Geography

Syria, officially known as al-Jumhuriyah al-Arabiyah al-Suriyah (the Syrian Arab Republic), is located in the Middle East. At its northern border lies Turkey, on its east Iraq, on the south Jordan and Israel, and to its west Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea.

Syria has a land area of 185,180 sq km.

Historical background

Syria has been inhabited, according to archaeologists, since the earliest days of human civilisation.

One of the first notable kingdoms that settled the land was the reign of King Shamshi-Adad I of Assyria in about 1800BCE. The kingdom was later conquered by Hammurabi of Babylonia.

Parts of the region were successively conquered by the Egyptians and the Hittites, and, in the eighth century, again by the Assyrians.

Alexander the Great made the land a part of his empire in 333BCE and in 64BCE Syria became a Roman province.

It remained a Roman Byzantine province for approximately 240 years. It was conquered in 636 by the Arabs and was quickly absorbed into their rapidly expanding Muslim empire.

By 661 Damascus became the seat of the powerful Umayyad caliphs. Right up to the 20th century, it remained one of the most important and splendid cities of the Muslim world; along with Constantinople, a showcase Islamic city for the Ottoman Turks.

Modern political history

In 1943, the free French forces that were fighting against Nazi occupied France formally recognised Syria, which had been under French mandate since the first world war.

A new government was formed under the presidency of the Syrian nationalist Shukri al-Kuwatli.

In 1948, Syrian forces participated in the war between Arab forces and the newly established state of Israel, but it was not until the Suez crisis of 1956 that Syria underwent radical change; the similarities between Syrian and Egyptian policies in these years led to a merger, becoming the United Arab Republic in 1958. However, the union was not a success.

On 28 September 1961, Syria seceded, re-establishing itself as the Syrian Arab Republic. The takeover was engineered by members of the Arab socialist resurrection (Baath party), which had been active in Syria and other Arab countries since the late 1940s.

The Syrian and Egyptian war with Israel in 1973 (with Syria trying to reclaim the Golan Heights lost to Israel in 1967) ended in failure. One of its indirect outcomes was the bloodless coup of the same year led by defence minister Hafiz al-Asad.

Asad ousted the civilian party leadership and assumed the role of prime minister.

A serious challenge arose in the late 1970s from Sunni Muslims who protested against the government's iron fist policies. Among their grievances was the rejection of the Baath party's secular programme. 

From 1976 until its suppression in 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood led an armed insurgency against the government. In response to an attempted uprising by the brotherhood in early 1982, the government crushed the opposition centred in the city of Hama, levelling parts of the city with artillery fire and causing thousands of casualties.

In 2000, after 30 years in power, Hafiz al-Asad died. Immediately following Asad's death, the parliament amended the constitution to allow his son, Bashar, to become president.

Since then, Bashar al-Asad has tried to implement policies of openness and reform. However, some of his decisions have been subsequently reversed under pressure by the old guard which consider themselves keepers of the old order.

In 2003, Syria protested loudly against the US led war on Iraq. Since then, relations between Syria and the US have deteriorated.

Official name: Syrian Arab Republic
Capital: Damascus
Form of government: Republic
Gained independence: 17 April 1946

Economy

Syria is a middle-income developing country with a diversified economy based on agriculture, industry and energy. Unemployment remains high.

Currency: Pound (SYP) - 1 USD = (app) 50 SYP
Natural resources: Oil, phosphates, chrome and manganese ores, asphalt, iron ore, rock salt, marble, gypsum, hydropower
Major industries: Oil, textiles, food-processing, beverages, tobacco, phosphate rock mining
GDP: $59.4bn (2002 est)
GDP annual growth rate: 2.7% (2002 est)
Per capita GDP: $3500 (2002 est)
Imports: 28.3% of GDP (2002 est)
Exports: 36.7% of GDP (2002 est)

Military

Military service is compulsory for men in Syria, and normally lasts for a period of 30 months. The country's armed forces include an army of 215,000 members, an air force of 100,000 and a navy of 4000.

Military budget: $1bn (2002 est)
Army size: 319,000 active troops

Culture

Syria is a country steeped in a rich Islamic history. The National Museum in Damascus includes one of the largest collections of Asian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic art anywhere in the Middle East.

Population: 17,800,000
Languages: Arabic (official), Kurdish, Armenian
Religions: Sunni Muslim 74%; Alawite, Druze, and other Muslim sects 16%;  Christian (various sects) 10%
Ethnic diversity: Arab 90%, Kurds, Armenians, and other 10%
Literacy rate: 76.9%
Important media: Al-Baath (official Baath party newspaper), Al-Thawra (government daily), Tishrin (daily), Syria Times (English newspaper), Syrian TV (state-run), Syrian Arab Republic Radio (state-run), Radio Damascus (state-run)

Sources: World Bank, countryreports.org, MSN Encarta, politinfo.com, The World Almanac