Its major environmental issues include:
- Environmental damage from terrorist and military activity
- Soil erosion;
- Water pollution from raw sewage and petroleum refining wastes; and,
- Inadequate potable water
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.
In September 1961, the two entities separated, and the Syrian Arab Republic was reestablished.
In November 1970, Hafiz al-Asad, a member of the Socialist Ba'th Party and the minority Alawi sect, seized power in a bloodless coup and brought political stability to the country.
In the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel. During the 1990s, Syria and Israel held occasional peace talks over its return. There are 41 Israeli settlements and civilian land use sites in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights (2010 est.) The Golan Heights is Israeli-occupied with the almost 1000-strong UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) patrolling a buffer zone since 1964.
Following the death of President al-Assad, his son, Bashar al-Assad, was approved as president by popular referendum in July 2000.
Syrian troops - stationed in Lebanon since 1976 in an ostensible peacekeeping role - were withdrawn in April 2005.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 Hizballah, Syria placed its military forces on alert but did not intervene directly on behalf of its ally Hizballah.
In May 2007 Bashar al-Assad was elected to his second term as president.
Approximately two million Iraqis have fled the conflict in Iraq with the majority taking refuge in Syria and Jordan. In 2015 a massive exodus of Syrians has resulted from the rise of the terrorist organization of ISIS and the ongoing assault of Assad on the Syrian people.
Influenced by major uprisings that began elsewhere in the region, antigovernment protests broke out in the southern province of Da'ra in March 2011 with protesters calling for the repeal of the restrictive Emergency Law allowing arrests without charge, the legalization of political parties, and the removal of corrupt local officials. Since then demonstrations and unrest have spread to nearly every city in Syria, but the size and intensity of protests have fluctuated over time, and Aleppo and Damascus have remained relatively calm. The government has responded to unrest with a mix of concessions - including the repeal of the Emergency Law and approving new laws permitting new political parties and liberalizing local and national elections - and force. However, the government's response has failed to meet opposition demands for Asad to step down, and the government's ongoing security operations to quell unrest and a rise in armed opposition activity have led to violent clashes between government forces and oppositionists.
In November 2011, international pressure on the Assad regime intensified as the 22-nation Arab League and Turkey voted to impose economic sanctions. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, appointed as the joint UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, met with President Assad in March 2012 to propose a cease-fire which included the withdrawal of government troops from Syrian towns and villages. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, appointed as the joint UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, met with President Assad in March 2012 to propose a cease fire. Despite a brief lull in hostilities immediately following a 12 April agreement, fighting resumed and in several locations intensified through the end of May. Some estimates put the death toll at well over 250,000 since fighting began in March 2011.
In September, 2015 a major movement of Russian military forces was ramped up, notably with increases in Russian advanced military aircraft. On September 30, 2015 Russian pilots began a concerted air attack on certain Syrian towns such as Homs and Hama, which are known areas controlled by the Free Syria anti-Assad rebels.
Location: Middle East, bordering the Mediterranean Sea, between Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and Turkey
Geographic Coordinates: 35 00 N, 38 00 E
Area: The Syrian government asserts a land area of 185,180 sq km (land: 183,630 sq km; water: 1550 sq km) Note: This includes 1295 sq km of Israeli territory
Lacking a treaty or other documentation describing the boundary, portions of the Lebanon-Syria boundary are unclear, with several sections in dispute. Since 2000, Lebanon has claimed Shab'a Farms in the Golan Heights. 2004 Agreement and pending demarcation settles border dispute with Jordan.
Coastline: 193 km
Territorial sea: 12 nm
Contiguous zone: 24 nm
Natural Hazards: dust storms, sandstorms
Terrain: primarily semiarid and desert plateau; narrow coastal plain; mountains in west. The highest topographic point is Mount Hermon (2814 m) and the lowest point is an unnamed location near Lake Tiberias (-200 m).
Climate: mostly desert; hot, dry, sunny summers (June to August) and mild, rainy winters (December to February) along the Mediterranean coast; cold weather with snow or sleet periodically in Damascus
Topography of Syria. Source: Creative Commons.
Ecology and Biodiversity
Source: World Wildlife Fund
1. Eastern Mediterranean conifer-sclerophyllous-broadleaf forests lies in the heart of the Middle East along the Levantine Sea coasts of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel, as well as in the neighbouring coastal plains and lowlands.
2. Southern Anatolian montane conifer and deciduous forests is situated primarily in Turkey, with small areas in Syria and Lebanon. This is an extremely mountainous ecoregion. It is delineated in Turkey by the high mountains of southern Anatolia and in Syria and Lebanon by the Levantine mountains.
3. Middle East steppe consists mainly of open shrub steppe in Syria and northern Iraq. It arcs up from western Jordan and southwestern Syria through much of central Syria and into northern Iraq. Here, it crosses the upper reaches of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and extends east and southwards along the foothills of the Zagros Mountains.
4. Mesopotamian shrub desert covers Northern Iraq into Syria and Jordan
People and Society
Population: 22,530,746 (July 2012 est.) Note: approximately 18,100 Israeli settlers live in the Golan Heights (2010 est.)
Ethnic Syrians are of Semitic stock. Syria's population is 90% Muslim--74% Sunni, and 16% other Muslim groups, including the Alawi, Shi'a, and Druze--and 10% Christian. There also is a tiny Syrian Jewish community.
Arabic is the official, and most widely spoken, language. Arabs, including some 500,000 Palestinian and fewer than 1 million Iraqi refugees, make up 90% of the population. Many educated Syrians also speak English or French, but English is the more widely understood. The Kurds, many of whom speak the Kurdish language, make up 9% of the population and live mostly in the northeast corner of Syria, though sizable Arabic-speaking Kurdish communities live in most major Syrian cities as well. Armenian and Turkic languages are spoken among the small Armenian and Turkman populations.
Most people live in the Euphrates River valley, along the coastal plain, and in a fertile strip between the coastal mountains and the desert. Education is free and compulsory from ages 6 to 12. Schooling consists of 6 years of primary education followed by a 3-year preparatory or vocational training period and a 3-year secondary or vocational program. The second 3-year period of secondary schooling is required for university admission. Total enrollment at post-secondary schools is over 150,000. The illiteracy rate of Syrians aged 15 and older is 9.3% for males and 17.8% for females.
Ancient Syria's cultural and artistic achievements and contributions are many. Archaeologists have discovered extensive writings and evidence of a brilliant culture rivaling those of Mesopotamia and Egypt in and around the ancient city of Ebla. Later Syrian scholars and artists contributed to Hellenistic and Roman thought and culture. Zeno of Sidon founded the Epicurean school; Cicero was a pupil of Antiochus of Ascalon at Athens; and the writings of Posidonius of Apamea influenced Livy and Plutarch. Syrians have contributed to Arabic literature and music and have a proud tradition of oral and written poetry. Although declining, the world-famous handicraft industry still employs thousands.
Ethnic Groups: Arab 90.3%, Kurds, Armenians, and other 9.7%
0-14 years: 35.2% (male 4,066,109/female 3,865,817)
15-64 years: 61% (male 6,985,067/female 6,753,619)
65 years and over: 3.8% (male 390,802/female 456,336) (2011 est.)
Population Growth Rate: -0.797% (2012 est.))
Birthrate: 23.52 births/1,000 population (2012 est.)
Death Rate: 3.67 deaths/1,000 population (July 2012 est.)
Net Migration Rate: -27.82 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2012 est.)
Life Expectancy at Birth: 74.92 years
male: 72.53 years
female: 77.45 years (2012 est.)
Total Fertility Rate: 2.85 children born/woman (2012 est.)
Languages: Arabic (official), Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, Circassian (widely understood); French, English (somewhat understood)
Literacy (age 15 and over can read and write): 79.6% (2004 census)
Urbanization: 56% of total population (2010) growing at an annual rate of change of 2.5% (2010-15 est.)
Archaeologists have demonstrated that Syria was the center of one of the most ancient civilizations on earth. Around the excavated city of Ebla in northern Syria, discovered in 1975, a great Semitic empire spread from the Red Sea north to Turkey and east to Mesopotamia from 2500 to 2400 BC. The city of Ebla alone during that time had a population estimated at 260,000. Scholars deem the language of Ebla to be the oldest Semitic language. In the east, the ancient site of Mari contains archeological remains of multiple cultures and religions living concurrently in the city. By the Middle Bronze Age (1800 to 1600 BC) The land comprising present day Syria was comprised by a dozen ancient city-states.
Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Arameans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Nabataens, Byzantines, and, in part, Crusaders before finally coming under the control of the Ottoman Turks. Syria is significant in the history of Christianity; Paul was converted on the road to Damascus and established the first organized Christian Church at Antioch in ancient Syria, from which he left on many of his missionary journeys.
Damascus, settled about 2500 BC., is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It came under Muslim rule in A.D. 636. Immediately thereafter, the city's power and prestige reached its peak, and it became the capital of the Omayyad Empire, which extended from Spain to India from A.D. 661 to A.D. 750, when the Abbasid caliphate was established at Baghdad, Iraq.
Damascus became a provincial capital of the Mamluk Empire around 1260. It was largely destroyed in 1400 by Tamerlane, the Mongol conqueror, who removed many of its craftsmen to Samarkand. Rebuilt, it continued to serve as a capital until 1516. In 1517, it fell under Ottoman rule. The Ottomans remained for the next 400 years, except for a brief occupation by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt from 1832 to 1840.
French Occupation In 1920, an independent Arab Kingdom of Syria was established under King Faysal of the Hashemite family, who later became King of Iraq. However, his rule over Syria ended after only a few months, following the clash between his Syrian Arab forces and regular French forces at the battle of Maysalun. French troops occupied Syria later that year after the League of Nations put Syria under French mandate. With the fall of France in 1940, Syria came under the control of the Vichy Government until the British and Free French occupied the country in July 1941. Continuing pressure from Syrian nationalist groups forced the French to evacuate their troops in April 1946, leaving the country in the hands of a republican government that had been formed during the mandate.
Independence to 1970
Although rapid economic development followed the declaration of independence of April 17, 1946, Syrian politics from independence through the late 1960s were marked by upheaval. A series of military coups beginning in 1949 undermined civilian rule and led to army colonel Adib Shishakli's seizure of power in 1951. After the overthrow of President Shishakli in a 1954 coup, continued political maneuvering supported by competing factions in the military eventually brought Arab nationalist and socialist movements to power.
Syria's political instability during the years after the 1954 coup, the apparent 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. Cairo directed economic policies in Syria, generating resentment among many Syrians.
The union was not a success, and, following a military coup on September 28, 1961, Syria seceded, reestablishing itself as the Syrian Arab Republic. Instability characterized the next 18 months, with various coups culminating on March 8, 1963, in the installation by leftist Syrian Army officers of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command (NCRC), a group of military and civilian officials who assumed control of all executive and legislative authority. The takeover was engineered by members of the Arab Socialist Resurrection Party (Ba'ath Party), which had been active in Syria and other Arab countries since the late 1940s. The new cabinet was dominated by Ba'ath members.
The Ba'ath takeover in Syria followed a Ba'ath coup in Iraq the previous month. The new Syrian Government explored the possibility of federation with Egypt and Ba'ath-controlled Iraq. An agreement was concluded in Cairo on April 17, 1963, for a referendum on unity to be held in September 1963. However, serious disagreements among the parties soon developed, and the tripartite federation failed to materialize. Thereafter, the Ba'ath regimes in Syria and Iraq began to work for bilateral unity. These plans foundered 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 an appointed legislature called the National Council of the Revolution (NCR) composed of representatives of mass organizations--labor, peasant, and professional unions; a presidential council, in which executive power was vested; and a cabinet. On February 23, 1966, a group of army officers carried out a successful, intra-party coup, imprisoned President Hafiz, dissolved the cabinet and the NCR, abrogated the provisional constitution, and designated a regionalist, civilian Ba'ath government. The coup leaders described it as a "rectification" of Ba'ath Party principles. The defeat of the Syrians and Egyptians in the June 1967 war with Israel weakened the radical socialist regime established by the 1966 coup. Conflict developed between a moderate military wing and a more extremist civilian wing of the Ba'ath Party. The 1970 retreat of Syrian forces sent to aid the PLO during the "Black September" hostilities with Jordan reflected this political disagreement within the ruling Ba'ath leadership. On November 13, 1970, Minister of Defense Hafiz al-Asad effected a bloodless military coup, ousting the civilian party leadership and assuming the role of prime minister.
1970 to 2000
Upon assuming power, Hafiz al-Asad moved quickly to create an organizational infrastructure for his government and to consolidate control. The Provisional Regional Command of Asad's Arab Socialist Ba'ath 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 (covering Syria, rather than the pan-Arab countries) and elected a new 21-member Regional Command headed by Asad. In the same month, a national referendum was held to confirm Asad as President for a 7-year term. In March 1972, to broaden the base of his government, Asad formed the National Progressive Front, a coalition of parties led by the Ba'ath Party, and elections were held to establish local councils in each of Syria's 14 governorates. In March 1973, a new Syrian constitution went into effect, followed shortly thereafter by parliamentary elections for the People's Council, the first such elections since 1962.
The authoritarian regime was not without its critics, though it dealt quickly with most. A serious challenge arose in the late 1970s, however, from fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, who rejected the basic values of the secular Ba'ath program and objected to rule by the minority Alawis, whom some considered heretical. From 1976 until its suppression in 1982, the Islamist Syrian Muslim Brotherhood led an armed insurgency against the regime. In response to an attempted uprising by the Brotherhood in February 1982, the government crushed the fundamentalist opposition centered in the city of Hama, leveling parts of the city with artillery fire and causing many thousands of dead and wounded. From 1982 until March 2011, public manifestations of anti-regime activity were very limited.
Syria's 1990 participation in the U.S.-led multinational coalition aligned against Iraq's Saddam Hussein marked a dramatic shift in Syria's policies toward other Arab states and the West. Syria participated in the multilateral Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid in October 1991. During the 1990s, Syria engaged in direct, face-to-face negotiations with Israel, although these negotiations failed.
Hafiz al-Asad died on June 10, 2000, after 30 years in power. Immediately following Asad's death, the parliament amended the constitution to reduce the mandatory minimum age of the president from 40 to 34 years old. This allowed his son, Bashar al-Asad, legally to be eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba'ath Party. On July 10, 2000, Bashar al-Asad was elected President by referendum in which he ran unopposed, garnering 97.29% of the vote, according to Syrian Government statistics. He was inaugurated into office on July 17, 2000 for a 7-year term.
2000 to 2011
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the Syrian Government began limited cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism efforts on the basis of shared opposition to al-Qaeda’s goals. Syria opposed the Iraq war in March 2003, and bilateral relations with the United States swiftly deteriorated. In December 2003, President George W. Bush signed into law the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, which provided for the imposition of a series of sanctions against Syria if Syria did not end its support for Palestinian terrorist groups, curtail its military and security interference in Lebanon, cease its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and meet its obligations under United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq. In May 2004, the President determined that Syria had not met these conditions and implemented sanctions that prohibit the export to Syria of U.S. products except for food and medicine, and the taking off from or landing in the United States of Syrian Government-owned aircraft. At the same time, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced its intention to order U.S. financial institutions to sever correspondent accounts with the Commercial Bank of Syria based on money-laundering concerns, pursuant to Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act. Acting under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), the President also authorized the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to freeze assets belonging to certain Syrian individuals and entities.
Tensions between Syria and the United States intensified from mid-2004 to early 2009, primarily over issues relating to Iraq and Lebanon. The U.S. Government recalled its ambassador to Syria in February 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Prior to the assassination, France and the United States in 2004 had co-authored UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1559 calling for “all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon.” Under pressure from the international community following the Hariri assassination, Syrian units stationed in Lebanon since 1976 were withdrawn by April 2005. Sensing its international isolation, the Syrians strengthened their relations with Iran and radical Palestinians groups based in Damascus, and cracked down on any signs of internal dissent. During the July-August 2006 conflict in Lebanon between Israel and Hizballah, Syria placed its military forces on alert but did not intervene directly on behalf of its Hizballah ally.
On May 27, 2007, President al-Asad was reaffirmed by referendum for a second 7-year term, with 97.6% of the vote. During 2008, though Syria’s relations with the United States remained strained, Syria’s international isolation was slowly being overcome as indirect talks between Israel and Syria, mediated by Turkey, were announced and a Qatar-brokered deal in Lebanon was reached. Shortly thereafter, French president Nicolas Sarkozy invited President Asad to participate in the Euro-Mediterranean summit in Paris, spurring a growing stream of diplomatic visits to Damascus. Since January 2009, President Barack Obama’s administration has continued to review Syria policy in light of dynamic changes in Syria and the region, and a succession of congressional and U.S. administration officials visited Syria while in the region.
Despite high hopes when President al-Asad first took power in 2000, there was little movement on political reform, with more focus on limited economic liberalizations. The Syrian Government provided some initial cooperation to the UN Independent International Investigation Commission, which investigated the killing of Hariri until superseded by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Since the 34-day conflict between Lebanon and Israel in July and August 2006, evidence of Syrian compliance with its obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1701 not to rearm the Lebanese group Hizballah is unpersuasive. On April 17, 2007, the United Nations Security Council welcomed the Secretary General's intention to evaluate the situation along the entire Syria-Lebanon border and invited the Secretary General to dispatch an independent mission to assess the monitoring of the border and to report back on its findings and recommendations. As of January 2012, the border had yet to be demarcated, and Syrian military attacks on Syrian oppositionists have occurred in areas claimed by both countries.
Officially, Syria is a republic. In reality, however, it is an authoritarian regime under the guise of a democratic system. Although citizens vote for the president and members of parliament, they have little choice and electoral results are often adjusted. Syrians have not had the right to change the role of the Ba’ath Party. The late President Hafiz al-Asad was confirmed by unopposed referenda five times. His son, Bashar al-Asad, also was confirmed by unopposed referenda in July 2000 and May 2007. The President and his senior aides, both those with official roles and those with informal links, ultimately make most basic decisions in political and economic life with a very limited degree of public accountability. The military and security services carry a great deal of power, expressed in even more violent terms since the outbreak of protest demonstrations in March 2011. Political opposition to the President is not tolerated, and allegiance to the person of the President has become the criterion for loyalty to the state. Syria declared an official state of emergency in 1963, which was changed in April 2011 to a de facto authorization of extraordinary measures by the security forces. Syrian governments have justified martial law by the state of war that continues to exist with Israel and by continuing threats posed by terrorist groups.
The Asad regime has held power longer than any other Syrian government since independence; its survival is due partly to a strong desire for stability and secularism in a region that has seen many conflicts. The expansion of the government bureaucracy has also created a large class dependent on the regime. The President's strength through early 2011 was partly due to his personal popularity among Syrians who believed he sought to bring change and reform. Following the onset of Syria’s protests against the dictatorship, however, his strength is due more to the army leadership's continued loyalty and the effectiveness of Syria's large internal security apparatus. The leadership of both is comprised largely of members of Asad's own Alawi sect. The several main branches of the security services operate independently of each other and outside of the legal system. The primarily Alawi irregulars known as “Shabiha” have demonstrated great violence against protesters and those opposing the regime. Each continues to be responsible for human rights violations of greatly escalating levels.
All three branches of government are guided by the views of the Ba'ath Party, whose de jure primacy in state institutions is assured by the constitution. In practice, the decisions of those close to the Asad clan carry most weight. The Ba'ath platform is proclaimed succinctly in the party's slogan: "Unity, freedom, and socialism." The party was traditionally considered both socialist, advocating state ownership of the means of industrial production and the redistribution of agricultural land, and revolutionary, dedicated to carrying a socialist revolution to every part of the Arab world. Founded by Michel 'Aflaq, a Syrian Christian, and Salah al-Din Al-Bitar, a Syrian Sunni, the Ba'ath Party embraces secularism and has attracted supporters of all faiths in many Arab countries, especially Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. Over the past 20 years, economic modernization has changed the face of Syrian socialism, and Bashar al-Asad’s economic liberalization gave the private sector a dominant role. The regime called for a gradual reform of the Syrian economy, but this was not accompanied by political or security reforms.
Nine smaller political parties are permitted to exist and, along with the Ba'ath Party, make up the National Progressive Front (NPF), a grouping of parties that represents the sole framework of legal political party participation for citizens. Created to give the appearance of a multi-party system, the NPF is dominated by the Ba'ath Party and does not change the essentially one-party character of the political system. Non-Ba'ath parties included in the NPF represent small political groupings of a few hundred members each and conform strictly to Ba'ath Party and government policies. There were reports in 2005, in the wake of the June Ba'ath Party Congress, that the government would permit formation of new political parties and legalization of parties previously banned. These changes did not take place, and promises in response to Syria’s Arab Spring of greater openness to political participation have not borne fruit. Some 15 small independent parties outside the NPF have operated without government approval, and the new political movements arising from the opposition movement are not considered legitimate by the Syrian regime. The Syrian National Council, Local Coordination Committees, and other opposition groups are considered treasonous by the Syrian Government.
The Ba'ath Party dominates the parliament, which is known as the People's Council. Members are elected every four years, but the Council has no independent authority. The executive branch retains ultimate control over the legislative process, although parliamentarians may criticize policies and modify draft laws; according to the constitution and its bylaws, a group of 10 parliamentarians can propose legislation. During 2001, two independent members of parliament, Ma'mun al-Humsy and Riad Seif, who had advocated political reforms, were stripped of their parliamentary immunity and tried and convicted of charges of "attempting to illegally change the constitution." Criticism of economic policies became common in 2010 and 2011, but suggestions by the few independents that the security forces be controlled or greater voice be given to unofficial sources were met with threats, and the Council has taken no action to constrain the regime’s repression.
Although Internet access is increasing and non-political private media are slowly being introduced, the government continues to ban numerous newspaper and news journal publications from circulating in the country, including Saudi-owned Al-Hayat and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. It has recently allowed sporadic access to previously blocked websites, including YouTube.com, Amazon.com, and Facebook.com but maintains close monitoring of usage in order to identify oppositionists. The nominally-private television station Ad-Dounia carries, in additional to entertainment programming, pro-regime coverage and incitement against U.S. interests.
There was a surge of interest in political reform after Bashar al-Asad assumed power in 2000. Human rights activists and other civil society advocates, as well as some parliamentarians, became more outspoken during a period referred to as "Damascus Spring" (July 2000-February 2001). Asad also made a series of appointments of reform-minded advisors to formal and less formal positions, and included a number of similarly-oriented individuals in his cabinet. The continuing arrests and detention of reformists, regime critics, and oppositionists indicate that political reform in Syria is unlikely to be a smooth process. Crackdowns on civil society in 2005, in the wake of Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, and again in the late winter and spring of 2006 set the stage for the March 2011 mobilization of official and informal security forces to crack down violently on protests and demonstrations and to carry out wholesale arrest campaigns.
Although Asad continues to promise steps toward political reform, even as regime forces violently repress alternative political voices, none of his proposed reforms have been implemented as yet and public anger is increasing. The October 2008 arrest of 12 members of the Damascus Declaration National Council, drafters of a civil society reform document written in 2005 and signed by a confederation of opposition parties and individual activists who sought to work with the government to ensure greater civil liberties and democratic political reform, indicated the regime’s willingness to suppress advocates for human, legal, or minority rights even in normal times. As street protests swelled after March 2011, international concern and condemnation have grown. The Arab League, of which Syria has been a core member, decried the regime’s actions against the Syrian people. The League successively suspended Syria’s membership, called for political and security reforms and negotiations with the opposition, and carried out a monitoring mission to assess the regime’s response. In late January 2012, the Arab League took the issue to the United Nations Security Council for action.
The Syrian constitution vests the Arab Socialist Ba'ath 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, is also Secretary General of the Ba'ath Party and leader of the National Progressive Front, which is a coalition of 10 political parties authorized by the regime. 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. The Emergency Law, which effectively suspends most constitutional protections for Syrians, was formally in effect through a declared State of Emergency from 1963 until 2011 and remains the de facto standard for security operations.
The National Progressive Front also acts as a forum in which economic policies are debated and the country's political orientation is determined. However, because of Ba'ath Party dominance, the National Progressive Front has traditionally exercised little independent power, and most decisions come from the Ba’ath Party Regional Command.
The Syrian constitution of 1973 requires that the president be Muslim but does not make Islam the state religion. Islamic jurisprudence, however, is a main source of legislation. The judicial system in Syria is an amalgam of Ottoman, French, and Islamic laws, with three levels of courts: courts of first instance, courts of appeals, and the constitutional court, the highest tribunal. In addition, Muslim and Christian religious courts handle questions of personal and family law for their respective communities.
The Ba'ath Party emphasizes socialism and secular Arabism. Although Ba'ath Party doctrine seeks to build pan-Arab identity, ethnic, religious, and regional allegiances remain important in Syria. Syria’s religious minorities have valued the actively secular character of the Ba'ath state.
Members of President Asad's own minority sect, the Alawis, hold most of the key military and security positions, while Sunnis have held many positions in the powerful Ba'ath Party Regional Command. In recent years there has been a gradual decline in the party's preeminence, with more power held directly by regime-linked individuals and groups. The regime’s security services and the military, which consume a disproportionate share of Syria's economic resources, play a large political role.
Government Type: Republic under an authoritarian regime
Capital: Damascus: 2.527 million (2009)
View of Damascus from mount Qassioun. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Other Major Cities: Aleppo 2.985 million; Hims 1.276 million; Hamah 854,000 (2009)
Administrative divisions: Syria is divided administratively into 14 provinces, one of which is the city of Damascus. A governor for each province is appointed by the president. The governor is assisted by an elected provincial council.
14 provinces (muhafazat, singular - muhafazah);
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Independence Date: 17 April 1946 (from League of Nations mandate under French administration)
Legal System: Mixed legal system of civil and Islamic law (for family courts). Syria has not submitted an International Court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdiction declaration; and is a non-party state to theInternational criminal court (ICCt).
International Environmental Agreements
Syria is party to international agreements on: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, and Wetlands. It has signed, but not ratified an international agreement on Environmental Modification.
Total Renewable Water Resources: 46.1 cubic km (1997)
Freshwater Withdrawal: 19.95 cu km/yr (3% domestic, 2% industrial, 95% agricultural)
Per Capita Freshwater Withdrawal: 1048 cu m/yr (2000)
Agricultural products: wheat, barley, cotton, lentils, chickpeas, olives, sugar beets, beef, mutton, eggs, poultry, milk
Irrigated Land: 13,560 sq km (2008)
Natural Resources: petroleum, phosphates, chromium and manganese ores, asphalt, iron ore, rock salt, marble, gypsum, hydropower
arable land: 24.8%
permanent crops: 4.47%
other: 70.73% (2005)
Syria is a middle-income, developing country with an economy based on agriculture, oil, industry, and tourism. However, Syria's economy began to face serious challenges and impediments to growth even prior to March 2011, including: a large and poorly performing public sector; declining rates of oil production; widening non-oil deficit; widescale corruption; weak financial and capital markets; and high rates of unemployment tied to a high population growth rate. In addition, Syria has been subject to U.S. economic sanctions since 2004 under the Syria Accountability Act, which prohibits or restricts the export and re-export of most U.S. products to Syria. In response to regime brutality against peaceful protesters beginning in 2011, the U.S. Government imposed additional sanctions beginning in April 2011, designating those complicit in human rights abuses or supporting the Asad regime. Sanctions in August 2008 prohibited the export of U.S. services to Syrian and banned U.S. persons from involvement in the Syrian petroleum sector, including a prohibition on importing Syrian petroleum products. The European Union, Japan, Canada, and other countries have also implemented a range of bilateral sanctions on the Syrian government.
As a result of an inefficient and corrupt centrally planned economy, Syria has both low rates of investment and low levels of industrial and agricultural productivity. Consumer unwillingness to spend money in turbulent times, a devastated tourism sector, customs spats with Turkey, pressure on the Syrian pound, and increasing unemployment and factory closings led the IMF to reduce estimates of economic growth in 2011 and to project negative real GDP growth in 2012. The two main pillars of the Syrian economy have been agriculture and oil. Severe drought badly affected the agricultural sector, reducing its share in the economy to about 17% of GDP, down from 20.4% in 2007 and 25% in the 1990s. On the other hand, higher crude oil prices countered declining oil production and led to higher budgetary and export receipts before international sanctions on Syrian oil cut revenue to the Syrian Government by $2 billion, according to the Syrian Minister of Petroleum in January 2012.
Water and energy availability are among the most pervasive issues facing the agriculture sector. The agricultural sector has also suffered from the government’s vacillation on subsidies for key inputs such as fertilizers, fuel, electricity, and water. Drought has continued for several years and thousands of small farmers and herders have been displaced to the outskirts of cities to the west, including Damascus. Wheat and barley production is heavily dependent on rainfall, and in dry years irrigation places high demands on water pumps run on electricity or diesel. The UN has implemented an emergency program, but food distribution has been stopped by security conditions. Syria has moved from being a net exporter of wheat to a net importer, and subsidies for bread and sugar have placed an additional strain on the budget as world prices have risen.
Damascus implemented modest economic reforms between 2001 and 2010, especially under the guidance of Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah Dardari, including cutting lending interest rates; opening private banks; consolidating all of the multiple exchange rates; raising prices on some subsidized items, most notably diesel, other oil derivatives, and fertilizers; and establishing the Damascus Stock Exchange, which began operations in 2009. Damascus has alternately raised and lowered the price of subsidized diesel in response to political conditions, and as of January 2012 the government announced a policy to reduce subsidies and allow prices to rise. In addition, President Asad signed legislative decrees to encourage corporate ownership reform and allowed the Central Bank to issue Treasury bills and bonds for government debt, although no debt instruments were available until December 2010. Despite these reforms, the economy remains highly controlled by the government, and rapid fluctuations in the regulatory environment impede healthy growth. Long-run economic constraints include increasing pressure on water supplies caused by heavy subsidized use in agriculture, increasing demand for electricity, rapid population growth, declining oil production due to limits on exports, high unemployment, exchange rate uncertainty, and rising budget deficits.
The government hoped to attract new investment in the tourism, natural gas, and service sectors to diversify its economy and reduce its dependence on oil and agriculture. Reform was slow and ad hoc as factions in the government struggled to agree on economic theory. The social market economy proposed by the regime generated argument over the balance between private sector growth and social protection. For ideological reasons, privatization of government enterprises is still not widespread, but it is in its initial stage for port operations, power generation, and air transport. Most sectors are now open for private investment, but neither domestic nor foreign investors are willing to commit funds in Syria at this time.
The Bashar al-Asad government started its reform efforts by changing the regulatory environment in the financial sector. Private sector banks were legalized in 2001, and after the initial openings in 2004 more than a dozen conventional and Islamic financial entities have established a presence in Syria and on the Damascus Stock Exchange. Syria has taken gradual but wavering steps to loosen controls over foreign exchange. In 2003, the government decriminalized private sector use of foreign currencies, and in 2005 it allowed licensed private banks to sell foreign currency to Syrian citizens under certain circumstances and to the private sector to finance imports. In October 2009, Syrians traveling abroad were permitted to withdraw the equivalent of up to $10,000 from their Syrian pound accounts. Following the outbreak of protests in March 2011, regulations on bank and personal access to foreign currencies have swung widely between initial decrees permitting any Syrian to withdraw $5,000 monthly for any use and other decrees prohibiting the use of U.S. dollars entirely. In late January 2012, the regime decided to make foreign currencies available again at a floating rate, in an effort to stem the rapidly falling Syrian pound exchange rate against the U.S. dollar and the Euro.
To attract investment and to ease access to credit, the government allowed investors in 2007 to receive loans and other credit instruments from foreign banks, and to repay the loans and any accrued interest through local banks using project proceeds. In February 2008, the government permitted investors to receive loans in foreign currencies from local private banks to finance capital investment. The government passed a law in 2006 which permits the operation of private money exchange companies, which have been subject to an unpredictable regulatory context. A small black market for foreign currency is active but practitioners have been subject to arrest.
Syrian policies from the 1960s through the late 1980s included nationalization of companies and some private assets. Despite steps toward economic modernization beginning in the late 1990s, Syria failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy. Economic conservatives who resisted modernization pointed to Syria’s financial independence as its salvation during the international financial crisis, but consequent drops in consumer demand from Syria’s trading partners hit the national economy in 2009 and 2010. 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 and again in 2004. Syria had developed regional free trade agreements, which have been largely suspended as trading partners seek to express disapproval of the Syrian regime’s violence against protesters. The Greater Arab Free Trade Agreement (GAFTA) came into effect in January 2005, and customs duties were eliminated between Syria and all other members of GAFTA. Syria's free trade agreement with Turkey came into force in January 2007 but has been compromised by retaliatory steps by both parties, given Turkey’s reaction to the Asad regime’s violent response to the demonstrations. Syria is a signatory to free trade agreements with Jordan, India, Belarus, and Slovakia. In 2004 Syria and the European Union initialed an Association Agreement; the ratification process had not been finalized as of March 2011, and the EU withdrew its offer following the regime’s crackdown on opposition and imposition of EU sanctions. Syria claimed a boom in non-oil exports prior to mid-2011, but its trade numbers are notoriously inaccurate and out-of-date. Syria's main exports include crude oil, refined products, rock phosphate, raw cotton, clothing, fruits and vegetables, and spices. The bulk of Syrian imports are raw materials essential for industry, petroleum products, 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. The Syrian Minister of Petroleum estimated in January 2012 a loss of $2 billion from sanctions on oil exports.
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 was decreasing steadily, from a peak close to 610,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 1995 down to approximately 379,000 bpd in 2008. In parallel, Syria’s oil reserves are being gradually depleted and reached 2.5 billion barrels in January 2009. Recent developments have helped revitalize the energy sector, including new discoveries, enhanced recovery techniques, and the successful development of its hydrocarbon reserves. Syria’s oil exports contributed only 7% to GDP, although total domestic and export oil sector activity contributed 25% to GDP. Oil exports for hard currency were, however, over 30% of total export income in 2010 and nearly 35% of Syrian Government income, down from 50% of government income in 2005. Syria became a net importer of petroleum products in 2009, and oil sanctions will temporarily increase the ratio of imports to exports. Syria also produces about 22 million cubic meters of gas per day, with estimated reserves around 240 billion cubic meters or 8.5 trillion cubic feet. While the government had begun to work with international energy companies in the hopes of eventually becoming a significant gas exporter, most gas currently produced is consumed domestically and a number of international oil companies withdrew foreign staff in 2011 and 2012 and restricted their Syria operations in response to the unrest. Demand for electricity is growing at a rate of about 10% per year and is barely met by current generation capacity, and ongoing and planned projects are not expected to be sufficient to meet future demand.
Some basic commodities, such as bread, continue to be heavily subsidized, and social services are provided for nominal charges. Subsidies are becoming harder to sustain as demand rises and pressure on government financial reserves increases. Syria has a population of approximately 22.5 million people, and Syrian Government figures place the population growth rate at 2.37%, with 65% 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. Unemployment, already high due to distortions in the economy and drought, has increased dramatically as economic activity has virtually shut down due to unrest, and estimates place it between 30% and 45%. Government and public sector employees constitute about 30% of the total labor force and receive low salaries and wages, often balanced by the opportunity for rampant graft. Government officials acknowledged that the economy was not growing at a pace sufficient to create enough new jobs annually to match population growth even prior to the protests. IMF estimates of negative growth in 2011 will place even more pressure on the labor market. Syrian Government prioritizing of supplies and funds to the security services has increased the percentage of Syrians experiencing poverty and shortages of fuel and food.
Syria made progress in easing its foreign debt burden through bilateral rescheduling deals with its key creditors in Europe, most importantly Russia, Germany, and France. Syria also settled its debt with Iran and the World Bank. In December 2004, Syria and Poland reached an agreement by which Syria would pay $27 million out of the total $261.7 million debt. In January 2005, Russia forgave 73% of Syria's $14.5 billion long-outstanding debt and in June 2008, Russia’s parliament ratified the agreement. In 2007, Syria and Romania reached an agreement for Syria to pay 35 percent of the $118.1 million debt. In May 2008, Syria settled all the debt it owed to the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
GDP: (Purchasing Power Parity): $107.6 billion (2011 estimate)
GDP: (Official Exchange Rate): $64.7 billion (2011 estimate)
GDP per capita (PPP): $5100 (2011 est.)
GDP composition by sector:
services: 54.1% (2011 est.)
Industries: petroleum, textiles, food processing, beverages, tobacco, phosphate rock mining, cement, oil seed crushing, car assembly
Currency: Syrian pounds (SYP)
- William J. Hamblin. Warfare in the Ancient Near East to 1600 BC. Routledge Publishing
- Daniel Pipes. 1992. Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition. Middle East Forum. ISBN 0-19-506022-9.