Syria at a glance
Full Name: Syrian Arab Republic
Capital: Damascus
Area: 185,180 sq km
Population(m): 21.4 (2011)
Head of state: President Bashar al-Asad
Currency: Syrian pound (SYP)
Religions: Sunni Muslim 74%, other Muslim (includes Alawite, Druze) 16%, Christian (various denominations) 10%
Languages: Arabic (official); Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, Circassian, French, English
International organisations: IAEA, UN, OIC, IMF

The country gained its independence from France in 1946 and has suffered considerable periods of political instability since. Since March 2011, the country has suffered from a political uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, which has evolved into civil was in 2012.

More than 18,000 people are estimated to have been killed since the uprising against Al-Assad’s regime began on March 15 2011. The conflict has resulted in a number of high profile defections from Al-Assad’s regime in 2012 and on 18 July Syria’s Defence Minister Daoud Rajha was killed by a bomb attack on the headquarters of the National Security Bureau in Damascus.

The blast also killed Assef Shawkat, the brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar.

Al-Assad’s prime minister (PM) is Wael Nader al-Halqi. He replaced Riyad Hijab after his defection to the opposition on 7 August 2012.

In May, the government held the first multiparty elections in 50 years, for Syrians to elect representatives for the 250-seat parliament. The government had pledged to hold elections after the country’s new constitution was passed in February. The new constitution removed the controversial Article 8, which stipulated that Al-Assad’s Baath Party was the country’s only ruling party.

However, opposition groups largely boycotted the election as a result of the political unrest.

The current regime has been heavily criticised by western governments for its crackdown on anti-government protestors, and has been heavily sanctioned by the US and the EU since the protests began. In July 2012, the EU introduced the 17th round of sanctions against Syria.

In June 2012, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) has appointed Abdelbaset Sayda, a Kurdish activist, as its new president.

The pan-Arab Baath party came to power in Syria 1963 and remains in control despite numerous challenges to its power, most famously from a growing Islamic insurgency suppressed in 1982.

Bashar al-Assad assumed the role of president in 2000, succeeding his father Hafez al-Assad, who had been in charge since 1970. Bashar al-Assad was elected for a second seven-year term in 2007 to oversee the ruling Baath party and has precipitated a degree of relaxation of his father’s authoritarian rule. The pan-Arab Baath party has been in power since 1963.

Politics

Syria has had a strained relationship with Lebanon over the past few years after Lebanon’s prime minister Saad al-Hariri accused Damascus of killing his father, the former PM Rafiq al-Hariri who was assassinated in February 2005.

Syria has always denied involvement in the killing and it prompted Damascus to withdraw troops from Lebanese soil after nearly 30 years of military presence. However, there are signs that relations are now thawing after the Lebanese leader said in early September that the charge against Damascus was ill-founded and politically motivated.

However, Damascus continues to ignore demands that it stop backing armed Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, which is at odds with its stated aims of improving relations with the United States and resuming peace negotiations with Israel.

Relations with the US have been strained since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in early 2011, with US President Barack Obama having repeatedly called for President Al-Assad to resign.

Syria’s relations with neighbouring Turkey have also faltered since the uprising against President Al-Assad began in 2011. In June 2012, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened an armed response if the Syrian regime does not keep forces away from its border. The threat followed Syria shooting down a Turkish fighter jet.

Economy

Syria’s economy has been impacted heavily by the unrest and international sanctions. The US, EU and the Arab League have all imposed crippling sanctions on Syria since the unrest began. From late 2011, the regime has struggled to generate oil revenues, which used to generate 20 per cent of its GDP.

GDP growth fell from 3.4 per cent in 2010 to -6 per cent in 2011, and is forecast to fall to -14 per cent in 2012, according to data from the Institute of International Finance. Official reserves are forecast to fall from $10.8bn in 2011 to $1.1bn in 2012.

As a result of the conflict, international investment and tourism revenues have collapsed. Syria’s foreign exchange from exports, tourism, foreign direct investment and remittances fell from $21bn in 2010 to $16bn in 2011. In the tourism sector, Damascus earned $6.1bn in 2010, but this is expected to drop to $200m in 2012.

By August 2012, the Syrian pound has lost about half its value since the uprising began in March 2011.

Banking & Markets

After having been closed for 40 years, trading resumed on the Damascus Securities Exchange (DSE) in March 2010. It opened with four trading days a week.

The stock exchange has been heavily affected by the civil unrest, with fewer trades and a decline in prices. The main market index was trading at 823 points at beginning of August 2012, compared with 994 points at the same point in 2011 and 1,489 points in August 2010.

As a result of the unrest, Syrians have been moving their assets out of local banks. Billions have been transferred abroad. The IIF estimates that transfers to Iran, Russia, Turkey and elsewhere have amounted to a loss of $10.5bn for the Syrian banking system over the course of 2011 and 2012.

 

Oil & Gas

The current EU sanctions are having a severe impact on Syria’s oil revenues, with Europe having been the main destination for the majority of Syria’s oil in recent years. In May 2012, the government said that the sanctions had resulted in $4bn worth of losses for the country’s economy and was also resulting in widespread fuel shortages.

Despite continuing to play an important role in Syria’s economy, the country’s hydrocarbon reserves have been rapidly depleting since the mid-1990s, and rising domestic fuel demand resulted in Syria becoming a net oil importer in 2008.

According to the Oil and Gas Journal, in 2011 Syria had 2.5 billion barrels of petroleum reserves. Syria’s oil reserves are located near the Iraqi border in the eastern apart of the country and alongside the Euphrates river. The majority of Syria’s oil, about 60 per cent, is heavy oil.

In January 2011, Syria had a total refining capacity of 240,000 barrels a day, according to the Oil and Gas Journal. The country’s two state-owned refineries are in Homs and Baniyas.