Located in the Middle East, Syria is approximately 1.5 times bigger than the state of Pennsylvania. Bordered on the east by the Mediterranean Sea, Syria also shares borders with the countries of Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon. More than half of Syria is covered by the Syrian Desert, which stretches into several other countries in the Middle East. The Al-Ansariyyah mountains separate the desert from a narrow strip of northeastern land along the Mediterranean Sea known as the coastal plain. In the southeast, the Anti-Lebanon mountains separate Syria from Lebanon.
The Euphrates, the longest river in Western Asia, flows from Turkey through parts of Syria. A massive dam built alongside the river in north-central Syria led to the formation of Lake Assad, the country’s largest lake.
PEOPLE AND CULTURE
Most of the Syrian population are Arab, or originally from the Arabian Peninsula and its neighboring territories. Minority groups living in the country include the Kurds, an ethnic group from a mountainous region called Kurdistan, who mostly live in northeast Syria; and the Bedouins, nomadic animal herders who move from place to place throughout North Africa and the Middle East. The majority of Syria’s population lives on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea or in the Euphrates River valley.
Most Syrians are Muslim, or people who practice Islam. Some Syrians are Christians, and an even smaller part of the population follow Druze, a religion that combines Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and a few other faiths. Damascus, Syria’s capital city, is considered a holy city in the religion of Islam and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. People have lived there since the second millennium B.C. It’s also famous for music, especially classical Arab music.
Popular dishes in Syria include tabbouleh, a vegetarian salad made with tomato, mint, onions, and other ingredients; sujuk, or spicy fermented sausage; and shawarma, or thinly sliced meat stacked in a cone-like shape inside of pita bread. Arabic coffee is one of the most popular drinks and is typically served during family gatherings or when guests are visiting.
Syria is home to fertile plains, high mountains, and sandy deserts; however, thousands of years of human expansion have impacted the country’s natural habitats. Brown bears and gray wolves are the largest carnivores that remain in the country. Striped hyenas, red foxes, caracals, and golden jackals still roam parts of Syria, but it’s rare to spot many of these species.
In the desert, sand cats, golden hamsters, and venomous snakes such as black desert cobras are common, while birds of prey like bearded vultures, red kites, and white-tailed eagles can be spotted flying through Syria’s mountainous regions. The Mediterranean Sea basin is considered a biodiversity hot spot—the Syrian coastline has the most diverse plant and animal life in the country. Three marine protected areas preserve plants and animals off the Syrian coast, where you can spot up to 10 different whale species, endangered Mediterranean monk seals, and loggerhead sea turtles.
Although the country does not have an official national flower, jasmine is beloved in Syria. Damascus is even known as Madinat al-Yasmin, or the City of Jasmine.
GOVERNMENT AND ECONOMY
Syria has a presidential system of government, with a president serving as head of state within the executive branch. Syria’s president is elected every seven years by winning the popular vote from Syria’s citizens. The president has a broad set of powers, including commanding the country’s armed forces, negotiating treaties, and declaring war or states of emergency. The president also oversees the People’s Council, a group of 250 elected individuals who make legislation.
Despite being a presidential republic, Syria is considered a highly authoritarian regime, or a government that gives most of the power to one person or group. That’s because the al-Assad family has dominated Syrian politics since 1971. Bashar al-Assad has ruled the country as president since 2000, and his father, Hafez al-Assad, ruled the country for 30 years before him.
Petroleum, textiles, and agriculture products are some of the country's main exports, or goods sold to other countries. But an ongoing civil war in the country (see HISTORY below) has made other countries less willing to trade with Syria, and growth will be limited until the war ends.
Humans have settled in Syria for nearly 5,000 years. The earliest recorded civilization in the area was the Kingdom of Ebla, founded around 3,500 B.C. Ebla made its fortune by trading with ancient Egyptians and with nearby Mesopotamian states located by the Euphrates River.
Several empires ruled Syria during these early centuries, including the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman empires. Muslim Arab armies—some led by the Prophet Muhammad (the founder of Islam)—invaded Syria in the A.D. 600s. The Ottoman Empire, or what’s now Turkey, seized power in the 16th century.
The Ottomans ruled Syria until France took over the country in 1920, after World War I. Finally, after nearly 30 years of French occupation, Syria declared independence in 1946. Syria and Egypt united to form what was called the United Arab Republic in 1958, but the countries split apart after just three years.
Syria and other Middle Eastern nations fought several wars with Israel in the mid-20th century. In 1967, Israel took over land located at Syria’s southwest border, called the Golan Heights. The two countries continue to have border disputes today.
In 2010, a pro-democracy movement known as the Arab Spring began sweeping through countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Following Arab Spring protests in Syria over the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, a civil war broke out in the country in 2011. Assad’s forces used violence to try to stop the protests, but the protests—and the violence against them—continue under his presidency. The war has pitted different Muslim sects in the country against each other and has led to the death of more than 400,000 Syrians.
Millions of Syrians have fled the country since the war started to seek a better life elsewhere. The war has destroyed many of the country’s historical sites, including the city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.