Syria profile - Overview
- 24 March 2015
- From the section Middle East
Once the centre of the Islamic Caliphate, Syria covers an area that has seen invasions and occupations over the ages, from Romans and Mongols to Crusaders and Turks.
A country of fertile plains, high mountains and deserts, it is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Christians, Druze, Alawite Shia and Arab Sunnis, the last of who make up a majority of the Muslim population.
Modern Syria gained its independence from France in 1946, but has lived through periods of political instability driven by the conflicting interests of these various groups.
From 1958-61 it united with Nasser's Egypt, but an army coup restored independence before the pan-Arab nationalist Baath (Renaissance) party took control in 1963.
Soon coming under the control of a mainly Alawite faction of military leaders, it has ruled ever since, although the 2011 uprising has cast doubt on its longevity.
The Baath government has seen authoritarian rule at home and a strong anti-Western policy abroad, particularly under President Hafez al-Assad from 1970 to 2000. In 1967 Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel after the Arab defeat in the Six Day War. Civil war in neighbouring Lebanon in the 1970s allowed it to extend its political and military influence in that country.
Syria pulled its forces out of Lebanon in 2005, having come under intense international pressure to do so after the assassination of Lebanese former prime minister Rafik Hariri. A UN report implicated Syrian and pro-Syria Lebanese officials in the killing, although Damascus still denies any involvement.
The government deals harshly with domestic opposition. Tens of thousands are estimated to have been killed in the suppression of the 1982 uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama.
Following the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000 Syria underwent a brief period of relaxation. Hundreds of political prisoners were released, but real political freedoms and a shake-up of the state-dominated economy never materialised.
In 2011-12 security forces used tanks, gunfire and mass arrests to try to crush anti-government street protests inspired by the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. These protests rapidly took on a more formal nature when the opposition began to organise political and military wings for a long uprising against the Baath government. As 2012 wore on, the stand-off escalated into civil war, with defections from the governing elite signalling the steady collapse of central authority.
On the world stage Syria became increasingly isolated in recent years, coming under fire for its support for insurgents in Iraq and over its role in Lebanon.
That isolation showed brief signs of easing after efforts by France to bring Syria back into the international fold in 2008, but Syria's violation of a UN ban on arming the Lebanese Hezbollah militia led to the extension of US sanctions in May 2010.
Further international sanctions were imposed amid the bloody repression of protests in the descent into civil war. By December 2012 the US, Turkey, Gulf states, France and Britain had recognised the main opposition National Coalition of the Syrian Revolution as the "sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people", signalling their belief that the Assad government is beyond redemption.
The rise of the Al-Nusra front, a radical Islamist militia allied to al-Qaeda, in rebel ranks led to a marked cooling of international and regional support for the opposition in mid-2013, and allowed the government and its Hezbollah allies to launch a counter-offensive.
However, large swathes of Syrian territory remain in rebel hands, and more recently jihadist militants from the self-styled Islamic State (IS) have made significant gains on the ground in Syria as well as in neighbouring Iraq.
The Assad governments have been among the most intransigent opponents of peace with Israel, and have supported several anti-Israel armed groups - most notably Hezbollah and the Gaza-based Palestinian group Hamas. Hopes for reconciliation have repeatedly foundered over Syria's support for these groups and the vexed question of the Golan Heights.