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COUNTRY PROFILES


PROFILE

Full Country Name: The Syrian Arab Republic
Area: 185,180 sq kms (71,498 sq miles)
Population: 20 million: 52% male, 48% female
Capital City: Damascus
People: Arab 90.3%, Kurds, Armenians and others 9.7%
Language(s): Arabic (official), Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, Circassian, some French and English.
Religion(s): Officially secular; Sunni Arab 64%; Sunni Kurd 10%; Christian (divided into 11 sects) 10%; Alawite 10%; Twelver Shia/Ismaeli 3%; Druze 3%; Yazidis, Jews, and others very small numbers
Currency: Syrian Pound (also called Lira – LSYR).
Major political parties: Ba'ath Party
Head of State: Lt-Gen Dr Bashar al-Assad
Prime Minister/Premier: Engineer Mohammad Naji Al-Otri
Foreign Minister: Mr Walid al-Muallam

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ECONOMY

Basic Economic Facts

GDP: $54 billion (USD) [GDP per head: $ 2,700 Annual Growth in GDP: Estimated by IMF as 4% in 2009 (down from 5.2% in 2008)
Inflation: Central Bank of Syria figures – in 2008 at its highest inflation was 15.2%, estimated to be around 2.8% in 2009
Exchange rate: £1 (GBP) =£69.65 (SYP) as at 16 June 2010.
Economic Structure:
The two mainstays of the Syrian Economy are the oil sector and agriculture, which each account for about a quarter of GDP, varying from year to year depending on prices and climatic conditions. In parallel with the gradual depletion of Syrian oil reserves, growth in other sectors such as financial services, construction, telecommunications, tourism, and non-oil industry and trade, are diversifying the economy. The private sector is slowly playing a more prominent role.

Foreign Trade:

Recent estimates by the Economist Intelligence Unit state that foreign trade volume in 2009 was around US$23.2 billion. In 2009 Oil imports and exports constituted around 30% of the overall merchandise traded by Syria. This is down from around 41% in previous years. In 2009 exports (main products include food, agricultural products, cotton and textiles) were driven down by a fall in oil and non-oil exports. The fall in oil prices caused a drop of around 45% (from US$5.5 billion in 2008 to US$3 billion in 2009). Non-oil exports were impacted by the slow down in Syria’s foreign trading partners due to the global financial crisis.

Imports over recent years have been increasing both as a result of trade liberalisation and improved domestic demand. The bulk of non-oil imports are raw materials for industry, vehicles, agricultural equipment and heavy machinery.

Major trading partners:
The following are some of Syria’s biggest trading partners (please also see UK Trade and Investment section below)

Economic Policy:

Since President Assad’s appointment as President in 2000, he has begun the process of moving Syria away from a centrally-controlled economy towards what is described as a “social market economy”. Banking and insurance have been opened to the private sector, and new legislation has been passed which is intended to encourage greater foreign investment. In 2009 the Damascus Stock Exchange opened and market capitalisation reached US$1.3 billion by the end of the year. Further reforms, including the reduction of fuel subsidies, and of Value Added Tax, are planned but have suffered from delays.

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HISTORY

Recent History

History since Independence

Syria gained independence from France in 1946. Following Arab defeat at the hands of Israel she experienced a series of short-lived military governments, followed, between 1958 and 1961, by an unsuccessful experiment of Union with Nasser's Egypt. In 1963 the Baath, a revolutionary party based on the ideas of Arab nationalism and socialism, seized power. In 1966 a radical wing of the Party seized control, expelling the original founders of the Party who eventually established themselves in Iraq, instituting a rivalry between Damascus and Baghdad which has persisted ever since. The radicals then moved closer to Moscow, adopting policies which isolated Syria from many of her neighbours.

In November 1970 the radicals were ousted by Hafez al-Asad, then Minister of Defence, at the head of a more moderate and pragmatic section of the Baath. He repaired Syria's relations with her neighbours, and in 1972 introduced a Constitution under which elections had to be held both for a National Assembly and for the Presidency. Voted in as President he ruled the country until his death on 10 June 2000.

President Bashar al – Assad was voted in unopposed as President after his father’s death, and was re-elected unopposed for a further seven year term on 27 May 2007.

BBC News Country Timeline: Syria (http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/middle_east/newsid_827000/827580.stm)

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INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

Syria's Relations with Neighbours

Syria has good relations with Iran, including defence ties, and the two signed a memorandum of defence understanding in June 2006. On 21 November 2006 Syria and Iraq signed an agreement to restore diplomatic relations almost 25 years after they cut them. The ongoing violence in Iraq has led to an influx of between 1.2 and 1.5 m Iraqi refugees into Syria in 2007/8. Many have not retuned or been resettled in third countries but substantial numbers remain in Syria.

In October 1998, Turkey threatened military action against Syria, in frustration at alleged long-term Syrian hospitality for the Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) terrorist groups. The dispute was resolved diplomatically, with Syria meeting most of the Turkish demands.

There has been substantial high level bilateral contact between Turkey and Syria in the past year - with several meetings and visits between the the Syrian President and Turkish Prime Minister and a range of agreements signed. The Turks acted as intermediaries in peace talks between the Syrians and the Israelis. These talks were suspended after Israel launched Operation Cast Lead into Gaza in December 2008.

Syrian intervention in Lebanon during the 1980s brought an end to the civil war in that country. By September 2004, Syria still had a military force of approximately 15,000 men in Lebanon and commanded a high degree of influence there.

On 14 February 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, was assassinated in a bomb that killed 19 others and injured over 200. In Lebanon it was widely believed that Syria was involved in this attack and a series of major demonstrations in central Beirut demanded the departure of Syrian forces. In response to domestic and international pressure, Syria withdrew and a UN verification team reported on 23 May 2005 that all Syrian troops had withdrawn from Lebanon.

Syria's Relations with the International Community

Over recent years, Syria has had a complex relationship with much of the international community. Syria’s role in Lebanon between as well as their facilitation of foreign fighters into Iraq had led the UK, USA and France and some EU countries to limit their contacts with the Syrian government. The last two years have seen a substantial reopening of relations, both with these countries and with countries such as Saudi Arabia.

The EU has had a cooperation agreement with Syria since 1977. The European Council approved the Commission's negotiating mandate for an Association Agreement in December 1997 and negotiations for an Association Agreement between the EU and Syria started in May 1998. In April 2000, Syria ratified the MEDA framework agreement freeing-up the potential for €100 million development funds. Following lengthy discussions, an EU Association Agreement was initialled between the EU and Syria in Brussels on 19 October 2004; however negotiations were then suspended in 2005, only being restarted in 2008. The Foreign Affairs Council of the EU approved the final text of the Association Agreement in October 2009. The EU now awaits the Syrian response. Once signed and ratified the Association Agreement will lead to progress towards liberalisation of the Syrian economy in the longer term.

Middle East Peace Process

President al-Assad has said he is committed to fulfilling his father's legacy by achieving peace with Israel. Syria has said that if the Roadmap for Peace is acceptable to the Palestinians then it is acceptable to Syria. Indirect peace negotiations between Syria and Israel resumed in May 2008, with Turkey acting as an intermediary, but were suspended following the Gaza crisis in 2009.

Syria's Relations with the UK

Britain broke off diplomatic relations with Syria in 1986 after the then Government found independent evidence that Syrian officials were involved with Nezar Hindawi, convicted in October 1986 of attempting to bomb an El Al plane at Heathrow Airport. Diplomatic relations were resumed in November 1990.

Syria's stance on certain issues continues to give us cause for concern, including serious differences over the supply of weapons to Hizballah, support for Palestinian rejectionist groups and human rights within Syria. The Government remains keen to improve relations with Syria, and believe it has the potential to play a positive role in the region.

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GEOGRAPHY

Syria shares a northern border with Turkey, in the east and southeast with Iraq, in the south with Jordan and in the west with Lebanon and Israel. Syria's most contentious boundary is with Israel, where the latter has occupied Syrian territory, the Golan, since 1967. Israel formally annexed the Golan in 1981. Syria also has a short Mediterranean coastline of some 193 km between Lebanon and Turkey

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TRADE AND INVESTMENT

With The UK

UK exports:

Power generating machinery and equipment; general industry machinery and equipment; medicinal and pharmaceutical products; textile fibres and their wastes; and chemical materials and products. Services including construction and financial consultancy.

UK imports: Petroleum, petroleum products and related wastes; articles of apparel and clothing accessories; textile fibres and their wastes; manufactures of metal; and general industrial machinery and equipment.

UK Trade & Investment Country Profile: Syria (http://www.uktradeinvest.gov.uk/ukti/syria)

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POLITICS

Dr Bashar al-Assad was groomed for the Presidency since 1994 following the death of his elder brother Basil, when he was recalled from London where he had been studying ophthalmology to begin military training. He was formally inaugurated as President on 17 July 2000 following a referendum which confirmed him as President elect with over 97% support. Since his succession, President al- Assad has reiterated his desire for Syrian modernisation. He has stated that he is committed to fulfilling his father's legacy by achieving peace with Israel, but since the start of the second Intifada in October 2000 prospects for achieving this have dwindled and tensions have increased with Israel. He has implemented some tentative steps towards economic and social reform, but progress is slow. There were some early indications of political reform: political discussion groups, for example, were allowed to meet. But there has since been a stifling of this progress, for example freedom of expression and association is limited. The human rights situation has further deteriorated over the last year (see below).

On 27 May 2007, after a month long referendum campaign, President Assad was re-elected for his second seven-year term. According to official statistics 95.86% of the electorate voted, 97.62% voted "yes", 1.71% voted "no" and there were 67 % spoiled ballots.

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HUMAN RIGHTS

The Emergency Law, in place since 1963, continues to most constitutional protections of Syrian citizens. Although there was an initial improvement under President al-Assad, the human rights situation has deteriorated significantly over the past few years and we have a number of concerns about Syria’s human rights performance. We remain deeply concerned about arbitrary arrests, intimidation, torture, travel bans, freedom of expression, and lack of respect for the rights of Kurdish minority. Local human rights groups have no legal existence in Syria. A few are tolerated, but they operate in a grey zone. However, since mid-2007 there has been a marked downturn with harsh sentencing for some. Human Rights Defenders in 2009 and the arrest of human rights lawyers Haitham Al Maleh and Mohamad al Hasani. Amnesty International was allowed to visit Syria in January 2006, the first time since 1997.

There are an estimated 1.7 million Kurds in Syria, making them the largest ethnic minority group in the country. As many as 300,000 of them are not entitled to Syrian nationality and have no civil and political rights. The Tenth Baath Party Congress recommended that this issue be tackled, but this has not progressed far. Decree (Decree 49) passed by President Assad in late 2008, has restricted the buying, selling and transfer of property by Kurds. Resident Palestinians in Syria are prevented from voting and restrictions are also placed on their right to own property.

Religious freedom is provided for by the constitution. Formally recognised religious minorities are generally well respected and have full freedom to practise their faith.

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Last Updated: September 2010

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