2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Countries; Middle Eastern Countries

الجمهورية العربية السورية
Al-Ǧumhūriyyah al-ʿArabiyyah as-Sūriyyah

Syrian Arab Republic
Flag of Syria Coat of arms of Syria
Flag Coat of arms
Motto: none
Anthem: Homat el Diyar
"Guardians of the Homeland"
Location of Syria
(and largest city)
33°30′N 36°18′E
Official languages Arabic
Government Presidential republic
 - President Bashar al-Assad
 - Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Otari
Independence from France 
 - Declared (1) September 19361 
 - Declared (2) January 1, 1944 
 - Recognized April 17, 1946 
 - Total 185,180 km² ( 88th)
71,479 sq mi 
 - Water (%) 0.06
 - July 2005 estimate 19,043,000 ( 55th)
 - Density 103/km² ( 96th)
267/sq mi
GDP ( PPP) 2005 estimate
 - Total $71.74 billion ( 65th)
 - Per capita $5,348 ( 101st)
HDI  (2003) 0.721 (medium) ( 106th)
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.

Syria (Arabic: سوريا ‎or, since 2005, سورية ), officially the Syrian Arab Republic (Arabic: الجمهورية العربية السورية ), is a country in the Middle East. It borders Lebanon to the west, Israel to the southwest, Jordan to the south, Iraq to the east, and Turkey to the north. Since the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel has occupied the Golan Heights in the southwest of the country; a dispute with Turkey over the Hatay Province has subsided. Historically, Syria has often been taken to include the territories of Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and parts of Jordan, but excluding the Jazira region in the north-east of the modern Syrian state. In this historic sense, the region is also known as Greater Syria or by the Arabic name Bilad al-Sham (بلاد الشام ).


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 provinces under the Roman Empire (but politically independent from each other): Judaea (or " Judea" and later renamed Palestina in AD 135—the region corresponding to the modern states of Israel and Jordan and the Palestinian territories) 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.


Map of Syria
Map of Syria

Ancient Syria

Civilization in Syria dates back to at least the fourth millennium BCE. Many sites in Syria evoke the beginnings of recorded human history.

Archaeologists have demonstrated that Syria was the centre of one of the most ancient civilizations on earth. Around the excavated city of Ebla in north-eastern Syria, discovered in 1975, a great Semitic empire spread from the Red Sea north to Turkey and east to Mesopotamia from 2500 to 2400 BCE. Scholars believe the language of Ebla to be the oldest recorded Semitic language. At Ebla ( Tel Merdikh), a royal palace was discovered containing one of the largest and most comprehensive archives of the ancient world. Ebla's archive consists of more than 17,000 clay tablets dealing with matters of industry, diplomacy, trade, art and agriculture. Ebla became world-famous for two industries: the manufacture of finely carved wood, inlaid with ivory and mother of pearls; and of silk cloth of gold. Today these industries still prosper, with Syrian brocade and mosaics fashioned according to the artisan tradition of ancient Ebla.

Clay tablet from Ebla's archive.
Clay tablet from Ebla's archive.

Other notable cities excavated include Mari, Ugarit and Dura Europos. At Mari (Tel Hariri) numerous palaces, temples and murals were found that reflect advanced cultural and commercial activity. The kingdom of Ugarit ( Ras Shamra) offered humankind its first alphabet.

Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites, Hebrews, Arameans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Armenians, 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 joined the first organized Christian Church in Antioch in ancient Syria (now in Turkey), from which he left on many of his missionary journeys.

Islamic Era

Damascus, a city that has been inhabited as early as 3,000 BC, is known to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (along with Acoma and Jericho). It came under Muslim rule in AD 636. Immediately thereafter, the city's power and prestige reached its peak, and it became the capital of the Umayyad Empire, which extended from Spain to the borders of Central Asia from AD 661 to AD 750. Syria acted as cultural hub that took in influences from many sources and sent them out to other parts of the empire and Damascus achieved a glory unrivaled among cities of the eighth century. The Umayyads were overthrown by the Abbasid dynasty in AD 750. 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 four hundred years, except for a brief occupation by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt from 1832 to 1840.

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.

Ottoman control ended when the forces of the Arab revolt entered Damascus in 1918 towards the end of the First World War. An independent Arab Kingdom of Syria was established under King Faisal of the Hashemite family, who later became King of Iraq. However, his rule over Syria ended in July 1920 when French forces entered Syria to impose their League of Nations mandate. Following the Battle of Maysalun of 23 July between the Syrian army under Yusuf al-Azmeh and the French, the French army entered Damascus and Faisal was exiled. The period of the Mandate was marked by increasing nationalist sentiment and a number of brutally repressed revolts, but also by infrastructural modernisation and economic development.

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.


Shukri al Quwatli, Syria's first post-independence President.
Shukri al Quwatli, Syria's first post-independence President.

Syria first negotiated a treaty of independence with France in September of 1936. Hashim al-Atassi was the first president to be elected under a post-French minded constitution, effectively the first incarnation of the modern republic of Syria. However, France reneged on the treaty and refused to ratify it, and continued its presence in Syria until 1946. Shukri al-Quwatli was elected President when Syria was granted independence from Vichy France jointly with Lebanon in 1943. Although rapid economic development followed the second declaration of independence of April 17, 1946, Syrian politics from independence through the late 1960s were marked by upheaval.

Syrian army’s role in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War

The Syrian army played a limited role in the war. Despite Syria’s initial losses, its forces quickly were able to occupy a thin strip of Palestinian land running the length of its border during the first two months of the war. Much of this territory was easily taken for the border had been originally drawn by the British in 1923 with water in mind, not its defense. The Palestine-Syrian border was drawn so that all of the Jordan River, Lake Tiberius, and the Hula swamp would be included in Palestinian territory. To ensure the Syrians would not have access to the water, the British had also included a strip of land on the Syrian side: 10-meters wide at Lake Tiberius and ranging from 50 to 400 meters wide along the Jordan River right up to Hula. Palestine also received a thin salient of land stretching east between the Syrian and Jordanian border along the Yarmouk River, the Jordan’s largest tributary, out to the town of al-Hamma – today’s Hamat-Gader. All of this territory east of the Jordan River and Lake Tiberius was indefensible and easily taken by Syrian troops. The Syrian army also managed to cross the Jordan River just south of Lake Hula to occupy Kibbutz Mishmar Hayarden and defend it against several Israeli counter-attacks.

Syrian forces also established a foothold in the extreme northeastern corner of Palestine, just east of the Jewish settlement of Dan. Thus, Syria occupied three distinct enclaves within Palestine in the northern, central, and southern regions of the 1923 border. These three enclaves added to the thin strip of land stretching along the eastern perimeter of the Jordan and Tiberius added up to 66.5 square kilometers of land. It would become part of the demilitarized zone following the 1949 armistice signed between Syria and Israel and remains contested between the two sides to this day.

Other than the two offensive operations to grab villages across the Jordan River, the Syrian army remained largely inactive during the 1948 war. The Arab Liberation Army (ALA) survived in the northern Galilee until November 1948, when it was driven into Lebanon by Jewish forces that were moved up from the south. The Syrian government persisted in denying assistance to the ALA during the summer of 1948, effectively “condemning them to death,” in the words of `Adil Arslan.

Military coups

A series of military coups, begun in 1949, undermined civilian rule and led to army colonel Adib Shishakli's seizure of power in December 1949. He made himself President in 1951 and dissolved parliament.[ neutrality disputed]

Shishakli and the Palestine Problem

Both the United States and Britain took considerable interest in Adib Shishakli. The British hoped to draw him into their plans for Middle East Defence. The Americans offered him considerable foreign aid in the hope that he would accept a deal to end the conflict in Palestine. During the first four years following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the United States attempted to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict by settling Palestinian refugees in Syria. At the height of U.S.-Syrian negotiations during the summer of 1952, the U.S. contemplated paying the Syrian government $400,000,000 dollars in exchange for settling up to 500,000 Palestinians in the fertile plains of the Jazira that lie between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Syria's North-east. Leftist forces in Syria, spearheaded by Akram Hourani's Arab Socialist Party and the Ba'ath Party, were vociferous opponents of such a deal, which they claimed was nothing but a sell out of the Palestinian right of return. With the unification of Hourani's Socialist Party with the Ba'ath in December 1952 and their vain attempt to overthrow the Syrian regime, Shishakli was forced to shelve any notion of accepting either a western defense alliance or settling Palestinian refugees in Syria.

Civilian rule: 1954–1958

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 following 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.

United Arab Republic

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.

Ba'ath takeover

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. Israel had captured the Golan Heights from Syria and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. 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 Hafez al-Assad effected a bloodless military coup called the Corrective Revolution, ousting the civilian party leadership and assuming the role of prime minister.


Consolidation of power

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 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 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 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.

October War

Later in 1973, the October War (or Yom Kippur War) broke out and "Syria mounted air attacks and heavy artillery shelling, and moved three divisions with some 1,400 tanks into the" Golan Heights to try and reclaim them from Israel. Despite some initial successes, Syria's military was once again defeated by the IDF. At the end of the Yom Kippur war Israel still held the military advantage over Syria. Subsequent shuttle negotiations by Henry Kissinger resulted in Syria regaining control of part of the Golan, which the government portrayed as proof of victory. Since 1974, the Syrian-Israeli front has been quiet, with few disturbances of the cease-fire.

Involvement in Lebanon

In early 1976, Syrian troops entered Lebanon at the request of the Lebanese government to stop the civil war. Syria at first entered on the side of the Maronites. Syria sent troops that later became the main core of the Arab Deterrent Force (ADF) established by the Arab League in October 1976. Syria brought the warring factions together in the Taif Agreement to end the civil war. The civil war was declared over on October 13, 1990. Syria helped the Lebanese government to reestablish control over much of the country. In April 26, 2005, Syria withdrew all of its troops from Lebanon, after the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri.

About one million Syrian workers came into Lebanon after the civil war ended, to find employment and pursue business opportunities. In 1994, the Lebanese government controversially granted citizenship to over 200,000 Syrians resident in the country (see Demographics of Lebanon).

Opposition and repression

The authoritarian regime was not without its critics, though most were quickly dealt with. A serious challenge arose in the late 1970s, however, from Sunni Muslims called the Muslim Brotherhood 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 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 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. A challenge from within the regime came in 1984, when Hafez was hospitalized after a heart attack. His brother Rifaat then attempted to seize power using internal security forces under his control. Despite his poor health, Hafez managed to assert control and sent Rifaat into exile.

Gulf War

Syria's 1991 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 Hafez Al-Assad's meeting with then US President Bill Clinton in Geneva in March 2000.

Death and succession of Hafez al-Assad

Hafez Al-Assad died on June 10, 2000, after thirty years in power. Within a few hours following Al-Assad'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 legally to be eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba'ath party. On July 10, 2000, Bashar Al-Assad was elected President by referendum in which he ran unopposed, garnering 97.29% of the vote.


In his inauguration speech delivered at the People's Council on July 17, 2000, Bashar Al-Assad promised political and democratic reform. 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 to February 2001). Enthusiasm faded quickly as the government cracked down on civil forums and reform activists, but there was still a notable liberalization compared to the totalitarianism of Hafez. The lifting of bans on Internet access, mobile telephones and the spread of computer technology has had a great impact on the previously isolated Syrian society, and the secret police's presence in society has been eased. Today there exists a small but growing number of dissident intellectuals, as well as several formerly illegal opposition parties. However, government power rests firmly in the hands of the Ba'ath, and police surveillance and occasional crackdowns keeps opposition activities limited.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Syrian government began 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. At the moment there are negotiations on an Association Agreement between Syria and the European Union which would liberalize mutual trade. Syria is required to make certain political and economic reforms in order for this process to come into effect.

Events since 2004

On February 14, 2005, Rafik Hariri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, was killed by a car bomb. Many members of the Lebanese opposition and international observers alleged that Hariri was assassinated by Syria. Popular protests soon arose, composed primarily of Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims, demanding the resignation of the pro-Syria government led by Omar Karami, as well as the withdrawal of all Syrian troops and intelligence operatives. On February 28, 2005, Karami's government resigned, although he 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, ending thereby a 30-year of military presence in this neighboring country.

Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon on April 26, 2005 under intense pressure from the Lebanese opposition and the international community. After two UN investigations (the FitzGerald Report and the Mehlis report) implicated Syrian officials in the Hariri killing, the Assad regime entered a turbulent period, the seriousness of the crisis signalled by the suicide of interior minister Ghazi Kanaan, as well as Western threats of economic sanctions. Mehlis was replaced as head of the UN investigation team by the Belgian Serge Brammertz on December 15, 2005. Under the second part of the investigation, led by the Belgian Serge Brammertz, there has clearly been a better tone between the UN investigative team and the Syrian authorities. Brammertz, unlike his predecessor Mehlis, has also chosen to be discreet about his findings – making his final conclusions all the more unpredictable – but he praised Syria's "full co-operation" with the UN investigators.

Administrative divisions

Syria has fourteen governorates, or muhafazat (singular: muhafazah). 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 of the Quneitra governorate is under Israeli occupation since 1967 (see Golan Heights).

  1. Damascus
  2. Rif Dimashq
  3. Quneitra
  4. Dara
  5. As Suwayda
  6. Homs
  7. Tartous
  8. Latakia
  9. Hama
  10. Idlib
  11. Aleppo
  12. Ar Raqqah
  13. Dayr az Zawr
  14. Al Hasakah
Map of administrative divisions of Syria.

Syrian Major Cities

Damascus - Aleppo - Latakia - Homs - Hama

Other Cities

Al Hasakah - Dayr az Zawr - Ar Raqqah - Idlib - Dara - Suwayda - Tartous

Syrian Towns

Kamichli - Masyaf - Safita - Jableh - Al-Thawrah - Duma - Banias

Syrian Villages

Albaida - Marmarita - Mashta Al helou - Al-Nabk


President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

Syria is a parliamentary republic. 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. In addition, six other 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. The Ba'ath Party dominates the Parliament, which is known as the People's Council (majlis ash-sha'b). Elected every four 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. It essentially functions as a rubber-stamp for the executive authority.

There was a surge of interest in political reform after Bashar al-Assad 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).


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.

Human rights

A state of emergency has been in effect since 1963. Since then, security forces have committed human rights abuses including arbitrary arrest and detention, prolonged detention without trial, unfair trials in the security courts, and infringement on privacy rights. Amnesty International estimates around 600 political prisoners remain.

Prison conditions do not meet international standards for health and sanitation. The regime restricts freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and political opposition. According to Arab Press Freedom Watch, the current government has a poor record on freedom of expression.

In 2005, the Freedom House criticised the country's political rights and civil liberties.

By contrast, religious freedoms are respected; the freedom to worship is consistently upheld, although radical Islamic sentiment is repressed.


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.


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 in 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 levelled 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 cereal 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 continued 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. In May 2005, Russia and Syria signed a deal that wrote off nearly three-quarters of Syria's debt to Russia, approximately €10.5 billion ($13 billion). The agreement left Syria with less than €3 billion (just over $3.6 billion) owed to Moscow. Half of it would be repaid over the next 10 years, while the rest would be paid into Russian accounts in Syrian banks and could be used for Russian investment projects in Syria and for buying Syrian products.


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 258 per square mile (99/km²). 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 89% for males and 64% for females.

Ethnic groups

Arabs (including some 400,000 Palestinian refugees) make up over 85% of the population. The Kurds, linguistically an Indo-Iranian people, constitute the largest ethnic minority, making up 10% of the population. Most Kurds reside in the northeast corner of Syria and many still speak the Kurdish language. Sizable Kurdish communities live in most major Syrian cities as well. The Assyrian Christians are also a notable minority (about 3%) that live in north and northeast Syria, and are included in the Arab population.

Ethnic Syrians are an overall Semitic Levantine people. 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 a blend of the various ancient Semitic groups indigenous to the region who in turn admixed with later arriving Arabs. There is also a smaller degree of admixture from non-Semitic peoples that have occupied the region over time.


Syria's population is 90% Muslim and 10% Christian. Among Muslims, 75% are Sunni and the remaining 25% is divided among other Muslim groups, mainly Alawis and Druze, but also a small number of Isma'ili and twelver Shi'a, which has increased dramatically due to the influx of Iraqi refugees. Christians, a sizable number of which are also found among Syrian Palestinians, are divided into several groups. Chalcedonian Antiochian Orthodox ("Greek Orthodox") make up half of the Christian population (10 % of total Syrian population); the Syriac, Maronites and other Catholics 15%, Assyrian Christians, Armenian Oriental Orthodox centered in Aleppo, the native Syriac Orthodox Church and several smaller Christians groups account for the remainder. There also is a tiny Syrian Jewish community that is confined mainly to Damascus; remnants of a formerly 40,000 strong community. Many Jews left Syria after agreement with the US in the 1990s allowed them to emigrate to Israel, although important small Jewish communities still exist in Damascus and Aleppo. Jews in Israel maintain ties to their homeland.


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 or French, but English is more widely understood. Armenian and Türkmen are spoken among the Armenian and Türkmen 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.


Syria offered the world the Ugarit cuneiform, the root for the Phoenician alphabet, which dates back to the fourteenth century BC. 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, Haidar Haidar, Ghada al-Samman, Nizar Qabbani and Zakariyya Tamer.

Syria has a small cinema industry, with production entirely in the hands of the state National Cinema Organisation, which employs film-makers as civil servants. Funding is only sufficient to produce approximately one feature film every year, and these are often then banned by the political censor, but have won prizes at international festivals. Notable directors include Omar Amirali, Usama Muhammad, and Abd al-Latif Abd al-Hamid. Syrian directors have also worked abroad, in Egypt and Europe.

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.

Fairs and festivals

Festival/Fair City Month
Flower Festival Latakia April
Traditional Festival Palmyra May
International Flower Fair Damascus May
Vine Festival As Suwayda September
Cotton Festival Aleppo September
Damascus International Fair Damascus September
Festival of Love Lattakia September
Bosra Festival Bosra September
Film and Theatre Festival Damascus November
  • Music of Syria
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