The Country & People of Syria
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Syria, officially Syrian Arab Republic, republic (1995 est. pop. 15,452,000), 71,467 sq mi (185,100 sq km), SW Asia, bordered by Israel, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean Sea (W), Turkey (N), Iraq (E), and Jordan (S). Principal cities include Damascus (the capital) and Aleppo. Most of Syria is occupied by the Syrian Desert, which is crossed by the Euphrates R. In the west are the Anti-Lebanon Mts., including Mt. Hermon (9,232 ft/2,814 m), Syria's highest point; in the southwest the fertile plain of Hawran extends from the Jabal al-Duruz Mts. to the Sea of Galilee. Major crops include wheat, fruit and vegetables, barley, sugar beets, cotton, and tobacco; poultry, cattle, and sheep are raised. The state plays a major role in the economy, and a large-scale industrialization program begun in the early 1960s has diversified the formerly agricultural economy. Petroleum production provides the leading export. Refined petroleum, textiles, processed foods, chemicals, and precision-engineered products are the chief manufactures. The Euphrates Dam supplies most of the nation's electric power. Most Syrians are Arabic-speaking Muslims, mainly Sunnite with significant Alawite and Druze minorities; there are also Kurds, Armenians, and Circassians. About 10% of the people are Christian, mainly Orthodox. Arabic is the official language.
Situated on trade and military routes between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, Syria (which historically included all of modern Syria and Lebanon, and parts of Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia) has always been an object of foreign conquest.
Settled (2100 BC) by the Amorites, a Semitic people from the Arabian peninsula, it fell to the Hittites (15th–13th cent BC), the Assyrians and Babylonians (11th–6th cent. BC), the Persians (6th–4th cent. BC), and the Greeks (333 BC).
Syria was Hellenized by the Seleucids and had fallen to Rome by 63 BC After a period of Byzantine rule (5th–7th cent. AD) Syria was conquered (633–40) by Muslim Arabs. Most Syrians converted to Islam, and Damascus, as the usual capital of the Umayyad caliph (661–750), became the center of the Islamic world. The area was later ruled by the Seljuk Turks, the Mongols, Saladin, and the Mamluks. Christians also came to Syria on the Crusades (11th–14th cent.).
It was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1516 until the end of World War I, and in 1920 France received a League of Nations mandate over the Levant States (roughly modern Syria and Lebanon).
During World War II Free French forces granted (1944) independence to Syria, but French troops did not leave until 1946. Syria joined with Egypt in the United Arab Republic in 1958, but withdrew in 1961. Independent Syria has been characterized by economic growth, political instability, and hostility toward Israel. In 1981 Israel exacerbated the situation by annexing the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the Six-Day War (1967).
Syrian troops entered Lebanon in 1976, ostensibly to quell civil strife, and they continue to maintain a presence in that country.
During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Syria suffered severe losses in combat with Israeli forces. The ruling Ba'ath party, which came to power in a 1963 coup, maintains a policy of socialism and Arab nationalism.
In the 1980s Syria experienced internal unrest, moved closer to the USSR, espoused hard-line Arab positions, and was linked to international terrorists. By 1990, however, the country was trying to improve relations with Western nations.
In 1991 Syria contributed 20,000 soldiers to the international coalition forces in the Persian Gulf War and in the same year it participated in initial peace talks with Israel. Although talks broke off in 1996, Syria appeared more willing to reopen negotiations following the installation of a Labor government in Israel in 1999.
Talks resumed in Dec. 1999, but after secret details concerning Syrian concessions were published (Jan. 2000) in Israel, Syria took a harder line and talks stalled.
After Assad died suddenly in June 2000, his son, Bashar al-Assad, who had been groomed to succeed his father since 1994, became president. The son was regarded as an advocate of a free-market economy and political change, but movement toward both has proceeded slowly and has at times been reversed or hindered. Syria strongly opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and was accused by U.S. government officials of supplying aid to Iraq and helping Iraqi officials to escape from U.S. forces. A new cabinet with a mandate to push reforms forward was appointed in Sept., 2003.
In October, Israel struck at what it called a terrorist training base in Syria in retaliation for suicide-bombing attacks in Israel; it was the first Israeli strike against Syrian territory in 20 years.
Simmering grievances among the nation’s Kurds erupted into rare antigovernment protests in NE Syria in Mar., 2004. In August and September Syria blatantly forced Lebanon to extend President Lahoud’s term, an act that was denounced by the UN Security Council.
The Feb., 2005, assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who had opposed Syrian interference in Lebanon, led to anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon and increased international pressure on Syria. Syria subsequently agreed to withdraw from Lebanon, and by the end of Apr., 2005, the withdrawal was completed.
A UN investigation into Hariri’s killing implicated senior Syrian and Lebanese officials, but Syria refused to allow UN investigators to interview high-ranking Syrian officials, leading the Security Council to call unanimously for Syria to cooperate. A former Syrian vice president, Abdul Halim Khaddam, stated (Dec., 2005) that Syria had threatened Hariri and asserted that the assassination could not have happened without the support of high-ranking Syrian officials. (Khaddam, residing in Paris, also called for Assad to be removed from office.)
Assad was reelected in May, 2007, by referendum (he was the only candidate). In Sept., 2007, the Israeli air force attacked a military site in N Syria that may have been a nuclear facility under construction. International Atomic Energy Agency reports (2008, 2009) said that evidence indicated that the facility could have been a nuclear reactor, and called on Syria to cooperate, but Syria said the installation was a missile facilty. In June, 2009, the IAEA said it had found traces of processed uranium at another site.
An Arab League summit held in Syria in Mar., 2008, was attended by only half the Arab heads of state, as many sent lower-ranking officials as a protest against Syria's backing of Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon. In Oct., 2008, U.S. forces launched a raid into Syria from Iraq in which U.S. sources claimed a key figure in the Iraq insurgency was killed; Syria denounced the attack, saying only civilians were killed, and mounted demonstrations against the attack
Beginning in Mar., 2011, Syria faced ongoing antigovernment demonstrations in a number of cities similar to those in other parts of the Arab world. The protests were especially persistent early on in the southern city of Deraa; Homs, Hama, and many other locations subsequently became centers of protest. Only Damascus and Aleppo were largely free of protests. The government issued some concessions in response, including granting citizenship to thousands of Kurds in NE Syria, ending the 48-year state of emergency, and (later) allowing some opposition parties, but it also accused its opponents of armed insurrection and violently suppressed protests. There also were anti-Alawite attacks by government opponents. Antigovernment demonstrations nonetheless continued, and the unrest turned into civil war as some troops defected and fought against government forces and others also took up arms.
In September leaders of opposition groups announced the formation of the national council, but the opposition continued to lack unity and the council was dominated by exile groups. The Arab League suspended Syria's membership and imposed some economic sanctions in November; other nations also imposed sanctions in 2011 and 2012. In December, Arab League monitors entered Syria to oversee an agreement intended to end the violence, but they had no effect on the situation. The violence continued in 2012, with deadly fighting in many urban areas, including Damascus and Aleppo. Government forces were accused of brutally targeting civilians and of killing them in mass executions.
The 90% vote for a new constitution (Feb., 2012) was denounced by the opposition as a sham; the opposition also boycotted the May parliamentary elections. Former UN head Kofi Annan negotiated a cease-fire in April, but it never really took effect, and the associated UN observers withdrew in August. Relations with Turkey, which was critical of Assad and supportive of Turkmen rebels, became tense after a Turkish fighter jet that crossed into Syrian airspace was downed. In October, cross-border fire into Turkey led to recurring retaliatory bombardment; there were similar incidents with Jordan and Israel. Subsequently occasional Israeli air strikes in Syria that were said to be directed at military supplies for Hezbollah.
Opposition fighters remained ethnically and religiously fragmented. A more broadly based opposition National Coalition was formed in Nov., 2012, as a result of international pressure on opposition groups, but forces aligned with it subsequently became less significant. Kurdish groups sought to establish an autonomous Kurdish area. Hardline Islamist groups, not part of the coalition, became increasingly significant, and often fought other rebels. Shiite fighters from other nations, especially Lebanese Hezbollah , became a significant component of government-aligned forces in 2013.
In June, 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a Sunni Islamist rebel group, also launched an offensive in Iraq that gave it control of a large territory in N and E Syria and in NW Iraq; it declared a caliphate as the Islamic State (IS) and became the dominant rebel group in Syria. IS advances and atrocities in Iraq and Syria in 2014 led to U.S. air strikes against it; the first strikes in Syria began in September, and the United States subsequently also targeted other Islamist militant groups in Syria. Other nations subsequently also targeted IS forces with air strikes.
Both government and rebel forces were accused of using chemical weapons. An Aug., 2013, attack in Damascus in which more than 1,300 died was linked by Western governments to the government. Under threat of U.S. attack, the Assad regime agreed to the supervised destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile, most which was accomplished by Sept., 2014, but it was unclear if Syria had omitted any weapons. A Dec., 2013, UN report confirmed that the August attack involved chemical weapons, and found credible evidence of the weapons' use in prior incidents. Beginning in 2014, there were accusations of chlorine gas attacks by the Syrian government; chlorine had not been among the weapons Syria had to declare. Both sides in the conflict have been accused by human-rights groups of committing war crimes.
Assad was reelected in a vote that occurred (June, 2014) during the civil war and involved minor opponents. He was reported to have won 89% of the vote, with a 73% turnout (voting only occurred in government-controlled areas). The election and result were criticized by the opposition and many foreign governments as a sham.
By mid-2015, some 200,000 (and possibly more than 300,000) were believed to have died in four years of fighting. Many people had been arrested or had disappeared while in government or rebel custody, and some 4.3 million had fled the country and 7.6 million were displaced inside Syria. The government controlled or contested much of E Syria, having made gains there since 2013, while various rebel groups were in control mainly in the north and west. In 2015 Syrian Kurds and their Arab and other rebel allies made advances, against the IS, but the Kurds also found themselves coming under occasional attack from Turkish forces. In Sept., 2015, Russia began air strikes in Syria against rebels more generally, to bolster Assad and support his forces, which had suffered reverses. In November, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet it claimed had violated its airspace despite warnings.
Copyright (c) 2012 Columbia University Press.
Used by permission of Columbia University Press.
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