Friday, December 2, 2011

Freedom in Syria - A Backgrounder

I recently posted an overview of freedom in Egypt, sourced from Freedom House, an American think-tank that evaluates freedom around the world.  In this posting, I'll take a brief look at the concept of freedom in Syria and a history of how freedom came under attack after the nation's independence.

Let's open by looking at the degree of freedom in Syria measured using the concepts of accountability and public voice, civil liberties, rule of law and anticorruption and transparency when compared to all 39 nations in the Countries at the Crossroads study:

Each of the four facets of freedom are scored out of seven with a perfect total score of 28.  Notice that Syria is ranked third worst for overall freedom among the nations in the study after Eritrea and Libya.  Here is a graph comparing freedom among the six MENA (Middle East and North Africa) nations in the study, once again, scored out of 28:

Here's a graph breaking down each of the four facets of freedom into subsections, once again, with a perfect score of seven for each subsection:

Now, let's look at the recent history of Syria with a bit of background information on the country, its political system and freedoms (or lack of) that are granted to its citizens.

Syria is a semiarid nation with a population of 22,517,000 (in 2010) comprised of Arabs (90 percent) and a mixture of Kurds and Armenians.  Syria has a very young population; the median age is only 21.9 years, nearly 15 years younger than the median age in the United States.  In part, this may explain why the limited photos and videos of the demonstrations that we do see, seem to be mainly young adults that are dissatisfied with the status quo, as was the case in Egypt.  Here is a graph showing the dramatic drop in Syria's fertility rate since the late 1960's:

Much of the nation is composed of non-arable land with under 30 percent used for farming.  Syria's economy relies on the export of agricultural goods, minerals and crude oil.  Its other industries include car assembly, mining of phosphates and oil seed crushing.  Iraq is Syria's largest export market with Germany and Italy comprising nearly 18 percent of Syria's export market.  Syria actually weathered the Great Recession quite well with economic of 6 percent in 2009 and 4.5 percent in 2008.  Here is a graph from Index Mundi showing the changes in Syria's Purchasing Power Parity (measured using the value at prices prevailing in the United States to level the playing field) GDP since 1999:

Syria's external debt is quite small at only $7.636 billion, a rather paltry 27.8 percent of GDP.  Here's a graph showing just how low Syria's public debt-to-GDP ratio is and how it has actually dropped when compared to its level in 2005, in complete contrast to what is happening among developed nations:

The majority of Syrians are Muslim with 74 percent being Sunni and 13 percent being Shia, Alawite (the minority ruling class) and Ismaili.  As well, Christians make up about 10 percent of the population.

Here is an interesting graph showing how much (as a percentage of GDP) Syria spends on its military, noting how military spending peaked at nearly 10 percent of GDP in the early 1990s:

Here's a graph from the Economist showing how much the United States and other leading world nations spend on their military for comparison:

Now for some historical background.  The Syrian Arab Republic was established at the end of World War I and achieved full independence from France in 1946.  A coup in 1963 by the Baath Party resulted in the establishment of a 48 year long State of Emergency.  The country has been ruled by its Alawite minority since that time and by the Assad dynasty since 1970.  The state of emergency has allowed Hafez al-Assad and his handpicked successor and son, Bashar, to maintain strict authoritarian control of all sectors of political and social life in Syria.  All forms of dissent were crushed and any citizen that is suspected of being a security threat can be arbitrarily arrested and detained.  This severe method of repression reached its zenith in 1982 when the government cracked down on the uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, resulting in the deaths of up to 20,000 insurgents and civilians.  As well, the fall of the Baath Party in Iraq gave hope to Syrians that their own Baath Party might suffer a similar fate.  Syria's Kurds pushed for greater results and demanded recognition; this ended with the killing of at least 30 people in March 2004.  Syria's never-ending state of emergency also restricts freedom of movement, choice of residence and freedom of artistic and written expression.  In the early months of 2011 when uprisings in both Egypt and Tunisia overthrew decades of dictatorships, it appeared that Syria might be next on the list, however, the heavy hand of the Baathists crushed dissent.  Anti-government protests broke out in March when security personnel arrested and tortured 15 schoolboys for scrawling anti-government graffiti on a public wall.  Security forces responded with force, killing at least four protestors.  In April, President al-Assad lifted the decades-old state of emergency and promised to enforce the people's right to peaceful protest.  Unfortunately for protestors, nothing really changed and the government continued to use heavy-handed military repression to crush protests, killing thousands and detaining and torturing thousands more.

To keep this posting to a reasonable length, I'm going to take a brief look at only two of the four facets of freedom as noted above.  First, let's look at accountability and public voice.  Syria is officially a parliamentary republic with the regime orchestrating presidential referendums and parliamentary elections.  The Baath Party nominates the president who is then approved by a popular referendum which is generally won because the presidential candidate stands unopposed (Bashar's last referendum in 2007 saw him garner 97 percent of the vote).  The regime also selects the members that sit in the People's Council with two-thirds of the seats being reserved for the National Progressive Front (NPF) a coalition of the Baath Party and its allies.  The NPF members are the only legal political parties in Syria although other allies are permitted to run as independents once vetted by the NPF.  Many of these candidates have close ties to the al-Assad regime.  The People's Council has a rubber stamp capability only, it has only the power to approve laws proposed by the government and has never proposed or defeated a draft law.  The country's only opposition is the National Democratic Coalition, a collection of five secular political parties that is officially illegal and is forced to operate underground.  The Coalition boycotted the 2007 election.

Freedom of expression in Syria is severely restricted with the Baath Party outlawing all independent media back in 1963 and with the government owning virtually all of the country's television and radio stations.  That ban was replaced in 2001 with a Decree that allows strictly controlled "independent" media; unfortunately for journalists et al, they can be imprisoned for various contraventions to the best interests of the state.  Offending journalists can be harassed, arrested, censored, detained, tortured or exiled.  Syria's heavy hand extends to the internet as well; laws passed in 2005 state that editors of online content (i.e. bloggers) must be Syrian citizens and residents who are a minimum of 25 years of age.  Violators can be imprisoned.  A 19 year old blogger was arrested in 2009, convicted in 2011 and sentenced to five years in jail.  Another blogger was arrested in 2007, tried in 2009 and sentenced to three years in prison for "undermining national morale".  He was granted a presidential pardon in 2010.

Now let's look at Syria's civil liberties.  The invocation of the state of emergency has allowed security forces to detain and torture thousands of citizens and may account for the disappearance of 17,000 people since the late 1970s despite the fact that the Syrian constitution prohibits the use of torture.  Amnesty International has documented cases of torture including electric shock, burning, forced insertion of objects into the rectum, whipping and beating.  Jails are severely overcrowded and food deprivation is common.  Visitation is often granted to prisoners based on their outside connections to the regime.  While the constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention without trial, the powers granted by the state of emergency grant security services the right to arrest anyone suspected of being a political threat, even if there is limited evidence.

Syrian women gained the right to vote in 1949, one of the first nations to grant universal suffrage to its citizens in the Middle East.  Despite that, Syrian women that marry non-Syrians are not allowed to pass their citizenship to their offspring.  As well, honour killings remain a serious issue in Syria with an estimated 57 honour killings in 2009.

Discrimination against Syria's Kurdish minority is widespread with nearly 300,000 Syrian Kurds being denied citizenship.  As a result, they do not have full rights to property ownership and are prevented from registering births and marriages.  This means that Kurds are classified as "denationalized people". Bans are also in place that prevent the Kurds from publishing in their own language or listening to their own music.

The government strongly promotes moderate Islamism.  Historically, Syria's government has played a "hands off" role in the religious aspect of Syrian life.  It repressed Islamic movements in an attempt to prevent a loss of power, for example, by outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood, the heir apparent in Egypt's most recent elections.

To close, I'd like to take a brief look at the issue of youth unemployment in Syria, an issue that is complicated by the country's burgeoning population of young adults.  Here is a graph showing how youth unemployment varies with educational level and how unemployment changes in the years after graduation:

It takes between three and five years before the unemployment rate for secondary and intermediate institute graduates fall below 30 percent.  Government jobs absorb about 30 to 40 percent of Syria's 250,000 yearly university graduates with a rather moribund private sector very slowly absorbing the remainder.  I realize that the data on this graph showing Syrian unemployment rates by age group is rather old (2002 data), however, it gives further evidence of the issues that are facing both the current dictatorship and any future democratically elected leadership:

As was the case in Egypt and its high youth unemployment rate, it appears that the apparent hopelessness for young, unemployed and highly educated Syrians may be at least partially responsible for the unrest in the country.  The lack of both civil and political freedoms as I've outlined in this posting certainly explains the remainder of why Syrians are willing to take on their own military in a desperately bitter battle for freedom.


  1. I enjoy these snapshot views of these other countries, both as a lesson in their own right and as a lesson for our own country. I have no comment for Syria as I can't think of anything to help.

    But, a republic is still a republic with its constitution and everything--but a little 'emergency' law can negate the whole thing. Good to know.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read my musings Jenn.

  3. Great read - Regarding your 'About Me' text, isn't 'social liberal' and 'fiscal conservative' fighting each other? All the social programs are increasing costs. What percentage of our government should be social programs?

  4. Thanks for putting this information out there. Someone linked this in the comments on NYT.

    John-Y, I think a social liberal is generally one who thinks the government and society should not be concerned with enforcing morality. For example, many Libertarians would self-identify as social liberals and many more who do not would be identified as such by me.

  5. A great read ... Really enjoyed this detailed and very articulate summary of the Syrian polical situation. This explains why the rest of the world is so divided and helpless about the current situation ... I would love to read your insights on viable solutions to stop the atrocities against civilians

  6. Let them die all of them

  7. TO ALL THE BRAVE FREE MAN OF SYRIA is a free slogan for you....

    ......flee Assad flee,otherwise we will hunt you down!!!!!

  8. where is the analysis of other Persian gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain... you are not saying they have democracy in their countries. or maybe you don't count them as dependent countries!