After several years of retreat Syria is again a major player in Middle East politics
Syria has three main regions. One is a narrow fertile coastal strip that has year-round supplies of water. To the east of this is a mountainous zone with two ranges running parallel to the coast. The rest of the country is the Syrian Desert. Most people live in the section of land between Damascus in the south and the second city, Aleppo, near the Turkish border, though the most densely populated land is along the coast.
The population is mostly Arab and Muslim—split between the majority Sunni community and others including the Alawi, a branch of the Shia sect. Syria has had oil but is not wealthy. Around one-quarter of the workforce is either unemployed or underemployed.
The population is growing rapidly, at around 2.7% per year, and the healthcare system is struggling to keep pace. Education standards are relatively high though at higher levels the system is under strain.
Agriculture is still an important part of the economy, employing around one-third of the labour force. Two-thirds of the cultivable land is in private hands and it is evenly distributed among small farmers, thanks to extensive land reform in the 1960s. Nevertheless, the government exerts a strong influence since it controls the prices—often supporting farmers by paying more than the world price for crops.
Farmers devote around two-thirds of the land to wheat and barley for local consumption, but more significant is cotton, which generates around half of agricultural GDP and provides around one-tenth of export earnings. Some 75% of Syria's agriculture relies on the often erratic rainfall; the remaining irrigated land is mostly in the coastal strip.
Industry is also a major employer. The government has invested in heavy industries, but most activity nowadays is in lighter manufacturing such as cotton textiles, which employ one-third of the industrial workforce.
Syria's oil will soon run out
The government has tried to encourage greater private, and even foreign, investment, and the proportion of the economy in private hands has been rising and a number of new banks have started up. Foreigners are now allowed to own equity and in 2009 Syria relaunched its stock exchange.
Syria still depends to some extent on oil, which has provided around one-third of export income. Oil has been extracted in quantity only since the 1980s; nevertheless the reserves are relatively small and Syria is now a net importer.
Syria also has gas reserves which have been developed by foreign investors, Conoco and Elf Aquitaine, to supply local energy markets, hopefully releasing more oil for export. There are also plans for a major pipeline for gas exports.
The other major mineral export is phosphates. A further source of foreign exchange has been expatriate Syrian workers in the Gulf countries whose remittances are around $0.8 billion annually.
Since 1963, the government of Syria has been the exclusive preserve of the socialist Ba'ath (Resurrection) Party, though the current regime dates from a coup in 1970 when a faction representing the minority Alawi sect seized control. In 1971 the coup's leader, Hafez al-Assad, was elected president, a post he held until his death in June 2000.