Note: This report was updated 3/29/17; see Appendix F: Errata for more information.
President Bashar Asad has ruled the Syrian Arab Republic since 2000. The constitution mandates the primacy of Baath Party leaders in state institutions and society, and Asad and Baath party leaders dominated all three branches of government. The 2014 presidential election won by Asad and the geographically limited parliamentary elections in April won by the Baath Party took place in an environment of widespread government coercion. The results did not reflect the unimpeded or uncoerced will of the electorate. In government-controlled areas, Asad made key decisions with counsel from a small number of military and security advisors, ministers, and senior members of the ruling Baath Party. The government routinely violated the human rights of its citizens as major conflict enveloped the country.
The government maintained control over its uniformed military, police, and state security forces but did not maintain effective control over foreign and local paramilitary organizations. These included Hizballah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; nonuniformed progovernment militias, such as the National Defense Forces; the Bustan Charitable Association; or “shabiha,” which often acted autonomously without oversight or direction from the government.
The government’s use of lethal force to quell peaceful civil protests calling for reform and democracy in 2011 precipitated a civil war in 2012. The civil war continued during the year. The government maintained control over most areas of the coastal governorates and in areas in and around Damascus. It regularly attacked areas with significant opposition presence. By year’s end progovernment forces had retaken eastern Aleppo City. Different opposition groups with varying ideologies and goals controlled several parts of the north and areas in the Golan Heights, in many cases establishing new or reconstituted governance structures, including irregularly constituted courts. Most notably, the terrorist organization Da’esh took control of the eastern governorates Deir al-Zour and Raqqa in 2014. Subsequently, Da’esh announced the establishment of what it called an Islamic “caliphate” with the city of Raqqa as its capital. Da’esh also maintained limited presence in other governorates in the north and south and around Damascus. Control over other areas of the country remained contested, including the northeastern areas dominated by ethnic Kurds and the Turkish border region. Beginning in August, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield with the declared intention of preventing Da’esh, the PKK, PYD, and YPG from establishing a “terror corridor” on its southern border.
The Asad government and its supporters reportedly continued to use indiscriminate and deadly force against civilians, conducting air and ground-based military assaults on cities, residential areas, and civilian infrastructure. Attacks against schools, hospitals, mosques, churches, synagogues, water stations, bakeries, markets, civil defense forces centers, and houses were common throughout the country. In April, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan di Mistura estimated that the fighting had resulted in the deaths of more than 400,000 persons since 2011. The humanitarian situation reached severe levels. As of December 2015, there were more than 4.8 million Syrian refugees registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in neighboring countries and 6.1 million persons displaced internally as of August. The government 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.
The most egregious human rights violations stemmed from the state’s widespread disregard for the safety and well-being of its citizens. This manifested itself in a complete denial of citizens’ ability to choose their government peacefully, a breakdown in law enforcement’s ability to protect the majority of citizens from state and nonstate violence, and the use of violence against civilians and civilian institutions. The government arbitrarily and unlawfully killed, tortured, and detained persons on a wide scale. Government and progovernment forces conducted attacks on civilians in hospitals, residential areas, schools, and settlements for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugee camps; these attacks included bombardment with improvised explosive devices, commonly referred to as “barrel bombs.” During the year the United Nations reported increased use of incendiary weapons, including napalm and white phosphorous, as well as chlorine gas. The government continued the use of torture and rape, including of children. It used the massacre of civilians, as well as their forced displacement, rape, starvation, and protracted sieges that occasionally forced local surrenders, as military tactics. Government authorities detained without access to fair trial tens of thousands of individuals, including those associated with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), human rights activists, journalists, relief workers, religious figures, and medical providers. Government authorities rigorously denied citizens the right to a fair public trial and the ability to exercise civil liberties and freedoms of expression, movement, peaceful assembly, and association.
Additional human rights problems included: restrictions on religious observance and movement throughout the country; abuse of refugees and stateless persons; prevention of NGOs and individual activists, especially those working on civil society and democracy matters, from organizing; restrictions on access for medical providers to persons in critical need; rampant governmental corruption; violence and societal discrimination against women and minorities; and restrictions on workers’ rights.
Impunity was pervasive and deeply embedded in the security forces and elsewhere in the government, since the government did not attempt to investigate, punish, arrest, or prosecute officials who violated human rights. The government often sheltered and encouraged those in its ranks to commit abuses.
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.
Some opposition groups, including armed terrorist groups such as the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra (renamed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in July after the group claimed to split from al-Qaida), also committed a wide range of abuses, including those involving massacres, bombings, and kidnappings; unlawful detention; torture; executions; and forced evacuations from homes based on sectarian identity. Da’esh committed massive abuses in the territory it controlled in Raqqa and Deir al-Zour governorates, according to numerous human rights organizations, the media, UN reports, and Da’esh itself. According to the media and eyewitnesses, these abuses included mass executions; stoning of women and men accused of adultery; crucifixions of civilians; public executions of foreign journalists, aid workers, “blasphemers” (described as those Da’esh defined as insufficiently Muslim or those accused of undefined acts of blasphemy), and those suspected of “being gay.” 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 Da’esh fighters. Secretary Kerry stated on March 17 that in his judgment, Da’esh was responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims, and was also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities. There were also reports of Kurdish forces displacing residents after liberating areas from Da’esh. Amnesty International (AI) last reported such actions in October 2015. During the year unconfirmed reports from Syrian human rights groups indicated that Kurdish authorities arrested local civil council leaders, journalists, and other civilians.