The Syrian Arab Republic or Syria is a country in the Middle East, bordering (from south to north) on Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. The borders with Israel and Turkey are subject to dispute, pending the resolution of outstanding conflicts over possession of the Golan Heights and the region of Iskenderun, respectively.
The name Syria comes from the ancient Greek name for the land of Aram at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea between Egypt and Arabia to the south and Cilicia to the north, stretching inland to include Mesopotamia, and having an uncertain border to the northeast that Pliny the Elder describes as including from west to east Commagene, Sophene , and Adiabene, "formerly known as Assyria" (N.H. 5.66). By Pliny's time, however, this larger Syria had been divided into a number of smaller regions: Palestine (the region corresponding to the modern states of Israel and Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territories) in the extreme southwest, Phoenicia along the coast, with Damascena to the inland side of Phoenicia, Coele-Syria (or "Hollow Syria") north of the Eleutheris river, and Mesopotamia.
Main article: History of Syria
Archaeologists have demonstrated that Syria was the center of one of the most ancient civilizations on earth. Around the excavated city of Ebla in northern Syria, discovered in 1975, a great Semitic empire spread from the Red Sea north to Turkey and east to Mesopotamia from 2500 to 2400 B.C. The city of Ebla alone during that time had a population estimated at 260,000. Scholars believe the language of Ebla to be the oldest Semitic language. Other notable cities excavated include Mari, Ugarit and Dura Europos.
Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Arameans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Nabataeans, Byzantines, Arabs, and, in part, Crusaders before finally coming under the control of the Ottoman Turks. Syria is significant in the history of Christianity; Paul was converted on the road to Damascus and established the first organized Christian Church at Antioch in ancient Syria, from which he left on many of his missionary journeys.
Damascus, settled about 2500 B.C., is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It came under Muslim rule in A.D. 636. Immediately thereafter, the city's power and prestige reached its peak, and it became the capital of the Omayyad Empire, which extended from Spain to India from A.D. 661 to A.D. 750, when the Abbasid caliphate was established at Baghdad, Iraq.
Damascus became a provincial capital of the Mameluke Empire around 1260. It was largely destroyed in 1400 by Tamerlane, the Mongol conqueror, who removed many of its craftsmen to Samarkand. Rebuilt, it continued to serve as a capital until 1516. In 1517, it fell under Ottoman rule. The Ottomans remained for the next 400 years, except for a brief occupation by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt from 1832 to 1840.
In 1920, an independent Arab Kingdom of Syria was established under King Faysal of the Hashemite family, who later became King of Iraq. However, his rule over Syria ended after only a few months, following the clash between his Syrian Arab forces and regular French forces at the Battle of Maysalun . French troops occupied Syria later that year after the League of Nations put Syria under French mandate. With the fall of France in 1940, Syria came under the control of the Vichy Government until the United Kingdom and Free French occupied the country in July 1941. Continuing pressure from Syrian nationalist groups forced the French to evacuate their troops in April 1946, leaving the country in the hands of a republican government that had been formed during the mandate.
Independence to 1970
Although rapid economic development followed the declaration of independence of April 17, 1946, Syrian politics from independence through the late 1960s were marked by upheaval. A series of military coups, begun in 1949, undermined civilian rule and led to army colonel Adib Shishakli 's seizure of power in 1951. After the overthrow of President Shishakli in a 1954 coup, continued political maneuvering supported by competing factions in the military eventually brought Arab nationalist and socialist elements to power.
Syria's political instability during the years after the 1954 coup, the parallelism of Syrian and Egyptian policies, and the appeal of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's leadership in the wake of the 1956 Suez crisis created support in Syria for union with Egypt. On February 1, 1958, the two countries merged to create the United Arab Republic, and all Syrian political parties ceased overt activities.
The union was not a success, however. Following a military coup on September 28, 1961, Syria seceded, reestablishing itself as the Syrian Arab Republic. Instability characterized the next 18 months, with various coups culminating on March 8, 1963, in the installation by leftist Syrian Army officers of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command (NCRC), a group of military and civilian officials who assumed control of all executive and legislative authority. The takeover was engineered by members of the Arab Socialist Resurrection Party (Ba'ath Party), which had been active in Syria and other Arab countries since the late 1940s. The new cabinet was dominated by Ba'ath members.
The Ba'ath takeover in Syria followed a Ba'ath coup in Iraq the previous month. The new Syrian Government explored the possibility of federation with Egypt and Ba'ath–controlled Iraq. An agreement was concluded in Cairo on April 17, 1963, for a referendum on unity to be held in September 1963. However, serious disagreements among the parties soon developed, and the tripartite federation failed to materialize. Thereafter, the Ba'ath regimes in Syria and Iraq began to work for bilateral unity. These plans floundered in November 1963, when the Ba'ath regime in Iraq was overthrown. In May 1964, President Amin Hafiz of the NCRC promulgated a provisional constitution providing for a National Council of the Revolution (NCR), an appointed legislature composed of representatives of mass organizations —labor, peasant, and professional unions—, a presidential council, in which executive power was vested, and a cabinet. On February 23, 1966, a group of army officers carried out a successful, intra-party coup, imprisoned President Hafiz, dissolved the cabinet and the NCR, abrogated the provisional constitution, and designated a regionalist, civilian Ba'ath government. The coup leaders described it as a "rectification" of Ba'ath Party principles. The defeat of the Syrians and Egyptians in the June 1967 war with Israel weakened the radical socialist regime established by the 1966 coup. Conflict developed between a moderate military wing and a more extremist civilian wing of the Ba'ath Party. The 1970 retreat of Syrian forces sent to aid the PLO during the "Black September" hostilities with Jordan reflected this political disagreement within the ruling Ba'ath leadership. On November 13, 1970, Minister of Defense Hafiz al-Asad affected a bloodless military coup, ousting the civilian party leadership and assuming the role of prime minister.
1970 to 2000
Upon assuming power, Hafiz al-Asad moved quickly to create an organizational infrastructure for his government and to consolidate control. The Provisional Regional Command of Asad's Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party nominated a 173-member legislature, the People's Council, in which the Ba'ath Party took 87 seats. The remaining seats were divided among "popular organizations" and other minor parties. In March 1971, the party held its regional congress and elected a new 21-member Regional Command headed by Asad. In the same month, a national referendum was held to confirm Asad as President for a 7-year term. In March 1972, to broaden the base of his government, Asad formed the National Progressive Front, a coalition of parties led by the Ba'ath Party, and elections were held to establish local councils in each of Syria's 14 governorates. In March 1973, a new Syrian constitution went into effect followed shortly thereafter by parliamentary elections for the People's Council, the first such elections since 1962.
The authoritarian regime was not without its critics, though most were quickly dealt with. A serious challenge arose in the late 1970s, however, from fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, who reject the basic values of the secular Ba'ath program and object to rule by the Alawis, whom they consider heretical. From 1976 until its suppression in 1982, the archconservative Muslim Brotherhood led an armed insurgency against the regime. In response to an attempted uprising by the brotherhood in February 1982, the government crushed the fundamentalist opposition centered in the city of Hama, leveling parts of the city with artillery fire and causing many thousands of dead and wounded. Since then, public manifestations of anti-regime activity have been very limited.
Syria's 1990 participation in the U.S.-led multinational coalition aligned against Saddam Hussein marked a dramatic watershed in Syria's relations both with other Arab states and with the West. Syria participated in the multilateral Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid in October 1991, and during the 1990s engaged in direct, face-to-face negotiations with Israel. These negotiations failed, and there have been no further Syrian-Israeli talks since President Hafiz Al-Asad's meeting with then President Bill Clinton in Geneva in March 2000.
Hafiz Al-Asad died on June 10, 2000, after 30 years in power. Immediately following Al-Asad's death, the Parliament amended the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34 years old, which allowed his son, Bashar_al-Assad Bashar Al-Asad legally to be eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba'ath party. On July 10, 2000, Bashar Al-Asad was elected President by referendum in which he ran unopposed, garnering 97.29% of the vote.
2000 to 2005
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001 the Syrian government began limited cooperation with U.S. in the global war against terrorism. However, Syria opposed the Iraq war in March 2003, and bilateral relations with the U.S. swiftly deteriorated. In December 2003, President George W. Bush signed into law the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, which provided for the imposition of a series of sanctions against Syria if Syria did not end its support for Palestinian terrorist groups, end its military and security presence in Lebanon, cease its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and meet its obligations under US interpretation of United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq. In May 2004, the President determined that Syria had not met these conditions and implemented sanctions that prohibit the export to Syria of items on the U.S. Munitions List and Commerce Control List, the export to Syria of U.S. products except for food and medicine, and the taking off from or landing in the United States of Syrian government-owned aircraft. At the same time, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced its intention to order U.S. financial institutions to sever correspondent accounts with the Commercial Bank of Syria based on money-laundering concerns, pursuant to Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act. Acting under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), the President also authorized the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to freeze assets belonging to certain Syrian individuals and government entities.
On February 14, 2005, a car bomb killed Rafik Hariri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon. Many parties, including members of the Lebanese opposition, alleged that Hariri was assassinated by Syria, though as of present day no conclusive proof had been established. Popular protests soon arose, composed primarily of Maronite Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims, demanding the resignation of the government led by Omar Karimi, as well as the withdrawal of all Syrian troops and intelligence operatives. On February 28, 2005, Karimi's government resigned, although it was reappointed a few days later. On March 5, 2005, after intense international pressure, president Bashar al-Assad of Syria made a speech before the Syrian Parliament, where he announced that Syria would complete a full withdrawal from Lebanon by May of 2005.
Main article: Politics of Syria
Officially, Syria is a republic. In reality, however, it is an authoritarian regime that exhibits only the forms of a democratic system. Although citizens ostensibly vote for the President and members of Parliament, they do not have the right to change their government. The late President Hafiz Al-Asad was confirmed by unopposed referenda five times. His son, Bashar Al-Asad, also was confirmed by an unopposed referendum in July 2000. The President and his senior aides, particularly those in the military and security services, ultimately make most basic decisions in political and economic life, with a very limited degree of public accountability. Political opposition to the President is not tolerated. Syria has been under a state of emergency since 1963. Syrian governments have justified martial law by the state of war, which continues to exist with Israel and by continuing threats posed by terrorist groups. Syria has occupied most of the neighbouring Lebanese Republic since 1975.
The Asad regime (little has changed since Bashar Al-Asad succeeded his father) has held power longer than any other government since independence; its survival is due partly to a strong desire for stability and the regime's success in giving groups such as religious minorities and peasant farmers a stake in society. The expansion of the government bureaucracy has also created a large class loyal to the regime. The President's continuing strength is due also to the army's continued loyalty and the effectiveness of Syria's large internal security apparatus, both comprised largely of members of Asad's own Alawi sect. The several main branches of the security services operate independently of each other and outside of the legal system. Each continues to be responsible for human rights violations.
All three branches of government are guided by the views of the Ba'ath Party, whose primacy in state institutions is assured by the constitution. The Ba'ath platform is proclaimed succinctly in the party's slogan: "Unity, freedom, and socialism." The party is both socialist, advocating state ownership of the means of industrial production and the redistribution of agricultural land, and revolutionary, dedicated to carrying a socialist revolution to every part of the Arab world. Founded by Michel 'Aflaq , a Syrian Christian and Salah al-Din Al-Bitar , a Syrian Sunni, the Ba'ath Party embraces secularism and has attracted supporters of all faiths in many Arab countries, especially Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. Since August 1990, however, the party has tended to de-emphasize socialism and to stress pan-Arab unity.
Six smaller political parties are permitted to exist and, along with the Ba'ath Party, make up the National Progressive Front (NPF), a grouping of parties that represents the sole framework of legal political party participation for citizens. While created ostensibly to give the appearance of a multi-party system, the NPF is dominated by the Ba'ath Party and does not change the essentially one-party character of the political system. Non-Ba'ath Party members of the NPF exist as political parties largely in name only and conform strictly to Ba'ath Party and government policies. There were reports in 2000 that the government was considering legislation to expand the NPF to include new parties and several parties previously banned; these changes have not taken place.
The Ba'ath Party dominates the Parliament, which is known as the People's Council. Elected every 4 years, the Council has no independent authority. Although parliamentarians may criticize policies and modify draft laws, they cannot initiate laws, and the executive branch retains ultimate control over the legislative process. During 2002, two independent members of Parliament who had advocated political reforms were stripped of their parliamentary immunity and tried and convicted of charges of "attempting to illegally change the constitution." The government has allowed independent non-NPF candidates to run for a limited allotment of seats in the 250-member People's Council. The current allotment of non-NPF deputies is 83, ensuring a permanent absolute majority for the Ba'ath Party-dominated NPF. Elections for the 250 seats in the People's Council last took place in 2003.
There was a surge of interest in political reform after Bashar al-Asad assumed power in 2000. Human rights activists and other civil society advocates, as well as some Parliamentarians, became more outspoken during a period referred to as "Damascus Spring " (July 2000-February 2001). Asad also made a series of appointments of reform-minded advisors to formal and less formal positions, and included a number of similarly oriented individuals in his Cabinet. The arrest and long-term detention of two reformist Parliamentarians, Ma’mun al-Humsy and Riad Seif, in August and September 2001, respectively, and the apparent marginalizing of some of the reformist advisors in the past four years, indicate that the pace of any political reform in Syria is likely to be much slower than the short-lived Damascus Spring promised.
The Syrian constitution vests the Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party with leadership functions in the state and society and provides broad powers to the president. The president, approved by referendum for a 7-year term, also is Secretary General of the Ba'ath Party and leader of the National Progressive Front. The president has the right to appoint ministers, to declare war and states of emergency, to issue laws (which, except in the case of emergency, require ratification by the People's Council), to declare amnesty, to amend the constitution, and to appoint civil servants and military personnel.
Along with the National Progressive Front, the president decides issues of war and peace and approves the state's 5-year economic plans. The National Progressive Front also acts as a forum in which economic policies are debated and the country's political orientation is determined. However, because of Ba'ath Party dominance, the National Progressive Front has traditionally exercised little independent power.
The Syrian constitution of 1973 requires that the president be Muslim but does not make Islam the state religion. Islamic jurisprudence, however, is required to be a main source of legislation. The judicial system in Syria is an amalgam of Ottoman, French, and Islamic laws, with three levels of courts: courts of first instance, courts of appeals, and the constitutional court, the highest tribunal. In addition, religious courts handle questions of personal and family law.
The Ba'ath Party emphasizes socialism and secular Arabism. Although Ba'ath Party doctrine seeks to build national rather than ethnic identity, ethnic, religious, and regional allegiances remain important in Syria.
Members of President Asad's own sect, the Alawis, hold most of the important military and security positions. In recent years there has been a gradual decline in the party's preeminence, often in favor of the leadership of the broader National Progressive Front. The party also is now dominated by the military, which consumes a large share of Syria's economic resources.
Syria is divided administratively into 14 provinces, one of which is Damascus. A governor, whose appointment is proposed by the minister of the interior, approved by the cabinet, and announced by executive decree, heads each province. The governor is assisted by an elected provincial council.
Main article: Governorates of Syria
Syria has fourteen governorates, or muhafazat (singular: muhafazah):
Main article: Geography of Syria
Syria consists mostly of arid plateau, although there is a small strip with plain along the coast line with the Mediterranean. The Euphrates, Syria's most important river, crosses the country in the east. It is considered to be one of the fifteen states that comprise the so-called "Cradle of Humanity".
Major cities include the capital Damascus in the southwest, Aleppo in the north, and Homs. Most of the other important cities are located along the coast line. (See also List of cities in Syria.)
The climate in Syria is dry and hot, although winters are mild. Because of the country's elevation, snowfall does also occur occasionally during winter.
Main article: Economy of Syria
Syria is a middle-income, developing country with a diversified economy based on agriculture, industry, and energy. During the 1960s, citing its state socialist ideology, the government nationalized most major enterprises and adopted economic policies designed to address regional and class disparities. This legacy of state intervention and price, trade, and foreign exchange controls still hampers economic growth, although the government has begun to revisit many of these policies, especially vis-à-vis the financial sector and the country's trade regime. Despite a number of significant reforms and ambitious development projects of the early 1990s, as well as more modest reform efforts currently underway, Syria's economy still is slowed by large numbers of poorly performing public sector firms, low investment levels, and relatively low industrial and agricultural productivity.
Despite the mitigation of the severe drought that plagued the region in the late 1990s and the recovery of energy export revenues, Syria's economy faces serious challenges. With almost 60% of its population under the age of 20, unemployment higher than the current estimated range of 20%-25% is a real possibility unless sustained and strong economic growth takes off. Oil production has leveled off, but recent agreements allowing increased foreign investment in the petroleum sector may boost production in two to three years.
Taken as a whole, Syrian economic reform thus far has been incremental and gradual, with privatization not even on the distant horizon. The government, however, has begun to address structural deficiencies in the economy such as the lack of a modern financial sector through changes to the legal and regulatory environment. In 2001, Syria legalized private banking. In 2004, four private banks began operations. In August 2004, a committee was formed to supervise the establishment of a stock market. Beyond the financial sector, the Syrian Government has enacted major changes to rental and tax laws, and is reportedly considering similar changes to the commercial code and to other laws, which impact property rights.
Commerce has always been important to the Syrian economy, which benefited from the country's location along major east-west trade routes. Syrian cities boast both traditional industries such as weaving and dried-fruit packing and modern heavy industry. Given the policies adopted from the 1960s through the late 1980s, Syria failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy. In late 2001, however, Syria submitted a request to the World Trade Organization to begin the accession process. Syria had been an original contracting party of the former General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade but withdrew in 1951 because of Israel's joining. Major elements of current Syrian trade rules would have to change in order to be consistent with the WTO. Syria is intent on signing an Association Agreement with the European Union that would entail significant trade liberalization.
The bulk of Syrian imports have been raw materials essential for industry, agriculture, equipment, and machinery. Major exports include crude oil, refined products, raw cotton, clothing, fruits, and grains. Earnings from oil exports are one of the government's most important sources of foreign exchange.
Of Syria's 72,000 square miles (186,000 km²), roughly one-third is arable, with 80% of cultivated areas dependent on rainfall for water. In recent years, the agriculture sector has recovered from years of government inattentiveness and drought. Most farms are privately owned, but the government controls important elements of marketing and transportation.
The government has redirected its economic development priorities from industrial expansion into the agricultural sectors in order to achieve food self-sufficiency, enhance export earnings, and stem rural migration. Thanks to sustained capital investment, infrastructure development, subsidies of inputs, and price supports, Syria has gone from a net importer of many agricultural products to an exporter of cotton, fruits, vegetables, and other foodstuffs. One of the prime reasons for this turnaround has been the government's investment in huge irrigation systems in northern and northeastern Syria, part of a plan to increase irrigated farmland by 38% over the next decade.
Syria has produced heavy-grade oil from fields located in the northeast since the late 1960s. In the early 1980s, light-grade, low-sulphur oil was discovered near Dayr az Zawr in eastern Syria. This discovery relieved Syria of the need to import light oil to mix with domestic heavy crude in refineries. Recently, Syrian oil production has been about 530,000 barrels per day. Although its oil reserves are small compared to those of many other Arab states, Syria's petroleum industry accounts for a majority of the country's export income. The government has successfully begun to work with international energy companies to develop Syria's promising natural gas reserves, both for domestic use and export. U.S. energy firm, ConocoPhillips, completed a large natural gas gathering and production facility for Syria in late 2000, and will continue to serve as operator of the plant until December 2005. In 2003, Syria experienced some success in attracting U.S. Petroleum companies, signing an exploration deal with partners Devon Energy and Gulfsands and a seismic survey contract with Veritas.
Ad hoc economic liberalization continues to provide hope to Syria's private sector. In 1990, the government established an official parallel exchange rate (neighboring country rate) to provide incentives for remittances and exports through official channels. This action improved the supply of basic commodities and contained inflation by removing risk premiums on smuggled commodities.
Over time, the government has increased the number of transactions to which the more favorable neighboring country exchange rate applies. The government also introduced a quasi-rate for non-commercial transactions in 2001 broadly in line with prevailing black market rates. Exchange-rate unification remains an elusive goal as pressure is building for Syria to harmonize its exchange rate system.
Given the poor development of its own capital markets and Syria's lack of access to international money and capital markets, monetary policy remains captive to the need to cover the fiscal deficit. Although in 2003 Syria lowered interest rates for the first time in 22 years and again in 2004, rates remain fixed by law. In a positive move in 2003, Syria canceled an old and troublesome law governing foreign currency exchange; however, new regulations have yet to be implemented. Some basic commodities continue to be heavily subsidized, and social services are provided for nominal charges.
Syria has made progress in easing its heavy foreign debt burden through bilateral rescheduling deals with virtually all of its key creditors in Europe, although debt owed to the former Soviet Union remains an unsolved problem.
Main article: Demographics of Syria
Ethnic Syrians are a mix of Semitic and Indo-European peoples that have occupied the region over time. Syria's population is 90% Muslim—70% Sunni, and 20% other Muslim groups, including the Alawi, Shi'a, and Druze—and 10% Christian. There also is a tiny Syrian Jewish community.
Arabic is the official, and most widely spoken, language. Arabs, including some 400,000 Palestinian refugees, make up 90% of the population. Many educated Syrians also speak English or French, but English is the more widely understood. The Kurds, many of whom speak Kurdish, make up 9% of the population and live mostly in the northeast corner of Syria, though sizable Kurdish communities live in most major Syrian cities as well. Armenian and Turkic are spoken among the small Armenian and Turkoman populations. Aramaic, the lingua franca of the region before the advent of Islam and Arabic, is spoken among certain ethnic groups: as Syriac, it is used as the liturgical language of various Syriac denominations; modern Aramaic (particularly, Turoyo language and Assyrian Neo-Aramaic) is spoken in Al-Jazira region. Most remarkably, Western Neo-Aramaic is still spoken in the village of Ma`loula, and two neighbouring villages, 56 km northeast of Damascus.
Most people live in the Euphrates River valley and along the coastal plain, a fertile strip between the coastal mountains and the desert. Overall population density is about 140 per sq. mi. Education is free and compulsory from ages 6 to 11. Schooling consists of 6 years of primary education followed by a 3-year general or vocational training period and a 3-year academic or vocational program. The second 3-year period of academic training is required for university admission . Total enrollment at post-secondary schools is over 150,000. The literacy rate of Syrians aged 15 and older is 78% for males and 51% for females.
Ancient Syria's cultural and artistic achievements and contributions are many. Archaeologists have discovered extensive writings and evidence of a brilliant culture rivaling those of Mesopotamia and Egypt in and around the ancient city of Ebla. Later Syrian scholars and artists contributed to Hellenistic and Roman thought and culture. Zeno of Sidon founded the Epicurean school; Cicero was a pupil of Antiochus of Ascalon at Athens; and the writings of Posidonius of Apamea influenced Livy and Plutarch. Syrians have contributed to Arabic literature and music and have a proud tradition of oral and written poetry. Although declining, the world-famous handicraft industry still employs thousands.
Main article: Culture of Syria