Syria - Overview
Syria lies on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Syria’s neighboring countries are Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon. It has a narrow coastal plain with a double mountain belt in the west, and large semiarid and desert areas to the east. Syria therefore has mountains, fertile plains, arid areas, and deserts. The country covers an area of 185,180 km2, a bit larger than the state of North Dakota. Its total population is 22 million. The climate in Syria is hot and dry in the summer, and mild and rainy in the winter (mainly in the western region). Syria is a middle-income developing country with an economy largely dependent on agriculture, trade and oil production. Some 11.4% of the population lives below the poverty line (which is .06% less than the United States).
President Bashar Al-Asad is commander in chief of the Syrian armed forces, comprising some 400,000 troops upon mobilization. The military is a conscripted force; males serve 30 months in the military upon reaching the age of 18. The breakup of the Soviet Union -- long the principal source of training, materiel, and credit for the Syrian forces -- slowed Syria's ability to acquire modern military equipment. Nevertheless, its military remains one of the largest and most capable in the region. Syria received significant financial aid from Gulf Arab states as a result of its participation in the Gulf War, with a sizable portion of these funds earmarked for military spending. Besides sustaining its conventional forces, Syria seeks to improve its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capability.
The armed forces played a central role in Syria's recent social and political history. As in many Third World countries, the army has provided minorities with a channel for upward mobility. Alawis in particular used this route of social advancement, and by the early 1960s they held influential positions in the military government. When in 1966 General Salah al Jadid overthrew General Amin al Hafiz, a Sunni, for the first time in the modern era an Alawi ruled Syria. Jadid, in turn, was overthrown in 1970 by Assad, another Alawi. Since then Assad had seen to it that only trusted relatives or friends, most of them Alawis, occupied or controlled politically sensitive or powerful positions. Similarly, because the armed forces are both the mainstay of his regime and the most likely threat to it, Assad was been deferential to the needs of the military forces and raised the standard of living for those in uniform.
From independence in 1946 through the late 1960s, Syria stood out as a particularly unstable country in a geographic region noted for political instability. Illegal seizures of power seemed to be the rule as Syrians were governed under a series of constitutions and the nation's political direction made several abrupt ideological lurches. Therefore, when Minister of Defense Hafiz al Assad assumed authority in yet another coup in November l970, many believed his regime was merely one more in a long string of extralegal changes of government. Indeed, because of the coup's similarity to previous ones, at the time there was little evidence to suggest otherwise. Nonetheless, from 1970 until his death on June 10, 2000, Assad provided Syria with a period of uncommon stability, all the more remarkable when viewed against the backdrop of the nation's postindependence history of political turbulence.
Although uncertainty and internal tension are threads that run through Syrian history, not all conflict has been negative. From the earliest days of civilization to more recent times, struggle among various indigenous groups as well as with invading foreigners has resulted in cultural enrichment. Phoenicians, Canaanites, Assyrians, and Persians are but a few of the peoples who have figured prominently in this legacy. As significant were the contributions of Alexander the Great and his successors and the Roman and Byzantine rulers.
But as great as these considerable foreign influences were, few would disagree that the most important additions to Syria's rich culture were made following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, when Arab conquerors brought Islam to Greater Syria. By A.D. 661, Muawiyah, the governor of Syria, had proclaimed himself caliph, or temporal leader, and established Damascus as the seat of the Umayyad Empire. Thus began a dynasty whose realm stretched as far west as southern France and as far east as Afghanistan, an expanse of territory that surpassed even that which Rome had held a few centuries earlier. Thirteen hundred years after his death, the memory of Muawiyah and his accomplishments still stirs pride and respect in Syria. Likewise, the image of the great Muslim general Saladin (Salah ad Din al Ayubbi), who defeated the Christian Crusaders in 1187, is deeply imprinted on the Syrian psyche.
These native heroes notwithstanding, it was foreign domination that determined the political boundaries of present- day Syria. First the Ottoman Turks, then after World War I the French, and, more recently, the Israelis shaped the contours of the nation, breaking off chunks of what was Greater Syria and repositioning borders to leave the configuration of the contemporary state. In spite of these territorial changes, support for a return to the glory that was Greater Syria and a development of a powerful nation-state has remained strong. Syrians share a vision of a pan-Arab entity--the unification of all Arab brethren throughout the region.
Despite the rhetoric and idealism, in Syria, as in many developing nations, strife between and among communities has hindered development of a genuine national spirit. Also, the importance of regional, sectarian, and religious identities as the primary sources of loyalty have frustrated nation-building. Although about 85 percent of Syrians were Muslims, most scholars agree that the domination of Assad's small Alawi sect over the larger Sunni community was at the root of much of the internal friction, even though ethnic issues also accounted for a certain amount of tension. Other significant minorities that contributed to social tensions were Druzes, Kurds, Armenians, and Circassians.