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 whom 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.
Since 2011 political power, long held by a small mainly Alawite elite, has been contested in a bitter civil conflict initially sparked by the Arab Spring that turned into a complex war involving regional and international powers.
The Syrian Arab Republic
Population 21.1 million
Area 185,180 sq km (71,498 sq miles)
Major language Arabic
Major religion Islam, Christianity
Life expectancy 74 years (men), 78 years (women)
Currency Syrian pound
President: Bashar al-Assad
In power since succeeding his father in 2000, Bashar al-Assad is fighting for control of his country after protests against his rule turned into a full-scale war.
He inherited a tightly controlled and repressive political structure from long-time dictator Hafez al-Assad, with an inner circle dominated by members of the Assad family's minority Alawite Shia community.
Cracks began to appear in early 2011, in the wake of the "Arab Spring" wave of popular dissent that swept across North Africa and the Middle East.
The country rapidly descended into civil war, but a divided opposition and strong support for President Assad from his Iranian and Russian allies steadily turned the tide of battle in the government's favour from 2017.
Syria has a complex and changeable media landscape, split between pro-government outlets and those run by armed groups and the opposition.
More than 200 media workers been killed since the start of the revolt, says Reporters Without Borders.
Social media are used by the government, the opposition and jihadist groups to deliver their messages.
Some key dates in Syria's history:
1918 October - Arab troops led by Emir Feisal, and supported by British forces, capture Damascus, ending 400 years of Ottoman rule.
1920 - San Remo conference splits up newly-created Arab kingdom by placing Syria-Lebanon under a French mandate, and Palestine under British control.
1946 - Independence.
1958-61 - Short-lived union of Syria with Egypt as the United Arab Republic.
1967 - Egypt, Jordan, and Syria are defeated in the Six-Day War with Israel. Israel seizes the Golan Heights.
1970 - Hafez al-Assad comes to power in a coup. His rule is characterised by repression and a major arms build-up.
1973 - Egypt and Syria launch surprise attack on Israel in October to try reverse defeats of 1967.
1976 - Syria intervenes in the Lebanese civil war. It maintains military presence there for next three decades and exerts significant influence on Lebanese politics.
1982 - Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the city of Hama is suppressed in a month-long siege by the military, who kill tens of thousands of civilians.
2000 - President Assad dies and is succeeded by his son Bashar.
2005 - Syrian forces withdraw from Lebanon under international pressure following assassination of Lebanese premier Rafiq al-Hariri.
2011 - Unrest inspired by "Arab Spring" uprisings. Confrontation between government and opposition soon develops into civil war that draws in world powers and triggers refugee crisis.