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الجمهوريّة العربيّة السّوريّة
Al-Jumhūriyyaḧ al-ʻArabiyyaḧ as-Sūriyyaḧ (Arabic)
( In Detail) ( In Detail)
National motto: None
Official language Arabic
Spoken languages Arabic, Armenian, Kurdish, Aramaic, Adyghe, Turkish
Capital Damascus

33°30' N 36°18' E

President Bashar al-Assad
Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Otari
- Total
- % water
Ranked 87th
185,180 km²
- Total (2005)
- Density
Ranked 55th
100/km² ( 76th)
HDI (2003) 0.721 ( 106th) – medium
- Declared
- Recognition
From Vichy France
- January 1, 1944
- April 17, 1946
GDP Per capita: $1,378 (2003 est.), ranked 112th
Currency Syrian pound
Time zone UTC +2
National anthem Homat el Diyar
Internet TLD .sy
Calling Code 963

The Syrian Arab Republic ( Arabic: الجمهورية العربية السورية), or Syria ( Arabic:سوريا), is a country in the Middle East. It borders Lebanon to the west, Israel to the southwest, Jordan to the south, Iraq to the east, and Turkey to the north. Israel occupies the Golan Heights in the southwest of the country; a dispute with Turkey over the Hatay Province now seems to have subsided. Historically, Syria has often been taken to include the territories of Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and parts of Jordan, but excluding the Jazira region in the north-east of the modern Syrian state. In this historic sense, the region is also known as Greater Syria or by the Arabic name Bilad al-Sham.


The name Syria comes from the ancient Greek name for the land of Aram at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea between Egypt and Arabia to the south and Cilicia to the north, stretching inland to include Mesopotamia, and having an uncertain border to the northeast that Pliny the Elder describes as including from west to east Commagene, Sophene, and Adiabene, "formerly known as Assyria" ( N.H. 5.66). 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 (or " Judea" and later renamed Palestine in 135 AD-the region corresponding to the modern states of Israel and Jordan and the Palestinian territories) 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 Mesopotamia.


Archaeologists have demonstrated that Syria was the center of one of the most ancient civilizations on earth. Around the excavated city of Ebla in north-eastern Syria, discovered in 1975, a great Semitic empire spread from the Red Sea north to Turkey and east to Mesopotamia from 2500 to 2400 B.C. The city of Ebla alone during that time had a population estimated at 260,000. Scholars believe the language of Ebla to be the oldest Semitic language. Other notable cities excavated include Mari, Ugarit and Dura Europos.

Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites, Hebrews, Arameans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Armenians, Romans, Nabataeans, Byzantines, Arabs, 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, a city that has been inhabited as early as 8,000 to 10,000 BC is known to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (along with Varanasi, Aleppo and Jericho). 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 the borders of Central Asia from A.D. 661 to A.D. 750, when the Abbasid caliphate was established at Baghdad, Iraq.

Damascus became a provincial capital of the Mameluke 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

Ottoman control ended when the forces of the Arab revolt entered Damascus in 1918 towards the end of the First World War. An independent Arab Kingdom of Syria was established under King Faisal of the Hashemite family, who later became King of Iraq. However, his rule over Syria ended in July 1920 when French forces entered Syria to impose their League of Nations mandate. Following the Battle of Maysalun of 23 July between the Syrian army under Yusuf al-Azmeh and the French, the French army entered Damascus and Faisal was exiled. The period of the Mandate was marked by increasing nationalist sentiment and a number of brutally repressed revolts, but also by infrastructural modernisation and economic development.

With the fall of France in 1940, Syria came under the control of the Vichy Government until the United Kingdom 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, begun 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 elements to power.

Syria's political instability during the years after the 1954 coup, the 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.

The union was not a success, however. 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 floundered 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 a National Council of the Revolution (NCR), an appointed legislature 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 Hafez al-Assad effected a bloodless military coup, ousting the civilian party leadership and assuming the role of prime minister.

1970 to 2005

Consolidation of power

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 Ba'ath Socialist 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.

October war

Later in 1973, the October War broke out, with Syria attacking the Golan Heights to try and reclaim them from Israel. Despite some initial successes, at the end of the war Israel held the military advantage. Subsequent shuttle negotiations by Henry Kissinger resulted in Syria regaining control of part of the Golan, which the government portrayed as proof of victory. Since 1974, the Syrian-Israeli front has been quiet, with few disturbances of the cease-fire.

Involvement in Lebanon

In early 1976, the civil war in neighbouring Lebanon was going poorly for the Maronite Christians. Syria sent 40,000 troops into the country to prevent them from being overrun, but soon became embroiled in the Lebanese Civil War, beginning the 30 year Syrian presence in Lebanon. Over the following 15 years of civil war, Syria fought both for control over Lebanon, and as an attempt to undermine Israel in southern Lebanon, through extensive use of Lebanese allies as proxy fighters. Many see 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.

About one million Syrian workers came into Lebanon after the war ended to find jobs in the reconstruction of the country. Syrian workers were preferred over Palestinian and Lebanese workers because they could be paid lower wages, but some have argued that the Syrian government's encouragement of citizens entering its small and militarily dominated neighbour in search of work, was in fact an attempt at Syrian colonization of Lebanon. Now, the economies of Syria and Lebanon are completely interdependent. In 1994, under pressure from Damascus, the Lebanese government controversially granted citizenship to over 200,000 Syrians resident in the country. (For more on these issues, see Demographics of Lebanon)

Opposition and repression

The authoritarian regime was not without its critics, though most were quickly dealt with. 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 archconservative 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. Since then, public manifestations of anti-regime activity have been very limited. A challenge from within the regime came in 1984, when Hafez was hospitalized after a heart attack. His brother Rifaat then attempted to seize power using internal security forces under his control. Despite his poor health, Hafez managed to assert control and sent Rifaat into exile.

Gulf war

Syria's 1991 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 West. Syria participated in the multilateral Middle East 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 Syrian-Israeli talks since President Hafez Al-Assad's meeting with then President Bill Clinton in Geneva in March 2000.

Death and succession of Hafez al-Assad

Hafez Al-Assad died on June 10, 2000, after 30 years in power. Within a few hours following Al-Assad's death, the Parliament amended the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34 years old, which allowed his son, Bashar al-Assad legally to be eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba'ath party. On July 10, 2000, Bashar Al-Assad was elected President by referendum in which he ran unopposed, supposedly garnering 97.29% of the vote.

2000 to 2005

In his inauguration speech delivered at the People's Council on July 17, 2000, Bashar Al-Assad promised political and democratic reform. 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). Enthusiasm faded quickly as the government cracked down on civil forums and reform activists, but there was still a notable liberalization compared to the totalitarianism of Hafez. The lifting of bans on Internet access, mobile telephones and the spread of computer technology has had a great impact on the previously isolated Syrian society, and the secret police's presence in society has been eased. Today there exists a small but growing number of dissident intellectuals, as well as several formally illegal opposition parties. However, government power rests firmly in the hands of the Ba'ath, and police surveillance and occasional crackdowns keeps opposition activities limited.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Syrian government began limited cooperation with U.S. in the global war against terrorism. However, Syria opposed the Iraq war in March 2003, and bilateral relations with the U.S. 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, end its military and security presence in Lebanon, cease its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and meet its obligations under US interpretation of 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 items on the U.S. Munitions List and Commerce Control List, 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 government entities.

The European Union uses a method to bring about change in Syria that can be likened to soft power, using neither military nor economic force. Now that there is a good chance that Turkey will join the EU, Syria would border the EU. At present it can not join as a full member, but economic treaties are possible. However, for these, the EU has certain requirements, which would necessitate changes to take place, most notably in the fields of democracy and human rights. At the moment there are negotiations on an Association Agreement, which would liberalize mutual trade. Syria is required to make certain political and economic reforms in order for this process to come into effect.

The events from 2005

On February 14, 2005, Rafik Hariri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, was killed by a car bomb. Many members of the Lebanese opposition and international observers alleged that Hariri was assassinated by Syria. Popular protests soon arose, composed primarily of Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims, demanding the resignation of the government led by Omar Karami, as well as the withdrawal of all Syrian troops and intelligence operatives. On February 28, 2005, Karami's government resigned, although he was reappointed a few days later. On March 5, 2005, after intense international pressure, president Bashar al-Assad of Syria made a speech before the Syrian Parliament, where he announced that Syria would complete a full withdrawal from Lebanon by May of 2005.

Syria withdrew from Lebanon on April 26, 2005. After two UN investigations (the FitzGerald Report and the Mehlis report) implicated Syrian officials in the Hariri slaying, the Assad regime entered a turbulent period, the seriousness of the crisis signalled by the death of interior minister Ghazi Kanaan, as well as Western threats of economic sanctions.

However, in December 2005 the UN's case against Syria came under serious scrutiny as questions were raised about the credibility of several of the main witnesses of the Mehlis investigation. These events also prompted a debate on Syrian witness intimidation, in preparation for the final report of Mehlis, whose mandate expired on December 15, 2005. [1]


Politics - Politics portal


This article is part of the series:
Politics and government of

  • Constitution
  • President
    • Bashar al-Assad
  • Prime Minister
    • Muhammad Naji al-Otari
  • Political parties
    • Baath Party
  • Elections
  • Foreign relations

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria

Officially, Syria is a parliamentary republic. Critics allege, however, it is an authoritarian regime that exhibits only the forms of a democratic system. Although citizens ostensibly vote for the President and members of Parliament, they do not have the right to change their government. The late President Hafez al-Assad was confirmed by unopposed referenda five times. His son, Bashar al-Assad, also was confirmed by an unopposed referendum in July 2000.

The Assad regime has held power since 1970, when it took control over the already Baath-run government in a coup labeled The Corrective Revolution. Assad's regime's survival is due partly to a strong desire for stability and the regime's success in giving groups such as religious minorities and peasant farmers a stake in society. The expansion of the government bureaucracy has also created a large class loyal to the regime. The President's continuing strength is due also to the army's continued loyalty and the overbearing presence of Syria's large and ruthless internal security apparatus. Another important factor is nationalism, with the Syrians rallying around the regime to counter what they perceive as American, Israeli and (during the Saddam Hussein years) Iraqi aggression. Also, many critics of the regime still have hopes for more wide-ranging political reform under the younger al-Assad, but despite government propaganda encouraging these tendencies, it remains uncertain if he is willing or capable to deliver on his promises.

All three branches of government are guided by the views of the Ba'ath Party, whose primacy in state institutions is assured by the constitution. In addition, six other 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. While created ostensibly 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. The Ba'ath Party dominates the Parliament, which is known as the People's Council (majlis ash-sha'b). Elected every four years, the Council has no independent authority. Although parliamentarians may criticize policies and modify draft laws, they cannot initiate laws, and the executive branch retains ultimate control over the legislative process. It essentially functions as a rubber-stamp for the executive authority.

There was a surge of interest in political reform after Bashar al-Assad 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).


The Syrian constitution vests the Arab Ba'ath Socialist 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, also is Secretary General of the Ba'ath Party and leader of the National Progressive Front. 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. Along with the National Progressive Front, the president decides issues of war and peace and approves the state's 5-year economic plans. The National Progressive Front also acts as a forum in which economic policies are debated and the country's political orientation is determined.


Syria has fourteen governorates, or muhafazat (singular: muhafazah). 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. Note that parts of the Quneitra governorate is under Israeli occupation since 1967 (see Golan Heights).

  1. Damascus
  2. Rif Dimashq
  3. Quneitra
  4. Dara
  5. As Suwayda
  6. Homs
  7. Tartous
  8. Latakia
  1. Hama
  2. Idlib
  3. Aleppo
  4. Ar Raqqah
  5. Dayr az Zawr
  6. Al Hasakah


Satellite image of Syria with borders drawn in
Satellite image of Syria with borders drawn in
Map of Syria
Map of Syria
Eggelin Tomb Tower
Eggelin Tomb Tower
Damascus at night
Damascus at night
Saladin's grave in Damascus
Saladin's grave in Damascus
The Umayyad Mosque courtyard, Damascus
The Umayyad Mosque courtyard, Damascus
Hama, Syria - a minaret of Al Nouri mosque
Hama, Syria - a minaret of Al Nouri mosque
Aleppo Citadel
Aleppo Citadel
Apamea, Syria
Apamea, Syria

Syria consists mostly of arid plateau, although the northwest part of the country bordering the Mediterranean is fairly green. 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 Humanity".

Major cities include the capital Damascus in the southwest, Aleppo in the north, and Homs. Most of the other important cities are located along the coast line. (See also List of cities in Syria.)

The climate in Syria is dry and hot, although winters are mild. Because of the country's elevation, snowfall does occasionally occur during winter.


Syria is a middle-income, developing country with a diversified economy based on agriculture, industry, and energy. During the 1960s, citing its state socialist ideology, the government nationalized most major enterprises and adopted economic policies designed to address regional and class disparities. This legacy of state intervention and price, trade, and foreign exchange controls still hampers economic growth, although the government has begun to revisit many of these policies, especially in the financial sector and the country's trade regime. Despite a number of significant reforms and ambitious development projects of the early 1990s, as well as more modest reform efforts currently underway, Syria's economy still is slowed by large numbers of poorly performing public sector firms, low investment levels, and relatively low industrial and agricultural productivity.

Despite the mitigation of the severe drought that plagued the region in the late 1990s and the recovery of energy export revenues, Syria's economy faces serious challenges. With almost 60% of its population under the age of 20, unemployment higher than the current estimated range of 20%-25% is a real possibility unless sustained and strong economic growth takes off. Oil production has levelled off, but recent agreements allowing increased foreign investment in the petroleum sector may boost production in two to three years.

Taken as a whole, Syrian economic reform thus far has been incremental and gradual, with privatization not even on the distant horizon. The government, however, has begun to address structural deficiencies in the economy such as the lack of a modern financial sector through changes to the legal and regulatory environment. In 2001, Syria legalized private banking. In 2004, four private banks began operations. In August 2004, a committee was formed to supervise the establishment of a stock market. Beyond the financial sector, the Syrian Government has enacted major changes to |rental and tax laws, and is reportedly considering similar changes to the commercial code and to other laws, which impact property rights.

Commerce has always been important to the Syrian economy, which benefited from the country's location along major east-west trade routes. Syrian cities boast both traditional industries such as weaving and dried-fruit packing and modern heavy industry. Given the policies adopted from the 1960s through the late 1980s, Syria failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy. In late 2001, however, Syria submitted a request to the World Trade Organization to begin the accession process. Syria had been an original contracting party of the former General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade but withdrew in 1951 because of Israel's joining. Major elements of current Syrian trade rules would have to change in order to be consistent with the WTO. Syria is intent on signing an Association Agreement with the European Union that would entail significant trade liberalization.

The bulk of Syrian imports have been raw materials essential for industry, agriculture, equipment, and machinery. Major exports include crude oil, refined products, raw cotton, clothing, fruits, and cereal grains. Earnings from oil exports are one of the government's most important sources of foreign exchange.

Of Syria's 72,000 square miles (186,000 km²), roughly one-third is arable, with 80% of cultivated areas dependent on rainfall for water. In recent years, the agriculture sector has recovered from years of government inattentiveness and drought. Most farms are privately owned, but the government controls important elements of marketing and transportation.

The government has redirected its economic development priorities from industrial expansion into the agricultural sectors in order to achieve food self-sufficiency, enhance export earnings, and stem rural migration. Thanks to sustained capital investment, infrastructure development, subsidies of inputs, and price supports, Syria has gone from a net importer of many agricultural products to an exporter of cotton, fruits, vegetables, and other foodstuffs. One of the prime reasons for this turnaround has been the government's investment in huge irrigation systems in northern and northeastern Syria, part of a plan to increase irrigated farmland by 38% over the next decade.

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 az Zawr in eastern Syria. This discovery relieved Syria of the need to import light oil to mix with domestic heavy crude in refineries. Recently, Syrian oil production has been about 530,000 barrels per day. Although its oil reserves are small compared to those of many other Arab states, Syria's petroleum industry accounts for a majority of the country's export income. The government has successfully begun to work with international energy companies to develop Syria's promising natural gas reserves, both for domestic use and export. U.S. energy firm, ConocoPhillips, completed a large natural gas gathering and production facility for Syria in late 2000, and will continue to serve as operator of the plant until December 2005. In 2003, Syria experienced some success in attracting U.S. Petroleum companies, signing an exploration deal with partners Devon Energy and Gulfsands and a seismic survey contract with Veritas.

Ad hoc economic liberalization continues to provide hope to Syria's private sector. In 1990, the government established an official parallel exchange rate (neighboring country rate) to provide incentives for remittances and exports through official channels. This action improved the supply of basic commodities and contained inflation by removing risk premiums on smuggled commodities.

Over time, the government has increased the number of transactions to which the more favorable neighboring country exchange rate applies. The government also introduced a quasi-rate for non-commercial transactions in 2001 broadly in line with prevailing black market rates. Exchange-rate unification remains an elusive goal as pressure is building for Syria to harmonize its exchange rate system.

Given the poor development of its own capital markets and Syria's lack of access to international money and capital markets, monetary policy remains captive to the need to cover the fiscal deficit. Although in 2003 Syria lowered interest rates for the first time in 22 years and again in 2004, rates remain fixed by law. In a positive move in 2003, Syria canceled an old and troublesome law governing foreign currency exchange; however, new regulations have yet to be implemented. Some basic commodities continue to be heavily subsidized, and social services are provided for nominal charges.

Syria has made progress in easing its heavy foreign debt burden through bilateral rescheduling deals with virtually all of its key creditors in Europe. In May 2005, Russia and Syria signed a deal that wrote off nearly three-quarters of Syria's debt to Russia, approximately €10.5 billion ($13 billion). The agreement left Syria with less than €3 billion (just over $3.6 billion) owed to Moscow. Half of it would be repaid over the next 10 years, while the rest would be paid into Russian accounts in Syrian banks and could be used for Russian investment projects in Syria and for buying Syrian products.


Main article: Demographics of Syria

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 is about 140 per sq. mi (54/km²). Education is free and compulsory from ages 6 to 11. 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 89% for males and 64% for females.

Ethnic Syrians are an overall Semitic Levantine people. While modern-day Syrians are commonly ascribed to as Arabs — by virtue of their modern-day language and intrinsic bonds to Arab culture and history — they are in fact a blend of the various ancient Semitic groups indigenous to the region who in turn admixed with later arriving Arabs. There is also a smaller degree of admixture from non-Semitic peoples that have occupied the region over time.

Syria's population is 90% Muslim and 10% Christian. Among Muslims, 78% are Sunni and the remaining 22% is divided among other Muslim groups, including the Alawi, Shi'a, and Druze. There also is a tiny Syrian Jewish community that is confined mainly to Damascus, Aleppo and al-Kamishli.

Arabs (including some 400,000 Palestinian refugees) make up 90% of the population. The Kurds, an Indo-European people, constitute the largest ethnic minority, making up 10% of the population. Most Kurds reside in the northeast corner of Syria and many still speak the Kurdish language. Sizable Kurdish communities live in most major Syrian cities as well. The Syriac Christians are also a notable minority that live in north and northeast Syria.

Arabic is the official and most widely spoken language. Many educated Syrians also speak English or French, but English is more widely understood. Armenian and Türkmen are spoken among the Armenian and Türkmen minorities. Aramaic, the lingua franca of the region before the advent of Islam and Arabic, is spoken among certain ethnic groups: as Syriac, it is used as the liturgical language of various Syriac denominations; modern Aramaic (particularly, Turoyo language and Assyrian Neo-Aramaic) is spoken in Al-Jazira region. Most remarkably, Western Neo-Aramaic is still spoken in the village of Ma`loula, and two neighbouring villages, 35 miles (56 km) northeast of Damascus.


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. Syrian writers, many of whom emigrated to Egypt, played a crucial role in the nahda or Arab literary and cultural revival of the nineteenth century. Prominent contemporary Syrian writers include, among others, Adonis, Haidar Haidar, Ghada al-Samman, Nizar al-Qabbani and Zakariyya Tamer.

Syria has a small but notable cinema industry, with production entirely in the hands of the state National Cinema Organisation, which employs film-makers as civil servants. Funding is only sufficient to produce approximately one feature film every year, and these are often then banned by the political censor, but have won prizes at international festivals. Notable directors include Omar Amirali, Usama Muhammad, and Abd al-Latif Abd al-Hamid. Syrian directors have also worked abroad, in Egypt and Europe.

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.

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


Date English Name Local Name Remarks
January 1 New Year's Day -
March 8 March 8 Revolution - -
March 21 Mother's Day - -
April 17 Independence Day - Celebrates independence from Vichy France
-- Catholic Easter - According to the Gregorian calendar
-- Orthodox Easter - According to the Julian calendar
May 1 Labor day - -
May 6 Martyr's Day - -
December 25 Christmas - -
Dates following the lunar Islamic calendar
Dhul Hijja 10 Eid al-Adha - -
Shawwal 1 Eid al-Fitr - -
Rabi`-ul-Awwal 12 Mawlid - Muhammad's birthday

Fairs and festivals

Festival/Fair City Month
Flower Festival Latakia April
Traditional Festival Palmyra May
International Flower Fair Damascus May
Vine Festival As Suwayda July
Cotton Festival Aleppo September
Damascus International Fair Damascus September
Festival of Love Lattakia September
Bosra Festival Bosra September
Film and Theatre Festival Damascus November
  • Music of Syria
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