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Syria - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

INTRODUCTION OF SYRIA

Syria

Syria (Arabic Suriyah), officially Al Jumhuriyah al Arabiyah as Suriyah (Syrian Arab Republic), republic in southwestern Asia, bounded on the north by Turkey, on the east by Iraq, on the south by Jordan and Israel, and on the west by Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. Syria has an area of 185,180 sq km (71,498 sq mi). The capital and largest city is Damascus, also spelled Dimashq.

LAND AND RESOURCES OF SYRIA

Syria has an extreme east-west distance of about 830 km (about 515 mi) and an extreme north-south distance of about 740 km (about 460 mi). Along the Mediterranean coast, which is 193 km (120 mi) long, lies a narrow plain extending inland as far as 32 km (20 mi). Parallel to this plain is the Jabal an Nuşayrīyah, a narrow range of mountains and hills. To the south, along the border of Syria and Lebanon, are the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, the site of Mount Hermon, the highest point in the country at 2,814 m (9,232 ft). The Anti-Lebanon range tapers off into a hilly region called the Golan Heights (captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War) in the southwestern corner of Syria. Much of the rest of the country consists of a plateau, which is bisected in the northeast by the valley of the Euphrates (known in Syria as Al Furāt) River. The plateau area north of the Euphrates is called the plain of Al Jazīrah. The semicircular plateau area in the southeast is in the Syrian Desert.

The Euphrates, the longest river in Syria, flows diagonally across the country from Turkey in the north to Iraq on the east. The second longest river, the Orontes, originates in the Lebanese portion of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and flows north through western Syria to Turkey.

Climate in Syria

West of the Jabal an Nuşayrīyah, Syria has a Mediterranean climate, characterized by hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters. Yearly rainfall ranges from about 510 to 1,020 mm (about 20 to 40 in) in the coastal area, from about 255 to 510 mm (about 10 to 20 in) between Ḩalab (Aleppo) and Damascus, and from 127 mm (5 in) to less than 25 mm (1 in) in the desert area in the southeast. Regional variations in temperature are comparatively slight. At Ḩalab, in the northwest, the average August temperature is 30°C (86°F) and the average January temperature is 4°C (40°F). At Tudmur, in the central region at the edge of the Syrian Desert, the corresponding temperatures are 31°C (88°F) and 7°C (44°F).

Natural Resources of Syria

Petroleum, natural gas, phosphate rock, asphalt, and salt are the main Syrian minerals found in sufficiently large quantities for commercial exploitation. Small deposits of coal, iron ore, copper, lead, and gold exist, primarily in mountainous regions. Good farmland is located in the coastal region and in parts of the valleys of the Orontes and Euphrates rivers.

Plants and Animals in Syria

Syria has comparatively limited areas of abundant natural vegetation. On the whole the nonarable areas are too dry to support extensive plant life, and virtually all of the arable areas have been stripped of natural cover. Only 2.5 percent of the country’s land area is forested. Along the coast, however, are found some reed grasses, wildflowers, trees, and shrubs, including buckthorn and tamarisk. In the Anti-Lebanon Mountains are forests of Aleppo pine and Syrian and valonia oak.

The mammalian wildlife of Syria includes the antelope, deer, wildcat, porcupine, squirrel, and hare. Birds native to the country include the flamingo, pelican, bustard, ostrich, eagle, and falcon. Lizards and chameleons are found in the desert.

Environmental Issues in Syria

Syria’s farmland suffers from desertification and soil erosion due in part to decades of poor land management. Since the 1980s the government has been educating farmers about soil-enriching practices such as crop rotation. Irrigation projects are gradually making more of the country agriculturally productive, but most farmers continue to depend on rainfall to water their crops.

Wastes generated during oil-refining processes have polluted the Euphrates, Orontes, and Barrada river basins. Raw sewage flowing from urban centers is also degrading Syria’s supply of fresh water.

POPULATION OF SYRIA

Syria is populated chiefly by Arabs, who constitute about 90 percent of the population. The largest non-Arab minorities are Kurds, most of whom are pastoral people concentrated along the Turkish border, and Armenians, who dwell chiefly in the larger cities. The Syrian Desert is the most sparsely populated part of Syria. The most densely settled area of the country is in the west.

Population Characteristics of Syria

The population of Syria (2009 estimate) is 20,178,485, giving the country an overall population density of 110 persons per sq km (284 per sq mi). Population growth in 2009 was estimated at 2.1 percent a year.

Political Divisions and Principal Cities of Syria

Syria is divided into 13 governorates and the municipality of Damascus. The capital and largest city of the country is Damascus, with a population of 2,228,000 (2003 estimate). Major cities include Ḩalab (3,970,000), Ḩimş (1,577,000), Al Lādhiqīyah (311,784), and Ḩamāh (264,348).

Religion in Syria

The overwhelming majority of the Syrian population adheres to the religion of Islam. About 73 percent of the population are Sunni Muslims (see Sunni Islam). Other Muslims include Ismailis, Shia Muslims (see Shia Islam), and Alawites (a schism of Shia Islam). Of the non-Muslims in Syria, most are Christians, primarily Greek and Armenian Orthodox. Religious minorities include Druze, who follow a religion related to Islam, and a very small community of Jews.

Education in Syria

Primary education is free and compulsory for all children aged 6 through 12. Some 83 percent of the adult Syrian population was estimated to be literate in 2007. Primary schools enrolled 2.3 million pupils in the 2007 school year, and 2.5 million students attended secondary schools and vocational institutes.

In 1998, 94,110 Syrian students were enrolled in institutes of higher education. Syria has universities in Damascus, Ḩalab, Ḩimş, and Al Lādhiqīyah. Also in Damascus is the Arabic Languages Academy (1919), which is devoted to the study of Arabic language, literature, history, and culture. Other institutes and colleges specialize in social work, agriculture, industry, technology, and music.

Libraries and Museums in Syria

The public libraries in Ḩalab, Damascus, Ḩimş, and Al Lādhiqīyah house the principal collections of the country. Other major repositories include the Damascus University Library and the Assad National Library, also in Damascus. The most notable museum is the National Museum (1919), in Damascus, which has collections that include Asian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic art. The museums at the site of the ancient city of Palmyra and in Ḩalab are noted for their archaeological holdings.

ECONOMY OF SYRIA

Syria’s economy depends heavily on its agricultural production. The country has 4.9 million hectares (12 million acres) of cultivated land, accounting for 27 percent of its total land area. About one-fifth of the tilled acreage is irrigated, but extensive areas lie unused for lack of water. Irrigation is necessary even in many regions that receive substantial annual rainfall, because most of the rainfall occurs during the winter rather than during the growing season. Much of the acreage under cultivation suffers from soil exhaustion because of insufficient use of fertilizers and failure to rotate crops. The estimated national budget in 1999 included $17.5 billion in domestic revenue and $17.5 billion in expenditure. Syria is heavily dependent on aid from the major Arab oil-producing states.

Agriculture of Syria

Despite climatic handicaps, Syria produces a wide variety of crops, some in sufficient quantity for export. The major crops are cereals, primarily wheat and barley. Other important crops include sugar beets, grapes, olives, citrus fruits, vegetables, and cotton. Cotton accounted for more than half the national export revenues before the ascendancy of oil in the mid-1970s. Syrian farmers also raise sheep, chickens, goats, and cattle.

Mining in Syria

Oil was first discovered in Syria in the 1950s. Significant output began after the 1968 completion of a pipeline linking the oil fields in the northeast to refineries in the west. Government efforts to encourage exploration by foreign oil companies further increased output, and by the mid-1970s petroleum had become Syria’s leading export. Since then, however, the sector has suffered from periodic declines in world oil prices and from wider Syrian economic troubles. Existing reserves are depleting rapidly and may be exhausted in the early 21st century. The Syrian government is encouraging foreign companies to explore for new oil fields near the Iraqi and Turkish borders. Production of crude petroleum was 169 million barrels in 2004. Syria also produces smaller amounts of natural gas.

Manufacturing in Syria

The Syrian government nationalized most major industries by the late 1960s. Large-scale heavy industry continues to be dominated by the state, but since the early 1990s Syria has encouraged the development of privately owned light industries. Textiles—cotton yarn and cotton, woolen, and silk fabrics—constitute the largest single manufacturing industry in Syria. As in centuries past, Syrian artisans continue to be noted for the fine quality of their silk brocades and rugs and for their artistic metalwork in brass, copper, silver, iron, and steel. Other major manufactured goods include cement, fertilizers, glass, olive oil, and household appliances and electronics.

Energy in Syria

Syria’s hydroelectric and thermal power plants typically produce enough electricity to meet the country’s needs, but electricity shortages occur periodically. The country’s total electrical output in 2006 was 35.3 billion kilowatt-hours.

Currency and Banking of Syria

The basic unit of currency is the Syrian pound, divided into 100 piasters (11.20 pounds equal U.S.$1; 2006 average). The Syrian pound is issued by the state-owned Central Bank of Syria. The Syrian government exercised complete control over the banking sector from the mid-1950s until 2002, when it began to allow the establishment of privately owned banks.

Foreign Trade in Syria

Before the 1990s Syria imported considerably more than it exported each year. However, Syria’s closer alliance with Western nations and the Gulf States in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War (1991) stimulated high economic growth in the private sector and increased export earnings. In 2007 Syrian imports totaled $12.9 billion, and exports totaled $11.8 billion. The principal imports were manufactures of many types, including machinery, transportation equipment, iron and steel, refined petroleum, textiles, and chemical products. Syria also imported grain, livestock products, and other agricultural goods. The principal exports were petroleum, cotton and other textiles, preserved foods, beverages, tobacco, phosphates, fruits, and vegetables. The chief buyers of Syrian exports were Germany, Italy, France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Imports were supplied chiefly by Italy, Germany, France, the United States, and South Korea. Much revenue was derived from fees charged to foreign countries for piping oil through Syria. Considerable foreign currency also came from the expenditures of the many tourists who visit the country each year. In November 1995 Syria and several other Middle Eastern and North African countries signed an agreement with the European Union to create a Mediterranean free-trade zone by 2010.

Transportation and Communications in Syria

Transportation and communications facilities in Syria are owned and operated by the state. Some 2,043 km (1,269 mi) of railroads connect the major cities of Syria and extend to the national frontiers of all neighboring countries except Israel. Syria has 94,890 km (58,962 mi) of roads, of which 14 percent are paved. In 2004 there were 36 vehicles in use for every 1,000 residents. Al Lādhiqīyah is the main seaport; port facilities at Tartus were developed in the 1980s. The national air carrier is Syrian Arab Airlines; the main international airport serves Damascus.

Telephone mainlines in Syria numbered 152 for every 1,000 inhabitants in 2005. There were 278 radio receivers per 1,000 people. Television service began in 1960, and there were 61 sets for every 1,000 Syrians in 2000. The country’s leading daily newspapers are al-Baath, Tishrin, and al-Thawrah, published in Damascus; al-Jamahir al-Arabia, published in Ḩalab; and al-Fida, published in Ḩamāh.

GOVERNMENT OF SYRIA

Syria is governed under a 1973 constitution that declares the country to be a democratic socialist republic. The chief executive and head of state of Syria is a president, who is popularly elected to a seven-year term. The president appoints a council of ministers, headed by a prime minister, and may appoint several vice presidents. The legislature of Syria is the People’s Assembly, made up of 250 members popularly elected to four-year terms.

Political Parties of Syria

The ruling political organization in Syria is the National Progressive Front (NPF), formed in 1972. The NPF is a grouping of six political parties, its main component being the Baath Arab Socialist Party, founded in 1947.

Judiciary in Syria

The highest tribunal in Syria is the Supreme Constitutional Court, which sits in Damascus. Other judicial bodies include the Court of Cassation and lesser courts of appeal in each of the country’s 14 provinces, summary courts, and courts of first instance.

Defense of Syria

Military service is compulsory for men in Syria, and normally lasts for a period of 24 months. The country’s armed forces in 2006 included an army of 200,000 members, an air force of 40,000, and a navy of 7,600.

HISTORY OF SYRIA

As early as about 1800 BC King Shamshi-Adad I of Assyria is thought to have established his capital, Shubat Enlil, at present-day Tell Leilan in the extreme northeast of Syria. The kingdom was later conquered by Hammurabi of Babylonia, and the region was long afterward influenced principally by Egypt and Babylon. Parts of the region were conquered successively by the Egyptians and the Hittites, and, in the 8th century BC, by Assyria. In the 6th century BC the region passed first to the Chaldeans and then to the Persians (538 BC). Alexander the Great made it a part of his empire in 333 and 332 BC, and at the close of the 4th century BC it was appropriated by Seleucus I, one of Alexander’s generals, who founded Antioch as the capital. During the 3rd century BC the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids contended for the possession of lower Syria and Palestine. Both areas, and much of western Asia, passed to the Seleucids, whose realm became known as the kingdom of Syria. In 64 BC Syria was made a Roman province.

After the far-flung Roman dominions were divided into two parts in AD 395, the Western Roman Empire with its capital at Rome and the Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire with its capital at Constantinople, Syria remained a Byzantine province for approximately 240 years. It was conquered in 636 by the Arabs and was quickly absorbed into their rapidly expanding Islamic empire. In 661 Damascus became the seat of the powerful Umayyad caliphs. At that time it was one of the most important and splendid cities of the Muslim world. Later it was supplanted by Baghdād in present-day Iraq.

In 1099 the Crusaders incorporated part of the region into the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem and part into the principality of Antioch. In a subsequent campaign (1174-1187), Saladin, sultan of Egypt, took Syria and overthrew the kingdom of Jerusalem. The many wars centering on Syria impoverished the land and its people; its ruin was completed by a Mongol invasion in 1260.

Ottoman Rule

The Ottomans incorporated the region into their empire in 1516, and it remained in their possession for the next four centuries. The commercial importance of the territory as the site of overland routes to eastern Asia was greatly reduced with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

Strong nationalist movements had taken hold in many parts of the Ottoman Empire during the early years of the 20th century. When World War I (1914-1918) broke out and Turkey took the side of the Central Powers, the Allies, in order to enlist support against Turkey, held out to the Arabs the hope of postwar independence. In January 1916, by the terms of letters between the British government and Husein ibn Ali, grand sharif of Mecca, the latter promised Arab participation in the war on the Allied side in return for a British guarantee of independence for all Arab lands south of a line roughly corresponding to the northern frontiers of present-day Syria and Iraq. In May of the same year, however, the United Kingdom and France secretly concluded a separate accord, known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, by which most of the Arab lands under Turkish rule were to be divided into British and French spheres of influence. The areas now comprising Syria and Lebanon were assigned to France; those comprising Israel and Jordan were assigned to the United Kingdom.

The French Mandate

The Arabs, in alliance with the British and French, fought the Turks for the rest of the war and participated in the capture of Damascus in 1918. In 1919 British forces withdrew from the area assigned to France, leaving French troops in control. The following year France, with the understanding that Syria and Lebanon were to become independent within a reasonably short time, was granted a mandate over them by the League of Nations.

Anti-Turkish sentiment in Syria soon developed into anti-French sentiment and more determined nationalism. The French quelled one armed rebellion in 1920 and a second and better organized uprising from 1925 to 1927. In 1938, soon after French and Syrian leaders had reached agreement on a treaty providing for substantial Syrian independence, the French government refused to ratify the treaty, partly because France regarded control of the area as vital to its military position. The following year France ceded to Turkey the former Turkish administrative district (sanjak) of Alexandretta (present-day İskenderun), in which the ancient Syrian capital of Antioch is located.

These events raised Syrian hostility toward France to a high pitch. Many prominent political figures in Syria nevertheless declared their loyalty to France and the Allies when World War II broke out in 1939. After the surrender of France to Germany in 1940, Syria came under the control of the Vichy government. British and Free French forces, however, invaded and subdued Syria in 1941. Later in the same year, the Free French government formally recognized the independence of Syria but continued to occupy the country. With the elections in 1943, a new government was formed under the presidency of the Syrian nationalist Shukri al-Kuwatli, one of the leaders of the 1925 to 1927 uprising against the French. After the end of World War II in 1945, France persisted in trying to exercise influence over Syria. Resultant anti-French uprisings subsided only after the British military intervention on the side of the French and the withdrawal of all French troops and administrative personnel. In 1946 the British troops left Syria. Syria became a charter member of the United Nations (UN) in 1945.

The Republic

The postwar period was marked by serious political instability. In 1944 a “Greater Syria” movement had been initiated to found a Syrian Arab state that would include Lebanon, Syria, and present-day Jordan and Israel. Many Syrian opponents of the movement feared the absorption of Syria into a larger Arab state and the consequent loss of Syrian national identity. The movement nevertheless gave impetus to Syrian adherence to the Arab League, which was formed primarily to prevent the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Syrian forces participated in the 1948 war between Arab forces and the newly established state of Israel. An armistice was concluded in July of the same year. On March 30, 1949, a military junta led by General Husni al-Zaim, a member of the Kurdish minority, seized power. Essentially a dictatorship and highly unpopular, the new regime was overthrown in August by another military junta, and Zaim was executed. General elections were held in November for a constituent assembly. A third coup d’état, led by Colonel Adib al-Shishakli, a former chief of police and head of security, occurred in December. The constituent assembly promulgated a new constitution in September 1950 and, assuming responsibility as the chamber of deputies, elected the provisional chief of state Hashim al-Atasi, an elderly and respected politician, to the presidency.

Syrian and Israeli frontier forces clashed on numerous occasions in the spring of 1951. The hostilities, which stemmed from Syrian opposition to an Israeli drainage project in the demilitarized zone between the two countries, ceased on May 15, after intercession by the United Nations Security Council. Successive governmental crises during 1951 culminated, on November 29, in another coup d’état engineered by Shishakli. President Atasi resigned shortly thereafter, and Shishakli and his associates formed a government. Shishakli promulgated a new constitution in 1953. He severely restricted civil liberties and ruled the country as a military dictator until March 1954, when he was ousted by another military group. Shishakli’s successors reinstated Atasi as president, reconvened the 1949 chamber of deputies, and restored the constitution of 1950.

After 1954 Syria appeared increasingly anti-Western and pro-Soviet. The government protested vigorously in 1955 against the creation of the Baghdād Pact, a defensive alliance formed in that year by Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom.

In July 1956 the Syrian chamber of deputies formally established a committee to negotiate the terms of a possible federation with Egypt. The attacks on Egypt in October and November 1956 by Israel, the United Kingdom, and France intensified the growing Syrian resentment toward the West.

Syria denounced the Eisenhower Doctrine, promulgated in January 1957 to combat potential Communist aggression in the Middle East. In September, Syria accused Turkey of massing troops on the Syrian-Turkish border with the intent of executing a U.S.-backed attack on Syria. The USSR supported the Syrian charge, and the matter was brought before the UN General Assembly in October. The Syrian complaint was withdrawn, however, by consent of all the parties concerned, before any UN action was taken. Throughout 1957 Syria accepted increasing aid from the USSR. In October, the USSR agreed to provide aid to Syria, over a period of 12 years, for the construction of many large-scale development projects.

Union with Egypt

On February 21, 1958, a plebiscite held in Syria and Egypt gave nearly unanimous approval to the federation of the two countries as the United Arab Republic (UAR), with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt as president. The following month Nasser dissolved all Syrian political parties, including the Communist Party, and dismissed pro-Soviet army officers.

Under a system of land reform introduced in September, individual holdings were limited to 80 hectares (200 acres) of irrigated and 300 hectares (750 acres) of unirrigated land. Separate ministries for Syria and Egypt were abolished on October 7 in favor of central ministries in Cairo. The first distributions of confiscated land occurred in Syria on February 23, 1959. Elections for local councils, held on July 8, resulted in a setback for socialists in Syria. On March 18, 1960, Nasser appointed several Syrians to his cabinet in a move to strengthen his hold on the country. The National Union, the single legal party of the UAR, held its first congress in Cairo during July. A further step toward unification, taken on August 16, 1961, was the establishment of a single UAR cabinet. Meanwhile, a vigorous policy of nationalization, including steamship lines and banking and insurance firms, intensified conservative opposition to the UAR. Army units seized Damascus on September 28 and the following day proclaimed the renewed independence of Syria. Nasser decided not to resist the new regime.

Ba’ath Party Rule

A provisional constitution was approved in a referendum early in December 1961, and a new national government was established. On March 8, 1963, this government was overthrown in a bloodless military coup, and a national council of a revolutionary command assumed control. Major General Amin el-Hafez, a former military attaché in Argentina, became chairman of the national council.

In May 1964 the national council was replaced by a presidency council of three civilian and two military members vested with full executive powers. Tensions within the ruling Baath Party, especially the long-standing hostility between its older civilian members and the extreme leftists among the young military officers, mounted steadily in 1964 and throughout 1965. In February 1966 the radicals seized power, placed several longtime Baathist leaders under arrest, and installed Nur ad-Din al-Atasi, a former deputy prime minister, as head of state.

In July and September 1966 two abortive attempts to overthrow the regime were followed by extensive purges in the army and the government. On November 4, 1966, Syria and Egypt entered into a defense agreement directed against Israel. This move was in part a response to increasing tension on the Syrian-Israeli border. During 1966 and early 1967 the border was repeatedly violated by Syrian-based guerrilla attacks and Israeli reprisals. Border incidents were an important catalyst in the chain of events leading to the outbreak of the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab nations in 1967. During the conflict Israeli forces overran the Syrian positions on the Golan Heights, advanced rapidly, and occupied Al Qunayţirah, only 65 km (40 mi) from Damascus. On June 10 the United Nations cease-fire proposal was accepted, and observers were placed between Israeli and Syrian forces. Charging the United Kingdom and the United States with active support of Israel, Syria broke relations with both countries on June 6.

Syria Under Assad

In November 1970 General Hafez al-Assad seized power. Assad became president in March 1971; he formed a new cabinet in December 1972, giving the Baathists more than half the posts and dividing the rest among the other parties. Like Assad, many of the new members of the government belonged to the Alawite sect of Islam, which comprises about 11 percent of Syria’s population.

During the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, Syrian troops attacked Israel on the Golan Heights, while Egypt struck along the Suez Canal. After early Syrian gains, Israel drove the Syrian forces off the Golan Heights and advanced to within 32 km (20 mi) of Damascus. Syria belatedly agreed to a UN-sponsored cease-fire accepted by the other warring nations, but it refused to discuss prisoner exchanges. After mediation by United States secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, Syria and Israel signed a disengagement agreement in May 1974; the accord provided for a neutral zone, patrolled by UN forces, and for the repatriation of prisoners of war. In June, Syria and the United States resumed diplomatic relations, severed in 1967.

As it became clear in 1975 that Egypt would pursue a bilateral agreement with Israel, Syria forged closer ties with Jordan. The following year, Syria intervened in the Lebanese civil war and subsequently became mired in the continuing conflict. In 1980 Syria signed a 20-year treaty of friendship and cooperation with the USSR. Israel effectively annexed the Golan Heights in 1981 when it claimed legal and political authority in the region. Syrian and Israeli forces clashed the following year when Israel invaded Lebanon.

Domestically, Assad’s regime was shaken by growing civil disturbances. An extremist group called the Muslim Brotherhood was accused of several assassinations. In 1982 government troops suppressed a full-scale rebellion by the brotherhood in and around Ḩamāh, reducing much of the city to rubble. In 1986 the United Kingdom broke diplomatic relations with Syria and the United States imposed sanctions, both accusing Syria of sponsoring international terrorism.

Syria had been considered an occupying force within Lebanon since the mid-1970s, when it sent thousands of troops there. In February 1987 Syria ordered a force of 7,000 into the Muslim sector of Beirut (Bayrūt) in an attempt to restore order between warring factions. In October 1990 a Syrian-led assault crushed resistance in East Beirut, reuniting the Lebanese capital. Although most of the fighting in Lebanon ended in 1990, and Syrian and Lebanese forces signed a friendship treaty in May 1991 calling for mutual cooperation, Syrian forces remained in the country. In June 2001 Syria withdrew its troops from Beirut and the surrounding area, but kept about 15,000 troops stationed in Lebanon and continued to exercise significant control over Lebanese politics.

Syria also has had a long and troubled history with neighboring Iraq. Syria was one of the few Arab nations to support Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Syria sent troops to Saudi Arabia and later joined the anti-Iraq coalition in the Persian Gulf War. Syria’s participation in the multinational coalition helped improve its relations with both the United States and the United Kingdom.

In October 1991 Syria and several other Arab nations entered into U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations with Israel. Syria’s chief concern was ownership of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, but little progress was made, in part because Israel was involved in more immediate negotiations with its longtime enemy the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In September 1993 Israel and the PLO signed a landmark peace accord. Assad expressed serious reservations about the agreement and regarded the secret negotiations that had produced it as having weakened the united Arab position.

Recent Developments

In December 1999 Israeli and Syrian leaders met in Washington, D.C., and agreed to begin another round of talks about the Golan Heights in January 2000. The new talks quickly broke down, and even a summit meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, between President Assad and U.S. president Bill Clinton in March 2000 failed to revive them.

In June 2000 Assad died from complications of heart disease. The Syrian legislature amended the nation’s constitution to allow Assad’s son Bashar al-Assad to succeed him as president. In July Bashar al-Assad was confirmed in office by a national referendum. Assad joined in the worldwide condemnation of the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001 (see September 11 Attacks). Nevertheless, in May 2002 the United States singled out Syria as a threat to global security for its alleged support for terrorist groups.

In early 2005 Syria’s presence in Lebanon came under renewed criticism following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri. Syria was widely accused of being involved in the assassination. A United Nations Security Council resolution mandated Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, and in late April 2005 Syria announced that it had completely withdrawn its forces.