HUMAN AND ECONOMIC GEOGRAPHY
At the 1993 census the population was 13. 812. 284 residents, while according to the most recent estimates (1998) it exceeds 15 million, including nomads and about 300. 000 Palestinian refugees. The efforts made by the state to keep the population in rural areas (including the project for the electrification of the villages) have paid off and the urbanization process (which affected half the population in 1993) has manifested, in recent years, a certain slowdown. The distribution of the population, however, remains somewhat unbalanced in Damascus (the urban area of which now hosts beyond2, 5 million residents), The large oases, the irrigation basins of the internal slope of the reliefs of the coastal region and the Euphrates valley are contrasted by a high percentage of territory that is completely uninhabited or populated only occasionally by nomads.
Despite the process of economic liberalization initiated in the 1990s, the situation remained substantially unchanged: this was mainly due to the fact that the reconversion was approached too cautiously, while more radical reforms would have been necessary. Furthermore, the regime has hesitated to carry out the reform processes, not being sure of being able to control the social and political consequences. And so the effects of the 1991 law on foreign investment have been slow to make themselves felt, and on about 6, 5billions of dollars of approved projects only a small percentage have been implemented, especially in the textile and agri-food sectors. Among the positive results of the new economic trend, it is worth mentioning the end of the hardships of the internal market, which, however, has not changed the serious shortcomings of the public sector, nor has it been able to contain the pauperisation of the majority of the population.
As regards productive activities, agriculture retains a fundamental role in the Syrian economy (employing over a quarter of the active population and contributing slightly less to the formation of GDP). The most widespread crops are those of cereals (wheat, 40.7 million q in 1998 ; barley, 8.5 million q), cotton, tobacco, olive trees. Breeding mainly concerns sheep (14 million head in 1998).
With an annual production of about 30 million tonnes, oil ensures 60 % of exports and 1, 5 billion dollars of foreign exchange; in the last five years, however, many foreign companies operating in the sector have disengaged and today only three remain operating in the country (Shell, Elf-Aquitania and Tullow Oil). For the future, Syria is counting heavily on the exploitation of the natural gas reserves of Ḥums and Palmyra, from which currently 4410 million m ³ are extracted. Still in the mining sector, other important resources are represented by phosphates (2 million t in 1996), natural asphalt (260. 000 tonnes) and halite (111. 000 t). The secondary sector still remains somewhat weak: manufacturing industries employ 14 % of the active population and work mainly for the internal market; only the textile and petrochemical industries supply products for export.
The difficult political position of the Syria, the existing tensions with Turkey, Iraq and Israel and its isolation from Western countries certainly do not favor foreign trade. The recent alliance between Turkey and Israel pushed the country towards a rapid normalization of relations with Iraq and in June 1997 the border was reopened (closed since 1982 ; see below: History), commercial contracts were signed and promises the reopening of the pipeline that carries Iraqi oil to Bāniyās on the Mediterranean coast.
The attempt made by Syria on the occasion of the Madrid Conference (1991) to coordinate the positions of the various Arab countries, with the aim of reaching an agreement at the regional level on the Palestinian question, effectively met with failure. The position of Syria, in fact, which has always been in favor of placing the Palestinian problem within a more general reconsideration of the geopolitical structure of the Middle East, failed to counteract the tendency to split the negotiation and to prevail. bilateral consultations between Israel and other interlocutors. The defeat of G. Bush also influenced this evolution of the negotiation, in which President Ḥāfiẓ al-Asad had found a reliable interlocutor who had convinced him to bring Syria to the table of negotiations with Israel for the first time. The availability of the Syria was also shown in allowing,1992, the freedom of expatriation for Syrian citizens of Jewish origin. But the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian declaration of principles and the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan isolated Damascus, weakening its positions in the negotiations for the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. The situation seemed to improve over the course of 1995, when it came, after a cautious statement by the Israeli Foreign Minister, Sh. Peres, in favor of the restitution of the Golan Heights, to formulate a hypothesis of agreement that provided for, on the Syrian side, a demilitarization of the border areas. The problem of withdrawing from the ‘security strip’ along the Lebanese border also seemed to be on the way to a solution, a fact that would have had considerable relaxing results, given the persistence of Damascus’ hegemony over Beirut. For Syria history, please check ehistorylib.com.
The crisis and the blockade determined on the path of peace with the advent of the right-wing government of Israel by B. Netanyahu, however, inevitably pushed back the Syria towards the uncompromising positions of the past, especially since a 1996 report, prepared by the secret services Israelis and disclosed in the press in December 1997, which spread false news about Syrian intentions, cast a negative light both on the right-wing government, not very inclined to resume contacts, and on the sincerity of the intentions of the previous Labor ministry.
In this changed climate it was not surprising that Damascus, also to counterbalance the military and economic activism of Turkey, particularly threatening for the consolidation of political-military agreements with Israel, decided to reopen, after fifteen years, the border with Iraq (June 2, 1997). During 1998, in an attempt to contain the pressures of Ankara (between the two countries there was a dispute over the use of the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates), Damascus showed signs of willingness by closing the Kurdish military academy and removing Abdullah ‘from the country Apo ‘Ocalan, head of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who has long been hosted as an exile. On the front of relations with Israel, US insistence led to a resumption of contacts with the aim of resolving the numerous points of conflict. First of all the question of the Golan, which the new Israeli government of E. Barak provided for the return to Syria, and also the controversial and unresolved problems relating to security and water resources. The meetings held in Shepherdstown (West Virginia) in January 2000however, they showed the permanent difficulties of the negotiation. The internal situation of the Syria remained substantially stable as confirmed by the legislative elections of 1994 and 1998 which registered the usual victory of the Progressive National Front.