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Officially Syrian Arab Republic, republic (1995 est. pop. 15,452,000), 71,467 sq mi (185,100 sq km), SW Asia, bordered by Israel, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean Sea (W), Turkey (N), Iraq (E), and Jordan (S).
Principal cities include Damascus (the capital) and Aleppo. Most of Syria is occupied by the Syrian Desert, which is crossed by the Euphrates R. In the west are the Anti-Lebanon Mts., including Mt. Hermon (9,232 ft/2,814 m), Syria's highest point; in the southwest the fertile plain of Hawran extends from the Jabal al-Duruz Mts. to the Sea of Galilee. Major crops include wheat, fruit and vegetables, barley, sugar beets, cotton, and tobacco. The state plays a major role in the economy, and a large-scale industrialization program begun after World War II has diversified the formerly agricultural economy. Petroleum production, small compared to that of other Middle Eastern countries, provides the leading export. Refined petroleum, cement, textiles, processed foods, chemicals, and precision-engineered products are the chief manufactures. The Euphrates Dam supplies most of the nation's electric power.
Most Syrians are Arabic-speaking Muslims, mainly Sunnite with significant Alawite and Druse minorities; there are also Kurds, Armenians, and Circassians. About 10% of the people are Christian, mainly Orthodox. Arabic is the official language.
HistorySituated on trade and military routes between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, Syria (which historically included all of modern Syria and Lebanon, and parts of Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia) has always been an object of foreign conquest. Settled (c.2100 B.C.) by the Amorites, a Semitic people from the Arabian peninsula, it fell to the Hittites (15th–13th cent B.C.), the Assyrians and Babylonians (11th–6th cent. B.C.), the Persians (6th–4th cent. B.C.), and the Greeks (333 B.C.). Syria was Hellenized by the Seleucids and had fallen to Rome by 63 B.C. After a period of Byzantine rule (5th–7th cent. A.D.) Syria was conquered (633–40) by Muslim Arabs. Most Syrians converted to Islam, and Damascus, as the usual capital of the Umayyad caliph (661–750), became the center of the Islamic world. The area was later ruled by the Seljuk Turks, the Mongols, Saladin, and the Mamluks. Christians also came to Syria on the Crusades (11th–14th cent.). It was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1516 until the end of World War I, and in 1920 France received a League of Nations mandate over the Levant States (roughly modern Syria and Lebanon). During World War II Free French forces granted (1944) independence to Syria, but French troops did not leave until 1946. Syria joined with Egypt in the United Arab Republic in 1958, but withdrew in 1961. Independent Syria has been characterized by economic growth, political instability, and uncompromising hostility toward Israel (see Arab-Israeli Wars). In 1981 Israel exacerbated the situation by annexing the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the Six-Day War (1967). Syrian troops entered Lebanon in 1976, ostensibly to quell civil strife. During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon they suffered severe losses in combat with Israeli forces. The ruling Ba'ath party, which came to power in a 1963 coup, maintains a policy of socialism and Arab nationalism. In the 1980s Syria experienced internal unrest, moved closer to the USSR, espoused hard-line Arab positions, and was linked to international terrorists. By 1990, however, Syria was trying to improve relations with Western nations. Syria participated in initial peace talks with Israel in 1991.