Skip to main content
Select source:




Syrian Arab Republic

Al-Jumhuriyah al-'Arabiyah as-Suriyah

CAPITAL: Damascus (Dimashq)

FLAG: The national flag is a horizontal tricolor of red, white, and black stripes; in the white center stripe are two green five-pointed stars.

ANTHEM: An-Nashid as-Suri (The Syrian National Anthem) begins "Protectors of the nation, peace be upon you."

MONETARY UNIT: The Syrian pound (s£) is a paper currency of 100 piasters. There are coins of 25 and 50 piasters and 1 Syrian pound and notes of 1, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, and 500 Syrian pounds. s£1 = $0.02062 (or $1 = s£48.5) as of 2004.

WEIGHTS AND MEASURES: The metric system is the legal standard, but local units are widely used.

HOLIDAYS: New Year's Day, 1 January; Revolution Day, 8 March; Egypt's Revolution Day, 23 July; Union of Arab Republics Day, 1 September; National Day, 16 November. Muslim religious holidays include 'Id al-Fitr, 'Id al-'Adha', Milad an-Nabi, and Laylat al-Miraj. Christian religious holidays include Easter (Catholic); Easter (Orthodox); and Christmas, 25 December.

TIME: 2 pm = noon GMT.


Situated in southwest Asia at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, Syria has an area of 185,180 sq km (71,498 sq mi). Comparatively, the area occupied by Syria is slightly larger than the state of North Dakota. Included in this total is the Golan Heights region (1,176 sq km/454 sq mi), which Israel captured in 1967 and annexed on 14 December 1981; the annexation was denounced by Syria and unanimously condemned by the United Nations Security Council. Syria extends 793 km (493 mi) enewsw and 431 km (268 mi) ssennw. It is bounded on the n by Turkey, on the e and se by Iraq, on the s by Jordan, on the sw by Israel, and on the w by Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea, with a land boundary length of 2,253 km (1,400 mi) and a coastline of 193 km (120 mi).


There are five main geographic zones: (1) the narrow coastal plain along the Mediterranean shore; (2) the hill and mountain regions, including the Ansariyah ('Alawite) Mountains in the north-west paralleling the coast, the eastern slopes of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, and the Jabal Ad-Duruz in the southeast; (3) the cultivated area east of the Ansariyah and Anti-Lebanon ranges, which is widest in the north, discontinuous between Himş and Damascus; (4) the steppe and desert region, traversed by the Euphrates (Al-Furat) River; and (5) the Jazirah in the northeast, steppe country with low rolling hills.

The Anti-Lebanon Mountains, extending southward along the Lebanese border, serve as a catchment for the rainfall of central Syria. To the north of this range, the Ansariyah Mountains, which reach heights of over 1,500 m (5,000 ft), slope westward to the Mediterranean. The Orontes (Asi) River irrigates areas on the eastern side of the Ansariyah Mountains.


The climate varies from the Mediterranean type in the west to extremely arid desert conditions in the east. The coastal regions have hot summers and mild winters; in the mountains, summer heat is moderated according to elevation and the winters are much more severe.

The steppe and desert areas have extremely hot, arid summers and greatly varying winter temperatures ranging from 21°c (70°f) to below freezing. Average temperatures for Damascus range from about 21° to 43°c (70109°f) in August and from about -4° to 16°c (2561°f) in January. Rainfall averages about 75 cm (30 in) on the coast, around 125 cm (50 in) in some mountain areas, and less than 25 cm (10 in) in the eastern three-fifths of the country. In dry years, rainfall may be reduced by half.


The coastal plain is highly cultivated and the little wild growth found is mainly of the brushwood type, such as tamarisk. On the northern slopes of the Ansariyah range are remnants of pine forests, while oak and scrub oak grow in the less well-watered central portion. Terebinth is indigenous to the low hill country of the steppes and wormwood grows on the plains. Some sections of the Jabal Ad-Duruz are covered with a dense maquis.

The wildlife of Syria includes types common to the eastern Mediterranean region, together with typical desert species. There is a diminishing number of bears in the mountains. Antelope are found wherever grazing is available and human competition not too severe. There are also deer in some sections. Smaller animals include squirrel, wildcat, otter, and hare. In the desert, the viper, lizard, and chameleon are found in relatively large numbers. Native birds include flamingo and pelican, as well as various ducks, snipe, and other game birds.

As of 2002, there were at least 63 species of mammals, 145 species of birds, and over 3,000 species of plants throughout the country.


Much of Syria's natural vegetation has been depleted by farming, livestock grazing, and cutting of trees for firewood and construction. The thick forests that once covered western Syria have been drastically reduced; as a result, soil erosion and desertification are extensive. The salinity of the soil is also a problem, causing a loss of more than $300 million worth of agricultural products per year. Other environmental problems include pollution of coastal waters from oil spills and human waste and contamination of inland waterways by industrial waste and sewage.

Environmental awareness has been a growing concern in the Arab world. The United Nations (UN) and Middle Eastern environmental organizations have sponsored Arab Environment Day to bring the focus of the nation's attention on environmental problems. The quantity of native wildlife had been so seriously depleted that in 1979 the government banned hunting for five years.

According to a 2006 report issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), threatened species includes 3 types of mammals, 11 species of birds, 3 types of reptiles, 9 species of fish, and 3 species of invertebrates. The Mediterranean monk seal, bald ibis, and African softshell turtle are endangered. The Anatolian leopard, cheetah, Syrian wild ass, Israel painted frog, and Persian fallow deer are extinct.


The population of Syria in 2005 was estimated by the United Nations (UN) at 18,389,000, which placed it at number 55 in population among the 193 nations of the world. In 2005, approximately 3% of the population was over 65 years of age, with another 37% of the population under 15 years of age. There were 101 males for every 100 females in the country. According to the UN, the annual population rate of change for 200510 was expected to be 2.7%. The government has sharpened its focus on population issues, creating a state minister for population affairs in 2003. The projected population for the year 2025 was 27,410,000. The overall population density was 99 per sq km (257 per sq mi), but most of the population is concentrated in in Damascus and the six western provinces. Desert areas in the east are largely uninhabited.

The UN estimated that 50% of the population lived in urban areas in 2005 and that urban areas were growing at an annual rate of 2.53%. The capital city, Damascus (Dimashq), had a population of 2,228,000 in that year. The population of Aleppo (Halab), a northern trading and agricultural center, was an estimated 2,505,000. Other main cities are Himş (Homs), 915,000; Hamāh (Hama); and Latakia (Al Lādhiqiyah).


In the past there was sizable emigration of Syrians to Europe, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere, but emigration had virtually ceased by the late 1940s. Since World War I, there has been substantial internal migration from the coastal mountains to the central plains and, in general, from rural areas to the towns. There is considerable migration across the borders with Lebanon and Jordan. About 150,000 Syrians working in Kuwait returned during 199091. As of October 1995, there were 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria. In 1997, the Syrian government accepted the protection mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for all recognized refugees in the country. The total number of migrants in 2000 was 903,000, including approximately 391,000 refugees. As of 2004, there were 15,604 registered refugees in Syria, primarily from Iraq. In that same year, there were 785 asylum seekers (countries of origin were Iraq, Somalia and Sudan) and 185 returned refugees. However, in 2004, there was also a stateless population of 300,000. In 2004, over 3,000 Syrians sought asylum in eight countries in Western Europe and the United Kingdom. In that same year, there were 16,184 Syrians refugees in Germany. In 2005, the net migration rate was estimated at zero migrants per 1,000 population. The government views the emigration level as too high, but the immigration level as satisfactory.


Ethnic Syrians are primarily of a Semitic stock; however, racial types have generally become intermixed. It is estimated that Arabs make up about 90.3% of the population. Other ethnic groups make up the remaining 9.7%, including Kurds, Armenians, and others.


The official language and the language of the majority is Arabic, but dialect variations are distinct from region to region and even from town to town. The written language, classical Arabic, based on the Koran (Quran), is the basis of the standard spoken form. Kurdish and Armenian are the principal minority languages. Aramaic, the language of Jesus, and Circassian are also widely understood. French and English are somewhat understood.


Islam is the religion of the vast majority. About 74% of the population are Sunni Muslims. Alawite, Druze, Ismailis, Shia, and Yazidis account for another 16% of the population. The Alawite constitute an important minority in Syria and hold a disproportionate share of political power; although they consider themselves Muslims, they combine their avowed creed with Christian rituals and esoteric cults. Also important are the Druzes (most of whom live in the Jabal Ad-Duruz), whose religion is an offshoot of Shia Islam.

About 10% of the population is Christian, with Greek Orthodox being the largest denomination. Other Christian churches include Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox (Gregorian), Syrian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Maronite Christian, Baptist, Mennonite, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and Nestorian (Chaldean). The small Jewish population is urban, living primarily in Damascus, Al Qamishli, and Aleppo.

Under the 1973 constitution, Islam is no longer declared to be the religion of the state, but the president of Syria must still be a Muslim, and Islamic law is a major source of legislation. Freedom of worship is guaranteed by the constitution but public proselytizing is strongly discouraged by the government. All religious groups must register with the government. Certain Orthodox Christian and Muslim holidays are officially observed.


The Syrian national railroad system consists of 2,711 km (1,686 mi) of standard and narrow gauge railways, of which 2,460 km (1,530 mi) is standard gauge line. Three sections are: the Syrian section of the old Baghdād Railway; the main line from Damascus to Aleppo, with connections to Tartus, points in Lebanon, and the phosphate mines; and the railway linking Al Lādhiqiyah, Halab, and Al-Qamishli, built with Soviet help and completed in 1981. There are also 251 km (156 mi) of narrow-gauge line, part of which is the preWorld War I Hejaz Railway, linking Damascus to Jordan and Lebanon. Syria is also connected by rail with Turkey (thus with Europe) and Iraq.

The road system, though growing, remains inadequate in view of the demands imposed by increased economic activity. In 2002, Syria had 45,697 km (28,424 mi) of roads, of which only 6,489 km (4,036 mi) were paved, including 1,001 km (623 mi) of expressways. There are road connections between the major towns and with Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. As of 2003, there were 181,017 passenger cars and 290,300 commercial vehicles.

Tartus and Al Lādhiqiyah are the main ports. Jablah and Baniyas are minor ports. In 2005, the merchant fleet comprised 120 vessels of 1,000 GRT or more, totaling 446,981 GRT. Although Syria had 900 km (560 mi) of navigable inland waterways as of 2002, these have had little economic impact. In 2004, Syria had an estimated 92 airports. As of 2005, it had a total of 26 had paved runways, and there were also seven heliports. Damascus is a connecting point for a number of major airlines; the main passenger terminal of its international airport was completed in 1982. Another principal airport is Aleppo International at Aleppo (Halab). Syrian Arab Airlines provides service to Halab, Al-Qamishli, Al Lādhiqiyah, and other airports; it also flies to other Arab countries and to Europe and Africa. In 2003, about 908,000 passengers were carried on scheduled domestic and international flights.


Archaeological excavations at Ebla, in northern Syria, have revealed that Syria was the center of a great Semitic empire extending from the Red Sea north to Turkey and east to Mesopotamia around 2500 bc. At that time, Damascus, traditionally the world's oldest continuously occupied city and certainly one of the world's oldest cities, was settled. Later, an advanced civilization was developed along the Syrian and Lebanese coastlands under the Phoenicians (c.1600c.800 bc), among whom trade, industry, and seafaring flourished. The wealth of the land attracted many conquerors, and Syria was invaded successively by the Hittites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, and others. In the 4th century bc, Syria fell to Alexander the Great, first in a long line of European conquerors. After the breakup of his empire, dominion over Syria was disputed by the Seleucid and Ptolemaic successor states, and Persians invaded when the opportunity arose; eventually the Seleucids gained control. In the 1st century bc, all of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan was conquered by the Romans and organized as the province of Syria; these areas are termed "geographic" Syria. Christianity, particularly after its official recognition in the early 4th century ad by Constantine the Great, spread throughout the region.

In 637, Damascus fell to the Arabs. Most Syrians were converted to Islam, and Arabic gradually became the language of the area. Under the Umayyad caliphs, Damascus became the capital of the Islamic world and a base for Arab conquests. Under the 'Abbasids, the caliphate was centered at Baghdād, and Syria was reduced to provincial status. Thereafter, geographic Syria fell prey to a succession of invaders, including Byzantines and Crusaders from Western Europe. Some parts of Syria came under the sway of Seljuks and Ayyubids, a Kurdish dynasty. The latter was most prominent under its leader Saladin (Salah ad-Din). During the 13th century, Mongols frequently invaded Syria, and for 200 years parts of Syria were controlled by the Mamluks, who ruled it from Egypt through local governors. In 1516, the Ottoman forces of Sultan Selim I defeated the Mamluks, and for the next four centuries, Syria was a province of the Ottoman Empire.

During World War I, Sharif Hussein (Husayn Ibn-'Ali) of Mecca threw in his lot with the Allies and revolted against Ottoman rule. After the war, with British forces in control, the formal entry of Allied troops into Damascus was made by Arab forces under Faisal (Faysal), Hussein's son, on 30 October 1918. Faisal and the Arab nationalists, whose number had been growing since 1912, opposed French aspirations to Syria and claimed independence under the terms of agreements between the British government and Hussein. In March 1920, Faisal was proclaimed king by a congress representing Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. However, geographic Syria was divided into British and French mandates. In June, the French, who had been allotted a mandate for Syria and Lebanon by the Agreement of San Remo (April 1920), ejected Faisal and installed local administrations of their own choosing. Arab nationalists resented French rule; there was a major revolt from 1925 to 1927, and unrest persisted until the outbreak of World War II. In 1941, Free French and British forces wrested control of Syria from Vichy France. Two years later, under pressure from the United Kingdom and the United States, the French permitted elections and the formation of a nationalist government. The United Kingdom and the United States recognized Syria's independence in 1944, and the last French troops departed on 17 April 1946.

Two parties that had led the struggle for independence, the Nationalist Party and the People's Party, dominated Syrian political life in the immediate postwar period. However, the Palestine War of 194849, which resulted in the defeat of the Arab armies and the establishment of Israeli statehood, discredited the Syrian leadership. In December 1948, riots against the government were put down by the army, and several army factions struggled for more than a year to gain control of the Syrian state. Col. Adib Shishakli ruled Syria for most of the period from December 1949 to March 1954, when he was ousted by another army coup.

The years from 1954 to 1958 were marked by the growth of pan-Arab and left-of-center political forces at the expense of the traditional merchant landowner class, which dominated the Nationalist and People's parties. Foremost among these forces was the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party, which saw in Gamal Abdel Nasser (Nasir), the president of Egypt, a kindred pan-Arabist. Military officers remained active in political affairs but were split into competing factions. Some elements of the Nationalist and People's parties sought to counter the left by seeking help from Iraq and other countries. In late 1957, influential military officers decided to seek unity with Egypt as a means of suppressing factionalism. Enthusiastically supported by the Ba'ath and other pan-Arabists, they appealed to Cairo. Nasser agreed, and on 1 February 1958, Egypt and Syria proclaimed the union of Syria and Egypt as the United Arab Republic (UAR).

A monolithic single-party structure replaced the lively Syrian political tradition; decisions were made in Cairo; land reforms were introduced. Syrians chafed under Egyptian rule, and in September 1961, after a military coup, Syria seceded from the UAR. A period of political instability followed until, on 8 March 1963, power was seized by a group of leftist army officers calling themselves the National Council of the Revolutionary Command, and a radical socialist government dominated by the Ba'ath Party was formed.

The period that followed was marked by internal struggles between the founders of the Ba'ath Party and a younger generation of party militants, many in the military. That generation came to power in 1966 but split in succeeding years. In the June 1967 war between Israel on one side, and Syria, Egypt, and Jordan on the other, Israel gained control of the Golan Heights. Gen. Hafez al-Assad (Hafiz al-Asad), a former chief of the Air Force and defense minister, became chief of state on 16 November 1970; he assumed the presidency, a reinstituted office, for the first of four seven-year terms beginning in March 1971, and a permanent constitution was ratified by popular referendum on 12 March 1973. On 6 October of that year, Syrian troops launched a full-scale attack against Israeli forces in the Golan Heights, as the Egyptians attacked in the Suez Canal area. After the UN cease-fire of 24 October, Israel remained in control of the Golan Heights, and Syria boycotted peace negotiations in Geneva. However, on 31 May 1974, Syria signed a US-mediated disengagement accord with Israel, restoring part of the Golan Heights to Syria and creating a buffer zone, manned by a UN peacekeeping force. The occupied sector of the Golan Heights was annexed by Israel in 1981; outside powers criticized and did not recognize the annexation.

In recent years, Syria has intervened militarily in neighboring Arab states to secure political ends. In September 1970, Syrian armored forces crossed the border into Jordan to support the Palestinians during the Jordanian civil war, but the Syrians were driven back by troops loyal to Jordan's King Hussein (Husayn) and by the threat of Israeli intervention. In 1976, Syrian troops entered Lebanon, nominally to enforce a cease-fire between Christian and Muslim forces but actually to help the Christian forces prevent a victory by leftist Muslims and Palestinians. Syria strongly opposed the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979 and was one of the few Arab states to support Iran in its war against Iraq, with which Syria had hoped to merge. Another merger plan, this one with Libya, was announced in September 1980, but the effort was stillborn. In October, Syria signed a 20-year friendship treaty with the USSR; subsequently, Syria received large quantities of Soviet arms, including antiaircraft missiles, which it deployed in the Bekaa (Biqa') Valley in Lebanon. After Israel invaded southern Lebanon in June 1982, the Israelis knocked out the missile batteries, crippled Syria's Soviet-equipped air force, and trapped Syrian as well as Palestinian fighters in Beirut before allowing their evacuation. Having reequipped its army with Soviet weapons, Syria maintained 25,000-35,000 troops in Lebanon until 2005. In the Lebanese civil war, Syria supported the Druze and Muslim militias against the Maronite Lebanese Forces.

Syria made repeated attempts to establish a cease-fire among Lebanon's factions. In 1989, it endorsed the Taif Accord for ending the conflict and, later, when Christian militia General Michel Aoun declared himself president of Lebanon and sought to expel the Syrian forces, assaulted his enclave with artillery and drove him out of the country. In 1991, Syria backed moves to disarm and disband the militias and signed a treaty with Beirut to put relations on a stable and peaceful basis. Under the Taif Accord, Syria was to have withdrawn its forces from Beirut and coastal areas by September 1992. Syria's withdrawal from Beirut took place in June 2001.

The authoritarian Assad regime was condemned by outsiders for assisting terrorist and drug smuggling groups. Both charges were played down after Syria joined the coalition of forces against Iraq in 1990 and agreed to participate in direct peace talks with Israel in 1991. The collapse of the Soviet Union removed Syria's most important source of external support, nullifying Assad's proclaimed strategy of refusing to negotiate with Israel until Syria gained military parity.

Internally, the regime was resented for its denial of democracy and the concentration of power with members of the Assad family's minority religious sect, the Alawis. The most serious internal threat came from Islamic militants in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1982, Assad sent the army against their stronghold in Hama, devastating a section of the city and causing tens of thousands of casualties. There has been no serious threat to the regime since then, and the Ba'ath Party has continued to control the country. In the 1990s, Assad took steps to liberalize economic controls and to permit some political freedoms. About 300 political prisoners were released in 1992 and Syrian Jews were again allowed to travel. Still, the country remains on the US State Department's list of countries that support terrorism and US trade is severely restricted. In 1994, Syrian officials met with representatives of Israel's Yitzhak Rabinled government on the return of the Golan Heightssomething Assad had wanted for decades. After Rabin's assassination, however, the talks were discontinued, and the stalemate between Syria and Israel continued. In 1997, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced that she would visit Syria in an effort to get the stalled peace process back on track. Syria was officially guarded about the prospects for success, as it remained deeply suspicious of Israel's right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. In the same year, the Assad regime entered into negotiations with Iraq to open up its ports to the latter. Syria broke off diplomatic relations with Iraq after backing Iran in the 198088 war.

With the election of Labor leader Ehud Barak as prime minister of Israel in May 1999, new hope arose for improved relations with Israel, and a new round of peace talks between Syria and Israel was held in the United States, near Washington, D.C., in January 2000. In May 2000, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon. By the late 1990s, serious concerns had been raised about the health and mental status of Syria's president, who was reportedly having "mental lapses" and suspected to be suffering from some form of dementia, as well as other infirmities. Nevertheless, Assad was elected to a fifth seven-year term in 1999 in a nearly unanimous vote. After the 1994 death in an automobile accident of Basel, the son whom the Syrian leader had been grooming to succeed him, another of Assad's sons, Bashar, was given increased responsibilities. Assad died on 10 June 2000 of a heart attack; 34-year-old Bashar Assad was unanimously elected secretary-general by the Ba'ath Party one week later. Parliament amended the constitution to lower the minimum age for a president from 40 to 34. In a July referendum, Bashar won overwhelming support to succeed his father, and he officially began a seven-year term as president on 17 July 2000.

In November 2000, President Assad ordered the release of more than 600 political prisoners. However, in September 2001, members of parliament and proreform activists were detained, which dulled hopes that Bashar would usher in a new climate of reform in the aftermath of his father's death. Although more than 100 dissidents were released from prison in November, human rights organizations maintain that hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail in Syria. In April 2001, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, whose members were targeted during the 1982 Hama massacre, announced its intention to resume political activity.

Following the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, Bashar Assad publicly emphasized Syria's stance on terrorism, although it did not support the US-led war on terrorism, stating military action was not the appropriate response to terrorism. The United States still lists Syria on its State Department's list of countries supporting terrorism, and in 2004 imposed economic sanctions on Syria over what it called its support for terrorism and failure to stop militants from entering Iraq from Syria.

Syrian troops withdrew from Beirut in June 2001 to redeploy in other parts of Lebanon, in response to greater Lebanese criticism of Syria's presence there. In April 2005, as a result of massive Lebanese street protests following the 14 February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariricalled the "Cedar Revolution," for bringing down the pro-Syrian Lebanese cabinetSyria withdrew all of its military forces from Lebanon.

One of the main reasons Israel has not pulled out of the Golan Heights has to do with water. The Golan Heights provides approximately 30% of Israel's water needs. The Dan, the Banyas, and the Hatzbani, tributaries of the upper Jordan River, originate in the Golan Heights. Israel's water needs are also tied to Lebanon. Lebanon has begun to divert 50 million cubic meters a year from the Wazzani and Hatzbani Rivers to supply villages in southern Lebanon with water. The Wazzani feeds into the Hatzbani, which in turn flows into the Jordan River watershed and Lake Kinneret (Lake Tiberias or the Sea of Galilee), a major source of Israel's water supply. In 2002, Sharon identified measures to divert water from Israel as a cause for war. In 1964 Syria tried to dam the waters that fed Lake Kinneret, but Israel destroyed the dams as one of the events leading to the 1967 Six-Day War. Since then, Syria has built 23 dams on the Yarmouk River, a tributary flowing into the Jordan River south of Lake Kinneret, affecting the water supplies of Israel and Jordan.


After independence, Syria made several attempts at establishing a constitution. The constitution of 1950 was revived in amended form in 1962 and then abrogated. A provisional constitution adopted in April 1964 was suspended in 1966 and replaced to some extent by a series of edicts. The fundamental law that emerged considered Syria a socialist republic forming part of the Arab homeland, required that the head of state be a Muslim, recognized Islamic law as a main source of legislation, ordained collective ownership of the means of production, but permitted some private ownership.

The constitution of 12 March 1973, embodying these principles and ratified by popular referendum, vests strong executive power in the president, who is nominated by the Ba'ath Party and elected by popular vote to a seven-year term. The president, who appoints the cabinet (headed by a prime minister), also serves as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and as secretary-general of the Ba'ath Party; three vice presidents were named in March 1984, including President Assad's younger brother Rifaat, who was dismissed from this post in 1998. The two other vice presidents named in 1984 were still in office in 2005. The unicameral People's Assembly (Majlis al-shaab) has 250 members who are elected every four years, but who have no real power. Suffrage is universal, beginning at age 18. Syria has been under a state of emergency since 1963 (except for 197374). Although Bashar Assad announced in January 2001 that the emergency law was "frozen" and "not applied," the state of emergency still remained in force.

Bashar Assad began a seven-year term as president in July 2000 following his father's death that June. The next presidential election is scheduled to take place in 2007.


The Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party is Syria's dominant political institution. It has a countrywide organization and controls mass organizations for youth, students, women, and the like. Only the Ba'ath may carry on political activity in the armed forces. It is far larger and more influential than the combined strength of its five partners in the National Progressive Front (NPF). This official political alignment, formed by President Hafez Assad in 1972, groups the Communist Party of Syria (SCP) and small leftist partiesthe Syrian Arab Socialist Union (ASU), the Socialist Unionist Movement (ASUM), the Democratic Socialist Union Party (DSUP), and the Arab Socialist Party (ASP)with the Ba'ath. The Ba'ath Party was founded in 1947 with the goals of Arab liberation, Arab unity, and socialism. Ba'athists attained control of the government in 1963, but the party became divided into two factions, a wing of doctrinaire socialists and a more pragmatic wing. Assad, then minister of defense and a strong nationalist, seized power in a bloodless coup in November 1970 and purged the doctrinaire Ba'athists from the government. The Ba'athists have relied on the minority Alawi sect, of which Assad was a member, and on the rural sector of the population generally. During his years as president, Assad appointed Ba'athist Alawis to influential positions in the government and in the military and security services. When Assad died on 10 June 2000, the Ba'ath Party held a party congressits first since 1985and elected Bashar Assad secretary-general. Bashar Assad succeeded his father as president the next month.

Hafez Assad, the sole presidential candidate for over 20 years, won national plebiscites by 99% majorities on 12 March 1971, 8 February 1978, 13 March 1985, 2 December 1991, and 10 February 1999. His son, Bashar, won in July 2000 by a vote of 8.6 million to 22,000. In elections on 1 December 1998, the Ba'ath won 135 seats; the ASU, 8; SCP, 8; ASUM, 7; ASP, 5; DSUP, 4; and independents, 83. In the March 2003 elections, the NPF won 167 seats (with the Ba'ath winning 135 seats once again), and independents held 83 seats. The next elections are scheduled to take place in 2007.


Syria is divided into 14 provinces (muhafazat) ; every province has a governor (muhafiz) and council. Each province is in turn divided into districts (mantiqat), each headed by a qaimmaqam. Each district is further subdivided into subdistricts, each in the charge of a mudir. Governors are appointed by and are directly responsible to the authorities in Damascus.


The Syrian legal system is based partly on French law and partly on Syrian statutes. Investigating magistrates determine whether a case should be sent to trial. Minor infringements are handled by peace courts, and more serious cases go to courts of first instance. There are civil and criminal appeals courts, the highest being the Court of Cassation. Separate state security courts have jurisdiction over activities affecting the security of the government. In addition, Shariah courts apply Islamic law in cases involving personal status. The Druze and non-Muslim communities have their own religious courts.

A Supreme Constitutional Court investigates and rules on petitions submitted by the president or one-fourth of the members of the People's Assembly challenging the constitutionality of laws or legislative decrees. This court has no jurisdiction to hear appeals for cases from the civil or criminal courts.

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. The regular court system is independent; however, the state security courts are not completely independent from the executive.

There are no jury trials. The regular courts respect constitutional provisions safeguarding due process. The Supreme State Security Court tries political and national security cases. The Economic Security Court tries cases involving financial crimes. Both courts operate under the state-of-emergency rules overriding constitutional defendants' rights.


In 2005, Syria's armed forces had 307,600 active personnel, supported by 354,000 reservists. The Army had 200,000 personnel, and included seven armored divisions, three mechanized infantry divisions, a Republican Guard division, four independent infantry brigades, three surface-to-surface missile brigades, two artillery brigades, one special forces division, and one border guard brigade. The Army had 4,600 main battle tanks, 800 reconnaissance vehicles, 2,200 armored infantry fighting vehicles, over 1,600 armored personnel carriers, and 3,150 artillery pieces, in addition to sophisticated antitank and antiaircraft weapons. The Syrian Navy had 7,600 active personnel, with major naval units that included two frigates, 20 patrol/coastal vessels, and five mine warfare ships. The naval aviation arm operated 25 attack and 25 antisubmarine warfare helicopters. The nation's Air Force had 40,000 personnel, with 632 combat-capable aircraft, including 390 fighters and 126 fighter ground attack aircraft. The service also had 71 attack helicopters. The Air Defense Command had an estimated 60,000 personnel with 25 air defense brigades and two Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) regiments, which included 4,707 surface-to-air missiles. Paramilitary forces included a gendarmerie of 8,000 and a workers' militia with an estimated 100,000 members. In 2005, the military budget totaled $1.72 billion. Syria, in that same year, removed its 18,000 troops in Lebanon. A total of 150 Russian troops were stationed in Syria.


Syria is a founding member of the United Nations (UN), having joined on 24 October 1945, and belongs to ESCWA and several nonregional specialized agencies, such as the FAO, the World Bank, UNSECO, UNIDO, the ILO, and the WHO. Syria served on the UN Security Council from 2002 to 2003. It is a charter member of the Arab League, set up in 1945 to foster cooperation in foreign and domestic affairs. Syria also belongs to the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa, the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, the Council of Arab Economic Unity, G-24, G-77, the Islamic Development Bank, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and OAPEC.

Syria is a member of the Nonaligned Movement. Despite a long history of tense relations, Syria established full diplomatic relations with Egypt in 1989. Lebanon and Syria signed a treaty of brotherhood, cooperation, and coordination in 1991. Syria and Israel have a strained relationship based on Syria's support of the Palestinian cause. Syria cooperated with the US-led multinational coalition of forces in the Gulf War (199091) and has offered limited cooperation in the war on terrorism.

In environmental cooperation, Syria is part of the Basel Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity, Ramsar, the Montréal Protocol, MARPOL, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the UN Conventions on Climate Change and Desertification.


Despite repeated announcements of economic reforms, Syria's economy continues to be dominated by the state, with the government budget acting as the principle tool for managing the economy. In 2002, the government announced that its program for privatization had been replaced by a priority on making state enterprises more efficient.

Statistics on the Syrian economy are subject to government manipulation and revision, and may be inaccurate and inconsistent. Traditionally, Syria is an agricultural economy, and by 2001 estimates, this sector accounted for 40% of the labor force and 27% of gross domestic product (GDP). Subsistence agriculture has given way to modern production and marketing methods, although 80% is still rain-fed and vulnerable to drought. Droughts in 1997 and 1999 were significant factors lowering GDP growth. Wheat and barley constitute two-thirds of the cultivated area but cotton is the main cash crop.

Development of the state-owned oil industry and exploitation of other mineral resources, notably phosphates, have helped to diversify Syrian industry, which was formerly concentrated in light manufacturing and textiles. Although Syria's oil production is small by Middle Eastern standards, in 2001 oil accounted for 70% of Syria's exports and 20% of its GDP. Syria became an oil exporter in 1987, but at present levels of proven reserves it will become an importer again within 10 years.

Economic growth in Syria has depended on oil prices, foreign aid, and good weather. Low oil prices and drought dampened growth in the late 1980s, but in the first half of the 1990s, due to increased oil production, recovery from drought and nearly $5 billion in foreign aid as a "reward" for its participation in the Gulf War combined to help the economy to register average annual growth rates of 5.3% in the late 1990s. Oil production peaked in 1996 at about 600,000 bbl/d, after which it declined due to technical problems and depletion. Modest growth was restored in 2000 and 2001 (about 2.1% and 2.0%, respectively) with the increase in oil prices. For 2002, real GDP growth was an estimated 3.2%.

On 14 July 1998 Iraq and Syria signed a memorandum of understanding reopening the Iraqi Petroleum Co. (IPC) pipeline built in 1934 connecting the Kirkuk oil fields with the Syrian port of Banias on the Mediterranean. Syria had closed the pipeline in 1982 when it broke off diplomatic relations with Iraq and shifted to Iran as an oil supplier. The IPC pipeline had been severely damaged during the Gulf War, and it was not until March 2000 that it was reported serviceable. In mid-November 2000, numerous press reports began circulating claiming that the IPC pipeline was being used to ship Iraqi oil to Syrian refineries on favorable terms, allowing Iraq to obtain oil revenues above the limits set by the United Nation's Oil-for-Food program. Iraq and Syria denied the allegations, but according to the US Department of Energy (DOE), independent analysts determined that Syria's export levels of crude oil in 2001 could not have been attained without importing from Iraq in the range of 150,000 and 200,000 bbl/d. In November 2001, Iraq and Syrian reportedly signed an agreement on building a new $200 million pipeline to replace the aging IPC line. In April 2003, as part of the invasion of Iraq, American troops shut down the IPC pipeline. The cost to Syria of the shutdown was estimated at $500 million to $1 billion a year.

The GDP growth rate was estimated at 1.5% in 2005, down from 1.8% in 2004, and 2.6% in 2003. The inflation rate has been fairly stable, and at 2.6% in 2005, it did not pose any major problems to the economy. The unemployment rate has been fairly stable, hovering around 2.5%. The government has implemented modest economic reforms, but most of the economy continues to be under its control. Declining oil production and population growth pressure on water supplies are long term problems that the country needs to deal with.


The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports that in 2005 Syria's gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated at $63.9 billion. The CIA defines GDP as the value of all final goods and services produced within a nation in a given year and computed on the basis of purchasing power parity (PPP) rather than value as measured on the basis of the rate of exchange based on current dollars. The per capita GDP was estimated at $3,500. The annual growth rate of GDP was estimated at 1.4%. The average inflation rate in 2005 was 2.6%. It was estimated that agriculture accounted for 25% of GDP, industry 31%, and services 44%.

According to the World Bank, in 2003 remittances from citizens working abroad totaled $618 million (about $4 per capita) and accounted for approximately 2.9% of GDP. Foreign aid receipts amounted to $160 million (about $9 per capita) and accounted for approximately 0.8% of the gross national income (GNI).

The World Bank reports that in 2003 household consumption in Syria totaled $13.88 billion (about $80 per capita) based on a GDP of $21.5 billion, measured in current dollars rather than PPP. Household consumption includes expenditures of individuals, households, and nongovernmental organizations on goods and services, excluding purchases of dwellings. It was estimated that for the period 1990 to 2003 household consumption grew at an average annual rate of 2.3%. It was estimated that in 2004, about 20% of the population had incomes below the poverty line.


The Syrian labor force is well educated and well trained in comparison with that of other Arab countries, but its size is small because about half the population is under 15 years of age and because many skilled workers are employed abroad in Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) member nations. Syria's labor force in 2004 was estimated at 5.12 million. As of 2002, it was estimated that agriculture accounted for 30% of the workforce, with 27% in industry and 43% in the services sector. There is a high level of underemployment, with unemployment in 2002 estimated at 20%. Many unskilled persons in agriculture and industry work only seasonally. The government is attempting to meet the demand for trained workers by establishing vocational schools.

The statutory workweek is 36 hours. In 2002, the minimum wage was $57 per month in the public sector and between $49 and $53 per month in the private sector. The law mandates one day of rest per week. These regulations are enforced through the minister of labor and social affairs. Generally, the legal minimum age for employment is 16 years, with some exceptions. The Labor Law of 1959 established the right of workers to form unions and empowered the government to regulate hours of work, vacations, sick leave, health and safety measures, and workers' compensation. However, unions must belong to the government's bureaucratic labor confederation. The confederation acts merely as a conduit to transfer directives from government decision makers to unions and workers. Thus, there is no meaningful right to strike or bargain collectively. The government also is authorized to arbitrate labor disputes.


About 6.1 million hectares (15.1 million acres) are arable, but the area actually cultivated is about 5.4 million hectares (13.6 million acres), or 30% of the total area. Because only 25% of cultivated land is irrigated, agriculture depends on rainfall, which is uncertain, and in lean years Syria becomes a net importer of wheat and barley; this strains the whole economy and hampers development. The government has two approaches to this problem: to increase the use of fertilizers in low rainfall areas and to add substantially to irrigated cultivation. The irrigated area was expected to double through the Euphrates Dam project, which was completed in 1978. Lake Assad, formed by the dam, was planned to eventually provide irrigation for some 640,000 hectares (1,581,000 acres). Costs of land reclamation, technical difficulties due to gypsum in the soil, and low water, in part caused by Turkish damming upstream, have slowed progress. Total irrigated area reached an estimated 1,333,000 hectares (3,294,000 acres) in 2003. The government has allocated an increasing share of its investments to irrigation, but full development of irrigation schemes is expected to take at least another 20 years. However, given the current water management policies, Syria could face a serious water shortage much sooner.

Traditionally, much of Syria's agricultural land was held by landowners in tracts of more than 100 hectares (250 acres); sharecropping was customary. This picture was greatly altered by the government's agrarian reform program, begun in 1958. The law, as modified in 1963, fixed the maximum holding of irrigated land at 1550 hectares (37124 acres) per person and nonirrigated land at 80 hectares (198 acres) per person. All expropriated land available for cultivation has been allotted to farmers.

The principal cash crop is cotton, but cotton's share of total export value declined from 33% in 1974 to 2.3% by 2004. Other cash crops are cereals, vegetables, fruit, and tobacco. Since the government suspended convertibility of the Syrian pound, grain and other agricultural products have been smuggled to Lebanon in exchange for goods not available through the state importing agencies. Production (in thousands of tons) for major agricultural commodities in 2004 was as follows: wheat, 4,537; barley, 527; corn, yellow, 180; tomatoes, 920; potatoes, 500; olives, 950; grapes, 300; apples, 215; oranges, 427; cotton lint, 331; seed cotton, 1,023; sugar beets, 1,250; and tobacco, 26.5.


Grazing land occupies 8.3 million hectares (20.5 million acres), or about 45% of Syria's total area. Stock raising contributes significantly to the Syrian economy. Between 1963 and 1981, livestock herds more than doubled in number, and since 1975, the number of model farms, veterinary units, and livestock artificial insemination centers has increased considerably.

Sheep are the most important livestock animals in Syria, grazing on poorly developed wheat and barley fields and on the remains of crops such as wheat and corn. In 2005, there were an estimated 15.3 million sheep. Mutton production was an estimated 207,000 tons in 2005; sheep milk production, 604,000 tons. The price of mutton of the Awassi breed, which is in high demand in Syria, was about 35% higher than beef in the mid-1990s.

There were also 1,018,000 goats, 940,000 head of cattle, 15,000 camels, 2,800 buffaloes, and 30,000,000 chickens in 2005. Animals and animal products account for 40% of total agricultural output by value. Production of cow's milk in 2005 totaled 1,250,000 tons; cheese, 95,400 tons; butter and ghee, 16,300 tons; and eggs, 167,000 tons.


There is some fishing off the Mediterranean coast and from rivers and fish farms. The commercial catch was 16,128 tons in 2003, with common carp and tilapia from inland waters accounting for 40%.


Syria is almost entirely denuded of native forests. Approximately 461,000 hectares (1,139,000 acres) were forestland in 2000, but only about 50,000 cu m (1.77 million cu ft) of roundwood were produced in 2004. Most of the designated forestland consists either of wholly barren land or of rangeland with arboreous shrubs. The substantial forests are mainly on the northern slopes of the Ansariyah range, on the windward side of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, and in the Al Lādhiqiyah region.


Syria's mineral resources are not extensive, but deposits of iron, petroleum, and phosphate have been exploited. Syria is a leading exporter of phosphate rock, while petroleum has become a leading source of foreign currency earnings. In 2003, the production of phosphate rock (gross weight) totaled 2,414,000 tons, down from 2,483,000 million tons in 2002. Other mineral deposits include asphalt, salt, chromite, and marble. Marble and salt were mined in commercial quantities. In 2004, an estimated 340 metric tons of marble blocks were quarried, with salt output in that same year estimated at 146,000 metric tons. Syria also produces hydraulic cement, refractory-grade dolomite, natural gas, natural gas liquids, gravel and crushed rock, gypsum, nitrogen, phosphatic fertilizers, phosphoric acid, construction and industrial sand, steel, dimension stone, sulfur, and volcanic tuff. No metal was mined in 2003. Deposits of silica sand in al-Qaristyn had resources of 150 million tons. The mineral industry is owned and controlled by the government. In 2001, the government announced its intention to open the mineral industry to local and foreign private investors. The rapid expansion of the construction sector in the near future is expected to increase Syria's demand for cement, gypsum, limestone, gravel, sand, and steel.


Syria's proven reserves of oil have made it the largest oil producer in the eastern Mediterranean region (includes Israel, Jordan and Lebanon). It also has reserves of natural gas, but no known reserves of coal.

As of 1 January 2005, Syria had proven oil reserves estimated at 2.5 billion barrels. In 2004, oil production and domestic consumption averaged an estimated 460,000 barrels per day and 265,000 barrels per day, respectively. In that same year, Syria's oil exports averaged 195,000 barrels per day. In 1996, Syria's oil output peaked at 590,000 barrels per day, and has been declining as reserves have become depleted, and as older fields reach maturity. Production of oil is expected to steadily decline in upcoming years, and if the trend continues, the country could become a net importer of oil within 10 years, as consumption increases as the population grows. As of 2000, however, it was estimated that only 36% of Syria's potential oil and gas deposits had been drilled.

Syria has two refineries, one at Himş, and the other at Banias. Reported as of August 2005, each refinery has an average production of 107,140 barrels per day and 132,725 barrels per day, respectively.

As of 1 January 2005, Syria's proven reserves of natural gas were estimated at 8.5 trillion cu ft. In 2003, natural gas production and domestic demand were each estimated at 245 billion cu ft. About 50% of the country's natural gas production is nonassociated with the production of oil. Also, Syria's production of natural gas is expected to increase as part of a strategy to replace the use of oil with natural gas to generate electric power, thus freeing up more oil for export.

As of 2003, Syria's installed electric power generating capacity totaled about 7.6 GW, of which 1.5 GW was came from hydroelectric capacity and the rest from natural gas and fuel oil. In 2003, Electric power output was estimated at 27.2 billion kWh, with demand estimated at 25.3 billion kWh.


Syria has been renowned since ancient times for such handicrafts as Damascus brocade and Syrian soap. Some of these traditions endured even after 1933, when the first mechanized plant for spinning and weaving was set up in Aleppo. In 1965, the textile industry was nationalized and reorganized into 13 large state corporations. A series of nationalization measures after 1963 resulted in public control of most industry, but efforts have been made to stimulate the expansion of the private sector, as state-owned industries suffer from low productivity. In the 1970s, government policy began emphasizing domestic industrial production (coupled with high tariffs on imported consumer goods) of iron and steel, fertilizers, chemicals, and household appliances. In 1995, manufacturing and mining accounted for 14% of GDP. By 2000, this proportion had reached 23%. In 2002, the government announced that priority would be shifted from efforts to privatize the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to continued efforts to increase their efficiency.

Important industries include the chemical and engineering industries, the food industry, and oil refining. The largest component of the General Establishment of Chemical Industries (GECI) is the cement industry, which is considered strategic and wholly state owned. The General Organization for Cement and Building Materials consists of seven state-owned but independently operated cement companies. The total capacity in 2001 was about 5 million tons per year, with government plans to increase this to 8 million tons per year. Another subsidiary of GECI is the General Fertilizer Co. (GFC). It has two nitrogenous fertilizer plants and one phosphate-based unit, all located at Himş. Under construction in 2002 was a 500,000 ton/year triple-superphosphate plant near Palmyra being built by Bechtel and Makad International. Also planned is a 450,000 nitrogenous complex near Hasaka to use natural gas from the Omar field in northeast Syria. Syria's fertilizer industry rests on its ample deposits of natural gas and phosphates, and produces ammonia, urea and nitrogenous fertilizers. Syria also has an iron-rolling mill at Himş and factories producing furniture, refrigerators, paper, glass and plastic products, and television sets. Some 70,000 tons of crude steel were produced in 1995. Syria has a total refinery capacity of 239,860 barrels per day from two refineries: a 132,725 barrels per day capacity refinery at Banias and a 107,140 barrels per day capacity refinery at Himş. Plans to upgrade both have been announced.

The industrial production growth rate was 7% in 2002 (higher than the GDP growth rate), establishing the industrial sector as a growth engine. In 2003, industry accounted for 31% of the GDP, and was bested by services with 44%. Out of the 5.1 million working people, 27% were engaged in industrial activities, 43% in services, and 27% in agriculture.


Courses in basic and applied science are offered at Al-Baath University (founded in 1979 at Himş), the University of Aleppo (Halab) (founded in 1960), the University of Damascus (founded in 1903), and Tishreen University (founded in 1971 at Lattakia). In 198797, science and engineering students accounted for 23% of college and university enrollments. Major scientific research institutions in Syria include the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), founded in 1977 at Aleppo and the Arab Center for the Study of Arid Zones and Dry Lands (ACSAD), founded in 1971 at Damascus. The country's advanced petrochemical technologies have been installed by foreign oil companies. In early 1987, an estimated 2,500 Soviet military technicians were stationed in Syria; civilian personnel also provided assistance in various fields. For the period 19902001, there were 29 researchers and 24 technicians engaged in research and development per million people. In 2002, high technology exports were valued at $2 million, or 1% of the country's manufactured exports.


Damascus and Aleppo are the principal commercial centers. Virtually all importers, exporters, and wholesalers have offices in one or both cities. The chief retail centers have general and specialized stores as well as large bazaars. Smaller bazaars and open markets are found in many Syrian towns and villages. Advertising agencies use newspapers, magazines, moving picture theaters, signs on buses, and other media.

The Syrian government cracked down on smuggling in May 1993. Most of the previously smuggled commodities can now be imported through official channels. Commodity smuggling from Lebanon, however, is still present and provides an "unofficial market" for imported products at the free market exchange rate reflective of world price levels.

Usual business hours are from 9 am to 1 pm and from 3:30 pm to 7 pm. Friday is the weekly day of rest. Banking hours are SaturdayThursday, 8 am to 2 pm.

The Damascus International Fair and the Syrian Industrial Marketing Fair are annual events.


During the 1980s, Syria focused on increasing its trade with socialist nations. However, when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, Syria increased trade with European nations. In 2000, the European Union (EU) countries took 66% of exports and supplied 31% of imports, while countries of the Middle East took 28% of exports and supplied 14% of imports. Syria's main export commodities are crude petroleum (69%) and refined petroleum products (7.0%). Other exports include cotton (4.3%), vegetables (2.9%), garments (2.8%), and fruits and nuts (2.0%).

In 2005, exports reached $6.3 billion (FOBFree on Board),

while imports grew to $6.0 billion (FOB). In 2004, the bulk of exports went to Italy (22.7%), France (18%), Turkey (12.9%), Iraq (9%), and Saudi Arabia (6.2%). Imports included machinery and transport equipment, food and livestock, metal and metal products, and chemicals, and mainly came from Turkey (9.4%), the Ukraine (8.7%), China (7.8%), Russia (5.4%), Saudi Arabia (5.2%), the United States (4.7%), South Korea (4.6%), and Italy (4.3%).


Syria has had serious deficits in its trade balance since 1976, but import restrictions, foreign aid (especially from other Arab governments), and the drawdown of foreign exchange holdings enabled the government to cover the losses. Since the late 1980s, the

Country Exports Imports Balance
World 5,730.7 5,110.6 620.1
Italy-San Marino-Holy See 1,900.3 215.8 1,684.5
France-Monaco 823.3 132.6 690.7
Turkey 430.7 291.9 138.8
Saudi Arabia 339.2 203.2 136.0
Lebanon 230.8 80.9 149.9
Spain 224.5 63.9 160.6
United States 212.2 255.7 -43.5
Cyprus 186.6 186.6
Jordan 141.0 58.6 82.4
United Kingdom 119.4 63.4 56.0
() data not available or not significant.
Current Account 1,440.0
     Balance on goods 2,210.0
         Imports -4,458.0
         Exports 6,668.0
     Balance on services -324.0
     Balance on income -925.0
     Current transfers 479.0
Capital Account 20.0
Financial Account -250.0
     Direct investment abroad
     Direct investment in Syria 115.0
     Portfolio investment assets
     Portfolio investment liabilities
     Financial derivatives
     Other investment assets 1,180.0
     Other investment liabilities -1,545.0
Net Errors and Omissions -160.0
Reserves and Related Items -1,050.0
() data not available or not significant.

government has been encouraging private-sector trade. Privatesector exports consequently skyrocketed from $79 million in 1987 to $517 million in 1990, thus reducing the trade deficit. An upturn in world oil prices at the end of the 1990s and into the early 2000s and an improvement in the country's agricultural exports greatly improved the balance of payments situation.

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reported that in 2001, the purchasing power parity of Syria's exports was $5 billion, while imports totaled $4 billion, resulting in a trade surplus of $1 billion.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported that in 2000, Syria had exports of goods totaling $5.15 billion and imports totaling $3.7 billion. The services credit totaled $1.7 billion and debit $1.67 billion.

Exports of goods and services totaled $6.4 billion in 2004, down from $6.6 billion in 2003. Imports grew from $7.0 billion in 2003, to $7.2 billion in 2004. The resource balance was consequently negative, and on a downward pathfrom -$354 million in 2003, to -$495 million in 2004. An opposite trend was registered for the current account balance, which improved from -$477 million in 2003, to $514 million in 2004. Foreign exchange reserves (including gold) increased to $4.3 billion in 2004, covering more than seven months of imports.


Syria's financial services sector is underdeveloped. Besides the Central Bank, there are five banks in the country, all of which are state run. The Central Bank, founded in 1956, is the bank of issue for currency, the financial agent of the government, and the cashier for the treasury. The Agricultural Bank makes loans to farmers at low interest; the Industrial Bank (nationalized in 1961), the People's Credit Bank and the Real Estate Bank (both founded in 1966), and the Commercial Bank of Syria (formed in 1967 by a merger of five nationalized commercial banks) make loans in their defined sectors. Unused Syrian pounds cannot be sold back to the Commercial Bank, and the private exchange of foreign currencies and Syrian pounds is a criminal act. These strict currency controls are the largest disincentives to investment and foreign trade. So decrepit is the country's financial services sector that most Syrian businessmen and foreigners use banks in either Lebanon or Cyprus. Foreign diplomats in Damascus, for instance, use accounts in the Chtaura, in Lebanon's Beqaa valley, around one hour by car from Damascus.

Private-sector groups have called for reforms such as private participation in banking, the creation of a stock exchange, and separation of the Central Bank of Syria from the government. Privatization of banks, which had been prohibited for 30 years, arrived in 2001 with new banking reform laws. The country's four banks are all owned by the government and interest rates are fixed by law. In March 2001, President Bashir issued Law 28, authorizing the establishment of private and joint-venture banks, with foreigners permitted up to 49% ownership. To date, none has been established, but in January 2003 the government identified five banks to be licensed in the third quarter.

The International Monetary Fund reports that in 2001, currency and demand depositsan aggregate commonly known as M1were equal to $37.4 billion. In that same year, M2an aggregate equal to M1 plus savings deposits, small time deposits, and money market mutual fundswas $62.0 billion. The discount rate, the interest rate at which the central bank lends to financial institutions in the short term, was 5%.


All insurance in Syria was nationalized in 1963 and is controlled by the government-owned General Insurance Organization of Syria (formerly the Syrian Insurance Co.). Motor vehicle insurance is compulsory. In 1999, $337.2 million in premiums were written in Syria. Twenty-two million was spent on these premiums, making the insurance sector's share of the gross domestic product 0.40%.


Although Syria was able to balance its budget in 1992, large military expenditures and continued subsidization of basic commodities and social services have produced deficits in subsequent years. State intervention in business and price controls put a damper on growth.

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimated that in 2005 Syria's central government took in revenues of approximately $5.6 billion and had expenditures of $6.5 billion. Revenues minus expenditures totaled approximately -$836 million. Public debt in 2005 amounted to 45% of GDP. Total external debt was $8.59 billion.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported that in 1999, the most recent year for which it had data, central government revenues in millions of Syrian pounds were 196,096 and expenditures were 190,300. The value of revenues in millions of US dollars was $17,470 and expenditures $16,953, based on a principal exchange rate for 1999 of 11.225 as reported by the IMF. Government outlays by function were as follows: general public services, 12.9%; defense, 23.6%; economic affairs, 44.0%; housing and community amenities, 1.0%; health, 2.3%; recreation, culture, and religion, 1.5%; education, 9.2%; and social protection, 5.3%.

Revenue and Grants 196,096 100.0%
     Tax revenue 142,748 72.8%
     Social contributions 531 0.3%
     Other revenue 52,817 26.9%
Expenditures 190,300 100.0%
     General public services 24,559 12.9%
     Defense 44,984 23.6%
     Public order and safety
     Economic affairs 83,810 44.0%
     Environmental protection
     Housing and community amenities 1,910 1.0%
     Health 4,459 2.3%
     Recreational, culture, and religion 2,937 1.5%
     Education 17,533 9.2%
     Social protection 10,108 5.3%
() data not available or not significant.


Relatively low salaries have kept the tax base narrow, and price controls have restricted the taxable profits from industry. By decree in 2001, the president raised the minimum exemption for income taxes to s£1,000 (about $22). There are taxes on individual income (at progressive rates of 512.5%).

Business profits are taxed at progressive rates of 10% to 35%. Shareholding companies and industrial limited liability companies are taxed at a flat rate of 25%, if an investment in machinery and plant in excess of s£5 million is made. Capital gains are included in taxable income are taxed at the applicable corporate rate. However, capital gains resulting from the sale of shares by the shareholder are not taxed. Dividends distributed by Syrian companies are not subject to a withholding tax if paid out of profits that have already been taxed. For Syrian and non-Syrian companies and individuals, income from movable capital (interest, royalties, and foreign sources of dividends) are taxed at a flat rate of 7.5%. There is no general sales tax, but consumption taxes are assessed on specific items such as petrol, rice and sugar. Other taxes include excise taxes, property taxes, stamp duties, and social security contributions.


Goods imported into Syria are subject to a customs duty and "unified" tax. Rates are progressive and, as of 2005, ranged from 1200% depending on the government's view of the necessity for the products. Food and industrial raw materials carry low rates while luxury goods, such as automobiles, have rates of 150200%. The unified tax is a surcharge on all imported goods and ranges from 635%. The tax helps to support the military, schools, and municipalities.

Syria has free-trade agreements with Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Trade agreements with Libya, Morocco, Oman, and Tunisia are in negotiations. There is a single-column tariff modified by trade and transit agreements with other Arab League states, under which member countries are granted preferential duties on some products and duty-free entry for others. Syria accepts the Arab League boycott of Israel.


Although a government decree prohibits confiscation of foreign investments, there are no safeguards against nationalization of property. In principle, the judicial system upholds the obligations of contracts but in practice decisions are subject to outside pressures. In addition, poor infrastructure, power outages, lack of financial services, and complex foreign exchange regulations have all contributed to Syria's failure to attract significant amounts of foreign investment. Four major pieces of legislation have been passed to encourage foreign investment. Decision 186, issued in 1985, was aimed at encouraging investment in tourism. Decree 10 in 1986 was designed to encourage joint-venture agricultural companies. In June 1991, in the wake of the Gulf War, the government issued Investment Law 10, aimed at promoting investment in all sectors of the economy by providing the same incentives to local and foreign investors. Qualifying investors are granted tax holidays and duty-free privileges for the import of capital goods. The law succeeded in attracting investments particularly in textiles, pharmaceuticals, food processing, and other light industries. The primary investors have been from the Gulf states. In 1999, it was estimated that nearly 1,500 projects valued at $6.5 billion had been approved since the reforms of 1991. In May 2000, Decree 7 amended Law 10 of 1991 to make investment more attractive by extending tax holiday periods, increasing hard currency flexibility, reducing income taxes on shareholding companies, and offering sector and regional incentives. A tax holiday of five years is extended to seven years for enterprises that export over 51% of their output.

The most significant foreign investment in Syria had been in gas and oil. In 1990, 12 foreign oil firms had operations in Syria, but as of mid-2002, only five remainedShell, Total-Fina-Elf, Mol (Hungary), INA-Naftaplin (Croatia) and Conoco. Other foreign investors include Mitsubishi, Samsung, Mobil, Nestlé, and Prince Walid Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia. Foreign investment is complicated by Syrian requirements of import and export licenses on every item imported and then reexported, no matter the value, and by US sanctions on supplying Syria any "dual" use items such as computers and oil exploration equipment. Despite a recent 20% increase, the average wage in the public sector remains below minimum subsistence levels, and provides a strong motivation for widespread corruption. In 2002, an increasingly strict enforcement of the Arab League's boycott of Israeli goods added more complications to obtaining supplies and more layers of red tape. US government insurance programs for foreign investors, such as OPIC, are not available for investors in Syria, and the country is on the State Department's list of sponsors of terrorism. USAID ended assistance to Syria in 1983, and financing cannot be obtained through government agencies like the Export-Import Bank. There are six duty-free zones in Syria: near the border town of Dar'a (a joint venture with Jordan), north of Damascus at Adra, in Damascus, at the Damascus Airport, and at the ports of Al Lādhiqiyah and Tartus. According to official estimates, there were 350 foreign and joint-venture investment projects in the country as of 2002, with a total value of about $3 billion.


The transformation of Syria's economy began with the Agrarian Reform Law in 1958, which called for the expropriation of large tracts of land. During the union with Egypt, laws were passed for the nationalization of banks, insurance companies, and large industrial firms. After the Ba'ath Party came to power in 1963, the socialist trend reasserted itself with greater force. A series of laws created a new banking system and instituted public ownership of all large industries. By the early 1970s, however, the government had relaxed many restrictions on trade, foreign investment, and private-sector activity in an effort to attract private and foreign, especially Arab, contributions to Syria's economic growth.

Since 1961, a series of five-year plans has concentrated on developing the nation's infrastructure and increasing agricultural and industrial production. Investments reached 60% of the target under the first plan (196165); the second plan (196670) aimed to expand real GDP by 7.2% annually but achieved a yearly growth rate of only 4.7%. The third plan (197175) was disrupted by the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, but thanks to aid from other Arab states and large oil price increases, Syria experienced an economic boom with a high annual growth rate of 13%. The fourth plan (197680) was hampered by the high cost of Syria's military intervention in Lebanon and a cutoff of aid from Gulf states; economic growth varied widely, from 2.8% in 1977 to 9.2% in 1980.

Under the fifth plan (198185), development projects begun during the previous plan were to be continued or completed. Total investment was estimated at s£101 billion, of which 23% was to be provided by the private sector. Real GDP was to grow by 7.7% annually; actual growth rates ranged from 10.2% in 1981 to 3.6% in 1984, averaging 2.3% for the period.

Syria's sixth development plan (198690) emphasized increased productivity rather than new projects, with special emphasis on agriculture and agro-industries. Actual investment in agriculture accounted for 18.7% of total spending. The share of the industry and energy sector was at 19.7%, far below the planned 30.9%. Services received the highest share, with 53% of the total.

The seventh five-year plan (199195) proposed total investments of s£259 billion, more than double the amount spent under the previous plan. It aims at spending 81.7% of the total on the public sector and 18.3% on the mixed-sector/private-sector cooperatives. Officials at the Supreme Planning Commission have stated that agriculture and irrigation continue to receive top priority, with self-sufficiency in cereal production a policy objective. Output in agriculture and manufacturing is planned to expand by 5.6% per annum.

During 194986, multilateral assistance to Syria totaled $822.7 million, of which 77% came through the IBRD. US loans and grants during the same period amounted to $581.9 million. Financial aid to Syria from Arab oil-producing states has not been made public. Since 1982, Syria has received a million tons of oil annually from Iran, free of charge. Because Syria is in arrears on payments to the World Bank, disbursements were halted in 1988 and projects canceled. Syria has been in violation of the Brooke Amendment since 1985. The improvement in Syria's external payment position in 1989 as well as the resumption of aid flows to Syria in 1990 due to its participation in the coalition against Iraq helped to restore its ability to repay its debt.

The outlook for the economy in the coming years is not very encouraging. GDP is expected to expand by meager rates of under 1.5% per year. This trend is caused by declining oil production, a hostile political environment, and an incapacity of the government to attract much needed foreign investment.


A system of social insurance provides old-age pensions and disability and death benefits. The pension system is funded by 14% contributions from employers and 7% from employees. Retirement is set at age 60 with 180 months of contributions, or age 55 with 240 months. Survivors' pensions are paid to widows only; widowers are covered only if disabled. Employers also contribute 3% of payroll to fund workers' compensation providing temporary and permanent disability benefits, as well as medical and survivor benefits. Funeral grants amount to one month's earnings.

Although the government supports equal pay for equal work and encourages education for women, Islamic precepts govern many areas of women's lives, including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Some secular laws also discriminate against women. Victims of domestic violence do not seek redress due to social stigma, and there are no reliable statistics regarding abuse and rape. Children's rights are generally protected.

The human rights situation is poor and fundamental rights are denied. Arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention are common. Detainees' relatives are also arrested to force confessions. Torture is common. Public criticism of the Ba'ath Party or of government officials is not permitted. Local human rights organizations are banned, although one international organization was allowed to conduct a limited fact-finding mission.


In 1947, Syria had only 37 hospitals, with a total of 1,834 beds, but by 1985, the number of hospitals had increased to 195, with 11,891 beds. The government also maintains mobile hospital units, modern laboratories, x-ray centers, sanatoriums, and dispensaries. In 2004, there were an estimated 140 physicians, 72 dentists, 52 pharmacists, and 140 nurses per 100,000 people. In 1993, about 99% of the population had access to health care services. Total health care expenditure was estimated at 2.5% of GDP.

Since World War II, malaria has been virtually eliminated with the aid of the World Health Organization, but intestinal and respiratory diseases associated with poor living conditions are still common, particularly in rural areas. Cases of malaria, tuberculosis and leprosy persist. Approximately 80% of the population had access to safe drinking water and 90% had adequate sanitation.

As of 2002, the crude birth rate and overall mortality rate were estimated at 30.1 and 5.1 per 1,000 people, respectively. About 45% of married women (ages 15 to 49) used contraception. In 2005, the infant mortality rate was 29.53 per 1,000 live births. Maternal mortality was 110 per 100,000 live births. Average life expectancy was 70.03 years in 2005. Immunization rates for children up to one year old were tuberculosis, 100%; diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus, 100%; polio, 100%; and measles, 98%. Rates for DPT and measles were 94% and 97%, respectively.

The HIV/AIDS prevalence was 0.10 per 100 adults in 2003. As of 2004, there were approximately 500 people living with HIV/AIDS in the country. There were an estimated 200 deaths from AIDS in 2003.


The 198185 development plan allocated s£2.6 billion to construction projects, including housing. According to the latest available information for 198088, total housing units numbered 1,670,000 with 6.4 people per dwelling. In 2000, there were about 2,824,845 dwellings.


Elementary schooling is free and compulsory for nine years, which are covered in two stages (five years plus four years) of basic school. Secondary schools offer three-year programs in general (scientific or literary), technical, and vocational studies. The academic year runs from September to June.

In 2001, about 9% of children between the ages of three and five were enrolled in some type of preschool program. Primary school enrollment in 2003 was estimated at about 98% of age-eligible students. The same year, secondary school enrollment was about 43% of age-eligible students. It is estimated that about 87.5% of all students complete their primary education. The student-to-teacher ratio for primary school was at about 24:1 in 2000; the ratio for secondary school was about 18:1.

Syria has four universities: the University of Damascus (founded in 1923); the University of Aleppo (Halab, 1960); Tishrin University (Al Lādhiqiyah, 1971); and Al-Ba'ath University in Himş (Homs, 1979). In 1995, all higher-level institutions had a total of 4,733 teachers and 215,734 students. The adult literacy rate for 2004 was estimated at about 82.9%, with 91% for men and 74.2% for women.

As of 1999, public expenditures on education were estimated at 2.8% of GDP.


The Assad National Library, founded in 1984 in Damascus and an adjunct of the Arab Academy, has 262,000 volumes and is well known for rare books and manuscripts. The library of the University of Damascus has 169,000 volumes. The Al Zahiriah public library in Damascus has 100,000 volumes. There are also public libraries in Halab, Damascus, Himş, and Al Ladhiqìyah.

The most important museum is the National Museum in Damascus, founded in 1919. It contains ancient Oriental, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic collections and houses the Directorate-General of Antiquities, established in 1947, which supervises excavations and conserves antiquities under the Antiquities Law. Also in Damascus, there is the Museum of Art and Popular Traditions and the Museum of Arabic Medicine and Science. There are small museums in Halab, Hama, Himş, Palmyra, Tartos, and other cities.


Nearly all communications facilities are owned and operated by the government, including the postal service, telegraph, telephone, radio, and television. In 2003, there were an estimated 123 mainline telephones for every 1,000 people; over two million people were on a waiting list for telephone service installation. The same year, there were approximately 65 mobile phones in use for every 1,000 people.

The government-controlled Syrian Broadcasting Service transmits on medium wave and shortwave, and broadcasts in Arabic and 10 foreign languages. Syrian television has two stations. While there are a few private radio stations, they are not permitted to transmit any news or political information. Altogether, there were nine AM and one FM radio station in 1999, and 44 television stations. In 2003, there were an estimated 276 radios and 182 television sets for every 1,000 people. The same year, there were 19.4 personal computers for every 1,000 people. In 2002, there were 220,000 Internet users.

Most Syrian newspapers are published by government ministries and popular organizations. Principal dailies in Arabic (with 2002 circulations) include Al-Ba'ath (40,000), published by the Ba'ath Arab Socialist Party, Tishrin (50,000), and Al-Thawrah (40,000), all in Damascus. In 2000, the government authorized publication of the first private paper since 1963. That paper, The People's Voice, is published by the National Progressive Front (Communist Party). The Union Socialist Party has since published its own paper, The Unionist.

Though the constitution provides for free expression of opinion in speech and writing, in practice the government is reported to restrict these rights significantly. Written criticism of the president, the president's family, the Ba'ath Party, the military, and the regime are not permitted.


Syria has chambers of commerce, industry, and agriculture, most of which are members of the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Commerce. The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas is based in Aleppo. Other multination groups based in Syria include the Arab Institute for Occupational Health and Safety and the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union. The cooperative movement is well developed. There are some professional associations.

The most prominent cultural and educational organizations are the Arab Academy and the Arab Club for Information (Arabcin), both in Damascus. There are a number of sports associations promoting amateur competition for athletes of all ages in a variety of pastimes.

The General Women's Federation was established in 1967 as one of several organizations through which the Ba'ath Party has tried to mobilize popular energies and consolidate its control. Analogous groups include the General Union of Peasants, the General Federation of Trade Unions, the General Union of Students, and the Revolutionary Youth Organization.

There is a national chapter of the Red Crescent Society.


Syria has many famous tourist attractions, such as the Krak des Chevaliers, a Crusaders' castle; Ra's Shamrah, site of the ancient city of Ugarit; Ar-Rusafah, with its early Christian monuments and Muslim palace; and the ancient town of Dura Europus (now As-Salihiyah). Palmyra, the capital of Queen Zenobia, is a fairly well-preserved ruin of an Arabo-Hellenic city. The Umayyad Mosque, which incorporates parts of the Byzantine Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, in Damascus, is popular. Syria's mountains and Mediterranean beaches also attract visitors.

A vaccination for meningitis is required for pilgrims traveling to Mecca for the annual Hajj. All travelers are strongly recommended to take precautions against malaria, typhoid, and meningitis. There were 4,388,119 foreign visitors to Syria in 2003, mainly from neighboring Middle Eastern countries. Hotel rooms numbered 16,966, with 38,928 beds that same year.

In 2005, the US Department of State estimated the daily cost of staying in Damascus at $206.


Among the famous Syrians of earlier periods are Queen Zenobia of Palmyra (3d century ad), who led a series of military campaigns against the Romans in order to reopen trade routes; the philosopher Al-Farabi (Muhammad bin Muhammad bin Tarkhan abu Nasr al-Farabi, 872950), considered by the Arab world as second only to Aristotle; the poet Al-Mutanabbi (Abu at-Tayyib Ahmad bin al-Husayn al-Mutanabbi, 91565); the mystic philosopher Shihab ad-Din as-Suhrawardi (d.1191); and the theologian philosopher Taqi ad-Din Ahmad bin Taymiyah (12631328).

Of the Umayyad caliphs, Umar bin 'Abd-al-'Aziz (r.717720) is still revered as a restorer of true Islam. In a later era, Nureddin (Nur ad-Din, 111874), ruler of Aleppo, annexed Damascus and brought Egypt under his control. By unifying Muslim forces against the Crusaders, he made possible the victories of the renowned Saladin (Salah ad-Din, 113893), sultan of both Syria and Egypt, whose tomb is in Damascus. Hafez al-Assad (Hafiz al-Asad, 19282000) ruled Syria from 19702000. His son, Bashar al-Assad (b.1965), was elected president unopposed after his father's death.


Syria has no territories or colonies.


Ball, Warwick. Syria: A Historical and Architectural Guide. Essex, U.K.: Scorpion Publishers, 1994.

Batatu, Hanna. Syria's Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Choueiri, Youssef M. (ed.). State and Society in Syria and Lebanon. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1993.

Commins, David. Historical Dictionary of Syria. 2nd ed. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2004.

Gelvin, James L. Divided Loyalties: Nationalism and Mass Politics in Syria at the Close of Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Hourani, Albert Habib. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002.

Kienle, Eberhard (ed.) Contemporary Syria: Liberalization Between Cold War and Cold Peace. London: British Academic Press, 1994.

Klengel, Horst. Syria, 3000 to 300 B.C.: A Handbook of Political History. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1992.

The Middle East. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2005.

Perthes, Volker. The Political Economy of Syria Under Asad. London: I.B. Tauris, 1995.

Quilliam, Neil. Syria. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Clio Press, 1999.

Seddon, David (ed.). A Political and Economic Dictionary of the Middle East. Philadelphia: Routledge/Taylor and Francis, 2004.

State and Society in Syria and Lebanon. Edited by Youssef M. Choueiri. New York: St. Martin's, 1994.

Tauber, Eliezer. The Formation of Modern Syria and Iraq. Ilford, U.K.: Frank Cass, 1994.

Waldner, David. State Building and Late Development. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Syria." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations. . 27 Oct. 2016 <>.

"Syria." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations. . (October 27, 2016).

"Syria." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations. . Retrieved October 27, 2016 from



Syrian Arab Republic

Major Cities:
Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia

Other Cities:
Deir-ez-Zor, Der'ā, Hama, Hasakeh, Homs, Raqqa, Tartūs


This chapter was adapted from the Department of State Post Report dated April 1997. Supplemental material has been added to increase coverage of minor cities, facts have been updated, and some material has been condensed. Readers are encouraged to visit the Department of State's web site at for the most recent information available on travel to this country.


Archaeologists estimate that SYRIA is part of a civilization that may have existed as long ago as the third millennium B.C. Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Arameans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Nabataeans, Byzantines, and, in part, Crusaders before finally coming under the control of the Ottoman Turks. Syria is significant in the history of Christianity; Paul was converted on the road to Damascus and established the first organized Christian Church at Antioch in ancient Syria, from which he left on many of his missionary journeys.

The Syrians, after a long and turbulent existence under wars and occupation, proclaimed independence in 1941, and established autonomy a few years later when British and French troops were withdrawn from within Syrian borders. The country, made a French mandate in 1920 by the League of Nations, had been under the control of France's Vichy Government until British and French troops occupied it early in World War II. In 1958, Syria merged with Egypt as part of the United Arab Republic, but withdrew from that agreement in September 1961.

Syria has been directly involved in the Middle East unrest of the last 30 years. Its troops have aided Egypt in attacks on Israel (1973); have battled Christian forces in Lebanon (1976 and 1981); and have fought Israeli troops inside Lebanon (1982). More recently, the Syrian government sided with Iran during its long war with Iraq (1980-1988); became the first of the Arab countries to denounce the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (1990); and used their considerable influence to help free U.S. hostages held in Lebanon (1991).

Life throughout Syria is a tapestry of modern and ancient aspects. The country possesses a rich and varied cultural heritage and meaningful economic potential.



The origins of Damascus lie under the millennia of sands that have covered its secrets from the time of the Garden of Eden. According to local mythology, Eden sat astride the Barada River and was a fertile land blessed with a mild climate. Its claim to be the oldest, continuously-inhabited city is reinforced by its central location in relation to ancient civilizations and its acknowledged importance on the earliest trade routes. Damascus has a splendid covered bazaar. The Hamidiyyah Souk (bordered by Mahmat Pasha, the Street called Straight) is mentioned in the Bible as a thriving ancient marketplace.

Damascus is a city of sharp contrasts, with Roman arches shading Ottoman architecture on the same street featuring international five-star hotels. In the Old City, the narrow streets twist and wind around ancient gates and arches past fascinating homes and mosques. From the open stalls, shouts announcing new products and great prices compete with braying donkeys, passing street vendors and large crowds of people seeing the souk again or for a first time. Car horn cacophonies are standard musical fare in major metropolitan areas and Damascenes are proficient in this artform. With comforting regularity, the prayer calls mark the passing of time; the schedule adjusted, by tradition, for the moon and the weather.

Business hours and days are based on religion and culture. Friday is the official day of rest for the predominantly Muslim community; Jews observe the Sabbath; and Christians take Sunday off. Many shops open around 09:00 and close for several hours around lunch (14:00 to 17:00). The work day may end at 20:00 or later. These hours do not apply before or during the Eid holidays.


Excellent fresh fruits and vegetables in season are available in vegetable souks and in small neighborhood shops. Damascenes love their food and Syrian food is among the best in the Middle East. Prepare to learn to cook with new spices and methods. Spices are available and fresh, so don't ship old spice-reward your taste buds with sharp and distinct fresh spice flavors.

There are a few butchers in most neighborhoods and the quality of meats can be good. There is beef, chicken, goat, lamb, turkey, and veal in the marketplace. There are two pork butchers who will provide sides of pork. You will need to learn which cuts you want and enjoy experimenting with fresh meats. Some shops have begun to carry baked and smoked hams, bacon and prosciutto to satisfy the foreign community's demands. These products are imported and expensive.

Fresh fish is available in limited quantities and varieties. It is useful to know your fish before buying as most is brought on ice from the coast. Several salesmen come around the neighborhoods with their trucks laden with fish and shrimp. Once you make contacts, the fishmongers will help you choose. Frozen fish appears in the shops from time to time. Canned fish (i.e., anchovies, crab, salmon, sardines, smelts and tuna) can be found imported from the Far East.

Dairy products are abundant. Butter, whipping cream, creme fraiche, cream cheese, and long-life whole, low fat, and skimmed milk are always available. Yogurts and ice creams come in both the local and imported varieties, and butter is made in Syria, both salt-free and lightly salted. Many shops import butter and cheeses from Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, and Bread is the staple of most cultures' diets and Syria is no exception. People consume the flat Arabic bread, French style baguettes, white flour and multi-grain buns and loaves. The Armenian bakers make a crusty Russian style wheat loaf. Most of these use no preservatives or salt, therefore they do not keep well.

Syrian sweets are world famous. Bakeries make large varieties of delicious pastries including baklava, macaroons, meringue, cookies and cakes with almonds and pistachios, creams and cheeses, honey and other sweeteners (rose-water, for example).

Alcoholic beverages (liquor, beer and wine) are available through the local duty-free stores. Quite a variety is imported by these organizations. Syria and Lebanon produce wines and beers and certain liquors that can be purchased in most corner grocery stores.

Syrians enjoy smoking the argileh (water pipe) and use either the dark black tobacco made famous in Latakia and throughout Persia or the fruited brown tobacco found in the Gulf States.

Syria produces a large variety of soft drinks under license from Royal Crown and Crush, to all the carbonated mixers (tonic, soda, bitter lemon, etc.) Fruit drinks are popular and produced locally. There are tetra-pack boxes of orange, grapefruit, lemon, pineapple and mango juice in liter and quarter liter sizes, with and without sugar added.


Damascenes are very social and enjoy dressing for any occasion. Styles vary from the very conservative to the resplendent. Clothes that are imported from the West can be very expensive, but are available. There are many styles of clothes that Syria imports. Local production is growing and Syria is a producer of cotton and other cloth products.

Men: Social life is informal. Gentlemen wear dark suits for most formal occasions and coat and tie is the accepted evening wear.

In the summer season, lightweight suits are desirable for office wear. It does get hot, even with air-conditioning in the work place. Winter is cold enough to warrant wool or wool blend suits. Damascus has reasonably good dry-cleaning services and only the most exotic clothing might be at risk.

Women: In Arabic culture, one can never go wrong with a more conservative outfit for different occasions. Nevertheless, Damascus is quite cosmopolitan and women enjoy wearing ornate cocktail dresses for evening and formal events. Several dressy outfits, short or long, should satisfy most needs. The ladies wear dresses or pantsuits for daily wear and it behooves you to remember the season and weather.

In summer, cotton and linen blends are probably the most comfortable for inside (climatized) and outside. Slacks are acceptable and popular with the younger Syrians for day wear. Shorts, tank-tops, and other revealing dress is not suitable for street wear (except maybe in the beach cities) and will make you much more uncomfortable than the weather. Your winter wardrobe should include a wool coat and a raincoat for the rainy season. Sweaters and medium weight wools are probably the most comfortable from November to March. Syrian women wear furs; if you bring one to Damascus, bring all the necessary supplies for cleaning and storage as these are difficult to find.

Bring comfortable walking shoes to Syria; walking is a social event and everybody walks. Women's shoes are available in the market but sizes may be difficult to find and styles are not always comparable to those in the U.S. American brand lingerie, panty hose and stockings are not imported. European lingerie is expensive and sizes vary from what you may be used to at home.

Children: All of the observations above apply to children's clothing. Children's clothes should include durable playwear and tennis shoes (sneakers) for school and home. Students at the Damascus Community School dress very much like the kids they see on TV; a lot like those you find at your local school or mall. Preschoolers find the largest variety in the market from which to choose and infant clothing is reasonably priced. You can keep up with their growing spurts by shopping locally.

Supplies and Services

American toilet articles and cosmetics are expensive, when available, in Syria. Gentlemen without brand preferences have little difficulty obtaining necessary items in the local markets. American products for women are rarely available, though European substitutes can usually be found

Most drugs and medications are available in Damascus, either in the generic lines or in specific European labels, and are almost always less expensive than in the U.S. Nevertheless, if you have specific medical requirements, you should check with your doctor and bring sufficient supplies until you become familiar with the local pharmacies. Contact lens solutions and supplies should be brought with you.

Damascus offers a good selection of dress makers and tailors. Quality and the speed of production vary widely and, as with any service sector, it is best to know your provider. Nevertheless, this enterprise gets generally high marks. Shoe and boot makers and repair shops are also available. Handmade riding boots cost about $150 and men's loafers run from $50 to $100.

There are plenty of beauty and barber shops that are up on the latest European styles and provide full services including shampoos, cuts, sets, permanents, manicures, pedicures, and massages. The cost of these services is very reasonable

Religious Activities

The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslim and there are many mosques that serve both the Sunni and the small Shi'a communities. Damascus has many cultures and religious traditions and was a home to the earliest Christian and Islamic communities. There is one Jewish synagogue, several Roman Catholic churches, even more Orthodox (Eastern) churches, including Armenian, Greek, Russian, and Syrian Orthodox, several Protestant churches including Anglican (Episcopalian), Baptist, Communitarian, and Presbyterian. Mormons maintain a house of prayer and a community center in Amman, Jordan. Most Far Eastern religions are not represented (have no official presence) in Damascus


The Damascus Community School (DCS), organized in 1950, provides English language based education from Pre-K through 12th grade. The student base (290 pupils in 94-95) included 21 nationalities drawn from the diplomatic and business communities as well as the local community. 60% of the student body is Syrian. Teachers are primarily U.S.-certified Americans and overseas hires. There are 35 full time teachers hired from overseas, 10 local hires and a support staff of 15, including office personnel. The school is accredited by the Middle States Schools Organization and belongs to E.M.A.C. (Eastern Mediterranean Activities Council.) School transcripts from DCS serve as a basis for enrollment in U.S. schools.

School programs include computer sessions for all grade levels, liberal arts electives including drama, journalism, music and dance. Pupils can choose either Arabic or French language programs for the foreign language requirement. DCS offers English as a second language (E.S.L.) for foreign students.

The campus is located in a pleasant residential area and is centrally located. The campus' central courtyard is landscaped and comfortably laid out for social interaction. The playground areas include a soccer field, basketball court and two jungle gym areas for the younger students. The school cafeteria provides, for a fee, daily hot lunches and a variety of snacks and drinks. The school opens in late August and maintains a 180-day schedule equivalent to the standard U.S. public school schedule. For enrollment at DCS a student is required to furnish a birth certificate, transcripts or previous school records; health certificate and/or medical records including vaccination and immunization schedules, two current photos and proof of residence in Damascus, Syria.


The Sheraton, Meridien and Ibla Cham Hotels all offer memberships, for a fee, to their pool and tennis complexes. All have resident trainers and coaches. Sheraton's compound has six hard surface courts, a large pool, a children's pool, and a children's playground. The Meridien has four soft surface (clay) courts, and a large pool and gardens. Locally owned and managed, the Ibla Cham has eight hard surface courts, two pools and an equestrian paddock with rental horses available to the public. For tennis players, it is best to bring balls, racket strings and handle wraps as they are very expensive, when available.

There are several riding clubs in the city, generally for more advanced riders. Horses can be purchased and stabled at these clubs for a fee. Riding wear and boots are made in the souk and are not expensive: However, saddles, tack, medicines and other gear should be shipped from the States.

Golf is not played much in Syria and the two courses are more than five hours away from Damascus. The Cham Palace has a bowling alley that is open to the public. Fishing opportunities are very limited except on the coast. Camping is permitted by the Syrian Government and is popular with many in the diplomatic community. There are wonderful, undeveloped, areas throughout the country that campers regularly visit.

Runners can look forward to joining the Hash House Harriers based in the British Embassy Club. Running is becoming a popular sport with Syrians and joggers are out daily in the larger parks around the city. The Canadians have organized a mini-marathon (Terry Fox Run) for the past two years.

Sports equipment of all types, including shoes, is all imported and quite expensive. Sizes and styles are very limited

Touring and Outdoor Activities

Syria, a cradle of civilization and squarely on the crossroads between East and West, has something for everyone.

Bosra , on the Syrian-Jordanian border and two hours south of the city, features possibly the best preserved Roman amphitheater anywhere. A medieval Arab citadel surrounds the theater. Ramparts of this fort have protected the Roman architecture since the 12th century. This site hosts a musical arts festival each September. The area was an important agricultural center to the Romans. A recently discovered, Pompeii-like, volcanically covered, Roman city has excited the archeological and historical communities with some wonderful finds.

Krak des Chevaliers , described by Lawrence of Arabia as the Vatican of the Middle East, is two hours north of Damascus overlooking a large valley and the pass from Homs to the coast. This Crusader fortress, built on a promontory originally developed by the Emir of Homs in 1031 AD, is a classic example of the siege defenses of the Middle Ages. Well preserved and massive, the castle complex supported a community of over 4,000 knights and retainers and had a rock-hewn stable large enough for 500 horses. Crusader knights occupied it from 1110 AD and deeded it to the Hospitaliers who finally capitulated to the Mameluke Sultan Baibars in 1271. The villages around the Krak are predominantly Catholic to this day.

Kuneitra , up on the Golan Heights, was the site of some of the fiercest fighting between Syria and Israel in both the '67 and '73 wars. The village has remained untouched since being placed under UN supervision in 1974. Several diplomatic missions have staged concerts and picnics on its fertile plain where one can see snow-capped mountains and skiers on the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan.

Maloula , less than an hour from Damascus, is the site of the early Christian convent dedicated to St. Takla. The Syrian icons and paintings are particularly interesting, and still produced here. Maloula has the distinction of being uniquely bilingual with Aramaic (the language of Jesus Christ and the New Testament writings) still spoken by a large portion of the population.

Palmyra , an oasis that served the silk and spice trade from Nineveh, Babylon, Persepolis and points east of the Mediterranean, has the distinction of being mentioned in the Old Testament books of Kings and Songs of Solomon. Its biblical name, Tadmor, recalls its importance as an early center of trading and culture. The name appears in the annals of Roman conquests and the Emperor Valerian was so taken by the city, when he visited in the third century, that he granted it free city-state status and renamed it Palmyra Valeriana.

Three hours from Damascus on the road to Baghdad, these ruins are an extraordinary example of the synthesis of Roman, Syrian and Persian cultures. At its peak it boasted a population of over 50,000. Tadmori tycoons controlled trade throughout Anatolia and Syria in the Eastern Empire. Witness to their power and fame lies in the valley of tombs just north of the ruins of Palmyra. Queen Zenobia, who rebelled against Rome and expanded the "Palmyran kingdom" to Egypt and eastern Asia Minor, drew the wrath of the Emperor Aurelian who destroyed Palmyra in 273 AD. He returned to Rome with Zenobia in golden chains and paraded her through the city. On the Aurelian Arch in Rome, one can still see the humiliation of Palmyra's queen. The city's importance waned and it was bypassed by history after this period. Its extensive oasis provides a walk through history along hard paths beneath the date, fig and pomegranate trees.

Sednayah , the Santiago de Compostela of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, is a picturesque village built around an old monastery that was a popular pilgrimage point during the Crusades. Christians considered it an essential stop on the way to Jerusalem and accrued plenary indulgences for the visit.

Many more sites and sights, too numerous to mention, make Syria a travelers' wonderland. Several worth mentioning include an ancient, beautifully painted and well-preserved synagogue, Dura Europos. It is one of the many interesting sites on the high plains of the Euphrates valley area. Crusader and Arabic fortresses dot the coastal plain, which are as impressive and massive as the Krak des Chevaliers. Roman ruins that are a day's march from each other feature well-pre-served mosaics and unusual architectural syntheses.

Campers often choose to set up their tents near these sites and use the long weekends to explore little known and undeveloped areas. Hikers find many areas that provide a feast for their eyes as well as a feat for their feet. In the spring and fall many walking clubs take advantage of the Ghuta, an agriculturally developed oasis near Damascus, to enjoy the blossoms or the fruits of the lush orchards. Picnic and camping sites are not developed or equipped. You should plan to bring any camping or picnic gear that will make these outings more pleasant.

Outside Syria

Travel by car or plane is reasonably easy and inexpensive. Amman is four hours away by car. The Nabatean ruins at Petra, Roman ruins at Jerash, Jerusalem and Israel are only a few of the possibilities. Direct, short flights to Athens, Cairo, Dubai, Istanbul, Larnaca, Sanaa, and Vienna make tourism a relatively affordable hobby from Damascus.

Entertainment and Social Activities

Cultural life in Syria is multifaceted. The Syrian Government is in the process of building a multi-function arts complex that will include an opera house and a concert hall. Presently the Damascus Symphony performs at several different venues including the Asad Library auditorium. Some diplomatic missions sponsor artists and performers from their respective countries and a few have year-around schedules. The Russian Embassy has a once-a-month musical program that has featured classical quartets, classical and modern pianists, and full orchestras. USIS brings a variety of performers representative of the American music scene. Hotels sponsor travelling troupes. The Syrian Government's festivals in Aleppo, Bosra and during the Damascus Fair supplement the fall schedule. Most of these have a token fee or request a donation of $2.00 to $5.00.

Several formal dances or balls are held throughout the year, the highlight being the Marine Corps Birthday Ball that is well attended by the community. The oil companies sponsor a country and western night that includes foods flown in from the States and a live band.

Movie theaters in Damascus feature Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian films as well as American, French and Italian. Most are in the original language and subtitled. Prices are inexpensive.

Life in Damascus can run late and is often organized around sumptuous meals. Food is a reflection of culture and civilization, and Damascus has had over 7,000 years to develop its extensive and delicious cuisine. Arabic food, especially Lebanese and Syrian, are a gourmand's delight with flavor-filled sauces of creams and spices covering vine-ripened eggplant and zucchini stuffed with lamb, onions and pine-nuts. Restaurants of all categories and price ranges abound. There are few Oriental (Chinese and Japanese) restaurants in the city. The predominance of foreign food is either French or Italian. The hotels compete to provide bountiful buffets and schedule weeks featuring the foods of other countries, such as German week during Oktoberfest and a summer Fiesta Mexicana.

The American Women in Damascus (AWD), holds monthly meetings that feature programs on regional archeology, cultural life in Damascus, etc. This group often sponsors special activities including gourmet cooking presentations, handicrafts, card competitions (such as bridge, belot), exercise classes, old-city tours, and several fund-raising events throughout the year.

Ahlan wa Sahlan, sponsored by the wife of Syrian Vice President Khaddam, is another international group that is very active in Damascus and strives to include most foreigners in many social and cultural activities. Group meetings and locations are announced each month and programs include arts displays, music performances, haute cuisine demonstrations and tastings, and introductions to Syrian agroindustries including viticulture. There are nominal fees for membership in either of the above.


Aleppo, with a population of more than 2.2 million, is the second largest city in Syria. It played an important role in Islamic defenses during the Crusades and has competed with Damascus for predominance in area politics since the days of the Roman Empire. The citadel, an ancient fortress rising out of the center of town, dominates the view of the city. It casts its shadows on the colorful bazaar that competes only with the souk in Damascus for variety.

Tourists use Aleppo as a base for visiting many "dead cities" of northern Syria dating back to Ugarit and Hittite ages. Ebla, an iron age center searched for by archaeologists for centuries and found recently, is just south of the city. Early Christian ascetics, such as Simon Stylites, made their base a few kilometers north of Aleppo.

The Aleppo Museum is second only to the National Museum in Damascus for collections in Ugarit, Hittite, early Greek and Roman artifacts from Syria. T.E. Lawrence and Agatha Christie sat on the balconies of the Baron Hotel, still open and popular, and wrote while sipping tea and admiring the sunsets. This train stop, now in the center of a congested part of downtown, is featured in "Murder on the Orient Express."

Aleppo was a flourishing trade center during the 16th century, but its importance declined with the use of sea routes to India and the later opening of the Suez Canal. Twice, it was nearly destroyed by earthquakesfirst in 1822, and again eight years later. Aleppo was the state of French mandate which united with Damascus in 1925 to form the state of Syria.

Located in the semi-desert region of northwest Syria, Aleppo is a commercial center where grains, cotton, and fruit are grown. A market for wool and hides, Aleppo manufactures silk, printed cotton textiles, cement, and dried fruits and nuts, especially pistachios.

Aleppo has an international airport and is connected to Damascus and Latakia by rail, as well as with Turkey and Iraq.

The University of Aleppo (founded in 1960), Aleppo Institute of Music (founded in 1955), and Muslim theological schools are located in the city. Landmarks include the 12th-century Byzantine Citadel and the Great Mosque, built in 715.


International School of Aleppo is a coeducational, day, company-sponsored school for children in kindergarten through grade 12. Founded in 1976 and sponsored by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, the school offers a modified U.S. curriculum to about 100 students. Of the 49 staff members, 10 are American.

The school year runs from September to June, with a two-week vacation at Christmas and a one-week spring break. International School is located in a southwest suburb of Aleppo. Facilities include three buildings, 22 classrooms, science laboratories, playing fields, tennis courts, and a 3,000-volume library. The address of International School of Aleppo is: P.O. Box 5466, Aleppo, Syria.


Syria's principal port, Latakia, lies on the Mediterranean Sea. It is situated in the center of a rich agricultural region. Since the completion of its deep-water harbor in 1959, it has exported cereals, raw cotton, asphalt, bitumen, fruit, and Latakia tobacco, which has been cultivated since the 17th century. Sponge fishing, vegetable oil milling, and cotton ginning are among the city's industries.

Historically, Latakia was the ancient Phoenician city of Ramitha, and later prospered as the Roman city, Laodicea ad Mare. It was captured by the Crusaders in 1098, and flourished in the 12th century. The city was part of the Ottoman Empire from the 16th century until World War I. Latakia was the capital of the Territory of the Alaouites from 1920 to 1942. Its current population exceeds 300,000.

Near Latakia is the site of the Canaanite city of Ugarit, which has produced many interesting artifacts now on display in the Damascus Museum. Ruins of a Crusader castle are also a short distance from Latakia. Beaches abound here, but chemical pollution from the port is widespread, and care must be used in selecting a swimming place.


DEIR-EZ-ZOR (also spelled Dayrar-Zawr and Dayr al-Zur) is located in eastern Syria on the Euphrates River. A prosperous farming town with a cattle-breeding center, an agricultural school, and salt rock mines nearby, Deir-ez-Zor is also a hub for trans-desert travel, and has an airport. The modern city was constructed by the Ottoman Empire in 1867 to halt the incoming Arab tribes of the Euphrates region. France occupied Deir-ez-Zor in 1921, making it the seat of a large garrison. Taken by the British in 1941, it became part of independent Syria in 1946. The population is approximately 150,000.

DER'Ā (also spelled Dar'ā), the chief city of the Hawrān region, is located 65 miles south of the capital, near the border with Jordan. There is no industry here, but the city is a market center and rail junction. Der'ā has Greco-Roman era ruins, as well as a 13th-century mosque. A pivotal battle was waged here in 636 that led to the decimation of the Byzantine forces and the Arab conquest of Syria. The population of Der'ā is well over 50,000.

HAMA lies on the Orontes River, about 75 miles south of Aleppo. With a population over 250,000, Hama is the market center for an irrigated farm region that grows cotton, wheat, barley, millet, and maize. Famous old waterwheels, some as great as 90 feet in diameter, bring water from the Orontes for irrigation. Hama is a road and rail center, with an airport nearby. The city manufactures cotton, silk, and woolen textiles, towels, carpets, and dairy products. Historically, Hama was settled as early as the Bronze and Iron Ages. It was often mentioned in the Bible as Hamath, the northern boundary of the Israelite tribes. As part of the Persian Empire, Hama was conquered by Alexander the Great. It also was part of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Following World War I, Hama became a constituent of the French Levant States (League of Nations) mandate and, in 1941, part of independent Syria. Landmarks here include the remains of a Roman aqueduct that is still in use, and the Great Mosque of Djami al-Nuri, which was a Christian basilica until 638.

HASAKEH (also spelled Hasakah and Hassaka) lies on the Khābūr River, 340 miles northeast of Damascus. This is a major road junction and hub of a large irrigated farming district. Assyrian refugees from Iraq settled here during the French mandate of Syria in the early 1930s. The population of Hasakeh exceeds 75,000.

HOMS is located in west-central Syria, about halfway between Damascus and Aleppo, and near the Lebanon border. Situated on the Orontes River, it is a commercial center situated in a fertile plain where grapes, wheat, barley, and onions are grown. Items manufactured in the city include petroleum products, flour, fertilizer, processed foods, and silk, cotton, and woolen textiles. With a population of over 480,000, Homs is also a road and rail junction. Historically, Homs was called Emesa and was the site of a great temple to the sun god Baal. The city came into prominence in the third century when a priest from the temple became the Roman emperor Heliogabalus. Homs was part of the Ottoman Empire from the 16th century until after World War I, when it was part of the French mandate of the League of Nations.

RAQQA (also spelled Raqqah or Rakkah) is the capital of the governorate of the same name, situated on the left bank of the Euphrates River, 100 miles southeast of Aleppo. The ancient Greeks were the first known inhabitants of the Raqqa area, calling it Nicephorium. A number of palatial homes were built here in early Arab times, when it was a base of operations against the Byzantines. Modern development began with the construction of the nearby Tabaqah Dam on the Euphrates in 1968. There is a museum in Raqqa featuring finds from area archaeological digs. A government team of archaeologists has excavated and restored edifices from the 'Abbāsid period here. The population of Raqqa is roughly over 87,000.

TARTŪS (also spelled Tartous) is the country's second port, with a population over 55,000. Located 42 miles south of Latakia on the Mediterranean, Tartūs dates to at least the fourth century. The city's museum, built by the Crusaders and formerly called the Cathedral of Our Lady of Tortosa, is considered a fine example of crusader architecture of the period. The ruins of the Castle of the Templars are in the older district. Tartūs is also the hub of a fertile agricultural area and is a fishing port.


Geography and Climate

The Syrian Arab Republic is at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea and at the northern end of the Afro-Asian Rift Valley. It abuts Turkey on its northern border; Iraq on its east; Jordan on the south; Israel, Lebanon and the Mediterranean on the west. Syria's area, approximately 185,000 sq. km. (71,500 sq. mi.), comprises several distinct climatic conditions. The western coastal plain is a narrow, fertile stretch of land that is the most humid area of the country, with milder winters and summers than the rest of the country. Due east in the Orontes River valley, the northern extension of the Afro-Asian rift, is a rich agricultural area that continues into the Bekaa Valley to the south. East of the Orontes valley begins the desert region.

The largest cities of Syria: Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo are located on the eastern side of the mountain spine created by the rift. Further to the east is the Syrian Desert with its ancient oasis-city, Palmyra. In the northeast, the Anatolian Mountains serve as a natural barrier between Syria and Turkey, and Syria and Iraq. Here is found the Jazira Valley watered by the Euphrates River that is the grain belt of Syria. The oil fields of Syria are also in this area.

Damascus, the capital and one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, rests at around 700 m. (2,300 ft.) above sea level on the Barada River in the southwestern section of the country. Climatic conditions in Damascus are comparable to those of cities in the southwestern United States. There are four seasons in the city with spring, winter and fall generally lasting eight to twelve weeks apiece. Summers can be long, dry, and hot. Short winters can be cold and rainy, with occasional snow. Average annual rainfall in Damascus has been 255 mm. (10 in.) in the past decade.

Temperatures in the city range from lows of 0°C (32°F) at night to highs of 20°C (68°F) during the day in the winter, and in the summer from 16°C (60°F) to 38°C (100°F). Though snow falls infrequently in Damascus, it does snow in the mountains near the city and some roads are impassible during these storms. The climate variation in Syria allows a robust agriculture with year-round availability of fruits and vegetables, most staple grains, and cotton.


Syria's population is estimated at 16.7 million (2001 est.), with approximately 60% in the urban centers and the remainder comprising a strong agrarian rural minority. Population in the Damascus metropolitan area is estimated at around four million; Aleppo, the second largest city, has 1.5 million people; and Homs 400,000.

Roughly 90% of the citizens are Arab. Other minorities include Armenians, Circassians, Kurds, and Turks. Around 74% of the populace is Sunni Muslim. Alawis and other Muslim sects account for 16% and the Christians 10%. There is a small and dwindling community of Jews in Syria.

Arabic is the official language of the country. Many professionals and businesspersons speak English. French is still widely spoken by educated Syrians, particularly the older generation. Some Syrians, especially the Druze, speak Spanish. Kurdish, Armenian, Syriac, and Circassian are other minority languages in use in Syria.

Public Institutions

Syria has a presidential form of government with dominant executive power held by the President. The daily operation of government is directed by a Prime Minister and a Council of Ministers. Legislation is vested in a unicameral body, the Syrian People's Council, composed of 250 members elected from lists prepared in various governorates but constitutionally representing the population at large. Syria has a judicial system based originally on the French Napoleonic Code. The highest court of appeal is the Court of Cassation (equivalent to the Supreme Court of the United States).

The most important political party in Syria is the Ba'th Party (est. March 1963). Its political slogan proclaims the principles of Arab unity, freedom, and socialism. Various factions of the Ba'th Party have ruled the country since 1963. The Constitution guarantees the Ba'th party a majority in the People's Council. Several smaller political parties, including the Communist Party, have joined with factions of the Ba'th to create a majority in the People's Council and provide most of the ministerial-level officials in the government. Syria's armed forces and security services are an important factor in the political scene.

Two of the most important economic organizations are the Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber of Industry, reflecting Syria's business and agriculture-based economy. Many governmental and religious social organizations operate orphanages and hospitals in addition to private (for profit) health care providers.

Arts, Science and Education

Damascus maintains one of the best museums in the Middle East, housing samples of its immense history from Neolithic times to the arts and crafts of today. Entering through the Qasr al-Hair al-Gharbi facade that has been rebuilt from an Omayyad desert palace in Palmyra, one finds Hittite, Assyrian, Phoenician, Greek, Roman, and Islamic antiquities. There is a reconstructed underground tomb (hypogea), a synagogue (Dura Europos) and an elaborately detailed old Damascene house from the last century. Next door to the museum are the Suleimaniye Mosque, madrasa (school), and hospice. This classic Ottoman complex was designed and built around 1560 in Syrian fashion with black and white striped masonry and contains one of the loveliest gardens in Damascus. The complex houses the Army Museum and a handicraft market that displays all the traditional crafts of Syria. The Azm Palace, near the Omayyad Mosque (Islam's first great house of prayer) is located in the old city. Also built in Turkish design in the 18th century, it houses displays of everyday Damascene life, now long gone. Museums throughout the country capture the enormous diversity of the cultures and ages of Syria. Archeological sites from the Bronze Age (Ebla) through Graeco Roman (Palmyra and Bosra) and Islamic/Crusader (Sulaiman's Fort, Krak de Chevaliers) are not only sites to see but also venues for cultural events that occur throughout the year.

Contemporary and modern art galleries are found around Damascus with frequently scheduled exhibitions. Other exhibits take place at the Arab Cultural Center, the Asad Library, the People's Gallery, and the exhibition hall of the National Museum. There are more than thirty Arab Cultural Centers throughout the country. Several embassies also operate cultural centers in Damascus, including the British, French, German, Russian, and Spanish.

The American Cultural Center, which was first established in the 1950's, houses a library with approximately 5,500 books, 120 magazines, video tapes, cassette tapes, and microfilms. The USIS library collection features sections on art, literature, history, Arabic translations, and reference works. Magazines include the major journals (Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report ); a variety of general interest publications; plus some highly specialized periodicals. Activities include film presentations, U.S. performing groups, art exhibits, and lectures.

A major opera house and conservatory are presently under construction in Damascus which will house the Damascus Music Conservatory (est. 1960), as well as one of the few symphonies and opera troupes of the Middle East. Scheduled for completion in 1996, it will offer a broad range of programs in the performing arts, including Arabic and Western music and dance. There is a music conservatory in Aleppo (est. 1964) as well. Music instructors of voice and instruments are available in Damascus, and instruments are available for purchase or rent.

Cultural activity in Damascus increases during the annual Damascus International Fair. Major cultural programs are sponsored by Bulgaria, France, Great Britain, Russia, Spain, and Yugoslavia. The Bosra Festival of the Performing Arts is held annually in September in the restored Roman amphitheater of Bosra, two hours drive south of Damascus.

Since independence, Syria's educational facilities have grown in quality and quantity. The literacy rate has increased to 70% (86% male, 56% female). Elementary education is theoretically compulsory; however, this is not enforced in cities and towns, and is not yet possible in all the smaller villages due to shortages of teachers and buildings. Bright Syrian students, nevertheless, are entitled to free education from elementary through university levels. The government has emphasized education as a major goal by establishing a system of teacher-training colleges. Vocational schools are available throughout the country. The Ministry of Education controls the curricula and teaching methods of primary and secondary schools, excluding those with exclusively foreign student populations or operating under a licensed foreign charter.

Damascus University and Syrian higher education date back to 1903 when Turkish rulers founded a school of medicine and pharmacy in Damascus. During the French Mandate, authorities added several more faculties to form the Syrian University, now known as Damascus University. This institution now encompasses nine separate locations in the city and enrolls 95,000 students, about 20% women.

Aleppo University, founded in 1961, was a joint effort by the Syrian Government and UNESCO, supplemented by the Ford Foundation. It is a modern university with faculties in engineering, agriculture, medicine, law, and letters. Enrollment exceeds 60,000. Tishrin University in Latakia, founded in 1977, includes the Maritime Institute and enrolls around 20,000. The Ba'th University of Homs, founded in 1979, is the newest in the Syrian university system. It features an agricultural facility in Hama and has a 10,000-member student body.

All universities are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Higher Education. Arabic is the language of instruction for all undergraduate work, although some French and English literature courses are also taught in Arabic. Postgraduate work requires a functional knowledge of a foreign language. The system of education reflects French influence in organization, nomenclature of degrees, and method of teaching. Special Arabic classes for foreigners are offered at the Arabic Institute.

Commerce and Industry

Syria is a middle-income developing country, with a diversified economic base in agriculture and industry. Per capita gross domestic product is about $3,100 (2000 est.).

Watered in the northeast by the Euphrates River and its tributaries, in the west by the Orontes and other mountain streams, and in the southwest by headwaters of the Yarmuk, Syria produces large quantities of wheat, barley, cotton, and other crops.

Situated astride the traditional trade routes linking Europe with the Arabian Peninsula and Asia, Syria has always had a large and dynamic merchant class. In the past decade, Syria has also become an important producer of crude oil. From the 1960s until recently, the government pursued nationalization policies to enlarge the industrial base. These included building cement factories, a steel mill, two oil refineries, a fertilizer plant, sugar refineries, grain silos, and flour mills that now supply most of the country's basic needs. Nationalization also affected Syria's financial, banking, and insurance sectors. Under government management, the competitiveness and efficiency of these enterprises have atrophied mainly due to monopolistic practices, overemployment, inadequate compensation of employees, and low rates of capital replenishment.

Syria's participation in the Gulf War coalition briefly gave the government access once again to substantial financial aid resources. These are being used to develop a wide range of projects to rehabilitate the country's deteriorating infrastructure and public sector enterprises. That assistance, mostly from Arab countries and Japan, has allowed Syria to modernize its telecommunications systems, expand its electricity generation capacity to overcome serious power shortages, and recapitalize some public sector enterprises. However, nonpayment of debts to foreign creditors, including the U.S., has jeopardized the volume of future assistance.

Unlike other socialist governments, Syria never destroyed its merchant class, leaving agricultural production and trade in its hands. Thus, when the government passed a new investment incentive law in 1991 (Law #10), domestic private sector investment rose dramatically. Additional ad hoc economic liberalization measures have fostered this regeneration of private sector industry, such that private businesses now produce over half of Syria's GDP. However, Syria's inefficient and anachronistic government-run financial sector has severely inhibited Syrians, repatriation of capital invested abroad, as well as foreign investment. As the Syrian Government carries out the next steps of its incremental reform program, the private sector should respond with increased investment and it will take its rightful place at center state of the Syrian economy.

Today Syria exports crude petroleum, cotton, textiles, phosphates, sugar, and food products to Europe and to other Arab countries. Meanwhile, its main imports are raw materials essential for industry and agriculture, advanced oil field equipment, and heavy machinery used in the construction of infrastructure projects.



There is an extensive public transportation system within Damascus that includes buses and taxis, and "service" vans. City bus service is inexpensive, but generally crowded and hard to learn. The "service" system (shared vans that travel specific routes) is both cheap and efficient (vans are available practically every minute or two). It, too, however, requires knowledge of the established routes. Taxis, the most popular form of public transport for foreigners, are readily available and very inexpensive. Cabs are generally painted yellow and have a taxi emblem or light. They are also distinguishable by their red-lettered license plates. There are even radio-dispatched taxi services in the cities. Fares, usually on a meter, run from about 25SL to 50SL for most in-city travel. The fare to the airport is around 500SL and may be a fixed amount without the use of the meter. If the taxicab does not have a meter, fares should be agreed upon before entering the vehicle.

Although there are street names, most Syrians orient themselves by landmarks and well-known sites. If you know the street address of your destination, it is still useful to know a restaurant, hotel, government building, or embassy nearby that the locals use as reference.


It is relatively simple to travel throughout Syria using the public transportation systems. Climatized buses with waiters offering on-board food and drink service, en route video presentations, and express destinations are available between major cities. Sample fares from Damascus to Aleppo average 100SL ($2.38). Taxis are also available between most cities. One may either rent the whole vehicle or buy a seat. A Damascus to Aleppo taxi ride costs about 500SL ($11.90); rental of the vehicle for the same trip is around 3, OOOSL ($71.43).

Rental cars with drivers are available and moderately priced. One way trips to Aleppo and Latakia cost 4,500 to 6,500SL ($108 to $155) and round trips are prorated costing about 35% more than the one way fare. Trains operate on limited schedules to several cities around the country, but service and conditions are poor. Schedules of times and prices are available from the Ministry of Transportation.

All-weather roads exist between most Syrian cities and to many touristic sites throughout the country. The roads are of reasonable quality though most are traveled by heavy truck traffic and may be in varying states of repair. Driving is most dangerous at night when unlit parked cars or unlit moving cars are traveling along the poorly lit highways.


International European carriers serve Damascus from Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Istanbul, London, Paris, Rome, and Vienna. Middle East carriers fly from Bahrain, Cairo, Dubai, Jeddah, Kuwait, Riyadh, Sanaa, Tunis, and other points. Syrian Air serves an expanded list of stops and has reciprocal agreements with smaller regional airlines that include flights to Larnaca and Beirut. These lists change every six months subject to economic and political considerations.


Telephones, Modems, and Fax

Syria's telephone system is currently being revamped and updated. Generally, international service is good and local service is improving, though still subject to occasional interruption, throughout the country. Calls to the United States cost 125SL (approximately $3.00) per minute from 8 am to 2 am local time. From 2 am to 8 am, the cost is 63SL per minute. PTT, the national telecommunications utility, generates phone bills almost one year late, and discrepancies are difficult to contest and resolve. Access to ATT, MCI, and Sprint is available from some numbers in Damascus and is recommended. Membership cards to any of these long distance companies should be obtained prior to arrival.

PTT requires that modem and fax users pay a 600SL fee for a data line

Radio and TV

Electronic media, i.e., radio and television, is government owned and operated in Syria. Radio Damascus, across several AM and FM bands, broadcasts primarily in Arabic, though there are several English and French language programs including short news presentations. Syrian TV has two channels. One channel broadcasts primarily in Arabic. Programming includes Egyptian and Jordanian soap operas and features. The other channel has an eclectic mix of European and American serials and movies in either English or French. The European PAL and Middle East SECAM TV systems are used in Syria. Local specifications include 625 line screens, 220v, 50 cycle power units. U.S. standard (NTSC) television sets will not work and are not readily convertible. multi-system set that operates in SECAM and PAL is necessary. Local signals from adjacent countries can be picked up with a sufficiently large roof antenna

There are a few local cinemas that feature primarily Arabic movies and older American and French films that have been subtitled. They are not widely frequented by Westerners.

Printed Media

There is a limited selection of English, French, and Arab language newspapers and magazines available in Syria. Publications include the dailies: International Herald Tribune, Middle East News, Syria Times, and several from Cairo, Riyadh, and Amman. Weeklies include The Economist, Newsweek, Paris Match, and Time. There is some government censorship and papers arrive at the newsstands several days late. Technical journals (i.e., Scientific American et. al.) and special interest magazines (such as Architectural Digest, Southern Living, et. al.) are not generally available. Single copy prices can be considerably higher than you are accustomed to in the United States. Any subscriptions sent through international mail are subject to the same censorship regulations that are applied to newsstand sales and delivery may be additionally delayed.

Health and Medicine

Medical Facilities

Private medical care in Damascus is adequate for routine problems and very inexpensive. U.S. prescription drugs and medicines (or their European equivalents) are generally available across the counter in Syria. Though you may not find a specific drug, and there can be shortages, most drugs and medicines can be ordered by the local pharmacists and the prices are generally lower than they are in the United States.

Several Damascus hospitals are equipped and competent for emergency cases and routine care. Nursing care, however, is substandard. The regional medical authority recommends medical evacuation for major surgery, pregnancy confinement and delivery, long-term hospitalization, and high risk care

Community Health

The city services include potable water at the tap, trash removal, street sweeping, and periodic spraying for flying insects.

The water provided by the city main has been tested periodically (several times per year over the past three years) and found acceptably free of impurities and drinkable. Nevertheless, there is always a risk in any urban community that purification processes may fail. Water in Damascus need not be boiled, but anywhere else in Syria it is recommended that boiled and filtered or bottled water be consumed.

Trash dumpsters (large green receptacles) are available on most streets in the city. Collections are scheduled daily and city regulations require that all trash be disposed of in plastic bags. There is no rigid observation of these rules, though the population seems to make considerable effort to keep Damascus a clean city. Street sweepers dressed in orange overalls are apparent in most neighborhoods.

Seasonally, the city management sprays a concentrated mix to control the mosquito population that breeds on and around the Barada River. Flies can also be a problem in the warmer months. Spraying is done by large tank trucks that pass through the neighborhoods in the evening and morning hours. Larger insects (ants, silverfish and cockroaches) can be problematic on the lower floors of apartment buildings.

Preventive measures to safeguard personal health in Syria include verifying that all persons have necessary inoculations before arriving and completing any inoculation programs that may require boosters. Though Syria has a program of childhood immunizations, many childhood diseases exist in country, including chicken pox, measles, and mumps. There are cases of tuberculosis and cholera reported.

Though Damascus is clean by most urban standards, normal precautions against diseases including amoebic dysentery, typhoid, various errant parasites and hepatitis should be taken. Fresh fruits and vegetables should be washed and soaked in Clorox or Miltons before use and consumption. Dining out requires some conscious decisions about what may or may not be eaten.

Seasonal weather changes that raise dry, dusty air can cause sinus and other upper-respiratory infections. These can be aggravated by the smog and strong desert winds. Humidifiers often relieve some of this discomfort and are recommended.


The best way to reach Damascus is by air. Transfer points through Europe include Amsterdam, Athens, Frankfurt, London, Paris, and Rome. Alternatively one can arrive from Amman or Cairo, though these are neither as efficient nor as simple. Be sure to book your travel early and clearly as there are two peak travel seasons in Syria corresponding to the spring and fall, and peak travel season through Europe is in the summer. Travel to and through the Middle East is not as simple or efficient as in Europe or the U.S. Make sure that you have all your necessary travel documents.

A passport and a visa are required. Visas must be obtained prior to arrival in Syria. The government of Syria does not allow persons with passports bearing an Israeli visa or entry/exit stamps to enter the country. Similar restrictions apply to persons born in the Gaza region or who are of Gaza descent. Entry into Syria via the land border with Israel is not possible. Foreigners who wish to stay 15 days or more in Syria must register with Syrian immigration authorities by their 15th day there. American men between the ages of 18 and 45 who are of Syrian birth or recent descent are subject to the Syrian compulsory military service requirement unless they receive a temporary or permanent exemption from the Syrian Embassy in the United States prior to their entry into Syria.

U.S. citizens are encouraged to carry a copy of their U.S. passports with them at all times, so that, if questioned by local officials, proof of identity and U.S. citizenship are readily available.

An AIDS test is not required for foreigners prior to arrival in Syria; however, tests are mandatory for foreigners age 15 to 60 who wish to reside in Syria. The AIDS test must be conducted in Syria at a facility approved by the Syrian Ministry of Health. A residence permit will not be issued until the absence of the HIV virus has been determined. Foreigners wishing to marry Syrian nationals in Syria must also be tested for HIV. For further entry information, travelers may contact the Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic, 2215 Wyoming Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008, telephone (202) 232-6313 or check the Syrian Embassy's home page on the Internet at

American citizens are cautioned that the Syrian government rigidly enforces restrictions on prior travel to Israel. Travelers with Israeli stamps in their passports, Jordanian entry cachets, or cachets from other countries that suggest prior travel to Israel will cause Syrian immigration authorities to refuse the traveler admission to Syria. Likewise, the absence of entry stamps from a country adjacent to Israel, which the traveler has just visited, will cause the Syrian immigration officials to refuse admittance. American citizen travelers suspected of having traveled to Israel have been detained for questioning.

Syrian security officials are also sensitive about travel to Iraq. There have been instances in which Iraqi-Americans or Americans believed to have traveled to Iraq were detained for questioning at ports of entry/exit.

Syrian customs authorities may enforce strict regulations concerning temporary importation into or export from Syria of items such as weapons, narcotics, alcohol, tobacco, cheese, fruits, pharmaceuticals, modems, cosmetics, and some electrical appliances. It is advisable to contact the Embassy of Syria in Washington, D.C. for specific information regarding customs requirements.

Americans living in or visiting Syria are encouraged to register at the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus and obtain updated information on travel and security within Syria. The U.S. Embassy is located in Abu Roumaneh, al-Mansur Street No. 2, P.O. Box 29, Damascus. The telephone numbers are [963] (11) 333-2814, 332-0783, 333-0788, and 333-3232. The fax number is [963] (11) 331-9678. The Embassy is open Sunday through Thursday.


Pets should arrive with all of the proper inoculations, including rabies. A certificate not older than 60 days from a licensed veterinarian showing current and valid inoculations is a requirement for animals entering the country. No quarantine is required. Non-diplomatic personnel should be prepared to pay duty on imported pets as they are not considered personal property. The duty is calculated on the shipping charges, not on a declared value. There are veterinarians, though services may not meet U.S. standards. Animal medicines are not readily available and are more expensive than in the United States.

Dogs must always be walked on leashes since there is an official government dog-removal program. All housing in Damascus is apartment style. Very few are garden apartments with enclosed outdoor areas. Large animals may be uncomfortable in small, enclosed homes.

Currency, Banking, and Weights and Measures

The Syrian Lira or Pound (SL) is a controlled currency. It cannot be exchanged for any other currency except at government-approved exchange centers within Syria, and it cannot be changed back into foreign currency. Travelers must declare all foreign currency when they enter Syria. There are no foreign banks and few ATMs in Syria, and it is impossible to wire or otherwise transfer money from the United States to Syria. Credit cards are not generally accepted in Syria.

The current exchange rate is 46.00SL to US$1.00 (May 2002).

Syria uses the metric system of weights and measures.


Jan. 1 New Year's Day

Feb. 22 Unity Day

Mar. 8 Revolution Day

Apr. 17 Independence Day

May 6 Martyrs' Day

Apr./May Easter (Orthodox)*

May 1 Labor Day

May 6 Martyrs' Day

July 23 Egyptian Revolution Day

Sept. 1 United Arab Republic Day

Nov. 16 National Day

Dec. 25 Christmas

Hijra New Year*


Id al-Fitr*

Id al-Adha*

Lailat al Meiraj*

Mawlid an Nabi*



These titles are provided as a general indication of material published on this country. The Department of State does not endorse unofficial publications.

Abu Daber, Kamel S. The Arab Ba'th Socialist Party. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1966.

American University, Foreign Area Studies. Syria: A Country Study. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Ball, Warwick. Syria, A Historical and Architectural Guide. Scorpion Publishing LTD.: Essex, England, 1994

Burns, Ross. Monuments of Syria, An Historical Guide. I.B. Tauris & Co.: London, England, 1992

Dam, Nikolaos Van. The Struggle for Power in Syria: Sectarianism, Regionalism, and Tribalism in Politics, 1961-1978. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979.

Devlin, John F. The Ba'th Party, A History from Its Origins in 1966. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976.

Finlay, Hugh. Jordan and Syria, A Travel Survival Kit. Lonely Planet Publications: Australia, 1993

Haddad, Robert M. Syrian Christians in Muslim Society. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Kerr, Malcolm. The Arab Cold War: 1958-1964, A Study of Ideology in Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Longrigg, Stephen H. Syria and Lebanon Under French Mandate. New York: Octagon Books, 1972.

Maalouf, Amin. The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. London, 1977

Petran, Tabitha. Syria. Ernest Benn: London, 1972

Pipers, Daniel. Greater Syria. Oxford University Press, 1990

Seale, Patrick. Asad, the Struggle for the Middle East University of California Press: Berkeley, 1988

Thubron, Colin. Mirror to Damascus. London: Heinemann, 1967.

Weiss, Harvey, ed. Ebla to Damascus: Art and Archaeology of Ancient Syria. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibitions Service, 1985.

Ziadeh, Nicola. Damascus Under the Mamelukes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Syria." Cities of the World. . 27 Oct. 2016 <>.

"Syria." Cities of the World. . (October 27, 2016).

"Syria." Cities of the World. . Retrieved October 27, 2016 from



Syrian Arab Republic

Al-Jumhuriyah al-'Arabiyah as-Suriyah



Syria, a Middle Eastern country, is located on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It is bounded by Turkey to the north, by Iraq to the east and southeast, by Jordan to the south, and by Lebanon and Israel to the southwest. Syria has an area of 185,180 square kilometers (71,500 square miles), including 1,295 square kilometers (500 square miles) of territory in the Golan Heights captured by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967. There are 2,253 kilometers (1,400 miles) of boundary length, with a coastline of 193 kilometers (120 miles). The area occupied by Syria is slightly larger than the state of North Dakota. The capital city, Damascus, is located on the Barada River in southwest Syria. Other major cities, Latakia and Aleppo, are situated on the Mediterranean coast in the west and in northern Syria, respectively.


The population of Syria was estimated at 16,305,659 in July 2000, an increase of 3.4 percent from the 1990 population of 12,116,000. In addition, there are about 38,200 people living in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights (excluding nearly 20,000 Israeli settlers). Syria has one of the highest population growth rates in the world. Over the last decade, however, Syria's population growth rate has gradually decreased from 3.30 percent in 1990 to approximately 2.58 percent in 2000. Despite the steady decline in its growth rate, the population is expected to reach 20.9 million by the year 2010.

Syrians are divided along profound ethnic and sectarian (groups divided by politics, language, and religion) cleavages. Arabs constitute the major ethnic group with 90.3 percent, while other minority groups such as Kurds, Armenians, Turcomans, and Assyrians make up the remaining 9.7 percent of the population. Sectarian divisions include Sunni Muslims (about 74 percent), Alawites (an extreme Shi'ite subsect), Druze (a secret Middle-Eastern sect and doctrine combining different Islamic, Jewish, and Christian elements), and other Muslim sects (about 16 percent). The Christian population in Syria is small (about 10 percent), and Jews number only a few thousand.

Syria's population is overwhelmingly young, with 41 percent below the age of 15 and only 3 percent older than 65. The urban-rural population ratio has been reversed over the last decade in favor of the urban population, which increased at a rate of 4.1 percent from 49.4 percent in 1988 to 53.5 in 1998. Because of this trend, major cities like Damascus, Latakia, and Aleppo have become the main venue of rural emigration within the country.


According to the World Bank, in 2000 the Syrian economy was classified as a low middle-income economy with a gross national product (GNP) per capita of about US$1,000. Although it does not possess the extensive natural resources of its richer neighbors, Syria was able to sustain one of the most integrated and productive economies in the region for several decades after gaining its independence in 1946. Following unification with Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt under the United Arab Republic and the rise of the Ba'ath Party, however, socialism became the official economic policy in 1958. Although Syria left the United Arab Republic in 1961, government-sponsored land reforms and the nationalization of major industries and foreign investments had confirmed the new socialist direction of Syria's economic policy by the mid-1960s.

During the 1970s, Syria achieved high rates of economic growth. The dramatic rise of world oil prices from 1973 to 1974 led to increased production in domestic refineries. Moreover, higher prices for agricultural and oil exports, as well as the state's limited economic liberalization policy, encouraged growth. The October War in 1973 and later ostracism of Egypt from the Arab League due to its peace agreement with Israel put Syria, as a front-line state, in a position of leadership in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Because of this, Syria began to receive substantial quantities of foreign aid from the oil-rich Gulf states. Besides these higher levels of aid, Syria's economic boom was furthered by increased remittances from Syrians working in the oil-rich Arab states. By the end of the decade, the Syrian economy had shifted from its traditional agrarian base to an economy dominated by the service, industrial, and commercial sectors. Massive expenditures for development of irrigation, electricity, water, road building projects, and the expansion of health services and education to rural areas contributed to prosperity.

By the mid-1980s, the country's economic climate had shifted from prosperity to austerity. Syria's economic boom collapsed for a variety of reasons: a reduction in worker remittances, declining world oil prices, lower export revenues, agricultural devastation due to drought, and costly military involvement with Lebanon. A drastic decline in Arab aid, due to Syria's support for Iran against Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), also contributed to the country's economic woes.

The final collapse of Soviet Russia after 1989 left Syria without the generous Soviet economic and military aid on which it had depended. Syria did receive aid through substantial financial rewardsin the form of large injections of credits from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, the United States, the European Community, and Japanfor its decision to support the coalition forces in the Gulf War of 1991 against Iraq.

Agriculture remains the dominant sector in Syria, yet only 20 percent of arable land is irrigated. Although Syria has sufficient water supplies, the great distance between major water supplies and population centers poses serious distribution problems. The water problem is exacerbated by rapid population growth, industrial expansion, and increased water pollution. Oil production is leveling off, and the efforts of the non-oil sector to penetrate international markets have fallen short. A vibrant black market , smugglers, corruption, cumbersome bureaucracy, and inefficient state-owned enterprises are huge barriers to growth and development.

Besides these economic burdens, Syria suffers from a substantial external debt , which was estimated about US$22 billion in 1999, including US$10 to 12 billion owed to the former Soviet Union and US$900 million to the former East Germany which many observers doubt will ever be repaid. Much of the US$22 billion owed dates back to the Cold War (a period in history, lasting from approximately 1945-89, characterized by the arms race between the United States and former Soviet Union), stemming from arms transfers. Russia and Germany argue that the debt should be paid, but Syria claims that the debt is no longer valid because the predecessor states no longer exist.


Syria is a socialist republic ruled by the Ba'ath Socialist Party dictatorship. According to the Syrian Constitution of 1973, the president governs with the assistance of an appointed Council of Ministers, headed by a prime minister. The president also functions as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and secretary-general of the Syrian Ba'ath Party. Since 1970, Syria has been under the patrimonial rule of the Assad family. During the reign of Hafez Assad, the Ba'ath Party became the major instrument in implementing economic and fiscal policies . Assad's takeover in 1970 gave new momentum to the Syrian economy. He relaxed many socialist restrictions and measures by previous Ba'ath leaders and adopted a moderate foreign policy toward the conservative oil-rich Arab states to accumulate their oil money in Syria.

A second phase of economic reform in 1986 and 1987 added to Assad's economic reform and relaxation policies of the early 1970s. In this second phase, the government largely surrendered its control over foreign exchange to the market. The state-owned banking sector, instead of being an instrument of control over private exports and imports, was gradually reduced to the role of an intermediary. It passed a new investment law in May 1991 (Investment Law #10), lengthening the list of goods that the private sector can either produce or import. Apart from foreign trade and currency regulations, this second phase involved a substantial liberalization of Syria's agricultural economy (pricing, production, and marketing of fruits and vegetables have been placed in private hands by the government). Although these limited liberalization schemes served their purposes well, they were not enough for a complete transformation from a socialist to a market economy. Throughout the 1990s, Syria's economy suffered from instability, recession , unemployment, rising external debts, and capital shortages.

Thanks to the liberalization schemes of the 1970s and the 1980s, by 2001 Syria developed a mixed economy based on agriculture, trade, mining, and manufacturing. The government controls the most vital sectors of the country's economy and regulates private businesses. The economy, where the public and private sectors have an almost equal share, is managed through a central planning system. The public sector (composed of enterprises wholly or partly owned by the state and controlled through a public authority which does focus entirely on commercial profit) is dominant in oil, banking, construction, electricity, chemicals, and much of the textile and food processing industries. The private sector (com-posed of enterprises owned by individuals in pursuit of profit) is dominant in agriculture, tourism, domestic trade, and certain light industries. State control in commerce is restricted to foreign exchange operations.

The Syrian government depends heavily on oil revenue, foreign aid, remittances from Syrian workers abroad, tourism, and tax revenues. In 1997, tax revenue constituted 16.4 percent of the GDP. For the same year, taxes levied on goods and services made up 20.72 percent of the current government revenue whereas income taxes and taxes levied on international trade accounted for 30.15 percent and 10.58 percent, respectively. Income taxes are levied on 3 main categories of income: 1) profits from an industrial, commercial, or noncommercial activity; 2) wages; and 3) income derived from moveable capital assets. All businesses are charged a "profits tax" based on net profits derived from professional, industrial, commercial, and non-commercial activities. The business profit tax is applied in progressive rates (between 10 percent and 45 percent) depending on the amount of taxable income. Shareholding companies and industrial limited liability companies are taxed at a flat rate of 32 percent and 42 percent, respectively. An individual is liable for the same taxes as a company on his business income, income from movable capital, and real property. Individuals are also subject to a wage and salary tax; the rate varies from 5 percent to 12.5 percent. Tax on movable capital incomes, which is levied at a flat rate of 7.5 percent, applies to interest, royalties, and foreign source dividends.


Syria has an inadequate and outdated infrastructure and transport system that is mainly controlled by state-run agencies. The highways, which provide the chief means of transporting goods and passengers, run about 36,377 kilometers (22,604 miles), nearly 10,000 kilometers (6,214 miles) of which are unpaved. The major Syrian cities are linked by the 2,750-kilometer (1,709-mile) long railway network all around the country, but the service is slow because of the obsolete trains.

Syria has 104 airports, including military airports, 24 of which have paved runways. The international airlines are in the capital of Damascus and Aleppo, where facilities can handle jet aircrafts. Syrian Airlines connects Syria with other Arab, Asian, and major European countries. Although Syria has a short coastline, which stretches for about 193 kilometers (120 miles) along the Mediterranean Sea between Turkey and Lebanon, it has a commercial fleet composed of 137 ships and 4 major ports and harbors in Baniyas, Jablah, Latakia, and Tartus.

Syria's electrical power is handled by the Public Establishment of Electricity for Generation and Transmission and the Public Establishment for Distribution and Exploitation of Electrical Energy. Syria's annual electricity production was 17.5 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) in 1998, 42.8 percent of which was generated from fossil fuel, whereas the remaining 57.2 percent was produced from hydroelectric resources. The main problems in the Syrian electricity sector are inefficiency and technical power losses that lead to periodic power outages.

The Syrian telecommunication system is undergoing a number of significant improvements and digital upgrades, including fiber-optic technology. The government-owned Syrian Telecommunication Establishment provides all services in this sector. The country had 1.4 million telephone lines in 1998. In addition, a pilot global system for mobile communications (GSM) cellular telephone network was launched in Syria in February 2000, with capacity for 60,000 subscribers in the Damascus and Aleppo areas. A permanent GSM telephone system to replace the pilot scheme was expected to launch in February 2001, according to an EIU Country Report of October 2000. Recently, the Syrian government approved the Syrian Computer Society (SCS) as the country's first Internet service provider. Only SCS members (Syrian scholars, university professors, engineers, computer specialists, public sector professionals, and some private entrepreneurs) are allowed access to the Internet. Their activities are subject to strict government control and monitoring. Most Internet services remain blocked, including most web mail and voice/telephony services.


Since the 1970s, the Syrian economy underwent several sectoral changes not common in developing countries. Industry, especially service, has developed a great deal. Agriculture remains vital to the economy despite its diminishing contribution to GDP. In 1996 agriculture employed about 40 percent of the labor force and supplied

Country Newspapers Radios TV Sets a Cable subscribers a Mobile Phones a Fax Machines a Personal Computers a Internet Hosts b Internet Users b
1996 1997 1998 1998 1998 1998 1998 1999 1999
Syria 20 278 70 N/A 0 1.4 1.7 0.00 20
United States 215 2,146 847 244.3 256 78.4 458.6 1,508.77 74,100
Turkey 111 180 286 9.2 53 1.7 23.2 8.06 1,500
Israel 290 520 318 184.0 359 24.9 217.2 187.41 800
aData are from International Telecommunication Union, World Telecommunication Development Report 1999 and are per 1,000 people.
bData are from the Internet Software Consortium ( and are per 10,000 people.
SOURCE: World Bank. World Development Indicators 2000.

necessary products to the industrial sector. The oil sector is a driving force behind Syrian industry. Crude oil exports of US$1.342 billion accounted for nearly 43 percent of Syria's total exports in 1998. The Syrian services sector also made up 49 percent of its GDP in 1997 and employed about another 40 percent of the labor force.

Since the second half of the 1990s, the Syrian economy has been undergoing a recession. According to the 2000 EIU Country Profile, the Syrian agricultural sector has suffered in the last 3 years because of rapid climate changes and severe droughts in the region. The continuing rise of crude oil prices in international markets may promise an increase in Syria's export earnings, while service sectors such as construction, transport, and telecommunications have been steadily growing since the Gulf War in 1991.


The agricultural sector in Syria accounted for 29 percent of the GDP in 1997 and employed an estimated 40 percent of labor in 1996, including a significant proportion of townspeople. The primary agricultural products are cotton, olives, wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, sugar beets, beef, mutton, eggs, poultry, and milk. Cotton, grown on irrigated land, is Syria's premier cash crop . Besides providing employment and income for a significant amount of the population, it also has provided Syria with much needed hard currency . Until 1974, when it was superseded by oil as the largest Syrian export, cotton accounted for about one-third of Syria's total exports. By the late 1990s, cotton accounted for almost 50 percent of the agricultural sector's contribution to GDP. Nearly half of the cotton produced is used for local consumption by the largely export-oriented clothing and textile industry. Syria is also the second largest olive exporter in the Arab world after Tunisia and is sixth in the world after Spain, Greece, Tunisia, Italy, and Turkey. According to the EIU Country Report, the total value of agricultural exports in 1998 was about 24 percent of total exports, while the share of agricultural imports in 1998 was nearly 16 percent of total imports.

The average farmer's reliance on outdated and inefficient irrigation methods is a major obstacle to improving agricultural outputs. The introduction of drip, sprinkler, and subsurface irrigation methods is handicapped because of the limited amount of money available to the common farmer. Because of these shortcomings, Syria is susceptible to food shortages during long droughts.

Because of the government's revitalization efforts during the 1980s and 1990s, the agricultural sector recorded a 10 percent increase in its share of GDP in 1998. This kind of liberalization effort has been essential to increased agricultural production. The enactment of Decree #10 in 1986 allowed joint sector companies to be established with a minimum 25 percent stake to be held by the public sector. Pricing, production, and marketing of fruits and vegetables have also been placed in private hands. Liberalization measures since 1991 include the lifting of subsidies for seeds and pesticides, and the reduction of the fertilizer subsidy.

Because of geographic and topographic conditions, Syria has no forestry sector. Fishing is also quite limited, with a few small and medium-sized boats fishing off the Mediterranean coast.


The Syrian industrial sector contributed 22 percent of the GDP in 1997 and 20 percent of the labor force in 1996. State-owned organizations dominate heavy industry. Mining and quarrying (mostly oil) generates about 28 percent of gross industrial output, followed by the agro-food and chemical industries. The textiles and clothing industry comes next, and accounts for about 12 percent of industrial output.


Petroleum is Syria's chief mineral product. Most of the petroleum comes from fields in the northeastern part of the country. Phosphate rock is another important source of income. Phosphate, which is used to make fertilizer, is mined in the Palmyra area of central Syria. The principal limestone quarries are located north and west of Damascus, near the city of Aleppo. Marl is used in the cement industry with quarries near Damascus, Aleppo, and Rastan. Sandstone suitable for glass manufacture is mined in the Palmyra Mountains. The country's other mineral products include asphalt, gypsum, natural gas, and table salt.


Most of Syria's oil fields are located on the Euphrates Graben, which runs across the northeastern region of the country. The discovery of large crude fields in the mid-1980s boosted the role that oil plays in the Syrian economy. Since this time, output has expanded rapidly and reached a peak of 604,000 barrels per day in 1996. Production has been falling in recent years, because many fields discovered in the 1960s reached maturity. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), as of 2000, Syria's production was about 520,000 barrels per day, of which some 325,000 barrels per day have been exported, accounting for some 65 percent of export revenue. Because of Syria's old, small, and dispersed oil fields, the EIU Country Report claims that the decline in Syrian oil production will continue in 2001, and most observers agree that the decline will continue for years to come.

Intense exploitation in the late 1980s and early 1990s saw oil production rise rapidly, fuelling economic growth, but at a cost. Fields were damaged as groundwater seeped into reservoirs and reservoir pressure fell, requiring injection projects to maintain pressure. Additionally, harsh government terms caused many foreign oil firms to leave the country. Investors have complained about the restrictive terms for exploration and development in the Syrian oil sector. In fact, international observers have forecasted that Syria will revert to being a net importer of oil within a few years as production declines and domestic consumption rises, unless new, substantial, and financially viable reserves are soon found. Syria exports Syrian Light, a blend of light and sweet crude oils produced from the Deir ez-Zour and Ash Sham fields. The country also exports fuel oil and other products. Syria is a member of OAPEC (Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries), but not OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries).

The oil exploitation of the 1980s attracted international interest to the Syrian oil sector, and several consortiums (companies formed to undertake an enterprise beyond the resources of any one member) were formed. Companies such as Agip, Bay Oil, Chevron, Conoco, Marc Rich, Shell, Elf, Total, and Veba are the most prominent involved in the sector. The largest of these is the Shell consortium made up of Pecten, Shell, and Deminex. In 1985 the Shell consortium entered a joint venture with the Syrian Petroleum Company (SPC) to create the Al-Furat Petroleum Company. This joint venture produces about two-thirds of Syria's oil output. All Syrian oil, including that produced by foreign companies, is sold on a monthly basis by the state-owned marketing company Sytrol. Since January 1994, Sytrol has had a clause in its term contracts prohibiting customers from re-selling Syrian crudes without written permission from Sytrol. This is intended to curb spot trading in Syrian crudes, especially sales to Israel. The unfavorable contract terms for exploration, development, and poor exploration results have only left 3 (Elf, Shell, and Deminex) out of the 14 companies that were operating in the country in 1991.

Syria's 2 oil refineries are located at Banias and Homs. Total production from these refineries was 242,140 barrels per day in 2001. Syria is planning to construct a third refinery, with an initial capacity of 60,000 barrels per day, at Deir ez-Zour to supply products to the eastern part of the country. The country's major oil export terminals are at Banias and Tartous on the Mediterranean, with a small tanker terminal at Latakia. Tartous is connected through a pipeline to the Banias terminal. The Syrian Company for Oil Transport (SCOT) operates all 3 terminals and is in charge of Syria's pipelines.


Syria's proven natural gas reserves are estimated at 8.5 trillion cubic feet (Tcf). Most (73 percent) of these reserves are owned by SPC, including about 3.6 Tcf in the Palmyra area, 1.6 Tcf at the al-Furat fields, 1.2 Tcf at Suwaidiyah, 0.8 Tcf at Jibsah, 0.7 Tcf at Deir ez-Zour, and the remainder at al-Hol, al-Ghona, and Marqada. In 1998, Syria produced about 208 billion cubic feet of natural gas, a 5-fold increase over the previous decade. As part of a strategy to substitute natural gas for oil in power generation to free up as much oil as possible for export, Syria plans to increase this production even further in the coming years. According to the EIU Country Report of 2000, Syria produced about 460 million cubic feet per day of gas, but this will nearly double by 2005 to 850 million cubic feet per day, as new gas sources are extracted.

SPC has been working to increase Syria's gas production through several projects. The Palmyra area in central Syria is the site of much of this activity, including the development of the Al Arak gas field, which came on stream at the end of 1995. In October 1997 the Syrian government announced the discovery of a large new gas field in the Abi Rabah area of the Palmyra region. One of the main problems for the gas sector is the location of gas in the northeast regions of the country, while the population centers are in the southwest. According to EIU reports, in July 2000 a step to ease the disparity was taken with the announcement that a Dutch company, A Halk Pijpleidingen, had been awarded a contract to construct a US$46 million pipeline from newly developed gas fields in the Palmyra area to the city of Aleppo. The 124-mile pipeline will be used to supply gas to a 1,000 megawatt power station in the city, constructed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of Japan. Bids are being measured to build a gas pipeline from Homs to the Mediterranean port of Banias.

Given the small size of Syria's gas fields, most of the large oil companies have shown little interest in the market, given the complex government bureaucracy that they must navigate. One of the exceptions is Conoco, the only U.S. oil company operating in Syria. Another is Elf of France, with whom Syria Petroleum Company signed a US$430 million service agreement in November 1998 to utilize associated gas in the Deir ez-Zour oil fields. Elf and Conoco each hold a 50 percent interest in the project, with Conoco as the lead operator. In March 2000 the 2 companies awarded Houston-based Kvaerner ENC a US$160-million contract to engineer, procure, and construct the infrastructure for the project. The Deir ez-Zour gas development work will include the construction of a gas gathering system and processing plant, and a 155-mile pipeline that will connect the system to the national grid near Palmyra that serves western Syria. When completed in late 2001, gas output from 22 fields should be about 280 million cubic feet per day. According to the EIU Country Report, Syria is planning to supply 3 million cubic meters per day of gas to Lebanon via a 107-mile pipeline that will run from the Syrian city of Homs to northern Lebanon. Elf announced that it is also considering joining the US$175-million pipeline project that would supply power stations in Lebanon with natural gas from Syria.


Manufacturing accounts for about 6 percent of the value of Syria's production. The main industries are cement, glass, food processing, iron and steel, leather goods, brassware, fertilizers, and textiles. Cotton fabrics, wool, and nylon are Syria's most important manufactures. The textile industry is in Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, and Hamah. Natural silk is produced at Latakia. Technical engineering industries, most of which are in Damascus, are active in producing cement, glass panes, bottles, utensils, pharmaceuticals, plywood, and batteries. The food processing industry produces salt, vegetable oils, cotton cake, canned fruit and vegetables, tobacco, and a variety of dairy products. While manufactured goods made up 10 percent of total Syrian exports in 1998, the well-established textile industry contributed another 10 percent of export earnings and employed one-third of the industrial workforce.

Syrian manufacturing industries grew substantially in the 1960s. The government encouraged industrialization by raising tariffs on imported consumer goods and providing tax exemptions and credit for domestic industries. Therefore, most of the traditional handmade manufactures (damask steel, swords and blades, brass and copper work, wood engravings, gold and silver ornaments, mother-of-pearl inlays, silk brocades) have dramatically decreased since the introduction of industrial processing. Private sector participation in manufacturing has taken off in the 1990s, with the total capital investment in the industrial private sector growing from US$273 million in 1991 to US$735 million in 1995. Of the 1.1 million workers in manufacturing, more than 75 percent are now employed in the private or mixed sectors. While private sector involvement has been limited to the textile, food processing, leather, paper, and chemical industries, the government started to open heavy industry to private investment in areas where the public sector is unable to meet increasing demand.



Syria's rich history attracts large numbers of tourists. Artifacts from the ancient Mesopotamian civilization, castles from the crusaders, and many other diverse historical sites appeal to world travelers. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization has declared Damascus and Aleppo world heritage sites because these date to the early development of civilization, well before the Greek and Roman empires.

With such a rich cultural heritage and a Mediterranean coastline, Syria's tourism sector shows great potential, and the number of tourists who visit the country each year is on the rise. Since the Gulf War in 1990-91, an average of about 900,000 visitors have visited Syria each year. But regional instability after 1996 has hindered the tourist sector, evidenced by the drop in tourists to 400,000 in 1999 from 2.5 million in 1998. In the same time span, tourism revenue declined from US$1.3 billion in 1998 to US$712 million in 1999. Arab tourists continue to visit Syria in increasing numbers, enjoying the improved luxuries offered by the sector. According to the EIU Country Report, capacity at the luxury end of the market is about 8,000 beds in the five-star hotels, with occupancy estimated at 80 percent during the summer season of 2000.

There are a number of problems in the tourism sector, including a lack of marketing activities on an international level, the low number of airline carriers to Syria, and the lack of a nationally coordinated policy for the development of tourism. The hazy divisions between public and private sectors and the non-existence of large centers for tourist entertainment and cultural activities are other major weaknesses inhibiting growth. The most important challenge that the tourism industry faces is the lack of big investments in this vital economic sector. To encourage private sector and foreign investment in Syrian tourism projects, the government has made several aggressive decisions since 1986. Incentives include tax exemptions on all tourism-based projects. All imports needed to build tourism installations, if these imports do not exceed 50 percent of total investment, are tax exempt. There is also a 7-year corporate tax exemption, after which taxes are paid at 50 percent of the normal rate.


The Syrian financial system has been run by the state since nationalization in the 1960s. The banking functions have been designed to cater to the financial requirements of the public sector. Because loans to the private sector are unknown, private businesses must finance projects with cash or through external loans. The Central Bank of Syria and the Commercial Bank of Syria are 2 of the 5 government-owned banks that deal in hard currency. Although previously only foreigners were allowed to open accounts with foreign currency in the Commercial Bank of Syria, beginning in September 1996 the government allowed Syrians to deposit foreign currency at government banks without disclosing the source of such currency, and plans to allow citizens to possess foreign currency. The new decision eliminates provisions in an old currency law that prevented Syrians from dealing in hard currency. The new decree allows hard currency to be transferred abroad provided it is used for education expenses, payments of books, medical treatment, newspaper subscriptions, and other non-commercial transactions. Changing money at rates other than official rates remains illegal and all transfers in and out of the country must be declared.

The EIU reports that the current banking system is in urgent need of reform. The system is criticized by business leaders for being inefficient and offering only basic services. There are, for example, no ATMs, checks, or credit cards in Syria. Commercial loans are hard to obtain without using political party or government connections or traditional patronage relations (a system of relations in which government or any other sectarian, tribal domineering authority distributes the sources at its expense to its supporters as rewards). The new Syrian government has acknowledged the need for reform of the financial system and these new moves show that progress is being made. Some modernization efforts have been initiated with the computerization of the Central Bank and other commercial banks.

The government has also announced that foreign banks will be allowed to open branches in Syria for the first time. Banks with at least US$11 million in capital will be permitted to operate in the country's free zones (an area where goods may be landed, handled, manufactured, reconfigured, and re-exported without the intervention of the customs authorities) to finance commercial and industrial activity. In August 2000 3 Lebanese banks were issued licenses while some non-Arab international banks expressed their wishes to enter the full international market rather than be restricted to the small free zones. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) has estimated that Syria would gain US$8 billion in foreign investment if it allowed the establishment of private banks, opened a stock market, and unified exchange rates .


According to International Monetary Fund sources, because of the discovery of large oil fields, Syria's foreign trade volume has immensely increased over the last 3 decades. During this period, exports have grown from US$203 million in 1970 to US$4.8 billion in 2000, while imports have risen from US$360 million in 1970 to US$3.5 billion in 2000. Syria's foreign trade is highly dependent on its oil revenues and oil prices on the international markets. For the year 2000, the EIU reported that increasing oil prices have continued to boost export revenue and Syria recorded a surplus of more than US$1 billion for the first time since the Gulf War.

Syria's chief exports are petroleum, textiles, food, live animals, and manufactured goods which are exported to Germany (which received 21 percent of exports in 1999), Italy (12 percent), France (10 percent), Saudi Arabia (9 percent), and Turkey (8 percent). Syria's main import products are machinery, food and live animals, transport equipment, and chemicals. The country's main import partners include France (which purchased 11 percent of imports in 1999), Italy (8 percent), Germany (7 percent), Turkey (5 percent), and China (4 percent). Additionally, a large amount of trade (nearly US$200 million) with Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq goes unrecorded. It is estimated that these invisible flows favor Syria, as evidenced by the use of its military and political influence on Lebanon to create a common market between the 2 countries, from which Syria will benefit.

As of 2001, there were about 200 state-owned trading companies that enjoyed prohibitive tariff protection, overvalued exchange rates, and restrictions on private-sector competition. These state-run companies regulated most of Syria's exports. According to the Syrian Ministry

Trade (expressed in billions of US$): Syria
Exports Imports
1975 .930 1.685
1980 2.108 4.124
1985 1.637 3.967
1990 4.212 2.400
1995 3.563 4.709
1998 2.890 3.895
SOURCE: International Monetary Fund. International Financial Statistics Yearbook 1999.

of Economic and Foreign Trade statistics, in 1998 72 percent of exports were made by the public sector.


Syria maintains a multiple fixed exchange rate system that pegs the value of currency to the U.S. dollar. All the official rates overvalue the Syrian pound to varying degrees. Two principal exchange rates are used: the Official Rate that devalued the national currency in 1988 from S£3.925 to S£11.225 per U.S. dollar, and the Neighboring Countries Rate (NCR) that was introduced in 1990 and is periodically adjusted. The NCR was S£46.50 per U.S. dollar, according to EIU estimates in 2000. Tourist hotels use the Official Rate. Most local transactions are carried out at the NCR rate. A blended rate applies provisionally to certain public sector transactions, including sales of oil and gas. The black market rate has hovered between S£46 and S£54 per U.S. dollar since the early 1990s.

Over the last decade, the Syrian government has contracted the inflation rate from 34 percent in 1988 to minus 0.5 in 1999. The EIU forecasts that weak Syrian growth and the current low level of economic productivity in the local economy will further help the government keep inflation in check. The potential increase in government spending due to public sector wages and a steady growth in global non-oil commodity and raw material

Exchange rates: Syria
Syrian pounds per US$1
2001 N/A
2000 46
1999 N/A
1998 46
Jan 1997 41.9
1996 N/A
SOURCE: CIA World Factbook 2001 [ONLINE].
GDP per Capita (US$)
Country 1975 1980 1985 1990 1998
Syria907="textStyle15">1,071 1,036 956 1,209
United States 19,364 21,529 23,200 25,363 29,683
Turkey 1,898 1,959 2,197 2,589 3,167
Israel 10,620 11,412 12,093 13,566 15,978
SOURCE: United Nations. Human Development Report 2000; Trends in human development and per capita income.

prices might threaten to reverse this trend over the forecast period.


Besides existing ethnic and sectarian cleavages, Syrian society is also stratified along tense social and economic class divisions. The class structure is characterized by a high degree of maldistribution of wealth, meaning that much of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, while large numbers of people live in poverty. Moreover, there is a high correlation between wealth and sectarian-ethnic background. The upper income group is composed of Alawite high-ranking officials, military officers, Sunni landowners, small industrial business owners, and important merchants. The middle-income group comprises most Alawite and Sunni government officials, shopkeepers, professionals, and farmers. The lower income group is made up of Alawite workers, peasants (farmers who do not own all the land they cultivate), and employees.

Although the Ba'athist Syrian government has directed its welfare policiessuch as land reformat easing social problems, an estimated 20 percent of the Syrian population lives under the poverty line. In the last 30 years, the pace of change from an agricultural to an industrial economy and the accompanying migration of people to the cities has worsened income distribution and caused the mushrooming of high-poverty shanty-towns (poorly constructed temporary housing) on the edge of populous cities. To compensate for disparities in the distribution of wealth, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs has constructed blocks of low-income flats in these areas. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Social Welfare and Labor has been empowered to find work for and distribute cash allowances to the unemployed. The Ministry also encourages such youth activities as athletics, scouting, literacy campaigns, and the organization of cooperatives. The government gives substantial grants to private welfare societies in solving poverty problems. According to World Bank sources, however, the share of GDP allocated to the social security and welfare policies was barely 0.7 percent a year between 1992 and 1997.


The Syrian labor force was estimated at about 4.8 million by the International Labor Organization in 1998. The service and agriculture sectors employ the majority of the labor force, each accounting for about a 40 percent stake. Although government figures put unemployment at below 10 percent, unofficial estimates more than double this figure, with under-employment accounting for another 25 percent. Syria has one of the highest population growth rates in the world, with an annual increase of 2.58 percent. Because of the high growth rate, an extra 200,000 new workers enter the labor market every year. According to the EIU Country Report, the unemployment rate among 15 to 29-year-olds is unofficially reported to be as high as 85 percent. As a part of an emergency plan in its 2000 budget, the government has allocated S£80 billion for the creation of 92,322 new jobs, but this falls far short of the number entering the labor market each year.

Due to these harsh conditions in the labor market, many Syrians go to Lebanon and the Gulf States to work. For that reason, in recent years, Syria has become economically dependent on Lebanon. Sources in Lebanon estimate that about 500,000 to 1 million Syrians work in the country. In Beirut, Syrian workers can earn twice what they make in their own country. Jobs in Lebanon reduce unemployment in Syria and the remittances of these workers to their families back home are estimated at US$1-3 billion dollars per year. The condition exacerbates economic deprivation in Lebanon, however. Lebanese Shiites and Palestinian refugees are hard hit by the influx of Syrian workers.

The 1973 Syrian constitution provides for the right of the "popular sectors" (workers, peasants, and state employees) of society to form trade unions. The government insists that there is in practice trade union pluralism (a condition in which a multiple number of unions with different particular interests can freely exist). Despite this, workers are not free to form labor unions independent of the government-prescribed structure. The General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) is the major independent popular organization. The government uses it as a framework for controlling nearly all aspects of union activity. The GFTU is charged with providing opinions on legislation, devising rules for workers, and organizing labor. In the private sector, unions are active in monitoring compliance with the laws and ensuring workers' health and safety. Strikes are not prohibited (except in the agricultural sector), but in practice they are discouraged.


1250. Mamluks take control of most of Syria.

1516. Syria is incorporated into the Ottoman Empire.

1869. The opening of the Suez Canal leads to a decline in Syria's economic importance.

1916. The Sykes-Picot agreement between Great Britain and France, made during World War I, places Syria and Lebanon under French "influence."

1922. The League of Nations approves the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon.

1945. Syria becomes a member of the United Nations.

1946. Syria and Lebanon declare their independence from France.

1948. In the Arab-Israeli war, Syria joins the joint Arab forces fighting against Israel.

1958. Establishment of the United Arab Republic (UAR), a union of Syria and Egypt. Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser becomes president of the union and dissolves all political parties in Syria. He also introduces regulations on the size of land property.

1961. Opposition to the UAR grows in Syria, particularly against the socialist economic policies implemented by Nasser. The army takes control of Damascus, and declares a new independence for Syria.

1963. The Ba'athist party takes control of the country.

1967. In the Six Day War, Israel seizes the Golan Heights from Syria.

1970. Hafez Assad seizes power in a "corrective coup."

1971. Assad is elected president for a 7-year term in a plebiscite (a vote of the people).

1973. Syria and Egypt go to war with Israel to retake the Golan Heights.

1976. The Syrian army intervenes in the Lebanese civil war.

1981. Israel formally annexes the Golan Heights.

1982. An Islamic extremist uprising in Hama is crushed and thousands are killed. Israel invades Lebanon.

1987. Assad sends troops into Lebanon for a second time to enforce a cease-fire in Beirut.

1990. Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Syria joins the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. This leads to improved relations with Egypt and the United States.

1991. Syria participates in the Middle East peace conference in Madrid, and holds bilateral talks with Israel. The Damascus Declaration aid and defense pact is signed with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.

2000. Assad dies and is succeeded by his son, Bashar, soon afterwards.


In order to overcome its existing economic problems, Syria will need to attract major international investors. This does not seem likely in the near future due to domestic and international problems. In the domestic arena, the 34-year-old Bashar Assad, son of the late Hafez Assad, tried to cement his position while launching his liberal political and economic agenda. Bashar and his reformist elite tried to bring a new openness to the country, but efforts were thwarted by the "old guard" of military and political veterans who remained loyal to the legacy of Hafez Assad.

With regard to regional politics, it is clear that Bashar Assad must strengthen his domestic political standing before entering into peace talks with Israel. Syria's other main foreign policy concern, Lebanon, has become akin to a domestic policy issue. Syria has politically dominated Lebanon for a decade, making foreign and defense policy decisions for the country, and approving all senior politicians. Under the elder Assad, no opposition was allowed to Syria's dominant position in Lebanon. After Israel withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000, many Lebanese continue to resent the presence of Syria and call for the removal of its troops. Bashar Assad might be forced to make a vital decision regarding his policy towards Lebanon. Most likely, the Syrian government will ask Lebanon for some concessions because of the economic advantages they gain from about 500,000 to 1 million Syrian workers in Lebanon.

Syria has long sheltered revolutionaries and terrorists to get leverage in regional politics. If the government wants to attract foreign investors, it must reconsider its support for international terrorism. Depending on policy options embraced by the new president, the outcomes of these domestic and international policy decisions will shape Syria's economic performance in the next decade. Because of population and unemployment problems, Syria's reliance on oil revenue puts it in an unstable situation. Decreasing production in the sector might have a negative impact on the economy in the end, while increasing oil prices on the international markets seems to continue boosting export revenues in the short-run.


Syria has no territories or colonies.


Arab World Online. "Country Profile: Syrian Arab Republic."<>. Accessed September 2001.

Economist Intelligence Unit. Country Profile: Syria. London: Economist Intelligence Unit, 2001.

Energy Information Administration. "Syria." <>. Accessed September 2001.

Syrian Embassy. <>. AccessedSeptember 2001.

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. World Factbook 2001. <>. Accessed September 2001.

U.S. Department of State. FY 2001 Country Commercial Guide: Syria. < guides/2001.nea/index.html>. Accessed September 2001.

Yüksel Sezgin




Syrian Pound (S£). One Syrian pound equals 100 piasters. There are coins of 25 and 50 piasters and 1 Syrian pound. There are notes of 1, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, and 500 Syrian pounds.


Petroleum, textiles, manufactured goods, fruits and vegetables, raw cotton, live sheep, phosphates.


Machinery and equipment, foodstuffs/animals, metal and metal products, textiles, chemicals.


US$50.9 billion (2000 est.).


Exports: US$4.8 billion (f.o.b., 2000). Imports: US$3.5 billion (f.o.b., 2000).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Syria." Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies. . 27 Oct. 2016 <>.

"Syria." Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies. . (October 27, 2016).

"Syria." Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies. . Retrieved October 27, 2016 from



Basic Data
Official Country Name: Syrian Arab Republic
Region: Middle East
Population: 16,305,659
Language(s): Arabic, Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, Circassian, French, English
Literacy Rate: 70.8%
Number of Primary Schools: 10,783
Compulsory Schooling: 6 years
Public Expenditure on Education: 3.1%
Foreign Students in National Universities: 11,790
Educational Enrollment: Primary: 2,690,205
  Secondary: 957,664
  Higher: 215,734
Educational Enrollment Rate: Primary: 101%
  Secondary: 42%
  Higher: 16%
Teachers: Primary: 114,689
  Secondary: 64,661
Student-Teacher Ratio: Primary: 23:1
  Secondary: 17:1
Female Enrollment Rate: Primary: 96%
  Secondary: 40%
  Higher: 13%

History & Background

Geography & Population: The Syrian Arab Republic, commonly known as Syria, is a Middle Eastern country located at the east end of the Mediterranean Sea. The country was formerly known, with Egypt, as the United Arab Republic. It is known locally as Al Jumhuriyah al Arabiyah as Suriyah ; the shortened form of this name is Suriyah. Syria is bordered on the north by Turkey, on the east by Iraq, on the south by Jordan and Israel, and on the west by Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. In 2001 the total land area of 184,050 square kilometers included 1,295 square kilometers of Israeli-occupied territory.

Geographically, Syria can be divided into four regions. A narrow fertile coastal plain runs along the Mediterranean border and extends inland to a narrow range of mountains and hills. The coastal climate is moderate with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters; the average annual rainfall is this area is between 30 and 40 inches. The mountainous region runs from north to south, parallel to the Mediterranean Sea. The interior semiarid plains region is found to the east of the mountains. Much of the southeastern part of Syria is desert region that extends to the borders of Jordan and Iraq; most of the desert is a rock and gravel plateau that receives less than four inches of rain annually and is extremely hot.

Until the 1960s and 1970s, Syria was primarily an agricultural country. Because much of the country is semiarid and desert, only 28 percent of the land is arable land, and much of the farmed land must be irrigated. Since 1974, oil has become Syria's most important source of revenue and its greatest export. Pipelines from Iraq and Jordan cross Syria, and there is a pipeline to the coast as well. Forty percent of the labor force works in agricultural areas, 40 percent in service areas, and 20 percent in industrial areas.

The population of Syria is approximately 16.3 million, of which 90.3 percent are Arab; Kurds, Armenians, and nomadic groups make up the remaining 9.7 percent. The annual population growth rate was estimated at 2.58 percent at the turn of the century, with 41 percent of the population 14 years of age or younger, 56 percent between 15 and 64, and 3 percent aged 65 and older. Educational facilities have expanded since the mid-1960s, but illiteracy is still widespread among older Syrians living in rural areas and among women. In 2000, Syria's literacy rate was 70.8 percent. More males were literate (85.7 percent) than females (55.8 percent).

Although 90 percent of all Syrians are Muslims, they belong to different sects. Approximately 74 percent are Sunnites, and another 16 percent are members of Alawite, Druze, and other Muslim sects. The non-Muslim population is largely Christian; the largest group is Greek Orthodox, but there are also Armenian Catholics, Maronites, Armenian Orthodox, and Syrian Orthodox. There are small Jewish communities in Damascus, Al Qamishli, and Aleppo. The country's legal system is based on Islamic law and civil law system, and there are special religious courts.

Arabic is Syria's official language and is spoken by of 85 to 90 percent of its people. Kurdish is the largest linguistic minority (11 percent), but Armenian, Aramaic, and Circassian are also widely understood. The older citizens often speak French, and English is widely understood and spoken among the younger and middle-aged groups. Most Arabic speakers are bilingual, so there are few communication problems resulting from language differences.

Historical Evolution: Three geographical factors have influenced Syria's history: its location on the trade and military routes, its varied topography, and the encroaching desert. Although the modern Syrian state was not established until after World War I, Syria has been inhabited by various powers since ancient times. The Amorites, coming in 2100 B.C. from the Arabian Peninsula, were the first important Semitic people to settle in the region and establish many small states. From the fifteenth to thirteenth century B.C., the area was probably part of the Hittites' empire. The Phoenicians established trading settlements along the coast sometime after 1250 B.C. From the eleventh to the sixth century B.C., Syria was invaded and intermittently controlled by Assyrians. Babylonian conquerors periodically held parts of the land, and even Egypt tried to reestablish positions in Syria. Alexander the Great conquered Syria between 333 and 331 B.C. His empire was conquered a short time later by the kings of Syria, the Seleucids, who founded cities and military colonies. In 63 B.C. the area was incorporated into the Roman Empire. Following the decline and collapse of the empire in the fourth century, Syria became part of the Byzantine Empire and remained so for almost 250 years.

The most important and lasting conquest took place in A.D. 636, when Muslim Arabs took over the region. During the following century, most Syrians converted to Islam, and the culture of the area became distinctly Arab. By the late eleventh century, the Crusades led to the incorporation of part of Syria into the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem. When the Seijuk Turks captured the area at the end of the twelfth century, Jerusalem was overthrown. In the mid-thirteenth century, Mongols under Hulagu Khan invaded Syria, destroying and sacking major cities and massacring tens of thousands of inhabitants.

The Ottoman Turks incorporated the region into their empire in 1516, and it remained in their possession for the next four centuries. Rulers established military and civilian schools; missionary and foreign schools were also established during these years, but most of the population attended the Islamic schools. In the late eighteenth century, the European powers began to have an increasing interest in Syrian affairs: the British were friends of the Druze, the Russians protected the Orthodox Christians, and the French became allies of the Roman Catholics. Growing Arab nationalism and opposition to Turkish control led to a British-supported rebellion prior to World War I.

The efforts to form an independent state were thwarted, however, when in 1922 the League of Nations made Syria part of the territory controlled by France and drew the geographical boundaries that have defined Syria into the twenty-first century. In an effort to maintain control, the French limited changes in the educational system as they tried to impose their own culture and language. The public education system was administered and controlled by French officials, who patterned the schools and the subjects taught after those in their homeland. As a result, the curricula did not consider the local traditions and customs. Many individuals chose not to attend these schools. Those who could afford private, foreign, or missionary schools often sent their children to these rather than the French public schools.

Following many years of political disturbances and uprisings, in September 1941 the French proclaimed the creation of an independent Syrian republic. In 1945 Syria became a charter member of the United Nations, and on April 17, 1946, Syria was proclaimed an independent country. The new state established an educational system that would provide needed manpower and include instruction that maintained local traditions and customs.

Much of Syria's post World War II history has been turbulent. Between 1949 and 1963 there were several military coups and frequent changes in government. In 1958 Syria and Egypt merged to form the United Arab Republic, but the agreement dissolved in 1961. In 1963 the Ba'ath Socialist Party came to power by military coup and the country began to stabilize. Another coup took place in 1970, and Hafez al-Assad, then Defense Minister, became president; he remained president until his death in 2000 when his son, Dr. Bashar al-Assad, became president. During the 1990s, Syria began working to improve diplomatic ties with the West and with the Arab world.

Constitutional & Legal Foundations

In 1967, Syria signed the Arab Cultural Unity Agreement with Jordan and Egypt establishing a uniform three-level education system and determining curricular examination procedures and teacher-training requirements for each of the levels. Since then all Syrian schools, colleges, and universities have been under close government supervision, overseen by the Ministry of Education.

The Syrian Arab Republic's constitution was adopted on March 13, 1973. The Ba'ath Party's emphasis on building a national identity is evident in the third part of the constitution: Educational and Cultural Principles. According to Article 21 of that section, Syria's educational and cultural system "aims at creating a socialist nationalist Arab generation which is scientifically minded and attached to its history and land, proud of its heritage, and filled with the spirit of struggle to achieve its nation's objectives of unity, freedom, and socialism, and to serve humanity and its progress." A portion of Article 23 underscores this commitment and responsibility: "The nationalist socialist education is the basis for building the unified socialist Arab society. It seeks to strengthen moral values, to achieve the higher ideals of the Arab nation, to develop the society, and to serve the causes of humanity. The state undertakes to encourage and to protect this education."

The right to an education is guaranteed in Article 37, which states that elementary education is compulsory and free. This article also notes that the state "undertakes to extend compulsory education to other levels and to supervise and guide education in a manner consistent with the requirements of society and of production." Women, in Article 45, are guaranteed "all opportunities enabling them to fully and effectively participate in the political, social, cultural, and economic life. The state removes the restrictions that prevent women's development and participation in building the socialist Arab society."

Educational SystemOverview

Schooling is divided into six years of primary education (ages 6 to 12), followed by three years of intermediate education (ages 12 to 15), and three years of general secondary or technical secondary education (ages 15 to 18). The role of education is to transmit the traditional culture as well as teach the approved view of subject area knowledge. The Syrian Ministry of Education approves all curricula and all textbooks and support materials. The textbooks are written by state-approved authors and printed by the General Institute for Schoolbook Printing. Instruction is in Arabic.

Following the establishment of the three-level system in 1967, student enrollments increased dramatically. Between 1970 and 1976, primary school enrollments increased 43 percent, lower secondary enrollments increased 52 percent, and higher secondary enrollments increased 65 percent. During these years, enrollments in postsecondary institutions increased more than 66 percent. These increases are largely because of the government's goal to eliminate illiteracy by 1991; primary and preparatory schools were built in many areas, and mobile schools traveled into remote desert areas.

In 1981, an estimated 42 percent of the population over age 12 could not read or write. By 1984, approximately 57,000 Syrians had attended literacy classes sponsored by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. Although the goal of having a literate population was not achieved, by 1997 the number of citizens who were literate had increased to almost 71 percent.

Between 1970 and 1998, the number of female students enrolled at each level of schooling increased dramatically. The number enrolled in primary school increased from approximately 297,000 to over 1,267,000, and the number of females enrolled at the upper secondary level tripled, increasing from 14,000 to over 52,000. Many 12- to 15-year-old girls marry and are often unable to pursue an education beyond the compulsory level. Between 1970 and 1998, the number of female university students increased from 17,000 to 72,000, and the number receiving vocational education and training increased from 600 to 63,000. In 1998, females represented 47.7 percent of the students enrolled in primary schools, 45 percent of those in preparatory schools, 50.7 percent of those in the secondary general schools, 45.3 percent of those in technical and vocational schools, and 46.6 percent of those in universities. In 2001 Syria adopted a slogan of "education for girls" as part of its participation in the celebration of the annual Women's World Day on March 8. This underscores the country's commitment to having qualified women in the workforce and to helping women become more self-sufficient.

Private schools supplement the public schools, but less than 5 percent of the Syrian students attend them. There are two international schools in Syria for grades pre K-12 that serve the American and international community: ICARDA International School of Aleppo, which had an enrollment of 275 for the 2000-2001 school year, and Damascus Community School, which had an enrollment of 329 for the 2000-2001 school year. Both schools have a college-preparatory, American-based curriculum. The teachers at these accredited schools incorporate American teaching methods and offer a variety of extracurricular and intramural sports and activities. Students may enroll at any time during the school term. There is also a separate educational system run by the United Nations for Palestinian refugee children.

The Syrian Arab Republic is an active member of a number of organizations that benefit education. Among these are the Arab Organization for Education, Culture, and Science; the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (ISESCO); the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF); and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Preprimary & Primary Education

Optional paid preprimary kindergarten programs are available for three- to five-year-olds. These programs are provided by private, tuition-charging institutions and by some government institutions. Approximately 7 percent of three- to five-year-olds attend an early childhood development program. The tuition charges at the government institutions are very low, and the students enrolled there are primarily the employees' children. In 1998-1999, almost 45 percent of those enrolled in a private early childhood development program attended public primary schools.

Primary education is free and compulsory for all Syrians ages 6 to 12. Students in the primary program are expected to complete one grade level each year; thus the program covers grades one to six. In 1999, there were 11,213 primary schools in Syria. The official Syrian curriculum is taught at each grade level to all students using syllabi and lesson guides provided by the Department of Primary Education and Kindergartens, a branch of the Ministry of Education. Teachers are trained in state-approved programs. Subjects include history, national (pan-Arab) education, geography, literature, social education, and Islamic education. Those completing the primary education program receive an End-of-Stage certificate.

Since 1961 Syria's educational system has been guided by five-year development plans. The fourth five-year plan (1976-1980) established a goal of enrolling all boys of primary school age by 1980 and of enrolling all girls of primary school age by 1990. By the early 1980s, Syria achieved the goal of enrolling all males in primary school, but the goal for female enrollments was not attained.

Secondary Education

Even though many students, especially in remote rural areas, do not take advantage of the secondary education programs, the public's demand for these programs has remained constant over the years. Many Syrians view completing secondary and postsecondary educational programs as a way to advance in society. Secondary education is an intermediate stage between the compulsory primary program for 6- to 12-year-olds and specific types of higher education and training.

In 1999, there were 3,440 secondary schools. Like the primary program, there is a rigid format: each student is expected to complete the required curriculum in one year of instruction. The first three years of secondary education provide intermediate courses; students enter the program at age 12 and complete it at age 15. Students identified as being gifted attend schools especially designed to address their needs. These schools are equipped with electronic libraries and learning laboratories. Teachers are trained to incorporate more hands-on activities and activities that promote creative thinking and problem-solving strategies. Those completing the intermediate program sit for the Al Kafa'a (Intermediate Level Diploma).

This stage is followed by another three years of general education for 15- to 18-year-old students. Students who are accepted into this program may either enter the general stream or technical track; entry is based upon the Al Kafa'a examination. Those entering the general stream receive one year of general introductory courses and then enter either the literary or scientific track. Students competing the general secondary program sit for the Al-Shahâda Al-Thânawiyya-Al'Amma (Baccalaureate Secondary School Leaving Certificate). The literary track examination has a minimum pass score of 102 out of a possible 240, and the scientific track has a minimum passing score of 104 out of 260. Based upon the examination results and the availability of openings, students may continue at the university level for six additional years or they may attend a two-year intermediate institute program.

In 1995, some 70 percent of those completing intermediate schooling entered the technical track. Students who enter the technical track are placed in either the industrial or commercial track. At the end of the three-year program, these students sit for the Al-Shahâda Al-Thânawiyya Al-Fanniyya (Technical Baccalaureate). The results of this examination determine entry into the Institute of Technical Education.

As a result of the decision in the 1970s and 1980s not to train teachers or revise the curricula to include computers and information technology, Syria had to make dramatic changes in the late 1990s when the Ministry of Education placed top priority on incorporating information technology into the secondary and preparatory programs. The state's five-year development plan for 1996-2000 focused on adding compulsory information technology courses in secondary schools, technical intermediate institutions, and vocational and technical education centers. The plan for 2001-2005 targets the teaching and use of information technology in all secondary level classes and in technical and vocational schools as well as expanding computer training in other levels. By 2000, all secondary schools had computers, and by 2002, computers should be available in the preparatory schools.

Higher Education

Public Universities: The Ministry of Higher Education supervises Syria's universities: Damascus University, Tishreen University, the University of Aleppo, and Al-Baath University. The ministry has worked cooperatively with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and UNESCO to develop the Syrian Higher Education and Research Network (SHERN), a national network for higher education with connection to the Internet. The project began in January 1999, and the core development is scheduled for completion in mid-2001. A presidential decree in 2000 led to the establishment of a Faculty of Computer Science and Engineering at the four universities with 150 openings at each site.

Al-Baath University was founded in 1979 in Homs and housed the country's first departments of petroleum engineering and veterinary medicine. In 2000, the university had 16,274 students and 505 teachers. Tishreen University was founded in 1971 as the University of Lattakia. It offers an undergraduate degree in architecture.

The University of Aleppo, founded in 1960, offers courses with French, English, and Arabic as the language of instruction. In 2000, the university had 53,465 students and 3,377 teachers. There are a number of institutes attached to the University of Aleppo: the Agriculture Research Center, the Institute for the History of Arabic Science, the Intermediate Institute for Agriculture, the Intermediate Institute for Commerce, the Intermediate Institute for Engineering, the Intermediate Institute for Medicine, the Intermediate Institute for Dentistry, the Intermediate Institute for Secretariat, and the School of Nursing.

Damascus University, founded in 1903, is Syria's oldest and largest university. In 2000, there were 81,173 students and 2,809 teachers. Undergraduate students must complete a compulsory computer course, but the university has a limited number of computers for student use. In 1999 only 5 of the university's 21 computer laboratories had open access for students. The university's divisions include 13 faculties or areas of specialization, 7 intermediate institutes, and one higher institute, the Higher Institute of Administrative Development. Damascus University has close cooperative ties with a number of Arab and international organizations; faculty and staff work cooperatively on research and exchange programs. The university awards the following degrees: bachelor's, Diploma of Qualification and Specialization, postgraduate diploma, master's, and doctor of philosophy. The university's library is the center for Syria's Directorate of the Universities' Libraries.

The Higher Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology (HIAST) in Damascus trains engineers to head and guide scientific research and to propose projects that will address Syria's current and future needs. Many of these projects focus on improving and expanding the country's computer system, updating software, and providing an interface in Arabic for software programs. HIAST has been designated as a Center of Excellence and one of the 13 members of the Network of International Science and Technology Centers for Sustainable Development. Founded in 1955, the institute serves approximately 700 researchers, faculty, and students and awards the following degrees: bachelor of science, master of science, and doctor of philosophy.

Specialized Institutes: Several other institutes in Syria are not affiliated with any university. Aleppo Institute of Music, founded in 1955, has departments of Eastern and Western music. The Institute of Electrical Engineering and Electronics, located in Damascus, was founded in 1974 with help from Germany. Germany also assisted with the founding of the Institute of Technical Training in 1978; this institute offers only two-year courses. On September 19, 1999, Presidential Decree Number 4 established the Higher Institute for Management. This institute works collaboratively with the European Union. The Arab Language Academy of Damascus was founded in 1919. It is devoted exclusively to the study of Arabic language, literature, history, and culture.

Non-university level technical and vocational institutes, known as Intermediate Institutes, offer two-year training programs in a variety of areas for those having the Al-Shahâda Al-Thânawiyya Al-Fanniyya. These institutes award an Associate Degree, the Wathîqat Takharruj or Musaddiqat Takharruj certificate. One month of practical training must be completed in the summer as a part of the curriculum. The non-university level technical and vocational institutes are the overseen by the Supreme Council of Intermediate Institutes.

Courses, Semesters, & Diplomas: All higher education institutions are state controlled and financed. The Ministry of Higher Education and the Council of Higher Education coordinate higher education programs. The academic year is typically September to June. Arabic is the language of instruction. Based upon the results of their secondary examinations, Syrian students may enter nonuniversity level technical/vocation postsecondary programs or university studies or teacher education programs.

The Ministry of Education maintains agreements with many sisterly Arab and foreign countries that encourage cultural and educational exchanges. Foreign students may study at one of Syria's higher education institutions if they have obtained visas from the Syrian embassies abroad, have a residence permit, and meet the institution's admissions requirements. Foreign students may enroll in language proficiency courses at the Training School for Foreigners so they can master the Arabic language.

University studies are available in three sequential levels: Licence or Licentiate (bachelor's degree), postgraduate diploma and master's degree, and the doctorate. The time required to earn the Licence or Licentiate varies from four to six years. Arts, humanities, Islamic law, economics, social sciences, and fine arts programs each require four years. Five years are needed to complete engineering, architecture, agriculture, pharmacy, dentistry, and veterinary science programs. Medical students receive the Docteur en Médecine after six years of study. Those studying an additional year beyond the Licence or Licentiate receive the postgraduate diploma, and a master's degree is conferred after a minimum of two years of study beyond the Licence or Licentiate. The doctorate is awarded to those who, after receiving the master's degree, complete three additional years of study, conduct personal research, and defend a thesis successfully.

The primary grading system used by higher education institutions is based on a percent system: those scoring in the 90-100 percent range earn Martabet al Sharaf (Honors); 80-89 percent, Momtaz (Excellent); 70-79 percent, Jayed Jeddar (Very Good); 60-69 percent, Jayed (Good); 50-59 percent, Makboul (Pass); 0-49 percent, Raseb (Fail).

Administration, Finance, & Educational Research

The Ministry of Higher Education, led by the Minister and four deputy ministers, is responsible for all aspects of curricular development and administration of Syrian schools, colleges, and universities. Syria's schools are used to teach political ideology and to train those needed for the nation's current and projected future economic and political needs. They remain microcosms of the authority and order found in society; teachers' instructions and assertions are not to be questioned.

Because of government regulations, the general public's access to many forms of communication has been limited. Fax machines were illegal until 1995. In 1999, when the Internet first became available, access was limited because of the lack of phone lines and servers available, and because most Syrians had no training in information technology's uses. In fact, in 2000 there were only about 2,000 Internet subscribers in Syria. In 1999 Syria began a government-controlled pilot program that made Internet access available for the first time to government institutions and universities. At the first Syrian-Lebanese computer forum in April 2000, Bashar al-Assad, then president of Syria's Computer Society, recognized the importance of information technology and stated that Syria was planning an immediate expansion of Internet access so it would be available to every household. This expansion will impact research in a myriad of ways as knowledge is shared. Transferring technology from some countries, including the United States, was still banned, however, in 2001.

In September 1991, the government's National Information Center opened. The center has a two-fold purpose: collecting and preserving documents and selecting, collecting, analyzing, processing and storing information electronically. Syria's first optical archiving network began operation in 1993. The network enables researchers and decision makers to access records and documents quickly and easily. The National Information Center established an Internet site in 1997, but there was no online access to its records and files.

In February 1994, the center supported the creation of the National Coordination and Cooperative Committee for Information. One goal of the National Coordination and Cooperative Committee for Information is to work with existing organizations to create and maintain a national database with a uniform documentation system. Only those who receive prior approval, however, may use the information. Since August 1994, the National Information Center has periodically published a magazine to report its activities and those of other organizations.

Nonformal Education

Libraries are educational centers supervised by the Ministry of Culture. There are over 300 libraries in Syria. The major public libraries are the National Assad Library in Damascus and the university libraries in Damascus and Aleppo. The first academic library was the Medical College Library in Damascus. In addition to providing library services, Syrian libraries organize and present a range of cultural activities such as lectures, workshops, training course, art exhibitions, and showing of educational movies. Since 1974 a section of the Ministry of Education has supervised school library organization and provided for the training of librarians.

American Middle East Educational & Training Services, Inc. (AMIDEAST), a private nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, was founded in 1951 to promote cooperation and understanding between Americans and people of the Middle East and North Africa through education, information, and development assistance programs. The site in Syria opened in 1955, closed in 1967, and reopened in 1978. AMIDEAST Syria administers the Fulbright Program for students from the Middle East and North Africa, distributes basic advising materials and information on education in the United States, administers standardized tests required by universities in the United States, and coordinates study tours and programs in Syria for groups of American undergraduate students. Since 1996, AMIDEAST has offered both English and Arabic language courses for adults and for children. The American Language Center (ALC) was established in 1986 by the United States Information Service to teach the English language to Syrians and to expose students to American life and culture. The center had 45 native-English instructors in 2000 and up to 2,000 students each term.

Distance education is limited in Syria. Until the late 1990s, the Ministry of Education focused only on traditional forms of instruction. Educational television and programming are the responsibility of the Ministry of Education's Directorate of Teaching Technologies Center, which develops and produces educational resources. The televised programs have primarily been used to provide general information or series of programs designed to introduce and teach computer applications.

The Syrian Computer Society was founded in 1989 as a non-profit organization to promote and to contribute to the diffusion of information technology in Syria. The organization provides different levels of training programs that are open to the public; offers training programs for profession; and organizes workshops, seminars, and conferences. The Syrian Computer Society has worked closely with the Ministry of Education to form the Syrian National Policy for Information Technology in Education. This policy provides a timeline for training teachers, providing computers and other equipment to schools, and adding computer science and information technology courses in all levels of education. Syria's Internet infrastructure should be completed by mid-2001. At that time Internet providers will be licensed, and by 2001 approximately 50,000 people should be able to access the Internet. The plan calls for each school to have a Web site and to be connected to an approved Internet provider. In addition, free computer courses are available to all citizens at a number of accessible training centers. Future policies will address the development of online courses and other forms of nontraditional education.

Teaching Profession

Syria recognizes the importance of teacher training and preparation. Teachers in the Syrian Arab Republic are transmitters of the country's culture and political ideology. They must not only teach the approved curricula but also instill and support patriotism, discipline, and the value of placing society and country before the individual.

There are 14 teacher-training schools in Syria. Students are typically 14 years old when they enter teachertraining programs after two years of intermediate education. They receive training for teaching at either the primary level or the secondary level. Upon completion of the program, primary school teachers receive the Shahâdat Ahliyyat Al-Ta'lîm Al-lbtibâ'l (Primary Teaching Certificate).

More specialized training is provided for teachers at the intermediate level. Those who hold a baccalaureate degree must complete a two-year training program. Those wishing to teach at the secondary level must complete a one-year program of study from the Faculty of Education at the universities; they then receive a diploma and a special diploma in education. Preparatory school teachers may be trained in two-year programs at an intermediate institution before being allowed to teach in a program with a shortage of qualified instructors. Vocational secondary teachers must receive the Technical Baccalaureate and then complete a two-year program at an intermediate institution. To teach in at the higher education level, a teacher must have earned a master's degree or doctorate.

Because of the Ministry of Education's commitment to teaching computer science as an integral part of the curricula and using computers as instructional tools, teachers must be trained to teach computer science and promote computer-assisted instruction. There are five centers, each in a different province, that provide one year of intensive teacher training in these areas to selected teachers. More teachers are also being trained to incorporate student-centered hands-on activities and experiments in the classroom. This is especially evident in workshops and teacher-preparation courses for science teachers.

Changes in the area of teacher qualifications will take place sometime after 2001. A university degree with a diploma in education will be required of all teachers. Teachers will be selected based on interviews and written tests. Those selected will be required to attend a mandatory training program designed to address the new role teachers are playing in Syrian education. They are expected not only to create a classroom climate conducive to learning but also to council and to advise students who are studying self-paced programs. Teachers are expected to know and to be able to teach the ever-changing curriculum.


Schools in the Syrian Arab Republic reflect the philosophy of the state and mirror the nation's commitment to providing appropriate educational programs at each level. While transmission of the national culture is the cornerstone of the educational system, the state also recognizes the need to integrate traditional curricula with computer science and technology training. In 2000, some 45 percent of the population was under the age of 15, and 15 percent of the population was under the age of 5. Thus, many Syrians will be educated in schools that are undergoing continual and dramatic changes in curricula and instructional techniques. The implementation of computers and information-technology training at all levels of formal education will have a significant impact on future generations. In addition, the ability of university students and faculty to access information via the Internet will improve teaching and research. Syria's commitment to increase the availability of computers and Internet access in homes and workplaces will allow more Syrians to apply the skills learned at schools.


Al-Laham, Ghassan, "Libraries and Information Infrastructure in Syria." Journal of Information Science 18, 6 (1992): 497-504.

Al-Rashed, Abd Al-Rahman, "An Interview with Syria's President, Bashar Assad." Al-Sharq Al-Awsat 8 February 2001. Available from

AMIDEAST. "AMIDEAST in Syria." 23 March 2001. Available from

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The World Factbook 2000. Directorate of Intelligence, 1 January 2000. Available from

Columbia University. Columbia Gazetteer of the World Online. 2001. Available from

Constitution. 13 March 1973. Available from

Damascus University. 9 March 2001. Available from

"Damascus Workshop on Improving Science Teaching Using Locally Resources." 22 February 2001. Available from

Education in Syria. Syria Online. February 2000. Available from

European Survey of Information Society Projects and Actions. "Basic Facts & Indicators: Syria." January 2001. Available from

Fortna, Benjamin C. "Islamic Morality in Late Ottoman 'Secular' Schools." Middle East Studies 32 (2000): 369-93.

International Schools Services. The ISS Directory of Overseas Schools 2000-2001. 10 March 2001. Available from

Library of Congress, Federal Research Division. SyriaA Country Study. April 1987. Available from

National Information Center, Syria. National Information Center. 1998. Available from

Reuters. "Syria Gets Serious About the Net." 25 April 2000. Available from

"Syria Celebrates Women's World Day." Culture. 8 March 2001. Available from

Syrian Arab Republic Ministry of Education. Education in the Syrian Arab Republic. 23 March 2001. Available from

Syrian Arab Republic Ministry of Information. Syria. 3 January 2001. Available from

Taylor and Francis Group. The World of Learning 2001,51st ed. London: Europa Publications Limited, 2000.

UNESCO. "The EFA 2000 Assessment County Reports: Syria." February 2000. Available from

. "SyriaEducation System." 1999. Available from

Williams. Karen. "Syria Plods Into Net Revolution." Times Higher Education Supplement 1414 (10 December 1999): 14.

Wurmser, Meyrav. The Schools of Ba'athism: A Study of Syrian Schoolbooks. Washington: Middle East Media Research Institute, 2000.

Jo Anne R. Bryant

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Syria." World Education Encyclopedia. . 27 Oct. 2016 <>.

"Syria." World Education Encyclopedia. . (October 27, 2016).

"Syria." World Education Encyclopedia. . Retrieved October 27, 2016 from


Syria (sēr´ēə), officially Syrian Arab Republic, republic (2005 est. pop. 18,449,000), 71,467 sq mi (185,100 sq km), W Asia. It borders on Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea in the west, on Turkey in the northwest and north, on Iraq in the east and south, and on Jordan and Israel in the southwest. Damascus is the country's capital and its largest city.


Syria falls into two main geographical regions, a western region and a much larger eastern region. The western region, which includes about two thirds of the country's population, can be subdivided into four parallel north-south zones. In the far west is a narrow, discontinuous lowland strip along the Mediterranean. It is bordered, and partly cut, by the Jabal al-Nusayriyah, a mountain range (average elevation: 4,000 ft/1,220 m; highest point: 5,123 ft/1,561 m) that is crossed by deep valleys. In the east the Jabal al-Nusayriyah drops sharply to the Great Rift Valley, which continues southward into Africa and which in Syria contains the Orontes River. East of the rift are mountain ranges, including the Anti-Lebanon Mts. (which include Mount Hermon, 9,232 ft/2,814 m, Syria's loftiest point) and scattered ranges in NW Syria. Within these ranges are several fertile basins, including ones occupied by Damascus and Aleppo.

The eastern region is made up of a plateau (average elevation: 2,000 ft/610 m), which is in large part bisected by a series of ranges that fan out northeastward from the Anti-Lebanon Mts. In the south are the Jabal al-Duruz Mts., from which the plain of Hawran extends westward to the Sea of Galilee. Other mountains are located in the north. Much of the southern section of the plateau forms part of the Syrian Desert; otherwise, the plateau is largely covered with steppe. There are irrigated, cultivated areas along the Euphrates River in the east, whose basin makes up part of the Fertile Crescent, as does the Mediterranean coast of Syria. In addition to the capital, other major cities include Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Latakia, Dayr az Zawr, and Al Hasakah.


Syria has a young and rapidly growing population. Most of the people are of Arab descent and speak Arabic, the country's official language; French and English are understood by many, and Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, and Circassian are spoken in some areas. The chief minority is the Kurds; others include the Armenians, Turkomans (Turks), Circassians, and Assyrians (Nestorian Christians). About 75% of the country's inhabitants are Sunni Muslims. There are also significant numbers of Alawite Muslims, who live in the Jabal al-Nusayriyah; Druze, who live in the south, principally in the Jabal al-Duruz; and smaller Muslim sects; all of these groups comprise about 16% of Syria's population. The largest Christian groups are the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, and the Syrian Orthodox, together comprising about 10% of the population. Before 1992, Syria had a Jewish community of more than 4,000; all but a few hundred left the country after emigration restrictions were lifted in that year.


Syria was an overwhelmingly agricultural country until the early 1960s, when planned large-scale industrialization began. The state plays a major role in the country's economy, but government control has been eased since 2000. Some 25% of the people earn their living by farming; since 1970 land cultivation has increased more than 50%, largely because of government incentives and wider use of irrigation. The best farmland is located along the coast and in the Jabal al-Nusayriyah, around Aleppo, in the region between Hama and Homs, in the Damascus area, and in the land between the Euphrates and Khabur rivers, which is known as Al Jazira [Arab.,=the island]. The principal crops include wheat, barley, cotton, lentils, chickpeas, olives, and sugar beets. Large numbers of poultry, cattle, and sheep are raised, and dairy products are important. Tourism has expanded in recent years.

Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs are the chief industrial centers. The main industries include petroleum refining; food, beverage, and tobacco processing; and the manufacture of textiles, chemicals, and precision-engineered products. Handicrafts such as articles of silk, leather, and glass are widely produced. The principal minerals extracted are petroleum, found mainly at Qarah Shuk (Karachuk) in the extreme northeast; natural gas, found mainly in the Al Jazira region; phosphates; limestone; and salt. Petroleum pipelines from Iraq and Jordan cross Syria, and there is also a pipeline from Qarah Shuk to the Mediterranean coast.

Since 1974 oil has been Syria's most important source of revenue; declining production in the early 21st cent. was offset by higher oil prices. In 2006, petroleum and agriculture together accounted for one half of the country's GDP. Latakia and Tartus are the main seaports. The chief exports are crude oil, petroleum products, fruits and vegetables, cotton fiber, clothing, meat and live animals, and wheat. The principal imports are machinery and equipment, foodstuffs, livestock, metals, chemicals, plastics, yarn, and paper. The leading trade partners are Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Germany, and Egypt.


Syria is governed under the constitution of 1973 as amended. The president, who is head of state, is the most powerful political and military figure in the country. He is approved by popular referendum for a seven-year term, and is limited to serving (beginning in 2014) two terms. The government is headed by the prime minister, who is appointed by the president. The unicameral legislature consists of the 250-seat People's Council, whose members are popularly elected for four-year terms. Administratively, Syria is divided into 14 provinces or governates.


Early History

Until the 20th cent. the term Syria generally denoted those lands of the Levant, or eastern littoral of the Mediterranean, that correspond to modern Syria and Lebanon, most of Israel and Jordan, W Iraq, and N Saudi Arabia. Three geographical factors have played major parts in determining the history of Syria—its location on the trade and military routes, its varied topography, and the encroaching desert. Syria has always been an object of conquest, and it has been held by foreign powers during much of its history. One of the earliest settlements was probably at Ugarit; human habitation at Tell Hamoukar in NE Syria dates to at least 4000 BC The Amorites, coming c.2100 BC from the Arabian peninsula, were the first important Semitic people to settle in the region, and they established many small states.

From the 15th to the 13th cent. BC the area probably was part of the empire of the Hittites, although it came under Egyptian rule for long periods during that time. The first great indigenous culture was that of Phoenicia (located mostly in present-day Lebanon), which flourished after 1250 BC in a group of trading cities along the coast. In the 10th cent. BC two Hebrew kingdoms were organized in Palestine (see also Jews). Syria suffered (11th–6th cent. BC) long invasions and intermittent control by the empire of Assyria. Babylonian conquerors also found success in Syria, and Egypt constantly sought to reestablish its position there. The Syrians were subjected to massacres, plundering, and forced deportations.

Under the Persian Empire, with its efficient administrative system, Syria's standard of living improved (6th–4th cent. BC). Alexander the Great conquered Syria between 333 and 331 BC, and his short-lived empire was followed by that of the Seleucidae (see Seleucus I), who are usually called kings of Syria. Their control of Syria was constantly threatened by Egypt, which was ruled by the Ptolemies. The Egyptians usually held the south until Antiochus III conquered (early 2d cent. BC) the region, which was generally called Coele Syria, a name which had been vaguely applied to all of W Syria. The Seleucids founded cities and military colonies and introduced Hellenistic civilization to Syria. Syria long showed the revivifying effects of this new culture. Many of the cities became cultural Hellenistic centers, but the change did not reach the lower levels of the population.

When invasions began again, first by the Armenians under Tigranes and then by the Parthians—both in the 1st cent. BC—the Hellenistic sheen was soon dulled. The Romans under Pompey conquered the region by 63 BC, but they continued to fight the Parthians there, and the Syrians benefited little from the Roman presence. Many changes in administration occurred, and Rome drew from Syria numerous soldiers and slaves. The old pagan gods of Syria were also taken up by the Romans. More significant for the future of Syria, Christianity was started in Palestine and soon exerted some influence over all of Syria; St. Paul was converted from Judaism to Christianity on the road to Damascus. In central Syria, Palmyra grew (3d cent. AD) to considerable power as an autonomous state, but it was conquered by the Romans when it threatened their ascendancy.

After the division of Rome into the Eastern and Western empires in the 4th cent., Syria came under Byzantine rule. In the 5th and 6th cent. Monophysitism, a Christian heresy with political overtones, gained many adherents in Syria. Byzantine control there was seriously weakened by the 7th cent. Between 633 and 640, Muslim Arabs conquered Syria, and during the following centuries most Syrians converted to Islam. Damascus was the usual capital of the Umayyad caliph (661–750) and enjoyed a period of great splendor. The Umayyads were forcibly displaced by the Abbasids, whose residence was in Iraq, thus ending Syria's dominant position in the Islamic world. At the same time the ties between Muslim Syria and the predominantly Christian southwest (later Lebanon) began to loosen.

Crusaders and Conquerers

Groups of Christians remained in the Muslim areas, and they generally rendered aid to the Christians who came to Syria on Crusades (11th–14th cent.). By the late 11th cent. the Seljuk Turks had captured most of Syria, and the Christians fought against them as well as against Saladin, who triumphed (late 12th cent.) over both the Christians and his fellow Muslims. After Saladin's death (1193), Syria fell into disunity, and in the mid-13th cent. it was overrun by the Mongols under Hulagu Khan, who destroyed (1260) much of Aleppo and Damascus, massacring about 50,000 inhabitants of Aleppo. The Mongols were defeated later in 1260 by Baybars, the Mamluk ruler of Egypt.

The Mamluks held control of Syria for most of the time until 1516, when the Ottoman Empire annexed the area. The Mamluk period was largely a time of economic stagnation and political unrest. In 1401 the Central Asian conqueror Timur sacked Aleppo and Damascus. For most of the four centuries of Ottoman control, Syria's economy continued to be weak, and its politics remained fragmented. From the later 16th cent., government in Syria was not directly controlled by the Ottomans but was in the hands of several Syrian families who often fought each other. From the late 18th cent. the European powers took an increasing interest in Syrian affairs, the British as friends of the Druze, the Russians as protectors of the Orthodox Christians, and the French as allies of the Roman Catholics (especially the Maronites).

In 1798–99, Napoleon I of France invaded Egypt and also briefly held parts of the Syrian coast. In 1832–33, Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Muhammad Ali of Egypt, annexed Syria to Egypt. Egypt held Syria until 1840, when the European powers (particularly Great Britain) forced its return to the Ottomans; during this time Syria's economy was revived and numerous schools were established. During the rest of the 19th cent. the Syrian economy was modernized somewhat and educational opportunities were increased. However, conditions were far from good, and growing resentment of Ottoman rule developed among the Syrians. After bloody fighting between Christians and Druze, Lebanon (largely inhabited by Christians) was given considerable autonomy in 1860.

The Foundations of Modern Syria

During World War I the British encouraged Syrian nationalists to fight against the Ottoman Empire. The ambitions of the nationalists were thwarted in the peace settlement, which gave (1920) France a League of Nations mandate over the Levant States (roughly present-day Syria and Lebanon). From this time the term Syria referred approximately to its present territorial extent. France divided Syria into three administrative districts on the pretext that political decentralization would safeguard the rights of minorities. The Arab nationalists angrily asserted that decentralization was also a means of maintaining French control by a divide-and-rule policy.

The French made some concessions after serious disturbances in 1925, which included a rebellion by the Druze and the French bombardment of Damascus. Lebanon was made a completely separate state in 1926, and after long negotiations a treaty was signed (1936) giving Syria a large measure of autonomy. Anti-French feeling continued as a result of the cession of the sanjak of Alexandretta (see Hatay) to Turkey, completed in 1939. In the same year the French suspended the Syrian constitution, and in World War II they garrisoned Syria with a large number of troops, most of whom, after the fall of France in June, 1940, declared loyalty to the Vichy government. Relations with Great Britain deteriorated, and when it was discovered that Syrian airfields had been used by German planes en route to Iraq, British and Free French forces invaded and occupied Syria in June, 1941.

An Independent Nation

In accordance with previous promises, the French proclaimed the creation of an independent Syrian republic in Sept., 1941, and an independent Lebanese republic in Nov., 1941. In 1943, Shukri al-Kuwatli was elected president of Syria, and on Jan. 1, 1944, the country achieved complete independence. However, the continued presence of French troops in Syria caused increasing friction and bloodshed and strained Anglo-French relations. It was not until Apr., 1946, that all foreign troops were withdrawn from the country. In 1945, Syria had become a charter member of the United Nations.

A member of the Arab League, Syria joined other Arab states in the unsuccessful war (1948–49) against Israel (see Arab-Israeli Wars). The defeat at the hands of Israel, coupled with serious internal divisions resulting from disagreements over whether to unite with Iraq (and thus form a "Greater Syria" ), undermined confidence in parliamentary government and led to three coups in 1949. Lt. Col. Adib al-Shishakli led the third coup (Dec., 1949), and he governed the country until 1954. A new constitution providing for parliamentary government was promulgated in 1950, but it was suspended in late 1951. From then until 1954, al-Shishakli ruled as a virtual dictator. In 1953 he issued a new constitution establishing a presidential form of government and was elected president.

Opposition to al-Shishakli's one-man rule led to his downfall in 1954 and the reinstitution of the 1950 constitution. After elections in late 1954 a coalition government uniting the People's, National, and Ba'ath parties and headed by Sabri al-Asali of the National party was established; Shukri al-Kuwatli was again elected president. In the following years the Ba'ath party, which combined Arab nationalism with a socialist program, emerged as the most influential political party in Syria. At the same time, in order to offset growing Western influence in the Middle East (exemplified by the creation in 1955 of the Baghdad Pact alliance, later known as the Central Treaty Organization), both Syria and Egypt signed economic and military accords with the USSR.

To counterbalance Soviet influence, Syria joined with Egypt to form (Feb., 1958) the United Arab Republic (UAR). By late 1959, Egypt had become dominant in the UAR, which led to growing Syrian opposition to continued union with Egypt. In Sept., 1961, a group of Syrian army officers seized control of Syria, withdrew the country from the UAR, and established the Syrian Arab Republic. Elections for a constituent assembly were held in late 1961; the assembly chose Maruf al-Dawalibi as prime minister and Nazim al-Qudsi as president of the country; both were conservatives and members of the People's party. In early 1962 a military coup ended this arrangement, and in late 1962 the 1950 constitution was reinstated.

In 1963 another coup brought a joint Ba'ath-military government to power; this regime was headed, at different times, by Salah al-Din al-Bitar, a moderate leader of the Ba'ath party, and by Gen. Amin al-Hafiz. The government nationalized much of the economy and redistributed land to the peasants. At the same time a split between moderate and radical elements in the Ba'ath party was growing. In early 1966 the radicals staged a successful coup and installed Yusseff Zayen as prime minister and Nureddin al-Attassi as president. The new government strengthened Syria's ties with Egypt and the USSR.

Between 1962 and 1966, Syria agitated Israeli interests by attempting to divert headwaters of the Jordan River, by firing on Israeli fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, and by using the Golan Heights to snipe at Israeli settlements. These conflicts contributed to the Arab-Israeli War of June, 1967. During the war Israel captured the Golan Heights (stretching about 12 mi/19 km into Syria northeast of the Sea of Galilee), and it held on to this territory after a cease-fire went into effect. After the war Syria maintained its anti-Israel stance. In 1968–69 the Ba'ath party was again torn by factional strife, and it divided into the "progressives" (led by al-Attassi), who favored state control of the economy and close cooperation with the USSR, and the "nationalists" (headed by Gen. Hafez al-Assad), who emphasized the need to defeat Israel, to improve relations with other Arab states, and to lessen Syria's economic and military dependence on the USSR.

The Assad Regime

Al-Assad successfully ousted al-Attassi in Nov., 1970. In early 1971, al-Assad was overwhelmingly elected to a seven-year term as president; he was reelected three times. Later in 1971, Syria, Libya, and Egypt agreed to unite loosely in the Federation of Arab Republics. Syria continued to be on good terms with the USSR, which equipped the Syrian army with modern weapons. In early 1973 a new constitution was approved, and the Ba'ath party won 70% of the seats in elections for the people's council. In July–Aug., 1973, about 42 army officers (all Sunni Muslims) were executed after allegedly plotting to assassinate al-Assad, who, they claimed, showed undue favoritism to his fellow Alawite Muslims in the army. (Al-Assad did indeed favor the Alawites in the army and government.)

In Oct., 1973, the fourth Arab-Israeli War erupted; after initial Syrian advances in the Golan Heights, Israel gained the offensive and pushed into Syria a few miles beyond the Golan Heights region. Syria (like Israel) accepted the UN Security Council cease-fire resolution of Oct. 25, 1973, but fighting continued into 1974. In May, 1974, largely through the mediation of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Syria and Israel signed an agreement in Geneva that ended the fighting. Under the terms of the accord, Israel pulled back to the 1967 cease-fire line and also returned the city of Qunaytirah (Kuneitra) to Syria; a buffer zone, patrolled by UN troops, was established in the Golan Heights.

Since the 1970s the rise of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism has challenged Ba'athist ideology. Between 1976 and 1982, urban centers erupted in political unrest. The Muslim Brotherhood, a radical religious and political organization founded in 1928 in Egypt, was largely responsible for extremist attacks. In Feb., 1982, the brotherhood unsuccessfully attempted an uprising in Hama but was quashed by government troops; thousands were killed. Islamic fundamentalists, however, continue to remain active.

In 1976, Syria sent forces to Lebanon as part of a peacekeeping force to help end that country's civil war. The Syrian military remained in Lebanon, and from 1980 to 1981, Syrian troops sided with Lebanese Muslims against the Christian militias. With Israel's invasion of Lebanon in June, 1982, Syrian troops clashed with Israeli forces and were pushed back. Syria was also antagonized by Israel in 1982, when Menachem Begin announced the annexation of the Golan Heights. By the late 1990s, more than 40 Jewish settlements and villages had been developed in the Golan Heights. Although Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 1985, Syrian forces stayed; they remained the dominant military and political force there into 2005.

The Syrian government has been implicated in sponsoring international terrorism, especially in support of Iranian, Palestinian, and Libyan causes. In the 1980s, Syria moved closer to the USSR and espoused hard-line Arab positions. By 1990, however, as the Soviet system faltered, Syria attempted to improve relations with Western countries. That year Syria was the first Arab country to condemn Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and it contributed 20,000 soldiers to the coalition forces in the Persian Gulf War (1991).

Syria, along with Lebanon and a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation, became involved in peace talks with Israel in late 1991. As talks progressed between Israel and the PLO and Jordan, Syria's insistence that Israel withdraw from all of the Golan Heights proved a stumbling block in its own negotiations. Talks broke off in 1996, but the Syrian government appeared interested in renewing negotiations following the installation of a Labor government in Israel in 1999. Talks were resumed in Dec., 1999. After what appeared to be initial progress, discussions stalled in Jan., 2000, when a secret draft treaty with Syrian concessions was published in Israel, leading to a public hardening of Syria's position with respect to the Golan.

In June, 2000, Assad died suddenly. His son, Bashar al-Assad, a 34-year-old doctor who had been groomed to succeed his father since 1994, rapidly became commander in chief of the army, head of the Ba'ath party, and then president. The son was regarded as an advocate of a free-market economy and political change, but economic liberalization proceeded slowly and he maintained a monopoly on political power. Syria strongly opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and was accused by U.S. government officials of supplying aid to Iraq and helping Iraqi officials to escape from U.S. forces. The United States later also accused Syria of permitting militants to infilitrate into Iraq. A new cabinet with a mandate to push reforms forward was appointed in Sept., 2003, but subsequently there was little noticeable political or economic reform.

In Oct., 2003, Israel struck at what it called a terrorist training base in Syria in retaliation for suicide-bombing attacks in Israel; it was the first Israeli strike against Syrian territory in 20 years. Simmering grievances among the nation's Kurds erupted into rare antigovernment protests in NE Syria in Mar., 2004.

In Aug. and Sept., 2004, Syria blatantly forced Lebanon to extend President Lahoud's term, an act that was denounced by the UN Security Council. The Feb., 2005, assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who had opposed Syrian interference in Lebanon, led to anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon and increased international pressure on Syria. Syria subsequently agreed to withdraw from Lebanon, and by the end of Apr., 2005, the withdrawal was completed. Syria nonetheless retained considerable influence in Lebanon.

A UN investigation into Hariri's killing implicated senior Syrian and Lebanese officials, but Syria refused to allow UN investigators to interview high-ranking Syrian officials, leading the Security Council to call unanimously for Syria to cooperate. Syria, however, vigorously rejected the vote and attempted to discredit the investigation, publicizing the recanting of one witness. However, a former Syrian vice president, Abdul Halim Khaddam, stated (Dec., 2005) that Syria had threatened Hariri and asserted that the assassination could not have happened without the support of high-ranking Syrian officials. (Khaddam, residing in Paris, also called for Assad to be removed from office.) Resistance to moving forward with the investigation from Syria's allies in Lebanon (most notably then-President Emile Lahoud and Hezbollah) blocked the Lebanese government from establishing an investigative tribunal and stalled any additional progress into 2008. By 2010, however, as the tribunal's investigation progressed, it appeared more likely to indicted members of Hezbollah than Syrian officials; in Apr., 2009, the four Lebanese officers who had been held since 2005 in connection with the case were released for lack of evidence.

Assad was reelected in May, 2007, by referendum (he was the only candidate). In Sept., 2007, the Israeli air force attacked a site in N Syria that some reports suggested was a nuclear facility under construction. International Atomic Energy Agency, which called on Syria to cooperate, ultimately concluded in its reports (2008, 2009, 2011) that evidence indicated that the facility was a nuclear reactor. Syria asserted the installation was a missile facilty. Also in 2009 the IAEA said it had found traces of processed uranium at another site, and it subsequently accused Syria of failing to cooperate.

An Arab League summit held in Syria in Mar., 2008, was attended by only half the Arab heads of state, as many sent lower-ranking officials as a protest against Syria's backing of Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon. In Oct., 2008, U.S. forces launched a raid into Syria from Iraq in which U.S. sources claimed a key figure in the Iraq insurgency was killed; Syria denounced the attack, saying only civilians were killed, and mounted demonstrations against the attack.

Beginning in Mar., 2011, Syria faced ongoing antigovernment demonstrations in a number of cities similar to those in other parts of the Arab world. The protests were especially persistent early on in the southern city of Deraa; Homs, Hama, and many other locations subsequently became centers of protest. Only Damascus and Aleppo were largely free of protests. The government issued some concessions in response, including granting citizenship to thousands of Kurds in NE Syria, ending the 48-year state of emergency, and (later) allowing some opposition parties, but it also accused its opponents of armed insurrection and violently suppressed protests. There also were anti-Alawite attacks by government opponents. Antigovernment demonstrations nonetheless continued, and the unrest turned into civil war as some troops defected and fought against government forces and others also took up arms.

In September leaders of opposition groups announced the formation of the Syrian National Council, but the opposition continued to lack unity and the council was dominated by exile groups. The Arab League suspended Syria's membership and imposed some economic sanctions in November; other nations also imposed sanctions in 2011 and 2012. In December, Arab League monitors entered Syria to oversee an agreement intended to end the violence, but they had no effect on the situation. The violence continued in 2012, with deadly fighting in many urban areas; government forces were accused of brutally targeting civilians and of killing them in mass executions. A new constitution was approved by 90% of those voting in a February referendum, but Assad's opponents called the result as a sham. The opposition also boycotted the subsequent May parliamentary elections.

Former UN head Kofi Annan negotiated a cease-fire in Apr., 2012, but it was quickly violated and never really took effect. The associated UN observers were withdrawn in August; also that month the Syria prime minister defected. In June, relations with Turkey became tense after Syria downed a Turkish fighter jet that had crossed into Syrian airspace; the Turkish government was a strong critic of Assad's attempts to crush the uprising. In October, cross-border fire into Turkey led to recurring retaliatory bombardment by Turkish forces. There were similar incidents involving Jordan and Israel, and subsequently occasional air strikes by Israel in Syria that were said to be directed at military supplies for Hezbollah.

A more broadly based opposition National Coalition was established in Nov., 2012, as a result of international pressure on opposition groups inside and outside Syria to unify, and some 100 nations subsequently recognized the group. Attempts to established a widely accepted opposition government, however, proved difficult, and hardline Islamist rebels were not part of the National Coalition. Fighting, meanwhile, spread to Damascus and Aleppo in 2012; the latter's old city was severely damaged by fighting. Opposition fighters remained ethnically and religiously fragmented, with militant Islamists, including some aligned with Al Qaeda and others from outside Syria, becoming increasingly significant and rejecting cooperation with other rebels. Kurdish groups sought to establish an autonomous Kurdish area. Shiite fighters from other nations, especially Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, became an increasing and significant component of those forces fighting in support of the government in 2013.

As the civil war progressed, it was increasingly marked by the opposition's divisions, with rebel groups sometimes fighting each other. In Jan., 2014, an alliance of Syrian rebel forces engaged in prolonged fighting in N Syria with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a Sunni Islamist rebel group that included many foreigners and was accused of atrocities. The ISIL, which had increasingly fought as much against other rebels as against the government, also launched (June, 2014) an offensive in Iraq that gave it control of a large area of territory in N and E Syria and in NW Iraq; it declared the establishment of a caliphate and renamed itself the Islamic State (IS) in hopes of rallying other Sunni Islamists to it. IS advances in Iraq and Syria in 2014 subsequently led to U.S. air strikes against it; the first strikes in Syria began in September, and the United States subsequently also targeted other Islamist militant groups in Syria.

By Aug., 2014, more than 190,000 were believed to have died in the fighting since Mar., 2011. The government controlled or contested much of E Syria, having made significant gains there in 2013 and 2014, while various rebel groups were in control mainly in the north and west, with the Islamic State becoming the dominant rebel group by 2014. Many people had been arrested or had disappeared while in government custody, and some 3 million had fled the country and 6.5 million were displaced inside Syria.

Both government and rebel forces were accused of using chemical weapons, but though there was evidence of the use of sarin, definitive proof was difficult to come by. An Aug., 2013, chemical attack in Damascus in which more than 1,300 died was linked by Western governments to the government. Subsequently, under threat of U.S. attack, the Assad regime agreed to the supervised destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile, most which was accomplished by Sept., 2014, but it was unclear if Syria had omitted any weapons. A Dec., 2013, UN report confirmed that the August attack involved chemical weapons, and found credible evidence of the weapons probably use in a number of prior incidents. Beginning in 2014, there were accusations of chlorine gas attacks by the Syrian government; chlorine was not among the chemical weapons Syria had to declare. Both sides in the conflict have been accused by human-rights groups of committing war crimes.

Assad was reelected in a vote that occurred (June, 2014) during the civil war and involved minor opponents. He was reported to have won 89% of the vote, with a 73% turnout (voting only occurred in government-controlled areas). The election and result were criticized by the opposition and many foreign governments as a sham.


See S. H. Longrigg, Syria and Lebanon under French Mandate (1958, repr. 1972); A. H. Hourani, Syria and Lebanon (1977); A. I. Dawisha, Syria and the Lebanese Crisis (1980); L. B. Paton, The Early History of Syria and Palestine (1981); R. W. Olson, The Ba'ath and Syria, 1947–1982 (1982); P. Seale, The Struggle for Syria (1987); F. Ajami, The Syrian Rebellion (2012); N. Hashemi and D. Postel, ed., The Syria Dilemma (2013).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Syria." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 27 Oct. 2016 <>.

"Syria." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (October 27, 2016).

"Syria." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved October 27, 2016 from



Formally, the Syrian Arab Republic (al-Jumhuriyya al-Arabiyya al-Suriyya).

Syria's 71,500 square miles include a narrow plain along the Mediterranean between Turkey to the north and Lebanon to the south, which contains the ports of Latakia and Tartus; fertile highlands between the capital, Damascus, and the border with Jordan, called the Hawran (Hauran); an extensive central plain, in which are situated the cities of Homs, Hama, and Aleppo; the Euphrates River valley, in which are the cities of al-Raqqa (Rakka) and Dayr al-Zawr; an eastern plateau bounded by Turkey to the north and Iraq to the east, whose major centers are al-Hasaka and al-Qamishli; and a large southeastern desert adjacent to Iraq and Jordan, whose oases contain the ruins of ancient fortifications and trading posts.

Syria has three major rivers. The largest, the Euphrates, enters from Turkey and is joined by the Khabur and the Balikh before crossing into Iraq southeast of Al Bu Kamal. The Euphrates system is regulated by the Euphrates Dam at Tabaqa, just west of al-Raqqa, which stores water for use in irrigation and power generation. Running south from mountains in the pre-1920 Syrian province of Iskenderun (now the Turkish province of Hatay), through the fertile Ghab basin and past the cities of Hama and Homs, is the Orontes river (Nahr al-Asi). The Yarmuk river, across which small irrigation dams were constructed during the 1980s, defines the border between Syria and Jordan. At current rates of use, Syria's groundwater reserves are expected to run dry by 2010, leaving the country entirely dependent on river water.


The total population is estimated to be 17.6 million (2002) with Damascus and Aleppo the major population centers. Population growth averaged over 3 percent annually for much of the second half of the twentieth century but then slowed to 2.45 percent (2002). On the other hand, the death rate plunged from 21 deaths per 1,000 during the early 1950s to 5 per 1,000 in 2002. Several thousand Armenians moved to Syria from the Soviet Union in 19451946, and founded a sizable community in Aleppo. After the establishment of the state of Israel, virtually all of the Syrian Jewish population emigrated, and about 100,000 Palestinians fleeing Israel's takeover of the Galilee in 1948 ended up in camps on the fringes of Damascus.

Muslims make up 8590 percent of the population; approximately 75 percent of this number are Sunnis, 1315 percent are Alawis, about 1 percent are Ismaʿilis, and less than 1 percent are Twelver Shiʿites. Some 3 percent of Syrians are Druze, a sect that follows a mixture of Christian and Shiʿa doctrines. Isolated pockets of Yazidis exist in the hills outside Aleppo and northeast of al-Qamishli. About 10 percent of the population are Christians, divided among at least a dozen sects. The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Gregorian communities are the largest and most influential.


Syria's governmental structure is highly centralized and strictly hierarchical, concentrating power primarily in the hands of the president and secondarily with the top leadership of the Baʿth party. This system was developed after March 1963, when military supporters of the Baʿth overthrew the parliamentary order that had reappeared following the dissolution of the union with Egypt in 1961. In November 1970, Gen. Hafiz al-Asad, minister of defense and head of the Baʿth party's military wing, seized power. He served as head of state, commander in chief, and secretary-general of the Regional (Syrian) Command of the Baʿth until his death in June 2000. Shortly after coming to power, the new regime appointed a representative body, the People's Council, to draft a permanent constitution. This document, approved in March 1973, provides for a seven-year presidential term of office; it empowers the president to appoint and remove the vice presidents, the prime minister, and other cabinet ministers. In addition, it grants the president the authority to dissolve the People's Council and call national plebiscites to ratify legislative measures not adopted by the parliament. Upon the death of Hafiz al-Asad, his second son, Bashshar al-Asad, was elected president in July 2000.

Syria consists of thirteen provinces, each administered by a governor. Each governor is advised by a provincial council, one-fourth of whose members are appointed and the remainder of whom are elected by popular balloting. Since 1970, these councils have exercised little decision-making autonomy. Municipal councils provide public services, license businesses, and supervise the collection of local taxes. Each municipal council is headed by a mayor. Damascus city constituted a separate governorate until 1987, when it merged with the surrounding province of Damascus to form a single administrative unit.


Syria's economy expanded dramatically during the 1940s, due to a combination of restrictions on imports and heightened spending by British and French occupation forces. The Korean War perpetuated the boom by creating greater demand for Syrian cotton on world markets. Private enterprise provided the main impetus for economic growth until the union with Egypt in 1958, when state officials introduced an extensive program of land reform, nationalization of industry, and regulation of commercial transactions. The short-lived parliamentary regime that seceded from the union in 1961 attempted to resurrect the private sector, but the Baʿth-affiliated officers who overthrew the civilian regime in March 1963 gradually extended government control over most sectors of the economy. State intervention peaked with the nationalization of industry, banking, and trade that began in January 1965. Under the regime of Salah Jadid (19661970), extensive state control accompanied the establishment of a network of production and distribution cooperatives, state farms, and Baʿth-affiliated popular-front organizations.

By the end of the 1960s, Syria's public-sector enterprises were experiencing severe financial difficulties. The government responded by relaxing restrictions on the activities of private business, particularly in construction and trade. Private enterprise quickly moved into agriculture and manufacturing as well, supported both by the return of large amounts of local capital that had fled the country during the late 1950s and by an influx of investment from the oil-producing Arab Gulf states. Government spending jumped from around 29 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 1972 to some 37 percent of GDP in 1987. This rise was not matched by an increase in current revenues, resulting in large budget deficits. The shortfalls resulted primarily from sharp increases in military spending; by 1987, support for the armed forces accounted for 39 percent of total state outlays. With an imbalance of this magnitude sustainable only through heavy reliance on the Communist bloc and Arab oil states, the implosion of the Soviet Union during the early 1990s forced the Syrian government to take austerity measures.

The economy grew at a rate of more than 9 percent per year during the 1970s, slowed to around 2.2 percent during the 1980s, rebounded to more than 5 percent during the 1990s, and continued to grow at an annual rate of 2.5 to 3.5 percent during the early years of the twenty-first century. Income per capita was approximately $1,000 (2002). With the growth in population approximating 2.5 percent, the World Bank has estimated that Syria would need real economic growth of more than 5 percent to improve the welfare of its people. Major distortions contribute to the overall weak performance of the Syrian economy, including multiple exchange rate and exchange controls, restrictions on private sector activity, price controls, major agricultural subsidies, an inefficient state-owned financial system, and the dominance of state-owned enterprises.

The Syrian government implemented limited economic reforms after 2000, permitting Syrians to hold foreign currency and licensing the first public banks, an essential step in modernizing the state-dominated economy. However, the far-reaching economic reforms required to modernize the economy were put on hold for fear that widespread economic change could lead to calls for concomitant political reform and democratization. As a result, sweeping economic reform remains the number one priority in the Syrian domestic agenda.


Since 1967, Syria's schools, technical institutes, and universities have been supervised by the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Higher Education. Successive Baʿth regimes have expanded the education system, and have taken steps to reduce illiteracy by establishing adult and women's education programs. Elementary education is free and compulsory. Secondary education, which consists of three years of preparatory school and three years of high school, is free but not compulsory. The great majority of children attend public schools; several private schools in Damascus serve foreign nationals and the elite. The Ministry of Education regulates textbooks, curricula, and teacher certification.

Syria has four universities. The largest and most prestigious is Damascus University, founded in 1923, which had some 60,000 students by 2002. The University of Aleppo, chartered in 1958, serves around 30,000 students. Tishrin University in Latakia and al-Baʿth University in Homs offer limited curricula. The University of Aleppo operates a faculty of agriculture in Dayr al-Zawr. Technical institutes are scattered throughout the country. The language of instruction is Arabic, although English and French are required as second languages by many faculties.


Syria's modern history began with the end of the Egyptian occupation (18311840). After the re-assertion of Ottoman control, European manufactured goods flooded the country, ruining the textile industry and leading urban merchants to invest in agricultural land. The trend toward private estate ownership was reinforced by the Ottoman land law of 1858, which allowed landholders to convert nominally state-owned communal lands in the villages into private property. At the end of the nineteenth century, French enterprises won numerous concessions in exchange for loans to the Ottoman authorities. French firms invested in ports, railroads, and highways, opening the cities of the interior to the outside world. As manufacturing continued to contract, to the evident benefit of Syria's well-connected minority communities, anti-Christian and anti-European riots, like the 1860 massacres in Damascus, erupted. These drew European governments into local politics, and growing outside interference generated rising disaffection with Ottoman authority among Syria's Arab elite.

During the 1890s, clubs advocating Syrian independence formed in Aleppo, Damascus, and Beirut. These coalesced into political parties after the 1908 revolution that brought the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) to power in Constantinople (now Istanbul). Members of an underground CUP branch in Damascus led popular demonstrations in support of the coup, prompting prominent religious notables to form an organization of their own, the Muslim Union. Candidates sympathetic to the latter won the parliamentary elections of 1909. Liberal opponents of the CUP openly denounced the regime in Constantinople, setting the stage for new elections in 1912, which were rigged to ensure that only CUP supporters won seats in parliament.

Following the balloting, influential Syrian liberals emigrated to Cairo, where they formed the Ottoman Party of Administrative Decentralization to seek greater autonomy for the empire's Arabic-speaking provinces. The publication of its program accompanied widespread anti-CUP agitation orchestrated by secret societies including the Constantinople-based Qahtan society, the Paris-based Young Arab Society (al-Fatat), and the Iraq-and Syria-based Society of the Covenant (Jamʿiyyat al-Ahd). The seeds of Arab nationalism germinated among these societies prior to World War I.

Nationalist sentiment blossomed during the war, and when Faisal I ibn Hussein of the Hijaz led an Arab army into Damascus in October 1918, he was welcomed as a liberator and Damascus declared itself an autonomous Arab administration for the whole of greater Syria. Faisal attempted to consolidate popular support by calling elections in mid-1919, but CUP sympathizers won most of the seats representing Damascus. Members of the Young Arab Society dominated the rest of the assembly, and in the fall of 1919 this organization formed the Committee of National Defense to resist Faisal's alleged willingness to capitulate to French demands. Faisal responded by forming the National Party, whose platform called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy with French assistance. The assembly, led by Hashim al-Atasi of Homs, acclaimed Faisal king of an independent Syria. His acquiescence in the declaration led France to occupy Damascus in 1920, establishing a tutelary regime that governed the country for the next quarter-century.

After independence in 1946, the armed forces became a major means of advancement for Syria's minority communities, particularly poorer Alawis and Druze, who entered the military academy in rapidly growing numbers. There they encountered radical political ideas, including those of the Baʿth and the local communist party. Rising disaffection within the ranks prompted the military high command to champion social reform programs and solidarity with nationalists in neighboring Arab states. Popular and parliamentary discontent over Syria's defeat in Palestine persisted through the winter of 19481949, and in March 1949 a clique of commanders led by Col. Husni al-Zaʿim overthrew the elected government. Zaʿim abrogated the 1930 constitution, suppressed all political parties, and ruled by decree. That June he was assassinated by rival officers, who restored civilian rule and called for elections to a popular assembly to frame a new constitution. The assembly fragmented along regional lines, and in December a group of junior officers led by Col. Adib Shishakli seized power. Shishakli's regime adopted a revised constitution in 1950 but soon resorted to severe tactics to control the resurgent labor unions and peasant movement, and was ousted in 1954.

The new military-civilian coalition restored the 1950 constitution and held parliamentary elections, in which the Arab Baʿth Socialist party won a substantial number of seats. Leftist forces were unable to form a coalition cabinet, and the liberal People's party took over the government. This development sparked renewed militancy among workers and peasants, convincing the cabinet to implement wide-ranging agricultural and industrial reforms. Startled by the reforms, as well as by demands for greater change from the Baʿth and the communists, conservatives in parliament mobilized support for former President Shukri al-Quwatli, who won the presidency in 1955. By 1957 escalating tensions among proUnited States, pro-Egypt, and Syrian nationalist politicians led to a postponement of local elections while military intelligence officers uncovered an elaborate plot by agents of Iraq to undermine the government. These developments sent Chief of Staff Afif al-Bizri to Cairo to request immediate union with Egypt. In 1958 President Quwatli announced the creation of the United Arab Republic.

Efforts to unify the two countries eventually provoked widespread unrest in Syria. When the cabinet nationalized and redistributed the assets of private enterprises during the summer of 1961, largely in response to problems in Egypt, merchants and tradespeople in Syria's cities agitated for dissolution of the union. A group of military officers and civilian politicians orchestrated secession that September. Over the next two years, Syria's politics consisted of jockeying among socialists, who favored continued state control over key sectors of the economy; large landholders and rich merchants, who advocated the restoration of private property and parliamentary rule; and moderates, including a wing of the Baʿth party led by Michel Aflaq, who supported maintaining a mixed economy. In 1962, a compromise government supported by the military high command took steps to dismantle the public sector and remove doctrinaire socialists from the armed forces, moves that precipitated both resistance among Baʿth and communist officers and growing Islamist opposition. Spurred by threats to the position of radicals within the military and by burgeoning popular unrest, members of the military committee of the Baʿth carried out a coup in 1963, ushering in a period of Baʿth partymilitary rule.

Gen. Hafiz al-Asad, who played a major role in the 1963 coup, was promoted to commander of the air force in 1964, serving also as a senior leader in the Baʿthist military command. Mastering the survival techniques necessary in the factional politics plaguing Syria, he seized control of the government in November 1970, dismissing or purging opponents and initiating three decades of rule. Characterized by internal political stability and continuity, the Asad regime ushered in a new chapter in both domestic and foreign policies. On the domestic front, it stressed the need for reconciliation and national unity, built stable state institutions, and courted disenchanted social classes with measures of economic and political liberalization. At the same time, it tolerated no opposition, attacking the Muslim Brotherhood and viciously suppressing an uprising in Hama in February 1982. In addition to the army, the institutional pillars of the regime were a multilayered intelligence network, formal state structures, and revitalized Baʿth party congresses.

In foreign policy, the Asad regime succeeded in transforming Syria into a regional middle power out of all proportion to its size, population, and economic resources. The regime began by moving quickly to end Syrian isolation in the Arab world, focusing on Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Accepting UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, it agreed to a May 1974 disengagement agreement with Israel in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israel War, but then worked to kill the 1983 Israel-Lebanon accord. Syrian military power expanded steadily in this period; by 1986, it had a very large military force for a state of its size. Personal animosity, together with geopolitical rivalry and a Baʿth party schism, separated Asad's Syria from Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Syria sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and adhered to the Western-led anti-Iraq coalition during the Gulf War. A new entente with Egypt, and Syria's subsequent involvement in the U.S.sponsored Middle East peace process that started with the Madrid Conference in October 1991, led the Syrian government for the first time into face-to-face negotiations with Israel. Stalled in 1996, talks with Israel again foundered in 1999. However, the positions of the two protagonists were closer than ever before, and a future agreement seemed possible.

President Hafiz al-Asad died of natural causes on 10 June 2000 and was replaced by his son, Bashshar al-Asad, on 17 July 2000. Dual themes of continuity and change characterized the early policies of the new regime. Bashshar al-Asad cautiously promoted limited socioeconomic change to stimulate the economy and generate popular support, but delayed broader economic reforms out of fear they would cause political destabilization. In foreign affairs, he maintained his father's commitment to a just and lasting Middle East peace in which Syria would regain all occupied lands. However, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and Syria's uncertain place in the war on terrorism combined to limit Bashshar al-Asad's scope for regional and international initiatives.

see also aflaq, michel; asad, bashshar al-; asad, hafiz al-; baʿth; damascus; hama; iraniraq war (19801988); jadid, salah; muslim brotherhood.


Batatu, Hanna. Syria's Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Deeb, Marius. Syria's Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Hinnebusch, Raymond A. Authoritarian Power and State Formation in Baʿthist Syria: Army, Party, and Peasant. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990.

Hinnebusch, Raymond A. Syria: Revolution from Above. London: Taylor & Francis, 2002.

Khoury, Philip S. Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 19201945. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Kienle, Eberhard, ed. Contemporary Syria: Liberalization between Cold War and Cold Peace. London: British Academic Press, 1994.

Longrigg, Stephen Hemsley. Syria and Lebanon under the French Mandate. New York; London: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Perthes, Volker. The Political Economy of Syria under Asad. New York; London: I. B. Tauris, 1995.

Pipes, Daniel. Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Seale, Patrick. Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Seale, Patrick. The Struggle for Syria: A Study of Post-War Arab Politics, 19451958. New York; London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Van Dam, Nikolaos. The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Baʿth Party. New York; London: I. B. Tauris, 1996.

Wedeen, Lisa. Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

fred h. lawson
updated by ronald bruce st john

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Syria." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . 27 Oct. 2016 <>.

"Syria." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . (October 27, 2016).

"Syria." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . Retrieved October 27, 2016 from



Official name: Syrian Arab Republic

Area: 185,180 square kilometers (71,498 square miles)

Highest point on mainland: Mount Hermon (2,814 meters/9,232 feet)

Lowest point on land: Unnamed location near Lake Tiberis (200 meters/656 feet below sea level)

Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern

Time zone: 2 p.m. = noon GMT

Longest distances: 793 kilometers (493 miles) from east-northeast to west-southwest; 431 kilometers (268 miles) from south-southeast to north-northwest

Land boundaries: 2,253 kilometers (1,400 miles) total boundary length; Iraq 605 kilometers (376 miles); Israel 76 kilometers (47 miles); Jordan 375 kilometers (233 miles); Lebanon 375 kilometers (233 miles); Turkey 822 kilometers (511 miles)

Coastline: 193 kilometers (120 miles)

Territorial sea limits: 65 kilometers (35 nautical miles)


Syria is located in southwest Asia between the countries of Lebanon and Turkey, in the region of the Middle East. The country borders the Mediterranean Sea and also shares boundaries with Iraq, Jordan, and Israel. With a total area of about 185,180 square kilometers (71,498 square miles), the country is slightly larger than the state of North Dakota. Syria is divided into fourteen provinces.


Syria has no outside territories or dependencies; as of early 2003, however, the country was in a dispute with Israel over the area known as the Golan Heights.


Syria has a mostly desert climate. East of the Anti-Lebanon ridges, Syria has hot days that can reach temperatures as high as 38°C (100°F) to 43°C (109°F). By contrast, nights are cool and winters are fairly cold, with temperatures falling to frost levels. The coastal hills along the Mediterranean enjoy a moderate climate; on the highest peaks, snow may be found from late December to April.

Although Syria's average annual rainfall is less than 25 centimeters (10 inches), as much as 100 centimeters (39 inches) of rain falls on the coastal plains, mountains, and on parts of the steppe east of the Homs Gap. Annual rainfall totals ranging from 20 centimeters to 38 centimeters (8 to 15 inches) are not uncommon on the southern steppe of the Fertile Crescent. Rainfall diminishes greatly in the eastern desert, but increases in the extreme east.


The terrain of Syria consists of a fairly narrow series of mountain ranges in the west, which gives way to a broad plateau sloping gently toward the east and bisected by the Euphrates River valley. Syria's western mountain slopes catch moisture-laden winds from the Mediterranean Sea; thus, they are more fertile and more heavily populated than the eastern slopes, which receive only hot, dry winds blowing across the desert.

Northeast of the Euphrates River, which originates in the mountains of Turkey and flows diagonally across Syria into Iraq, is the fertile Al Jazīrah region, watered by the tributaries of the Euphrates.


Seacoast and Undersea Features

Syria has a short, narrow coast along the Mediterranean Sea.

Coastal Features

Sand dunes cover the coastal region; lateral promontories, running down from the mountains to the sea, form the only interruptions in the flat shoreline.


The largest inland body of water is the artificial Lake Al-Asad (Buhayrat al Assad), a body of water about 80 kilometers (50 miles) in length and averaging 8 kilometers (5 miles) in width. The Euphrates dam, built in 1973 upstream from Ar Raqqah, created this lake.


The country's waterways are of vital importance to its agricultural development. The longest and most important river is the Euphrates, extending some 3,956 kilometers (2,235 miles), which provides more than 80 percent of the country's water resources. Its main left-bank tributaries, the Balīkh and the Khābūr, are both major rivers in their own right and also rise in Turkey. The right-bank tributaries of the Euphrates River, however, are small seasonal streams called wadis. The Tigris River flows along the northeastern border for a short distance.

Throughout the plateau region east of Damascus, oases, streams, and a few interior rivers that empty into swamps and small lakes provide water for local irrigation. The most important of these is the Barada, a river that rises in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and disappears into the desert. The Barada River creates the Al Ghutah Oasis, the site of Damascus. This verdant land, which covers some 30 square kilometers (11.5 square miles), has enabled Damascus to prosper since ancient times.

Areas in the Al Jazīrah have been brought under cultivation with the waters of the Khābūr River (Nahr al Khābūr). The Sinn, a minor river in the northwest, is used to irrigate the area west of the An Nuşayrīyah, while the Orontes River waters the area east of these mountains. In the south, the springs that feed the upper Yarmūk are diverted to irrigate the Hawran Plateau.

Underground water reservoirs that are mainly natural springs are tapped for both irrigation and drinking water. The Al Ghab region is richest in underground water resources and contains nineteen major springs and underground rivers that have a combined flow rate of thousands of liters per minute.


Most of eastern Syria is part of the Syrian Desert, which is barren except for those areas in which rivers allow irrigated cultivation. All of the country west of the Euphrates and south of the central mountain ranges is part of the barren desert region called Hamad. North of the mountains and east of the city of Homs is another barren area known as the Horns Desert, which has a hard-packed dirt surface. Even the Al Jazīrah "island" land between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers is predominately desert.


The steppes of the western side of the Jabal Druze are part of the great Fertile Crescent; these lands are either cultivated or covered with seasonal grasses. The coastal strip is also home to wild grasses and shrubs such as tama-risk and buckthorn. Salt flats in the northeast include Rawdah and Al-Burghūth.

Along the coast, parallel to the Mediterranean, a range of high hills moderates the humidity and cooler temperatures coming off the water. This effect is restricted to the narrow coastal belt. Several other ranges of hills, fanning out gradually to the southwest, lie east of the Orontes River.

Homs Gap is a corridor between the An Nuşayrīyah Mountains and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. For centuries, Homs Gap has been a favorite trade and invasion route from the coast to the country's interior and onward to other parts of Asia. To the east, the line of the An Nuşayrīyah is separated from the Jabal az Zawiyah range and the plateau region by the Al Ghab depression, a fertile, irrigated trench crossed by the meandering Orontes River.


The An Nuşayrīyah Mountains (Jabal an Nuşayrīyah), a range paralleling the coast in the northwest, have average elevations of just over 1,212 meters (3,976 feet). The highest peak in this range, Nabi Yunis, rises to about 1,575 meters (5,167 feet).


The term "Middle East" was coined by western Europeans as a geographic designation for those countries of southwest Asia and northeast Africa that stretch from the Mediterranean Sea to the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, including the Arabian Peninsula. This area was considered to be the midpoint between Europe and East Asia, usually called the Far East.

In a cultural sense, the term sometimes refers to all the countries of that general region that are primarily Islamic. In this sense, the Middle East includes the countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as some of the North African countries that border the Arabian Peninsula.

Inland and farther south, the Anti-Lebanon Mountains rise to peaks of over 2,700 meters (8,858 feet) on the Syrian-Lebanese frontier and spread in spurs eastward toward the plateau region. The eastern slopes have little rainfall and vegetation, eventually merging with the desert.

In the southwest is the country's highest peak, Mount Hermon (Jabal ash Shaykh; 2,814 meters/9,232 feet), also on the border between Syria and Lebanon. All but the lowest slopes of Mount Hermon are uninhabited. Southeast of the Hawran Plateau lies the high volcanic region of the Jabal Druze range, home of the country's Druze population. The volcanoes, mostly unnamed, are extinct. The entire eastern plateau region is intersected by a low chain of mountains, the Jabal ar-Ruwāq, the Jabal Abū Rujmayn, and the Jabal Bishrī, extending northeastward from the Jabal Druze to the Euphrates River.


There are many natural caves throughout the mountain regions of Syria. These caves have served as homes for the area's earliest inhabitants, provided refuge during invasions, and become burial grounds. Archaeologists have found a variety of tools and bones in Syrian caves.


Hawran Plateau, frequently referred to as the Hawran, is a broad, expansive steppe situated south of Damascus and east of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. The Hawran receives rain-bearing winds from the Mediterranean. Volcanic cones as high as 900 meters (2,952 feet) intersperse the open, rolling, once-fertile plateau.


The Euphrates Dam (70 meters/230 feet high) created Lake Al-Asad, the largest inland body of water in Syria. The dam was built to aid in irrigation and to produce hydroelectric power.


The northeastern part of Syria lies in the ancient region of Mesopotamia. The name means "between rivers," and it refers to the territory between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The region extends from the Persian Gulf north to the mountains of Armenia and from the Zagros and Kurdish Mountains of Iran and Turkey to the Syrian Desert. This area has been nicknamed "the cradle of civilization" because it was home to the ancient empires of Babylon, Sumer, and Assyria, among others. The Tigris and the Euphrates are also two of the four rivers mentioned in the biblical story of Eden.



Beaton, M. Syria. Chicago: Children's Press, 1988.

Collelo, Thomas, ed. Syria: A Country Study. Area Handbook Series. Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1987.

Copeland, Paul W. The Land and People of Syria. Rev. ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972.

Devlin, John F. Syria: A Profile. London: Croom Helm, 1982.

The Middle East and North Africa 2002: Syria. 48th ed. London: Europa Publications, 2001.

Web Sites

ArabNet: Syria. (accessed April 24, 2003).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Syria." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography. . 27 Oct. 2016 <>.

"Syria." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography. . (October 27, 2016).

"Syria." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography. . Retrieved October 27, 2016 from




185,180sq km (71,498sq mi)



capital (population):

Damascus (1,394,322)


Multiparty republic

ethnic groups:

Arab 89%, Kurd 6%


Arabic (official)


Islam 90%, Christianity 9%


Syrian pound = 100 piastres

Arab republic in the n Middle East. The Arab Republic of Syria divides into two regions. The smaller, densely populated w region comprises a narrow coastal plain and several mountain ranges. The Jabal an Nusayriyah range drops sharply to the Great Rift Valley in the e. In the sw the Anti-Lebanon range contains Syria's highest peak, Mount Hermon, at 2184m (9232ft). The capital, Damascus, and Aleppo lie in fertile valleys. Eastern Syria is mainly grassy plain, and contains the valley of the River Euphrates. In the se lies the Syrian Desert.

Climate and Vegetation

The coast has a Mediterranean climate, with warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters. To the e, the land becomes drier. Only 4% of Syria is forested. Farmland covers c.30% of Syria, grassland makes up 44%.

History and Politics

Syria's location on the trade routes between Europe, Africa, and Asia made it a desired possession of many rulers. The area, including what is now Lebanon and some of modern-day Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, was ruled by the Hittites and by Egypt during the 15th–13th centuries bc. Under the rule of Phoenicia (13th–10th centuries bc), trading cities flourished on the Mediterranean coast. From the 10th century bc, Syria suffered invasions from Assyria and Egypt. The Achaemenid Empire provided stability. From the 3rd century bc, the Seleucids controlled Syria, often challenged by Egypt. Palmyra flourished as a city-state. In ad 63, the Romans conquered the region. Christianity was introduced via Palestine.

When the Roman Empire split in the 4th century, Syria came under Byzantine rule. In 637, Arabs invaded and most of the population converted to Islam. The Umayyads and Abbasid dynasties followed. In the 11th century, Syria was a target of the Crusades but, at the end of the 12th century, Saladin triumphed. Mongol and Mamluk rule followed Saladin's death. In 1516, the area became part of the Ottoman Empire. European interest intensified in the 19th century. During World War I, Syrian nationalists revolted and helped Britain defeat the Turks. After the war, Syria, now roughly its present size, became a French mandated territory.

In 1944, Syria gained independence. It supported the Arab cause in the Middle East, and has been involved in the Arab-Israeli Wars. In 1967, it lost the Golan Heights to Israel, and in 1973 tried unsuccessfully to reclaim them. A UN-patrolled buffer zone was established. The Golan remains a source of tension. In 1958, Syria joined the United Arab Republic with Egypt and North Yemen. Egypt's growing power led to Syrian withdrawal from the UAR, and the formation of a Syrian Arab Republic in 1961. The Ba'ath Party has ruled since 1963.

In 1970, Hafez al-Assad seized power in a coup, and he was elected in 1971. A new constitution (1973) declared Syria to be a democratic, socialist state. Assad's stable but repressive regime attracted international criticism. In the Gulf War (1991), Syria supported the coalition against Iraq. In 1994, Syria and Israel held talks about the Golan Heights. The talks stalled after Binyamin Netanyahu won the 1996 Israeli elections. The election of Ehud Barak in Israel (1999) saw the withdrawal of Israeli troops in s Lebanon, and Syria came under pressure to control Hezbollah forces. In 2000, Assad died and was succeeded by his son, Bashar al-Assad. In 2001, Syrian troops withdrew from Beirut.


Syria is a lower-middle-income developing country (2000 GDP per capita, US$3100). Its main resources are oil, hydroelectricity, and its fertile agricultural land. In 1990, crude oil accounted for 45% of exports, but Syria also exports farm products, textiles, and phosphates. Agriculture employs 23% of the workforce. The chief crops are cotton and wheat. Syria is rapidly diversifying its industrial base.

Political map

Physical map


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Syria." World Encyclopedia. . 27 Oct. 2016 <>.

"Syria." World Encyclopedia. . (October 27, 2016).

"Syria." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved October 27, 2016 from



Culture Name



Identification. Syria is the name that was given to the region by the Greeks and Romans and probably derives from the Babylonian suri. Arabs traditionally referred to Syria and a large, vaguely defined surrounding area as Sham, which translates as "the northern region," "the north," "Syria," or "Damascus." Arabs continued to refer to the area as Sham up until the twentieth century. That name still is used to refer to the entire area of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and the West Bank and has become a symbol of Arab unity.

Location and Geography. Syria borders Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Israel and Jordan to the south, and Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. It is 71,000 square miles (183,900 square kilometers) in area. One-third of the land is arable, and one-third is pasturable. The terrain is mostly desert, and home to drought resistant plants such as myrtle, boxwood, and wild olive. There is little wildlife. Remote areas have wolves, hyenas, and foxes; the desert has lizards, eagles, and buzzards. Most of the population is concentrated in the western region of the country, near the Mediterranean. Damascus, the capital and the largest city, is located at the foot of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains along the small Barada River. It has a favorable location in a fertile area close to the desert and has historically served as a refueling stop and commercial center for traders making trips through the desert. Inland of this area is a range of limestone mountains, the Jabal al-Nusayriya. The Gharb Depression, a dry but fertile valley, lies between this range and other mountains to the east. The Euphrates River and several of its tributaries pass through Syria, supplying more than 80 percent of the country's water. There are two natural lakes: Arram in the crater of an extinct volcano in the Golan Heights and Daraa along the Jordanian border. There are several artificial lakes created by dams that supply irrigation and electrical power. Most of the country has a desertlike climate, with hot, dry summers and milder winters. What little rain there is falls in the winter, mainly along the coast.

Demography. The population in 2000 was 16,673,282 (not including the 35,150 people living in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, of whom 18,150 are Arabs and 17,000 are Israelis). The country is 90.3 percent Arab. Kurds are estimated to constitute between 3 and 9 percent of the population. Also represented are Turks; Armenians, most of whom fled Turkey between 1925 and 1945; and small numbers of Circassians, Assyrians, and Jews. The Bedoins are Arabs, but form a distinct group. They were originally nomadic, but many have been forced to settle in towns and villages.

Linguistic Affiliation. Arabic is the official language, and 90 percent of the population speaks it. The Syrian dialect is very similar to Jordanian and Egyptian and varies little from Modern Standard Arabic, the standardized form used in communications throughout the Arab world. Kurdish, Armenian, and Circassian also are spoken. Kurdish is spoken mostly in the northeast, but even there it is rarely heard, as speaking it is viewed as a gesture of dissent. Some ancient languages are still spoken in parts of the country, including Maalua, Aramaic, and Syriac. As a result of colonial influence, French and English (French in particular) are understood and used in interactions with tourists and other foreigners.

Symbolism. The coat of arms displays a hawk, which is the emblem of Muhammad, the founder of the Islamic faith. The flag consists of three horizontal stripes: red on top, white in the middle, and black on the bottom. In the white section are two green stars, symbolizing Islam.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. The modern-day nation emerged from Sham, an area that historically included Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon. Between 2700 and 2200 b.c.e., this area was home to the Ebla kingdom. Later, the country's strategic location helped its coastal towns rise to prominence as Phoenician trading posts. It was conquered by the Persians around 500 b.c.e., and by the Greeks in 333 b.c.e. The Romans took over in 64 b.c.e., and established a fortress at Palmyra whose remains still stand in the desert. Muslim Arabs conquered Damascus in 635 c.e. Beginning in 1095, Syria was a target of the Crusades, but the Arabs ultimately defeated the Christian invaders. The Turkish Ottoman Empire took control in 1516 and ruled the area for four hundred years. That era came to an end in 1920 with the end of World War I, when the French took control of Syria and Lebanon. The French drew a straight-line border to separate this territory from British-ruled Transjordan. Syria had experienced a brief period of independence from 19181920, and was dissatisfied with French rule, which ignored the will of the people and did little for the country as a whole. There was a brief insurrection in 1925 and 1926, which the French put down by bombing Damascus.

Syria held its first parliamentary elections in 1932. All the candidates were hand-picked by the French, but once elected, they declined the constitution France had proposed for the country. Anti-French sentiment grew when France turned over control of the Syrian province of Alexandretta to Turkey. It was exacerbated by the promise of independence in 1941, which was not delivered until five years later. After independence, civilian rule was short-lived, and the early 1950s saw a succession of coups, after which Syria formed the United Arab Republic with Egypt in 1958. This represented an effort to keep the Arab states more powerful than Israel, but it disintegrated in 1961, when Syria came to resent the concentration of power in Egypt. The disbanding was followed by further political instability. The situation was worsened by the Six Day War against Israel in 1967 and the Black September disagreement with Jordan in 1970.

Hafez al-Assad, the leader of a radical wing of the Arab Socialist party, the Baath, seized control in 1971. He cracked down hard on dissent and in 1982 killed thousands of members of the the Muslim Brotherhood opposition organization. However, his tight-reined rule averted the civil war and political anarchy that plagued Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon. In 1992, he won his fourth consecutive bid for election with 99.9 percent of the vote. During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, the country aligned itself with the anti-Iraq coalition, thus winning the approval of the United States and removing itself from the United States' government's list of nations supporting international terrorism. Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000. The younger of his two sons, Bashar, assumed his father's position.

National Identity. Syrians tend to identify primarily with their religious group or sect; however, as the majority of the country is Sunni Muslim, this creates a strong feeling of cultural unity. Modern-day Syria is in part the result of geographic lines drawn by the French in 1920, and there is still a strong pan-Arab sympathy that defines national identity beyond the current borders. The current map was also redrawn in 1967, when Israel took the Golan Heights, a previously Syrian territory, and the national identity is based in part on the concept of defending and reclaiming this land.

Ethnic Relations. Syria is ethnically fairly homogeneous (80 percent of the population is Arab). Religious differences are tolerated, and minorities tend to retain distinct ethnic, cultural, and religious identities. The Alawite Muslims (about a half-million people) live in the area of Latakia. The Druze, a smaller group that resides in the mountainous region of Jebel Druze, are known as fierce soldiers. The Ismailis are an even smaller sect, that originated in Asia. The Armenians from Turkey are Christian. The Kurds are Muslim but have a distinct culture and language, for which they have been persecuted throughout the Middle East. The Circassians, who are Muslim, are of Russian origin and generally have fair hair and skin. The nomadic Beduoin lead a lifestyle that keeps them largely separated from the rest of society, herding sheep and moving through the desert, although some have settled in towns and villages. Another group that remains on the outside of society both politically and socially, is the roughly 100,000 Palestinian refugees, who left their homeland in 1948 after the founding of Israel.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

The focal point of any Middle Eastern city is the souk, or marketplace, a labyrinthine space of alleys, stalls, and tiny shops that also include ancient mosques and shrines. Traditionally, the residential quarters of a city were divided along ethnic and religious lines. Today, this system has been largely replaced by divisions along class lines, with some wealthier neighborhoods and some poorer ones. Damascus is an ancient city, and along with Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. The Great Omayyad Mosque, which dates back to the early days of Islam, is one of its oldest and most famous buildings. It formerly served as a Byzantine church honoring Saint John the Baptist and was constructed on the site of an old temple to pre-Islamic gods. The walls are lined with marble and overlaid with golden vines. Six hundred gold lamps hang from the ceiling. The city is home to ruins as well as intact buildings that date back thousands of years. These structures are located in the area called the Old City. Damascus is also a city of cars, highways, and tall modern buildings made of reinforced concrete.

Aleppo, although smaller, is equally ancient. It is geographically protected by its elevation and rocky terrain, and traces its history back to its days as a fort. Today Aleppo is the nation's second largest urban center and most industrialized city. It engages in silk weaving and cotton printing as well as the tanning of animal hides and the processing of produce. Other cities include Latakia, the country's main port, and Homs and Tartus, both of which have oil refineries.

In villages, houses present a closed front to the outside world, symbolizing the self-contained family unit. They are small, usually with one to three rooms, and are built around an enclosed central courtyard. Traditional rural houses in the northwest are mud structures that are shaped like beehives. In the south and east, most houses are made of stone. The nomadic Bedouin, who live mainly in the south and east, sleep in tents that are easily transportable.

In 1960, 30 percent of the population lived in cities; in 1970, that proportion was 46 percent; and by 1988, the number had climbed to half. Most of this growth has been concentrated in Damascus. The rapid spread of that city into nearby farmland has resulted in traffic congestion, overtaxed water supplies, pollution, and housing shortages. Many older buildings have been taken down to make room for roads and newer structures. The outskirts of the city have become overrun with quickly and shoddily constructed homes that sometimes have electricity but rarely have running water or sewage facilities.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Wheat is the main crop and one of the staple foods. Vegetables, fruits, and dairy products also are eaten. Lamb is popular, but most people cannot afford to eat meat on a regular basis. Islam proscribes the consumption of pork, and other meats must be specially prepared in a method called halal cooking. In middle-class and wealthier homes, meals are like those eaten in other Middle Eastern countries: roast or grilled chicken or lamb with side dishes of rice, chickpeas, yogurt, and vegetables. A mezzeh is a midday meal composed of up to twenty or thirty small dishes. These dishes can include hummous, a puree of chickpeas and tahini (ground sesame paste); baba ganouj, an eggplant puree; meat rissoles; stuffed grape leaves; tabouleh (a salad of cracked wheat and vegetables); falafel (deep-fried balls of mashed chickpeas); and pita bread. Olives, lemon, parsley, onion, and garlic are used for flavoring. Popular fruits that are grown in the region include dates, figs, plums, and watermelons. Damascus has a number of French restaurants remaining from the time of colonial rule.

Tea is the ubiquitous drink and is often consumed at social gatherings. Soda is also very popular, as is milk and a drink made by mixing yogurt with water, salt, and garlic. Alcohol consumption is rare, as it is forbidden by the Islamic religion, but beer and wine are available, as is arak, an aniseed drink that also is popular in other Middle Eastern countries.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Food is an important part of many celebrations. During Ramadan, each day's fast is broken with an evening meal called iftar. This meal begins in silence and is consumed rapidly. Eid al-Fitr, the final breaking of the Ramadan fast, entails the consumption of large quantities of food, sweets in particular. Food is also a central element at weddings, parties, and other festivities.

Basic Economy. The country supplies almost all of its own food needs. The proportion of the population working in agriculture has decreased significantly from 50 percent in 1970, to 30 percent in the 1980s, to 23 percent today. Despite this decline, production has increased, thanks in large part to the dam at Tabqa, which has allowed for increased irrigation. Half of the workforce is employed in industry and mining. There is less of a gap between the rich and the poor in Syria than there is in many other countries, and as more of the population gains access to education, the middle class continues to expand.

The basic unit of currency is the pound.

Land Tenure and Property. Before independence, urban landlords controlled the countryside, often mistreating the peasants and denying them any rights. The majority of peasants worked as sharecroppers and were economically and politically powerless. When the socialist Baath Party took control, it introduced measures to limit and redistribute land ownership and establish peasant unions. It also set up local governing organizations and cooperatives, that have allowed the peasants to attain more control of their lives and livelihood.

Commercial Activities. The center of commercial activity in each town or city is the souk. People from all walks of life and all ethnic and religious backgrounds come together to buy and sell a wide variety of goods. Spices, meats, vegetables, cloth, traditional handicrafts, and imported products jostle for space in the crowded booths and alleyways. Souks are not just commercial centers but gathering places as well, and haggling is a necessary part of social interactions. Shopping centers and supermarkets exist but have not supplanted this uniquely Arab institution.

Major Industries. The main industries are oil, agriculture, and textiles. Wheat is the largest crop, followed by cotton. Vegetables, beans, and fruits also are grown. There is some heavy industry (metallurgy and aluminum) as well as pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals. The oil industry is controlled by the government. Other manufactures include cement, glass, soap, and tobacco.

Trade. Syria's primary trading partners are Germany, Italy, and France. Although Syria is not as rich in oil as other Middle Eastern nations, oil is the main export, and the exploration for deposits continues. Other exports are cotton, fruits and vegetables, and textiles. Imports include industrial and agricultural machinery, vehicles and automotive accessories, pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs, and fabric.

Division of Labor. Syrians are legally entitled to pursue the career of their choice; however, those choices are often limited by gender, family, social pressure, and economic hardship. There is often relatively little difference in the salaries of the working class and those of the professional class.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Syrian society was traditionally extremely stratified. People from different classes generally do not socialize with one another, and people in the lower classes often adopt a humble attitude and an acceptance of their position. Class lines tend to coincide with racial differences, as lighter-skinned people hold higher economic and political positions and most of the people in the lower-ranked professions are darker-skinned.

The families of landholders and merchants traditionally occupied the highest position socially and politically. They usually lived in Damascus or Aleppo and managed their land from afar. Religious teachers known as ulama were also influential. They served as judges, teachers, and political officials as well as advisers to the government. In this role, the ulama generally supported the status quo. The towns and cities also housed artisans, small merchants, and a small working class.

The Baath government has created some shifts in that pattern. Some peasants are moving to the cities and joining the middle class; others now own land. However, there are still large numbers of indigent and landless peasants. Since the Baath takeover, the army officers who participated in the coup have succeeded the landowners as the new elite. There is also a growing middle class as a result of the spread of education.

Symbols of Social Stratification. The wealthy and well educated have a fairly modern lifestyle with many of the trappings of Western life. Televisions and radios are common except among the extremely poor. Appliances such as air conditioners, dishwashers, and microwaves are only for the very wealthy.

Dress is another indicator of social class. Different tribes and villages have their own distinctive patterns, designs, and colors of clothing. Men traditionally wear long gowns called kaftans, and women wear long robes that leave only their hands and feet exposed. Both men and women wear head wraps. The educated upper classes, particularly the young, tend to prefer modern Western attire. These women favor bright colors, jewelry, makeup, and high heels; men wear dressy slacks and shirts. Blue jeans and T-shirts are rare, as are shorts and miniskirts and bare shoulders or upper arms for women. Traditionally, it is a sign of wealth and status in a family for its women to dress in long robes with their faces veiled.

Political Life

Government. Syria adopted its current constitution in 1973. There is universal suffrage. The unicameral legislative branch is composed of the People's Council, or Majlis al shaab, whose 195 members are elected for four-year terms. This body proposes laws, discusses cabinet programs, and approves the national budget. The president, who serves as the head of state and is required by the constitution to be a Muslim, is elected every seven years by popular vote. The president appoints a vice president, a prime minister who serves as head of government, a cabinet, and deputy prime ministers. The president has wide-reaching powers, including serving on the supreme court. Despite the distribution of political power, in practice, the military government has the ability to overrule all decisions.

Leadership and Political Officials. The importance placed on the family as the central structure in society has ramifications in politics and government. Family loyalty is a primary consideration, and there is a general sentiment that family members (even distant relatives) can be trusted more than other people. The best jobs in the government generally are held by people related to the president, either of the same religious group or the same regional background or part of his extended family.

While residents generally are interested in politics both at a local level and as a part of the larger Arab world and are critical of leaders, they tend not to join political parties. Even the ruling Baath Party has relatively small numbers of members. It is more common to belong to a labor, farm, or professional union or another organization based on family and religion that may have political goals. Within these groups, leadership positions are often hotly contested.

Social Problems and Control. The legal system is based on the French model, with both civil and criminal courts. There is also a State Security Court that tries political opponents of the government. The proceedings of this court violate many international standards for fair trials. There are large numbers of political prisoners in the jails. In 1992, the government announced that it would free 2,864 of these prisoners, perhaps signaling a loosening of its autocratic policies.

For cases dealing with issues such as birth, marriage, and inheritance, the system has different courts for people of different religions. The Muslim courts are called Sharia. There are other ciyrts for Druze, Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.

Military Activity. Syria has armed forces with 408,000 members. This includes an army and an air force but no navy. It spends 30 percent of the national budget on defense as a result of the state of war that has existed between Syria and Israel since the founding of Israel. Syria also has thirty thousand troops stationed in Lebanon to maintain the peace. All men are required to serve thirty months in the armed forces, with the exception of only sons, who are exempt. It is possible to buy exemption from service for a very large sum of money. Women are allowed to serve voluntarily.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

The government strictly enforces price controls on basic items as well as rent control laws, that help low-income people get by. Medical fees are covered by the state for those who cannot afford private care. The government also provides assistance to the elderly, invalids, and those suffering from work injuries. Most assistance comes from within the family structure; young people often live with their parents until and even after marriage, and children are expected to take in and care for their elderly parents.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. Traditionally, wives in towns are responsible for running the household and are restricted to the home. Rural women often work in the fields in addition to performing domestic tasks. While women are legally allowed to work outside the home, there are significant obstacles. For example, the government's Moral Intelligence Department investigates women before allowing them to hold federal jobs. Only 11 percent of women of working age are employed outside the home; among those women, 80 percent work in agriculture. They also are represented in textiles and the tobacco industry, but only 1 percent of employed women have administrative or managerial positions. There are women in the national government, and in the capital a few women work in metal or electrical workshops. It is not uncommon for women to do piecework in their homes.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. The Baath Party was one of the first in the Arab world to declare as one of its goals the emancipation and equal treatment of women; its constitution of 1964 states that all citizens have equal rights. While women are now entitled to receive the same education as men and to seek employment, the traditional attitude that views females as inferior beings prevails. A woman is considered the possession of a man rather than her own person. She is identified as her father's daughter until marriage; after the birth of a male child, her identity is transferred from the wife of her husband to the mother of her son.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. By Muslim tradition, marriage is arranged by the couple's families. While more leniency is now allowed, particularly in cities and among the upper classes, it is still extremely rare for a couple to marry against their family's wishes. According to the constitution, the state has assumed the duty of protecting and encouraging the institution of marriage. Nonetheless, the marriage rate has declined because of housing shortages, inflation, rising levels of education, bride money, and the prohibitive cost of weddings.

Although the state and the Muslim religion both oppose the current dowry system, it is deeply entrenched in the family structure. It places immense pressure on the husband and his family, who have to raise large sums of money, and on the bride, who often is forced to marry the suitor who can provide the biggest dowry. Syria was the first Arab country to pass laws concerning polygamy. In 1953, it passed the Law of Personal Status, under which a man was bound to demonstrate that he could financially support two wives before marrying the second one. Whereas divorce laws used to follow the Arabic tradition that a man had only to repeat three times "I divorce you" (in his wife's presence or not), court proceedings are now required.

Domestic Unit. The family is the primary social unit. An older male, usually the father or grandfather, has the ultimate authority and is responsible for providing for the other family members. It is customary for several generations to live together in the same house. Particularly for women, who are not allowed to leave the home, family provides the primary or only social outlet and relationships with other people.

Inheritance. An estate passes from the father to the oldest son in a family. Traditionally, not only property is bequeathed, but social and political position as well.

Kin Groups. Syrians identify very strongly with their families, both immediate and extended. While kinship ties have weakened somewhat with urbanization and modernization, the clan mentality is still a strong influence in the nation's political system.


Child Rearing and Education. Children are highly valued as a blessing from God. The more children one has, the more fortunate one is considered, as children provide extra hands to work in the fields and ensure that their parents will be taken care of in old age. Children are treated with a great deal of affection. The bond between mother and son (especially the oldest son) is particularly strong.

The literacy rate is 64 percent78 percent for men and 51 percent for women. Primary education is mandatory and free for six years. Middle school, which begins at age thirteen, marks the end of mixed-sex education. Most schools are run by the state, which combines a French structure with the rigid discipline and rote learning of the Islamic tradition. There are a few religious schools, some schools that are run by the United Nation relief program, and some that are run by the Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees.

Higher Education. Syria has vocational and teacher-training education as well as universities in Damascus, Aleppo, and Latakia. About 165,000 students (40 percent of them women) are enrolled in the universities. The learning situation is less than ideal, with large class sizes and outdated teaching and testing techniques. Students who can afford to obtain visas often prefer to study abroad.


Men and women socialize separately except on occasions when the whole family is involved. Talking is a favorite pastime, and the art of conversation is a prized skill. Men often engage in a sort of banter in which they try to one up each other with witty and eloquent insults.

In social interactions, people stand close together, speak loudly, and gesture widely with their hands and heads. Greetings hold great social significance. They are often lengthy, including questions about health. They usually are accompanied by a handshake and sometimes by a hug and a kiss on each cheek. Placing the right hand on the heart when meeting someone is a signal of affection.

Syrians are very affectionate people. Men walk linking arms or holding hands and hug and kiss a great deal, as do women. Close physical contact in public is more common between people of the same gender than it is between girlfriend and boyfriend or husband and wife.


Religious Beliefs. Seventy-four percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. Sixteen percent belongs to Alawite, Druze, and other Muslim sects, and 10 percent is Christian. There are small Jewish communities in Damascus, Al Qamishli, and Aleppo. As in many Arabic countries, religion is an integral part of the culture and daily life. The word "Islam" means "submission to God." The religion shares certain prophets, traditions, and beliefs with Judaism and Christianity. The foundation of Islamic belief is called the Five Pillars.

It is speculated, although not certain, that Alawite Muslims do not observe the holy month of Ramadan or make a pilgrimage to Mecca as other Muslims do and celebrate some Christian holidays. The practices of the Druze are also somewhat mysterious. A smaller group known as the Ismailis recognizes a living person, the Aga Khan, as their sacred leader.

The mystical branch of Islam called sufi, has a small presence in Syria, although the government sees this sect as subversive and disapproves of its practice. Sufi rituals involve chanting and dancing while moving in a circular formation.

Despite the powerful influence of Islam in people's lives, some elements of folk religion persist. Particularly in rural areas, there is a strong belief in the evil eye as well as in jinn (spirits). There is also a tradition of local saints to whom people pray.

Religious Practitioners. There are no priests or clergy in Islam. Instead, there are people with the job of leading prayers and reading from the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book. The Qur'an, rather than a religious leader, is considered the ultimate authority and holds the answer to any question or dilemma one might have. There are also muezzins who give the call to prayer and are scholars of the Qur'an and spend their lives studying and interpreting the text.

Rituals and Holy Places. The most important observation in the Islamic calendar is Ramadan. This month of fasting is followed by the joyous feast of Eid al Fitr, during which families visit and exchange gifts. Eid al-Adha commemorates the end of Muhammod's Hajj. The mosque is the Muslim house of worship. Outside the door, there are washing facilities, as cleanliness is a prerequisite to prayer, demonstrating humility before God. One also must remove one's shoes before entering the mosque. According to Islamic tradition, women are not allowed inside. The interior has no altar; it is simply an open carpeted space. Because Muslims are supposed to pray facing Mecca, there is a small niche carved into the wall that points to the direction in which that city lies.

Death and the Afterlife. A death is followed by three days of mourning during which friends, relatives, and neighbors pay their respects to the family. Female relatives of the deceased wear black for several months to up to one year or more after the death. Widows generally do not remarry and often dress in mourning for the rest of their lives.

Medicine and Health Care

There are private medical practices, in addition to the free medical care provided by the state. The health care system is poor but improving. Infectious diseases are a major health threat, especially in rural areas, where water quality is poor and sewage disposal systems are not well developed. There is a high child mortality rate that is due mainly to measles and digestive and respiratory diseases.

Secular Celebrations

The major secular holidays are New Year's Day on 1 January, Revolution Day on 8 March, and the anniversary of the formation of the Arab League, 22 March. Syrians celebrate Martyrs Day in memory of the nation's heroes on 6 April; National Day (also known as Evacuation Day, celebrating independence), on 17 April; and the Day of Mourning on 29 November.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. The Ministry of Culture and National Guidance promotes the national culture. Most publishing houses are owned by the state, and writers tend to be government employees. Censorship is enforced strictly, and foreign books about politics and contemporary Syrian or Middle Eastern history are banned. The National Film Centre, established in 1966, oversees the production of most films.

Literature. There is a long literary tradition that dates back to poets such as al-Mutanabbi in the 900s and al-Maarri in the 1000s. Writers must contend with government censorship, but fiction writing is not as tightly monitored as is nonfiction. Whereas the punishment for breaking laws concerning nonfiction is usually imprisonment, fiction writers generally are reprimanded. Perhaps for this reason, poetry and the short story are widely read and appreciated, represented by writers such as Nizar Qabbani, Shawqi Baghdadi, and 'Ali Ahmad Sa'id. There are few women in the ranks of well-known Arab writers, but one of them is Ghada al-Samman, who was born in 1942. She writes on many of the same issues as her male contemporaries, including cultural identity and the clash between tradition and progress as well as issues specific to being a woman and writer in a male dominated society.

Graphic Arts. Islam forbids the artistic depiction of animals or human beings. Therefore, Syrian art until World War I consisted mainly of geometric designs in arabesque and calligraphy. These works can be seen in many palaces and mosques. After World War I, Western drawing techniques began to be taught, and fine arts was introduced as a discipline at the University of Damascus. Most sculpture is carved in white marble and often is displayed in palaces and public buildings.

There is a lively tradition of handicraft production. Jewelry, particularly in gold and silver, is popular, as is other metalwork, such as brass and copper plates and bowls. These items traditionally were produced by Syrian Jews, and as their population has diminished, so has this art form. Mosaic woodworking is also practiced and is used in the construction of boxes, trays, tables, desks, and game boards. Damascus is a center of glassblowing and fabric production, including the silk brocade called damask, which was named for the city. The Bedouins are known for their weaving of fabrics, including carpets and prayer rugs made on hand-built looms, and traditional clothing that is painstakingly embroidered.

Films have been produced in Syria since the 1920s. Musicals and light comedies were popular through the late 1940s. During the 1970s, film clubs were important in the resistance to the government, and for this reason they were shut down in 1980. Syria has spawned several internationally regarded filmmakers, including Omar Amirallay and Usama Muhammed, but their films, which deal with social issues, have been banned in the country, or ignored by distribution companies.

Performance Arts. Memorizing and reciting from the Qur'an and from secular poetry is a popular form of entertainment. There is a rich tradition of storytelling that dates back thousands of years. Even today there are coffee shops where men go to drink tea and hear nightly installments of an ongoing saga recited by a professional storyteller.

Arabic music is tied to the storytelling tradition and often recounts tales of love, honor, and family. Technically, it is repetitive and subtle. It uses quarter notes with small jumps in the scale. Classical Arabic music makes use of the oud, an ancient stringed instrument similar to the lute; small drums held in the lap; and flutes. Contemporary music is played by an orchestra that mainly uses European instruments with a lead singer and chorus.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

Damascus has a museum for agriculture and one for military history. Aleppo and other important sites have museums of archaeology.

The main challenge in the area of the sciences is that most Syrians study abroad, and many do not return to Syria to work.


Ball, Warwick. Syria: A Historical and Archaeological Guide, 1998.

Beaton, Margaret. Syria, 1988.

Beattie, Andrew, and Timothy Pepper. Syria: The Rough Guide, 1998.

Galvin, James. Divided Loyalties: Nationalism and Mass Politics in Syria at the Close of Empire, 1998.

Hopwood, Derek. Syria, 19451986, 1988.

Lye, Keith. Take a Trip to Syria, 1988.

Mulloy, Martin. Syria, 1988.

Quilliam, Neil. Syria and the New World Order, 1999.

Sinai, Anne, and Allen Pollack, eds. The Syrian Arab Republic, 1976.

South, Coleman. Syria, 1995.

Tareq, Ismael Y., and Jacqueline S. Tareq. Communist Movement in Syria and Lebanon, 1998.

Wedeen, Lisa. Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria, 1999.

Winkler, Onn. Demographic Developments and Population Policies in Ba'athist Syria, 1998.

Web Sites

Destination Syria,

Guide to Syria,

Syria: A Country Study, www.lcweb2.loc/gov/frd/cs/sytoc

SyriaThe Cradle of Civilizations,

U.S. Government, Department of State, Central Intelligence Agency. World Factbook: Syria,

Eleanor Stanford

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Syria." Countries and Their Cultures. . 27 Oct. 2016 <>.

"Syria." Countries and Their Cultures. . (October 27, 2016).

"Syria." Countries and Their Cultures. . Retrieved October 27, 2016 from




The people of Syria are called Syrians. The Druze, about 8 percent of the population, are both a religious and an ethnic group.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Syria." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 27 Oct. 2016 <>.

"Syria." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . (October 27, 2016).

"Syria." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved October 27, 2016 from


Syriabarrier, carrier, farrier, harrier, tarrier •Calabria, Cantabria •Andrea • Kshatriya • Bactria •Amu Darya, aria, Zaria •Alexandria •Ferrier, terrier •destrier •aquaria, area, armamentaria, Bavaria, Bulgaria, caldaria, cineraria, columbaria, filaria, frigidaria, Gran Canaria, herbaria, honoraria, malaria, pulmonaria, rosaria, sacraria, Samaria, solaria, tepidaria, terraria •atria, gematria •Assyria, Illyria, Styria, Syria •Laurier, warrior •hypochondria, mitochondria •Austria •auditoria, ciboria, conservatoria, crematoria, emporia, euphoria, Gloria, moratoria, phantasmagoria, Pretoria, sanatoria, scriptoria, sudatoria, victoria, Vitoria, vomitoria •Maurya •courier, Fourier •currier, furrier, spurrier, worrier •Cumbria, Northumbria, Umbria •Algeria, anterior, bacteria, Bashkiria, cafeteria, criteria, cryptomeria, diphtheria, exterior, hysteria, Iberia, inferior, interior, Liberia, listeria, Nigeria, posterior, Siberia, superior, ulterior, wisteria •Etruria, Liguria, Manchuria, Surya

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Syria." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 27 Oct. 2016 <>.

"Syria." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (October 27, 2016).

"Syria." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved October 27, 2016 from