Bashar Assad has ruled the Syrian Arab Republic as president 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 2021 presidential election resulted in Assad’s re-election, and the Baath Party-led National Progressive Front won 177 of the 250 seats in the People’s Council 2020 parliamentary elections. These elections, considered by the international community to be illegitimate, took place in an environment of widespread regime coercion and without the participation of a majority of Syrians residing in opposition-held territory, due to the lack of a safe and neutral environment for voter participation. Nongovernmental organization observers additionally raised concerns about electoral fraud and did not consider the elections free or fair. Local council elections took place across all provinces September 18 and were described by nongovernmental organizations as neither impartial nor independent.
The regime’s multiple security branches operated autonomously with wide-ranging and overlapping areas of jurisdiction. Regime-affiliated militias, such as the National Defense Forces, integrated and performed similar roles without defined jurisdiction. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over uniformed military, police, and state security forces, and used the security forces to carry out abuses. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed numerous abuses, some of which the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria considered to be war crimes. Civilian authorities 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 which also committed numerous abuses.
During the year, regime and proregime forces continued aerial and ground offensives initiated in 2019 to recapture Idlib Governate and other areas in the northwestern region of the country, killing hundreds of civilians and displacing thousands. Escalations in the north, frequently involving the use of heavy weapons, devastated the civilian infrastructure in the affected areas and exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation. Air strikes by regime and Russian forces repeatedly struck sites where civilians were present, including hospitals, markets, schools, settlements for internally displaced persons, and farms, many of which were included in UN deconfliction lists. In Dara’a, fighting between regime forces and the opposition, and a regime siege that lasted 75 days, temporarily displaced more than 38,000 individuals. As of September, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported there were 6.9 million internally displaced persons and 5.7 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. The UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria found reasonable grounds to believe that government forces may have “committed the war crime of directing attacks against civilians” and found evidence indicating “continuing patterns of crimes against humanity and war crimes related to torture and ill-treatment in detention.”
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings; forced disappearance; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the regime and other actors, including torture involving sexual violence, harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including denial of medical care; arbitrary detention; political prisoners and detainees; transnational repression against individuals in another country; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; punishment of family members for alleged offenses by a relative; serious abuses in a conflict, including unlawful and widespread civilian deaths and harm, enforced disappearances and abductions, torture, physical abuses and punishment, unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers by the regime and other armed actors; serious restrictions on freedom of expression and media, including violence and threats of violence against journalists, unjustified arrests and prosecutions of journalists, censorship, and the enforcement of and the threat to enforce criminal libel laws and blasphemy laws to limit expression; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental and civil society organizations; restrictions on freedom of movement and residence within the territory of a state and on the right to leave the country; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious government corruption; serious government restrictions on and harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence including domestic or intimate partner violence, sexual violence, workplace violence, child, early, and forced marriage, femicide, and other forms of such violence crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of ethnic groups and indigenous peoples including Kurdish and Yezidi residents; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence, threats of violence, and severe discrimination targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons; existence and enforcement of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and severe restrictions on workers’ freedom of association and other rights.
The regime took no steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights violations or abuses or who engaged in corruption.
Regime-linked paramilitary groups reportedly engaged in frequent abuses, including massacres; indiscriminate killings; kidnapping of civilians; physical abuse, including sexual violence; and unlawful detentions. Regime-aligned militias reportedly launched numerous attacks that killed and injured civilians.
Russian and Iranian forces, as well as affiliated paramilitaries, such as Wagner Group and Hizballah, were implicated in the deaths of civilians and destruction of civilian infrastructure and property.
The unstable security situation in areas under the control of armed opposition groups continued to foster an environment in which numerous human rights abuses were committed, including killings, physical abuse, abductions, unjust detention, and recruitment and use of child soldiers.
Armed terrorist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham committed a wide range of abuses, including unlawful killings and kidnappings, unjust detention, physical abuse, deaths of civilians, and recruitment of child soldiers. ISIS carried out unlawful killings, attacks, and kidnappings. There were no reports of investigation into these abuses or prosecution for such actions.
Armed Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey (Türkiye) in the northern region of the country committed abuses, reportedly targeting Kurdish and Yezidi residents and other civilians, including: extrajudicial killings; the unlawful detention and disappearance of civilians; physical abuse; sexual violence; forced evacuations from homes; looting and seizure of private property; transfer of detained civilians across the border into Turkey; recruitment and use of child soldiers; and the looting and desecration of religious sites. The “Ministry of Defense” of the Syrian Interim Government, a governing entity formed by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, investigated some claims of abuses committed by the armed Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey that make up the Syrian National Army. There was no information available on prosecution of individual personnel.
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 abuses, including attacks striking residential areas, physical abuse, unlawful detention, recruitment and use of child soldiers, restrictions on freedoms of expression and assembly, and arbitrary destruction and demolition of homes. The Syrian Democratic Forces investigated most allegations against its forces. Some members of the Syrian Democratic Forces have been prosecuted for abuses, but statistics were unavailable.
For Further Reference
Full U.S. Department of State Human Rights Country Report
U.S. Department of State International Religious Freedom Country Report
U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Annual Report Chapter on Syria
U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report Country Narrative
Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review
Human Rights Watch World Report Country Chapter
Amnesty International Annual Report Country Chapter
Freedom House Freedom in the World Country Report