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Syria | Facts and History

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Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth

The cityscape of Damascus, Syria

Michaelangelo Gratton / Digital Vision
The Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is cut off from the rest of Syria

Family members carry supplies for a Syrian Druze bride who crossed into the occupied Golan Heights to join her new husband.

David Silverman / Getty Images
Camel in Palmyra, an ancient Syrian city

A camel inspects the ruins of Palmyra, an ancient city in Syria

Richard Ross / Image Bank

Capital and Major Cities:

Capital: Damascus, population 1.7 million

Major Cities:

Aleppo, 4.6 million

Homs, 1.7 million

Hama, 1.5 million

Idleb, 1.4 million

al-Hasakeh, 1.4 million

Dayr al-Zur, 1.1 million

Latakia, 1 million

Dar'a, 1 million

Government of Syria:

The Syrian Arab Republic is nominally a republic, but in actuality it is ruled by an authoritarian regime headed by President Bashar al-Assad and the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party. In the 2007 elections, Assad received 97.6% of the vote. From 1963 to 2011, Syria was under a State of Emergency that allowed the president extraordinary powers; although the State of Emergency has officially been lifted today, civil liberties remain curtailed.

Along with the president, Syria has two vice presidents - one in charge of domestic policy and the other for foreign policy. The 250-seat legislature or Majlis al-Shaab is elected by popular vote for four-year terms.

The president serves as the head of the Supreme Judicial Council in Syria. He also appoints the members of the Supreme Constitutional Court, which oversees elections and rules on the constitutionality of laws. There are secular appeals courts and courts of first instance, as well as Personal Status Courts that use sharia law to rule on marriage and divorce cases.

Languages:

The official language of Syria is Arabic, a Semitic language. Important minority languages include Kurdish, which is from the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European; Armenian, which is Indo-European on the Greek branch; Aramaic, another Semitic language; and Circassian, a Caucasian language.

In addition to these mother tongues, many Syrians can speak French. France was the League of Nations mandatory power in Syria after World War I. English is also growing in popularity as a language of international discourse in Syria.

Population:

The population of Syria is approximately 22.5 million (2012 estimate). Of those, about 90% are Arab, 9% are Kurds, and the remaining 1% is made up of small numbers of Armenians, Circassians and Turkmens. In addition, there are about 18,000 Israeli settlers occupying the Golan Heights.

Syria's population is growing quickly, with annual growth of 2.4%. The average life expectancy for men is 69.8 years, and for women 72.7 years.

Religion in Syria:

Syria has a complex array of religions represented among its citizens. Approximately 74% of Syrians are Sunni Muslims. Another 12% (including the al-Assad family) are Alawis or Alawites, an off-shoot of the Twelver school within Shi'ism. Approximately 10% are Christians, mostly of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, but also including Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Assyrian Church of the East members.

Approximately three percent of Syrians are Druze; this unique faith combines Shi'a beliefs of the Ismaili school with Greek philosophy and gnosticism. Small numbers of Syrians are Jewish or Yazidist. Yazidism is a syncretic belief system mostly among ethnic Kurds that combines Zoroastrianism and Islamic Sufism.

Geography:

Syria is situated on the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. It has a total area of 185,180 square kilometers (71,500 square miles), divided into fourteen administrative units.

Syria shares land borders with Turkey to the north and west, Iraq to the east, Jordan and Israel to the south, and Lebanon to the southwest. Although much of Syria is desert, 28% of its land is arable, thanks in large part to irrigation water from the Euphrates River.

The highest point in Syria is Mount Hermon, at 2,814 meters (9,232 feet). The lowest point is near the Sea of Galilee, at -200 meters from sea (-656 feet).

Climate:

Syria's climate is quite varied, with a relatively humid coast and a desert interior separated by a semiarid zone in between. While the coast averages only about 27°C (81°F) in August, temperatures in the desert regularly surpass 45°C (113°F). Similarly, rainfall along the Mediterannean averages 750 to 1,000 mm per year (30 to 40 inches), while the desert sees just 250 millimeters (10 inches).

Economy:

Although it has risen into the middle ranks of nations in terms of economy over recent decades, Syria faces economic uncertainty due to political unrest and international sanctions. It depends upon agriculture and oil exports, both of which are declining. Corruption is also an issue.

Approximately 17% of the Syrian workforce is in the agriculture sector, while 16% are in industry and 67% in services. The unemployment rate is 8.1%, and 11.9% of the population live below the poverty line. Syria's per capita GDP in 2011 was about $5,100 US.

As of June 2012, 1 US dollar = 63.75 Syrian pounds.

History of Syria:

Syria was one of the early centers of Neolithic human culture 12,000 year ago. Important advances in agriculture, such as the development of domestic grain varieties and the taming of livestock, likely took place in the Levant, which includes Syria.

By about 3000 BCE, the Syrian city-state of Ebla was the capital of a major Semitic empire that had trade relations with Sumer, Akkad and even Egypt. The invasions of the Sea Peoples interrupted this civilization during the second millennium BCE, however.

Syria came under Persian control during the Achaemenid period (550-336 BCE), and then fell to the Macedonians under Alexander the Great following Persia's defeat in the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE). Over the next three centuries, Syria would be ruled by the Seleucids, the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Armenians. Finally, in 64 BCE it became a Roman province, and remained so until 636 CE.

Syria rose to prominence after the founding of the Muslim Umayyad Empire in 636 CE, which named Damascus as its capital. When the Abbasid Empire displaced the Umayyads in 750, however, the new rulers moved the capital of the Islamic world to Baghdad.

The Byzantine (Eastern Roman) sought to regain control over Syria, repeatedly attacking, capturing and then losing major Syrian cities between 960 and 1020 CE. Byzantine aspirations faded when the Seljuk Turks invaded Byzantium in the late 11th century, also conquering parts of Syria itself. At the same time, however, Christian Crusaders from Europe began establishing small Crusader States along the Syrian coast. They were opposed by anti-Crusader warriors including, among others, the famous Saladin, who was sultan of Syria and Egypt.

Both the Muslims and the Crusaders in Syria faced an existential threat in the 13th century, in the form of the rapidly expanding Mongol Empire. The Ilkhanate Mongols invaded Syria, and met fierce resistance from opponents including the Egyptian Mamluk army, which defeated the Mongols soundly at the Battle of Ayn Jalut in 1260. The foes fought on until 1322, but in the meanwhile the leaders of the Mongol army in the Middle East converted to Islam and became assimilated into the culture of the area. The Ilkhanate faded out of existence in the mid 14th century, and the Mamluk Sultanate solidified its grip on the area.

In 1516, a new power took control of Syria. The Ottoman Empire, based in Turkey, would rule Syria and the rest of the Levant until 1918. Syria became a relatively little-regarded backwater in the vast Ottoman territories.

The Ottoman sultan made the mistake of aligning himself with the Germans and Austro-Hungarians in World War I; when they lost the war, the Ottoman Empire, also known as the "Sick Man of Europe," fell apart. Under supervision by the new League of Nations, Britain and France divided the former Ottoman lands in the Middle East between themselves. Syria and Lebanon became French mandates.

An anti-colonial revolt in 1925 by a unified Syrian populace frightened the French so much that they resorted to brutal tactics to put down the rebellion. In a preview of French policies a few decades later in Vietnam, the French army drove tanks through the cities of Syria, knocking down houses, summarily executing suspected rebels, and even bombing civilians from the air.

During World War II, the Free French government declared Syria independent from Vichy France, while reserving the right to veto any bill passed by the new Syrian legislature. The last French troops left Syria in April of 1946, and the country gained a measure of true independence.

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Syrian politics were bloody and chaotic. In 1963, a coup put the Ba'ath Party into power; it remains in control to this day. Hafez al-Assad took over both the party and the country in a 1970 coup, and the presidency passed to his son Bashar al-Assad following Hafez al-Assad's death in 2000.

The younger Assad was seen as a potential reformer and modernizer, but his regime has proved corrupt and ruthless. Beginning in the spring of 2011, a Syrian Uprising sought to overthrow Assad as part of the Arab Spring movement.

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