FRONTLINE/WORLD . Lebanon - The Earthquake . Facts - Syria | PBS
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Lebanon - The Earthquake, May 2005

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Synopsis of "The Earthquake"

Land and People, History and Government, Economy, Culture

Land and People, History and Government, Economy, Ancient Culture

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Facts & Stats - Syria

• Land and People
• History and Government
• Economy
• Ancient Culture

Land and People

Syria is slightly larger than North Dakota, with fertile plains, mountain ranges and deserts. It shares borders with Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey.

Damascus, Syria's capital, is located in the Fertile Crescent, a swathe in the northern part of the Syrian desert that is flanked by the Mediterranean Sea and the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

Syria's population of 18 million is about 74 percent Sunni Muslim, with Alawite, Druze and other Muslim sects accounting for another 16 percent of the population, and Christians accounting for 10 percent.

Arabic is the official language, but Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, Circassian, English and French are also spoken.

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History and Government

In the wake of World War I and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the region that became modern-day Syria was administered by the French. It gained independence as a republic in 1946.

A series of military coups from 1949 onward repeatedly undermined civilian rule, and between 1958 and 1961, Syria was merged with Egypt in a dictatorship known as the United Arab Republic.

In 1961, Syria again gained independence, becoming the Syrian Arab Republic, and after another series of coups, Ba'athist factions came to dominate the government.

In 1970, then Minister of Defense Hazef al-Assad seized power in a bloodless military coup. Assad ousted civilian party leadership and became prime minister. Assad governed with an iron first, with little tolerance for opposition, until his death in 2000.

Assad's son Bashar succeeded Hazef, having been elected president in a referendum in which he was the only candidate. He received 97 percent of the vote.

Bashar Assad was trained as an ophthalmologist, but was catapulted into politics when his brother Basil died in a car accident in 1994.

During the "Damascus Spring" -- immediately following Bashar Assad's ascension in 2000 -- there was a period of moderate reform. Hundreds of political prisoners were released, and independent newspapers were published for the first time in 30 years. But before long, public political meetings and press independence were again restricted, and some journalists, human rights activists and dissidents were imprisoned.

Syria's Ba'athist government has long maintained a strong anti-Israel policy.

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President Bashar al-Assad has pushed for modernization of Syria, with a particular emphasis on ramping up the Syrian computer industry.

Syria's banks have a long history of state control and are short on liquidity, but modest economic reforms in the past few years have included the opening of private banks.

Many Syrians are accustomed to investing their savings in Lebanese banks.

In 2002, Syria's unemployment rate was estimated to be 20 percent. Lebanon's economy has long provided work for unemployed Syrians -- more than 500,000 Syrians are estimated to be working in Lebanon.

Twenty percent of Syria's population lives below the poverty line.

Syria's primary agricultural products are wheat, barley, cotton, lentils, chickpeas, olives and sugar beets. Petroleum and textiles are two of the country's primary industries. Oil accounts for more than 70 percent of Syria's foreign sales, but production is in decline.

Syria's currency is the Syrian pound.

Syria is known as a transit point for opiates and hashish headed for points west.

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Ancient Culture

The alluvial plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in modern-day Syria and Iraq, is commonly known as the "cradle of civilization" because agriculture and the domestication of animals first developed there 8,000 years ago. The area was also known in ancient times as Mesopotamia, which means "land between the rivers" in Greek.

Many rich cultures flourished in Mesopotamia from around 5,000 B.C., including Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian. The Sumerians developed the world's first urban culture.

Sumerian was the first written language using pictographs. It was invented in Mesopotamia before 3,000 B.C and later evolved into cuneiform -- writing with wedge-shaped characters -- which was used for the Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian languages.

Given its geographic strategic importance, Syria was repeatedly occupied by foreign powers and absorbed by empires. During the second millennium B.C. alone, Canaanites, Phoenicians and Hebrews dominated the area. Hebrews wound up settling the area south of Damascus, which later became Israel and Palestine; Phoenicians settled in what is now known as Lebanon. Persians took control of the area known as Syria in 538 B.C., and then the region fell under Roman control around 64 B.C.

According to the New Testament, Paul converted to Christianity while on the road to Damascus.

Arabs groups conquered and ruled Syria from the seventh century onward.

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Sources: BBC News; BBC History; CIA World Factbook; The Economist; Election World; Freedom House; PBS Global Connections; Wikipedia.