Country profile: Syria
Once the centre of the
Islamic Empire, Syria covers an area that has seen invasions and
occupations over the ages, from Romans and Mongols to Crusaders and
A country of fertile plains, mountains and deserts,
it is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Kurds,
Armenians, Assyrians, Alawite Shias and Druze, as well as the Arab
Sunnis who make up a majority of the Muslim population.
Syria gained its independence from France in 1946 but has lived through
periods of political instability driven by the conflicting interests of
these various groups.
For a while, from 1958-61, it united with Nasser's Egypt, but an
army coup restored independence before the Alawite-controlled pan-Arab
Baath (Renaissance) party took control in 1963. It rules to this day.
Politics: Political power is held by a small elite, the opposition is repressed and the economy is centrally planned
Economy: The government has made reform of its under-performing, state-run economy a top priority
International: Syria withdrew troops from
Lebanon in 2005 after three decades; the US has imposed sanctions on
Syria, accusing it of supporting terrorism; Syria is one of Israel's
Baath government has seen authoritarian rule at home and a strong
anti-Israeli policy abroad, particularly under former President Hafez
al-Assad. In 1967 Syria lost the Golan Heights to the Israelis, while
civil war in neighbouring Lebanon allowed it to extend its political
and military influence in the region.
Syria pulled its forces
out of Lebanon in 2005, having come under intense international
pressure to do so after the assassination of Lebanese former premier
Rafik Hariri. A UN report implicated Syrian and pro-Syria Lebanese
officials in the killing. Damascus denied any involvement.
government has dealt harshly with domestic opposition. Thousands are
thought to have been killed in the crackdown on the 1982 uprising of
the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama.
Following the death of Hafez
al-Assad, Syria underwent a degree of relaxation. Hundreds of political
prisoners were released. But the granting of real political freedoms
and a shake-up of the state-dominated economy have not materialised.
the world stage Damascus has been increasingly isolated in recent
years, having come under fire for its alleged support for insurgents in
Iraq, and over its role in Lebanon. That isolation appears to be easing
after efforts by France to bring Syria back into the international
Syria is one of Israel's staunchest enemies and supports
a number of militant groups that carry out attacks against Israel.
Their current relationship founders on the continued occupation by
Israel of the Golan Heights - Syrian land taken in the 1967 war.
talks between the two countries stalled in January 2000, but indirect
talks resumed under Turkish auspices in 2008. These were suspended
pending the formation of a new Israeli government.
- Full name: The Syrian Arab Republic
- Population: 22 million (UN, 2009)
- Capital: Damascus
- Area: 185,180 sq km (71,498 sq miles)
- Major language: Arabic
- Major religion: Islam
- Life expectancy: 72 years (men), 76 years (women) (UN)
- Monetary unit: 1 Syrian pound = 100 piastres
- Main exports: Oil, gas
- GNI per capita: US $2,090 (World Bank, 2008)
- Internet domain: .sy
- International dialling code: +963
President: Bashar al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad would probably have been working as an optician had his brother not died in a car accident in 1994.
President Bashar al-Assad with his wife Asma
The death of Basil - groomed to succeed his father, President Hafez
al-Assad - catapulted the younger brother into politics, and into the
presidency after his father died in June 2000.
six-year political apprenticeship, Bashar al-Assad completed his
military training, met Arab and other leaders and got to know the
movers and shakers in Syrian politics.
On taking office he
ushered in a brief period of openness and cautious reform. Political
prisoners were released and restrictions on the media were eased.
Political debate was tolerated and open calls for freedom of expression
and political pluralism were made.
But the pace of change
alarmed the establishment - the army, the Baath party and the Alawite
minority. Fearing instability and perceiving a threat to their
influence, they acted not only to slow it down, but to revert to the
A referendum in 2007 endorsed him as president for a second seven-year term. He was the only candidate.
al-Assad was born in 1965, the third of President Hafez al-Assad's
children. He studied in Damascus and London. Shy and private, he was
brought up outside the political spotlight, seemingly destined for a
The government and Baath party own and control much of the Syrian
media. Criticism of the president and his family is banned and the
domestic and foreign press are censored over material which is deemed
to be threatening or embarrassing. Journalists practice self-censorship
and foreign reporters rarely get accreditation.
Most of Syria's media are controlled by the government or ruling party
Despite this, analysts see improvements in the media landscape.
There was a brief flowering of press freedom after Bashar al-Assad
became president in 2000. For the first time in nearly 40 years private
publications were licensed. The new titles included political party
papers and a satirical journal.
But a subsequent press law imposed a range of restrictions, and publications could be suspended for violating content rules.
TV has cautiously begun carrying political programmes and debates
featuring formerly "taboo" issues, as well as occasionally airing
interviews with opposition figures.
Applications have been
lodged for licences for new private satellite TV channels to operate in
a free media zone set up in Damascus. Satellite receivers are widely
used, and many viewers tune into pan-Arab TV stations.
Private, commercial FM broadcasters have been given the green light, but stations cannot transmit news or political content.
With 2.1 million internet users in Syria by 2008 (ITU figure), the web has emerged as a vehicle for dissent.
in the view of the Paris-based media freedom watchdog Reporters Without
Borders, "Syria is one of the worst offenders against internet freedom
and censors opposition and independent news websites."
Syrian opposition abroad have an outlet in the form of Radio Free
Syria, a shortwave broadcaster which is operated by the US-based Reform
Party of Syria.
- Syrian TV - state-run, operates two domestic networks and a satellite channel, broadcasting in Arabic, English and French