U.S. Department of State 
Background Notes:  Syria, October 1995 
Bureau of Public Affairs 
 
 
October 1995 
Official Name:  Syrian Arab Republic 
 
PROFILE 
 
Geography 
 
Area:  185,170 sq. km. (71,504 sq. mi.) (including 1,295 sq. km. of 
Israeli-occupied territory); about the size of North Dakota.  
Cities:  Capital--Damascus (pop. 4 million).  Other cities--Aleppo (1.5 
million), Homs (400,000).   
Terrain:  Narrow coastal plain with a double mountain belt in the west; 
large, semiarid and desert plateau to the east.    
Climate:  Mostly desert; hot, dry sunny summers (June to August) and 
mild, rainy winters (December to February) along coast.  
 
People 
 
Nationality:  Noun and adjective--Syrian(s).   
Population (1993):  14.3 million.   
Growth rate (1993):  3.8%.   
Major ethnic groups:  Arabs (90%), Kurds (9%), Armenians, Circassians, 
Turkomans.   
Religions:  Sunni Muslims (74%), Alawis (12%), Christians (10%), Druze 
(3%), and small numbers of other Muslim sects, Jews, and Yazidis.   
Languages:  Arabic (official), English and French (widely understood), 
Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, Circassian.   
Education:  Years compulsory--primary, 6 yrs.  Attendance--94%.  
Literacy--78% male, 51% female. 
Health:  Infant mortality rate--44/1,000 (1993).  Life expectancy--65 
yrs. male, 67 yrs. female (1993).   
Work force (3.7 million, 1993 est.):  Services (including government)--
36%.  Agriculture--32%.  Industry and commerce--32%.  
 
Government 
 
Type:  Republic, under Arab Socialist Ba'ath party regimes since March 
1963.   
Independence:  April 17, 1946.  
Constitution:  March 12, 1973. 
Branches:  Executive--president, three vice presidents, prime minister, 
three deputy prime ministers, Council of Ministers (cabinet).  
Legislative--unicameral People's Council.  Judicial--Supreme 
Constitutional Court, High Judicial Council, Court of Cassation, State 
Security Courts.   
Administrative subdivisions:  13 provinces and city of Damascus 
(administered as a separate unit).  
Political parties:  Arab Socialist Resurrection (Ba'ath) Party, Syrian 
Arab Socialist Party, Arab Socialist Union, Syrian Communist Party, Arab 
Socialist Unionist Movement, Democratic Socialist Union Party.   
Suffrage:  Universal at 18. 
 
Economy (1993 est.) 
 
GDP:  $10 billion.   
Real growth rate:  8%.   
Per capita GDP:  $710. 
Natural resources:  Crude oil and natural gas, phosphates, asphalt, rock 
salt, marble, gypsum. 
Agriculture (19% of GDP):  Products--cotton, wheat, barley, sugar beets, 
fruits and vegetables.  Arable land--28%. 
Industry (56% of GDP):  Types--mining, manufacturing (textiles, food 
processing), construction, petroleum. 
Trade:  Exports--$3.4 billion:  petroleum, textiles, phosphates, fruits 
and vegetables, cotton.  Major markets--Newly Independent States, 
Eastern Europe, EU, Arab countries.  Imports--$4.1 billion:  foodstuffs, 
metal and metal products, machinery, textiles, petroleum.  Major 
suppliers--France, U.S., Germany, Turkey, Italy, Japan.  
Official exchange rate:  Official--11.20 Syrian Pounds (S.P.) =U.S.$1. 
   
PEOPLE 
  
Ethnic Syrians are of Semitic stock.  Syria's population is 90% Muslim--
74% Sunni and 16% other Muslim groups including the Alawi, Shia, and 
Druze--and 10% Christian.  There is also a small Syrian Jewish 
community. 
 
Arabic is the official, and most widely spoken, language.  
 
Arabs, including some 300,000 Palestinian refugees, make up 90% of the 
population.  Many educated Syrians also speak English or French, but 
English is the more widely understood.  The Kurds, many of whom speak 
Kurdish, make up 9% of the population and live mostly in the north-east 
corner of Syria, though sizable Kurdish communities live in most major 
Syrian cities as well.  Armenian and Turkic are spoken among the small 
Armenian and Turkoman populations.    
 
Most people live in the Euphrates River valley and along the coastal 
plain, a fertile strip between the coastal mountains and the desert.  
Overall population density is about 140/sq. mi. 
 
Education is free and compulsory from ages 6 to 11.  Schooling consists 
of six years of primary education followed by a three-year general or 
vocational training period and a three-year academic or vocational 
program.  The second three-year period of academic training is required 
for university admission.  Total enrollment at post-secondary schools is 
over 150,000.  The literacy rate of Syrians aged 15 and older is 78% for 
males and 51% for females.   
 
Ancient Syria's cultural and artistic achievements and contributions are 
many.  Archaeologists have discovered extensive writings and evidence of 
a brilliant culture rivaling those of Mesopotamia and Egypt in and 
around the ancient city of Ebla.  Later Syrian scholars and artists 
contributed to Hellenistic and Roman thought and culture.  Zeno of Sidon 
founded the Epicurean school; Cicero was a pupil of Antiochus of Ascalon 
at Athens; and the writings of Posidonius of Apamea influenced Livy and 
Plutarch. 
 
Syrians have contributed to Arabic literature and music and have a proud 
tradition of oral and written poetry.  Although declining, the world 
famous handicraft industry still employs thousands.  
 
HISTORY  
 
Archaeologists have demonstrated that Syria was the center of one of the 
most ancient civilizations on earth.  Around the excavated city of Ebla 
in northern Syria, discovered in 1975, a great Semitic empire spread 
from the Red Sea north to Turkey and east to Mesopotamia from 2500 to 
2400 B.C.  The city of Ebla alone during that time had a population 
estimated at 260,000. Scholars believe the language of Ebla to be the 
oldest Semitic language. 
 
Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, 
Arameans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Nabataeans, 
Byzantines, and, in part, Crusaders before finally coming under the 
control of the Ottoman Turks.  Syria is significant in the history of 
Christianity; Paul was converted on the road to Damascus and established 
the first organized Christian Church at Antioch in ancient Syria, from 
which he left on many of his missionary journeys.   
 
Damascus, settled about 2500 B.C., is one of the oldest continuously 
inhabited cities in the world.  It came under Muslim rule in 636 A.D.  
Immediately thereafter, the city's power and prestige reached its peak, 
and it became the capital of the Omayyad Empire, which extended from 
Spain to India from 661 to 750 A.D., when the Abbasid caliphate was 
established at Baghdad, Iraq.   
 
Damascus became a provincial capital of the Mameluke Empire around 1260.  
It was largely destroyed in 1400 by Tamerlane, the Mongol conqueror, who 
removed many of its craftsmen to Samarkand.  Rebuilt, it continued to 
serve as a capital until 1516.  In 1517, it fell under Ottoman rule.  
 
The Ottomans remained for the next 400 years, except for a brief 
occupation by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt from 1832 to 1840.  
 
French Occupation 
  
In 1920, an independent Arab Kingdom of Syria was established under King 
Faysal of the Hashemite family, who later became King of Iraq.  However, 
his rule over Syria ended after only a few months, following the clash 
between his Syrian Arab forces and regular French forces at the battle 
of Maysalun.  French troops occupied Syria later that year after the 
League of Nations put Syria under French mandate. 
 
With the fall of France in 1940, Syria came under the control of the 
Vichy Government until the British and Free French occupied the country 
in July 1941.  Continuing pressure from Syrian nationalist groups forced 
the French to evacuate their troops in April 1946, leaving the country 
in the hands of a republican government that had been formed during the 
mandate.  
 
Independence to 1970 
  
Although rapid economic development followed the declaration of 
independence of April 17, 1946, Syrian politics from independence 
through the late 1960s was marked by upheaval.  A series of military 
coups, begun in 1949, undermined civilian rule and led to army colonel 
Adib Shishakli's seizure of power in 1951.  After the overthrow of 
President Shishakli in a 1954 coup, continued political maneuvering 
supported by competing factions in the military eventually brought Arab 
nationalist and socialist elements to power. 
 
Syria's political instability during the years after the 1954 coup, the 
parallelism of Syrian and Egyptian policies, and the appeal of Egyptian 
President Gamal Abdel Nasser's leadership in the wake of the 1956 Suez 
crisis created support in Syria for union with Egypt.  On February 1, 
1958, the two countries merged to create the United Arab Republic, and 
all Syrian political parties ceased overt activities.  
 
The union was not a success, however. Following a military coup on 
September 28, 1961, Syria seceded, reestablishing itself as the Syrian 
Arab Republic.  Instability characterized the next 18 months, with 
various coups culminating on March 8, 1963, in the installation by 
leftist Syrian Army officers of the National Council of the 
Revolutionary Command (NCRC), a group of military and civilian officials 
who assumed control of all executive and legislative authority.  The 
takeover was engineered by members of the Arab Socialist Resurrection 
Party (Ba'ath Party) which had been active in Syria and other Arab 
countries since the late 1940s.  The new cabinet was dominated by Ba'ath 
members. 
 
 The Ba'ath takeover in Syria followed a Ba'ath coup in Iraq the 
previous month.  The new Syrian Government explored the possibility of 
federation with Egypt and Ba'ath-controlled Iraq.  An agreement was 
concluded in Cairo on April 17, 1963, for a referendum on unity to be 
held in September 1963.  However, serious disagreements among the 
parties soon developed, and the tripartite federation failed to 
materialize.  Thereafter, the Ba'ath regimes in Syria and Iraq began to 
work for bilateral unity.  These plans foundered in November 1963, when 
the Ba'ath regime in Iraq was overthrown. 
 
In May 1964, President Amin Hafiz of the NCRC promulgated a provisional 
constitution providing for a National Council of the Revolution (NCR), 
an appointed legislature composed of representatives of mass 
organizations (labor, peasant, and professional unions), a presidential 
council (in which executive power was vested), and a cabinet. 
 
 On February 23, 1966, a group of army officers carried out a 
successful, intra-party coup, imprisoned President Hafiz, dissolved the 
cabinet and the NCR, abrogated the provisional constitution, and 
designated a regionalist, civilian Ba'ath Government.  The coup leaders 
described it as a "rectification" of Ba'ath Party principles. 
 
The defeat of the Syrians and Egyptians in the June 1967 war with Israel 
weakened the radical socialist regime established by the 1966 coup.  
Conflict developed between a moderate military wing and a more extremist 
civilian wing of the Ba'ath party. The 1970 retreat of Syrian forces 
sent to aid the PLO during the "Black September" hostilities with Jordan 
reflected this political disagreement within the ruling Ba'ath 
leadership.  On November 13, 1970, Minister of Defense Hafiz al-Asad 
effected a bloodless military coup, ousting the civilian party 
leadership and assuming the role of Prime Minister.  
 
GOVERNMENT  
 
Upon assuming power, Hafiz al-Asad moved quickly to create an 
organizational infrastructure for his government and to consolidate 
control.  The Provisional Regional Command of Asad's Arab Ba'ath 
Socialist Party nominated a 173-member legislature, the People's 
Council, in which the Ba'ath Party took 87 seats.  The remaining seats 
were divided among "popular organizations" and other minor parties.  In 
March 1971, the party held its regional congress and elected a new 21-
member Regional Command headed by Asad. 
 
In the same month, a national referendum was held to confirm Asad as 
President for a seven-year term.  In March 1972, to broaden the base of 
his government, Asad formed the National Progressive Front, a coalition 
of parties led by the Ba'ath Party, and elections were held to establish 
local councils in each of Syria's 14 governorates.  In March 1973, a new 
Syrian constitution went into effect followed shortly thereafter by 
parliamentary elections for the People's Council, the first such 
elections since 1962. 
 
The Syrian constitution vests the Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party with 
leadership functions in the state and society and provides broad powers 
to the President.  The president, approved by referendum for a seven-
year term, is also secretary general of the Ba'ath Party and leader of 
the National Progressive Front.  The president has the right to appoint 
ministers, to declare war and states of emergency, to issue laws (which, 
except in the case of emergency, require ratification by the People's 
Council), to declare amnesty, to amend the constitution and to appoint 
civil servants and military personnel. 
 
Along with the National Progressive Front, the president decides issues 
of war and peace and approves the state's five-year economic plans.  The 
National Progressive Front also acts as a forum in which economic 
policies are debated and the country's political orientation is 
determined.  However, because of Ba'ath Party dominance, the National 
Progressive Front has traditionally exercised little independent power. 
 
The Syrian constitution of 1973 requires that the president be Muslim 
but does not make Islam the state religion.  Islamic jurisprudence, 
however, is required to be the main source of legislation.  The judicial 
system in Syria is an amalgam of Ottoman, French and Islamic laws, with 
three levels of courts:  courts of first instance, courts of appeals and 
the Constitutional Court, the highest tribunal.  In addition, religious 
courts handle questions of personal and family law. 
 
The Ba'ath Party emphasizes socialism and secular Arabism.  Although 
Ba'ath Party doctrine seeks to build national rather than ethnic 
identity, ethnic, religious and regional allegiances remain important in 
Syria. 
 
Members of President Asad's own sect, the Alawis, hold most of the 
important military and security positions.  In recent years there has 
been a gradual decline in the party's preeminence, often in favor of the 
leadership of the broader National Progressive Front.  The party is also 
now dominated by the military, which consumes a large share of Syria's 
economic resources.     
 
Syria is divided administratively into 14 provinces, one of which is 
Damascus.  Each province is headed by a governor, whose appointment is 
proposed by the minister of the interior, approved by the cabinet and 
announced by executive decree.  The governor is assisted by an elected 
provincial council.  
 
National Security 
 
President Asad is commander-in-chief of the Syrian armed forces, 
comprising some 400,000 troops and a substantial number of reservists.  
Males serve 30 months in the military upon reaching the age of 18.  
About 30,000 Syrian soldiers are currently deployed in Lebanon.  
 
The break-up of the Soviet Union, long the principal source of training, 
materiel, and credit for the Syrian forces, has forced Syria to find 
other military suppliers.  Syria has in recent years purchased tanks 
from Slovakia and Russia, howitzers from Bulgaria, and SCUD missiles 
from North Korea.  Syria received significant financial aid from Gulf 
Arab states as a result of its participation in Gulf war, with a sizable 
portion of these funds earmarked for military spending.  Besides 
sustaining its conventional forces, Syria has sought to improve its 
unconventional weapons capability.  While expanding its missile force, 
Syria continues to develop its chemical weapons capability. 
 
Principal Government Officials 
 
President--Hafiz al-Asad  
Vice President for Foreign Affairs--'Abd al-Halim ibn Sa'id Khaddam 
Vice President for Security Affairs--Rif'at al-Asad  
Vice President for Educational and Cultural Affairs--Muhammad Zuhayr 
Mashariqa 
Prime Minister--Mahmud Zu'bi  
Foreign Affairs--Farouk al-Shara'  
Ambassador to the United States--Walid al-Moualem  
Ambassador to the United Nations--Vacant 
 
Syria maintains an embassy in the United States at 2215 Wyoming Avenue, 
NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel.:  202-232-6313, fax:  202-234-9548).  
Consular section hours are 10-2, Monday-Friday.  Syria also has an 
honorary consul at 5615 Richmond Ave., Suite 235, Houston, TX 77057  
(tel. 713-781-8860).  
 
POLITICAL CONDITIONS 
  
Syria is ruled by an authoritarian regime which exhibits the forms of a 
democratic system but in which President Asad wields almost absolute 
authority.  His government has held power longer than any other since 
independence.  In March 1992, Asad began his fourth seven-year term.  
His survival is due partly to a strong desire for political stability as 
well as to his government's success in giving groups such as religious 
minorities and peasant farmers a stake in society. 
 
The expansion of the government bureaucracy has created a large class 
which owes its position to Asad, whose strength is due also to the 
army's continued loyalty and the effectiveness of Syria's large internal 
security apparatus, both comprised largely of members of Asad's own 
Alawi sect.  The several main branches of the security services operate 
independently of each other and outside of the legal system.  Each 
continues to be responsible for human rights violations.   
 
Key decisions regarding foreign policy, national security, and the 
economy are made by President Asad, with counsel from his principal 
advisors.  The parliament, in which the Ba'ath Party is guaranteed a 
majority, is elected every four years but has no independent authority.  
It cannot initiate laws; it may only react to initiatives by the 
executive.  
 
All three branches of government are guided by the views of the Ba'ath 
party, whose primacy in state institutions is assured by the 
constitution.  The Ba'ath platform is proclaimed succinctly in the 
party's slogan:  "Unity, freedom, and socialism."  The party is both 
socialist--advocating state ownership of the means of industrial 
production and the redistribution of agricultural land--and 
revolutionary--dedicated to carrying a socialist revolution to every 
part of the Arab world.   Founded by Michel 'Aflaq, a Syrian Christian, 
and Salah al-Din Al-Bitar, a Syrian Sunni, the Ba'ath Party embraces 
secularism and has attracted supporters of all faiths in many Arab 
countries, especially Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon.  Since August 1990, 
however, the party has tended to de-emphasize socialism and to stress 
pan-Arab unity. 
 
Syria has been under a state of emergency since 1963.  Syrian 
Governments have justified martial law by the state of war which 
continues to exist with Israel and by continuing threats posed by 
terrorist groups (radicals, Iraqi and Lebanese).  The current government 
has suppressed all challenges to its authority.  Commercial and urban 
elements, whose power and status have been eroded by the Ba'ath Party 
and its policies, constitute part of the opposition.  The most 
significant opposition, however, has come from fundamentalist Sunni 
Muslims, who reject the basic values of the secular Ba'ath program and 
object to rule by the Alawis, whom they consider heretical.  From the 
late 1970s until its suppression in 1982, the arch-conservative Muslim 
Brotherhood posed an ongoing armed challenge to the regime.  In response 
to an attempted uprising by the brotherhood in February 1982, the 
government crushed the fundamentalist opposition centered in the city of 
Hama, leveling parts of the city with artillery fire and causing many 
thousands of dead and wounded.  Since then, public manifestations of 
anti-regime activity have been very limited. 
 
In August 1994 parliamentary elections, the National Progressive Front 
won 167 of the 250 seats in the People's Council; most of those 167 
seats went to Ba'ath Party members. Independents won the remaining 83 
seats.  
 
In December 1991, President Asad won a fourth seven-year term as 
president in a popular referendum on his candidacy.  According to 
results announced by the Syrian Government, President Asad received a 
99% affirmative vote with a reputed 99% of the eligible electorate 
voting. 
 
ECONOMY  
 
Syria is a middle-income developing country with a diversified economy 
based on agriculture, industry and an expanding energy sector.  During 
the 1960s, citing its state socialist ideology, the government 
nationalized most major enterprises and adopted economic policies 
designed to address regional and class disparities. Despite the positive 
growth rates of the past few years, this legacy of state intervention 
and price, trade, and foreign exchange controls still hampers economic 
growth.  Despite a number of significant reforms and ambitious 
development projects of the early 1990s, Syria's economy still is slowed 
by large numbers of poorly performing public sector firms, low 
investment levels, and relatively low industrial and agricultural 
productivity. 
 
 Syria's support for Iran during the Iran-Iraq War isolated it from its 
Arab neighbors in the 1980s.  This isolation, combined with the drop in 
oil prices, caused a fall in real growth during the 1980s from 10% to an 
average of 2.5% per year--less than the population growth rate of 3.8%.  
Living standards for most income groups in Syria declined during the 
decade.  A severe drought in 1989 compounded economic problems, forcing 
use of scarce foreign exchange reserves to import extraordinary amounts 
of wheat, flour and other foodstuffs.   
 
Syria's participation in the multinational coalition against Iraq in the 
1990-91 Gulf war ended the years of isolation, however, and gave it 
access to substantial European, Japanese, and Gulf financial resources 
(estimated at $500 million annually from 1990-92, with another $2 
billion promised, but not yet delivered by Gulf states in accordance 
with the Damascus Declaration of March 1991).  In addition, Syria began 
to look to new markets as economic ties with Moscow and Central Europe 
began to loosen. 
 
Despite a declining manufacturing sector, by 1992, the effects of 
foreign aid, the new investment law of 1991, increased petroleum 
production, and exceptionally good harvests combined to boost GDP growth 
and enable the government to initiate a number of projects to 
rehabilitate the country's deteriorating infrastructure and public 
sector enterprises.  Current plans, many of which still lack secured 
financing, include upgrades of Syria's antiquated phone system and 
severely underpowered electricity grid, as well as steel mill, cement, 
and fertilizer plant construction. 
 
Despite the improvements of 1989-92, Syria's economy faces serious 
challenges.  With almost 60% of its population under the age of 20, and 
a growth rate (3.8%) among the world's highest, higher unemployment 
rates seem inevitable.  Oil production likely will level off over the 
next decade, and financial aid flows from the Gulf are slowing.  Syrian 
economic reforms thus far have been incremental and gradual, with large-
scale privatization not even on the distant horizon. 
 
Commerce has always been important to the Syrian economy, which 
benefited from the country's location along major east-west trade 
routes.  Syrian cities boast both traditional industries such as weaving 
and dried-fruit packing and modern heavy industry.   
 
The bulk of Syrian imports have been raw materials essential for 
industry and agriculture, advanced oil-field equipment, and heavy 
machinery for the infrastructure construction.  Major exports include 
crude oil, refined products, raw cotton, cotton knits, fruits and 
vegetables.  Aside from commitments of foreign aid, earnings from oil 
exports are one of the government's most important sources of foreign 
exchange. 
 
Of Syria's 72,000 square miles, roughly one-third is arable, with 80% of 
cultivated areas dependent on rainfall for water. Since 1989, the 
agriculture sector has recovered from years of government 
inattentiveness and drought.  Most farms are privately owned, but 
marketing and transportation are controlled by the government.  
 
The government has redirected its economic development priorities from 
industrial expansion into the agricultural sectors in order to achieve 
food self-sufficiency, enhance export earnings, and stem rural 
migration.  Thanks to sustained capital investment, infrastructure 
development, subsidies of inputs, and price supports, Syria has gone 
from a net importer of many agricultural products to an exporter of 
cotton, fruits, vegetables, and other foodstuffs.  One of the prime 
reasons for this turnaround has been the government's investment in huge 
irrigation systems in northern and northeastern Syria, part of a plan to 
increase irrigated farmland by 38% over the next decade. 
 
Recent dam construction in Turkey has reduced the flow of the Euphrates 
to Syria and Iraq.  This has limited Syria's hydroelectric power 
generating capacity and caused greater domestic dependence on oil, 
Syria's main foreign exchange earner. 
 
Adequate flow of the Euphrates is crucial to Syrian agriculture and 
power supply and is expected to be assured in a formal agreement with 
Turkey.  Nonetheless, Syria will need to adopt a more comprehensive 
conservation program to ensure adequate water supply over the long term.  
 
Syria has produced heavy grade oil from fields located in the northeast 
since the late 1960s.  In the early 1980s, a light-grade low-sulphur oil 
was discovered near Dayr az Zawr in eastern Syria.  This discovery 
relieved Syria of the need to import light oil to mix with domestic 
heavy crude in refineries. 
 
Recently, Syrian oil production has been about 580,000 barrels/day, and 
reserves are estimated at 1.7 billion barrels).  Syria exports about 
300,000 b/d, which brings in approximately $3 billion annually and makes 
up 80% of total foreign exchange earnings. 
 
Although its oil reserves are small compared to those of many other Arab 
states, Syria's petroleum industry in 1989 helped the country achieve 
its first trade surplus in over a decade, and has accounted for almost 
three-quarters of the country's export income.  Government plans call 
for major investment to exploit recently discovered natural gas reserves 
to maximize export revenues by freeing up oil from domestic consumption. 
 
Ad hoc economic liberalization has provided a boost to Syria's small but 
dynamic private sector.  In 1990, the government established an official 
parallel exchange rate, (neighboring country rate, or NCR) to provide 
incentives for remittances and exports through official channels.  This 
action improved the supply of basic commodities and contained inflation 
by removing risk premiums on smuggled commodities.  
 
Over time, the government has increased the number of transactions to 
which the more favorable neighboring country rate applies.  Nonetheless, 
government and certain public sector transactions are still conducted at 
the official rate of 11.2 Syrian pounds to the U.S. dollar, and 
exchange-rate unification remains an elusive goal.   
 
Although private sector firms have not had access to official foreign 
exchange since 1984, the government's Investment Law #10 of 1991 permits 
retention of foreign exchange earned from exports in order to finance 
certain imports of raw materials.  The government retains a monopoly on 
"strategic" imports, such as wheat and flour, but it has expanded the 
list of unrestricted imports.  This law also grants qualifying investors 
tax holidays and duty-free privileges for the import of capital goods 
and inputs, permits some foreign exchange transactions at the favorable 
neighboring country exchange rate, and encourages joint public/private 
sector ventures in which the government holds a passive 25% interest.  
Since passage of this law, over 400 new companies have been formed, with 
approximately $1.8 billion in new investments.  While these reforms have 
attracted offshore savings from Syrian expatriates, Western and Arab 
investors are waiting for additional economic liberalization, including 
private banking facilities, a unified exchange rate, and development of 
a stock market. 
 
Given the poor development of its own capital markets and Syria's lack 
of access to international money and capital markets, monetary policy 
remains captive to the need to cover the fiscal deficit.  Interest rates 
are fixed by law, and most rates have not changed in the last 20 years.  
Basic foodstuffs continue to be heavily subsidized, and social services 
are provided for nominal charges. 
 
Through two decades of heavy military spending and expansion of the 
public sector, Syria accumulated an external debt (to the former Soviet 
Union, Iran, and the World Bank among others) conservatively estimated 
at $16 billion.  Syria manages its debt by indefinite deferment--it is 
badly in arrears on payments to the World Bank and has suspended 
clearinghouse arrangements to draw down debt with its largest creditor, 
Russia.  Any programmed multilateral debt rescheduling, which usually 
depends on a structural adjustment program with the IMF, seems unlikely 
in the near future.  
 
FOREIGN RELATIONS 
 
Ensuring national security, increasing influence among its Arab 
neighbors, and achieving a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement 
which includes the return of the Golan Heights are the primary goals of 
President Asad's foreign policy.  Syria's participation in the U.S.-led 
multinational coalition aligned against Saddam Hussein marked a dramatic 
watershed in Syria's relations both with other Arab states and with the 
West.  Syria participated in the multilateral Middle East Peace 
Conference in Madrid in October 1991. 
 
While Syria's involvement with the multinational coalition during the 
Gulf war and participation in the peace process have helped to improve 
Syria's relations with the West, concern remains over the continuing 
presence of terrorist groups in Syria and Syrian-controlled areas of 
Lebanon, Syria's human rights record, and Syrian involvement in 
narcotics activity in Lebanon.  Syria's relations with Western nations 
were particularly strained in the past decade because of Syrian support 
for groups involved in international terrorism, including the Popular 
Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), the 
Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), 
Hizballah, the Turkish Revolutionary Left (Dev Sol), the Kurdish Workers 
Party (PKK), and the Japanese Red Army (JRA).   
 
Relations with Other Arab Countries 
 
Syria's relations with the Arab world were strained by its support for 
Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980. With the end of the 
war in August 1988, Syria began a slow process of reintegration with the 
other Arab states.  In 1989, it joined with the rest of the Arab world 
in readmitting Egypt to the 19th Arab League Summit at Casablanca. 
 
This decision, prompted in part by Syria's need for Arab League support 
of its own position in Lebanon, marked the end of the Syrian-led 
opposition to Egypt and the 1977-79 Sadat initiative toward Israel, as 
well as the Camp David accords.  It coincided with the end of the 10-
year Arab subsidy to Syria and other front-line Arab countries pledged 
at Baghdad in 1978.  Syria reestablished full diplomatic relations with 
Egypt in 1989.  In the 1990-91 Gulf war, Syria joined other Arab states 
in the U.S.-led multinational coalition against Iraq.    
 
Involvement in Lebanon 
  
Syria plays an important role in Lebanon by virtue of its history, size, 
power, and economy.  Lebanon was part of post-Ottoman Syria until 1926, 
when the French established Lebanon as a separate nation.  The presence 
of Syrian troops in Lebanon dates to 1976, when President Asad 
intervened in the Lebanese civil war on behalf of Maronite Christians. 
 
Following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Syrian and Israeli 
forces clashed in eastern Lebanon.  The late U.S. Ambassador Philip 
Habib negotiated a cease-fire in Lebanon and the subsequent evacuation 
of PLO fighters from West Beirut. 
 
However, Syrian opposition blocked implementation of the May 17, 1983, 
Lebanese-Israeli accord on the withdrawal of Israeli forces from 
Lebanon.  Following the February 1984 withdrawal of the UN Multinational 
Force from Beirut and the departure of most of Israel's forces from 
southern Lebanon a year later, Syria launched an unsuccessful initiative 
to reconcile warring Lebanese factions and establish a permanent cease-
fire.   
 
Syria actively participated in the March-September 1989 fighting between 
the Christian Lebanese Forces and Muslim forces allied with Syria.  In 
1989, Syria endorsed the Charter of National Reconciliation, or "Taif 
Accord," a comprehensive plan for ending the Lebanese conflict 
negotiated under the auspices of Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco.   
 
At the request of Lebanese President Hrawi, the Syrian  military took 
joint action with the Lebanese Armed Forces on October 13, 1990, to oust 
rebel General Michel Aoun who had defied efforts at reconciliation with 
the legitimate Government of Lebanon.  The process of disarming and 
disbanding the many Lebanese militias began in earnest in early 1991.  
In May 1991, Lebanon and Syria signed the treaty of brotherhood, 
cooperation, and coordination called for in the Taif Accord which is 
intended to provide the basis for many aspects of Syrian-Lebanese 
relations.  The treaty provides the most explicit recognition to date by 
the Syrian Government of Lebanon's independence and sovereignty.  
According to the U.S. interpretation of the Taif Accord, Syria and 
Lebanon were to have decided on the redeployment of Syrian forces from 
Beirut and other coastal areas of Lebanon by September 1992. 
 
Arab-Israeli Relations 
  
Syria was an active belligerent in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which 
resulted in Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights and the city of 
Quneitra.  Following the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, which left 
Israel in occupation of additional Syrian territory, Syria accepted UN 
Security Council Resolution 338, which signaled an implicit acceptance 
of Resolution 242.  Resolution 242, which became the basis for the peace 
process negotiations begun in Madrid, calls for a just and lasting 
Middle East peace to include withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from 
territories occupied in 1967, termination of the state of belligerency 
and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and 
political independence of all regional states and of their right to live 
in peace within secure and recognized boundaries. 
 
As a result of the mediation efforts of then U.S. Secretary of State 
Henry Kissinger, Syria and Israel achieved a disengagement agreement in 
May 1974, enabling Syria to recover territory lost in the October war 
and part of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel since 1967, including 
Quneitra.  The two sides have effectively implemented the agreement.  
 
In December 1981, the Israeli Knesset voted to extend Israeli law to the 
part of the Golan Heights over which Israel retained control.  The 
United Nations Security Council subsequently passed a resolution calling 
on Israel to rescind this measure. 
 
Syria participated in the Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid in 
October 1991.  Although serious gaps remain between Syria and Israel, 
through the mediation of the U.S., real negotiations are underway which 
have become detailed and substantive.  Concrete ideas have been conveyed 
on key issues such as withdrawal, security arrangements, normalization 
of relations, timing, phasing. 
 
Syria is a member of:  the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa, 
Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, Arab League, Arab 
Monetary Fund, Council of Arab Economic Unity, Customs Cooperation 
Council, Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, Food and 
Agricultural Organization, Group of 24, Group of 77, International 
Atomic Energy Agency, International Bank for Reconstruction and 
Development, International Civil Aviation Organization, International 
Chamber of Commerce, International Development Association, Islamic 
Development Bank, International Fund for Agricultural Development, 
International Finance Corporation, International Labor Organization, 
International Monetary Fund, International Maritime Organization, 
INTELSAT, INTERPOL, International Olympic Committee, International 
Organization for Standardization, International Telecommunication Union, 
League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Non-Aligned Movement, 
Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, Organization of the 
Islamic Conference, United Nations, UN Conference on Trade and 
Development, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UN 
Industrial Development Organization, UN Relief and Works Agency for 
Palestine Refugees in the Near East, Universal Postal Union, World 
Federation of Trade Unions, World Health Organization, World 
Meteorological Organization, and World Tourism Organization.   
 
U.S.-SYRIAN RELATIONS  
 
U.S.-Syrian relations, severed in 1967, were resumed in June 1974, 
following the achievement of the Syrian-Israeli disengagement agreement.  
In recent years, Syria and the U.S. have worked together in areas of 
mutual interest.  In 1990-91, Syria cooperated with the U.S. as a member 
of the multinational coalition of forces in the Gulf war.  The U.S. and 
Syria also consulted closely on the Taif Accord ending the civil war in 
Lebanon. 
 
In 1991, President Asad made a historic decision to accept then 
President Bush's invitation to attend a Middle East peace conference and 
to engage in subsequent bilateral negotiations with Israel.  Syria's 
efforts to secure the release of Western hostages held in Lebanon and 
its lifting of restrictions on travel by Syrian Jews helped further to 
improve relations between Syria and the United States.  President 
Clinton met President Asad in Geneva in January 1994 and again in 
October, when he traveled to Damascus. 
 
The U.S. continues to have serious differences with Syria, however.  
Syria has been on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism since the 
list's inception in 1979.  Because of its continuing support and safe-
haven for terrorist organizations, Syria is subject to legislatively 
mandated penalties, including export sanctions and ineligibility to 
receive most forms of U.S. aid or to purchase U.S. military equipment. 
 
In 1986, the U.S. withdrew its ambassador and imposed additional 
administrative sanctions on Syria in response to evidence of direct 
Syrian involvement in an attempt to blow up an Israeli airplane.  A U.S. 
ambassador returned to Damascus in 1987, partially in response to 
positive Syrian actions against terrorism such as expelling the Abu 
Nidal Organization from Syria and helping free an American hostage 
earlier that year.  There is no evidence that Syrian officials have been 
directly involved in planning or executing terrorist attacks since 1986. 
 
Other issues of U.S. concern include Syria's human rights record, the 
involvement of some Syrian military and security officials in the 
Lebanese drug trade, and full implementation of the Taif Accord.  In its 
ongoing bilateral dialogue, the U.S. urges Syria to cease providing 
support and safehaven to terrorist groups, improve its human rights 
performance, prosecute Syrians involved in the drug trade, cooperate 
with Lebanon in implementing a comprehensive narcotics control and 
eradication program in Lebanon's Biqa' Valley, and redeploy its forces 
in Lebanon in accordance with the Taif Accord. 
 
Principal U.S. Officials 
  
Ambassador--Christopher W.S. Ross 
Deputy Chief of Mission--Marjorie A. Ransom 
Political Officer--Douglas C. Greene 
Economic/Commercial Officer--David Rundell 
Consular Officer--Greta Holtz 
Administrative Officer--Ronald L. Gain 
Public Affairs Officer--Alberto M. Fernandez 
Defense Attache--vacant 
 
The U.S. embassy is located at Abu Roumaneh, Al-Mansur St. No. 2; P.O. 
Box 29; Tel. (963)(11) 333052, 332557, 330416, 332315, 332814, 714108, 
337178, 333232; USIS Tel: 331878, 338413; telex 411919 USDAMA SY; FAX 
(963)(11) 718687. 
 
Travel Notes 
 
Climate and clothing:  The climate compares to that of Arizona.   
 
Customs and currency:  Passports are required.  U.S. tourists require 
visas for entry.   
 
Health:  Although not meeting U.S. standards, public health poses no 
particular problems.  Vegetables and fruits should be washed and cooked; 
drink bottled water. 
 
Telecommunications:  Local and international telephone and telegraph 
service is available. 
 
============================== 
Background Notes Series -- Published by the United States Department of 
State  --  Bureau of Public Affairs  --  Office of Public Communication  
--  Washington, DC  --  This material is in the public domain and can be 
reproduced without consent; citation of this source is appreciated. 
(###)

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