President Bashar Assad has ruled the Syrian Arab Republic since 2000. The constitution mandates the primacy of Baath Party leaders in state institutions and society, and Assad and Baath party leaders dominate all three branches of government. An uprising against the government that began in 2011 continued throughout the year. The 2014 presidential election and the April 2016 parliamentary elections resulted in the election of Assad and 200 People’s Council (Syrian parliament) seats for the Baath Party-led National Progressive Front, respectively. Both elections took place in an environment of widespread government coercion, and many Syrians residing in opposition-held territory did not participate in the elections. Observers did not consider the elections free or fair.
The government maintained control over its uniformed military, police, and state security forces, but it did not maintain effective control over foreign and domestic military or paramilitary organizations. These included Russian armed forces; Hizballah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; nonuniformed progovernment militias, such as the National Defense Forces; and the Bustan Charitable Association, or “shabiha.”
The most significant human rights abuses included unlawful and arbitrary killings by the government and its allies resulting from atrocities they committed during the conflict, including the repeated use of chemical weapons, including sarin and chlorine, against civilians, widespread “barrel bombing” of civilians and residential areas, systematic attacks on civilian infrastructure, attacks on medical facilities, extrajudicial executions, rape, including of children, as a weapon of war; massacres, starvation and displacement of local civilian populations; mass forced disappearances; thousands of cases of torture, including sexual violence; harsh and life threatening conditions in prisons and detention centers, including deliberate denial of medical care; widespread arbitrary arrest and detention; tens of thousands of political prisoners; pervasive interference with privacy; recruitment and use of child soldiers; severe restrictions on freedoms of expression, including internet access, assembly, association, and movement; denial of humanitarian access to civilians, including displaced persons; rampant corruption; criminalization of same sex sexual activity and violence against LGBTI persons by government and extremist forces; and severe restrictions on workers’ rights.
The government took no steps to investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights violations or abuses. Impunity was pervasive and deeply embedded in the security forces and elsewhere in the government.
Government-linked paramilitary groups reportedly engaged in frequent violations and abuses, including massacres, indiscriminate killings, kidnapping of civilians, arbitrary detentions, and rape as a war tactic. Government-affiliated militias, including the terrorist organization Lebanese Hizballah, supported by Iran, repeatedly targeted civilians. Armed terrorist groups, such as the al-Qa’ida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), also committed a wide range of human rights abuses, including massacres, bombings, and kidnappings; unlawful detention; torture; unlawful killings; and forced evacuations from homes based on sectarian identity. While the government and its allies were responsible for most of the killings, the Islamic State extremist group ISIS committed massive abuses in territories it controlled in the Raqqa and Deir al-Zour Governorates. Human trafficking and the forcible recruitment and use of children in the conflict increased. There were reports of systematic rape and forced marriages of women and girls for sexual slavery among ISIS fighters. On August 15, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that “ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in areas it controls or has controlled. ISIS is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups, and in some cases against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities.”
There also were reports of Kurdish forces displacing Arab residents after liberating areas from ISIS. During the year reports from local media and Syrian human rights groups indicated that Kurdish authorities arrested local civil council leaders, journalists, and other civilians. There were reports alleging that some members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Syrian Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and other minorities that included members of the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG), engaged in forced conscription, to include limited conscription of children, as well as reports alleging isolated incidents of torture and at least one incident of extrajudicial killing of persons suspected of ISIS affiliation by those who appeared to belong to the SDF based on their statements or their uniforms.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is a felony, subject to punishment by at least 15 years in prison, but the government did not enforce the law. The law further stipulates that if the rapist marries the victim, the rapist receives no punishment. The victim’s family sometimes agreed to this arrangement to avoid the social stigma attached to rape. There are no laws against spousal rape. Observers of the refugee crisis reported women, men, and community leaders consistently identified sexual violence as a primary reason their families fled the country. The COI reported rape was widespread, and government and progovernment forces used rape to terrorize and punish women, men, and children perceived as associated with the opposition (see section 1.g. for additional information, including on abuses committed by extremist groups). The COI concluded that underreporting and delayed reporting of sexual violence was endemic, rendering an assessment of its magnitude difficult. Reports by the SNHR, HRW, and other NGOs included interviews with female former prisoners, who reported that rape by guards and security forces was common in detention facilities.
The law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence, and violence against women was extensive and generally went unpunished. Victims did not report the vast majority of domestic violence and sexual assault cases. Security forces consistently treated violence against women as a social rather than a criminal matter. Observers reported that when some abused women tried to file a police report, police did not investigate their reports thoroughly, if at all, and that in other cases police officers responded by abusing the women, including by sexual harassment, verbal abuse, hair pulling, and slapping.
In previous years several domestic violence centers operated in Damascus, and the government licensed and affiliated them with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. Local NGOs reported, however, that many centers no longer operated due to the conflict. There were no known government-run services for women outside Damascus. According to local human rights organizations, local coordination committees and other opposition-related groups offered programming specifically for protection of women; NGOs did not integrate these programs throughout the country, and none reported reliable funding.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law permits judges to reduce legal penalties for murder and assault if the defendant asserts an “honor” defense, which often occurred. The government kept no official statistics on use of this defense in murder and assault cases. There were no officially reported honor killings during the year, but local human rights groups asserted the practice continued, reportedly at previous levels, despite or even because of the continuing violence. NGOs working with refugees reported families killed some rape victims inside the country, including those raped by government forces, for reasons of honor. NGOs also reported the conflict led to a significant rise in honor killings due to the pervasive use of rape by government forces and sexual slavery and exploitation by ISIS.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of gender but does not explicitly prohibit sexual harassment.
Coercion in Population Control: There were reports that ISIS transferred some Yezidi women captives from Iraq to Syria (see section 1.g.). There was limited information available regarding their treatment in 2017; however, previous reports from Iraq found that ISIS forced Yezidi women whom they had impregnated to have abortions. There were no reports of involuntary sterilization. Estimates on maternal mortality and contraceptive prevalence are available at: www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/monitoring/maternal-mortality-2015/en/ .
Discrimination: Although the constitution provides for equality between men and women and the “right of every citizen to earn his wage according to the nature and yield of the work,” the law does not explicitly stipulate equal pay for equal work. Moreover, a number of sections of family and criminal law do not treat men and women equally. Before the conflict began, 16 percent of women participated in the formal labor force, compared with 72 percent of men. Female employment participation decreased as violence and insecurity increased.
The Commission for Family Affairs, Ministry of Justice, and Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor shared responsibility for attempting to accord equal legal rights to women. Governmental involvement in civil rights claims, including cases against sexual discrimination, was stagnant, and most claims went unanswered.
Personal status, retirement, citizenship, and social security laws discriminate against women. By law if a man and a woman separately commit the same criminal act of adultery, the woman’s punishment is double that of the man’s. The law generally permits women to initiate divorce proceedings against their spouses. For Muslims personal status law treats men and women differently. Some personal status laws mirror Islamic law regardless of the religion of those involved in the case. The law does not entitle a divorced woman to alimony in some cases, such as if she gave up her right to alimony to persuade her husband to agree to the divorce. Additionally, under the law a divorced mother loses the right to guardianship and physical custody of her sons when they reach age 13 and of her daughters at age 15, when guardianship transfers to the paternal side of the family.
The government’s interpretation of Islamic law is the basis of inheritance law for all citizens except Christians. Accordingly, courts usually granted Muslim women half of the inheritance share of male heirs. In all communities male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less. If they do not, women have the right to sue.
Women participated in public life and in most professions, including the armed forces, although violence in many regions reduced women’s access to the public sphere. Women and men have equal legal rights in owning or managing land or other property, although cultural and religious norms impeded women’s rights, especially in rural areas. Various sources observed that women constituted a minority of lawyers, university professors, and other professions.
Some opposition groups and extremist elements reportedly banned women from teaching and girls from attending school, particularly in ISIS-controlled areas of Deir al-Zour Governorate. According to activists from Raqqa Governorate, ISIS segregated classrooms and removed women from the local councils in territories it controlled.
According to several groups, including HRW, extremist armed groups placed discriminatory restrictions on women and girls in Aleppo, al-Hasakah, Idlib, and Raqqa Governorates.
In areas under its control, ISIS published a “Civilization Document” with 16 points that a woman must follow or face the death penalty. They included staying at home and not leaving it without an immediate male relative (mahram); wearing a wide cloak, full face veil, and headscarf; closing hair salons; not sitting on chairs in public; and not seeing male doctors. ISIS established the “al-Khanssaa” brigade, an all-female police force in the city of Raqqa, composed mostly of noncitizen women who enforced these regulations, sometimes violently, among women.
According to media reports, the SDF trained 210 women to participate in the battle against ISIS in Raqqa. This was in addition to the 8,000-strong Women’s Protection Units, widely reported on in the media, and originally formed with the aim of defending the Kurdish population from regime oppression, but eventually transitioning to broader anti-ISIS efforts. Volunteers joined this force from Syria and also from Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and other points of origin.
Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship solely from their father. In large areas of the country where civil registries were not functioning, authorities did not register births. The government did not register the births of Kurdish noncitizen residents, including stateless Kurds (see section 2.d., Stateless Persons). Failure to register resulted in deprivation of services, such as diplomas for high school-level studies, access to universities, access to formal employment, and civil documentation and protection.
Education: The government provided free public education to citizen children from primary school through university. Education is compulsory for all children between the ages of six and 12. Noncitizen children could also attend public schools at no cost but required permission from the Ministry of Education.
The conflict increasingly hampered the ability of children to attend school.
According to several reports, ISIS segregated classrooms (including teachers) by gender, dismissed students for dress code violations, imposed its curriculum on teachers, and closed private schools and educational centers. According to local sources, ISIS forces prevented young women in Raqqa Governorate from traveling to complete their university exams. ISIS also banned several basic education subjects, such as chemistry.
While Palestinians and other noncitizens, including stateless Kurds, could generally send their children to school and universities, stateless Kurds were ineligible to receive a degree documenting their academic achievement.
Child Abuse: The country lacked a formal law protecting children from abuse. There were reports of government forces sexually assaulting, torturing, detaining, and killing children (see sections 1.a., 1.b., 1.c., and 1.g.). HRW reported that government teachers and principals interrogated and, in some cases, beat students who expressed antigovernment sentiments. Additionally, the United Nations, HRW, and local news sources reported that government forces used children as human shields.
ISIS subjected children to extremely harsh punishment, including execution (see section 1.g.).
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18 for men and 17 for women. A boy as young as 15 or a girl as young as 13 may marry if a judge deems both parties willing and “physically mature,” and if the fathers or grandfathers of both parties consent.
ISIS systematically abducted and sexually exploited Yezidi girls in Iraq and transported them to Syria for systematic rape and forced marriage (see section 1.g. and section 6, Women).
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law stipulates penalties for those found guilty of certain forms of child abuse associated with trafficking crimes, including kidnapping and forced prostitution, both of which carry a penalty of up to three years in prison. The law considers child pornography a trafficking crime, but the punishment for child pornography was set at the local level with “appropriate penalties.” It was also unclear if there had been any prosecutions for child pornography or if authorities enforced the law.
The age of sexual consent by law is 15. Premarital sex is illegal, but observers reported authorities did not enforce the law. Rape of a child under the age of 15 is punishable by up to 21 years in prison. There were no reports of government prosecution of child rape cases.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/en/legal/compliance.html.
NGOs estimated fewer than 20 Jews remained in the country. According to media and the Syrian American Council, in 2014 government forces destroyed the Eliyahu Hanabi synagogue, the country’s oldest, in an artillery attack on Jobar, a rebel-held neighborhood in Damascus. Government and opposition forces accused each other of burning and looting the Jobar synagogue.
The national school curriculum did not include materials on tolerance education or the Holocaust.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities and seeks to integrate them into the public-sector workforce, but the government did not effectively enforce these provisions. The law protects persons with disabilities from discrimination in education, access to health care, and provision of other state services, and it reserves 4 percent of government-sector jobs and 2 percent of private-sector jobs for persons with disabilities. Private businesses are eligible for tax exemptions after hiring persons with disabilities.
Authorities did not fully document the number of persons with disabilities, but the conflict negatively affected persons with disabilities and increased their numbers through injuries.
The government did not effectively work to provide access for persons with disabilities to buildings, communication, or information.
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor is responsible for assisting persons with disabilities and worked through dedicated charities and organizations to provide assistance.
As in previous years, the government actively restricted national and ethnic minorities from conducting traditional, religious, and cultural activities. The Kurdish population, citizens and noncitizens, faced official and societal discrimination and repression as well as government-sponsored violence. Government forces arrested, detained, and reportedly tortured numerous Kurdish activists during the year.
The government continued to limit the use and teaching of the Kurdish language. It also restricted publication of books and other materials in Kurdish, Kurdish cultural expression, and at times the celebration of Kurdish festivals. Authorities continued enforcement of a 2009 government rule requiring that at least 60 percent of the words on signs in shops and restaurants be in Arabic (see section 2.a.).
The Alawite community, to which Bashar Assad belongs, enjoyed privileged status throughout the government and dominated the state security apparatus and military leadership. Nevertheless, the government reportedly also targeted Alawite opposition activists for arbitrary arrest, torture, detention, and killing. Extremist opposition groups targeted Alawite communities on several occasions for their perceived progovernment stance.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The law prohibits homosexual relations, defined as “carnal relations against the order of nature,” and provides for at least three years’ imprisonment for violations. The law specifically criminalizes any sexual act that is “contrary to nature.” In previous years police used this charge to prosecute lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals. There were no reports of prosecutions under the law during the year, although NGO reports indicated the government arrested dozens of gay men and lesbians over the past several years on charges such as abusing social values; selling, buying, or consuming illegal drugs; and organizing and promoting “obscene” parties.
Although there were no known domestic NGOs focused on LGBTI matters, there were several online networking communities, including an online LGBTI-oriented magazine. Human rights activists reported there was overt societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in all aspects of society. There were also reports of extremist groups threatening LGBTI activists.
Local media reported numerous instances in which security forces used accusations of homosexuality as a pretext to detain, arrest, and torture civilians. The frequency of such instances was difficult to determine, since police rarely reported their rationale for arrests. According to Outright International, in May 2016 ISIS’s media office issued a “photo report about the imposition of sharia punishment” on those suspected of belonging to the LGBTI community. The photographs included images of a boy pushed from the top of a building.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
There were no reports of violence or discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS, but human rights activists believed such cases were widely underreported. The government, World Bank, and World Health Organization did not maintain data on the number of persons infected with HIV/AIDS living in the country. Observers expected the HIV/AIDS rate of infection to rise with increased sexual violence in the country.