SYRIA: Country Profile
Country name: Syrian Arab Republic
Capital: Damascus (Dimashq).
Other cities: Aleppo (Halab), Homs, Hama, Latakia (Ladhiqqia), Idleb, Tartous, Deir-el-Zor, Raqqa, Dara’a, Sweida, Hassakeh.
Population: 19.747.586 (July 2008 estimate)
Land Area: 185.170 km, 1.295 km (The Jaulan/ Golan) under Israeli Occupation
Official Language: Arabic. English and French are widely used; Aramaic the language of Jesus-Christ is still spoken in three villages.
Currency: Syrian Pound (1 USD=46 SP).
Administration: Syria comprises fourteen governorates.
President: Dr. Bashar Al-Assad.
Political System: Presidential, with parliament elected every 4 years.
“Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus, in the writings of every century for more than four thousand years, its name has been mentioned and its praises sung. To Damascus, years are only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time, not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise, and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality... Though other claims the name, old Damascus is by right the Eternal City."
Mark Twain, ‘The Innocents Abroad’, 1869
Syria lies on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea at the junction of three continents; Asia, Europe and Africa, and has always been of great strategic importance in the region. It is boarded in the north by Turkey, in the east by Iraq, in the south by Jordan and Palestine, and in the west by Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea along a coast extending 183 kilometres. Until 1918, it was part of a larger area, called Bilad Al-Shaam (Greater Syria), which embraced the territory of present-day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and north of Iraq.
Contemporary Syria is divided geographically into five regions: (1) The coastal region stretching alongside the Mediterranean Sea, (2) The mountainous region extending from north to south east of the coastal region, (3) The Inland or plains region; including the plains of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Dara’a. (4) The ‘Badiya’ (desert) region covering the whole southeast of the country. (5) The Euphrates River and north-eastern fertile region.
In general, Syria enjoys a Mediterranean climate turning arid as one goes to the south- east: moderate, rainy winter (0-15 C) and dry summer (30-38 C) with two transitional rather short seasons: autumn and spring (18-27C).
Syria is the cradle of great civilizations and the accomplishments of its ancient people are renowned all over the world. Evidence of ancient history is found throughout the country. It was in Syria that agriculture began ten thousand years ago, that settlement commenced and civilization emerged. The coastal Kingdom of Ugarit offered mankind the first letter-based alphabet in history. Syria was also home to the Canaanites and Amorites - the indigenous peoples of the ancient Levant. At Ebla, a site south of Aleppo dating from the fourth millennium BC. an Amorite royal palace was discovered containing one of the largest and most comprehensive documentary archives of the ancient world. These documents were specialized in industrial, diplomatic, commercial and administrative matters, in addition to war and peace relations with other countries.
The same Amorites went eastward down the Euphrates to establish Babylon and introduce the first rule of law in the history of mankind ‘the Hammurabi law’. Also, Syria presented the world with yet another discovery: copper was made pliable and bronze was invented. Furthermore, it is from Syria that both Christianity and Islam spread to the whole globe. Because of this wealth of ancient civilization, Syria is often described as the largest small country in the world.
Ancient Syria flourished under the Arameans (reborn Amorites) during the first millennium BC. Then the Seleucid Dynasty prevailed, after taking over the lion’s share of the Greek Empire, established by Alexander the Great when it fell apart. The country subsequently became a vital part of the Roman Empire with many Syrians rising to be chosen Roman Emperors. Later, Syrian Queen Zenobia challenged the might of the Roman Empire from her city of Palmyra in eastern Syria. Successive waves of migrations from north and south gave an Aramean and then Arab character to the land assimilating the post-Seleucid Byzantine period and this character managed to withstand the invasions by Hittites, Assyrians, Persians and Romans.
The advent of Islam in 636 A.D. confirmed the Arab identity and bestowed a sense of unity upon the land. For nearly 100 years, as the early Arab Empire was rapidly expanding eastward to the borders of China and westward to the French Pyrenees, it was ruled by the Umayyad dynasty from Syria’s capital Damascus. From 762 A.D. on, Syria became part of the Arab Abbasid rule with its capital in Baghdad. The Umayyads moved westward to establish in Spain for eight centuries, the magnificent Andalusian civilisation stemming its roots from the culture and heritage of Syria. Meanwhile, Syria itself was dominated by the Seljuk ‘Turkmen’. The Ayyubite and then the Mamluk dynasties subsequently gained control of Syria and had to put up a ferocious fight against the European crusaders who tried in vain for almost 200 years, starting in 1095 A.D, to establish a foothold in the holy land. In 1516 A.D, the Ottoman Turks seized Syria from the Mamluks and it remained part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of the First World War.
The late 19th century and the early 20th century marked the start of the “Arab Awakening” in Syria. However, dreams of Arab independence were shattered in 1920 when, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the defeat by the French troops of the nascent Arab Kingdom of Syria, the League of Nations granted France a mandate for the Syrian region north of Palestine. This ultimately led to the dismantling of Greater Syria and independent present day Syria emerged in 1946, after a relentless war of independence.
The great obstacle to peace and regional prosperity that still lies ahead is the unresolved conflict with Israel. Israel continues to unlawfully occupy the Palestinian territories, the Syrian Golan and the Lebanese Chabaa farms and Kfarchuba hills, in obstinate defiance of international law and United Nations resolutions
With an economic growth of over 5 % per annum in the last three years, Syria has the potential to become once again one of the region’s most important economic hubs and tourist destinations
In the past five years, the country has undergone an economic transformation, shifting away from central planning toward social market economy and reducing dependence on oil. The Gross Domestic Product was estimated at 60 billion dollars in 2008. In recent years, Syria has begun to focus more on exporting materials with higher added value. The private sector in Syria now counts for 65% of the GDP. Both the budget deficit and public debt levels have been kept under close control at low level. Syria is moving fast towards becoming an investment haven with many advantages for foreign investors.
This investment friendly environment includes favourable investment laws and regulations in addition to relatively cheap labour and services.The financial sector is starting to boom with the establishment of a modern stock exchange and the opening up of many private banks and insurance companies.Agriculture is traditionally of prime importance. It provides job opportunities for more than 20% of the population. Syria is the only Middle Eastern Arab country that has achieved food self-sufficiency.
Tourism is on the rise in Syria, with a 20% yearly increase in the number of tourists and the growing number of hotels and resorts becoming increasingly popular and of boutique hotels that are mushrooming for the select traveller.Some of the major sectors enjoying evident success are education, tourism, textiles, garments, pharmaceuticals, food industries and construction.
Syria is looking forward to form with Turkey the corridor of gas and oil of the entire region to the Mediterranean Sea. The country plans to heavily invest in a modern infrastructure in order to position itself properly for this strategic endeavour.
The country’s cultural life is witnessing a dynamic resurgence intertwining a rich cultural heritage with a vibrant and promising modern movement. Damascus and Aleppo have been famous centres for Arab music and singing for long centuries, and they continue to be home to many famous performers and artists. The Dar Al Assad Opera House, inaugurated in 2004, represents a cultural crossroads of East and West, combining a unique fusion of classical, symphonic and Levantine music genres. Hence music is the domain that is seeing rapid development, and musicians and composers from Syria are competing internationally. In addition, three important institutions were established and have had a very positive impact on recent Syrian music life. These are the Higher Institute of Music, which teaches both Arab and European music; the National Philharmonic Orchestra and the Arab Music Orchestra.
Syrian drama series (soap operas) have become increasingly popular across the Arab world expressing the richness of Syrian social life and its historical heritage. The extent of the attractiveness of these drama series is demonstrated by the fact that the now very popular Turkish drama series are dubbed in Syrian dialect to appeal to the wider Arab audience.
Modern Syrian painters have also established their reputation as pioneers in the fine arts, while the splendour of the Syrian landscape has inspired artists from all over the world. Syria’s investment in education has made its capital, Damascus, an internationally renowned centre for Arabic studies and there has been a recent growth in the number of private colleges and faculties specialised in teaching Arabic language for foreign students.