Syria Basic Facts - History

Syria Basic Facts - History

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Population mid-2009 .............................................21,762.900

GDP per capita 2009 (PPP, US$)........... 3,2000
GDP 2008 (Purchasing Power Parity, US$ billions)................ 102.5

Average annual growth 1991-97
Population (%) ....... 2.9
Labor force (%) ....... 4.6

Total Area...................................................................71,498 sq. mi.
Poverty (% of population below national poverty line)...... 26
Urban population (% of total population) ............................... 53
Life expectancy at birth (years).....................................................69
Infant mortality (per 1,000 live births)........................................ 31
Child malnutrition (% of children under 5) ...............................13
Access to safe water (% of population) ..................................... 88
Illiteracy (% of population age 15+) ............................................28


Syria (Arabic: سُورِيَا ‎, romanized: Sūriyā), officially the Syrian Arab Republic (Arabic: ٱلْجُمْهُورِيَّةُ ٱلْعَرَبِيَّةُ ٱلسُّورِيَّةُ ‎, romanized: al-Jumhūrīyah al-ʻArabīyah as-Sūrīyah), is a country in Western Asia, bordering Lebanon to the southwest, the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south, and Israel to the southwest. A country of fertile plains, high mountains, and deserts, Syria is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, including the majority Syrian Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, Assyrians, Armenians, Circassians, [9] Mandaeans, [10] and Greeks. Religious groups include Sunnis, Christians, Alawites, Druze, Isma'ilis, Mandaeans, Shiites, Salafis, and Yazidis. Arabs are the largest ethnic group, and Sunnis are the largest religious group.

Syria is a unitary republic consisting of 14 governorates and is the only country that politically espouses Ba'athism. It is a member of one international organization other than the United Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement it was suspended from the Arab League in November 2011 [11] and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, [12] and self-suspended from the Union for the Mediterranean. [13]

The name "Syria" historically referred to a wider region, broadly synonymous with the Levant, and known in Arabic as al-Sham. The modern state encompasses the sites of several ancient kingdoms and empires, including the Eblan civilization of the 3rd millennium BC. Aleppo and the capital city Damascus are among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. [14] In the Islamic era, Damascus was the seat of the Umayyad Caliphate and a provincial capital of the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt.

The modern Syrian state was established in the mid-20th century after centuries of Ottoman rule, and after a brief period of French mandate. The newly created state represented the largest Arab state to emerge from the formerly Ottoman-ruled Syrian provinces. It gained de jure independence as a parliamentary republic on 24 October 1945, when the Republic of Syria became a founding member of the United Nations, an act which legally ended the former French Mandate, although French troops did not leave the country until April 1946.

The post-independence period was tumultuous, with many military coups and coup attempts shaking the country from 1949 to 1971. In 1958, Syria entered a brief union with Egypt called the United Arab Republic, which was terminated by the 1961 Syrian coup d'état. The republic was renamed as the Arab Republic of Syria in late 1961 after the December 1 constitutional referendum of that year, and was increasingly unstable until the 1963 Ba'athist coup d'état, since which the Ba'ath Party has maintained its power. Syria was under Emergency Law from 1963 to 2011, effectively suspending most constitutional protections for citizens.

Bashar al-Assad has been president since 2000 and was preceded by his father Hafez al-Assad, [15] who was in office from 1971 to 2000. Throughout his rule, Syria and the ruling Ba'ath Party have been condemned and criticized for various human rights abuses, including frequent executions of citizens and political prisoners, and massive censorship. [16] [17] Since March 2011, Syria has been embroiled in a multi-sided civil war, with a number of countries in the region and beyond involved militarily or otherwise. As a result, a number of self-proclaimed political entities have emerged on Syrian territory, including the Syrian opposition, Rojava, Tahrir al-Sham and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Syria was ranked last on the Global Peace Index from 2016 to 2018, [18] making it the most violent country in the world due to the war. The conflict has killed more than 570,000 people, [19] caused 7.6 million internally displaced people (July 2015 UNHCR estimate) and over 5 million refugees (July 2017 registered by UNHCR), [20] making population assessment difficult in recent years.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. The modern-day nation emerged from Sham, an area that historically included Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon. Between 2700 and 2200 B.C.E. , this area was home to the Ebla kingdom. Later, the country's strategic location helped its coastal towns rise to prominence as Phoenician trading posts. It was conquered by the Persians around 500 B.C.E. , and by the Greeks in 333 B.C.E. The Romans took over in 64 B.C.E. , and established a fortress at Palmyra whose remains still stand in the desert. Muslim Arabs conquered Damascus in 635 C.E. Beginning in 1095, Syria was a target of the Crusades, but the Arabs ultimately defeated the Christian invaders. The Turkish Ottoman Empire took control in 1516 and ruled the area for four hundred years. That era came to an end in 1920 with the end of World War I, when the French took control of Syria and Lebanon. The French drew a straight-line border to separate this territory from British-ruled Transjordan. Syria had experienced a brief period of independence from 1918–1920, and was dissatisfied with French rule, which ignored the will of the people and did little for the country as a whole. There was a brief insurrection in 1925 and 1926, which the French put down by bombing Damascus.

Syria held its first parliamentary elections in 1932. All the candidates were hand-picked by the French, but once elected, they declined the constitution France had proposed for the country. Anti-French sentiment grew when France turned over control of the Syrian province of Alexandretta to Turkey. It was exacerbated by the promise of independence in 1941, which was not delivered until five years later. After independence, civilian rule was short-lived, and the early 1950s saw a succession of coups, after which Syria formed the United Arab Republic with Egypt in 1958. This represented an effort to keep the Arab states more powerful than Israel, but it disintegrated in 1961, when Syria came to resent the concentration of power in Egypt. The disbanding was followed by further political instability. The situation was worsened by the Six Day War against Israel in 1967 and the Black September disagreement with Jordan in 1970.

Hafez al-Assad, the leader of a radical wing of the Arab Socialist party, the Baath, seized control in 1971. He cracked down hard on dissent and in 1982 killed thousands of members of the the Muslim Brotherhood opposition organization. However, his tight-reined rule averted the civil war and political anarchy that plagued Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon. In 1992, he won his fourth consecutive bid for election with 99.9 percent of the vote. During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, the country aligned itself with the anti-Iraq coalition, thus winning the approval of the United States and removing itself from the United States' government's list of nations supporting international terrorism. Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000. The younger of his two sons, Bashar, assumed his father's position.

National Identity. Syrians tend to identify primarily with their religious group or sect however, as the majority of the country is Sunni Muslim, this creates a strong feeling of cultural unity. Modern-day Syria is in part the result of geographic lines drawn by the French in 1920, and there is still a strong pan-Arab sympathy that defines national identity beyond the current borders. The current map was also redrawn in 1967, when Israel took the Golan Heights, a previously Syrian territory, and the national identity is based in part on the concept of defending and reclaiming this land.

Ethnic Relations. Syria is ethnically fairly homogeneous (80 percent of the population is Arab). Religious differences are tolerated, and minorities tend to retain distinct ethnic, cultural, and religious identities. The Alawite Muslims (about a half-million people) live in the area of Latakia. The Druze, a smaller group that resides in the mountainous region of Jebel Druze, are known as fierce soldiers. The Ismailis are an even smaller sect, that originated in Asia. The Armenians from Turkey are Christian. The Kurds are Muslim but have a distinct culture and language, for which they have been persecuted throughout the Middle East. The Circassians, who are Muslim, are of Russian origin and generally have fair hair and skin. The nomadic Beduoin lead a lifestyle that keeps them largely separated from the rest of society, herding sheep and moving through the desert, although some have settled in towns and villages. Another group that remains on the outside of society both politically and socially, is the roughly 100,000 Palestinian refugees, who left their homeland in 1948 after the founding of Israel.

A brief history of Syria

I wrote this two years ago, when Syria made big headlines. Who would have thought they’d make even bigger headlines in 2015, with their people fleeing for their lives and adding to what amounts as the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

If you read anything—anything—let it first be my friend Ann’s post, sharing specific things you can do to roll up your sleeves and help, and then this new initiative to get involved. As in, today. With your kids. We can do this. We have to do this.

And then, if you’re curious, you can read this post below from two years ago, because this stuff is the same—it’s a brief history of Syria, and why it’s such a fascinating part of the world. Read, and be informed.

I f you’ve got ears and eyes, then you’ve been hearing and reading about Syria nonstop lately. With good reason—we should focus on this heartbreaking, volatile region.

I knew I wanted to write about this country, but I also knew there was no way on earth I was going to pretend like I understood all the ins and outs of it all. It’s unbelievably complicated, obviously political, and potentially divisive. Not stuff I wanted to get into around here.

But for me, simple living is jettisoning the stuff that doesn’t really matter so that we can focus on the truly important. Keeping up with world events is important.

I love history, so I thought it helpful to dig into the history of this ancient country, perhaps as a backdrop to all the news we’re hearing. So here you are… a brief history of Syria.

The ancient era

Archaeologists believe the original civilization in Syria was one of the most ancient on earth. Seeing as it’s part of the Fertile Crescent, where some of the first people on earth practiced cattle breeding and agriculture, the land is chock-full of neolithic remains.

Syria is home to one of the oldest cities ever excavated—Ebla, believed to exist around 3,000 BCE, is where people spoke one of the oldest known written languages.

This sought-after land was occupied by all sorts of ancient empires—the Egyptians, Hittites, Sumerians, Mitanni, Assyrians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Arameans, Amorites, Persians, and eventually, Greeks with the conquest of Alexander the Great (‘Syria’ means ‘formerly Assyria’ in ancient Greek, and it’s assumed this is when the area was given its name). Several hundred years later, Pompey the Great captured the Greek capital of Antioch (now part of Turkey, but what was once Syria), turning it into a Roman province.

Syria has a vastly diverse beginning.

Syria is also important in early Christian Church history—Paul the Apostle converted on the road to Damascus and was a significant figure at the local church in Antioch, where people were first called Christians.

When the Roman Empire declined, Syria became part of the eastern half, better known as the Byzantine Empire, around 395 CE. Several hundred years later, it was conquered by Muslim Arabs, transferring power to the Islamic Empire.

Damascus was its capital and the empire spread far and wide, making the city prosperous—ancient palaces and mosques still stand from the era. It is believed that Christians lived in Syria peacefully during the early years of the empire, and several held governmental posts.

The middle ages

In 750, the Empire’s capital was moved to Baghdad and the Syrian territory weakened, and eventually, the land was in turmoil between the Hamdanids, Byzantines, and Fatimids, all who wanted to rule the area. The Byzantines eventually won out, but things were still chaotic for hundreds of years. Eventually, Syria was conquered by the Seljuk Turks and then the Ayyubid dynasty of Egypt in 1185.

For the next several centuries, Syria was held by Crusader states, Mongols, Egyptians, Mamluks, and in 1400, Timur Lenk (a Turko-Mongol general from Central Asia) captured Damascus, where many of the people were massacred and the Christian population suffered persecution. (Oddly enough, the artisans were spared and deported to Samarkand.)

Got all this so far?

In 1516, Syria was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, and it remained part until its collapse in 1918. There was peace during most of these centuries. Syrian territory constituted modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Palestinian Authority, Gaza Strip, and parts of Turkey and Iraq.

The 20th century

In 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement from World War I secretly divided the Ottoman Empire into zones, and in 1918, when Arab and British troops captured Damascus and Aleppo, Syria became a League of Nations mandate and moved under French control in 1920.

A large number of Syrians weren’t thrilled with the sudden French Mandate, and in 1925 a revolt broke out, spreading into Lebanon, but was suppressed in 1926. In 1928 elections were held for a constituent assembly, which included a Syrian constitution, but France rejected the idea, leading to more protests.

Eventually, in 1936, France and Syria negotiated a treaty of independence, allowing Syria to maintain independence in theory, even though France held military and economic dominance. But the French never ratified the treaty, and when they themselves were captured in 1940 during World War II, Syria was briefly held by Vichy France (axis-controlled) until British occupied the land in 1941.

Syria was finally recognized as an independent republic in 1944, and the French military eventually left by 1946. It became officially independent on April 17, 1946, but between then and the late 50s, it had 20 different cabinets and four constitutions. Not a very stable government, to say the least.

In 1948 Syria got involved in the Arab-Israeli War out of protest from the establishment of Israel, and once the demilitarized zone under UN supervision was established, future Syrian-Israel negotiations became volatile (and remain heavily so since). Many Syrian Jews left the country.

There were three (three!) military coup d’etats in 1949, leading to a fourth coup in 1954 (the first one is considered the first military overthrow in the post-World War II Arab world).

For most of the 20th century, Syria’s power remained in its military and not so much in its parliament. Because of the Suez Crisis in 1956, Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union, allowing a Communist foothold in the government in exchange for military equipment. This angered neighboring Turkey, but brought Syria closer to Egypt because of their socialist leanings at the time.

Egypt and Syria decided to merge and become the United Arab Republic, but the idea lasted only a few years because of Egypt’s dominance. Syria broke ties and became the Syrian Arab Republic, and most of the 60s were characterized by frequent coups, military revolts, bloody riots, and civil disorders. There were also tons of issues involving the demilitarized zone in Israel and their occupation of Golan Heights, and they leaned closer and closer toward a socialist regime with Soviet blocs as their allies.

How’s it going… still with me?

Eventually, the Minister of Defense, a guy named Hafez al-Assad, seized power in a bloodless coup in 1970, and thus began a new era for 30 years.

The Assad era

So Syria’s history might be confusing so far—but now this is where things get really complicated. Shortly after gaining power, Assad created a new legislature and local councils to govern smaller provinces, consolidated political parties, wrote a new constitution (again), declared Syria a secular socialist state with Islam as the majority religion, and launched a surprise attack on Israel with Egypt.

Shortly after, Syria got involved in Lebanon’s civil war, which basically led to a 30-year Syrian military occupation. Assad had his critics, but open dissent was “repressed.” There was an assassination attempt in 1980, and in 1982 between 10,000 and 25,000 civilians were killed or wounded by artillery fire in Hama in a battle against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Syria joined the US-led coalition against Iraq in 1990, leading to better relations in the West, but when Assad died in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad became his successor at age 34 (parliament quickly changed the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 so that he could take charge). He officially ran for president, but he ran unopposed and earned 97.3% of the vote.

People were initially positive at the start of his regime, and even called this super-short era Damascus Spring, hopeful there would be change in the dictatorial style of leadership from his father. Assad released 600 political prisoners, and Pope John Paul II visited a few months later.

But only one year later, pro-reform movements were suppressed, leading intellectuals were arrested, and in 2002, the U.S. officially accused Syria of acquiring weapons of mass destruction and included them in their list of “axis of evil” countries. Syria was accused of being behind the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister in 2005.

Over the next few years, Internet censorship tightened, and though things were slowly looking up in its relationship with western countries and the EU, all that was set back (again) when Israel led an air strike in northern Syria on what they claimed was a nuclear facility constructed with North Korea’s help.

Photo courtesy Reuters

In 2008, Assad met with French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the new Lebanese president Michel Suleiman, laying down foundations for better diplomacy between the countries, and they even hosted a summit including Turkey and Qatar with the goal of Middle East peace. And in 2009, the US sent a special envoy to negotiate peace talks and posted its first ambassador in five years.

All this progress came to an abrupt end, however, when in 2010, the U.S. renewed economic sanctions against Syria, accusing it of supporting terrorist groups (Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and the like), and a year later, the UN basically said the same thing.

Remember part of the Arab Spring in early 2011, when Egypt protested and successfully changed its governments’ regime? Well, that gave Syrian civilians courage to try and do the same. Unfortunately, though, the Syrian government did not respond peacefully.

That brings us to all the craziness happening in Syria the past two years—and where I’m going to leave off trying to explain things. However, this is a fantastic, easy-to-read article that explains what’s going on right now—I highly recommend reading it after you finish this one.

So… there you have it. A brief history of one of the oldest countries in existence. So many layers of culture and civilizations, and yet a country filled with repeat stories pursuing dominance, control, and power. Learning and writing all this has been a sobering reminder to keep doing what we all need to do daily: pray for peace.

5 Surprising Cultural Facts About Syria

News reports suggest the United States will respond to last week's chemical weapons' attacks in Syria with targeted military strikes.

But despite the looming U.S. involvement and the growing crisis in the region, most Americans know relatively little about the country or its history. From its ancient cities to the current conflict, here are five cultural facts about Syria.

1. The Syrians

About 23 million people live in Syria, and the majority of those people, about 74 percent, are Sunni Muslims. Another 12 percent of the population is made up of Alawites, a sect of Shia Muslims. Despite being a minority, Alawites have dominated the government for decades President Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite. About 10 percent of the population is Christian, and another small percentage is made up of Druze, a mystical religious sect with elements common to several monotheistic religions. [In Photos: Amazing Ruins of the Ancient World]

Whereas most people in Syria speak Arabic, about 9 percent of the population &mdash mostly in the northeast &mdash speak Kurdish.

2. Ancient history

Syria has been a cradle of civilization for at least 10,000 years. It was home to the ancient majestic city of Ebla, which flourished from 1800 B.C. to 1650 B.C. A vast trove of 20,000 cuneiform tablets unearthed in the city provided an unprecedented look at everyday life in Mesopotamia at the time. Since then, it has been part of the major empires of history: At various times, the Egyptians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Persians, Macedonians and Romans ruled the region.

3. Notable places

The biggest cities in the country &mdash Aleppo, in the northwest, and Damascus, in the southwest &mdash are truly ancient. Damascus was first mentioned in an Egyptian document dating to 1500 B.C. Carbon dating from archaeological sites near Tell Ramad, just outside of Damascus, suggests that site has been occupied as far back as 6300 B.C.

Aleppo may be one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world: There is evidence of human inhabitance of the area from about 6000 B.C., and because the city was along the Silk Road, it saw bustling trade for centuries. [Photos: Survival of an Ancient Civilization in Syria]

4. Modern history

For nearly four centuries, Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire. Along with what is now Lebanon, Syria came under French control after the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918, and became an independent country in 1946. Because the area was once one territory, Syria has traditionally tried to exert influence over Lebanon, and from 1976 to 2005, Syrian troops occupied portions of Lebanon, ostensibly to protect Lebanon from outside threats. (Demonstrations in Lebanon successfully removed Syrian presence in the country after the assassination of Lebanon's Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.)

Hafez al-Assad, the current president's father, was in power from 1971 until his death in 2000. The elder Assad violently squelched dissent and killed thousands of people in a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982. The current president Assad assumed his position after his father's death.

5. Current conflict

The civil war was set in motion after President Bashar al-Assad violently suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011. Rebel groups began to organize to oust Assad. However, those groups have increasingly been composed of Islamist factions, making the United States wary of assisting them.

In February 2012, several world leaders condemned the massacre by government forces of 300 people in the city of Homs. The United Nations estimates that about 100,000 people have been killed in fighting so far, with millions displaced by the conflict.

In August of last year, President Barack Obama said, "a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."

What effect is COVID‑19 having on the Syria crisis?

The pandemic has presented challenges to each and every country around the world. For Syria, the magnitude of these challenges may be just beginning to be felt.

In the northwest, the first cases of COVID‑19 were confirmed in July of 2020. Home to more than 4 million people, many of whom have been displaced multiple times, Idlib and northern Aleppo governorates are now facing the catastrophic impacts of the virus. Many families live in squalid makeshift overcrowded camps or sleep out in the open. Water is scarce here, and the health and civilian infrastructures are decimated. According to the World Health Organization, only half of health facilities in this region are still open and operational.

In the northeast, the first cases of COVID‑19 were confirmed in April of 2020, and concerns over a lack of preparedness remain high. Lack of COVID‑19 testing capacity, chronically understocked health facilities and inefficient water services continue to be the daily reality. Like in the northwest, taking measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is especially difficult in the many overcrowded camps and informal settlements across the region.

In government-held areas, as in neighboring countries hosting refugees, Syrians are facing the reality that the threat of COVID‑19, the inability to work and the spiraling economic decline in the region is making their situation harder than ever.

Our teams are currently working to reduce the risk of spread by sharing up-to-date information on COVID‑19 alongside the delivery of basic essentials to people fleeing conflict. In addition to supplying our water and sanitation programming to conflict-affected areas in Northeast Syria, we’re also boosting our messaging about hygiene, COVID‑19, stigmatization that sometimes happens with infection and how families can access local systems.

To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, Mercy Corps shares the latest information with Syrians fleeing conflict.

In Northwest Syria, our team worked quickly to prepare for COVID‑19 outbreaks in camps, running water delivery simulations to ensure the process would run smoothly in the event of a full outbreak.

From Kieren, our Country Director: “Since March [2020], Mercy Corps teams have increased the amount of soap and water we provide to each family, and have delivered additional water tanks to improve safe water storage. We are also distributing COVID‑19 flyers in camps and educating communities on the risks and how to stay safe.

“Too often, though, families tell us that they aren't able to take the necessary steps to protect themselves and their families. In displacement camps or mass shelters such as vacant mosques and schools, with the health infrastructure reduced to rubble around them, the odds are stacked against them.”

Now, as Syria begins receiving its first COVID‑19 vaccines, we must ensure the vaccine reaches the most vulnerable across the country, and that the effort does not interfere with the delivery of other critical lifesaving aid.

10 simple points to help you understand the Syria conflict

SYRIA is messy, violent and almost impossible to understand. This won’t make you an instant expert, but it’ll sure help.

A suicide attack claimed by Islamic State killed more than 40 people in the Kurdish-dominated city of Qamishli in Northern Syria early Wednesday. Kurdish officials said the su.

A suicide attack claimed by Islamic State killed more than 40 people in the Kurdish-dominated city of Qamishli in Northern Syria early Wednesday. Kurdish officials said the suicide bomber drove into a busy checkpoint. Photo: Getty Images

THIS is a complicated war. This is a messy, cruel war where neither side has much regard for civilian casualties.

This war is not black-and-white. You might think it’s the brave rebels versus the evil dictatorial regime, and that’s part of the story. But it’s not all of it. Not by a long way.

Confused about Syria? Us too. But this quick 10-point explainer will help. To help us navigate this tragic conflict, we spoke to two Australians with a unique view on the troubled nation.

We spoke to Dr Rodger Shanahan, former peacekeeper in Syria and non-resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

And we spoke to Father David Smith, a Sydney Anglican priest who this year travelled to Syria on a humanitarian mission. You can read his blog here at

A country smaller than the state of Victoria with almost the exact same population as Australia (22.5 million to our 23 million) which borders Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon. Syria has both deserts and fertile areas and is steeped in history dating back to biblical times.

The Syrian Civil war is a conflict between its long-serving government and those seeking to boot it out of office. The Assad family has held power in Syria since 1971. First it was Hafez al-Assad, then Bashar al-Assad.

Unlike many regime leaders in the middle east middle, The Assad family is not religiously extreme. They are Alawites – a relatively obscure branch of Islam which is not particularly hard-line. So the people have not been protesting against hard-line Islamists, as happened in other countries which participated in the Arab Spring uprisings.

But people are still angry at their government. As Rodger Shanahan points out, what they’re angry about is the failure of long-promised economic and political reforms.

3. The Civil War begins

Rodger Shanahan says the catalyst was the jailing on March 6, 2011, of some children who painted anti-regime graffiti. Some were killed in detention, and this led to public protests which spread around the country – fuelled by the failure of the government to punish the perpetrators.

Another theory says the war started with demonstrations which mirrored those in neighbouring countries, and which soon led to a security crackdown. In April 2011, the Syrian Army fired on demonstrators and the protests became a full-scale armed rebellion.

4. The rebellion grows…

By July 2011, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had formed. As Dr Shanahan explains, the FSA never existed before that. “Local areas formed their own militias with the aim of toppling the government without any co-ordination or centralised command or control,” he says.

“The militias were a combination of local area tribal groups, deserters from the military [who had been conscripted despite holding anti-government beliefs] and disaffected locals.”

Then a combination of Jihadists, some from Syria and some from elsewhere, joined the FSA. Some even came from the faraway Caucasus region – where accused Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev originally hailed from.

So in other words, you had genuine Syrian freedom fighters joined by people with their own Islamist agendas. But because the FSA was underarmed and undermanned, they had little choice but to form a loose coalition with these volatile new kids on the revolutionary block.

5. And pretty soon, bad guys on both sides are killing civilians…

As Father Dave Smith says, “the way it’s been depicted the last couple of years, you get the impression the rebels are Robin Hood and his band of merry men, and that all they want is freedom and justice for all. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Father Dave illustrates his point with a communication he had with a Syrian woman which he published on his blog. The woman’s name is Ghinwa and she wrote by text:

“The situation is very bad now in Latakia province. 7 Alawite villages were massacred. We know about the killing of 136 villagers all killed on sectarian bases. A friend of mind lost 21 member of his relatives.

𠇊ll of my friends who were documenting the name and the events of massacres in Latakia against Alawites are now being threatened to be killed by FSA and Al Nusra terrorists … On TV we are shown something different. It is only a propaganda. They’re trying to say that Alawites are not being killed or displaced. The truth is being hidden by mass media. .. This is sick… My sister now is very ill … I guess a part of her illness is caused by sadness … we are afraid.”

A quick recap. Alawites are the ethnicity of the ruling family. The fact they were allegedly being killed by rebel groups suggests the rebels are not all angels.

6. Civilian casualties

“There are accusations of atrocities on both sides,” Rodger Shanahan confirms. We should believe some of them, absolutely. There’s no accurate confirmation, but it’s a nasty horrible civil war with people on both sides getting killed.

Dr Shanahan says there is evidence that opposition car bombs have killed countless civilians in the name of taking out a government target. But there are equally distressing reports that government soldiers executed civilians. Others, shockingly, were executed for taking a moral stance and failing to follow orders to execute civilians.

Like we said, it’s a bloody mess. Literally. The death toll in the war is now said to be well over 100,000.

7. The president’s wife

Allow us to break up this tale with a story of the president’s wife. Her name is Asma al-Assad and she was raised in Britain by Syrian parents. She’s smart, glamorous and she worked as an investment banker before meeting her future husband in Britain in 2000 – just months before he became president.

In March 2011, the American version of Vogue magazine ran a long, glowing profile of Asma al-Assad. Talk about bad timing. The story was soon removed from Vogue’s website and the journalist who wrote it tried to cover her tracks by penning a separate story elsewhere entitled 𠇏irst Lady of Hell”.

Even as the Civil war rages, the Assad family remains popular with many middle class Syrians, especially urbanised Sunni Muslims, says Dr Rodger Shanahan. “They still prefer him to the opposition,” he says.

The United Nations estimates that more than 1.5 million refugees have now fled Syria. Father David Smith visited several camps across the border in Lebanon – a country whose population of 4.3 million is bulging with the influx of a total of nearly 2 million Palestinian and Syrian refugees.

“The camps I saw were deeply impressive,” Father Dave says. 𠇎very Palestinian family took in two, maybe three Syrian families. These included polygamous families which presented a whole new problem. The wives often lived in separate houses in Syria but now they were not just under the same roof but sleeping on the same floor. The domestic violence and rape problems are enormous. I was deeply impressed with camp and people running it.”

Just who unleashed the chemical weapons attack which killed hundreds of children and other civilians last week – and why? UN weapons inspectors arrived yesterday with a mandate to find that out. And when they do, it will affect what the world does next.

“They have a mandate to say whether a chemical attack occurred but not to apportion blame,” Dr Shanahan cautions. 𠇏irst, they have to establish whether an incident occurred [it is still disputed by some] and at what level the action was authorised. It is plausible that Assad didn’t authorise it but a local commander did.”

The world waits. “You would think the way diplomatic manoeuvrings are going that if there is some kind of military strike it would be quite limited,” Dr Shanahan says. “It would be punitive, not designed to tip the military balance.”

In other words, no Iraq-style invasion or prolonged Western intervention.

And Father Dave’s opinion of what comes next? He doesn’t know. But he’s praying. He speaks of a man he met in Syria who said he’s gone 𠇏rom unemployment to slavery”. That’s his way of saying the revolution has so far achieved a whole bunch of nothing except bloodshed and dislocation.

“I see the faces of all those beautiful people and I pray,” he says.

Top 10 Facts About Living Conditions in Syria

Since the Arab Spring that occurred in March 2011, Syria has been embroiled in a civil war.

In the preceding seven years, the living conditions for the people of Syria have deteriorated significantly and thrown almost 80 percent of the country’s population into poverty.

In the article below, top 10 facts about living conditions in a war-torn country of Syria are presented.

Top 10 Facts About Living Conditions in Syria

  1. The number one threat to the people living in Syria is the high level of violence. In a complex civil war that involves many different participants, civilians have been caught in the crossfire. Children often fare the worst, facing violence, exploitation and recruitment, death and injury. The people of Syria endure bombings, extrajudicial killings, detainment, torture and chemical attacks that have led to the deaths of over 500,000 people. Some improvement has been made, however, by providing more investigative mechanisms like the work of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) to document and help prevent the violence and hold people accountable.
  2. The war has forced more than 6.6 million people to become internally displaced, leaving their homes in order to escape violence. Oftentimes, Syrians take shelter in informal settlements in abandoned buildings with extended family members. UNHCR Shelter already has over 400,000 displaced people and is still working to provide official collective shelters and emergency shelter interventions in order to reduce suffering and decrease displacement.
  3. In Syria, 10.5 million people have insecure access to food or are unable to meet their basic food needs. There are a number of factors that contribute to this, such as the large numbers of displaced people, damaged or detained agriculture land and severely high food prices. The United States alone has provided over 2.7 billion dollars in emergency food assistance to Syria since 2012, which has helped to provide gravely needed aid.
  4. Lack of water has been a major issue throughout the Syrian civil war as 14.6 million people need access to clean water. All sides of the war have held water hostage, but it has left many civilians as collateral damage. Due to damaged infrastructure, there is severely limited running water, forcing Syrians to be almost entirely dependent on foreign aid.
  5. Due to the conflict, Syria’s once priority on education has fallen by the wayside. One in four schools are no longer operational, and over two million children are not in school. However, strides of progress have been made. Five million children are currently attending schools in Syria. Through donors and brave teachers, these children have been able to receive schooling, though more work needs to be done.
  6. The trauma of war is pervasive and can severely impact mental health. In Idlib alone, 90 percent of the population suffers from depression due to their difficult living conditions. For children, being out of school can impact their mental health. In combating this, the No Lost Generation put forward by UNICEF helps 4.2 million children, providing psychosocial support and helping them return to normalcy by getting them back into schools.
  7. The major difficulty in maintaining the physical well-being and health of Syrians is the inability of health workers to access people in need. Over 200 hospitals have been targeted, making Syria one of the most dangerous places in the world for health care workers. More than 11 million people are in need of health assistance. The WHO has managed to deliver 14 million treatments, showing how, despite the danger, many international health workers have not given up.
  8. Discrimination has also played a role in the living conditions in Syria. It is most significant for the ISIS-held areas, where at least 25 men have been murdered after being accused of homosexuality. Women are severely restricted, mostly by their freedom of movement. The religious minority of Yazidi girls have also been tortured or sexually enslaved.
  9. Like many other countries across the world who endure poverty, priorities have to be shifted and culture is lost along the way. ISIS has also specifically targeted six sites of cultural heritage, damaging and endangering many parts of history. This is considered to be a war crime and has led to the organization ALIPH raising millions of dollars to protect these sites.
  10. The Assad regime continues to be one of the main perpetrators of violence and human rights abuses against the Syrian people. Over 12,000 people have been killed while being detained by the government. In coordination with Russia, the Syrian government has also used internationally banned tactics such as cluster munitions, incendiary weapons and chemical weapons. For those living in Syria, the government poses a threat, and the hope for change is an end to the war and the installation of a new democratic government.

The top 10 facts about living conditions in Syria are shown to be some of the harshest in the world. Embroiled in a civil war that has lasted for seven years, millions have been thrown into poverty, face violence and lack access to basic needs required for life.

However, the people of Syria are not alone. International groups have not given up on the people in Syria and continue to offer aid and assistance to all those in need, despite the danger and risk involved.

Because that is what it will take to end the immense human suffering borne out of war- courage and a willingness to never give up.

The Six Biggest Religions Groups In Syria:

6. Twelver Shia Islam

Twelver Shia Islam is the largest branch of Shia Islam in the world, but only accounts for 0.5% of the religious population of Syria. This branch of Shia Islam beliefs in twelve divinely ordained leaders, called the Twelve Imams, who are the spiritual and political successors to the prophet Muhammad (570-632). They believe that the twelfth and final Imam was Muhammad al-Mahdi, is still alive and will stay in hiding in the Major Occultation until he comes back to bring justice to Earth. Twelvers, also called Imams,, are found located around the Shia pilgrimage sites in the capital of Damascus and also in villages in the governorates (provinces) of Aleppo, Idlib and Homs. The Twelvers in Syria have close ties with those in neighboring Lebanon. Despite being a vast minority in Syria they have experienced increased prestige compared to other Shia groups due to Syria's close strategic alliance with Iran due to Iran being a majority Twelver Shia Islam country.

5. Ismaili Shia Islam

Ismaili Shia Islam is the second largest branch of Shia Islam in the world and it accounts for 1% of the religious population of Syria. Shia Ismailis, also called seveners, split off as a separate branch of Shia Islam due to their believe that Musa Ja'far al-Sadiq (702-765), the Sixth Imam, made his oldest son Isma'il ibn Jafar (c. 722-755) the seventh Imam, as opposed to Twelver Shia Islam who believed his youngest son Mūsá al-Kāẓim (c.745-799) was the seventh Imam. Due to this split, Ismaili Shia Islam has only line of Imamat that continues to this day, with Prince Aga Khan IV being the 49th hereditary Imam. Ismailis have two major groups Mustali and Nizari, of which most in Syria are Nizari. The Nizari are most well known in western culture from the Crusades when a mystical society of Nizari formed the Hashashin (Assassins), a group that lasted from around 1090 to 1256 in Syria that harassed and killed the regions political and religious leaders. Most of the wealthier followers of Ismaili Shia Islam currently live in the Al-Salamiyah district in the Hama Governorate, while the poorer ones live in the mountains west of the city of Hama.

4. Druze

Despite only being 3% of the religious population, the Druze are the third biggest Islamic religious group in Syria. The Druze are not considered Muslims by some followers of Islam, but in Syria as well as Lebanon they are legally considered Muslims. The Druze faith incorporates various elements of teachings, philosophies, and religions from a variety of sources like Hamza ibn-'Ali, Plato, Ismailism, Christianity, Gnosticism and more. They do not follow the Five Pillars of Islam and live a life of isolation where no one is allowed to convert out of or into the religion.

Historically, the Druze have blended into other religions to protect themselves but with modern security, they have been able to be more open about their religion. The Druze held political influence in Syria until the ruler of Prime Minister Adib Bin Hassan Al-Shishakli (1909-1964) from 1949 to 1954. During his rule, he forcibly led a policy of integrating the minorities of Syria into the country's national structure and also stigmatized them. The Druze community still holds an important role in the Syrian military to this day. The Druze make up the vast majority of people living in the Jabal al Arab volcanic region located in the As-Suwayda Governorate.

3. Christianity

The Christian community in Syria accounts for 8.9% of the country's population. Syria has had a Christian community since the earliest days of the religion. The large majority of Christians in Syria belong to one of the Eastern groups of Christianity, which include autonomous Orthodox churches, Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome and the independent Assyrian Church of the East. The largest denominations in the country are from these eastern churches, like the Orthodox Church of Antioch, the Melkite Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church. There are also a minority of Western groups of Christianity like Roman Catholics and Protestants that were introduced later on by missionaries. Most Christians in the country live in or around the cities of Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, Hamah, and Latakia.

2. Alawi Shia Islam

Alawi Shia Islam is the second largest religious group in Syria, accounting for 11.5% of the population. The origins of the Alawites go back a follower of the pupil of the eleventh Imam, who was known as Al‐Khaṣībī (?-969), who organized the religion. In 1032 al-Tabarani, pupil and grandson of Al‐Khaṣībī, moved to the city of Latakia and converted the local rural population in the area to the Alawite faith. The Alawites follow the Twelver school of Shia Islam, but are differentiated as an offshoot by having syncretistic elements in their beliefs. They also revere Ali ibn Abi Talib (601-661), the son-in-law and cousin of the prophet Muhammad (570-632).

Most of the Alawite population in Syria resides along the coastal region in northwestern region in the governorates of Latakia and Tartus. For centuries the Alawites were repressed, exploited and most were poor servants or farmers. Starting in the 1940s, shortly after independence, many individual Alawis attained individual power and prestige. This then culminated in 1970 with the Corrective Movement coup d'état led by Hafez al-Assad (1930-2000). Since then the Alawi Shia Assad family has ruled Syria, improving the lives of Alawites and leading to this small religious group being the ruling class of the country. Since the Syrian Civil War started many Alawi men of military age have been killed in the war due to the group's heavy support for the Assad government.

1. Sunni Islam

Sunni Islam is by far the largest religious group in Syria, making up 74% of the population. The split between Sunni and Shia Islam came about due to a disagreement over the choice of the prophet Muhammad's successor and in the centuries since has broadened to include different political, theological and juridical differences. This came about as Sunnis though that Muhammad did not designate a successor, so his father-in-law Abu Bakr (573-634) was elected as the first caliph. The Shia, on the other hand, believed that Muhammad wanted his son-in-law and cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib to succeed him as caliph. Sunnis make up the majority of the population in all but three of the governorates of Syria and set the religious tone and values for most of the country. Since the Assad family took over Syria in 1970 the Sunni have been locked out of the vast majority of high-ranking government positions in the Assad regime. With the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, most of the people in the Syrian Rebels groups and the Salafi jihadist groups who are fighting against the Assad government are Sunnis.

Geography of Syria

Syria. @Fanack

Syria’s coastline measures 183 kilometers. Syria’s land boundaries stretch across 2,253 kilometers. Its borders with Turkey are 822 kilometers, with Iraq 605 kilometers, and with Jordan and Lebanon 375 kilometers. Its border with Israel, which is officially still at war, is only 76 kilometers.

Syria’s surface equals 185,180 square kilometers, including the 1,295 square kilometers of Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The country is seventeen times larger than its neighbor Lebanon, eight times the size of Israel and twice that of Jordan.

But Syria is dwarfed by its neighbors in the north and east: it is only a quarter of Turkey’s size, and it is 2.5 times smaller than Iraq.

Environmental Issues

Unless stated otherwise, information in this chapter is provided by Strategy & National Environment Action Plan and by The State of the Environment and Development in the Mediterranean, 2009)

Syria has many environmental problems. These include deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion, desertification, water pollution from the dumping of raw sewage and wastes from petroleum refining, and inadequate potable water supplies. Water shortages, exacerbated by population growth, industrial expansion, and water pollution, are a significant long-term economic development constraint. Dust storms and sandstorms are natural hazards in desert areas.

Air pollution is extremely high in Syria’s big cities. Average carbon monoxide concentrations vary between 2 and 20 ppm due to the dense traffic (allowable limit specified by World Health Organization: 9 ppm). CO2 emissions amounted to 3 metric tons per capita (World Bank 2009). Furthermore, public transport is often inadequate. For these and other reasons, the decision was made to build a metro. The European Union partly finances the estimated cost of one billion euro (using the European Investment Bank, EIB, and its Facility for Euro-Mediterranean Investment and Partnership, FEMIP), as part of a package to help modernize Syrian cities (urban renewal, urban traffic, and transport, public tourist facilities, wastewater, and solid waste management). The preliminary studies concerning the subway were to be finished by 2009, a tender issued in 2010, and the first line, the ‘Green Line,’ running east-west, finished by 2016. In July 2010, plans for the metro were updated.

The Strategy & National Environmental Action Plan (sponsored by UNDP and World Bank) states: ‘For a long time, Syria was renowned for its very diverse geographic and climatic features, which provided a variety of environments suitable for a wide range of plant and animal species, and great genetic diversity within these. However, due to natural habitat destruction, accompanied by population growth and associated human activities, urban development, and agricultural expansion, many categories of biological and genetic resources are being depleted and endangered.’ Whatever the subject (water resources and quality, air quality, biodiversity, wastes), the report is deeply disheartening. Since it was published (2003), some projects (reforestation, wastewater treatment, sustainable use of resources, protected areas) were initiated, and some progress was made, but finances are a permanent problem.

Syria depends for 43 percent on the Euphrates’ water, which it has to share with Turkey and Iraq. Irrigation water accounts for almost 90 percent of Syria’s water demand – and yet, only a small portion of the arable land is irrigated. The UNEP State of the Environment and Development in the Mediterranean report (2009) sums up the main obstacles to the implementation of water demand management in Syria: lack of coordination between ministries contradictory policies: the assistance policy for farmers to buy modern irrigation systems is not, for example, coordinated with the pricing policy for irrigation water inadequately skilled personnel drinking water wasted due to a lack of public awareness.

Among the positive results is the fact that there are now 24 protected areas, including the Abu Qubays PA (Protected Area) in central north-western Syria (Hama governorate), the Furunluq PA in the north-western coastal region (Latakia governorate), and Jabal Abd al-Aziz PA in the north-east (al-Hasaka governorate).

The forecasts, however, are not very positive, if only because a rise in temperature and a decrease in rainfall is projected, thus increasing the risk of droughts like those Syria experienced in recent years.

Geography and Climate

Syria has a narrow coastal plain that runs along the Mediterranean Sea from north to south. North of Tartus, the mountains plunge directly into the sea. To the east, the Ansariya mountain range borders the coastal plain from north to south. The mountains have an average width of 32 kilometers. They reach their highest point (1,562 meters) east of Latakia. On their eastern flank runs the Ghab Depression, a 64-kilometer long valley where the Orontes River (Nahr al-Asi) flows northward to Turkey and into the Mediterranean Sea.

The Anti-Lebanon Mountains (Jibal Lubnan Al-Sharqiya) mark Syria’s border with Lebanon. The average height of this mountain chain ranges from 1,800 to 2,100 meters. Its highest point is Mount Hermon (Jabal al-Shaykh), at 2,814 meters. The Abu Rujmayn chain prolongs the Ruwaq Mountains that run more or less parallel to the Anti-Lebanon Mountain range, though somewhat to the east. In the extreme south-east, Mount al-Duruz rises to 1,800 meters. The Bishri Mountains stretch north-eastward across the central part of the country.

The rest of the country is desert-like, with mountainous terrains. When there is sufficient rainfall, the Syrian Desert turns into green pasture suitable for grazing. The Hawran Plain in the southwest, between Mount Hermon and the Jordanian frontier, is rock-strewn yet fertile. The only navigable river and main water source are the Euphrates, which flow south-east across the north-eastern part of Syria from its source in the Turkish Taurus Range. Its tributaries are the Nahr al-Balikh and the Nahr al-Khabour. In 1973, an artificial lake (Lake Assad) was created when a dam was erected in the river near al-Thawra it provides water for irrigation purposes and drinking water for the inhabitants of Aleppo.


The coast and the western mountains have a Mediterranean climate there is hardly any rainfall from May to October. In the summer, the average temperature is 32 ºC, but it is cooler in the mountains. The winters are mild, with temperatures around 10 ºC. The inland regions have a more continental climate, with hotter summers and colder winters (Eastern Syria is part of the vast Arab Desert). In the mountains, snow and frost are not uncommon in the winter. Once or twice a year, sand-bearing winds (khamsini) raise a wall of dust to 1,500 meters high.

Biodiversity and Natural Environment

Syria’s vegetation can hardly be called rich, as its soil is extremely arid. The only fertile soils are to be found along the rivers’ banks and – astonishingly enough – in the rock-strewn south-western plain called Hawran. According to the Ministry for the Environment, 45 percent of the lands consist of pastures, 32 percent of fertile lands, 20 percent of arid lands, and only 3 percent of forests (compared to 32 percent at the beginning of the 20th century).

State of the environment

Syria’s environment is in a dire state: deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion, desertification, lack of (drinking) water, water pollution from raw sewage, and industrial waste (like petroleum refining waste) are just a few of the problems. The SNEAP report states: ‘For a long time, Syria was renowned for its very diverse geographic and climatic features, which provided a variety of environments suitable for a wide range of plant and animal species, and great genetic diversity within these. However, due to natural habitat destruction, accompanied by population growth and associated human activities, urban development, and agricultural expansion, many categories of biological and genetic resources are being depleted and endangered.’

Reports are disconcerting regarding water resources and quality, air quality, biodiversity, and waste. Since 2003, some projects (reforestation, wastewater treatment, sustainable use of resources, protected areas) have been initiated. However, little progress has been made. Finances are a permanent problem. From 2003, environmental issues have been dealt with by officials of the Ministry of Local Administration. In April 2009, a new Ministry of Environment was established. But the work to protect the environment conflicts with the interests of the industrial sector.

One of the positive results is that there are now three protected areas: the Abu Qubays Protected Area in central north-western Syria (Hama Governorate), the Farunluq Protected Area in the north-western coastal region (Latakia Governorate), and Jabal (Mount) Abd al-Aziz Protected Area in the north-east (al-Hasaka Governorate).

Yew, lime, and fir trees grow in what is left of the forests on the mountain slopes. Scrubs and scrubby underbrush cover many slopes. Trees do not grow on the steppe, except for some sparsely distributed hawthorns. In early spring, a variety of (flowering) plants cover the land. From June, however, the weather is too dry for plants to survive.


There are not that many wild animals left. Some wolves, hyenas (endangered species), foxes, badgers, wild boar, and jackals still live in remote areas. There are also deer (endangered species), bears, squirrels, gazelles, and jerboas (nocturnal rodents). Birds are relatively rare. Syria is on the route of migrating birds. Still, according to the SNEAP report, ‘as a consequence of natural habitat destruction, due to the population growth and associated human activities, urban development and agricultural expansion, many categories of biological and genetic resources are being depleted and endangered.’ Many animals – including the camel and the wild goat – have become endangered species.


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