The Syrian Arab Republic, once the home of the Ottoman Empire, covers approximately 185,000 square kilometres of land in the heart of the Middle East. On the west, it is bounded by the Mediterranean Sea, and its shares the rest of its borders with many other Arab states. Syria is bordered by Lebanon and Israel in the southwest, Jordan in the south, Iraq in the east, and Turkey in the north. Its population of 22.5 million people are mostly urban, with 56% living in Syria’s cities. Aleppo is the largest city with 2.9 million people, and the capital of Damascus comes in a close second with 2.5 million. Syria is a multiethnic society. The majority of the population is Arab and Sunni Muslim, but there are small communities of Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Christians, Druze, Alawite Shiahs, and Jews.
The Ottoman Empire ruled Syria from 1516 until the end of World War I. However, its constitutional history can be traced to 1876 when the Ottoman Empire allowed it to have a written constitution for the first time. The constitution gave Syria an administrative council of elected and appointed officials, as well as municipal councils whose members were chosen by religious leaders. During the First World War, Allied forces over ran the entire Middle East, leading to a partition of Syria between the British and the French in 1920 at the San Remo Conference. The French were given a mandate over Syria even though a national congress had already declared sovereignty of the Kingdom of Syria under the rule of Sherif Hussein. This congress even approved a constitution on 3 July 1920 and ignored a French demand to accept the San Remo decision. The French then forcibly occupied the capital of Damascus on 25 July 1920.
This was followed by an almost 50 year period of constitutional instability characterised by the constant adoption, suspension and restoration of different constitutional charters. In 1930, the French finally drafted a constitution modelled on that of the French Third Republic. The charter, which provided for a president and a unicameral legislature, was, however, suspended two months later and the parliament dissolved. In 1943 the Charter was restored and remained the basic law even upon Syrian independence from France in 1946. Three years later, in 1949, the constitution was again suspended and replaced with a new one that was promulgated in 1950. This constitution expanded the Bill of Rights and included articles relating to land and education. The document was, however, dissolved in 1951 following a military coup which resulted in another charter. The 1953 constitution mandated that instead of the President being elected by the Parliament, he would be elected by a direct popular vote. However, the 1950 constitution was restored in 1954 after yet another coup. Syria’s attempt in 1958 to join the United Arab Republic with Egypt effectively suspended the existing constitutional framework. When an army coup ended this experiment in 1961, the 1950 constitution was again restored. In 1964, a constitutional referendum approved a provisional charter, which was immediately suspended when a new group of military leaders from the Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party staged another coup, suspended the 1964 constitution, and established a regional command in which all the executive and legislative powers were concentrated. In 1966, the party was taken over by its more radical wing, which produced a new constitution in 1969. The party split in 1970 when a group of more moderate party members under General Hafiz al-Assad seized power. Assad was elected as the new president in 1971, and on 14 March 1973, he promulgated a new constitution, which, but for few periodic amendments remains largely current.
The Syrian Constitution of 1973 was drafted under the strong guidance of Assad, and was the first Arab constitution to adopt socialist- nationalist principles. These 5 principles stress the unity of the Arab world. The first states that the Syrian revolution was part of a larger Arab revolution. The second states that any threats to an Arab nation are threats to the Arab world. The third commits Syria to the fight against Zionism and imperialism, reflecting the nation’s religious and historical heritage. However, the fourth principle asserts that freedom is a sacred right and democracy is the ideal form of government. The fifth and final principle likewise states that the Arab revolution is part of a worldwide liberation movement, not an isolated phenomenon. The constitution then continues to state that Islam is the official religion of the President and the Republic, and that legislation is to be governed by Islamic law. It then divides power between the President, the Prime Minister, the legislature, and the Courts.
The Executive Branch under the 1973 Constitution is headed by the President who is the Head of State, the leader of the Ba’ath Party, and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. This makes him the most powerful actor in the Syrian government. The President is elected to a seven year term. While the original constitution stated that a candidate had to be 40 years old, a 2000 amendment lowered the age to 34. The candidates for President must be presented by the People’s Council from among their ranks at the suggestion of the regional leadership of the Party. The candidacy is then submitted to the people by referendum. The President’s executive powers include upholding the constitution, overseeing the functioning of government authorities, and developing national policy. In addition to his powers as Head of State, the President also has some legislative powers as the leader of the Ba’ath Party, such as promulgating laws passed by the legislature. He may declare war and peace, appoint and receive ambassadors, conclude international treaties, grant pardons, and issue decorations, honours, and promotions to civil and military officials. The President can also directly submit issues for referendum to the people. The President is assisted in his task by a Prime Minister and Cabinet, all of whom are appointed by him. It is the task of the Cabinet, led by the Prime Minister, to supervise the enforcement of laws and policies and to oversee the functioning of the government.
The unicameral Parliament of Syria is called the People’s Council. Its 250 members are elected to four year terms by direct vote, though the term of Parliament may be extended during war. At least one half of the seats in the People’s Council are reserved for peasants and workers by law. The council has the power to pass laws, question Ministers, nominate the President, approve development plans and the budget, ratify treaties, and pass a no-confidence vote in the Council of Ministers or any Minister. Members of the People’s Council are immune from criminal and civil proceedings while in office unless they are caught in the act, or the speaker or majority of the Council accepts lifting the immunity. The Council may also accept or reject any member’s resignation.
The Syrian judicial system is divided between secular and religious courts, as well as many specialized courts established by law. The secular courts have jurisdiction over criminal and civil matters; however, there are separate courts of appeals and a court of assizes for major crimes. The highest of these courts is the Court of Cassation which hears appeals regarding law and procedure, with sections devoted to criminal, civil, military, commercial, religious, and real estate matters. There are religious courts, as well, though not just Islamic courts. There are separate courts for Christians, Jews, and non-Muslims with jurisdiction over cases concerning personal matters. A council of state has jurisdiction over administrative cases. The independence of the judicial branch is maintained by the President and a Supreme Judiciary Council with the power to appoint and remove judges. The highest court of Syria is the Constitutional Court. Its five members are appointed by the President and they have the authority to decide on the constitutionality of laws before promulgation if requested to do so by the President or one-fourth of the members of the People’s Council. It may not challenge the constitutionality of laws passed by referendum, but it does have the power to oversee the constitutionality of elections.
Syria continues to face serious political challenges owed partly to the fact that political power has been concentrated in one party (the Ba’ath Party) led by one family (the Assad family) for more than three decades. In the early days of his presidency, President Bashar demonstrated tendencies towards reform by releasing political prisoners, easing press restrictions and allowing political groupings to assemble. However, the political elite of the army and the Ba’ath party which felt threatened by these reforms have tried to block the process whenever possible.
In the wake of the Arab Spring that swept the Middle East in early 2011, the entire Syrian political establishment again came under increasing fire from protesters demanding political reform. Chief amongst their calls has been the repeal of the Emergency Law that has been a basis for restricting freedoms over more than thirty decades, the departure of President Bashar, and constitutional reforms. A further demand is a reform of the Constitution, especially Article 8, which secures the Ba’ath Party’s control of power. President Bashar has refused to step down, despite repealing the Emergency Law, removing certain some corrupt officials, and releasing some political prisoners.
System of Government under 1973 Constitution
|1918 ||Great Arab Revolt leads to the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire in Syria |
|1920 ||National Congress proclaims Syria an independent state under rule of Emir Feisal, but San Remo Conference places the area under French control |
|1928 ||Constituent Assembly writes new constitution, but French High Commissioner rejects it, sparking national protests |
|1941 ||Free French forces free Syria from Axis rule after the French Vichy government falls to the Allies, Syria promised independence by General De Gaulle |
|1946 ||French troops leave Syria which is proclaimed an independent state |
|1951 ||Military coup led by army officer Adib al-Shishakhli seizes power and suspends constitution |
|1954 ||Military coup seizes power but restores a civilian government |
|27 February 1958 ||Syria and Egypt form the United Arab Republic headed by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser |
|1966 ||Ba’ath Party stages a successful coup, suspends the constitution, and drafts a new constitution |
|1967 ||Syria loses the Golan Heights to Israel |
|November 1970 ||Hafez al-Assad and the moderate Ba’ath Party members take power |
|March 1971 ||Assad is elected president |
|1973 ||New constitution instituted by presidential decree, Syria and Egypt fail to take back the Golan Heights in war with Israel |
|1983 ||Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the city of Hama repressed by the military |
|March 2011 ||Popular protests demand political and economic reforms, government responds with violence and arrests, and then President Bashar releases some political prisoners, replaces the government, and ends the 50 year state of emergency, but continued government repression leads to deaths and international sanctions |