Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Government Overview: Ostensibly a republic, in reality Syria is an authoritarian, military-dominated regime where opposition to the president is not tolerated, and, with the succession of the previous president’s son, concern about hereditary rule is plausible. Whereas the citizens may vote for the president and members of parliament, they cannot change the government; the president, for example, is not actually elected but, rather, confirmed by unopposed popular referenda. Parliament may assess and sometimes modify laws proposed by the executive branch, but it may not initiate laws. The president and his senior aides make most decisions in the political, economic, and security sectors, with a very limited degree of public accountability. The regime does not tolerate political opposition and justifies itself by maintaining a state of emergency that has been in effect since 1963 as a result of the state of war that continues to exist with Israel.

With the constitution ceding primacy to the Arab Socialist Resurrection (Baath) Party, all three branches of government are dominated by its views. The party is both socialist (advocating state ownership of the means of industrial production and redistribution of agricultural land) and revolutionary (espousing the goal of carrying the socialist revolution to every part of the Arab world). However, since August 1990 the regime has de-emphasized the socialist aspect in favor of pursuing pan-Arab unity. The regime’s survival hinges on its strong desire for stability and its success in giving groups such as religious minorities and peasant farmers a stake in society. Perhaps more important, the expansion of government bureaucracy has created a large class of citizens loyal to the regime. The army and internal security apparatus, the units most responsible for enforcing the regime’s stability, are loyal, effective, and dominated by the Alawi sect, to which the Assad family belongs.

Following the death of Hafiz al Assad in 2000, his son Bashar was nominated and confirmed as president. Bashar al Assad is a reform-minded president, and although his reforms have been met with resistance from the old guard, the country appears to have the potential for some modification of its system of government. There reportedly have been calls to make the Baath Party less influential in government and speculation that the president might push to remove the article of the constitution granting the party primacy.

Constitution: Syria’s Permanent Constitution of March 13, 1973, provides for a republican form of government described as “a democratic, popular, socialist, and sovereign state.” The constitution stipulates that the president must be a Muslim, and the main source of legislation must be Islamic doctrine and jurisprudence, although Islam is not specifically designated as the state religion. The Baath Party is named “the vanguard party in the society and the state.” Governmental powers are divided among executive, legislative, and judicial branches, but the already formidable role of the presidency is strengthened by the constitution. Economic principles set forth a planned socialist economy. The constitution also reaffirms the ideological promise that Syria is only part of the one and indivisible “Arab nation” that is struggling for complete Arab unity.

Branches of Government: In the executive branch, the president is approved by unopposed popular referendum for a renewable seven-year term. According to the constitution, the candidate must be a Syrian Arab Muslim, proposed by the Baath Party, and nominated by the legislature. The constitution was amended in June 2000 to reduce the mandatory minimum age of the president from 40 to 34 in order to make Hafiz al Asad’s son, Bashar, eligible for nomination. The president can be removed from power only in the case of committing high treason. He is both head of state and chief executive officer of the government as well as commander in chief of the armed forces. He appoints his vice presidents (two), appoints and dismisses the prime minister, deputy prime ministers, and other members of the Council of Ministers (the cabinet), as well as military officers. The Council of Ministers serves collectively as the executive and administrative arm of the president and the state. The president holds the right to dissolve the legislature. Other presidential prerogatives include the right to declare war and a state of emergency, issue laws to be ratified by the People’s Council, declare amnesty, and approve five-year economic plans.

The legislative branch consists of a 250-seat unicameral People’s Council. Members are elected by direct popular vote on the basis of single-member electoral districts for four-year terms. Half of the seats in the People’s Council are reserved for the Baath Party. The Council sits in three regular sessions annually but may be called into special session. In theory, the functions of the council include the nomination of a presidential candidate, enactment of laws, discussion of government policy, approval of general budget and development plans, and ratification of treaties. In practice, however, the legislature has no independent authority, because the executive branch effectively controls the legislative process. The assembly may criticize government policies and modify draft laws, but it cannot initiative legislation.

The judicial branch includes courts at three levels: courts of first instance (magistrate courts, summary courts, and peace courts), courts of appeal (one per province), and the Court of Cassation in Damascus, which serves as the highest court of appeal with the authority to resolve both jurisdictional and judicial issues. The Supreme Constitutional Court adjudicates electoral disputes and rules on the constitutionality of laws and decrees. The High Judicial Council, headed by the president and composed of senior civil judges, appoints, transfers, and dismisses judges.

Specialized courts exist outside of the basic three-tiered structure. State security courts, topped by the Supreme State Security Court, hear cases related to national security. In these courts, judgments are not subject to appeal, the president must approve the verdict, and the court is not bound by the same procedures as the courts of regular jurisdiction. Operating under a state of emergency, these special courts do not observe constitutional provisions that safeguard defendants’ rights. Military courts can try both military personnel and civilians. There are reports that the government operates military field courts outside established courtrooms, observing fewer of the formal procedures. Economic security courts, which formerly handled economic crimes, were abolished in 2004. Personal status courts deal with matters such as marriage and divorce and are divided along religious lines.

Administrative Divisions: Syria has 14 provinces (muhafazat; pl., muhafazah): Halab, Dimashq, Dar’a, Rif Dimashq, Dayr az Zawr, Hamah, Al Hasakah, Hims, Idlib, Al Ladhiqiyah, Al Qunaytirah (includes the Golan Heights), Ar Raqqah, As Suwayda, and Tartus. Syrian maps also include the Turkish province of Hatay (Iskenderun). Damascus (Dimashq), Syria’s capital, was designated as a province in 1987.

Provincial and Local Government: In practice, government remains highly centralized in Damascus, and provincial governments have little autonomy. Governors, nominated by the minister of interior, approved by the cabinet, and appointed by the central government, head provinces. A provincial council assists each governor. Three-quarters of council members are popularly elected for a term of four years; the minister of interior and the governor appoint the remaining members. Each council has an executive arm consisting of six to 10 officers appointed by the central government from among the council’s elected members, each of whom is charged with specific functions. Each province is divided into districts, which, in turn, are divided into sub-districts. Officials appointed by the governor administer districts and sub-districts. These officials serve as intermediaries between central government authority and traditional local leaders, such as village chiefs, clan elders, and councils of elders.

Legal System: Syria’s legal system is a mix of Ottoman- and French-based civil law, as well as Islamic law. The constitution requires that Islamic jurisprudence be a main source of legislation. Personal status issues, such as marriage, divorce, paternity, child custody, and inheritance, are governed primarily by customary, Islamic, and other religious laws relating to specific religious communities, with some more recent personal code modifications regarding the status of women, for example. Trials are public (except for juveniles and sex offenses), but Syria does not have trial by jury in regular courts; judges render verdicts. Defendants are entitled to legal representation and to the presumption of innocence, and they are allowed to present evidence and to confront their accusers. Verdicts can be appealed to provincial appeals courts and ultimately to the Court of Cassation.

Electoral System: Syria has universal suffrage at age 18. Direct popular elections are held for president, the National Assembly, and provincial assemblies. In practice, however, the selection of the president is not open to popular choice. Presidential candidates nominated by the Baath Party run unopposed in popular referenda rather than in open elections. The most recent presidential election took place in 2000; the next is due in 2007. The most recent legislative elections occurred in March 2003 and will next take place in 2007.

Politics/Political Parties: Syria is essentially a one-party state, dominated by the Arab Socialist Resurrection (Baath) Party (hereafter, Baath Party). The umbrella National Progressive Front (NPF) encompasses the Baath Party and eight (increased from the original six) allied parties, giving the appearance of a multi-party system. But the NPF has little power independent of the Baath Party. A limited number of independent non-NPF candidates may run for seats in parliament, but the current allotment is set at 83, or 33 percent of seats, based on the 2003 elections, thus ensuring an NPF, and consequently a Baath, majority. In practice, non-Baath parties and independents have little real influence.

Baath Party institutions are parallel to and integrated with Syria’s governmental structure. Baath Party members in key positions control the executive and legislative branches of the Syrian government. The Baath party is dominated by the military, which consumes a large share of economic resources. Every four years, the party branches elect representatives to the Party Congress, which then elects the members of the party institutions; the Central Committee has 90 members, and the Regional Command has 21 members. The Regional Command is the highest body of the party and of the state in Syria. The presidential candidate must gain the approval of the Regional Command before being nominated to run for office. The party is headed by a secretary general, a position held by both Hafiz al Asad and his son and successor, Bashar. The National Command is the pan-Arab institution above the Regional Command. The Syrian faction (versus the Iraqi faction) controls most of the Baath Parties of the Arab world.

Mass Media: The constitution guarantees the right to a free press and freedom of expression, but Syria has been functioning under a highly restrictive state of emergency since the Baath Party came to power in 1963. Articles issued under the state of emergency authorize the state to control newspapers, books, radio and television broadcasting, advertising, and the visual arts; and the state retains the right to confiscate and destroy any work that threatens the security of the state. The Syrian government historically has not tolerated independent sources of information. The media are state-owned and controlled by the Baath Party through the office of the Ministry of Information. Media workers are government employees, and a high position requires loyal party membership. Passed in the wake of the Damascus Spring, the provisions of Decree No. 50 of 2001, applying to publishers, editors, journalists, authors, printers, distributors and bookstore owners, make most publications state-owned. Anyone wishing to establish an independent paper or periodical must apply for a license from the Ministry of Information.

Criticism of the president and his family, the ruling Baath Party, and the military is forbidden. The legitimacy of the regime may not be questioned. The government’s human rights record, Islamist opposition, allegations of official involvement in drug trafficking, the activity of Syrian troops in Lebanon, and anything unfavorable to the Arab cause in the Arab-Israeli conflict are topics that are usually censored. The government monitors domestic radio and television news broadcasts to ensure adherence to government policies, although foreign broadcasts are not censored, and satellite dishes are available and widely used. The government also screens and blocks access to Internet sites that are regarded as politically sensitive or pornographic. Human rights groups have documented cases of arrest, expulsion, mistreatment, harassment, and assassination of prominent journalists. Nevertheless, the government has not succeeded in maintaining total control. The public does have access to Western radio stations and satellite TV, and al Jazeera has become very popular in Syria.

Foreign Relations: The Arab-Israeli conflict remains the paramount foreign policy concern for Syria, with the Syrian objective of securing withdrawal of Israeli forces from the occupied territories and restoring sovereignty over the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. Relations with Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority have been marked by antipathy since Egypt and Jordan signed separate peace treaties with Israel. However, since the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 2000, Syria’s relations with all three have improved, and Syria continues to seek to play an active pan-Arab role. Syrian-Israeli relations also spill over into Lebanon’s national security and internal political structure. Syria has maintained military forces and intelligence personnel in Lebanon since the beginning of the Lebanese civil war in 1976, a situation that further complicates the Arab-Israeli peace process. In early 2005, Syria was under strong international pressure to begin withdrawing its forces from Lebanon and reportedly agreed to do so by the end of April.

Syria’s relations with Iraq historically have been characterized by rivalry and conflict. Syria sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), which led to a severe breakdown in relations with Iraq. In 1990 Syria participated in the United States-led multinational coalition against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. In 1998, primarily for economic reasons, Syria sought improved relations with Iraq, reopening the border and resuming trade. Syria opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and since then has been accused of aiding the insurgency in Iraq. However, according to the U.S. Department of State, Syria pledged qualified support for the Interim Iraqi Government as well as Iraqi elections in early 2005, in the interest of regional stability.

Throughout the Cold War, Syria was within the Soviet sphere of influence, and received strong military support from Russia, but the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 initiated an improvement in ties with the West. For example, Syria joined the U.S.-led alliance against Iraq in the Gulf War. This cooperation brought better political and economic relations with the United States, the European Union, and oil-rich Arab states. However, Syria remains on the U.S. list of states “sponsoring terrorism,” and relations between Syria and the United States have been especially tense since September 11, 2001, even though Syria has engaged in limited cooperation with the United States in the global war on terrorism. In late 2003, the U.S. Congress passed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act authorizing the imposition of certain sanctions if Syria did not withdraw its forces from Lebanon and stop supporting terrorism, seeking weapons of mass destruction, and aiding the insurgency in Iraq. In mid-2004, President Bush determined that Syria had not met these conditions and implemented sanctions.

Membership in International Organizations: Syria is a member of the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa, Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, Arab Monetary Fund, Council of Arab Economic Unity, Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Group of 24, Group of 77, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Chamber of Commerce, International Civil Aviation Organization, International Criminal Police Organization, International Development Association, International Finance Corporation, International Fund for Agricultural Development, International Labour Organization, International Maritime Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Olympic Committee, International Telecommunication Union, Islamic Development Bank, League of Arab States, League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Non-Aligned Movement, Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, Organization of the Islamic Conference, United Nations, UN Conference on Trade and Development, UN Industrial Development Organization, UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, Universal Postal Union, World Federation of Trade Unions, World Health Organization, World Meteorological Organization, and World Tourism Organization.

Major International Treaties: Syria is a signatory to a number of international environmental treaties, including those on Biodiversity, Climate Change, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, and Wetlands. It has signed but not ratified a convention on Environmental Modification. Syria is also a party to the Geneva Conventions, Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and about half of the international conventions on terrorism. It is not a party to the international convention banning chemical weapons; it has signed but not ratified the biological weapons convention.


Armed Forces Overview: Syria’s armed forces include an army, navy, air force, and air defense forces, with a total of 296,800 active personnel and 354,000 reserves (up to age 45) in 2004. The army had 200,000 active personnel and 280,000 reserves; the navy, 7,600 active personnel and 4,000 reserves; the air force, 35,000 active personnel and 70,000 reserves; and the Air Defence Command, 54,200 active personnel. In the past, Syria was highly dependent on Soviet military training, matériel, and aid/credit. The fall of the Soviet Union deprived Syria of this vital support and has hampered Syria’s ability to modernize its arsenal. Nevertheless, Syria’s military is regarded as one of the largest and most capable in the Middle East.

Foreign Military Relations: Traditionally, Syria’s primary military alliance was with the Soviet bloc, and arms transfers, training, and other military assistance from Russia and other former Soviet states have continued. Syria also is believed to have engaged in military cooperation with Iran, China, and North Korea. Following the Gulf War, Syria was rewarded for its participation on the side of the coalition with substantial financial aid from Gulf Arab states, a large portion of which was devoted to military spending. In 2002 Syria reportedly signed a military cooperation agreement with Turkey, although the relations between the two states are often tense because of their dispute over water from the Euphrates River and alleged Syrian support for Kurdish guerrillas in Turkey.

External Threat: Syria regards Israel as its principal enemy and has long sought to achieve strategic parity with Israel in order to defend its national security and recover the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967. Iraq has long been an ideological and political rival within the Baath movement, and Syria supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88). Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Syria has been threatened by the spillover of refugees and violence from Iraq as well as the possibility of U.S. military action directed at Syria. To its west, Syria perceives as a threat the emergence in Lebanon of either a radical Muslim state or a Christian-dominated state aligned with Israel. As a result, Syria has sought to control Lebanese affairs and has stationed military forces there since October 1976, ostensibly as a peacekeeping force.

Defense Budget: In 2003 Syria’s defense expenditures reportedly totaled about US$1.5 billion, or 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), as compared with US$1.1 billion in 2001 and US$1.2 billion in 2002.

Major Military Units: Syria’s ground forces are organized into three corps with a total of 12 divisions (seven armored, three mechanized, one Republican Guard, and one Special Forces). In addition, the army has four independent infantry brigades, one Border Guard brigade, two independent artillery brigades, two independent antitank brigades, 10 independent Special Forces regiments, three surface-to-surface missile (SSM) brigades, and two coastal defense SSM brigades. The navy operates from three bases, at Latakia, Minet el Baida, and Tartus. The air force has nine fighter/ground-attack squadrons and 16 fighter squadrons. The Air Defence Command is organized in two air defense divisions with 25 air defense brigades and two surface-to-air missile regiments.

Major Military Equipment: The army is equipped with 4,600 main battle tanks (1,200 of which are in static positions or storage), 800 reconnaissance vehicles, 2,100 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 1,600 armored personnel carriers, 1,630 towed artillery pieces, 430 self-propelled artillery pieces, 480 multiple rocket launchers, 710 mortars, 72 surface-to-surface missile (SSM) launchers and about 850 SSM missiles, 4,190 antitank guided weapons, an unspecified number of rocket launchers, 2,050 air defense guns, and 4,335 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The navy is equipped with two frigates, 12 missile craft, 8 inshore patrol craft, 5 mine countermeasure ships, 3 amphibious ships, and 4 support and miscellaneous ships. Naval aviation resources include 16 armed helicopters. The air force is equipped with 520 combat aircraft and 71 armed helicopters (including some in storage). Air defense forces are endowed with 160 SAM batteries and more than 828 surface-to-air missiles as well as 4,000 air defense artillery pieces.

Syria seeks both to sustain its conventional forces and to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In January 2004, Syria appeared to have tacitly admitted to possession of WMD when Assad stated that Syria would only agree to dismantle its WMD if Israel did the same.

Military Service: Syria has a 30-month period of compulsory military service for males, who become eligible for conscription at age 18. In 2004 available males aged 15–49 totaled an estimated 4.9 million. Those judged fit for service totaled 2.7 million. Approximately 216,000 males reach the age of conscription annually.

Paramilitary Forces: Syria’s paramilitary forces comprise the Gendarmerie, administered by the Ministry of Interior, which has 8,000 regular personnel, and the Workers’ Militia, or People’s Army, operated by the Baath Party, with an estimated 100,000 reserves.

Foreign Military Forces: The United Nations has 1,029 troops stationed in Syria with contingents from Austria (364), Canada (186), Japan (30), Nepal (1), Poland (356), and Slovakia (92). Russia has about 150 advisers in Syria, primarily for air defense purposes.

Military Forces Abroad: At least 16,000 Syrian troops have been deployed in Lebanon since October 1976, forming one mechanized division, with elements of one armored and four mechanized infantry brigades, as well as elements of 10 Special Forces and two artillery regiments. In early 2005, Syria was subjected to strong U.S. and international pressure to withdraw its forces from Lebanon following the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister, an act of terrorism in which Syria was suspected by many of complicity or at least indirect involvement. At the end of March, Syria reportedly had moved some troops back across the border and redeployed others in eastern Lebanon. In early April, Syria announced that it would complete the withdrawl of its military forces and intelligence personnel by the end of the month.

Police: Security services play a powerful role in Syrian society, monitoring and repressing opposition to the regime. The internal security apparatus is large and effective, with several security services that operate independently of each other and of the law, including the Political Security Directorate (PSD), Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI), General Intelligence Directorate (GID), and Air Force Security (AFS). Only the PSD, subordinate to the Ministry of Interior, is under civilian control. Human rights violations are common. Police forces, under the Ministry of Interior, consist of four separate forces: emergency police, local neighborhood police, riot police, and traffic police.

Internal Threat: Repression of internal dissent is effective, and public criticism of the regime is generally muted and circumspect. Sectarian rivalry within Syria’s many religious and ethnic communities has been a perennial source of instability, in particular resentment of the well-connected Alawi. The regime systematically represses the Kurdish minority, fearing any push for Kurdish autonomy. In March 2004, Kurdish riots erupted in Al Hasakah Province and then spread to other parts of the country. Security forces reportedly killed more than 30 persons and arrested more than 11,000. The regime also fears a resurgence of Sunni Islamic fundamentalists. Security forces reportedly conducted mass arrests of suspected Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood adherents throughout 2004. Given Syria’s long history of military coups and countercoups prior to the Assad regime, the possibility of a military coup may also constitute a potential threat to Syrian stability.

Terrorism: Syria has publicly condemned terrorism, but the government makes a distinction between terrorism and what it views as legitimate resistance against Israel. As such, Syria continues to support the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group, as well as the Palestinian group, Hamas. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) is based in Damascus. Syria has cooperated with the United States and others against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Nevertheless, in 2004 the United States accused Syria of permitting, if not actively facilitating, the movement of funds and insurgents into Iraq. In mid-2004, in accordance with the Syria Accountability Act passed by the U.S. Congress in December 2003, the United States imposed economic sanctions on Syria because of Syria’s support for terrorism, continued occupation of Lebanon, pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and efforts to undermine stabilization and reconstruction in Iraq.

Human Rights: According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2004 report on human rights, Syria’s human rights record remains poor. A state of emergency has been in effect since 1963. Security forces continue to commit numerous and serious human rights abuses including arbitrary arrest and detention, torture in detention, prolonged detention without trial, fundamentally unfair trials in the security courts, and infringement on privacy rights. Police and security forces are corrupt. Prison conditions are poor and do not meet international standards for health and sanitation. The regime significantly restricts freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association and imposes some limits on freedom of religion and freedom of movement. Kurds suffer systematic discrimination. After a brief period in 2000–2001 known as Damascus Spring, during which time independent debating clubs were established, satellite dishes became much more prominent, Internet cafés opened, new independent print publications were established, and political detainees from across the political spectrum were released, Decree No. 50/2001 was passed, which places severe restrictions on the media, especially the print media. According to Arab Press Freedom Watch, the current regime has one of the worst records on freedom of expression in the Arab world.

Index for Syria:
Overview | Government


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