Politics

Following World War I, France acquired a mandate over the northern portion of the former Ottoman Empire province of Syria. The French administered the area as Syria until granting it independence in 1946. The new country lacked political stability, however, and experienced a series of military coups during its first decades.

Syria united with Egypt in February 1958 to form the United Arab Republic. However, in September 1961, the two entities separated, and the Syrian Arab Republic was re-established.

In November 1970, Hafez al-Assad, a member of the Socialist Baath Party and the minority Alawite sect, seized power in a bloodless coup and brought political stability to the country.

Following the death of President Assad, his son, Bashar al-Assad, was approved as president by popular referendum in June 2000. He came to power with the reputation of a modernist.

In May 2007 Assad was elected to his second term as president.

In the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel. During the 1990s, Syria and Israel have held occasional peace talks over its return.

Syrian troops - stationed in Lebanon since 1976 in an ostensible peacekeeping role - were withdrawn in April 2005. During the July-August 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, Syria placed its military forces on alert but did not intervene directly on behalf of its ally Hezbollah.

Economy

The two pillars of the Syrian economy are the oil sector and agriculture, which each account for about a quarter of GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, varying from year to year depending on prices and climatic conditions.

In parallel with the gradual depletion of Syrian oil reserves, almost 10 per cent of Syrians live below the poverty line, according to a UN document. Growth in other sectors such as financial services, construction, telecommunications, tourism, and non-oil industry and trade, are diversifying the economy.

The private sector is slowly playing a more prominent role.

Foreign relations

Syria has good relations with Iran, including defence ties, and the two signed a memorandum of defence understanding in June 2006. On 21 November 2006 Syria and Iraq signed an agreement to restore diplomatic relations almost 25 years after cutting bilateral ties. The ongoing violence in Iraq has led to an influx of between 1.2 and 1.5 million Iraqi refugees into Syria in 2007 and 2008. 

In the past year, there has been substantial high level bilateral contact between Turkey and Syria - with several meetings and visits between Assad and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, and a range of agreements signed. Turkey acted as an intermediary in peace talks between the Syrians and the Israelis. These talks were suspended after Israel launched Operation Cast Lead into Gaza in December 2008.

Over recent years, Syria has had a complex relationship with much of the international community. Syria's role in Lebanon as well as their facilitation of foreign fighters into Iraq had led the United Kingdom, USA and France and some EU countries to limit their contacts with the Syrian government. The last two years have seen a substantial reopening of relations, both with these countries and with countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Population

The 22-million population comprises of various ethnic and religious groups, including Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Christians, Druze, Alawite Shias and Arab Sunnis. About 75 per cent are Sunni Muslims but the minority Alawites, the sect of Assad, plays a powerful role.
 
Like many other countries in the region, Syria has a young population. Youth between 0-14 years make up more than a third of the population.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies