Arabs, including some 300,000 Palestinian refugees, make up 90% of the population. Many educated Syrians also speak English or French, but English is the more widely understood. The Kurds, many of whom speak Kurdish, make up 9% of the population and live mostly in the northeast corner of Syria, though sizable Kurdish communities live in most major Syrian cities as well. Armenian and Turkic are spoken among the small Armenian and Turkoman populations.
Most people live in the Euphrates River valley and along the coastal plain, a fertile strip between the coastal mountains and the desert. Overall population density is about 140/sq. mi.
Education is free and compulsory from ages 6 to 11. Schooling consists of 6 years of primary education followed by a 3-year general or vocational training period and a 3-year academic or vocational program. The second 3-year period of academic training is required for university admission. Total enrollment at post-secondary schools is over 150,000. The literacy rate of Syrians aged 15 and older is 78% for males and 51% for females.
Ancient Syria's cultural and artistic achievements and contributions are many. Archaeologists have discovered extensive writings and evidence of a brilliant culture rivaling those of Mesopotamia and Egypt in and around the ancient city of Ebla. Later Syrian scholars and artists contributed to Hellenistic and Roman thought and culture. Zeno of Sidon founded the Epicurean school; Cicero was a pupil of Antiochus of Ascalon at Athens; and the writings of Posidonius of Apamea influenced Livy and Plutarch.
Syrians have contributed to Arabic literature and music and have a proud tradition of oral and written poetry. Although declining, the world-famous handicraft industry still employs thousands.
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.
Damascus, settled about 2500 B.C., is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It came under Muslim rule in A.D. 636. Immediately thereafter, the city's power and prestige reached its peak, and it became the capital of the Omayyad Empire, which extended from Spain to India from A.D. 661 to A.D. 750, when the Abbasid caliphate was established at Baghdad, Iraq.
Damascus became a provincial capital of the Mameluke Empire around 1260. It was largely destroyed in 1400 by Tamerlane, the Mongol conqueror, who removed many of its craftsmen to Samarkand. Rebuilt, it continued to serve as a capital until 1516. In 1517, it fell under Ottoman rule.
The Ottomans remained for the next 400 years, except for a brief occupation by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt from 1832 to 1840.
In 1920, an independent Arab Kingdom of Syria was established under King Faysal of the Hashemite family, who later became King of Iraq. However, his rule over Syria ended after only a few months, following the clash between his Syrian Arab forces and regular French forces at the battle of Maysalun. French troops occupied Syria later that year after the League of Nations put Syria under French mandate.
With the fall of France in 1940, Syria came under the control of the Vichy Government until the British and Free French occupied the country in July 1941. Continuing pressure from Syrian nationalist groups forced the French to evacuate their troops in April 1946, leaving the country in the hands of a republican government that had been formed during the mandate.
Independence to 1970
Although rapid economic development followed the declaration of independence of April 17, 1946, Syrian politics from independence through the late 1960s was marked by upheaval. A series of military coups, begun in 1949, undermined civilian rule and led to army colonel Adib Shishakli's seizure of power in 1951. After the overthrow of President Shishakli in a 1954 coup, continued political maneuvering supported by competing factions in the military eventually brought Arab nationalist and socialist elements to power.
Syria's political instability during the years after the 1954 coup, the parallelism of Syrian and Egyptian policies, and the appeal of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's leadership in the wake of the 1956 Suez crisis created support in Syria for union with Egypt. On February 1, 1958, the two countries merged to create the United Arab Republic, and all Syrian political parties ceased overt activities.
The union was not a success, however. Following a military coup on September 28, 1961, Syria seceded, reestablishing itself as the Syrian Arab Republic. Instability characterized the next 18 months, with various coups culminating on March 8, 1963, in the installation by leftist Syrian Army officers of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command (NCRC), a group of military and civilian officials who assumed control of all executive and legislative authority. The takeover was engineered by members of the Arab Socialist Resurrection Party (Ba'ath Party) which had been active in Syria and other Arab countries since the late 1940s. The new cabinet was dominated by Ba'ath members.
The Ba'ath takeover in Syria followed a Ba'ath coup in Iraq the previous month. The new Syrian Government explored the possibility of federation with Egypt and Ba'ath-controlled Iraq. An agreement was concluded in Cairo on April 17, 1963, for a referendum on unity to be held in September 1963. However, serious disagreements among the parties soon developed, and the tripartite federation failed to materialize. Thereafter, the Ba'ath regimes in Syria and Iraq began to work for bilateral unity. These plans foundered in November 1963, when the Ba'ath regime in Iraq was overthrown.
In May 1964, President Amin Hafiz of the NCRC promulgated a provisional constitution providing for a National Council of the Revolution (NCR), an appointed legislature composed of representatives of mass organizations (labor, peasant, and professional unions), a presidential council (in which executive power was vested), and a cabinet.
On February 23, 1966, a group of army officers carried out a successful, intra-party coup, imprisoned President Hafiz, dissolved the cabinet and the NCR, abrogated the provisional constitution, and designated a regionalist, civilian Ba'ath Government. The coup leaders described it as a "rectification" of Ba'ath Party principles.
The defeat of the Syrians and Egyptians in the June 1967 war with Israel weakened the radical socialist regime established by the 1966 coup. Conflict developed between a moderate military wing and a more extremist civilian wing of the Ba'ath Party. The 1970 retreat of Syrian forces sent to aid the PLO during the "Black September" hostilities with Jordan reflected this political disagreement within the ruling Ba'ath leadership. On November 13, 1970, Minister of Defense Hafiz al-Asad effected a bloodless military coup, ousting the civilian party leadership and assuming the role of prime minister.
In the same month, a national referendum was held to confirm Asad as President for a 7-year term. In March 1972, to broaden the base of his government, Asad formed the National Progressive Front, a coalition of parties led by the Ba'ath Party, and elections were held to establish local councils in each of Syria's 14 governorates. In March 1973, a new Syrian constitution went into effect followed shortly thereafter by parliamentary elections for the People's Council, the first such elections since 1962.
The Syrian constitution vests the Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party with leadership functions in the state and society and provides broad powers to the president. The president, approved by referendum for a 7-year term, also is secretary general of the Ba'ath Party and leader of the National Progressive Front. The president has the right to appoint ministers, to declare war and states of emergency, to issue laws (which, except in the case of emergency, require ratification by the People's Council), to declare amnesty, to amend the constitution, and to appoint civil servants and military personnel.
Along with the National Progressive Front, the president decides issues of war and peace and approves the state's 5-year economic plans. The National Progressive Front also acts as a forum in which economic policies are debated and the country's political orientation is determined. However, because of Ba'ath Party dominance, the National Progressive Front has traditionally exercised little independent power.
The Syrian constitution of 1973 requires that the president be Muslim but does not make Islam the state religion. Islamic jurisprudence, however, is required to be the main source of legislation. The judicial system in Syria is an amalgam of Ottoman, French, and Islamic laws, with three levels of courts: courts of first instance, courts of appeals, and the Constitutional Court, the highest tribunal. In addition, religious courts handle questions of personal and family law.
The Ba'ath Party emphasizes socialism and secular Arabism. Although Ba'ath Party doctrine seeks to build national rather than ethnic identity, ethnic, religious, and regional allegiances remain important in Syria.
Members of President Asad's own sect, the Alawis, hold most of the important military and security positions. In recent years there has been a gradual decline in the party's preeminence, often in favor of the leadership of the broader National Progressive Front. The party also is now dominated by the military, which consumes a large share of Syria's economic resources.
Syria is divided administratively into 14 provinces, one of which is Damascus. Each province is headed by a governor, whose appointment is proposed by the minister of the interior, approved by the cabinet and announced by executive decree. The governor is assisted by an elected provincial council.
Syria maintains an embassy in the United States at 2215 Wyoming Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel.: 202-232-6313, fax: 202-234-9548). Consular section hours are 10-2, Monday-Friday. Syria also has an honorary consul at 5615 Richmond Ave., Suite 235, Houston, TX 77057 (tel. 713-781-8860).
The expansion of the government bureaucracy has created a large class which owes its position to Asad, whose strength is due also to the army's continued loyalty and the effectiveness of Syria's large internal security apparatus, both comprised largely of members of Asad's own Alawi sect. The several main branches of the security services operate independently of each other and outside of the legal system. Each continues to be responsible for human rights violations.
Key decisions regarding foreign policy, national security, and the economy are made by President Asad, with counsel from his principal advisers. The parliament, in which the Ba'ath Party is guaranteed a majority, is elected every 4 years but has no independent authority. It cannot initiate laws; it may only react to initiatives by the executive.
All three branches of government are guided by the views of the Ba'ath Party, whose primacy in state institutions is assured by the constitution. The Ba'ath platform is proclaimed succinctly in the party's slogan: "Unity, freedom, and socialism." The party is both socialist--advocating state ownership of the means of industrial production and the redistribution of agricultural land, and revolutionary--dedicated to carrying a socialist revolution to every part of the Arab world. Founded by Michel 'Aflaq, a Syrian Christian, and Salah al-Din Al-Bitar, a Syrian Sunni, the Ba'ath Party embraces secularism and has attracted supporters of all faiths in many Arab countries, especially Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. Since August 1990, however, the party has tended to de-emphasize socialism and to stress pan-Arab unity.
Syria has been under a state of emergency since 1963. Syrian Governments have justified martial law by the state of war which continues to exist with Israel and by continuing threats posed by terrorist groups (radicals, Iraqi, and Lebanese). The current government has suppressed all challenges to its authority. Commercial and urban elements, whose power and status have been eroded by the Ba'ath Party and its policies, constitute part of the opposition. The most significant opposition, however, has come from fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, who reject the basic values of the secular Ba'ath program and object to rule by the Alawis, whom they consider heretical. From the late 1970s until its suppression in 1982, the arch-conservative Muslim Brotherhood posed an ongoing armed challenge to the regime. In response to an attempted uprising by the brotherhood in February 1982, the government crushed the fundamentalist opposition centered in the city of Hama, leveling parts of the city with artillery fire and causing many thousands of dead and wounded. Since then, public manifestations of anti-regime activity have been very limited.
In August 1994 parliamentary elections, the National Progressive Front won 167 of the 250 seats in the People's Council; most of those 167 seats went to Ba'ath Party members. Independents won the remaining 83 seats.
In December 1991, President Asad won a fourth 7-year term as president in a popular referendum on his candidacy. According to results announced by the Syrian Government, President Asad received a 99% affirmative vote with a reputed 99% of the eligible electorate voting.
Syria's support for Iran during the Iran-Iraq war isolated it from its Arab neighbors in the 1980s. This isolation, combined with the drop in oil prices, caused a fall in real growth during the 1980s from 10% to an average of 2.5% per year--less than the population growth rate of 3.8%. Living standards for most income groups in Syria declined during the decade. A severe drought in 1989 compounded economic problems, forcing use of scarce foreign exchange reserves to import extraordinary amounts of wheat, flour, and other foodstuffs.
Syria's participation in the multinational coalition against Iraq in the 1990-91 Gulf war ended the years of isolation, however, and gave it access to substantial European, Japanese, and Gulf financial resources (estimated at $500 million annually from 1990-92, with another $2 billion promised, but not yet delivered by Gulf states in accordance with the Damascus Declaration of March 1991). In addition, Syria began to look to new markets as economic ties with Moscow and central Europe began to loosen.
Despite a declining manufacturing sector, by 1992, the effects of foreign aid, the new investment law of 1991, increased petroleum production, and exceptionally good harvests combined to boost GDP growth and enable the government to initiate a number of projects to rehabilitate the country's deteriorating infrastructure and public sector enterprises. Current plans, many of which still lack secured financing, include upgrades of Syria's antiquated phone system and severely underpowered electricity grid, as well as steel mill, cement, and fertilizer plant construction.
Despite the improvements of 1989-92, Syria's economy faces serious challenges. With almost 60% of its population under the age of 20, and a growth rate (3.8%) among the world's highest, higher unemployment rates seem inevitable. Oil production likely will level off over the next decade, and financial aid flows from the Gulf are slowing. Syrian economic reforms thus far have been incremental and gradual, with large-scale privatization not even on the distant horizon.
Commerce has always been important to the Syrian economy, which benefited from the country's location along major east-west trade routes. Syrian cities boast both traditional industries such as weaving and dried-fruit packing and modern heavy industry.
The bulk of Syrian imports have been raw materials essential for industry and agriculture, advanced oil-field equipment, and heavy machinery for the infrastructure construction. Major exports include crude oil, refined products, raw cotton, cotton knits, fruits and vegetables. Aside from commitments of foreign aid, earnings from oil exports are one of the government's most important sources of foreign exchange.
Of Syria's 72,000 square miles, roughly one-third is arable, with 80% of cultivated areas dependent on rainfall for water. Since 1989, the agriculture sector has recovered from years of government inattentiveness and drought. Most farms are privately owned, but marketing and transportation are controlled by the government.
The government has redirected its economic development priorities from industrial expansion into the agricultural sectors in order to achieve food self-sufficiency, enhance export earnings, and stem rural migration. Thanks to sustained capital investment, infrastructure development, subsidies of inputs, and price supports, Syria has gone from a net importer of many agricultural products to an exporter of cotton, fruits, vegetables, and other foodstuffs. One of the prime reasons for this turnaround has been the government's investment in huge irrigation systems in northern and northeastern Syria, part of a plan to increase irrigated farmland by 38% over the next decade.
Recent dam construction in Turkey has reduced the flow of the Euphrates to Syria and Iraq. This has limited Syria's hydroelectric power generating capacity and caused greater domestic dependence on oil, Syria's main foreign exchange earner. Adequate flow of the Euphrates is crucial to Syrian agriculture, and power supply and is expected to be assured in a formal agreement with Turkey. Nonetheless, Syria will need to adopt a more comprehensive conservation program to ensure adequate water supply over the long term.
Syria has produced heavy-grade oil from fields located in the northeast since the late 1960s. In the early 1980s, a light-grade, low-sulphur oil was discovered near Dayr az Zawr in eastern Syria. This discovery relieved Syria of the need to import light oil to mix with domestic heavy crude in refineries. Recently, Syrian oil production has been about 580,000 barrels/day, and reserves are estimated at 1.7 billion barrels. Syria exports about 300,000 b/d, which brings in approximately $3 billion annually and makes up 80% of total foreign exchange earnings.
Although its oil reserves are small compared to those of many other Arab states, Syria's petroleum industry in 1989 helped the country achieve its first trade surplus in over a decade and has accounted for almost three-quarters of the country's export income. Government plans call for major investment to exploit recently discovered natural gas reserves to maximize export revenues by freeing up oil from domestic consumption.
Ad hoc economic liberalization has provided a boost to Syria's small but dynamic private sector. In 1990, the government established an official parallel exchange rate (neighboring country rate, or NCR) to provide incentives for remittances and exports through official channels. This action improved the supply of basic commodities and contained inflation by removing risk premiums on smuggled commodities.
Over time, the government has increased the number of transactions to which the more favorable neighboring country rate applies. Nonetheless, government and certain public sector transactions are still conducted at the official rate of 11.2 Syrian pounds to the U.S. dollar, and exchange-rate unification remains an elusive goal.
Although private sector firms have not had access to official foreign exchange since 1984, the government's Investment Law #10 of 1991 permits retention of foreign exchange earned from exports in order to finance certain imports of raw materials. The government retains a monopoly on "strategic" imports, such as wheat and flour, but it has expanded the list of unrestricted imports. This law also grants qualifying investors tax holidays and duty-free privileges for the import of capital goods and inputs, permits some foreign exchange transactions at the favorable neighboring country exchange rate, and encourages joint public/private sector ventures in which the government holds a passive 25% interest. Since passage of this law, more than 400 new companies have been formed, with about $1.8 billion in new investments. While these reforms have attracted offshore savings from Syrian expatriates, Western and Arab investors are waiting for additional economic liberalization, including private banking facilities, a unified exchange rate, and development of a stock market.
Given the poor development of its own capital markets and Syria's lack of access to international money and capital markets, monetary policy remains captive to the need to cover the fiscal deficit. Interest rates are fixed by law, and most rates have not changed in the last 20 years. Basic foodstuffs continue to be heavily subsidized, and social services are provided for nominal charges.
Through two decades of heavy military spending and expansion of the public sector, Syria accumulated an external debt (to the former Soviet Union, Iran, and the World Bank among others) conservatively estimated at $16 billion. Syria manages its debt by indefinite deferment; it is badly in arrears on payments to the World Bank and has suspended clearinghouse arrangements to draw down debt with its largest creditor, Russia. Any programmed multilateral debt rescheduling, which usually depends on a structural adjustment program with the IMF, seems unlikely in the near future.
In 1991, President Asad made a historic decision to accept then President Bush's invitation to attend a Middle East peace conference and to engage in subsequent bilateral negotiations with Israel. Syria's efforts to secure the release of Western hostages held in Lebanon and its lifting of restrictions on travel by Syrian Jews helped further to improve relations between Syria and the United States. President Clinton met President Asad in Geneva in January 1994 and again in October, when he traveled to Damascus.
The U.S. continues to have serious differences with Syria, however. Syria has been on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism since the list's inception in 1979. Because of its continuing support and safe-haven for terrorist organizations, Syria is subject to legislatively mandated penalties, including export sanctions and ineligibility to receive most forms of U.S. aid or to purchase U.S. military equipment.
In 1986, the U.S. withdrew its ambassador and imposed additional administrative sanctions on Syria in response to evidence of direct Syrian involvement in an attempt to blow up an Israeli airplane. A U.S. ambassador returned to Damascus in 1987, partially in response to positive Syrian actions against terrorism such as expelling the Abu Nidal Organization from Syria and helping free an American hostage earlier that year. There is no evidence that Syrian officials have been directly involved in planning or executing terrorist attacks since 1986.
Other issues of U.S. concern include Syria's human rights record, the involvement of some Syrian military and security officials in the Lebanese drug trade, and full implementation of the Taif Accord. In its ongoing bilateral dialogue, the U.S. urges Syria to cease providing support and safehaven to terrorist groups, improve its human rights performance, prosecute Syrians involved in the drug trade, cooperate with Lebanon in implementing a comprehensive narcotics control and eradication program in Lebanon's Biqa' Valley, and redeploy its forces in Lebanon in accordance with the Taif Accord.
The U.S. embassy is located at Abu Roumaneh, Al-Mansur St. No. 2; P.O. Box 29; Tel. (963)(11) 3331342, 3333232 (after hours); USIS Tel: 3331878, 3338413, 3311280; telex 411919 USDAMA SY; FAX (963)(11) 2247938.
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