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Atlas Syria

Country (long form)
Syrian Arab Republic
Total Area
32,888.18 sq mi
85,180.00 sq km
16,305,659 (July 2000 est.)
Estimated Population in 2050
Arabic (official); Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, Circassian widely understood; French, English somewhat understood
70.8% total, 85.7% male, 55.8% female (1997 est.)
Sunni Muslim 74%, Alawite, Druze, and other Muslim sects 16%, Christian (various sects) 10%, Jewish (tiny communities in Damascus, Al Qamishli, and Aleppo)
Life Expectancy
67.35 male, 69.64 female (2000 est.)
Government Type
republic under military regime since March 1963
1 Syrian pound = 100 piastres
GDP (per capita)
$2,500 (1999 est.)
Labor Force (by occupation)
petroleum, textiles, food processing, beverages, tobacco, phosphate rock mining
petroleum, textiles, food processing, beverages, tobacco, phosphate rock mining
wheat, barley, cotton, lentils, chickpeas, olives, sugar beets; beef, mutton, eggs, poultry, milk
Arable Land
petroleum 65%, textiles 10%, manufactured goods 10%, fruits and vegetables 7%, raw cotton 5%, live sheep 2%, phosphates 1% (1998 est.)
machinery and equipment 23%, foodstuffs/animals 20%, metal and metal products 15%, textiles 10%, chemicals 10% (1998 est.)
Natural Resources
petroleum, phosphates, chrome and manganese ores, asphalt, iron ore, rock salt, marble, gypsum, hydropower
Current Environmental Issues
deforestation; overgrazing; soil erosion; desertification; water pollution from dumping of raw sewage and wastes from petroleum refining; inadequate supplies of potable water
Telephones (main lines in use)
930,000 (1995)
Telephones (mobile cellular)
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)

Historically, Syria included Jordan, Israel and Lebanon, as well as the area now known as Syria. Although the modern state of Syria is a creation of the 20th century, the region can lay claim to having one of the oldest civilisations in the world. The Mesopotamian Akkadians were the first to covet the area, followed by the Egyptians, a brief period of autonomy before the Hittites came to town. Evidence of the first alphabets have been found at the ancient site of Ugarit. The country was in a top strategic spot, and its coastal towns became important Phoenician trading posts. The region became a spoil of war for every neighbouring warmonger for over 400 years. Later, Syria was a pivotal part of the Persian, Greek, then Roman empires. When Byzantium went pear-shaped, the Islamic Umayyads (who for a time made Damascus the capital of the Muslim world) were followed in 750 by the Abbasids, who moved to Baghdad, starting a period of decline. The Crusaders arrived, bringing with them their patented brand of mayhem, until their defeat at the hands of Nureddin (Nur ad-Din), whose son, Saladin (Salah ad-Din), brought prosperity back to the region. They were followed by the Mamluks and Mongols until finally, in 1516, the Ottomans took over.

Syria prospered under Ottoman rule except for a brief period in the 19th century when the Egyptians came a-conquerin'. They were soon sent a-packin' and the Ottoman Turks dished it, along with Lebanon, out to France when the Turkish Empire broke up after WWI.

The Syrians weren't too pleased with this arrangement (they had been an independent nation from 1918-20) and staged an insurrection in 1925-26, which resulted in the French bombing Damascus.

In 1932, Syria had its first parliamentary elections, and although the candidates had been picked by the French, they refused to accept France's proposed constitution for the country. In 1939 France granted Turkey the Syrian province of Alexandretta, further sharpening feeling against the imperial overlords. France promised independence in 1941 but didn't come through with it until 1946.

Civilian rule didn't last long in Syria: in 1954, after several military coups, the Ba'athist section of the army took over the country. The Ba'ath Party was founded in 1940 by a Christian teacher and was committed to a form of pan-Arabism under which Syria would forfeit its sovereignty. This led to the formation of a United Arab Republic with Egypt in 1958, but several people thought this wasn't such a hot idea, and another series of military coups trundled across the country. By 1966 the Ba'ath were back in power, but the celebrations were curtailed by the 1967 Six Day War with Israel and the 1970 Black September hostilities with Jordan. While everyone was otherwise occupied, Defence Minister Hafez al-Assad seized power.

Since 1971 Assad has held onto the presidency with a mixture of ruthless suppression and guile, and used his position to manoeuvre Syria into a position of power negotiating the terms of peace in the Middle East. In 1999, he was elected to a fifth seven-year term with a predictable 99.9% of the vote. Although falling oil prices instigated much hand-wringing throughout the Middle East, Assad's astute exploitation of the Gulf War in the early 1990s brought improvements in the Syrian economy. During the war, Syria joined the anti-Iraq coalition, getting into the USA's good books in an effort to get off Washington's list of states supporting international terrorism.

In 1997, Syria was removed from the US list of drug-trafficking states, while Assad moved to strengthen ties with the fledgling EU, Turkey and the USA. Attempts to diversify the oil-reliant economy, primarily with investment in agricultural products, have had mixed success. In early 2000, US State Department officials discussed removing Syria from the terrorism list, admitting that even according to US intelligence, the country hadn't sponsored any terrorist activity since 1986. The chaotic withdrawal of Israeli troops from South Lebanon in May 2000, occuring under fire from the alledgedly Syrian-sponsored Hezbollah, would have probably delayed further talks under the best of circumstances. President Assad died 10 June 2000 and his son Bashir was sworn in for a seven-year term in July 2000.

Internationally, Syria's hardline stance vis-á-vis Israel over the return of the Golan Heights and alleged support for extremist organisations, such as Hezbollah, continues to stand in the way of improved relations with the West. As recently as 2002 US president George W Bush was tarring Syria with the accusation of being an associate of a perceived 'axis of evil'. European leaders though are taking a less hysterical approach and the UK's Tony Blair has been one of a number of key Western statesmen to visit Damascus in recent times.