issue 191 - January 1989
Syria offers the world a grim face. Its regime is synonymous with bureaucracy, inefficiency and corruption; its mukhabarat (secret police) is the most feared in the Arab world. But behind this bleak image is a country of colour and immense cultural diversity.
Syria is the original 'mosaic' society. Long contested by a series of rival empires - from Egyptians and Assyrians to the French and British - it has had borders redrawn and drawn again. The result is that today's population contains not only Arabs, the majority, but Kurds, Turks and Armenians. And there is a bewildering range of religious groups: Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims - the latter known as Alawites; Greek Orthodox and Maronite Christians; and Druze.
Syrians have a sense that their country is at the heart of the Middle East. For centuries cities such as Damascus and Aleppo were at the hub of the regional economy. Only when European imperialism penetrated the Middle East did they decline; today they retain an echo of their former status, with huge suqs (markets) and mosques at the centre of the old cities. Syria is still a mainly agricultural country, and this sector employs half the labour force. But recent discoveries of oil could well alter this and lead to faster industrialisation.
The modern nation state has been shaped by the intervention of outside powers. In 1916 Britain and France divided the Ottoman province of Syria between them - France receiving its northern regions and Britain taking Palestine. The country was further dismembered when in 1926 France created 'Lebanon' from the area around Beirut.
After years of struggle against the French, in 1946 the Syrians secured independence but were soon engaged in a new conflict - with the state of Israel created on the ruins of neighbouring Palestine. The conflict has since dominated Syrian politics.
In four wars with Israel, Syria has been a loser. A series of nationalist governments has sought help from abroad which they hoped would balance Western backing for Israel. Today the Baathist regime of President Hafez al-Assad is the Soviet Union's closest ally in the Arab world.
The external threat has been Assad's biggest problem - and perhaps his own guarantee of survival. In power since 1971, he is a remarkable survivor among Arab leaders, the more so for being an Alawi - one of only 10 per cent of the Syrian population. Assad has maintained a ruthless one-party regime based on the army, which he has repeatedly used against domestic opposition and to intervene in Lebanon, where Syria maintains 30,000 troops - a crippling economic burden.
There is little sign of an alternative to Baathist rule. As long as outside threats dominate Syrian affairs, the unsmiling President seems likely to remain firmly in control.
Leader: President Hafez al-Assad
Economy: GNP per capita $1,670 (US S 16,690)
People: 10.9 million
Health: Infant mortality 50 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1,000)
Culture: Despite the country's complex social and religious structure there is a strong Syrian national identity, assiduously cultivated by the regime. Minorities such as the Kurds and Druze are well integrated into a country that overwhelmingly sees itself as 'Arab'.
Languages: Arabic; Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian and Aramaic also spoken.
Religion: Mainly Sunni Muslim, with a large Alawite (Shi'ite) minority in the Mediterranean province; also Christians and Druze.
Statistics: State of the World's Children 1988.
Better than in most countries of the region.
A grim record.