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 May 26 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.
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, and used the security forces to carry out abuses, some of which rose to the level of crimes against humanity. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed numerous abuses. 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.
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 civilians and forcing the additional displacement of more than 11,000 persons. Escalations in the northwest, 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.
As of September the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported there were 6.7 million internally displaced persons, 2.6 million of whom were children, and more than 5.6 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.”
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the regime; forced disappearances by the regime; torture, including torture involving sexual violence, by the regime; 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; punishment of family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; serious abuses in internal conflict, including unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers by the regime and other armed actors, and aerial and ground attacks impacting civilians and civilian infrastructure such as schools, markets, and hospitals; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence and threats of violence against journalists, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, and the existence of criminal libel laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial suppression of the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental and civil society organizations; undue restrictions on freedom of movement; 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 or harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; coerced abortion; 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 or who engaged in corruption.
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, reportedly launched numerous attacks that killed and injured civilians.
Russian forces were implicated in the deaths of civilians and destruction of civilian objects and protected sites resulting from air strikes.
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 abductions.
Armed terrorist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham committed a wide range of abuses, including unlawful killings and kidnappings, extreme physical abuse, and deaths of civilians during attacks described by the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria as indiscriminate. Despite the territorial defeat of ISIS in 2019, the group continued to carry out unlawful killings, attacks, and kidnappings, sometimes targeting civilians.
Armed Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey in the northern region of the country committed human rights abuses, reportedly targeting Kurdish and Yezidi residents and other civilians, including: extrajudicial killings; the arbitrary detention 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; recruitment of child soldiers; and the looting and desecration of religious shrines. The Ministry of Defense of the Syrian Interim Government, an alternative government formed by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, investigated claims of abuses committed by the armed Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey that make up the Syrian National Army. In September the Syrian Interim Government created a new office to investigate allegations of human rights violations and reported that its military courts issued verdicts in 169 cases.
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 torture, arbitrary detention, recruitment of child soldiers, and restrictions on freedom of assembly. The Syrian Democratic Forces continued to investigate charges against their forces. There was no information available on prosecution of individual personnel.
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