Syria (SY)

Capital

Damascus

Population

18 million

Constitution

Authoritarian dictatorship exhibiting only forms of democratic system

Head of state

President Bashar al-Assad

National Day (Evacuation Day)

April 17th

Syrian Arab Republic's Ambassador to the UK

Position vacant

UK's Special Envoy to Syria

Mr Jonathan Hargreaves

(*BRITISH EMBASSY OPERATIONS SUSPENDED - ALL DIPLOMATIC STAFF WITHDRAWN)

UK's Ambassador to Syria

Ambassador withdrawn - Embassy closed

The Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic, 8 Belgrave Square, London, SW1X 8PH

Syria borders Turkey to its north, Iraq to its east and southeast, Jordan to its south and Israel (part of which is Israeli-occupied) and Lebanon to its southwest. Its capital is Damascus. Syria’s climate is mostly semi-dry desert. There are mountains in its west. Summers are hot and dry, with winters bringing rain and cooler climates. Syria possesses such natural resources as oil and other valuable metals and stones. Almost 76% of the land is agricultural, with 25% being arable. In peacetime, Syria’s population distribution tends to be focused along the Mediterranean coast. 

Population

Before the catastrophe of its its decade-long civil war, Syria was estimated to have a population of 19.4 million Syrians, with an extra 22,000 Israeli settlers in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The population is now estimated at approximately 18 million but that excludes the approximately 5.5 million registered Syrians in neighbouring countries. Currently, Turkey hosts approximately 3.7 million refugees, while there are thought to be at least another in Lebanon.

Syria, like many of its Levantine neighbours, is ethnically diverse. Approximately 50% of the population is Arab, 15% Alawite (technically a Shia ethno-religious minority, although their beliefs can differ significantly from other mainstream branches of Shia Islam), 10% Kurd, 10% Levantine and 15% as other smaller minority groups including Druze, Ismaili, Assyrian and Armenians. 

Government

The Syrian Arab Republic is a presidential republic. There are 14 administrative divisions. The latest constitution became effective in February of 2012. The Syrian legal system is a mixture of civil and sharia law. 

The president is the chief of the state and head of government is the prime minister. Ministerial posts are appointed by the President.  

It adopts the outward appearance of democracy with, for example, presidential elections. However, international scorn has greeted election results. In May 2021, when Bashar al-Assad, supposedly won his 4th successive term with more than 95% of the vote, the results were invariable described by western powers as "illegitimate" and "neither free nor fair". For all intents and purposes, Syria has been run by a family dictatorship for the last half a century.

As for the form of the elections themselves: elections to the office of president are by a popular simple majority vote. Terms last for 7 years and can be renewed once. The president will then appoint all other members of the executive.  

The legislative in Syria is the People’s Assembly. These members are voted by simple majority on 4-year terms. 

History

Modern day Syria has an ancient past, even though the borders of the modern state do not match those of the ancient state. The very name of Syria’s capital is an example of how ancient aspects of the country are. Damascus was referred to in Ancient Egyptian texts in 15 BC, although it is unsure what the original meaning was. 

The modern state of Syria gained independence in 1946. Borders that cut across areas home various ethnic and religious groups started from the beginning a tense and unstable state in which to govern. In the 1970s, power fell to the Alawite clan in Syria in President Hafez al-Assad, whose main policy goals were promoting stability at home  by consolidating his centralised power and winning back Syrian territory Israel occupied after 1967.  

Keeping it in the family

In 2000, Hafez died and his son Bashar al-Assad became president. It's believed that Bashar was never intended to succeed. Bashar's older brother Bassel was being lined up for the succession, but he was killed in a car accident in 1994. Until then Bashar was in London training to be a consultant ophthalmologist. Following his brother's death, Bashar was recalled to Syria as heir apparent and enrolled into the country's military academy. 

There were initial hopes that Bashar would loosen his family's authoritarian rule, but these were quickly dashed, particularly in the early stages of the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. The ensuing government crackdown on protests eventually led to one of the worst civil wars the world has witnessed for decades, resulting so far in the deaths of an estimated 500,000 people and the displacement of at least another 6.5 million Syrians.  

Religion 

The religious breakdown renders approximately 87% of the population as Muslim (including minority groups such as Shia, Alawi and Ismaili), 10% as Christian, 3% as Druze and a very few remaining Jews. The proportions of religious distribution, particularly of minorities, is likely to be skewed as a result of the ongoing conflict. Of the roughly 13% of Syrian Muslims that are Shia, 11% are Alawite, 1% Ismaili and around 0.5% Twelver Imami groups.  

Fear over future religious tolerance

Syria’s cities are particularly known for their religious tolerance, having often been home to various religions for thousands of years. This tolerance has often led to different groups being able to apply their interpretations of family law on themselves, as well as being able to celebrate their own particular holidays.  

However, there are very real fears that the current conflict might end this tradition of religious diversity in Syria, as religious minorities appear to have been disproportionately likely to have fled the violence. Accurate numbers around the religious breakdown in Syria remain hard to find, but many fear a less diverse state after peace is eventually restored to Syria. 

Culture 

Despite current tensions Syrians still pride themselves on their tolerant culture in their region. This has led to a various uniquely Syrian cultural phenomena. While the general cultural norms of Arab and Islamic culture might form a loos backdrop, a trip to any Syrian city will quickly demonstrate the huge complexity and history of the culture.  

Syria contains some of the worlds most important buildings, including the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, which dates back to the days of the very earliest Muslims. As an example of how traditions have merged in Syria for centuries, the mosque used to be a Byzantine church and before that a pre-Islamic temple. 

Levantine styles of cooking dominate in Syria. Rich agricultural lands give the cooks across the country access to a wide variety of ingredients and dishes. Syrian cooking remains highly sought after in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

Economy

The war has been a disaster not only for the people of Syria but also for its economy. GDP per capita in Syria was estimated at $2,900 in 2015. The impact of the conflict that started in 2011 on Syria’s economy is an estimated reduction of 70% in GDP, with both material and social results of the conflict and international sanctions crippling any hope of a stable economy. 

Many Syrians now rely on multilateral international organsiations to assist them in various refugee camps or cities around the globe. Such countries include Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Germany, all of whom have accepted significant numbers of Syrian refugees as a result of the conflict. 

Stable products of the Syrian economy normally include those from its farming sector (wheat and barley), textiles such as cotton and other agricultural goods. Industries include some petroleum, food and drink processing and some mining. Unemployment stands at an estimated 50%.

Key dates

Early 1500s
Ottoman Empire annexes Syria
1918
Emir Feisal leads Arab troops, supported by British forces, into Damascus to end 400 years of Ottoman rule
1919
VERSAILLES CONFERENCE: Emir Feisal supports Arab self-rule
1920
National Congress proclaims Emir Feisal King of Syria. San Remo conference of the same year places Syria-Lebanon under French mandate
1920 - '21
Syria/Lebanon is to be divided into 3 autonomous regions. Lebanon is separate from an area for Alawites on the coast and Druze in the south
1936
France agrees to work towards Syrian independence and dissolves autonomous regions. Lebanon kept as separate state
1946
Syria achieves independence under first president and veteran nationalist Shukri al-Kuwaiti
1947
BAATH PARTY FOUNDED: Michel Aflaq and Salah-al-Din al-Bitar found the Baath party, based on a mixture of Arab Nationalist and socialist ideology
1949 - 1954
A series of coups. Al-Kuwaiti returns to power in 1955
1958
UNION WITH EGYPT: Syria and Egypt form a new country - The United Arab Republic - with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser as head of state
1961
Tired of Egyptian dominance, Syrian army officers stage a coup and dissolve the union with Egypt
1963
Baathist army officers seize power
1966
Salah Jadid leads an internal coup against the civilian Baath leadership. Hafez al Assad, future dictator and father of Bashar al-Assad, becomes defence minister
1967
SIX DAY WAR: Israel defeats Syria and seizes control of the Syrian Golan Heights
1970
HAFEZ AL ASSAD COUP: Hafez al-Assad overthrows president Our al-Din and puts Salah Jadid in prison where he dies 23 years later
1973
YOM KIPPUR WAR: Syria and Egypt attack Israel. Israel stops Syria retaking Golan but suffers significant casualties
1976
Syria intervenes inLebanese Civil War to support its Maronite Christian allies
1980
Muslim groups start uprisings in key cities of Hama, Homs and Aleppo following Iranian Revolution
Feb' 82
Assad brutally surpasses Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama. Tens of thousands of civilians are killed
1982 -'83
Renewed hostilities between Syria and Israel in Lebanon
1990
GULF WAR: Syria joins US-led coalition against Iraq following invasion of Kuwait
Jan' 1994
DEATH OF BASSEL: Hafez al-Assad's son Bassel, who was likely to succeed, is killed in a car accident. Bashar al-Assad recalled to Damascus as heir apparent
2000
President Assad dies and is succeeded by his second son, Bashar
May 2002
Senior US officials include Syria in a list of hostile states that make up an "axis of evil". Damascus is accused of accumulating weapons of mass destruction
2004
President Bashar al-Assad visits Turkey, the first Syrian leader to do so - ending decades of sour relations. Relations deteriorate again after start of civil war in 2011
2005
Finger of blame is pointed at Syria over the assassination of Lebanon's prime minister Rafic Hariri in Beirut
2006
Syria and Iraq restore diplomatic ties after nearly 25 years
2007
Israel carries out an airstrike against a partially-built nuclear reactor at Deir ez-Zor in Syria
2010
US renews sanctions against Syria, accusing it of supporting terrorist groups
March 2011
Syrian security forces shoot dead protestors in the southern city of Deera. This triggers off widespread protests and the country starts to descend into civil war
May 2011
Tanks enter Deera, Homs and suburbs of Damascus
Oct' 2011
The New Syrian National Council announces a common front of internal and exiled activists
Nov' 2011
The Arab League votes to suspend Syria
July 2012
Free Syrian Army assassinates three Syrian security chiefs in Damascus
Dec' 2012
US, UK, France, Turkey and Gulf states formally recognise National Coalition as "legitimate representative" of Syrian people
Sept' 2013
UN weapons inspectors say chemical weapons were used in an attack on Ghouta in Damascus the previous month that killed 300 people but responsibility is not apportioned
Aug' 2013
US President Barack Obama says he's considering taking limited military action against Syria for alleged use of chemical weapons, but eventually decides against it
June 2014
The Islamic State group declares a "caliphate" in territory from Aleppo to Diyala in eastern Iraq
2015
Kurdish forces push IS militants out of the strategically important town of Kobe
May 2015
The Islamic State group takes over the ancient city of Palmyra and demolishes precious artefacts and structures
Sept' 2015
Russia carries out first airstrikes in Syria
March 2016
Supported by Hezbollah and Russian air support, Syrian troops retake Palmyra from IS
Dec' 2016
Assad government announces recapture of Aleppo from rebel fighters
April 2017
The United States launches airstrike against Assad-controlled Shayrat airbase in retaliation for government chemical attack in Khan Shaykun
Oct' 2017
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces says that Al-Raqqah has been cleared of IS militants
May 2018
US, UK and French forces launch air attacks on chemical weapons factories near Damascus and Homs in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack in Douma
June 2019
Backed by Russian airstrikes, Assad forces launch attack on Idlib
Oct' 2019
Turkey launches offensive into Kurdish region of northeastern Syria
March 2020
Skirmish between government forces of Syria and Turkey leaves dozens of Turkish soldiers dead
May 2021
Bashar al-Assad wins 4th term in office with 95 per cent of the vote in a presidential election written off by the West as fraudulent
June - Sept' 2021
Russian airstrikes intensify against cities of Idlib, Aleppo, Hama and Latakia
Sept' 2021
Hezbollah starts its deliveries of Iranian fuel to Lebanon via Syria
Oct' 2021
Turkey calculates it is hosting at least 3.7 million Syrian refugees. The majority are children aged 9 or younger

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