The Right to Syrian Nationality

Syrians have made the news headlines for more than five years now for all the wrong reasons. What the media fails to mention is that they are a people who trace their identity back to the earliest civilizations in human history. Before the devastating conflict broke out in their country, they took great pride in highlighting their Syrian credentials to anyone inquiring about their origins. To be Syrian merited strong meaning during the latter half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century. After all, Egyptians were willing to merge with their fellow Syrians in 1958 to create one distinct nationality and even Iraq came close 20 years later to doing the same with Syria. During that time period, those three countries represented the elite among the Arab nation. The idealistic followers of the Baath Party sought to project a Syrian-led Arab national identity not least by making it easier for Arabs to benefit from Syrian nationality. Bearing all these points in mind, it is worth looking more carefully at the historic characteristics associated with Syrian nationality to understand what rights people may or may not have to it.

A distinct Syrian nationality was officially recognized by the French High Commissioner in 1925 during the era of the French mandate. After Syria achieved its independence, the rules governing Syrian nationality came under review and consequently started to treat Arab applicants with a special status unlike other foreigners. The people’s attention at the time started shifting more towards their Arab identity. The establishment of the Baath Party in 1947 and its pan-Arab orientation bore testament to this fact.

In the late 1950s, the rules for obtaining Syrian nationality started to reflect more and more the pan-Arab stances also held by the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser that were gaining momentum in Syria. What is ironic is that during the era of Nasser’s United Arab Republic (UAR) when Syria and Egypt were considered one country, the relevant Nationality Law at the time adopted a mixed approach. While it promoted some pan-Arab provisions in certain cases when conferring UAR nationality, it revoked others that had provided a fast-track service for Arab applicants. As for the secessionist government that seized power in 1961 in the wake of the UAR’s collapse, it removed certain restrictions to facilitate the naturalization of foreign persons in general.

The current Nationality Law can be found in Legislative Decree 276/1969, which was ratified by the then-President Nour Al-Din Atassi on November 24, 1969. The Law clarifies under what conditions people are deemed to be Syrian nationals. It draws a distinction between people who are born Syrian and those who can apply for the nationality to become naturalized Syrians. It gives the Minister of Interior powers to bestow the Syrian nationality on foreigners but also allows for special considerations to hasten the process for Arab applicants. Like its predecessors, this Law seeks to reflect the pan-Arab attitudes, which were also endorsed by the ruling Baath Party.

The Law adopts the principle of jus sanguinis. Therefore, Syrian nationality is determined solely by the parents’ nationality, in most cases the father’s, while the place of birth is irrelevant. In other words, birthright citizenship is not recognized since being born in Syria does not grant an automatic right to become a national. In most cases, individuals are deemed to be Syrian nationals regardless of whether they are born inside or outside Syria as long as their father holds Syrian nationality.

Syrian women cannot pass on their nationality to their children, a position that has generated much attention in the Arab world in recent times. Interestingly enough, Egypt has given women the right to pass on their nationality to their children. If a Syrian woman marries a foreign husband, their children will have no claim to being Syrian nationals even if they were born and raised in Syria. The legal ramifications are that these persons face a number of obstacles, one of which is their inability to work in the public sector. It is also harder and more restrictive for foreigners to own real estate in Syria.

Back in 2011, the Syrian Women’s Union presented a bill proposing to amend the Nationality Law to the then-Prime Minister Adel Safar, who formed a committee to consider it. The bill’s goal was to modify the Law so as to permit Syrian women married to foreign husbands to pass on their nationality to their children. Despite this initiative, no amendments were made. In May 2015, the former Minister of Economy and Trade Lamia Assi called for amendments to the Nationality Law so as to enable women to pass on their Syrian nationality to their children. She argued that the current Law violates the provisions of the Constitution. It is interesting to note that Syria is one of the most progressive countries in the region when it comes to women’s rights. After all, the incumbent Vice-President of Syria and the Speaker of the People’s Assembly, the national Parliament, are both women. Others serve as ministers in the government.

While the Law denies foreign husbands of Syrian wives Syrian nationality, a Syrian woman married to a foreigner shall remain Syrian unless she seeks her husband’s nationality. Although foreign husbands have no entitlement to Syrian nationality, the same is not true for foreign wives. A foreign wife of a Syrian national can become Syrian if their marriage lasts for two years and the wife resides in Syria during the two-year period. The same rules apply to foreign wives of naturalized Syrians. If the marriage ends in divorce in any of these cases, the woman shall not forfeit her Syrian nationality unless she marries a foreigner and acquires his nationality or recovers her original nationality. The Law is more lenient in the cases of Arab wives who become naturalized Syrians.

While Syrian nationality is mainly derived from one’s father, it is not the only feature of the Nationality Law. In addition to having a Syrian father, there are other instances whereby persons are deemed to be Syrian nationals. Such exceptions include when persons are born in Syria to a Syrian mother but are unable to determine who their father is; when they are born in Syria to unknown parents, or parents with an unknown nationality or who do not in fact possess a nationality; when they are born in Syria and were not at the time of their birth entitled to acquire a foreign nationality from their parents; and when they have Syrian origins but have not acquired another nationality.

The Law also sets down conditions for foreign persons applying to become naturalized Syrians following a recommendation from the Minister of Interior. To name the most important ones, the applicant must possess good character, add value to the country and be mainly resident in Syria for at least five consecutive years. Arabic language proficiency is also one of the requirements. However, these conditions may be bypassed in certain circumstances such as where the applicant renders noble services to Syria or the Arab nation, the latter being a hallmark of Baathist policy. Another Baathist-inspired exception to the rules permits applicants who are originally from another Arab country or originally Arab to become Syrian nationals following a decision from the Minister of Interior. While there may be a few nominal conditions to satisfy, it is quite clear that the rules for Arab applicants are more relaxed than those for foreigners in general.

The Nationality Law is also distinct in that it does not give Syrians the right to unilaterally abandon their Syrian nationality. Syrians may be permitted to forfeit it if they acquire a foreign nationality but only after obtaining the consent of the government. Furthermore, the state reserves the right to revoke a person’s Syrian nationality under certain justifiable circumstances, such as those involving matters of national security.

Having gained an insight into what exactly constitutes the Syrian nationality, people may draw a number of conclusions. While the children of a Syrian mother and foreign father are not entitled to be treated as Syrians even if they do not know any other country, a fast-track process exists to help facilitate the naturalization of Arabs who may have a lesser connection to Syria. Certain aspects of Syrian nationality are also portrayed more as privileges than as rights. For instance, a Syrian is not entitled to forfeit his or her nationality but rather that right is retained by the government, which can choose when to exercise it. What we glean from the news these days is that many Syrians are losing interest in the characteristics of their nationality and are more enthusiastic about foreign passports. They feel the world has shut its doors to them at a time when they are forced to flee their homeland for a whole host of reasons. One can only ponder the dire situation Syrians find themselves in today when they recollect the times of previous generations who happily held up their Syrian nationality as a beacon of pride in the Arab world.