Syria

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Africa; African Countries; Middle Eastern Countries

country-name" colspan="3" style="line-height:1.2em; padding:0.25em 0.33em 0.33em; font-size:1.25em;">الجمهورية العربية السورية
Al-Jumhūriyyah al-ʿArabiyyah as-Sūriyyah
Syrian Arab Republic
Flag of Syria Coat of arms of Syria
Flag Coat of arms
Anthem:  Homat el Diyar
Guardians of the Land

Location of Syria
Capital
(and largest city)
Damascus
Official languages Arabic
Demonym Syrian
Government Presidential republic Single party state
 -  President Bashar al-Assad
 -  Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Otari
Independence from France 
 -  First declaration September 19361 
 -  Second declaration January 1, 1944 
 -  Recognized April 17, 1946 
Area
 -  Total 185,180 km² ( 88th)
71,479  sq mi 
 -  Water (%) 0.06
Population
 -  2007 estimate 19,405,000 ( 55th)
 -  Density 103/km² ( 110th)
267/sq mi
GDP ( PPP) 2005 estimate
 -  Total $71.74 billion ( 65th)
 -  Per capita $5,348 ( 101st)
HDI (2007) 0.724 (medium) ( 109th)
Currency Syrian pound ( SYP)
Time zone EET ( UTC+2)
 -  Summer ( DST) EEST ( UTC+3)
Internet TLD .sy
Calling code +963
1 The Franco-Syrian Treaty of Independence (1936), not ratified by France.
Map of Syria
Map of Syria

Syria (Arabic: سورياSūriyā or سورية Sūriyah), officially the Syrian Arab Republic (Arabic: الجمهورية العربية السورية ), is a country in Southwest Asia, bordering Lebanon, the Mediterranean Sea and the island of Cyprus to the west, Israel to the southwest, Jordan to the south, Iraq to the east, and Turkey to the north. The modern state of Syria was formerly a French mandate and attained independence in 1946, but can trace its roots to the fourth millennium BC. Its capital city, Damascus, was the seat of the Umayyad Empire and a provincial capital of the Mamluk Empire.

Syria gained independence in April 1946. Officially a Republic, Syria is under Emergency Law since 1963 and governed by the Baath Party; the head of state since 1970 has been a member of the Assad family. Syria's current president is Bashar al-Assad, son of Hafez al-Assad, who held office from 1970 until his death in 2000. With the appointment of Bashar al-Assad in 2000 interest in political reform surged, leading to the so called " Damascus Spring" (July 2000-February 2001). Asad appointed pro-reform candidates to formal and less formal positions, but the 2001 arrest and long-term detention of the two reformist parliamentarians signals slow political reform.

Etymology

The name Syria derives from the ancient Greek name for Syrians, Σύριοι Syrioi, which the Greeks applied without distinction to various Assyrian people. Modern scholarship confirms the Greek word traces back to the cognateἈσσυρία, Assyria, ultimately derived from the Akkadian Aššur,

The area designated by the word has changed over time. Classically, Syria lies 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". By Pliny's time, however, this larger Syria had been divided into a number of provinces under the Roman Empire (but politically independent from each other): Judaea, later renamed Palaestina in AD 135 (the region corresponding to modern day Palestine and Israel, and Jordan) in the extreme southwest, Phoenicia corresponding to Lebanon, with Damascena to the inland side of Phoenicia, Coele-Syria (or "Hollow Syria") south of the Eleutheris river, and Mesopotamia.


Politics

Syria has the following executive branches of government: the president, two vice presidents, prime minister, Council of Ministers (cabinet). Syria's legislative branch is the unicameral People's Council.

Syria's judicial branches include the Supreme Constitutional Court, the High Judicial Council, the Court of Cassation, and the State Security Courts. Islamic jurisprudence is a main source of legislation and Syria's judicial system has elements of Ottoman, French, and Islamic laws. Syria has three levels of courts: courts of first instance, courts of appeals, and the constitutional court, the highest tribunal. Religious courts handle questions of personal and family law.

Political parties: the Arab Socialist Resurrection (Baath) Party (Baath Party), Syrian Arab Socialist Party, Arab Socialist Union, Syrian Communist Party, Arab Socialist Unionist Movement, Democratic Socialist Union Party, and around 15 very small tolerated political parties.

Suffrage: Universal at the age of 18.

Constitution and Regime

Syria's constitution was adopted March 13, 1973. It vests the Baath Party with leadership functions in the state and society. The president is approved by referendum for a 7-year term. The president also serves as Secretary General of the Baath Party and leader of the National Progressive Front. The National Progressive Front is a coalition of 10 political parties authorized by the regime.

The Constitution requires the president to be a Muslim, but does not make Islam the state religion. The Constitution gives the president 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.

Emergency Law

Since 1963 Emergency Law has been in effect, effectively suspending most constitutional protections for Syrians. Syrian governments have justified the state of emergency in the light of the continuing war with Israel and the threats posed by terrorist. Syrian citizens vote for the President in a referendum (unopposed), citizens do not have the right to elect their government in multi-party elections.


History

Eblan civilization

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. Ebla appears to have been founded around 3000 BC, and gradually built its empire through trade with the cities of Sumer and Akkad, as well as with peoples to the northwest. Gifts from Pharaohs, found during excavations, confirm Ebla's contact with Egypt. Scholars believe the language of Ebla to be among the oldest known written Semitic languages, designated as Paleo-Canaanite. However, more recent classifications of the Eblaite language has shown that it was an East Semitic language, closely related to the Akkadian language. The Eblan civilization was likely conquered by Sargon of Akkad around 2260 BC; the city was restored, as the nation of the Amorites, a few centuries later, and flourished through the early second millennium BC until conquered by the Hittites.

Syria in antiquity

Roman theatre in Bosra.
Roman theatre in Bosra.
Philippus Araps, Roman Emperor -detail of Syrian 100 pound note.
Philippus Araps, Roman Emperor -detail of Syrian 100 pound note.

During the second millennium BC, Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Arameans as part of the general disruptions and exchanges associated with the Sea Peoples. The Hebrews eventually settled south of Damascus, in the areas later known as Israel and Judah; the Phoenicians settled along the coast of Palestine, as well as in the west (Lebanon), which was already known for its towering cedars. Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Hittites variously occupied the strategic ground of Syria during this period; the land between their various empires being marsh. Eventually, the Persians took Syria as part of their hegemony of Southwest Asia; this dominion was transferred to the Ancient Macedonians after Alexander the Great's conquests and, thence, to the Rome">Romans and the Byzantines.

In the Roman Empire period, the city of Antioch was capital of Syria and was the third largest city in the empire after Rome and Alexandria. With estimated population of 500,000 at its peak, Antioch was one of the major centres of trade and industry in the ancient world. The population of Syria during the heyday of the empire was probably not exceeded again until the 19th century. Syria's large and prosperous population made Syria one of the most important of the Roman provinces, particularly during the 2nd and 3rd centuries (A.D.). The Roman Emperor Alexander Severus, who was emperor from 222 to 235, was Syrian. His cousin Elagabalus, who was emperor from 218 to 222, was also Syrian and his family held hereditary rights to the high priesthood of the sun god El-Gabal at Emesa (modern Homs) in Syria. Another Roman emperor who was a Syrian was Marcus Julius Philippus, emperor from 244 to 249.

The famous desert city of Palmyra, whose ruins are now a United Nations World Heritage site, grew large in the Syrian desert in the 1st and 2nd centuries (A.D.).
The famous desert city of Palmyra, whose ruins are now a United Nations World Heritage site, grew large in the Syrian desert in the 1st and 2nd centuries (A.D.).


St.Simon (Samaan) church in Aleppo is considered to be one of the oldest remaining churches in the world.
St.Simon (Samaan) church in Aleppo is considered to be one of the oldest remaining churches in the world.
The Umayyad Mosque courtyard, Damascus.
The Umayyad Mosque courtyard, Damascus.

Early Christian and Islamic history

Syria is significant in the history of Christianity; Saul of Tarsus was converted on the Road to Damascus, thereafter being known as the Apostle Paul, and established the first organized Christian Church at Antioch in ancient Syria, from which he left on many of his missionary journeys.

In the 7th century, Syria was conquered by Muslims, resulting in the area becoming part of the Islamic empire. In the mid 7th century, the Umayyad dynasty, then rulers of the empire, placed the capital in Damascus. However, rival factions within the empire disputed the Umayyad right to rule, based on their place in the line of succession from Mohammad. This resulted in a civil war and their overthrow by the Abbasid dynasty, who moved the capital to Baghdad.


Sections of the coastline of Syria were briefly held by Frankish overlords during the Crusades of the 12th century, and were known as the Crusader state of the Principality of Antioch. The area was also threatened by Shiite extremists known as Assassins (Hashshashin). In 1260, the Mongols arrived, led by Hulegu with an army 100,000 strong, destroying cities and irrigation works. Aleppo fell in January 1260, and Damascus in March, but then Hulegu needed to break off his attack to return to China to deal with a succession dispute. The command of the remaining Mongol troops was placed under Kitbugha, a Christian Mongol. A few months later, the Mamluks arrived with an army from Egypt, and defeated the Mongols in the Battle of Ayn Jalut, in Galilee. The Mamluk leader, Baybars, made his capitals in Cairo and Damascus, linked by a mail service that traveled by both horses and carrier pigeons. When Baybars died, his successor was overthrown, and power was taken by a Turk named Qalawun. In the meantime, an emir named Sunqur al-Ashqar had tried to declare himself ruler of Damascus, but he was defeated by Qalawun on June 21, 1280, and fled to northern Syria. Al-Ashqar, who had married a Mongol woman, appealed for help from the Mongols, and in 1281, they arrived with an army of 50,000 Mongols, and 30,000 Armenian, Georgian, and Turkish auxiliaries, along with Al-Ashqar's rebel force. The Mongols of the Ilkhanate took the city, but Qalawun arrived with a Mamluk force, persuaded Al-Ashqar to switch sides and join him, and they fought against the Mongols on October 29, 1281, in the Second Battle of Homs, a close battle which resulted in the death of the majority of the combatants, but was finally won by the Mamluks.

In 1400, Timur Lenk, or Tamerlane, invaded Syria, sacked Aleppo and captured Damascus after defeating the Mamluk army. The city's inhabitants were massacred, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand. It was during the conquests of Timur that the indigenous Christian population of Syria began to suffer under greater persecutions.

By the end of the 15th century, the discovery of a sea route from Europe to the Far East ended the need for an overland trade route through Syria. Shattered by the Mongols, Syria was easily absorbed into the Ottoman Empire from the 16th through 20th centuries, and found itself largely apart from, and ignored by, world affairs. see also Ottoman Syria

Fighting on the side of Germany during World War I, plans by the Entente powers to dissolve this great Ottoman territory could now begin. Two allied diplomats (Frenchman François Georges-Picot and Briton Mark Sykes) secretly agreed, long before the end of the war, how to split the Ottoman Empire into several zones of influence. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 set the fate of modern Southwest Asia for the coming century; providing France with the northern zone (Syria, with later the upcoming Lebanon), and the United Kingdom with the southern one (Jordan, Iraq and later, after renegotiations in 1917, Palestine - 'to secure daily transportation of troops from Haifa to Baghdad' - agreement n° 7). The two territories were only separated with a straight border line from Jordan to Iran. But early discoveries of oil in the region of Mosul just before to end of the war led to yet another negotiation with France in 1918 to cede this region to 'Zone B', or the British zone of influence. The borders between the 'Zone A' and 'Zone B' have not changed from 1918 to this date. In 1920, the two sides have been recognized internationally under mandate of the League of Nations by the two dominant countries; France and the United Kingdom.

French Mandate

The National Bloc signing the Franco-Syrian Treaty of Independence in Paris in 1936. From left to right: Saadallah al-Jabiri, Jamil Mardam Bey, Hashim al-Atassi (signing), and French Prime Minister Léon Blum.
The National Bloc signing the Franco-Syrian Treaty of Independence in Paris in 1936. From left to right: Saadallah al-Jabiri, Jamil Mardam Bey, Hashim al-Atassi (signing), and French Prime Minister Léon Blum.

In 1920, an independent Arab Kingdom of Syria was established under Faisal I of the Hashemite family, who later became the 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. Syria and France negotiated a treaty of independence in September of 1936, and Hashim al-Atassi, who was Prime Minister under King Faisal's brief reign, was the first president to be elected under a new constitution, effectively the first incarnation of the modern republic of Syria. However, the treaty never came into force because the French Legislature refused to ratify it. With the fall of France in 1940 during World War II, Syria came under the control of the Vichy Government until the British and Free French occupied the country in July 1941. Syria proclaimed its independence again in 1941 but it wasn't until January 1, 1944 that it was recognised as an independent republic. Continuing pressure from Syrian nationalist groups and British pressure 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.

Instability and foreign relations: independence to 1967

Although rapid economic development followed the declaration of independence, Syrian politics from independence through the late 1960s were marked by upheaval. Between 1946 and 1956, Syria had 20 different cabinets and drafted four separate constitutions. In 1948, Syria was involved in the Arab-Israeli War, intervening on the side of the Palestinians and attempting to prevent the establishment of Israel. The Syrian army was pressed out of most of the Israel area, but fortified their strongholds on the Golan Heights and managed to keep their old borders and some additional territory (this was converted into demilitarized zones under UN supervision, but then gradually seized by Israel in the inter-war years; the status of these territories have proved a stumbling-block for Syrian-Israeli negotiations). However, the economy was strained by the influx of more than 100,000 Palestinian refugees.

The humiliating defeat suffered by the army was one of several trigger factors for Col. Husni al-Za'im's seizure of power in 1949, in what has been described as the first military coup d'état of the Arab world. This was soon followed by a new coup, by Col. Sami al-Hinnawi, who was then himself quickly deposed by Col. Adib Shishakli, all within the same year. After exercising influence behind the scenes for some time, dominating the ravaged parliamentary scene, Shishakli launched a second coup in 1951, entrenching his rule and eventually abolishing multipartyism altogether. Only when president Shishakli was himself overthrown in a 1954 coup, was the parliamentary system restored, but it was fundamentally undermined by continued political maneuvering supported by competing factions in the military. By this time, civilian politics had been largely gutted of meaning, and power was increasingly concentrated in the military and security establishment, which had now proven itself to be the only force capable of seizing and -- perhaps -- keeping power. Parliamentary institutions remained weak and ineffectual, dominated by competing parties representing the landowning elites and various Sunni urban notables, while economy and politics were mismanaged, and little done to better the role of Syria's peasant majority. This, as well as the influence of Nasserism and other anti-colonial ideologies, created fertile ground for various Arab nationalist, Syrian nationalist and socialist movements, who represented disaffected elements of society, notably including the religious minorities, and demanded radical reform.

During the Suez Crisis of 1956, after the invasion of the Sinai Peninsula by Israeli troops, and the intervention of British and French troops, martial law was declared in Syria. The November 1956 attacks on Iraqi pipelines were in retaliation for Iraq's acceptance into the Baghdad Pact. In early 1957 Iraq advised Egypt and Syria against a conceivable takeover of Jordan.

In November 1956 Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union, providing a foothold for Communist influence within the government in exchange for planes, tanks, and other military equipment being sent to Syria. With this increase in the strength of Syrian military technology worried Turkey, as it seemed feasible that Syria might attempt to retake Iskenderun, a matter of dispute between Syria and Turkey. On the other hand, Syria and the U.S.S.R. accused Turkey of massing its troops at the Syrian border. During this standoff, Communists gained more control over the Syrian government and military. Only heated debates in the United Nations (of which Syria was an original member) lessened the threat of war.

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 Abdal Nasser's leadership in the wake of the Suez crisis created support in Syria for union with Egypt. On February 1, 1958, Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli and Nasser announced the merging of the two countries, creating the United Arab Republic, and all Syrian political parties, as well as the Communists therein, 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 characterised 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 (Baath Party), which had been active in Syria and other Arab countries since the late 1940s. The new cabinet was dominated by Baath members.

The Baath takeover in Syria followed a Baath coup in Iraq the previous month. The new Syrian Government explored the possibility of federation with Egypt and with Baath-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 Baath regimes in Syria and Iraq began to work for bilateral unity. These plans foundered in November 1963, when the Baath 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—labour, 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 Baath government on March 1. The coup leaders described it as a "rectification" of Baath Party principles.

Six Day War and Aftermath

The new government generally aligned itself with the hawkish Nasser in intra-Arab conflicts over how hard of a line to take against Israel. When Nasser closed the Gulf of Aqaba to Eilat-bound ships, the Baath regime supported the Egyptian leader, amassed troops in the strategic Golan Heights, and joined the clamor for the elimination of the Jewish state. Despite these aggressive moves, the Syrian regime was largely inactive when Israel launched a preemptive strike on Egypt to begin the June 1967 war. In the final days of the war, after having captured the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, as well as the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, Israel turned its attention to Syria. With a U.N. mandated cease-fire fast approaching, Israel invaded and captured the entire Golan Heights in under 48 hours. The war was widely viewed as a humiliating defeat for the radical socialist regime established by the 1966 coup.

Conflict developed between an extremist military wing and a more moderate civilian wing of the Baath 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 Baath leadership. By November 13, 1970, Minister of Defense Hafez al-Assad was solidly established as the strongman of the regime, when he effected a bloodless military coup (" The Corrective Movement") which ousted his rival, Salah Jadid.

Baath Party rule under Hafez al-Assad, 1970–2000

Hafez al-Assad, former president of Syria.
Hafez al-Assad, former president of Syria.

Upon assuming power, Hafez al-Assad moved quickly to create an organizational infrastructure for his government and to consolidate control. The Provisional Regional Command of Assad's Arab Baath Socialist Party nominated a 173-member legislature, the People's Council, in which the Baath 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 Assad. In the same month, a national referendum was held to confirm Assad as President for a 7-year term. In March 1972, to broaden the base of his government, Assad formed the National Progressive Front, a coalition of parties led by the Baath 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.

On October 6 1973, Syria and Egypt began the Yom Kippur War by staging a surprise attack against Israel (Arabs call it the "Ramadan War" or "October War" because Syria and Egypt attacked during Ramadan in the month of October). But despite the element of surprise, the israeli army had recovered, pushed the syrian army out of the golan and invaded into syrian teritory further from the 1967 border. as a result, Israel continued to occupy the Golan Heights as part of the Israeli-occupied territories. In early 1976, the Lebanese civil war was going poorly for the Maronite Christians. Syria sent 40,000 troops into the country to prevent them from being overrun, but soon became embroiled in the Lebanese Civil War, beginning the 30 year Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Many crimes in Lebanon were associated to the Syrians forces and intelligences: Kamal Jumblat, Bachir Gemayel, Moufti Hassan Khaled, Rene Mouawad,... Over the following 15 years of civil war, Syria fought both for control over Lebanon, and as an attempt to undermine Israel in southern Lebanon, through extensive use of Lebanese allies as proxy fighters. Many see the Syrian Army's presence in Lebanon as an occupation, especially following the end of the civil war in 1990, after the Syrian-sponsored Taif Agreement. Syria then remained in Lebanon until 2005, exerting a heavy-handed influence over Lebanese politics, that was deeply resented by many..

About one million Syrian workers came into Lebanon after the war ended to find jobs in the reconstruction of the country. Syrian workers were preferred over Palestinian and Lebanese workers because they could be paid lower wages, but some have argued that the Syrian government's encouragement of citizens entering its small and militarily dominated neighbour in search of work, was in fact an attempt at Syrian colonization of Lebanon. Now, the economies of Syria and Lebanon are completely interdependent. In 1994, under pressure from Damascus, the Lebanese government controversially granted citizenship to over 200,000 Syrian residents in the country. (For more on these issues, see Demographics of Lebanon)

The authoritarian regime was not without its critics, though most were quickly murdered. A serious challenge arose in the late 1970s, however, from fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, who reject the basic values of the secular Baath program and object to rule by the Alawis, whom they consider heretical. From 1976 until its suppression in 1982, the arch-conservative 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 between 10.000 and 25.000 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 Western world. Syria participated in the multilateral Southwest Asia 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-Assad's meeting with then President Bill Clinton in Geneva in March 2000.

21st century

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria & his wife Asma al-Assad in Moscow.
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria & his wife Asma al-Assad in Moscow.

Hafiz al-Assad died on June 10, 2000, after 30 years in power. Immediately following al-Assad's death, the Parliament amended the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34. This allowed his son, Bashar al-Assad, to become legally eligible for nomination by the ruling Baath party. On July 10, 2000, Bashar al-Assad was elected President by referendum in which he ran unopposed, garnering 97.29% of the vote, according to Syrian Government statistics. He was inaugurated into office on July 17, 2000 for a 7-year term.

Billboard with portrait of Assad and the text God protects Syria on the old city wall of Damascus 2006.
Billboard with portrait of Assad and the text God protects Syria on the old city wall of Damascus 2006.

Under Bashar al-Assadhundreds of political prisoners were released and a steps were taken towards easing media restrictions. However, Bashar al-Assad has made it clear that his priority is economic rather than political reform.

On October 5, 2003, Israel bombed a site near Damascus, charging it was a terrorist training facility for members of Islamic Jihad. The raid was in retaliation for the bombing of a restaurant in the Israeli town of Haifa that killed 19. Islamic Jihad said the camp was not in use; Syria said the attack was on a civilian area.

The German Chancellor said that the attack "cannot be accepted" and the French Foreign Ministry said "The Israeli operation… constituted an unacceptable violation of international law and sovereignty rules." The Spanish UN Ambassador Inocencio Arias called it an attack of "extreme gravity" and "a clear violation of international law." However, the United States moved closer to imposing sanctions on Syria, following the adoption of the Syria Accountability Act by the House of Representatives International Relations committee. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, all included in what the EU and the U.S view as terrorist groups, all take refuge and enjoy strong relationships with the Syrian regime.

Syrian Kurds protest in Brussels, Geneva, in Germany at the US and UK embassies and in Turkey, against violence in north-east Syria starting Friday, March 12, and reportedly extending over the weekend resulting in several deaths, according to reports. The Kurds allege the Syrian government encouraged and armed the attackers. Signs of rioting were seen in the towns of Qameshli and Hassakeh.

On September 6, 2007, Israeli jet fighters carried out an air strike in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate, known as Operation Orchard, on a target claimed to be a nuclear reactor under construction by North Korean technicians. Reportedly a number of the technicians were killed.

2008 Israeli Peace Talks

In April, 2008, President Assad told a Qatari newspaper that Syria and Israel had been discussing a peace treaty for a year, with Turkey as a go-between. This was confirmed in May, 2008, by a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. As well as a peace treaty, the future of the Golan Heights is being discussed. President Assad was quoted in the The Guardian as telling the Qatari paper:

...there would be no direct negotiations with Israel until a new US president takes office. The US was the only party qualified to sponsor any direct talks, [President Assad] told the paper, but added that the Bush administration "does not have the vision or will for the peace process. It does not have anything."

Governorates and districts

Rif Dimashq
Quneitra
Daraa
As-Suwayda
Homs
Tartus
Latakia
Hama
Idlib
Aleppo
Ar-Raqqah
Deir ez-Zor
Al-Hasakah

Syria has fourteen governorates, or muhafazat (singular: muhafazah). The governorates are divided into sixty districts, or manatiq (sing. mintaqah), which are further divided into sub-districts, or nawahi (sing. nahia).

A governor, whose appointment is proposed by the minister of the interior, approved by the cabinet, and announced by executive decree, heads each governorate. The governor is assisted by an elected provincial council. Note that parts that used to be under the Quneitra governorate are under Israeli control since 1967 (see Golan Heights).

Major cities

Damascus - Aleppo - Latakia - Homs - Hama

Minor cities

Al-Hasakah - Deir ez-Zor - Ar-Raqqah - Idlib - Daraa - As-Suwayda - Tartus.

Towns

Al Qamishli - Nawa - Ar-Rastan - Masyaf - Safita - Jableh - Ath-Thawrah - Duma - Baniyas - An-Nabk- Qusair - Maaloula - Zabadani - Bosra - Jaramana - At-Tall - Salamieh- Saidnaya.

Major villages

Kafr Buhum - Albaida - Marmarita - Mashta Al helou - Haba - Rhablee - Sirghaya - Fairouzeh - Zaidal - Jaibool - Qunaya - al-Hwash - Oum Walad - Yabroud - Sadad.

Geography

Satellite image of Syria (border lines added).
Satellite image of Syria (border lines added).

Syria consists mostly of arid plateau, although the northwest part of the country bordering the Mediterranean is fairly green. The Northeast of the country "Al Jazira" and the South "Hawran" are important agricultural areas. 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 Civilization".

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 List of cities in Syria).

The climate in Syria is dry and hot, and winters are mild. Because of the country's elevation, snowfall does occasionally occur during winter. Petroleum in commercial quantities was first discovered in the northeast in 1956. The most important oil fields are those of Suwaydiyah, Qaratshui, Rumayian, and Tayyem, near Dayr az–Zawr. The fields are a natural extension of the Iraqi fields of Mosul and Kirkuk. Petroleum became Syria's leading natural resource and chief export after 1974. Natural gas was discovered at the field of Jbessa in 1940.

Demographics

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 in Syria is about 258 per square mile (99/km²). According to the World Refugee Survey 2008, published by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Syria hosted a population of refugees and asylum seekers number approximately 1,852,300. The vast majority of this population was from Iraq (1,300,00), but sizeable populations from the former Palestine (543,400) and Somalia (5,200) also lived in the country. 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 86% for males and 73.6% for females.

Ethnic groups

Three Syrian men, 1873.
Three Syrian men, 1873.
  • Arabs (including some 400,000 Palestinian refugees). Arabs make up over 90% of the population.
  • Kurds. Kurds constitute the one of the largest ethnic minorities in Syria, making up about 9% of the population (1,800,000 people). Most Kurds reside in the north-east corner of Syria and many still speak the Kurdish language. Sizeable Kurdish communities live in most major Syrian cities as well.
  • Turks. Also known as Syrian Turkmen - majority live in Aleppo, Damascus and Latakia.
  • Assyrian- Syriacs Christians. Assyrian-Syriac Christians are a notable minority that live in north and north-east Syria ( Al-Qamishli, Al-Hasakah) around 800,000 in total. Although their numbers have been boosted by many Iraqi refugees since the Iraq War. The Assyrian Democratic Organization, is also banned in Syria by the current Syrian government.
  • Armenians. Syria holds the 7th largest Armenian population in the world. They number approximately 190,000 .
  • In addition, approximately 1,300,000 Iraqi refugees were estimated to live in Syria in 2007. Roughly 50 percent of these refugees were Sunni Muslim, 24 percent Shi'a Muslim, and 20 percent Christian.

Syrians today are an overall indigenous Levantine people, closely related to their immediate neighbours, like the Palestinians, Lebanese and Jordanians. While modern-day Syrians are commonly described as Arabs by virtue of their modern-day language and bonds to Arab culture and history — they are in fact largely a blend of the various Christian Aramaic speaking groups indigenous to the region who were Arabized when Muslim Arabs from South Arabia arrived and settled following the Arab expansion.

Syrians have also migrated heavily to the Americas, most notably to Brazil and Argentina.

Religion

Hama, Syria - a minaret of Al Nouri mosque.
Hama, Syria - a minaret of Al Nouri mosque.
Ommayyad Masjed
Ommayyad Masjed

Syria's population is approximately 90% Muslim and 10% Christian, though due to the high stream of refugees from Iraq the percentage of Christians has risen to slightly less than 12% (Muslim refugees are numerous as well). Among Muslims, 74% are from the Sunni; branch, and are ethnic Arabs, Turks, Kurds, while the rest are divided among other Muslim sects, mainly Alawis (accounting for 10% of the total population) and Druze (6%). There is also a small number of non-Druze Isma'ili and Twelver Shi'a, whose numbers have increased dramatically due to the influx of Iraqi refugees, and are now 10% of the population.

Armenian Church in Kasab, near Latakia
Armenian Church in Kasab, near Latakia
Shrine of Zaynab bint Ali at Damascus, Syria.
Shrine of Zaynab bint Ali at Damascus, Syria.

Christians, a sizable number of which are also found among Syrian Palestinians, are divided into several groups. Chalcedonian Antiochian Orthodox ("Greek Orthodox"; Arabic: الروم الارثوذكس‎, ar-Rūmu 'l-Urṯūḏuks) make up 50–55% of the Christian population; the Catholics ( Melkite, Armenian Catholic, Syriac Catholic, Maronite, Chaldean and Latin) make up 18%; the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Nestorian Assyrians and several smaller Christian denominations account for the remainder. A lot of christian monasteries also exist. Many Christian Syrians belong to a high socio-economic class..

Syria also has a tiny population of Jews, confined mainly to Damascus, a remnant of a formerly 40,000 strong community. After the 1947 UN Partition plan, pogroms against the Jews erupted in Damascus and Aleppo, and Jewish property was confiscated or burned. When the State of Israel was established in 1948, many Syrian Jews sought refuge there. Of the remaining 5,000 Jews, 4,000 left in the 1990s, in the wake of an agreement with the United States. As of 2007, the Jewish community has dwindled to less than 70 Jews, most of them elderly.

Languages

Arabic is the official and most widely spoken language. Kurdish is widely spoken in the Kurdish regions of Syria. Many educated Syrians also speak English and French. Armenian and Turkmen are spoken among the Armenian and Turkmen minorities. 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, 35 miles (56 km) northeast of Damascus.

Education in Syria

The educational system in Syria was based on the old French system. Education is free in all public schools and obligatory up to the 9th grade. Schools are divided into three levels:

  • 1st to 4th grade: Basic Education Level I (Arabic: تعليم أساسي حلقة أولى‎)
  • 5th to 9th grade: Basic Education Level II (Arabic: تعليم أساسي حلقة ثانية‎)
  • 10th to 12th grade: Secondary Education (Arabic: التعليم الثانوي‎), which is the equivalent of High School.

Final exams of the 9th grade are carried out nationally at the same time. The result of these exams determines if the student goes to the "general" secondary schools or the technical secondary schools. Technical secondary schools include industrial and agricultural schools for male students, crafts school for female students, and commercial and computer science schools for both.

At the beginning of the 11th grade, those who go to "general" secondary school have to choose to continue their study in either the "literary branch" or the "scientific branch".

The final exams of the 12th grade (the baccalaureate) are also carried out nationally and at the same time. The result of these exams determines which university, college and specialization the student goes to. To do that the student has to apply through a complicated system called Mufadalah.

Colleges charge modest fees ($10–20 a year) if the student achieves the sufficient marks in his Baccalaureate exams. If not, the student may opt to pay higher fees ($1500–3000) to enroll. There are some private schools and colleges but their fees are much higher.

Most universities in Syria follow the French model of the high education, the university stages and the academic degrees are:

  • First stage: the Licence awarded after 4 years to 6 years depending on the field.
  • Second stage: the DEA or DESS 1-2 years postgraduate degree equivalent to the Master's degree in the American-English systems.
  • Third stage: the doctorat 3-5 years after the DEA or an equivalent degree.

Since 1967, all schools, colleges, and universities have been under close government supervision by the Baath Party.

Economy

Syria is a middle-income, developing country with an economy based on agriculture, oil, industry, and tourism. However, Syria's economy faces serious problems and challenges and impediments to growth, including: a large and poorly performing public sector; declining rates of oil production; widening non-oil deficit; wide scale corruption; weak financial and capital markets; and high rates of unemployment tied to a high population growth rate.

As a result of an inefficient and corrupt centrally planned economy, Syria has low rates of investment, and low levels of industrial and agricultural productivity. Its GDP growth rate was approximately 2.9% in 2005, according to IMF statistics. The two main pillars of the Syrian economy have been agriculture and oil. Agriculture, for instance, accounts for 25% of GDP and employs 42% of the total labor force. The government hopes to attract new investment in the tourism, natural gas, and service sectors to diversify its economy and reduce its dependence on oil and agriculture. The government has begun to institute economic reforms aimed at liberalizing most markets, but reform thus far has been slow and ad hoc. For ideological reasons, privatization of government enterprises is explicitly rejected. Therefore major sectors of the economy including refining, ports operation, air transportation, power generation, and water distribution, remain firmly controlled by the government.

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 al-Zur in eastern Syria. Syria's rate of oil production has been decreasing steadily, from a peak close to 600,000 barrels per day (95,000 m³/d) (bpd) in 1995 down to approximately 425,000 bbl/d (67,600 m³/d) in 2005. Experts generally agree that Syria will become a net importer of petroleum not later than 2012. Syria exported roughly 200,000 bbl/d (32,000 m³/d) in 2005, and oil still accounts for a majority of the country's export income. Syria also produces 22 million cubic meters of gas per day, with estimated reserves around 8.5 trillion cubic feet (240 km³). While the government has begun to work with international energy companies in the hopes of eventually becoming a gas exporter, all gas currently produced is consumed domestically.

Some basic commodities, such as diesel, continue to be heavily subsidized, and social services are provided for nominal charges. The subsidies are becoming harder to sustain as the gap between consumption and production continues to increase. Syria has a population of approximately 19 million people, and Syrian Government figures place the population growth rate at 2.45%, with 75% of the population under the age of 35 and more than 40% under the age of 15. Approximately 200,000 people enter the labor market every year. According to Syrian Government statistics, the unemployment rate is 7.5%, however, more accurate independent sources place it closer to 20%. Government and public sector employees constitute over one quarter of the total labor force and are paid very low salaries and wages. Government officials acknowledge that the economy is not growing at a pace sufficient to create enough new jobs annually to match population growth. The UNDP announced in 2005 that 30% of the Syrian population lives in poverty and 11.4% live below the subsistence level.

Foreign Trade

Given the policies adopted from the 1960s through the late 1980s, which included nationalization of companies and private assets, Syria failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy. Syria withdrew from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1951 because of Israel's accession. It is not a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), although it submitted a request to begin the accession process in 2001. Syria is developing regional free trade agreements. As of January 1, 2005, the Greater Arab Free Trade Agreement (GAFTA) came into effect and customs duties were eliminated between Syria and all other members of GAFTA. In addition, Syria has signed a free trade agreement with Turkey, which came into force in January 2007, and initialed an Association Agreement with the European Union, which has yet to be signed. Although Syria claims a recent boom in non-oil exports, its trade numbers are notoriously inaccurate and out-of-date. Syria's main exports include crude oil, refined products, raw cotton, clothing, fruits, and grains. The bulk of Syrian imports are raw materials essential for industry, vehicles, agricultural equipment, and heavy machinery. Earnings from oil exports as well as remittances from Syrian workers are the government's most important sources of foreign exchange.

Syrian territorial problems

Turkish-Syrian dispute over Iskandaron (Hatay) Province

There is a deep rooted disagreement between Turkey and Syria over the Iskandaroun ( Hatay) Province.

At present Syrians hold the view that this land was illegally ceded in the late 1930s to Turkey by France - the mandatory occupying power of Syria (between 1920 and 1946). The Turks remember Syria as a former Ottoman Turkish vilayet with embitterment. Contemporary Syria and Syrians still consider this land as integral Syrian territory. Syrians call this land Liwaaa aliskenderuna rather than the Turkish name of Hatay.

Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights

The Golan Heights are located in the southwestern part of the Syrian Arab Republic. The region is 1,850 square kilometres (714 sq mi), and includes mountains reaching an altitude of 2,880 metres (9,449 ft) above sea level. The heights dominate the plains below. The Jordan River, Lake Tiberias and the Hula Valley border the region on the west. To the east is the Raqqad Valley and the south is Yarmok River and valley. The northern boundary of the region is the mountain Jabal al-Sheikh ( Mount Hermon), one of the highest in the Southwest Asia. It is a rich agricultural area, traditionally farmed by an Arab society encompassing 108 private farms and 163 villages and towns. An agreement to establish a demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria was signed on July 20, 1949, but border clashes continued. Syria used the Golan Heights to launch attacks on Israeli farmers and fishing boats, prompting retaliatory attacks by Israel. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War. Between 80,000 and 109,000 of the inhabitants - most of the population with the exception of Druze and Circassians - fled during the war. In 1973, Syria tried to regain control of the Golan Heights in a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Despite initial Syrian advances and heavy Israeli losses, the Golan Heights remained in Israeli hands after a successful Israeli counter attack. Syria and Israel signed an armistice agreement in 1974, and a United Nations observer force was stationed there. Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, although the Syrian government continues to demand the return of this territory, possibly in the context of a peace treaty.

After the Six-Day War, a population of 20,000 Syrians remained in the Golan Heights, most of them Druze. Since 2005, Israel has allowed Druze apple farmers in the Golan to sell their produce to Syria. In 2006, the export total reached 8,000 tons of apples. Syrian residents of the Golan are also permitted to study at universities in Syria, where they are entitled to free tuition, books and lodging.

Culture

Eggelin Tomb Tower in Palmyra.
Eggelin Tomb Tower in Palmyra.

The scribes of the city of Ugarit created a cuneiform alphabet in the fourteenth century BCE. The alphabet was written in the familiar order we use today.

Archaeologists have discovered extensive writings and evidence of a 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. Cicero was a pupil of Antiochus of Ascalon at Athens; and the writings of Posidonius of Apamea influenced Livy and Plutarch.

Philip Hitti claimed, "the scholars consider Syria as the teacher for the human characteristics," and Andrea Parrout writes, "each civilized person in the world should admit that he has two home countries: the one he was born in, and Syria."

Syria is a traditional society with a long cultural history. Importance is placed on family, religion, education and self discipline and respect. The Syrian's taste for the traditional arts is expressed in dances such as the al-Samah, the Dabkes in all their variations and the sword dance. Marriage ceremonies and the birth of children are occasions for the lively demonstration of folk customs.

Traditional Houses of the Old Cities in Damascus, Aleppo and the other Syrian cities are preserved and traditionally the living quarters are arranged around one or more courtyards, typically with a fountain in the middle supplied by spring water, and decorated with citrus trees, grape vines, and flowers.

Outside of larger city areas such as Damascus, Aleppo or Homs, residential areas are often clustered in smaller villages. The buildings themselves are often quite old (perhaps a few hundred years old), passed down to family members over several generations. Residential construction of rough concrete and blockwork is usually unpainted, and the palette of a Syrian village is therefore simple tones of greys and browns.

Syrians have contributed to Arabic literature and music and have a proud tradition of oral and written poetry. Syrian writers, many of whom immigrated to Egypt, played a crucial role in the nahda or Arab literary and cultural revival of the nineteenth century. Prominent contemporary Syrian writers include, among others, Adonis, Muhammad Maghout, Haidar Haidar, Ghada al-Samman, Nizar Qabbani and Zakariyya Tamer.

There was a private sector presence in the Syrian cinema industry until the end of the 1970s, but private investment has since preferred the more lucrative television serial business. Syrian soap operas, in a variety of styles (all melodramatic, however), have considerable market penetration throughout the eastern Arab world.

Although declining, Syria's world-famous handicraft industry still employs thousands.

Syrian food mostly consists of Southern Mediterranean, Greek, and Southwest Asian dishes. Some Syrian dishes also evolved from Turkish and French cooking. Dishes like shish kebab, stuffed zucchini, yabra' (stuffed grape leaves, the word yapra' derıves from the Turkish word 'yaprak' meaning leaf), shawarma, and falafel are very popular in Syria as the food there is diverse in taste and type. Restaurants are usually open (food is served outdoors).

Fairs and festivals

Festival/Fair City Month
Flower Festival Latakia April
Traditional Festival Palmyra May
International Flower Fair Damascus May
Syrian Song Festival Aleppo July
Marmarita Festival Marmarita August
Vine Festival As Suwayda September
Cotton Festival Aleppo September
Damascus International Fair Damascus September
Festival of Love and Peace Lattakia 2 - 12 August
Bosra Festival Bosra September
Film and Theatre Festival Damascus November
Jasmine Festival Damascus April
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