Uprising Background

Syria became an independent republic in 1946. A few years later, democratic rule was overturned by an American supported coup in March 1949. Two more military coups took place that same year. A popular uprising against military rule in 1954 catalyzed a mutiny that saw the army transfer power to civilians. Free elections resulted in Shukri al-Quwatli, who had been the President at the time of the March 1949 coup, to be elected to that post in 1955. A brief union with Egypt in 1958 resulted in Syria's parliamentary system being replaced by a highly centralized presidential system. The union ended in 1961 with Syria's secession. A 1963 military coup d'état brought the Ba'ath Party to power, and was followed by another coup in 1966. In 1970, then Defense Minister Hafez al-Assad seized power and declared himself President, a position he would hold until his death in 2000. Since then, the Ba'ath Party has remained the sole authority in Syria, and Syrian citizens may only approve the President by referendum and do not hold multi-party elections for the legislature. In 1982, at the height of a six-year Islamist insurgency throughout the country, Assad conducted a scorched earth policy against the town of Hama to quell an uprising by the Sunni Islamist community, including the Muslim Brotherhood and others. This became known as the Hama massacre, which left tens of thousands dead.

The issue of Hafez al-Assad's succession prompted the 1999 Latakia protests, when violent protests and armed clashes erupted following 1998 People's Assembly's Elections. The violent events were an explosion of a long-running feud between Hafez al-Assad and his younger brother Rifaat. Two people were killed in fire exchanges between Syrian police and Rifaat's supporters during a police crack-down on Rifaat's port compound in Latakia. According to opposition sources, denied by the government, the protests resulted in hundreds of dead and injured. Hafez al-Assad died one year later, from pulmonary fibrosis. He was succeeded by his son Bashar al-Assad, who was appointed after a constitutional amendment lowered the age requirement for President from 40 to his age of 34.

Bashar al-Assad, who speaks fluent English and has a British-born wife, initially inspired hopes for reform; a "Damascus Spring" of intense political and social debate took place from July 2000 to August 2001. The period was characterized by the emergence of numerous political forums or salons where groups of like minded people met in private houses to debate political and social issues. Political activists such as Riad Seif, Haitham al-Maleh, Kamal al-Labwani, Riyad al-Turk and Aref Dalila were important in mobilizing the movement. The most famous of the forums were the Riad Seif Forum and the Jamal al-Atassi Forum. The Damascus Spring ended in August 2001 with the arrest and imprisonment of ten leading activists who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience. Renewed opposition activity occurred in October 2005 when activist Michel Kilo collaborated with other leading opposition figures to launch the Damascus Declaration, which criticized the Syrian government as "authoritarian, totalitarian and cliquish" and called for democratic reform.

Several riots prompted increased tension in Syria's Kurdish areas since 2004. That year, riots broke out against the government in the northeastern city of Qamishli. During a chaotic soccer match, some people raised Kurdish flags, and the match turned into a political conflict. In a brutal reaction by Syrian police and clashes between Kurdish and Arab groups, at least 30 people were killed, with some claims indicating a casualty count of about 100 people. Occasional clashes between Kurdish protesters and security forces have since continued.

The al-Assad family comes from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that comprises an estimated 12 percent of the Syrian population. It has maintained tight control on Syria's security services, generating resentment among some Sunni Muslims, a sect that makes up about three quarters of Syria's population. Minority Kurds have also protested and complained. Bashar al-Assad initially asserted that his state was immune from the kinds of mass protests that took place in Egypt. Bouthaina Shaaban, a presidential adviser, blamed Sunni clerics and preachers for inciting Sunnis to revolt, such as Qatar-based Yusuf al-Qaradawi in a sermon in Doha on 25 March. According to The New York Times, the Syrian government has relied "almost exclusively" on Alawite-dominated units of the security services to fight the uprising. His younger brother Maher al-Assad commands the army's Fourth Armored Division, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, is the deputy minister of defense.


High youth unemployment and economic disenfranchisement of young adults has been prevalent in Syria. A 2007 study by the Dubai School of Government’s Wolfensohn Center for Development, “Youth Exclusion in Syria: Social, Economic, and Institutional Dimensions," examined the aspects of high unemployment rates among young adults ages 15–24 in the country using available jobs data and survey responses. The study found that certain dynamics are particularly acute in Syria, even relative to countries in the region. Though its overall unemployment rate has traditionally been about average for the Middle East (about 25%), what distinguishes Syria is that the youth jobless rate has been more than six times higher than the rate among older adults (only 4%); that constitutes “the highest ratio [youth-adult imbalance] among the region’s countries outside the Gulf States.” The average ratio in the Middle East is 3.3, whereas the world average is 3.5. Additionally, the participation rate of Syrian youth in the labor market relative to adults is “substantially lower than the worldwide average (0.66 compared to 0.79 percent)". Demographic trends have exacerbated the problem; according to the study, "the share of youth in the Syrian population peaked at 25.4 percent in 2005, presenting challenges in terms of job creation for young people; and in 2002, unemployed youth made up 77 percent of the working-age unemployed population in Syria." This is in spite of the burgeoning youth population; the study notes that “labor supply growth rates of around 5 percent per year between 1983 and 2003." Survey responses indicated that most youth were actively seeking employment, but more than “75 percent of unemployed youth had been searching for work for over a year.”

Socio-economic complaints have been reported, such as a deterioration in the country's standard of living, a reduction of state support for the poor resulting from the gradual transition towards a free market economy, the erosion of subsidies for basic goods and agriculture, free trade without suitable support to the local industry, and high youth unemployment rates.

Human rights

The state of human rights in Syria has long been the subject of harsh criticism from global organizations.[88] The country was under emergency rule from 1963 until 2011, effectively granting security forces sweeping powers of arrest and detention. The Syrian government has justified this by pointing to the fact that the country has been in a continuous state of war with Israel. After taking power in 1970, Hafez al-Assad quickly purged the government of any political adversaries and asserted his control over all aspects of Syrian society. He developed an elaborate cult of personality and violently repressed any opposition, most notoriously in the 1982 Hama Massacre when thousands were killed in order to suppress an Islamic uprising. After his death in 2000 and the succession of his son Bashar al-Assad to the Presidency, it was hoped that the Syrian government would make concessions toward the development of a more liberal society; this period became known as the Damascus Spring. However, al-Assad is widely regarded to have been unsuccessful in implementing democratic change, with a 2010 report from Human Rights Watch stating that he had failed to improve the state of human rights since taking power ten years prior. All other political parties have remained banned, thereby making Syria a one-party state without free elections.

Rights of expression, association and assembly are strictly controlled in Syria. The authorities harass and imprison human rights activists and other critics of the government, who are oftentimes indefinitely detained and tortured in poor prison conditions. While al-Assad permitted radio stations to play Western pop music, websites such as Amazon, Facebook, Wikipedia and YouTube were blocked until 1 January 2011, when all citizens were permitted to sign up for high speed Internet, and those sites were allowed. However, a 2007 law requires Internet cafes to record all comments that users post on online chat forums.

In an interview published 31 January 2011, al-Assad declared it was time to reform, that the protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen indicated a "new era" was coming to the Middle East, and that Arab rulers needed to do more to accommodate their peoples' rising political and economic aspirations.

Women and ethnic minorities have faced discrimination in the public sector Thousands of Syrian Kurds were denied citizenship in 1962, and their descendants continued to be labeled as "foreigners" until 2011, when 120,000 out of roughly 200,000 stateless Kurds were granted citizenship on 6 April. Because the government is dominated by the Alawite sect, it has had to make some gestures toward the majority Sunni sects and other minority populations in order to retain power.


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