Syria was historically the political center of the Middle East, while today its capital, Damascus, is recognized by UNESCO as the Arab Capital of Culture. Over the past 60 years, since 1961, Syria has been ruled by the Ba’ath Party, the same party that ruled Iraq until the fall of Saddam Hussein, and for three decades, the most powerful figure in Syria was dictator Hafiz al-Assad. The former defense minister came to power after overthrowing the Syrian leadership in 1970, and built an elaborate intelligence network that aided Assad’s tight grip on power and created a police state that has produced scores of human rights abuses. Upon his death in 2000, control of the government shifted to Assad’s son, Bashar, who has managed to remain in power despite internal threats from enemies of his father and Islamic militants.
Lay of the Land: Syria is located in the Middle East and rests on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. It shares borders with Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south, Israel to the southwest, and Lebanon to the west. Prominent geographic features are the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, which run parallel to the Mediterranean from the Golan Heights (occupied since 1967 by Israel) to the Turkish border; the Euphrates River valley, which traverses the country from the north to the southeast; the remote Jebel al-Druz Mountains in the south; and the semidesert plateau in the southeast. The east flank of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains is dotted with valley oases, the largest of which, lying 70 miles by road across Lebanon from the coast, is the site of Damascus, the capital. The climate of the Damascus region is roughly comparable to that of Phoenix, Arizona.
On the crossroads of history, Syria was occupied by Akkadians, Amorites, Hittites, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Arameans, Hebrews, Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Iranians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, European Crusaders, Mongols, Mamluks and Turks. Syria is the site of the oldest preserved Jewish synagogue and the earliest identified Christian church. Damascus is the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world still standing. What is now Syria entered the 20th century as part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. After World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, nationalists proclaimed the independent Arab Kingdom of Syria with Emir Faisal of the Hashemite dynasty king. However, in July 1920, French troops defeated Faisal’s Arab army at the Battle of Maysalun and imposed military rule. Faisal moved on to Iraq, where he was king until his death in 1933.
Al Baath (Arabic)
Because US immigration records before 1920 defined “Syrian” as any immigrant from the Ottoman province of Greater Syria, which included the modern day countries Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Cyprus, and parts of Turkey and of Jordan, it was estimated that immigrants from this historic region numbered 200,000 in the 1920s. New York City, and specifically the area around Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, continue to be the center of Syrian life in America. Other large communities can be found in Boston, Detroit, Dearborn (Michigan), New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Houston.
In 2010, US exports to Syria totaled $511.5 million, while US imports to Syria totaled $429.3 million.
Nuclear Facilities Built by North Korea in Syria
According to the State Department, “The government systematically repressed citizens’ abilities to change their government. In a climate of impunity, there were instances of arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life. Members of the security forces tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees. Security forces arrested and detained individuals—including activists, organizers, and other regime critics—without due process…During the year the government sentenced to prison several high-profile members of the human rights and civil society communities. The government violated citizens’ privacy rights and imposed significant restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and travel…Violence and societal discrimination against women continued, as did sexual exploitation, increasingly aimed at Iraqi refugees, including minors.”
What Position Should the U.S. Take Regarding Anti-Government Protests in Syria?
Imad Moustapha became ambassador of Syria to the United States on March 31, 2004. Moustapha holds a doctorate in computer science from the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom and is fluent in English and French and speaks some German.
On February 16, 2010, President Barack Obama announced his intention to nominate Robert Stephen Ford as the next U.S. ambassador to Syria. This was a significant gesture because the United States has been without such an official for five years, ever since the Bush administration broke off diplomatic relations with the Middle East country. Ford’s confirmation hearing was held on March 16, but his confirmation was blocked by Senate Republicans who disagree with the policy of reengaging the Syrian government. President Obama finally gave Ford a recess appointment on December 29.