radio, despite regime censorship and a campaign of intimidation to suppress information about the spread of COVID-19, medical workers reported the virus was spreading quickly across the country and that government hospitals were overwhelmed. In August the SJAC noted accounts of the regime pressuring doctors, journalists, and patients to suppress reporting on the spread of COVID-19. The media publication Syria in Context reported in August that recent satellite imagery showed significant burial activity in Najha cemetery in Damascus, indicating the regime was burying thousands of individuals who died due to COVID-19; Najha is the same cemetery where the regime allegedly buried hundreds of thousands of victims of its notorious detention centers. Doctors in regime hospitals reportedly listed “pneumonia” as the cause of death on death certificates for individuals suspected to have died from COVID-19.
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 nine years justified their fears, especially as many of them covered the uprising since its outset, helped to document the regime’s human rights violations, and risked severe reprisals if identified with the opposition.
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 the HTS, detained, tortured, and harassed journalists (see section 1.g.) and posed a serious threat to press and media freedoms. The COI described HTS targeting female media workers for harassment and threatening detention, causing them to resort to self-censoring and hiding their cameras. In August the SNHR reported that media activist Fayez al-Dgheim was forcibly disappeared by police affiliated with the HTS and that his family had not heard from him, nor were they officially notified of his arrest.
The SNHR also documented HTS members’ assault of 13 citizen journalists on June 10, while they were reporting on the passage of a Russian-Turkish joint patrol on the Latakia-Aleppo International Road. HTS members attacked them and smashed their equipment, accusing them of filming women during their media coverage.
In areas controlled by the regime, the STE served as both an ISP and a telecommunications regulator, providing the government with tight control over the internet infrastructure. Independent satellite-based connections were prohibited but heavily employed across the country, given the damage that information and communication technology infrastructure sustained as a result of the conflict. ISPs and cybercafes operating in regime-controlled areas required a permit from the STE and another security permit from the Interior Ministry, and cybercafe owners were required to monitor customers and record their activities. The regime controlled and restricted access to the internet and monitored email and social media accounts.
Freedom House continued to report that self-censorship was widespread online and had increased in recent years as users contended with threats and violent reprisals for critical content. Sensitive topics included President Assad, former president Hafez Assad, the military, the ruling Baath Party, or influential government officials. Other sensitive subjects including religious and ethnic tensions and corruption allegations related to the president’s family were also off-limits. Individuals and groups reportedly could not express views via the internet, including by email, without prospect of reprisal. The regime applied the law to regulate internet use and prosecuted users. The anticybercrime law (also referred to as Law No. 9), which increased penalties for cybercrimes, including those affecting the freedom of expression, remained in place. It also mandates the creation of specialized courts and delegates specialized jurists for the prosecution of cybercrimes in every governorate. RSF asserted the law served as a tool for the regime to threaten online freedom. The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression reported the regime monitored citizens affiliated with the opposition and worked to undermine their activities online. Citizen journalists and other civilians were frequently targeted based on their digital activism. Hackers linked to Iran continued cyberattacks against Syrian opposition groups to disrupt reporting on human rights violations.
The regime interfered with and blocked internet service, text messages, and two-step verification messages for password recovery or account activation. The regime employed sophisticated technologies and hundreds of computer specialists for filtering and surveillance purposes, such as monitoring email and social media accounts of detainees, activists, and others. The regime did not prosecute or otherwise take action to restrict the security branches’ monitoring and censoring of the internet. The security branches were largely responsible for restricting internet freedom and access; internet blackouts often coincided with security force attacks. According to Freedom House, the regime blocked websites for human rights groups as well as those criticizing the regime’s political, cultural, social, or economic policies; criticizing specific high-level government officials; or mobilizing persons to protest or resist the regime, including those linked to the network of activists known as the Local Coordination Committees.
The regime also restricted or prohibited internet access in areas under attack. Regime officials obstructed connectivity through their control of key infrastructure, at times shutting the internet and mobile telephone networks entirely or at particular sites of unrest. There was generally little access to state-run internet service in besieged areas unless users could capture signals clandestinely from rooftops near regime-controlled areas. Some towns in opposition-held areas had limited internet access via satellite connections. Some activists reportedly gained access independently to satellite internet or through second- and third-generation (2G and 3G) cellular telephone network coverage.
The regime expanded its efforts to use social media, such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, to spread proregime propaganda and manipulate online content, including false content aiming to undermine the credibility of human rights and humanitarian groups. The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a group of proregime computer hackers, frequently launched cyberattacks on websites to disable them and post proregime material. In addition to promoting hacking and conducting surveillance, the regime and groups it supported, such as the SEA, reportedly planted spyware and other malware in at least 71 android applications using COVID-19 lures to target human rights activists, opposition members, and journalists. Local human rights groups blamed regime personnel for instances in which malware infected activists’ computers. Arbitrary arrests raised fears that authorities could arrest internet users at any time for online activities perceived to threaten the regime’s control, such as posting on a blog, tweeting, commenting on Facebook, sharing a photograph, or uploading a video.
Observers also accused the SEA of slowing internet access to force self-censorship on regime critics and diverting email traffic to regime servers for surveillance.
The regime restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Authorities generally did not permit employees of academic institutions to express ideas contrary to regime policy. The Ministry of Culture restricted and banned the screening of certain films.
The regime limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, but the law grants the government broad powers to restrict this freedom.
The Ministry of Interior requires permission for demonstrations or any public gathering of more than three persons. As a rule the ministry authorized only demonstrations by the regime, affiliated groups, or the Baath Party, orchestrating them on numerous occasions. Freedom House reported that residents of Sweida used Facebook to call for protests in January against corruption and deteriorating economic conditions in regime-held areas under the campaign slogan “We Want to Live.” Further protests in Sweida prompted a regime crackdown in June, in which regime security forces and proregime militias assaulted and arbitrarily detained protesters.
According to allegations by human rights activists and press reporting, at times the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the YPG suppressed freedom of assembly in areas under their control. Throughout the year inhabitants in Deir Ez-Zour protested against alleged corruption by SDF officials, lack of access to basic services, reports of forced conscription of youths into the SDF, and lack of information on the status of men and boys detained by the SDF due to suspected affiliations to ISIS. Protests generally occurred throughout northeast Syria on a variety of issues without interference from local authorities; however, the SNHR reported SDF members opened fire on a protest in Mheimida, killing Najm Hussein al-Atwan, and the SDF arbitrarily detained 28 civilians in al-Sh-heil and al-Hawayij following protests in those areas. The SDF reported arresting, trying, and convicting one member of its forces for opening fire and killing an unarmed demonstrator.
During the year the HTS repressed civil society activity and public protests. Media outlets and the SNHR reported HTS militants shot and killed Saleh al-Mrie in April when they opened fire on civilians protesting the opening of a commercial border to link territory controlled by the HTS with regime-held areas.
The constitution provides for the freedom of association, but the law grants the regime latitude to restrict this freedom. The regime required prior registration and approval for private associations and restricted the activities of associations and their members. The executive boards of professional associations were not independent of the regime.
None of the local human rights organizations operated with a license, due to the regime’s practice of denying requests for registration or failing to act on them, reportedly on political grounds, but some functioned under organizations that had requisite government registration. The regime continued to block the multiyear effort by journalists to register a countrywide media association, but journalists in exile continued working to empower the role of freedom of the press and expression through the Syrian Journalist Association, an independent democratic professional association established in 2012 by Syrians in exile.
The regime selectively enforced the 2011 decree allowing the establishment of independent political parties, permitting only proregime groups to form official parties (see section 3). According to local human rights groups, opposition activists declined to organize parties, fearing the regime would use party lists to target opposition members.
Under laws that criminalize membership and activity in illegal organizations as determined by the regime, security forces detained individuals linked to local human rights groups, prodemocracy student groups, and other organizations perceived to be supporting the opposition, including humanitarian groups.
The HTS and other armed groups also restricted freedom of association in areas they controlled. The SNHR reported al-Qa’ida-linked Hurras al-Din kidnapped Khaled Mdallala, a prominent activist and director of the Sham al-Khair Association, on February 24 as part of its effort to repress and restrict civil society organizations operating in Idlib. TSOs reportedly detained residents based on their affiliation with the SNES (see section 1.d.).
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
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, the 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 the HTS, also restricted movement, including with checkpoints (see section 1.g.). The COI reported in July that HTS systematically interfered with women’s freedom of movement, harassing unaccompanied women and denying them access to public events under threat of detention. The HTS also attempted to control and interfere with the delivery of humanitarian assistance, according to COI reporting.
While the Syrian Democratic Council and the SDF generally supported IDP communities in northeast Syria, in June, HRW reported that the SNES was restricting the movement of more than 10,000 foreign women and children suspected to be affiliated with ISIS in a separate section of the al-Hol IDP camp. The COI reported in January that many of the children in al-Hol camp lacked birth registration papers, in some cases because parents were unable to register, jeopardizing their rights to a nationality, hindering family reunification processes, and increasing their vulnerability to abuse.
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 with opposition groups, or ties to geographic areas where the opposition dominated. 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 approximately $800, which many Syrians found prohibitive. Additionally, the regime often banned travel by human rights or civil society activists, their families, and affiliates. Many citizens reportedly learned of the ban against their travel only when authorities prevented them from departing the country. The regime reportedly applied travel bans without explanation or explicit duration, including in cases when individuals sought to travel for health reasons. 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 often refused to allow some citizens to return, while millions more Syrians who fled to neighboring countries reportedly feared retribution by the regime should they return. In July the regime implemented a new policy of charging returning refugees a substantial fee to enter the country. The press-monitoring organization Middle East Monitor reported this fee presented a barrier to refugee returns. On September 5, Lebanese government officials announced that 17-year-old Zainab Mohammed Al-Ibrahim, a Syrian refugee, had died while she was trapped between the two countries because she could not afford the fee needed to enter into Syria. A regime immigration official stated the regime’s policy was to refuse entry to any Syrian unable to pay the fee and that the Lebanese government did not accept Syrians back once they crossed the border.
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, much of it attributed to Syrians fleeing regime and Russian aerial attacks, including almost one million persons who were displaced in Idlib during the first three months of the year–the largest single displacement of the conflict. Years of fighting and evacuations repeatedly displaced persons, with each displacement further depleting family assets. The UN estimated more than 6.6 million IDPs were in the country and 2.6 million children and 4.7 million individuals were in need of acute assistance. It also included 1.3 million new IDPs and 184,921 IDP return movements since the start of the year. In July the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recorded 32,170 spontaneous IDP returnees in several areas across the country. Approximately 25,000 of these returns were recorded within and between Aleppo and Idlib governorates. Spontaneous IDP return movements in areas other than northwest Syria 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, refused to allow IDPs to return home. According to PAX and Impunity Watch, the regime systematically dispossessed Syrians perceived to threaten the regime’s authority of their property, presenting an increasingly grave impediment to the return of refugees and IDPs (see section 1.e., Property Restitution). The Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity reported in July that regime repression had led the vast majority of Syrian refugees, as well as IDPs displaced from regime-held areas, to fear returning to their homes.
Syrians 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.
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 bureaucratic obstruction 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 increasingly restricted cross-line operations originating from Damascus. In January the Russian government, by threatening to veto resolution drafts maintaining existing crossings for UN cross-border humanitarian assistance measures, forced through a UN Security Council resolution that reduced UN cross-border humanitarian assistance from four crossings to two, cutting off northeast Syria from crucial health-related humanitarian assistance. The provision of cross-border assistance by the United Nations and its humanitarian partners was further restricted to one border crossing with Turkey in July after the Russian and Chinese governments vetoed a resolution that would have extended authorization for cross-border assistance through both Turkey crossings into northwest Syria and reinstated the Iraq crossing into northeast Syria. Turkey placed restrictions on the provision of humanitarian and stabilization aid to areas of northeast Syria from Turkey. Jordan’s borders remained closed since mid-March due to COVID-19 prevention measures.
Assistance reached some hard-to-reach locations, but the regime continued to hinder UN and NGO access, and the regime secured control over many of these areas during the year. Humanitarian actors noted that access remained a pressing concern for service delivery in areas controlled by the regime and nongovernmental actors.
Humanitarian conditions in Rukban remained dire due to severely constrained access to the area. The regime and Russian government routinely refused to approve UN requests for assistance delivery. The most recent UN convoy to Rukban took place in October 2019. A UN mission, including a regime-requested health assessment, planned for April 21, was rejected by the Russian government. The convoy was expected to deliver a combination of food, nutritional supplements, and nonfood items to 2,300 households in Rukban. Conditions in the camp remained poor with few deliveries of food and basic provisions permitted by the regime. Rukban residents continued to depart the settlement in small groups, and several hundred returned to regime-held areas since late March, according to UN sources, including at least several dozen who departed for urgent health services not available in the camp. The regime did not permit those who departed to return to the camp.
Armed opposition groups and terrorist groups such as the 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 demanding a share of food packages, cash payments, and housing developments intended for others. For example the HTS reportedly detained and harassed SARC personnel on March 14, occupying offices in Idlib and Ariha and removing and destroying SARC-owned materials. NGOs continued to report bureaucratic challenges in working with the HTS 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).
UNHCR maintained that conditions for refugee return to the country in safety and dignity were not yet in place and did not promote, nor facilitate, the return of refugees to the country during the year. Throughout the year, however, the regime and Russian government maintained a diplomatic campaign to encourage the return of refugees to Syria. The Russian government reportedly sought to use the return of Syrian refugees as a means to secure international donations for Syria reconstruction efforts, and in November the regime and Russia held a conference on refugee returns in Damascus. The conference did not address any of the root causes that caused persons to flee the regime or offer actionable steps to secure the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of refugees, and was organized without input or support from an internationally recognized authority on humanitarian or refugee issues.
The COI described in January interviews with Syrian parents who relocated their children, particularly boys, outside of Syria to protect them from violence. In one such case, an estimated 500 unaccompanied children, almost all boys older than 14, were registered in 2013 in a refugee camp near the Syrian border.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: 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. The Damascus governorate council announced in June a plan to confiscate the property of households in the Palestinian Yarmouk Camp as part of a reconstruction project, displacing Palestinian residents unable to prove ownership of their property. Muammar Dakak, director of technical studies in the Damascus governorate council, announced in July that Yarmouk residents would not receive alternative housing.
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 areas 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.
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, 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 those 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 the single-day census in 1962, and the government executed it unannounced to the inhabitants of al-Hasakah governorate. Anyone 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 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 Hasakah who were registered as “foreigners” could apply for citizenship. It was unclear how many Kurds benefited from the decree. UNHCR reported 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.