The Syrian state has been led by the Assad family since the 1970s. Since the spring of 2011, there has been an uprising against the government of the Assad family, which has taken the form of a civil war between various religious and ethnic groups, with great interference from great powers. Parts of the country remain outside the government’s control, although government forces with Russian support have taken back important areas.
Syria’s political system was shaped by Hafiz al-Assad, president of 1970-2000. Some changes have been made by his son Bashar al-Assad, who inherited power, but the basic system has remained the same. Since the uprising broke out in 2011, several reforms have been implemented, but they have not limited the president’s power or satisfied the other demands of the opposition.
- Countryaah: Total population and chart of Syria for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023 and 2024. Also covers population density, birth rate, death rate and population growth rates.
A new constitution was adopted in 2012. The old constitutional law of 1973 described the state-bearing Baath Party as a leading force in the state and society. This paragraph was deleted and Syria was declared a multi-party democracy. But only Assad faithful parties have been allowed and the new constitution has not changed how the country is governed in practice. In 2011, the state of emergency, which had been in effect since 1962, which put constitutional freedoms and rights out of play, was revoked. Nor did this in practice change how the country was governed or how the security forces behaved. The opposition has therefore described the reforms as cosmetic, intended to appease the population and bring about political change.
The president, who according to the Constitution must be Muslim, is head of state and commander-in-chief and has the highest executive power. Previously, the president was nominated by Parliament on a proposal by the Baath Party and the nomination was approved in a referendum, but according to the 2012 constitution, the president is to be elected in general elections where several candidates have the right to stand. The term of office is seven years and the president can be re-elected once. The first election under these rules was held in the summer of 2014 when two candidates approved by the regime were allowed to stand against Bashar al-Assad. The election ended as expected with victory for Assad.
The President leads the government (the Council of Ministers) and appoints the Prime Minister and on his recommendation also other ministers. The President can also rule by decree. In practice, the President has full control over Parliament (the People’s Council), which consists of a chamber of 250 members who are elected in general elections in one-man constituencies every four years.
Short for SY by Abbreviationfinder, Syria is divided into 14 provinces, governed by governors appointed by the president. The provincial councils, which are elected in local elections, have primarily administrative duties. The provinces are divided into districts, which in turn are subdivided. In 2013, the government adopted recommendations from the Syrian parliament to divide the provinces of Aleppo, al-Hasaka and Homs in two parts each, giving Syria a total of 17 provinces. Large parts of all three provinces have been out of government control since 2012, but the regime has, through military offensives, mainly taken back important areas in 2018, with, among other things, Russian help (see Current policy).
The Arab Socialist Baath Party (Hizb al-Baath al-Arabi al-Ishtiraki; baath means rebirth or renaissance) has dominated Syrian politics since 1963 and is led by the president. The Baath Party was formed in the 1940s with Arab unity, Pan-Arabism, as the overall target. Based on the principle that all Arabs would be united in a single indivisible Arab nation, the Baath Party distanced itself from the states created by the Western powers’ division of the Middle East after the First World War. Despite pronounced neutrality, the party was in practice often anti-Western.
The party’s basically non-religious ideology and emphasis on pan-Arabism appealed to Syria’s Arab minority groups, while the peasants were attracted by the party’s promises of land reform and improved rural service. In 1963, the party seized power in a military coup. From 1963 to the early 1970s, the Baath Party’s board was very influential and many of the crucial power struggles in the country took place within the party leadership.
Under President Hafiz al-Assad’s rule of 1970, the role of the Baath Party changed. The power shifted to the president, who was also a party leader, and his closest in the military. The party remained, intertwined with the state apparatus, but primarily as a tool for the exercise of power and without any real independence. During the civil war that erupted in 2011, the role of the Baath Party has further diminished, while military commanders and military leaders have increased in importance.
In addition to the Baath Party, there are a number of smaller parties that are usually assigned some posts in each government. They have previously been organized within the so-called National Progressive Front, a coalition founded in 1972 under the leadership of the Baath Party. This includes, for example, the Syrian Communist Party. All these parties support Assad and they do not seem to function as independent organizations. They also have no real influence on how the country is governed. Ahead of the parliamentary elections held in parts of Syria in the spring of 2016, the alliance changed its name to the National Unity Coalition.
As a result of the rebellion against Assad in 2011 (see Modern History), a small-scale opposition has been formed with legal parties that target general criticism of corruption and poverty, but do not openly question the president’s rule or his decision. These include, for example, the Popular Front for Liberation and Change, which gathers some small leftist parties, and the various factions of the Syrian Social-Nationalist Party, which advocates a Greater Syria. Many opposites regard these parties as fig leaves to hide Assad’s one-man rule.
Real opposition parties and organizations, such as the Syrian branch of the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, have been forced to work in exile or underground.
More important opposition movements
The opposition that has emerged since 2011 is deeply divided and contains many hundreds of armed guerrilla movements, activist networks, political parties and exile groups. Common to them is that almost all are dominated by Sunni Muslim Arabs, who make up the majority of Syria’s population, while President Assad belongs to the Alawite minority (see Population).
During the popular revolt against the Assad regime that was triggered in 2011 (see Modern History), the Muslim Brotherhood and several other opposition groups formed the Syrian National Council (SNC in English), which in 2012 joined a new organization, commonly called the National Coalition (really Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary forces, in English still shortened to SNC). In 2013, the National Coalition appointed an exile government based in Turkey. The coalition and exile government are affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a “general staff” for the armed insurgency that is also based in Turkey and has been formed and reformed in several different variants during the uprising.
Inside Syria, a smaller, much more moderate opposition alliance was formed called the National Coordination Committee (Hay’at al-Tansiq in Arabic, NCB or NCC in English), which has advocated peaceful negotiations and is mainly supported by small secular left groups and the Kurdish party PYD.
The various opposition leaders outside the country (the National Coalition, the Exile Government and the US) are supported by, among others, the United States, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but in practice have limited influence over groups fighting inland. The countries that finance the opposition have tried to link armed groups in the country to exile politicians by offering them money and weapons to swear allegiance to the FSA General Staff, but the strategy has not been very successful. Both outside and inside Syria, opposition groups have been fighting each other for power and positions. The riots have sometimes had their roots in old feuds between the financiers, especially the rival royal houses of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which support various groups in Syria and fight for influence over the groups.
Beginning in the winter of 2013–2014, the Islamic State (IS) emerged as the most powerful opposition force. Approximately half of eastern and northeastern Syria (apart from the Kurdish areas) was ruled by IS from 2014. The group was previously known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria / Levant (often abbreviated Isis or Isil). IS was initially an outbreak group from the terror network al-Qaeda. IS also managed to gain control of large areas of northern Iraq (which was IS’s actual base area) before the movement was driven away from its holdings in both countries. Despite the setbacks, IS still has supporters groups in eg Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan.
IS has ruled its areas according to a very strict interpretation of Sunni Sharia law. You do not see yourself as a group, but as a state to which all other Muslims must submit. In June 2014, IS proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph, leader of all the world’s Muslims. This was not recognized by any other group in Syria.
Since the beginning of 2014, IS has been at odds with virtually all other armed organizations, including the government, the Kurds and other Islamists and rebels. In the late summer of 2014, the United States and a number of allied states launched air strikes against IS both in Iraq and Syria: in Syrian territory, Kurdish-dominated forces constituted the allied combat forces on the ground. In the fall of 2015, Russia launched massive airstrikes against both IS and other Islamist rebel groups, while Moscow escalated its military assistance to the Assad regime. By the end of 2017, IS had been defeated in all urban environments and driven on the run.
Other rebel groups
The smaller rebel groups have come and gone, renamed, split or merged. The largest Sunni-Arab rebel groups in Syria have included Islam’s army (Jaysh al-Islam), an Islamist group that has been particularly strong east of Damascus; Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda; Ahrar al-Sham, a broad-based and hard-line Islamist group with a foothold in northwestern Syria; Islamic Army (Jaysh al-Islam), a similar Islamist group with strong support from Saudi Arabia; The Levant Legion (Faylaq al-Sham), which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and cooperates with the FSA; Yarmukarmén (Jaysh al-Yarmuk), an FSA-affiliated group in southern Syria. In addition, there are hundreds of smaller groups, including many FSA-affiliated local guerrilla groups with no clear ideology, but also many different types of Sunni Islamists. A large number of foreign volunteers have joined extreme jihadist groups such as the Nusrafronten or IS.
The Assad government’s offensive against rebel areas in 2018 led to a series of jihadist groups, with warriors’ relatives in tow, crowded into the northwest, especially in Idlib province, where Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham became the strongest counter-force against the government.
In 2015, a new umbrella organization arose, the Conqueror Army (Jaysh al-Fatah), which in itself housed, among others, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic army in close cooperation with the Nusra Front. In connection with the peace talks that started in Geneva 2016, under Saudi leadership, a negotiating delegation was formed for the opposition that housed Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham as well as a dozen other rebel groups, but not the Nusa Front and IS.
The Kurdish areas
The dominant group in the Kurdish areas of northern Syria is the Kurdish Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK in Kurdish). PKK has its roots among the Kurds in Turkey and does not officially exist in Syria, but appears there hidden behind several different front organizations. The most well-known are the Democratic Unity Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demorkrat, PYD) and the armed militia Movement of the National Defense Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel abbreviated YPG, or Yekîneyên Parastina Jinê / YPJ for female allies).
In the summer of 2012, the government withdrew its forces from the Kurdish areas to fight against Arab rebels in other countries, and thus PYD was able to form a local government. In 2013–2014, PYD and its allies set up three local governments in Kurdish enclaves along the border with Turkey, which would be administered by each elected assembly. It sparked protests both from Arab rebel groups and from the Syrian government, despite PYD announcing that it did not plan to proclaim independence. The initiative was also criticized by the rival Kurdish National Council (KNC), which consists of several small Kurdish parties within the National Coalition and supported by the Kurdish Autonomous Government in Iraq. The KNC has been displaced by PYD / YPG since 2012 and no longer has a major influence within Syria.
Unlike most Arab rebel groups, which represent a conservative and often fundamentalist Sunni Islam, the PKK-inspired Kurdish groups are secular and leftist. PYD / YPG has tried to avoid conflict with the government, but instead has often been involved in conflict with Arab groups, especially militant Islamists such as IS. PYD / YPG also lives with a constant threat from Turkey, which dislikes Kurds acquiring territory, also in neighboring countries (see Calendar).
Ahead of peace negotiations in 2016, PYD / YPG merged with smaller Arab and Turkmen groups in a new front, Syria’s Democratic Forces (abbreviated SDF), with a political branch, Syria’s Democratic Council (SDC). SDF has played a key role in the battles that have ended with decisive defeat for IS.