Law enforcement in Syria

Syrian riot police in central Damascus.
A traffic police of Damascus

The law enforcement in Syria is carried out by police forces for general policing duties; internal security duties are carried out by several intelligence agencies. The Political Security Directorate is one of these agencies and is under the guidance of the Ministry of Interior. The Directorate operates independently and generally outside the control of the legal system to repress internal dissent and monitor individual citizens.[1] Syria is INTERPOL member since 1953.[2]

The Ministry of Interior also controls the Internal Security Forces. There are also other specialized organizations, such as the special metropolitan police in Damascus (overseen by the Director General of the Public Security and Police), the Gendarmerie for control in rural areas and the Desert Guard for border control (especially the Syrian-Iraqi border). As of 2011, the head of police was General Mahmoud Sa’oudi.[3]

Following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, several police forces were established also by insurgent factions, as well as by Rojava Kurdish-held region.


General Hrant Maloyan. He was essential in the establishment of the Syrian law enforcement system.

Police history in Syria dates back to the French Mandate, when colonial authorities established a Gendarmerie in order to maintain law and order in rural areas; it was poorly armed, disciplined and equipped and did not prove very effective against rebel forces, despite several attempts to ameliorate at least discipline and morale.[4]

During the second half of 1944, France transferred most of the directorates of the Common Interests to the national governments, except the Levantine Special Forces and the police. To both the Lebanese and the Syrians, and to the Syrians in particular, the transfer of the army and police was of utmost importance;[5] after several months of tense confrontation with the Syrian and Lebanese establishment, by July 1945 France had agreed to transfer control of the Levantine Special Forces.[6] As with the Levantine Special Forces, French officers held the top posts in the security establishment, but as Syrian independence approached, the ranks below major were gradually filled by Syrian officers. By the end of 1945, the gendarmerie numbered some 3,500.[7]

At the dawn of the independent era of the Syrian Republic, of around 15,000 troops under French control, some 5,000 would be converted into the Syrian Army of one brigade with auxiliary services; equal number would be taken into the Gendarmerie; half of remaining third would be needed for police and frontier customs control; remainder would be pensioned off. Several British officers were detailed as “training team” to assist the Syrian Gendarmerie.[8]

Since independence, Syria's police and internal security apparatus have undergone repeated reorganization and personnel changes, reflecting the security demands of each succeeding regime.[1] In 1945, Armenian general Hrant Maloyan was appointed by president Shukri al-Quwatli as the General Command of the Internal Security Forces in Syria and served this position until 1949. Maloyan would eventually be known to modernize the Syrian police ranks and improve discipline; members of the Gendarmerie doubled to 9,751 members by the time his post finished in 1949.[9] On the wake of 1946, the Gendarmerie was considered the only reliable and effective support of the Government; it was purged and successfully deployed to quell a revolt: in late 1940s, the national police force, grown out of the Gendarmerie, was deemed understaffed and poorly disciplined, with several cases of corruption among its ranks.[10]

While continuing discipline-improving efforts, in 1948 the Gendarmerie was transferred from the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Defence.[11] When Husni al-Za'im seized power in 1949, the director-general of police was Adib Shishakli, who in turn took the power in 1953.[12]

Under the United Arab Republic, Syrian Minister of Interior Colonel Abdel Hamid al-Sarraj regained control over Syrian gendarmerie and the desert patrol, which were merged in the Department of General Security on 13 March 1958;[13] Syrian police higher post were taken over by Egyptians[14] even if three of the four intelligence networks operating in Syria were under Syrian direction; the other was attached to the President’s Office in Cairo.[15] In each Governorate, a Major General of Police was appointed to the influential position of Director of Security.[16]

Back to the regained independence in 1961, the civil police forces are believed to have been used extensively to combat internal security threats to the government, including pro-Nasserites,[17] but during the 1970s and 1980s these forces assumed a more conventional civil police role; this change in role coincided with increased professionalization and the parallel development of an effective and pervasive internal security apparatus. Nevertheless, the police continued to receive training in such functions as crowd and riot control.

With the Legislative Decree No. 67, issued on 24 March 1965, the police received the title of Internal Security Forces; according the law the ISF were part of the armed forces, linked to the Minister of Interior, and specialized business and the tasks entrusted to them according to the regulations in force. The law granted the same status of the the Syrian Arab Army and his men to the Internal Security Forces.[18]

During the relative political stability of the 1970s and 1980s, police and security services were credited with having grown and become professional, but in 1987 only the bare outlines of their institutional makeup were known.[1][19] During the unrest caused by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1976, the national police was heavily employed in the northern-central region, in Aleppo, Hama and Homs.[20]

In the 1980s a national police force was responsible for routine police duties, although it was confronted by the insurgents in the 1982 Islamist uprising in Syria and held isolated skirmishes in Aleppo and in Latakia.[21] It incorporated the 8,000-man Gendarmerie, which had originally been organized by the French Mandate authorities to police rural areas. The civilian security police dealt with internal security matters.[1]

In 1996 the Government of Syria reformed police and established the Anti-Narcotics Division.[22] In 2002, Syria elevated the Anti-Narcotics unit from a branch to a Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior.[23] In mid-2000s Syrian police was involved in operations against Islamist militants.[24][25]

At the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, the Syrian police was in charge of quelling demonstrations and they exercised violence against demonstrators; some sources claim that often the police violence was a reaction against violent opponents. According to government lists presented to and published by the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, in 2011 the death toll for Syrian police forces was 478.[26] During the following phases of the Civil War, also regular police units were deployed on the front lines.[27]

Police system

The Ministry of Interior controls the Internal Security Forces, which are organized into four separate divisions of police forces under a Director General: Administrative Police, Traffic Police, Criminal Investigations, and Riot police, as well as a fanfare and the Khan al-Asal Police Academy.[28] The Internal Security Forces are part of the Ministry of Interior but makes uses of military ranks.[29]

At territorial level, the Syrian Police is organized into Police Provincial Commands, each led by a Major General, who is assisted by a Brigadier General acting as a deputy.[35]

As for total manpower of the Syrian police, 2016 estimates put the total force of 28,000 personnel,[36] and 8,000 to 9,000 injured soldiers.[37] Syrian women are allowed to serve and to reach senior positions.[37]

Specialist organizations

Aside of the Internal Security Forces, there are also other specialized organizations, such as the special metropolitan police in Damascus (overseen by the Director General of the Public Security and Police), the Gendarmerie for control in rural areas and the Desert Guard for border control (especially the Syrian-Iraqi border), up to 10,000-men strong.[38] These latter two organizations have a military character.

The Anti-Narcotics Department has responsibility for anti-drug law enforcement and intelligence gathering.[39] The anti-narcotics establishment was separated from the police in 2002.[23]

Police equipment

Syrian equipment is an issue. According to Telegraph, which cites Wikileaks, the Syrian police was supplied with advanced radio communications equipment, including 500 hand-held VS3000 radios, by Finmeccanica as late as 2011.[40] Syrian riot police appears to use typical riot equipment, such as riot helmets,[41] shields[42] and rubber batons.[43] Other heavier equipment includes armoured personnel carriers, water cannons[44] and tear gas.[45]

Police uniforms

Police uniforms vary according to the police branch which it is considered. Generally speaking, policemen assigned to security tasks wear the military olive green;[42] since 2009, the Government has decided to change traffic policemen’s uniforms from military olive green to grey pants, a white shirt with yellow shoulder patches and black belt and shoes.[46] As of 2011, Anti-terrorism police wore dark blue uniforms.[47]


According to GlobalSecurity, police impunity and corruption are serious problems. In 2008 President Assad issued a law that mandates that only the General Command of the Army and Armed Forces may issue an arrest warrant in the case of a crime committed by a military officer, member of the internal security forces, or customs police officer in the pursuit of his normal duties, and that such cases must be tried in military courts.[1]

Arbitrary and false arrests are also problems, and detainees had no legal redress. According to the accusations, the authorities use the Emergency Law to detain persons critical of the government and charge them with a wide range of political crimes, including treason. Incommunicado detention was a severe problem. Many persons who disappeared were believed to be either in long-term detention without charge or possibly to have died while detained. Many detainees brought to trial were held incommunicado for years, and their trials were often marked by irregularities and lack of due process. A shortage of available courts and lack of legal provisions for a speedy trial or plea bargaining led to lengthy pretrial detentions.[1]

A human rights police training program funded by the Swiss and Norwegian governments continued throughout 2008. The Geneva Institute for Human Rights, with support from the Ministand the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, began a third training course in October.[48]

Torture accusations

The law prohibits such practices as torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, and the penal code provides punishment of a maximum imprisonment of three years for abusers. Under article 28 of the constitution, "no one may be tortured physically or mentally or treated in a humiliating manner." Nevertheless, security forces reportedly continued to use torture frequently. Local human rights organizations continued to cite numerous credible cases of security forces allegedly abusing and torturing prisoners and detainees and claimed that many instances of abuse went unreported. Individuals who suffered torture or beatings while detained refused to allow their names or details of their cases to be reported for fear of government reprisal.[1]

Former prisoners, detainees, and reputable local human rights groups report that methods of torture and abuse included electrical shocks; pulling out fingernails; burning genitalia; forcing objects into the rectum; beatings while the victim is suspended from the ceiling and on the soles of the feet; alternately dousing victims with freezing water and beating them in extremely cold rooms; hyper-extending the spine; bending the body into the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts; using a backward-bending chair to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the spine; and stripping prisoners naked for public view.[1]

In previous years Amnesty International documented 38 types of torture and mistreatment used against detainees in the country. AI reported that torture was most likely to occur while detainees were held at one of the many detention centres operated by the various security services in the country, particularly while authorities attempted to extract a confession or information. Courts systematically used "confessions" extracted under duress as evidence, and defendants' claims of torture were almost never investigated.[1]

Criminal procedure

Upon arrest, the individual is brought to a police station for processing and detained until a trial date is set. At the initial court hearing, which can be months or years after the arrest, the accused may retain an attorney at personal expense or be assigned a court-appointed attorney, although lawyers are not ensured access to their clients before trial. The individual is then tried in court, where a judge renders a verdict. Although the prison code provides for prompt access to family members, human rights organizations and families reported inconsistent application of the code, with some families waiting as long as a year to see relatives. Civil and criminal defendants had the right to bail hearings and possible release from detention on their own recognizance.[1]

Military courts

Military courts have authority over cases involving soldiers or members of other military or police branches. If the charge against a soldier or member of the military or police branch is a misdemeanour, the sentence against the defendant is final. If the charge is a felony, the defendant has the right to appeal to the Military Chamber at the Court of Cassation. Military courts also have authority to try civilians in cases based on military law. Civilians have the right to appeal all sentences in military court. A military prosecutor decides the venue for a civilian defendant.[48]

ISIS police

ISIS maintains a local police force in Aleppo and Raqqa governorates.[49] The main function of the police forces is to serve as the executive body for the court, but there are also road police services. Additionally, the police forces are tasked with maintaining internal security through the deployment of regular patrols inside towns. According to a well-known ISIS account, ISIS provides local police patrols with dedicated vehicles as well as branded khaki uniforms.[50][51] According to Daily Mail, ISIS has branded black fatigues and painted police cars.[52]

Despite ISIS claims that its officers “do not rule on any case, but rather transfer cases to the court,” the reality is that extrajudicial detainment and torture are commonplace in ISIS-held territory. According to a report released by Amnesty International in December 2013, ISIS maintains at least seven large detention facilities throughout Raqqa and Aleppo provinces.[50]

Inside its detention centers ISIS holds common criminals who have been sentenced by its judicial branch, but it also detains political opponents, activists, and even children as young as eight years old. On April 28, 2014, an activist movement in Raqqa city publicized a protest by women demanding to know the fate of their male family members, who had been detained by ISIS for some time.[50]

Kurdish police

Main article: Asayish (Syria)

The Asayîş or Asayish (Arabic: الأسايش, Kurdish for security[53]) is the official security organisation of the autonomous administration in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan). It was formed during the Syrian Civil War to police areas controlled by the Kurdish Supreme Committee.

Free Syrian Police

The Syrian National Coalition established in 2013[54] a Free Syrian Police in Aleppo.[55] The FSP is said to be underequipped and underarmed; according to British foreign secretary Philip Hammond, the United Kingdom is working with international donors to provide the Free Syrian Police training, technical assistance, maintenance funds, and basic equipment.[56][57]

See also


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