Syria, officially the Syrian Arab Republic, is a country in Western Asia, bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south, and Israel to the southwest.

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Syria (/ˈsɪriə/ ( listen) SIRR-ee-ə ; Arabic: سوريا‎ Sūriyā or سورية Sūrīyah ; Syriac: ܣܘܪܝܐ; Kurdish: سوریه‌), officially the Syrian Arab Republic (Arabic: الجمهورية العربية السورية‎ Al-Jumhūrīyah Al-ʻArabīyah As-Sūrīyah Arabic pronunciation), is a country in Western Asia, bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south, and Israel to the southwest.

In English, the name Syria was formerly synonymous with the Levant, known in Arabic as al-Sham, while the modern state encompasses the sites of several ancient kingdoms and empires, including the Eblan civilization of the third millennium BC. In the Islamic era, its capital city, Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world,[5] was the seat of the Umayyad Caliphate, and a provincial capital of the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt.

The modern Syrian state was established after the First World War as a French mandate, and represented the largest Arab state to emerge from the formerly Ottoman-ruled Arab Levant. It gained independence in April 1946, as a parliamentary republic. The post-independence period was tumultuous, and a large number of military coups and coup attempts shook the country in the period 1949–1971. Between 1958 and 1961, Syria entered a brief union with Egypt, which was terminated by a military coup. Syria was under Emergency Law from 1963 to 2011, effectively suspending most constitutional protections for citizens, and its system of government is considered to be non-democratic.[6] Bashar al-Assad has been president since 2000 and was preceded by his father Hafez al-Assad, who was in office from 1971.[7]

Syria is a member of one International organization other than the United Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement; it is currently suspended from the Arab League,[8] the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation,[9] and self suspended from the Union for the Mediterranean.[10]

Since March 2011, Syria has been embroiled in civil war in the wake of uprisings (considered an extension of the Arab Spring, the mass movement of revolutions and protests in the Arab world) against Assad and the neo-Ba'athist government. This conflict has resulted in sanctions against Syria by the international community aimed at trade and government officials by the countries of the Arab League,[11] Australia,[12] Canada,[13] the European Union,[14] (as well as the European countries of Albania,[15] Croatia,[15] Iceland,[15] Liechtenstein,[15] Macedonia,[15] Moldova,[15] Montenegro,[15] Norway,[16] Serbia,[15] and Switzerland)[17] Georgia,[15] Japan,[18] Turkey,[19] and the United States.[20]

In November 2012, Syrian opposition groups formed an umbrella organisation known as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. [21] This body has been recognised as the "legitimate representative of the Syrian people" by France, Turkey and the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council so far. It is acknowledged as a "representative of [the] aspirations of the Syrian people" by the Arab League[22] and as "a legitimate representative of the Syrian people" by the United States.[23]


The name Syria is derived from the ancient Greek name for Syrians: Σύριοι, Sýrioi, or Σύροι, Sýroi, which the Greeks applied without distinction to the Assyrians.[24][25] A number of modern scholars argued that the Greek word related to the cognate Ἀσσυρία, Assyria, ultimately derived from the Akkadian Aššur.[26] Others believed that it was derived from Siryon, the name that the Sidonians gave to Mount Hermon.[27] However, the discovery of the Çineköy inscription in 2000 seems to support the theory that the term Syria derives from Assyria.

The area designated by the word has changed over time. Classically, Syria lies at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, between Egypt and Arabia to the south and Cilicia to the north, stretching inland to include parts of Iraq, and having an uncertain border to the northeast that Pliny the Elder describes as including, from west to east, Commagene, Sophene, and Adiabene.[28]

By Pliny's time, however, this larger Syria had been divided into a number of provinces under the Roman Empire (but politically independent from each other): Judaea, later renamed Palaestina in AD 135 (the region corresponding to modern day Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Jordan) in the extreme southwest, Phoenicia corresponding to Lebanon, with Damascena to the inland side of Phoenicia, Coele-Syria (or "Hollow Syria") south of the Eleutheris river, and Iraq.[29]


Burj Islam, a well-known beach just north of Latakia.

Syria lies between latitudes 32° and 38° N, and longitudes 35° and 43° E. It 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.[30] 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".[31]

The climate in Syria is dry and hot, and winters are mild. Because of the country's elevation, snowfall does occasionally occur during winter.[30] Petroleum in commercial quantities was first discovered in the northeast in 1956. The most important oil fields are those of Suwaydiyah, Qaratshui, Rumayian, and Tayyem, near Dayr az–Zawr. The fields are a natural extension of the Iraqi fields of Mosul and Kirkuk. Petroleum became Syria's leading natural resource and chief export after 1974. Natural gas was discovered at the field of Jbessa in 1940.[32]


Female figurine, Syria, 5000 BC. Ancient Orient Museum.

Since approximately 10,000 BC Syria was one of centers of Neolithic culture (PPNA) where agriculture and cattle breeding appeared for the first time in the world. The following Neolithic period (PPNB) is represented by rectangular houses of Mureybet culture. At the time of the pre-pottery Neolithic people used vessels made of stone, gyps and burnt lime (Vaiselles blanches). Finds of obsidian tools from Anatolia are evidences of early trade relations. Cities of Hamoukar and Emar played an important role during the late Neolithic and Bronze Age. Archaeologists have demonstrated that civilization in Syria was one of the most ancient on earth.

Ebla civilization

Clay tablet from Ebla's archive

Around the excavated city of Ebla near Idlib in northern Syria, discovered in 1975, a great Semitic empire spread from the Red Sea north to Anatolia and east to Iraq from 2500 to 2400 BC. Ebla appears to have been founded around 3000 BC, and gradually built its empire through trade with the cities of Sumer and Akkad, as well as with peoples to the northwest.[33] Gifts from Pharaohs, found during excavations, confirm Ebla's contact with Egypt. Scholars believe the language of Ebla to be among the oldest known written Semitic languages, designated as Paleo-Canaanite.[33]

However, more recent classifications of the Eblaite language has shown that it was an East Semitic language, closely related to the Akkadian language.[34] The Eblan civilization was likely conquered by Sargon of Akkad around 2260 BC; the city was restored, as the nation of the Amorites, a few centuries later, and flourished through the early second millennium BC until conquered by the Hittites.[35]

Antiquity and early Christian era

Roman theatre in Bosra

Philippus Arabs, Roman Emperor

During the second millennium BC, Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Arameans as part of the general disruptions and exchanges associated with the Sea Peoples. The Phoenicians settled along the coast of Northern Canaan (Lebanon), which was already known for its towering cedars. Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Hittites variously occupied the strategic ground of Syria during this period; the land between their various empires being marsh.[33]

Eventually, the Persians took Syria as part of their hegemony of Southwest Asia; this dominion was transferred to the Ancient Macedonians and Greeks after Alexander the Great's conquests and the Seleucid Empire. The capital of this Empire (founded in 312 BC) was situated at Antioch, part of historical Syria, but just inside the Turkish border today. Pompey the Great captured Antioch in 64 BC, turning Syria into a Roman province. Thus control of this region passed to the Romans and then the Byzantines.[33]

In the Roman Empire period, the city of Antioch was the third largest city in the empire after Rome and Alexandria. With an estimated population of 500,000 at its peak, Antioch was one of the major centers of trade and industry in the ancient world. The population of Syria during the heyday of the empire was probably not exceeded again until the 19th century. Syria's large and prosperous population made Syria one of the most important of the Roman provinces, particularly during the 2nd and 3rd centuries (AD).[36]

The Roman Emperor Alexander Severus, who was emperor from 222 to 235, was Syrian. His cousin Elagabalus, who was emperor from 218 to 222, was also Syrian and his family held hereditary rights to the high priesthood of the sun god El-Gabal at Emesa (modern Homs) in Syria. Another Roman emperor who was a Syrian was Philip the Arab (Marcus Julius Philippus), emperor from 244 to 249.[36]

Syria is significant in the history of Christianity; Saulus of Tarsus, better known as the Apostle Paul, was converted on the Road to Damascus and emerged as a significant figure in the Christian Church at Antioch in ancient Syria, from which he left on many of his missionary journeys. (Acts 9:1–43 )

Islamic era

Church of Saint Simeon Stylites near Aleppo is considered to be one of the oldest surviving churches in the world

The Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

By AD 640, Syria was conquered by the Rashidun army led by Khalid ibn al-Walid, resulting in the area's becoming part of the Islamic empire. In the mid-7th century, the Umayyad dynasty, then rulers of the empire, placed the capital of the empire in Damascus. Syria was divided into four districts: Damascus, Homs, Palestine and Jordan. The Islamic empire stretched from Spain and Morocco to India and parts of Central Asia; thus Syria prospered economically, being the capital of the empire. Early Ummayad rulers such as Abd al-Malik and Al-Walid I constructed several splendid palaces and mosques throughout Syria, particularly in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.

There was great toleration of Christians in this era and several held governmental posts. The country's power dramatically declined during later Ummayad rule; mainly due to the totalitarianism and corruption spread among the empire's leaderships, conflict between its general staff, and the successive revolutions by the oppressed and miserable groups. As one Ummayad chieftain responded to a question about the reasons of the decline of their empire: "Rather visiting what needed to be visited, we were more interested in the pleasure and enjoyment of life; we oppressed our people until they gave up and sought relief from us...we trusted our ministers who favoured their own interests and kept secrets from us, and we unhurriedly rewarded our soldiers that we lost their obedience to our enemies."[citation needed]

The Ummayad dynasty was then overthrown by the Abbasid dynasty in 750, who moved the capital of empire to Baghdad. Arabic — made official under Ummayad rule — became the dominant language, replacing Greek and Aramaic in the Abbasid era. In 887, the Egypt-based Tulunids annexed Syria from the Abbasids, and were later replaced by once the Egypt-based Ikhshidids and later by the Hamdanids originating in Aleppo founded by Sayf al-Dawla.[37]

Krak des Chevaliers from the South-West

Sections of the coastline of Syria were briefly held by Frankish overlords during the Crusades of the 12th century, and were known as the Crusader state of the Principality of Antioch. The area was also threatened by Shi'a extremists known as Assassins (Hassassin). In 1260, the Mongols arrived, led by Hulegu with an army 100,000 strong, destroying cities and irrigation works. Aleppo fell in January 1260, and Damascus in March, but then Hulegu needed to break off his attack to return to China to deal with a succession dispute.

The command of the remaining Mongol troops was placed under Kitbuqa, a Christian Mongol. A few months later, the Mamluks arrived with an army from Egypt, and defeated the Mongols in the Battle of Ain Jalut, in Galilee. In addition to the sultanate's capital in Cairo, the Mamluk leader, Baibars, made Damascus a provincial capital, with the cities linked by a mail service that traveled by both horses and carrier pigeons. When Baibars died, his successor was overthrown, and power was taken by Qalawun. In the meantime, an emir named Sunqur al-Ashqar had tried to declare himself ruler of Damascus, but he was defeated by Qalawun on 21 June 1280, and fled to northern Syria.

Citadel of Aleppo is considered to be one of the oldest and largest castles in the world.

Al-Ashqar, who had married a Mongol woman, appealed for help from the Mongols, and in 1281, they arrived with an army of 50,000 Mongols, and 30,000 Armenian, Georgian, and Turkish auxiliaries, along with Al-Ashqar's rebel force. The Mongols of the Ilkhanate took the city, but Qalawun arrived with a Mamluk force, persuaded Al-Ashqar to switch sides and join him, and they fought against the Mongols on 29 October 1281, in the Second Battle of Homs, a close battle that resulted in the death of the majority of the combatants but was finally won by the Mamluks.[38]

In 1400, Timur Lenk, or Tamerlane, invaded Syria, sacked Aleppo and captured Damascus after defeating the Mamluk army. The city's inhabitants were massacred, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand.[39][40] It was during the conquests of Timur that the indigenous Christian population of Syria began to suffer under greater persecutions.

By the end of the 15th century, the discovery of a sea route from Europe to the Far East ended the need for an overland trade route through Syria. In 1516, the Ottoman Empire invaded the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, conquering Syria, and incorporating it into its empire, before conquering Egypt itself the following year. From that time until the 20th century, Syria found itself largely apart from, and ignored by, world affairs.

Ottoman era

Ottoman-Syrian dress in the 19th century.

The Ottoman system was not burdensome to Syrians because the Turks respected Arabic as the language of the Koran, and accepted the mantle of defenders of the faith. Damascus was made the major entrepot for Mecca, and as such it acquired a holy character to Muslims, because of the baraka (spiritual force or blessing) of the countless pilgrims who passed through on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.[41]

Ottoman administration followed a unique system that lead to a peaceful coexistence for centuries. Each religious minority—Shia Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, , and Jewish—constituted a millet. The religious heads of each community administered all personal status law and performed certain civil functions as well.[41]

In the midst of World War I two Allied diplomats (Frenchman François Georges-Picot and Briton Mark Sykes) secretly agreed on the post war division of the Ottoman Empire into respective zones of influence. The end of the war and defeat of the Central Powers, of which the Ottoman Empire was one, allowed the victorious Entente powers of Britain and France to realise its provisions.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 set the fate of modern Southwest Asia for the coming century; providing France with the northern zone (Syria, including what would become the state of Lebanon), and the United Kingdom with the southern one (Iraq and later, after renegotiations in 1917, Palestine (including what would become the state of Jordan) – 'to secure daily transportation of troops from Haifa to Baghdad' – agreement n° 7).

German troops in Aleppo, summer of 1917.

Initially, the two territories were separated by a border that ran in an almost straight line from Jordan to Iran. However, the discovery of oil in the region of Mosul just before the end of the war led to yet another negotiation with France in 1918 to cede this region to 'Zone B', or the British zone of influence. The borders between the 'Zone A' and 'Zone B' have not changed from 1918 to this date. The two zones were recognized internationally under mandate of the League of Nations in 1920.[42]

French Mandate

The States of the French Mandate

In 1920, a short-lived independent Kingdom of Syria was established under Faisal I of the Hashemite family, who later became the King of Iraq. However, his rule over Syria ended after only a few months, following the clash between his Syrian Arab forces and regular French forces at the Battle of Maysalun. French troops occupied Syria later that year after the San Remo conference proposed that the League of Nations put Syria under a French mandate.[43]

In 1925, Sultan al-Atrash led a revolt that broke out in the Druze Mountain and spread to engulf the whole of Syria and parts of Lebanon. This is considered one of the most important revolutions against the French mandate, as it encompassed the whole of Syria and witnessed fierce battles between rebel and French forces.

On 23 August 1925, Sultan Pasha al-Atrash officially declared revolution against France, and soon fighting erupted in Damascus, Homs and Hama. Al-Atrash won several battles against the French at the beginning of revolution, notably the Battle of al-Kafr on 21 July 1925, the Battle of al-Mazraa on 2–3 August 1925, and the battles of Salkhad, al-Musayfirah and Suwayda.

The inauguration of President Hashim al-Atassi in 1936

After resistance victories against the French, France sent thousands of troops to Syria and Lebanon from Morocco and Senegal, equipped with modern weapons; the rebels were lightly armed. This dramatically altered the results and allowed the French to regain many cities, although resistance lasted until the spring of 1927. The French sentenced Sultan al-Atrash to death, but he had escaped with the rebels to Transjordan and was eventually pardoned. He returned to Syria in 1937 after the signing of the Syrian-French Treaty. He was met with a huge public reception.

Syria and France negotiated a treaty of independence in September 1936, and Hashim al-Atassi, who was Prime Minister under King Faisal's brief reign, was the first president to be elected under a new constitution, effectively the first incarnation of the modern republic of Syria. However, the treaty never came into force because the French Legislature refused to ratify it. With the fall of France in 1940 during World War II, Syria came under the control of Vichy France until the British and Free French occupied the country in the Syria-Lebanon campaign in July 1941. Syria proclaimed its independence again in 1941, but it was not until 1 January 1944 that it was recognised as an independent republic. Continuing pressure from Syrian nationalist groups and British pressure forced the French to evacuate their troops in April 1946, leaving the country in the hands of a republican government that had been formed during the mandate.[32]

Independence, instability and economic growth

Although rapid economic development followed the declaration of independence, Syrian politics from independence through the late 1960s were marked by upheaval. Between 1946 and 1956, Syria had 20 different cabinets and drafted four separate constitutions. In 1948, Syria was involved in the Arab-Israeli War, aligning with the other local Arab states who were attempting to prevent the establishment of the State of Israel.[44] The Syrian army was pressed out of most of Israel, but fortified their strongholds on the Golan Heights and managed to keep their old borders and some additional territory (this was converted into "supposed" demilitarized zones under UN supervision; the status of these territories have proved a stumbling-block for Syrian-Israeli negotiations). It was during this period that many Syrian Jews, who faced growing discrimination, emigrated from the country as part of Jewish exodus from Arab countries, many of whom ended up as refugees in Israel, and are now Israeli citizens.

President Adib Shishakli

The humiliating defeat suffered by the army was one of several trigger factors for the March 1949 Syrian coup d'état by Col. Husni al-Za'im, in what has been described as the first military overthrow of the Arab World[44] since the start of the Second World War. This was soon followed by another overthrow, by Col. Sami al-Hinnawi, who was himself quickly deposed by Col. Adib Shishakli, all within the same year.[44]

After exercising influence behind the scenes for some time, dominating the ravaged parliamentary scene, Shishakli launched a second overthrow in 1951, entrenching his rule and eventually abolishing multipartyism altogether. Only when President Shishakli was himself overthrown in a 1954 overthrow was the parliamentary system restored, but it was fundamentally undermined by continued political maneuvering supported by competing factions in the military.[44]

By this time, civilian politics had been largely gutted of meaning, and power was increasingly concentrated in the military and security establishment, which had now proved itself to be the only force capable of seizing and, perhaps, keeping power.[44] Parliamentary institutions remained weak and ineffectual, dominated by competing parties representing the landowning elites and various Sunni urban notables, while economy and politics were mismanaged, and little done to better the role of Syria's peasant majority. That, as well as the influence of Nasserism and other nationalist and anti-imperial ideologies, created fertile ground for various Arab nationalist, Syrian nationalist, and socialist movements, who represented disaffected elements of society, notably including the religious minorities, and demanded radical reform.[44]

During the Suez Crisis of 1956, after the invasion of Egypt by Israel, Britain and France, martial law was declared in Syria. The November 1956 attacks on Iraqi pipelines were in retaliation for Iraq's joining of the Baghdad Pact. In early 1957 Iraq advised Egypt and Syria against a conceivable takeover of Jordan.[45]

In November 1956, as a direct result of the Suez Crisis,[46] Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union, providing a foothold for Communist influence within the government in exchange for planes, tanks, and other military equipment being sent to Syria.[44] This increase in the strength of Syrian military technology worried Turkey, as it seemed feasible that Syria might attempt to retake İskenderun, a matter of dispute between Syria and Turkey. On the other hand, Syria and the Soviet Union accused Turkey of massing its troops at the Syrian border. During this standoff, Communists gained more control over the Syrian government and military. Only heated debates in the United Nations (of which Syria was an original member) lessened the threat of war.[47]

Syria's political instability during the years after the 1954 overthrow, the parallelism of Syrian and Egyptian policies, and the appeal of Egyptian President Gamal Abdal Nasser's leadership in the wake of the Suez Crisis created support in Syria for union with Egypt.[44] On 1 February 1958, Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli and Nasser announced the merging of the two states, creating the United Arab Republic, and all Syrian political parties, as well as the communists therein, ceased overt activities.[32]

The union was not a success, however.[44] Following a military overthrow led by Abd al-Karim al-Nahlawi on 28 September 1961, Syria seceded, re-establishing itself as the Syrian Arab Republic. Instability characterized the next 18 months, with various overthrows culminating with 8 March 1963 coup, resulting in 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 Ba'ath Party, led by Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, which had been active in Syria and other Arab countries since the late 1940s. The new cabinet was dominated by Ba'ath members.[32][44]

The Ba'ath takeover in Syria followed a Ba'ath overthrow in Iraq the previous month. The new Syrian Government explored the possibility of federation with Egypt and with Ba'ath-controlled Iraq.[44] An agreement was concluded in Cairo on 17 April 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 government in Syria and Iraq began to work for bilateral unity. These plans foundered in November 1963, when the Ba'ath government in Iraq was overthrown.

In May 1964, President Amin Hafiz of the NCRC promulgated a provisional constitution providing for a National Council of the Revolution (NCR), an appointed legislature composed of representatives of mass organizations—labour, peasant, and professional unions—a presidential council, in which executive power was vested, and a cabinet. On 23 February 1966, a group of army officers carried out a successful, intra-party overthrow, imprisoned President Hafiz and nearly jailed Prime Minister al-Bitar and Ba'ath party founder Aflaq, dissolved the cabinet and the NCR, abrogated the provisional constitution, and designated a regionalist, civilian Ba'ath government on 1 March.[44] The leaders of the overthrow described it as a "rectification" of Ba'ath Party principles.[44] The coup led to a split within the original, pan-Arab Ba'ath Party; one Iraqi-led ba'ath movement (ruled Iraq from 1968 to 2003) and one Syrian-led ba'ath movement was established.

We shall never call for nor accept peace. We shall only accept war. We have resolved to drench this land with your blood. To oust you aggressors, to throw you into the sea.[48] —Hafez al-Assad, then Syrian Defence Minister, 24 May 1966

When Nasser closed the Gulf of Aqaba to Eilat-bound ships, the Ba'ath government supported the Egyptian leader and amassed troops in the strategic Golan Heights. Syria sponsored Palestinian raids into Israel[49] and Syrian artillery repeatedly bombed Israeli civilian communities from positions on the Golan Heights.[50] Concerning the raids on Israel's territory, Syria claimed that it could not be held responsible for the activities of El-Fatah and El-Asefa, nor for the rise of Palestinian organizations.[51]

Conflicts also arose over different interpretations of the legal status of the Demilitarized Zone. Israel maintained that it had sovereign rights over the zone, allowing the civilian use of farmland. Syria and the UN maintained that no party had sovereign rights over the zone.[52] Israel was accused by Syria of cultivating lands in the Demilitarized Zone, using armored tractors backed by Israel forces. Syria claimed that the situation was the result of an Israeli aim to increase tension so as to justify large-scale aggression, and to expand its occupation of the Demilitarized Zone by liquidating the rights of Arab cultivators.[53]

Conflict over the cultivation of disputed lands sparked into 7 April prewar aerial clashes between Israel and Syria.[54] The Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan said in a 1976 interview that Israel provoked more than 80% of the clashes with Syria.[55][56] After Israel launched a preemptive strike on Egypt to begin the June 1967 war, Syria joined the battle against Israel as well. In the final days of the war, after having captured the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, as well as the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem from Jordan, Israel turned its attention to Syria, capturing the entire Golan Heights in under 48 hours.[57]

Conflict developed between an extremist military wing and a more moderate 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.[58] By 13 November 1970, Minister of Defense Hafez al-Assad was solidly established as the strongman of the government, when he effected a bloodless military overthrow ("The Corrective Movement").[59]

Ba'ath Party rule, 1970 on

Under Hafez al-Assad, 1970–2000

Hafez al-Assad, president of Syria 1970-2000

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 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 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.[32] The 1973 Constitution defines Syria officially as a secular socialist state with Islam recognised as the majority religion.

On 6 October 1973, Syria and Egypt initiated the Yom Kippur War by launching a multi-front surprise attack against Israeli forces stationed in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula. After intense fighting the Israel Defense Forces blunted the Syrians and reversed the initial Syrian gains, ejecting the Syrian army from the Golan and pushing deeper into Syrian territory beyond the 1967 boundary. As a result, Israel continues to occupy the Golan Heights as part of the Israeli-occupied territories.[60]

In early 1976, the Lebanese civil war was going poorly for the Maronite Christians. Syria then entered Lebanon with 40,000 troops, ostensibly to prevent the Maronites from being overrun, but abruptly switched sides soon thereafter, beginning the thirty-year Syrian military occupation. Many crimes in Lebanon, including the accused assassinations of Rafik Hariri, Kamal Jumblat and Bachir Gemayel were attributed to the Syrian forces and intelligence services but were not proved to this current day.[61] Over the following 15 years of civil war, Syria fought for control over Lebanon, and attempted to stop Israel from taking over in southern Lebanon, through extensive use of proxy militias. Many saw the Syrian Army's presence in Lebanon as an occupation, especially following the end of the civil war in 1990, after the Syrian-sponsored Taif Agreement. Syria then remained in Lebanon until 2005, exerting a heavy-handed influence over Lebanese politics that was deeply resented by many. Following the assassination of the popular former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, blamed on Syria, pressure was put to bear on Syria to withdraw their forces from Lebanon. On 26 April 2005 the bulk of the Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon[62] but some of its intelligence operatives remained, drawing further international rebuke.[63]

Hafez al-Assad greets Richard Nixon on his arrival at Damascus airport in 1974

About one million Syrian workers came into Lebanon after the war ended to find jobs in the reconstruction of the country.[64] Syrian workers were preferred over Palestinian and Lebanese workers because they could be paid lower wages. In 1994 the Lebanese government controversially granted citizenship to over 200,000 Syrian residents in the country.[65] (For more on these issues, see Demographics of Lebanon)

The authoritarian government was not without its critics, though open dissent was repressed. A serious challenge arose in the late 1970s, however, from fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, 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 arch-conservative Muslim Brotherhood led an armed insurgency against the government. 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 leaving between 10,000 and 25,000 people either dead or wounded, mostly civilians (see Hama massacre).[66] The Syrian government's actions at Hama have been described as possibly being "the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East".[67] Since then, public manifestations of anti-government activity have been limited.[32]

Syria's 1990 participation in the U.S.-led multinational coalition aligned against Saddam Hussein marked a dramatic watershed in Syria's relations both with other Arab states and with the Western world. Syria participated in the multilateral Southwest Asia Peace Conference in Madrid in October 1991, and during the 1990s engaged in direct, face-to-face negotiations with Israel. These negotiations failed, and there have been no further direct Syrian-Israeli talks since President Hafez al-Assad's meeting with then President Bill Clinton in Geneva in March 2000.[68]

Under Bashar al-Assad

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad (left) with Brazilian then-president Lula da Silva (right), 2010

Hafez al-Assad died on 10 June 2000, after 30 years in power. Immediately following al-Assad's death, the Parliament amended the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34. This allowed his son, Bashar al-Assad, to become legally eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba'ath party. On 10 July 2000, Bashar al-Assad was elected President by referendum in which he ran unopposed, garnering 97.29% of the vote, according to Syrian Government statistics.[32]

Bashar al-Assad's election in the summer of 2000 saw the birth of the Damascus Spring and hopes of reform. The period was characterized by the emergence of numerous political forums or salons where groups of like-minded people met in private houses to debate political and social issues. The phenomenon of salons spread rapidly in Damascus and to a lesser extent in other cities. Political activists, such as Riad Seif, Haitham al-Maleh, Kamal al-Labwani, Riyad al-Turk, and Aref Dalila were important in mobilizing the movement.[69] The most famous of the forums were the Riad Seif Forum and the Jamal al-Atassi Forum. Pro-democracy activists mobilized around a number of political demands, expressed in the "Manifesto of the 99". However, by autumn 2001, the authorities had suppressed the movement, imprisoning some of the leading intellectuals who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience.[70] Renewed opposition activity occurred in October 2005 when activist Michel Kilo launched with leading opposition figures the Damascus Declaration, which criticized the Syrian government as "authoritarian, totalitarian and cliquish" and called for democratic reform.[71] Although the Damascus Spring lasted for a short period, its effects still echo during the political, cultural and intellectual debates in Syria today.

Although Bashar al-Assad said he would reform, the reforms have been limited to some market reforms.[7][66][72]

Over the years the authorities have tightened Internet censorship with laws such as forcing Internet cafes to record all the comments users post on chat forums.[73] While the authorities have relaxed rules so that radio channels can now play Western pop music, websites such as Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook and Amazon have been blocked.[74]

On 5 October 2003, Israel bombed a site near Damascus, charging it was a terrorist training facility for members of Islamic Jihad. The raid was in retaliation for the bombing of a restaurant in the Israeli town of Haifa that killed 19. Islamic Jihad said the camp was not in use; Syria said the attack was on a civilian area.[75]

In May 2004, the United States moved closer to imposing sanctions on Syria, following the adoption of the Syria Accountability Act by the House of Representatives International Relations committee.[76] Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, all included in what the EU and the U.S. view as terrorist groups, all take refuge and enjoy strong relationships with the Syrian government.

Following 2004 Al-Qamishli riots, the Syrian Kurds protested in Brussels, in Geneva, in Germany, at the US and UK embassies, and in Turkey. The protesters pledged against violence in north-east Syria starting Friday, 12 March 2004, and reportedly extending over the weekend resulting in several deaths, according to reports. The Kurds allege the Syrian government encouraged and armed the attackers. Signs of rioting were seen in the towns of Qameshli and Hassakeh.[77]

In 2005, under heavy international pressure, Syria withdrew 14,000 troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon.[78]

The authorities maintain close ties to Iran. On 6 September 2007, Israeli jet fighters carried out Operation Orchard against a suspected nuclear reactor under construction by North Korean technicians.[79]

In April 2008, President Assad told a Qatari newspaper that Syria and Israel had been discussing a peace treaty for a year, with Turkey acting as a mediator. This was confirmed in May 2008 by a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The status of the Golan Heights, a major obstacle to a peace treaty, was being discussed.[80]

The Uprising and Civil War (2011–2012)

The 1932–1958 flag of Syria, first introduced by French colonial authorities, has been used as an opposition flag.[81][82][83][84] Initially instituted by decree of the High Commissioner of the French Republic in the Levant, Henri Ponsot.

The Syrian Uprising (Later known as the Syrian civil war) is an ongoing internal conflict between the Syrian army and the Free Syrian Army. The uprising, which was inspired by the Arab Spring Revolutions, began as a chain of peaceful protests around the country for democracy and political freedom, which was immediately followed by a government crackdown whereby the Syrian Army was deployed to quell the uprising, and several cities were besieged as a result.[85][86] According to witnesses, soldiers who refused to open fire on civilians were summarily executed by the Syrian Army.[87] The Syrian government denied reports of defections, and blamed armed groups for causing trouble.[88] In July 2011, army defectors near the Turkish-Syrian border declared the formation of the Free Syrian Army and began forming fighting units (with civilian volunteers joining their ranks soon afterwards), which began an insurgency campaign against the Syrian government starting in September 2011. Since September 2011, the FSA has largely focused on a decentralized command-and-control structure whereby fighting units are organized and controlled on the small and local level. The uprising, which began peacefully, has turned into a sectarian civil war, though neither faction in the conflict has described sectarianism as playing a major role. The opposition is dominated by Sunni Muslims, whereas the leading government figures are Alawites.[89]

According to various sources, including the United Nations, up to 9,100–11,000 people have been killed, primarily protesters but also including 2,470–3,500 armed combatants.[90][91][92] According to the Syrian government, 5,700–6,400 people, including 2,000–2,500 members of the security forces, more than 800 insurgents and more than 3,000 civilians, have been killed in fighting with what they describe as armed groups.[93] The United Nations reported that over 400 children have been killed.[94][95][96][97] Syria's government has dismissed this, characterizing claims from UN officials as being based on false news reports that originate from opposition groups.[98] Additionally, over 600 detainees and political prisoners have died under torture.[99] Another 400 children have been reportedly arrested and tortured in Syrian prisons.[100] With the most prominent case being that of Hamza Al-Khateeb. According to the UN, about 1.2 million Syrians have been internally displaced within the country.[101] To escape the violence, over 355,000 Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries of Jordan,[102] Iraq,[103] Lebanon, and Turkey.[101][104]

Overall, both sides have been accused of human rights abuses, although the majority of abuses have been committed by the government.[105]

The Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the United States of America, the EU states, the GCC states, and other countries have condemned the use of violence against the protesters. China and Russia have avoided condemning the government or applying sanctions under the pretext of seeking to avoid foreign intervention, although China has — unlike Russia — sought to engage with the Syrian opposition.[106] The Arab League suspended Syria's membership over the government's response to the crisis, and sent an observer mission as part of its proposal for peaceful resolution of the crisis.[8] The Organization of Islamic Cooperation also subsequently suspended Syria's membership.[9]

In late June 2012 high-ranking military and political personnel, such as Manaf Tlas [107] and Nawaf al-Fares started joining the defection waves. Nawaf al-Fares stated in a video that his defection was in response to crimes against humanity that Assad had been committing.[108]

On 21 August 2012, the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil said the Syrian government is prepared to discuss the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad.[109]

Politics and government

Syria is formally a unitary republic. The constitution adopted in 2012 effectively transformed Syria into a semi-presidential republic due to the constitutional right for individuals to be elected which do not form part of the National Progressive Front.[110] The President is Head of State and the Prime Minister is Head of Government.[111] The Peoples Council is the Syria's legislature responsible for passing laws, approving government appropriations and debating policy.[112] While presidency is an independent office, the Government of Syria is subject to the confidence of the Peoples Council in order to govern. In the event of a vote of no confidence by a simple majority, the Prime Minister is required to tender the resignation of their government to the President.[113]

Branches of government

The executive branch consists of the president, two vice presidents, the prime minister, and the Council of Ministers (cabinet). The constitution requires the president to be a Muslim[114] but does not make Islam the state religion.

The constitution gives the president the right to appoint ministers, to declare war and state 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.[115] According to the 2012 constitution, the president is elected by Syrian citizens in a direct election.

Syria's legislative branch is the unicameral People's Council. Under the previous constitution, Syria did not hold multi-party elections for the legislature,[115] with two thirds of the seats automatically allocated to the ruling coalition.[116] On 7 May 2012, Syria held its first elections in which parties outside the ruling coalition could take part. Seven new political parties took part in the elections, of which Popular Front for Change and Liberation was the largest opposition party. The armed anti-government rebels, however, chose not to field candidates and called on their supporters to boycott the elections.

Syria's judicial branches include the Supreme Constitutional Court, the High Judicial Council, the Court of Cassation, and the State Security Courts. Islamic jurisprudence is a main source of legislation and Syria's judicial system has elements of Ottoman, French, and Islamic laws. Syria has three levels of courts: courts of first instance, courts of appeals, and the constitutional court, the highest tribunal. Religious courts handle questions of personal and family law.[115] The Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) was abolished by President Bashar al-Assad by legislative decree No. 53 on 21 April 2011.[117]

Political parties

Article 8 of the old Syrian constitution stated that "the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party leads the state and society." The 2012 constitution does not contain this provision any longer. The President is the Secretary-General of the party, and the leader of the National Progressive Front governing coalition. The minor parties in the coalition are the Arab Socialist Movement, Arab Socialist Union, Communist Party of Syria (Unified), Communist Party of Syria (Bakdash), Social Democratic Unionists, Socialist Unionists, Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Democratic Socialist Unionist Party, Arabic Democratic Unionist Party, National Vow Movement. Outside of the coalition are 14 illegal political parties.[118]

State control

Nearly all of Syria’s radio and television outlets are state owned, and the Ba'ath Party controls nearly all newspapers.[119] The authorities operate several intelligence agencies[120] among them Shu'bat al-Mukhabarat al-'Askariyya, employing a large number of operatives.[121]

The Emergency Law, effectively suspending most constitutional protections, was in effect from 1963 until 21 April 2011.[117] It was justified by the government in the light of the continuing war with Israel over the Golan Heights.

Human rights

Syria's human rights situation is currently among the worst in the world, according to human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch.[122] Freedom House ranked Syria "Not Free" in its annual Freedom in the World survey.[123]

The authorities are accused of arresting democracy and human rights activists, censoring websites, detaining bloggers, and imposing travel bans. Arbitrary detention, torture, and disappearances are widespread.[124] Although Syria's constitution guarantees gender equality, critics say that personal statutes laws and the penal code discriminate against women and girls. Moreover, it also grants leniency for so-called 'Honour killing'.[124] As of 9 November 2011 during the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, the United Nations reported that of the over 3500 total deaths, over 250 deaths were children as young as 2 years old, and that boys as young as 11 years old have been gang raped by security services officers.[125][126] People opposing President Assad's rule claim that more than 200, mostly civilians, were massacred and about 300 injured in Hama in shelling by the Government forces on 12 July 2012.[127]

Administrative divisions


Syria is divided into fourteen governorates, or muhafazat (singular: muhafazah). The governorates are divided into a total of sixty-one districts, or manatiq (singular mintaqah), which are further divided into sub-districts, or nawahi (singular nahiyah).

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. Most of the Quneitra Governorate has been unilaterally annexed by Israel as the Golan Heights territory.

Damascus is the capital city of Syria. Latakia along with Tartus are Syria's main ports on the Mediterranean sea. Other major cities include Aleppo in northern Syria, Hama in central Syria, Homs in the south of Hama and Deir ez-Zor on the Euphrates river in eastern Syria.


Syrian soldier wearing a Soviet-made Model ShMS nuclear-biological-chemical warfare mask aiming a Chinese Type-56 assault rifle

The President of Syria is commander in chief of the Syrian armed forces, comprising some 400,000 troops upon mobilization. The military is a conscripted force; males serve in the military upon reaching the age of 18.[128] The obligatory military service period is being decreased over time, in 2005 from two and a half years to two years, in 2008 to 21 months and in 2011 to year and a half.[129] About 20,000 Syrian soldiers were deployed in Lebanon until 27 April 2005, when the last of Syria's troops left the country after three decades.[128]

The breakup of the Soviet Union — long the principal source of training, material, and credit for the Syrian forces — may have slowed Syria's ability to acquire modern military equipment. It has an arsenal of surface-to-surface missiles. In the early 1990s, Scud-C missiles with a 500-kilometer range were procured from North Korea, and Scud-D, with a range of up to 700 kilometers, is allegedly being developed by Syria with the help of North Korea and Iran, according to Zisser.[130]

Syria received significant financial aid from Persian Gulf Arab states as a result of its participation in the Persian Gulf War, with a sizable portion of these funds earmarked for military spending.

Foreign relations

Syrian–Turkish dispute over İskenderun (Hatay)

In 1938 Republic of Hatay became independent from the French mandate of Syria as the Republic of Hatay and following a referendum, 8 months later in 1939, it decided to join Turkey. This self-annexation was never recognized by Syria, which continues to show the Hatay Province of Turkey as part of Syria's territory on maps.[131]

Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights

The Golan Heights is a strategic plateau and mountainous region in southwestern Syria. Two-thirds of the area is currently occupied by Israel. It comprises 1,850 square kilometres (714 sq mi) and includes mountains reaching an altitude of 2,880 metres (9,449 ft) above sea level.

The heights dominate the plains below. The Jordan River, Lake Tiberias and the Hula Valley border the region on the west. To the east is the Raqqad Valley and the south is Yarmok River and valley. The northern boundary of the region is the mountain Jabal al-Sheikh (Mount Hermon), one of the highest in Southwest Asia.

An agreement to establish a demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria was signed on 20 July 1949,[132] but border clashes continued. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. Between 80,000 and 109,000 of the inhabitants fled, mostly Druze and Circassians.[133][134]

In 1973, Syria tried to regain control of the Golan Heights in a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.[135] Despite initial Syrian advances and heavy Israeli losses, the Golan Heights remained in Israeli hands after a successful Israeli counterattack.

Syria and Israel signed an armistice agreement in 1974, and a United Nations observer force was stationed there. Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, although the Syrian government continues to demand the return of this territory, possibly in the context of a peace treaty. In 1982, Druze in the Golan Heights started a strike against the annexation of the territory. The strike lasted for six months and as a result the Israeli army sealed off Druze villages, allowing only those who wished to work in Israel to leave.[136] Israel has offered the Druze citizens in the Golan Heights an Israeli citizenship after the annexation of the Golan Heights, but most of them have refused the Israeli citizenship.[137]

After the Six-Day War, a population of 20,000 Syrians remained in the Golan Heights, most of them Druze. Since 2005, Israel has allowed Druze apple farmers in the Golan to sell their produce to Syria. In 2006, the export total reached 8,000 tons of apples.[138] Syrian residents of the Golan are also permitted to study at universities in Syria, where they are entitled to free tuition, books and lodging.[139]

Syrian occupation of Lebanon

The Syrian occupation of Lebanon began in 1976 as a result of the civil war and ended in April 2006 in response to domestic and international pressure after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri.

In January 1976, Syrian proposal to restore the limits to the Palestinian guerrilla presence in Lebanon, that had been in place prior to the outbreak of the civil war, was welcomed by Maronites and conservative Muslims, but rejected by the Palestinian guerrillas and their Lebanese Druze-led and leftist allies. To deal with the opposition posed by this latter grouping which was normally allied with Syria, in June 1976, Syria dispatched Palestinian units under its control in Lebanon, and soon sent its own troops as well. Syrian claims these interventions came in response to appeals from Christian villagers under attack by the leftists.

By October 1976, Syria had caused significant damage to the strength of the leftists and their Palestinian allies, but at a meeting of the Arab League, it was forced to accept a ceasefire. The League ministers decided to expand an existing small Arab peacekeeping force in Lebanon, but it grew to be a large deterrent force consisting almost entirely of Syrian troops. The Syrian military intervention was thus legitimized and received subsidies from the Arab League for its activities.[140] Analyzing whether and when the Syrian presence was a military occupation under international law, Gerhard von Glahn claimed that the mandate of the Force was renewed several times before it officially expired on 27 July 1982. The Lebanese government refused to request that the mandate be renewed by the Arab League and instead, in September 1986, Lebanon requested an end to the Syrian presence. Hence, according to von Glahn, it appeared that lacking legal authority from both Lebanon and the Arab League, Syria's military forces had to be regarded henceforth as illegal occupants of Lebanon."[141]

In 1989, at the final accords of the civil war, two rival administrations were formed in Lebanon: a military one under Aoun in East Beirut and a civilian one under Selim el-Hoss based in West Beirut; the latter gained the support of the Syrians. Aoun opposed the Syrian presence in Lebanon, citing the 1982 UN Security Council Resolution 520.[142] In the resulting "War of Liberation", which erupted in March 1989, Aoun's forces were defeated and he himself exiled from Lebanon. In 1991, a Treaty of "Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination", signed between Lebanon and Syria, legitimized the Syrian military presence in Lebanon. It stipulated that Lebanon would not be made a threat to Syria's security and that Syria was responsible for protecting Lebanon from external threats. In September that same year a Defense and Security Pact was enacted between the two countries.[143]

Following the assassination of the Lebanese ex-premier Rafik Hariri in 2005, and an alleged involvement of Syria in his death a public uprising nicknamed Cedar Revolution had swept the country. With the consequent adoption of UN resolution 1559, Syria was forced to announce its full withdrawal from Lebanon on 30 April 2006.[144]


Olive trees field in Syria. Agriculture in Syria

Central Bank of Syria

Syria is a middle-income country, with an economy based on agriculture, oil, industry, and tourism. As of 2012, Syria's oil and tourism industries in particular have been devastated, with $5 billion USD lost to the ongoing conflict of the civil war.[145] However, Syria's economy faces serious problems and challenges and impediments to growth, including: a large and poorly performing public sector; declining rates of oil production; widening non-oil deficit; widespread corruption; weak financial and capital markets; and high rates of unemployment tied to a high population growth rate.[32] Reconstruction needed due to the ongoing civil war will cost as much as $10 billion USD.[145]

As a result of its political isolation which includes significant economic sanctions from the Arab League, EU and the US, Syria has low rates of investment, and low levels of industrial and agricultural productivity. Syria's GDP declined by over 3% in 2011,[146] and is expected to further decline by over 8% in 2012.[145] The two main pillars of the Syrian economy have been agriculture and oil. Agriculture, for instance, accounts for 17.7% of GDP and employs 17% of the total labor force. Prior to the civil war in 2011, 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. The government began to institute economic reforms aimed at liberalizing most markets, but those reforms were slow and ad hoc, and have been completely reversed since the outbreak of conflict in 2011.[147] For ideological reasons, privatization of government enterprises is explicitly rejected. Therefore major sectors of the economy including refining, ports operation, air transportation, power generation, and water distribution, remain firmly controlled by the government.[32]

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 Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria. Syria's rate of oil production has decreased dramatically from a peak close to 600,000 barrels per day (95,000 m3/d) (bpd) in 1995 down to less than 140,000 bbl/d (22,000 m3/d) in 2012.[148] Syria exported roughly 200,000 bbl/d (32,000 m3/d) in 2005, and oil still accounts for a majority of the country's export income. Syria also produces 22 million cubic meters of gas per day, with estimated reserves around 8.5 trillion cubic feet (240 km3). While the government has begun to work with international energy companies in the hopes of eventually becoming a gas exporter, all gas currently produced is consumed domestically.[32]

Some basic commodities, such as diesel, continue to be heavily subsidized, and social services are provided for nominal charges. The subsidies are becoming harder to sustain as the gap between consumption and production continues to increase. Syria has a population of approximately 22.2 million people, and Syrian Government figures place the population growth rate at 2.45%, with 75% of the population under the age of 35 and more than 40% under the age of 15.

Approximately 200,000 people enter the labor market every year. According to Syrian Government statistics. Government and public sector employees constitute over one quarter of the total labor force. Government officials acknowledge that the economy is not growing at a pace sufficient to create enough new jobs annually to match population growth. The UNDP announced in 2005 that 30% of the Syrian population lives in poverty and 11.4% live below the subsistence level.[32]

Foreign trade

Given the policies adopted from the 1960s through the late 1980s, which included nationalization of companies and private assets, Syria failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy. Syria withdrew from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1951 because of Israel's accession. It is not a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), although it submitted a request to begin the accession process in 2001. Syria is developing regional free trade agreements. As of 1 January 2005, the Greater Arab Free Trade Area (GAFTA) came into effect and customs duties were eliminated between Syria and all other members of GAFTA.

In addition, Syria has signed a free trade agreement with Turkey, which came into force in January 2007, and initialed an Association Agreement with the European Union, which has yet to be signed. Although Syria claims a recent boom in non-oil exports, its trade numbers are notoriously inaccurate and out-of-date. Syria's main exports include crude oil, refined products, raw cotton, clothing, fruits, and grains. The bulk of Syrian imports are raw materials essential for industry, vehicles, agricultural equipment, and heavy machinery. Earnings from oil exports as well as remittances from Syrian workers are the government's most important sources of foreign exchange.[32] As of 2012, due to the ongoing Syrian civil war, the value of Syria's overall exports has been slashed by two thirds, from the figure of $12 billion USD in 2010 to only $4 billion USD in 2012.[145]

Export Trading Partners. From MIT/Harvard MIT/Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity

MIT/Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity


Syria has three international airports (Damascus, Aleppo and Lattakia), which serve as hubs for Syrian Air and are also served by a variety of foreign carriers.[149]

The majority of Syrian cargo is carried by Chemins de Fer Syriens (the Syrian railway company), which links up with Turkish State Railways (the Turkish counterpart). For a relatively under developed country Syria's railway infrastructure is well maintained with many express services and modern trains.[150]


Population in Syria[151][152]
Year Million
1971 6.6
1990 12.7
2009 21.9
Source: OECD/World Bank/UNO

Most people live in the Euphrates River valley and along the coastal plain, a fertile strip between the coastal mountains and the desert. Overall population density in Syria is about 99 per km² (258 per square mile). According to the World Refugee Survey 2008, published by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Syria hosted a population of refugees and asylum seekers number approximately 1,852,300. The vast majority of this population was from Iraq (1,300,000), but sizeable populations from the former British Mandate of Palestine (543,400) and Somalia (5,200) also lived in the country.[153]

Education is free and compulsory from ages 6 to 12. 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 90.7% for males and 82.2% for females.[154][155]

Largest cities

Ethnic groups

Couple of Bedouins and Jewish woman in Aleppo, 1873

Syrians are an overall indigenous Levantine people, closely related to their immediate neighbours, like Lebanese people, Palestinians, and Jordanians.[156][157]

Syrian Arabs, together with some 400,000 UNRWA Palestinian Arabs make up over 90% of the population.[2]

Druze number around 500,000, and concentrate mainly in the southern area of Jabal al-Druze.[158]

Syria also hosts non-Arab ethnic minorities. The largest of these groups, Kurds, constitutes about 9% of the population, or approximately 2 million people.[159] Most Kurds reside in the northeastern corner of Syria and most speak the Kurmanji variant of the language.

The majority of Syrian Turkmen live in Aleppo, Damascus and Latakia and number around 500,000-1,000,000.[160]

The Assyrians/Syriacs are a significant ethnic Christian minority that mainly live in the north and northeast (Homs, Aleppo, Qamishli, Hasakah) and number around 877,000 in Syria. many of whom still retains several Neo- dialects, as spoken languages.[161] Their numbers have been boosted by many Iraqi refugees since the Iraq War.[162]

Armenians number approximately 190,000. Syria holds the 7th largest population in the world.

In addition, approximately 1,300,000 Iraqi refugees were estimated to live in Syria in 2007. Roughly 50% of these refugees were Sunni Arab Muslims, 24% Shi'a Arab Muslim, and 20% Christian.[153] During the Mandate years, there was a significant French population, many of whom left Syria after the end of French rule. As of 1987, approximately 100,000 Circassians lived in Syria.[163]

The Americas have long been a destination for Christian Arab migration, with Syrians arriving in some countries at least as early as the 19th century. The largest concentration of Syrians outside the Arab world is in Brazil, which has millions of people of Arab ancestry.[164] The majority of Arab Argentines are from either Lebanese or Syrian background.[165]


Sunni account for 74% of the population,[166] while 13% are Shia (Alawite, Twelvers, and Ismailis combined),[166] 10% Christian[166] (the majority Antiochian Orthodox, the rest include Greek Catholic, Assyrian Church of the East, Orthodox, Protestants and other denominations), and 3% Druze.[166]

Great Mosque of Aleppo, Aleppo

President Bashar Al-Assad's family is Alawite and Alawites dominate the government of Syria and hold key military positions.[167]

Christians (2.5 million), a sizable number of which are found among Syria's population of Palestinian refugees, are divided into several groups. Chalcedonian Antiochian Orthodox make up 35,7% of the Christian population; the Catholics (Melkite, Catholic, Syriac Catholic, Maronite, Chaldean Catholic and Latin) make up 26,2%; the Apostolic Church 10,9%, the Syrian Orthodox make up 22,4%; Assyrian Church of the East and several smaller Christian denominations account the remainder. Many Christian monasteries also exist. Many Christian Syrians belong to a high socio-economic class.[168]


Arabic is the official language. Several modern Arabic dialects are used in everyday life, most notably Levantine in the west, Mesopotamian in the northeast. (in its Kurmanji form) is widely spoken in the regions of Syria. and Turkish (South Azeri dialect) are spoken among the and Turkmen minorities. Before the advent of Arabic, was the lingua franca of the region and is still spoken among Assyrians and Classical Syriac is still used as the liturgical language of various Syriac denominations. Most remarkably, Western Neo- is still spoken in the village of Ma`loula as well as two neighbouring villages, 35 miles (56 km) northeast of Damascus. Many educated Syrians also speak English and French.


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

  • 1st to 4th grade: Basic Education Level I (Arabic: التعليم الأساسي: حلقة أولى‎)
  • 5th to 9th grade: Basic Education Level II (Arabic: التعليم الأساسي: حلقة ثانية‎)
  • 10th to 12th grade: Secondary Education (Arabic: التعليم الثانوي‎), the equivalent of high school.

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

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

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

Colleges charge modest fees ($10–20 a year) if the student achieves the sufficient marks in his Baccalaureate exams. If not, the student may opt to pay higher fees ($1500–4000) to enroll. There are some private schools and colleges but their fees are much higher.

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

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

Since 1967, all schools, colleges, and universities have been under close government supervision by the Ba'ath Party.[169]

There are 6 state universities in Syria,[170] and 15 private universities.[171] The top two state universities are University of Damascus (180,000 students),[172] and University of Aleppo.[173] and the top private universities in Syria are: Syrian Private University, Arab International University, University of Kalamoon and International University for Science and Technology. There are also many Higher Institutes in Syria like the Higher Institute of Business Administration (HIBA) which offer undergraduate and graduate programs in Business.[174] You can check this article for the full list of the Syrian Universities.[175]


Eggelin Tomb Tower in Palmyra

The scribes of the city of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) created a cuneiform alphabet in the 14th century BC. The alphabet was written in the familiar order we use today.[176]

Archaeologists have discovered extensive writings and evidence of a culture rivaling those of Iraq, and Egypt in and around the ancient city of Ebla (modern Tell Mardikh).[177] Later Syrian scholars and artists contributed to Hellenistic and Roman thought and culture. Cicero was a pupil of Antiochus of Ascalon[178] at Athens; and the writings of Posidonius of Apamea[179] influenced Livy and Plutarch.

Philip Hitti claimed, "the scholars consider Syria as the teacher for the human characteristics", and Andrea Parrot the French archaeologist and main discoverer and excavator of the Mari State 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.[180] 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 Dabkeh in all their variations and the sword dance. Marriage ceremonies and the birth of children are occasions for the lively demonstration of folk customs.[181]

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.[181]

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 grays and browns.[182]

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 19th century. Prominent contemporary Syrian writers include, among others, Adonis, Muhammad Maghout, Haidar Haidar, Ghada al-Samman, Nizar Qabbani and Zakariyya Tamer.

There was a private sector presence in the Syrian cinema industry until the end of the 1970s, but private investment has since preferred the more lucrative television serial business. Syrian soap operas, in a variety of styles (all melodramatic, however), have considerable market penetration throughout the eastern Arab world.[183]

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

Television in Syria

It was formed in 1960, when Syria and Egypt (which adopted television that same year) were part of the United Arab Republic. It broadcasted in black and white until 1976.

The Arab League officially asked the satellite operators Arabsat and Nilesat to stop broadcasting Syrian media in June 2012.[184][185]

TV Channels in Syria:

Satellite Channels:

  • Addounia TV
  • Syria TV
  • Syria News Channel
  • Syrian Drama TV
  • Syrian Education TV
  • Sama TV
  • Talaqie TV
  • Cham TV
  • Noor Al-Sham
  • Syrian Medical TV
  • Massaya TV
  • Arrai TV

Terrestrial Channels:

  • Channel 1 (Terrestrial, with Arabic focus)
  • Channel 2 (Terrestrial, with sport, family and health focus including regional variants)


Fattoush, an example of Syrian cuisine

The Syrian cuisine is rich and varied in its ingredients and is linked to the region of Syria where a specific dish has originated. Syrian food mostly consists of Southern Mediterranean, Greek, and Southwest Asian dishes. Some Syrian dishes also evolved from Turkish and French cooking. Dishes like shish kebab, stuffed zucchini, yabra' (stuffed grape leaves, the word yapra' derıves from the Turkish word 'yaprak' meaning leaf).

The main dishes that form Syrian cuisine are kibbeh, hummus, tabbouleh, fattoush, labneh, shawarma, mujaddara, shanklish, pastırma, sujuk and baklava. Baklava is made of filo pastry filled with chopped nuts and soaked in honey. Syrians often serve selections of appetizers, known as meze, before the main course. za'atar, minced beef, and cheese manakish are popular hors d'œuvres. The Arabic flatbread khubz is always eaten together with meze.

Syrians are also well known for their cheese. The very popular string cheese jibbneh mashallale is made of curd cheese and is pulled and twisted together. Syrians also make cookies to usually accompany their cheese called ka'ak. These are made of farina and other ingredients, rolled out, shaped into rings and baked. Another form of a similar cookie is to fill with crushed dates mixed with butter to accompany their jibbneh mashallale.

Drinks in Syria vary depending on the time of the day and the occasion. Arabic coffee, also known as Turkish coffee is the most well-known hot drink usually prepared in the morning at breakfast or in the evening. It is usually served for guests or after food. Arak, an alcoholic drink, is also a well-known beverage served mostly on special occasions. More examples of Syrian beverages include Ayran, Jallab, White coffee, and a locally manufactured beer called Al Shark.[186]


Aleppo International Stadium

The most popular sports in Syria are football, basketball, swimming, and tennis. Damascus was home to the fifth and seventh Pan Arab Games. Many popular football teams are based in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, etc.

The Abbasiyyin Stadium in Damascus is home to the Syrian national football team. The team enjoyed some success, having qualified for four Asian Cup competitions. The team's first international was on 20 November 1949, losing to Turkey 7–0. The team was ranked 115th in the world by FIFA as of November 2011.


Asmahan born in As-Suwayda and emigrated to Egypt. One of few female voices in Arab music to rival that of Umm Kulthum[187]

Syria's capital, Damascus, has long been one of the Arab world's centers for cultural and artistic innovation, especially in the field of classical Arab music. Syria has also produced several pan-Arab stars, including Asmahan, Farid al-Atrash and singer Lena Chamamyan. The city of Aleppo is known for its muwashshah, a form of Andalous sung poetry popularized by Sabri Moudallal, as well as popular stars like Sabah Fakhri.

Also, Syria was one of the earliest centers of Christian hymnody, in a repertory known as Syrian chant, which continues to be the liturgical music of some of the various Syrian Christians.

There was formerly a distinctive tradition of Syrian Jewish religious music, which still flourishes in the Syrian-Jewish community of New York: see The Weekly Maqam, Baqashot and Pizmonim.


Syrian literature has been influenced by the literatures of other Arab countries, by French literature, and by the country's political history.

From early times to 1948

Under Ottoman rule, literary production was subjected to censorship. In the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th, aspiring Syrian writers often chose emigration, moving primarily to Egypt—where they contributed to al-Nahda, the renaissance of Arabic literature—and to the United States, developing Syrian literature from abroad.

From 1918 to 1926, while Syria was under French rule, French Romantic influences inspired Syrian authors, many of whom turned away from the traditional models of Arabic poetry.

From 1948 to the present day

In 1948, the partitioning of neighbouring Palestine and the establishment of Israel brought about a new turning point in Syrian writing. Adab al-Iltizam, the "literature of political commitment", deeply marked by social realism, mostly replaced the romantic trend of the previous decades. Hanna Mina, rejecting art for art's sake and confronting the social and political issues of his time, was arguably the most prominent Syrian novellist of this era. Following the Six-Day War in 1967, Adab al-Naksa, the "literature of defeat", grappled with the causes of the Arab defeat.

Ba'ath Party rule, since the 1966 coup, has brought about renewed censorship. As Hanadi Al-Samman puts it,

In the face of threats of persecution or imprisonment, most of Syria's writers had to make a choice between living a life of artistic freedom in exile-as do Nizar Kabbani, Ghada al-Samman, Hamida Na'na', Salim Barakat, and prominent poet, critic, and novelist 'Ali Ahmad Sa'id (Adonis)-or resorting to subversive modes of expression that seemingly comply with the demands of the authoritarian police state while undermining and questioning the legitimacy of its rule through subtle literary techniques and new genres.

In this context, the genre of the historical novel, spearheaded by Nabil Sulayman, Fawwaz Haddad, Khyri al-Dhahabi and Nihad Siris, is sometimes used as a means of expressing dissent, critiquing the present through a depiction of the past. Syrian folk narrative, as a subgenre of historical fiction, is imbued with magical realism, and is also used as a means of veiled criticism of the present. Salim Barakat, a Syrian émigré living in Sweden, is one of the leading figures of the genre.

Contemporary Syrian literature also encompasses science fiction and futuristic utopiae (Nuhad Sharif, Talib Umran), which may also serve as media of dissent.

Mohja Kahf has argued that literary dissent is typically expressed through the "poetics of Syrian silence":

The nostalgic, moist-eyed silences of Ulfat Idilbi's narrative could not be more different from the chilling, cynical silences in Zakaria Tamer's stories. The impassioned lacunae in Nizar Kabbani's proclaim exactly what it is they are not saying explicitly, while the poet Muhammad al-Maghut's silence is sardonic, sneering both at the authorities and at himself, at the futility and absurdity of the human situation under authoritarian rule.

Fairs and festivals

Festival/Fair City Month
Spring Festival of Hama Hama April
Flower Festival Latakia April
Assyrian New Year Festival Qamishli April
Nowruz Kurdish New Year Festival Qamishli 21 March
Traditional Festival Palmyra May
International Flower Fair Damascus May
Syrian Song Festival Aleppo July
Marmarita Festival Homs August
Farah bellah Murshdi festival August
Festival of le Crac des Chevaliers and the Valley for Arts&Culture Homs August
Vine Festival As Suwayda September
Cotton Festival Aleppo September
Damascus International Fair Damascus September
Festival of Love and Peace Lattakia 2–12 August
Bosra Festival Bosra September
Film and Theatre Festival Damascus November
Cultural Festival of Jableh Jableh July
Jasmine Festival Damascus April

Further reading

  • Dawisha, A. I. (1980). Syria and the Lebanese Crisis. ISBN 978-0-312-78203-0.
  • Fred H. Lawson, "Demystifying Syria"(Saqi Books, 2010)
  • Nikolaos van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Ba'ath Party (I. B. Tauris, 2011)
  • Paton, L. B. (1981). The Early History of Syria and Palestine. ISBN 978-1-113-53822-2.
  • Maoz, M.; A. Yaniv, ed. (1986). Syria Under Assad. ISBN 978-0-312-78206-1.
  • Seale, Patrick (1987). The Struggle for Syria. ISBN 978-0-300-03944-3.
  • Alfred Schlicht, The role of foreign powers in the history of Lebanon ands Syria from 1799 to 1861. In: Journal of Asian History 14 (1980).

More information

Airports99 (2012)
Borders WithIraq
Borders WithIsrael
Borders WithJordan
Borders WithLebanon
Borders WithTurkey
Coastline193 km
Coordinates35 00 N, 38 00 E
Ethnic GroupArab 90.3%
Ethnic GroupKurds
Ethnic GroupArmenians
Ethnic Groupand other 9.7%
Female Life Expectancy77.45 years (2012 est.)
Female Median Age22.5 years (2012 est.)
Fertility Rate2.85 children born/woman (2012 est.)
GDP$107.6 billion (2011 est.)
GDP$110.1 billion (2010 est.)
GDP$106.5 billion (2009 est.)
GDP Growth-2% (2011 est.)
GDP Growth3.4% (2010 est.)
GDP Growth5.9% (2009 est.)
Government typerepublic under an authoritarian regime
Highest PointMount Hermon 2,814 m
Land Area183,630 sq km
Land boundary2,253 km
LanguageArabic (official)
LanguageCircassian (widely understood); French
LanguageEnglish (somewhat understood)
LocationMiddle East, bordering the Mediterranean Sea, between Lebanon and Turkey
Lowest Pointunnamed location near Lake Tiberias -200 m
Male Life Expectancy72.53 years
Male Median Age22.1 years
Population Growth-0.797% (2012 est.)
Railways2,052 km
Roadways68,157 km
Terrainprimarily semiarid and desert plateau; narrow coastal plain; mountains in west
Total Area185,180 sq km
Total Life Expectancy74.92 years
Total Median Age22.3 years
Water Area1,550 sq km
Waterways900 km (navigable but not economically significant) (2011)


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General references

Neighboring countries

Important people