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Syria: Country Profile

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Syria: Country Profile

Syria

Basics:

Official country name: Syrian Arab Republic.
Area: 71,062 sq miles (185,180 sq km), including 805 square miles (1,295 sq km) of Israeli-occupied territory.
Population: 19.3 million (2007), not including 1.4 million Iraqi refugees and 500,000 Palestinian refugees.
Median age: 21.1
Ethnic Groups: Arab, 90 percent; Kurds, Armenians and others, 10 percent.
GDP and GDP per capita: $24.3 billion and $4,100

Government and Politics:

Syria is a military, authoritarian republic led by President Bashar al-Asad since 2000. His father Hafez al-Asad, who died that year, had led the country for 30 years. Dissent is nominal or not tolerated. Media are government-controlled. So are elections. On May 27, 2007, Bashar al-Asad ran for a second presidential term in a national referendum. He was unopposed, garnering 97.6 percent of the vote. Syria has a 250-seat legislative People's Council and a judiciary, but no independence between the branches. The president heads the council that appoints and fires judges.

Religion:

Syria is officially a secular republic. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims (74 percent). Alawites, who take their name from the fourth caliph Ali, are a minority Shiite sect that accounts for about 10 percent of the population -- including President Bashar al Asad. Christians of various denominations make up 10 percent of the population; Jews and Druze make up about 3 percent.

Economy:

While poverty is not a major issue in Syria, neither is wealth. The country is best compared, economically, to the old closed economies of the Soviet Bloc before 1991. Syria has limited oil and natural gas reserves (2.4 billion barrels and 8.5 billion cubic meters, respectively), but enough, with agriculture, to account for half the country's economic output. Strict government control of the economy keeps it from growing at the 6-to-8 percent rate of emerging economies despite some reforms (the 2006 growth rate was 3.5 percent). Foreign investment is minimal, unemployment high, and water supplies limited.

Military:

Thanks to compulsory conscription that begins at 18 and lasts 30 months (18 in the Syrian navy), Syria maintains an army of 400,000, including reserves. Most of the Syrian military's equipment, while considerable, is outdated. Syria has about 4,700 tanks, most of them of Soviet vintage. GlobalSecurity.org reports that as of 2003, "Syria had a combined total of several hundred Scud and SS-21 SRBMs [short-range ballistic missiles], and is believed to have chemical warheads available for a portion of its Scud missile force. Syria's missiles are mobile and can reach much of Israel."

Human Rights, Civil Rights and Media:

Syria's poor human rights record is worsening. The Syrian Human Rights Committee declared 2006 a new low for human rights since Bashar Al-Asad became President, as security forces have carried out widespread arrests of human rights activists and political opposition figures demanding that Syria normalize relations with Lebanon. Kurds are being harassed and imprisoned. Eight journalists and Web-based dissidents were arrested in 2006 as the government continues its unbending grip on media. "Emergency Rule," declared in 1963, remains in effect, enabling arbitrary arrests, imprisonment and torture.

History:

Syria's greatest days, before it was a nation, date back to the earliest days of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries, when Islam's Umayyad empire held Damascus as its capital. The Muslim general Salah ad Din al Ayubbi, known in the West as Saladin (a Kurd), is a Syrian and Muslim hero for defeating Christian Crusaders in the 12th century. Modern-day Syria was carved out of the Ottoman Empire by France and Britain in 1920, gaining independence from France in 1946. Syria has been in a state of war with Israel since 1948, and occupied most of Lebanon, which it does not recognize as a separate country, from 1976 to 2006.

Current Issues:

Three crisis-like situations dominate Syria's agenda: first, an influx of Iraqi refugees approaching 1.5 million in 2007 is severely taxing the country's ability to cope; second, Syria's stand-off with Israel over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on one hand, and Syria's backing and arming of Hezbollah in Lebanon on the other (with Iran's help), has Syria and Israel on the verge of yet another war; and third, Syria's role in the assassination of Lebanese independence leaders is yet unresolved. On the whole, Syria is isolated but hawkish in its outlook.
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