Syria (Official name: Syrian Arab Republic; Arabic pronunciation: Suriyya) lies between Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea on the west, Jordan on the south, Turkey on the north, and Iraq on the east. It has an area of approximately 185,180 sq km, or 71,498 sq miles which equates to an area slightly larger than North Dakota. The climate is hot and dry in the summers, and mild and rainy in the winters, when snow occasionally falls in the capital city Damascus. Most of the country is semiarid desert, with summer temperatures reaching into the high 90s Fahrenheit and winter temperatures in the 50s Fahrenheit. There are mountains in the western part of the country.
The northeast of the country is rich with natural resources which include petroleum, phosphates, chrome and manganese ores, asphalt, iron ore, rock salt, marble, and gypsum. Unfortunately, there is a growing problem of deforestation, desertification and water pollution due to poor governmental irrigation practices, climate change, and war. The Syrian government established an environmental ministry to address these problems in 2009, but the ministry lacks the funding and political power to implement meaningful change in policy.
HISTORY & GOVERNMENT
Syria, like other Levantine states, is located in the heart of what is commonly referred to as the cradle of civilization. This is the area where the first non-nomadic communities were established. In the third millennium BCE, it was the site of the sprawling Ebla civilization, which is thought to have developed one of the oldest written languages. Ebla had been a major economic center that traded with ancient cities such as Byblos, Damascus, and Ur. The Phoenicians, Sumerians, Hittites, and other various ancient empires later conquered the area throughout the first millennium BCE. The city of Antioch (modern day Antakya) became one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire around 13 CE. Around this time, Queen Zenobia of the Palmyrene Empire in Roman Syria expanded the city of Palmyra, which today is one of Syria’s most popular tourist attractions. Syria became part of the Islamic Umayyad Empire in 640 CE. It prospered under Umayyad rule throughout the 7th century, at which time the capital of the empire moved to Damascus. After the fall of the Umayyad dynasty, the territory passed through Abbasid, Mongol, Mamluk, and Ottoman hands.
During World War I, the Ottomans joined the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria. The Allied Powers (France, Britain, Russia, and the United States) supported the Arab uprisings throughout the Ottoman Empire that would ultimately lead to its weakening and dissolution. In 1915, British parliamentarian, Sir Mark Sykes, and a French diplomat, Francois Georges-Picot, looking toward a collapsed Ottoman Empire, carved up the Middle East into hypothetical spheres of influence under either British or French control. The Sykes-Picot agreement, drafted in secret unbeknownst to other world leaders, would give the northern part of the Middle East, consisting of Christian enclaves in Syria and Lebanon to France, while Great Britain would have authority over southern territory including Palestine and Iraq.
Immediately after World War I, a member of the Hashemite Dynasty, Faisal I, established the independent Arab Kingdom of Syria, of which he was the short-lived king. He would later become the king of Iraq from August 1921 to 1933. This Arab Kingdom of Syria did not last long as the French soon annexed the region under the French mandate as outlined in Sykes-Picot. From the mid 1920s to 1940, Syrians struggled for control through uprisings and attempts of self-governance all of which were stopped by French forces. When France fell to Nazi Germany during World War II, a coalition of British and Free French soldiers pushed the Germans and Vichy government (a puppet French government set up by the Nazis) out of Syria in 1941. Subsequently, the Free French declared an end to its mandate in Syria. By the end of World War II, however, the French forces had not ceded control of Syria to local authorities. After public protests and mounting pressure from the international community, the last French troops left in April 1946 and Syria gained its independence.
With the final departure of the British from Palestine in 1948 and the subsequent formation of Israel, Syria joined the Arab alliance in the war against Israel. Israel stopped the invading armies and the Syrian army retreated to its previous borders. Syria experienced political instability through military coups in 1949, 1954, 1961, 1963, and 1966. The last coup marked the rise of the Assad family as Hafez al-Assad became Defense Minister. In 1967, Syria and Jordan joined the Six Day War following a preemptive Israeli strike against Egypt. In the last days of the war, Israel launched an invasion into the Syrian Golan Heights, and has occupied this territory since. Eventually, Syria and Israel signed a disengagement agreement in 1974.
Inspired by a wave of demonstrations now known as the Arab Spring, anti-government protests began within Syria in March 2011. The military’s willingness to use violence to suppress the demonstrations further enraged the population and protests grew across the country. By the summer of 2011, armed revolutionary groups had formed to combat government forces. The coalition of revolutionaries formed the Syrian National Council, which was replaced by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in 2012 and received international recognition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The United States and many European countries began imposing sanctions against Assad and his regime. However, the U.N. was unable to enact sanctions or any form of military intervention because of Russia and China’s veto power; Russia is an ally of Syria and China opposed the idea of an international body infringing upon a country’s sovereignty. Peace talks continued to fail as Assad pulled out of agreements established by the Arab League and the United Nations. Multiple countries began providing non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels but were hesitant to provide military equipment in fear of inadvertently arming extremists groups such as the large al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nursrah Front.
By late 2012, the revolution had clearly turned into a civil war. Several countries, as well as non-state actors, began arming the rebels such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, while Shia allies — Hezbollah and Iran — have provided support to Assad. In August 2013, Assad crossed what president Obama had called a “red line” by using chemical weapons against opposition and civilian populations, which Assad denied. UN inspectors confirmed that chemical weapons had been used and intelligence assets strongly believed they had been used by government forces. Several western countries began considering military strikes; however, a vote failed in both the British parliament and the American congress to approve any military action. In a media statement, Secretary of State John Kerry made a remark that if Syria hands over its chemical weapon stockpile to the international community, the U.S. would no longer consider military options. This comment led to negotiations facilitated by Russia in which Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons.
In 2013, the Free Syrian Army, the moderate revolutionary force favored by the international community, increasingly became eclipsed by radical Islamic groups. The main groups were al-Nusrah Front, a faction of al-Qaeda, and the growing Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (IS also known as ISIS or ISIL) led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. While IS had initially been closely affiliated with al-Qaeda dating back to the group’s origin in 2003, the Islamic State’s willingness to kill large amounts of civilian populations and differing end goals caused the two groups to split. IS began to bring other revolutionary groups under its control through alliances or force. During the summer of 2014, IS forces swept through northern Iraq gaining control of key cities and oil resources. IS had successfully established a large region of control, declared Baghdadi the caliph (leader), and designated Raqqa, Syria its capital city. The group has become infamous for mass executions of what it considers to be apostate civilians and POWs as well as the public beheadings of western aid workers and reporters in the region. A large coalition of Western and Middle Eastern countries has formed to combat IS. The main ground forces — Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi military, Syrian military (non-state forces), and revolutionary militias — receive air and arms support from the coalition. The rise of the Islamic State has shifted most of the international focus away from Assad and onto combating this extremist group. According to UNHCR, there are currently 3,727,642 registered Syrian refugees as a result of the civil war. However, the number of actual refugees is likely higher as already struggling countries are limiting entrance of refugees and Syrians are now turning to smugglers to escape the violence.
Information gathered from:
History & Government Resources
INTERNATIONAL & REGIONAL ISSUES
The area known as the Golan Heights remains controlled by the Israeli military with an almost 1,000-strong UN Disengagement Observer Force patrolling a buffer zone since 1964. Lacking a treaty or other documentation describing the boundary, portions of the Lebanon-Syria border are unclear, with several sections in dispute. Since 2000, Lebanon has claimed the Shab’a Farms in the Golan Heights. A 2004 agreement and pending demarcation are attempting to settle a border dispute with Jordan. Syria holds over 486,000 Palestinian refugees and roughly 87,000 from Iraq. These refugees mostly reside within designated refugee camps. Since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, more than one million Syrians remain displaced within their own country in addition to the Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, many refugees of all nationalities in Syria are beginning to flee to neighboring Turkey (1.5 million), Lebanon (1.16 million), Jordan (.62 million), and Iraq (235,000), further escalating regional tensions and straining resources of already struggling host countries. Many of the refugees have been subjected to nearly unlivable conditions, slave like labor, and sex trafficking.
Information gathered from:
International & Regional Issues Resources
In 2011, the population of Syria stood at approximately 23 million. According to the last CIA World Factbook population update on Syria, there were about 17,951,639 people living in the country in 2014. One source in September 2015 made an estimate of 16.6 million; however, mass migration due to over five years of civil war preclude accurate updates to that figure.
The population is very young with over 50% of the population under the age of 25, although civil war has dropped the population growth rate from 2% to -09.73%. Approximately 56% of the population lives in the major cities with a 3% rate of urbanization. Though Arabic remains the official language, about 10% of the population also speaks Kurdish, Armenian, or Aramaic. English and French are somewhat understood in the major cities.
The vast majority of Syrians are Arabs (90%). The remaining Syrians are comprised of a mix of Kurds (9%) and Armenians, Greeks, and others.
Population of Syria
Syria has a literacy rate of approximately 84% of the population. This percentage is higher among men at 90.3% and lower for women at 77.7%. Education is free and obligatory up to 9th grade for all citizens. At the end of high school students must take the difficult baccalaureate exam to determine what university and specialization they will go into. Syria has five state universities and eleven private universities, and the top two for overall educational value are the University of Damascus and the University of Aleppo.
Literacy Rate (Men)
Literacy Rate (Women)
The majority of the population is Muslim with Sunnis accounting for about 74%. The remaining population is a mix of Shia sects, predominantly Alawite at 13%. The Druze population accounts for roughly 3% of the population. The Christian minorities are divided into several groups: Antiochian Orthodox, Catholic, Syria Orthodox, and Nestorian Assyrians. There is a dwindling Jewish community, mostly confined to Damascus after Aleppo’s Jews escaped to Israel in 2015. Syria’s government was tolerant of other religions, providing constitutional protection to the free practice and expression of religion throughout the country. Competing non-state militant groups, however, have deliberately targeted, abused and killed Muslims they consider apostates as well as several religious minority groups.
The above information was gathered from the CIA World Factbook entry on Syria and current percentages are uncertain.
Syria, as part of the Cradle of Civilization, hosted countless peoples and cultures whose legacies helped shape modern Syrian character and identity. A number of museum collections contained precious relics and artwork from pre-Islamic and Islamic times. Two of the most impressive museums included the National Museum in Damascus and the Aleppo Museum. The most popular part of the National Museum is the reconstruction of the 2nd century CE Dura-Europos synagogue, while the Aleppo Museum is famous for its grand entrance featuring a female sphinx from the Iron Age Neo-Hittite settlement of Tell Halaf (9th century BCE). Sadly, may museums have been looted and numerous historic sites such as the ancient city of Palmyra have been destroyed during the civil war. At the Aleppo Museum, because of the difficulty of connecting with preservation organizations for assistance, curators resorted to using sandbags to protect the sphinx and other outdoor treasures in 2014.
Much of Syria’s contemporary art mixes traditional Islamic themes and techniques with Western influences. The Creative Syria project was established by the Syrian Culture, Arts, and History Center, and was established to help promote prominent Syrian artists. The project showcases top calligraphers such as Mohamed Kanou, photographers like Issa Touma, and painters like Sara Shamma and Boutros Almaari. The civil war has forced many contemporary artists and musicians out of the country, and some of them now reside in nearby Lebanon, continuing to produce works of art detailing the Syrian struggle.
Syria has an impressive cultural heritage. Extensive archaeological activity in the area has revealed countless sites dating back to the third millennium BCE and to more recent Islamic times. Some of the most ancient cities include Ebla, Ugarit, and Mari dating back to the Bronze Age (3600-1200 BCE). From the Greek and Roman periods, Palmyra, Apamea, and Bosra are by far the most famous. Clashes between the Islamic State and opposition forces have destroyed numerous ancient cities in both Syria and Iraq. According to a 2014 New York Times article about the civil war’s impact on Syrian culture, “Officials at Unesco, the United Nations agency that works to protect historic places, have classified as endangered all six of Syria’s World Heritage sites, including Palmyra.” Continued fighting, however, has prevented UNESCO from inspecting the damage in person.
Syria is also known for its group of Crusader castles built along the coastline, especially the Krak des Chevaliers which remains mostly intact. Interestingly, T.E. Lawrence visited and wrote his thesis about these medieval castles before he was known throughout the world as Lawrence of Arabia. Many of these locations were popular tourist destinations prior to the Syrian Civil War. Since 2011, tourism has completely ceased in Syria and most nations are imposing heavy travel restrictions to the war-torn country.
The Umayyads greatly shaped the city of Damascus. The old city centers around the Umayyad Mosque, and, as one of the earliest mosques in the world, it is considered an Islamic holy site. Its architecture was used as a prototype for the construction of other mosques in the region.
Folk music permeates Syrian culture and is often used to celebrate weddings or the birth of a child. The typical folk music style is called muwashshhaat. This style features classical Arabic poetry which is sung while playing instruments like the oud (lute), kamenjah (spike fiddle), and daf (tambourine). This is sometimes accompanied by dabkeh, a popular line dance during which each dancer stomps his feet in rhythmic steps.
Syrian music is sometimes played in tandem with displays from the region’s Sufi Islamic religious orders. The Whirling Dervishes, a popular order of Sufi Islam in the Levant region, are known for performing fast spinning dances while wearing long, white robes. These groups often perform in public squares and are a popular exhibit for tourists.
Syria has a number of pop stars, residing both in the country and abroad such as George Wassouf and Bashar Moussa. Wassouf played for his first wedding party at the age of 12, and has released over 30 albums to date. The Syrian Civil War has had an impact on the dynamic of Syrian music as both sides have begun using music to champion their cause. The Syrian government has utilized patriotic songs, such as, “I am Syrian, God is on my side.” On the opposition side, a previously unknown musician named Hamwee Ibrahim Qashoosh released a song called “Yalla irhal ya Bashar” (“Get Out, Bashar”). The song mixes traditional dabkeh music with verses denouncing the Syrian government. The link below, “Syria’s Music Wars”, looks more closely at this trend.
Soccer, swimming, and tennis are very popular in Syria. Soccer is particularly popular and children can often be seen playing it in streets and parks. The Syrian national team, the Red Eagles, has participated in several international competitions; however, the team has had little success. The Red Eagles have competed in five Asian Cups, but each time failed to advance past the quarterfinals round. Syria has never made it to the FIFA World Cup finals, only reaching the final qualifying round in 1986, and losing to Iraq.
Syria has never competed in the Winter Olympic Games, but has sent athletes to every Summer Games since 1976. Syria has won an Olympic silver medal for wrestling in 1984 and a bronze medal for boxing in 2004. During the Atlanta games in 1996, female athlete Ghada Shouaa won the gold medal in the Heptathlon. 2 Syrian swimmers, Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis, were selected as part of a 10 member refugee team to compete at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.
SYRIAN NEWS OUTLETS
* Due to the ongoing conflict in Syria and the continued migration of its population, it is difficult to obtain accurate information on the number of people living in the country. The figure cited is from an article from The Economist from September 2015. We encourage readers to look at additional sources and to consider the challenge of measuring populations under such circumstances.