HUMAN AND ECONOMIC GEOGRAPHY
Southwestern Asian state. The Syrian population estimated in 2006 amounts to about 18.9 million residents, for a density of 101.9 residents / km 2, among the highest in the Middle East. The distribution of the population is, however, irregular, with a strong concentration in the urban areas of the capital Damascus (about 1.6 million residents in 2005) and Aleppo (about 1.5 million diab. In the same year), as well as in the coastal strip and along the Euphrates valley. The urbanization rate exceeds 50 %. Demographic trends slowed down, settling at rates between 2and 2.5 % per year. Estimating the overall demographic consistency is made more difficult by the presence of a large community of Palestinian refugees, to which a flow of immigrants from Irāq has recently been added.
The start of the second Gulf War, in 2003, further complicated the Syrian position on the international level. The country has been subject to economic sanctions by the United States for not having sufficiently opposed the passage through its borders of fighters headed for ̔Irāq. In addition, some UN Security Council resolutions called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops present in Lebanon. At the same time, the reforms launched in 2000, when 34-year-old Baššar al-Asad succeeded his father Ḥāfiẓ as president of the country, slowed down both in the economic field and in respect for civil rights. The positive results achieved in terms of GDP growth in the first years of the 21stsec. (3.6 % in 2004 according to official Syrian sources) are attributable to economic factors (including the rise in the price of oil and the recovery of agricultural production) rather than structural factors. Unemployment remains one of the main problems of Syria, while among other social indicators, those relating to both education and life expectancy at birth are much better than in other Middle Eastern countries. Starting from 2005, reforms have been planned in national legislation which should create more favorable conditions for foreign investment and for the development of services (including banking and insurance). Agriculture plays an important role in the national economy, contributing just under a quarter to the formation of the national product, occupying a similar percentage of the workforce, which has also developed thanks to the private ownership of most of the land. arable land and public support for irrigation. The main products include wheat, barley and sugar beet, but it is the production of cotton that ensures the largest share of exports, as well as being the precondition for a developed textile industry. As for the secondary sector,70 % of exports, but, taking into account the size of available reserves, is destined to undergo a downsizing of production. The production of electricity is also significant, with an installed power of 7.6 GW. The other main sectors are represented by the food and tobacco, chemical and mining industries (especially phosphates). Noteworthy is the development of tourism (about 3 million visitors in 2004), which can count on a significant archaeological and cultural heritage, susceptible to further enhancement.
Internal transport uses an extensive road network (approximately 50,000 km) and in relatively good condition, used by an increasing number of private vehicles. The railway network is undergoing modernization and is also used for the transport of goods. The port facilities are also adequate, with ports specialized in the transport of oil and phosphates. In terms of telecommunications, there was the development of the telephone network (2 million lines activated), albeit to a lesser extent than government expectations.
The turn of the century in Syria symbolically coincided with the death of president Ḥāfiẓ al-Asad (June 2000), after thirty uninterrupted years in power. In a climate of great internal political stability, the succession to the post of head of state of his son Baššar al-Asad, who was expected to undergo difficult tests, took place. In fact, all the problems afflicting the region were still dramatically unsolved: in the first place, peace with Israel and the question of restitution of the Golan Heights to the South. secondly, the maintenance of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon; finally, the alliance with Iran (strongly desired by Ḥ. al-Asad in an openly anti-Israeli function) and the increasingly cordial relations with Iraq (reopening of the borders in June 1997) and with Turkey. But the Palestinian problem remained by far the priority in the Middle East, especially after the explosion of violence in Gaza and the West Bank starting at the end of September 2000 with the outbreak of the second al-Aqṣā intif ā ḍa . The Syria generously financed the Palestinian guerrilla, hoping that the revolt in the occupied territories would put an end to the long period of expansion by Israel, also in consideration of the crisis crossed by US policy in the Middle East with the negotiation between Syria and Israel (Jan. 2000), also stalled after President B. Clinton’s meeting with Ḥ. al-Asad (March 2000), and with the failure of the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians at Camp David (July 2000), strongly supported by the American administration. For Syria history, please check historyaah.com.
In the passage of power from Ḥāfiẓ to Baššar, the guidelines of Syrian foreign policy did not undergo substantial changes: the new president, after reiterating his closest ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, re-proposed the priority of a peace agreement with Israel placing the withdrawal of Israelis from the Occupied Territories at the center of negotiations in exchange for security and peace throughout the Middle East. New internal perspectives, on the other hand, seemed to open up with his coming to power. The inadequacy of the political and economic structures of the Syria pushed the new president, aware of the great unexpressed economic potential of the country (for example, in the field of tourism and agriculture), to launch an impressive campaign for modernization: fight against corruption, renewal of the leaders of the al-Ba̔ṯ party, reform of the administration and opening of the Syrian market to foreign investors. Small steps, often abruptly denied, were taken on the path of pluralism, while in the country, among civil society, the end of the state of emergency and the guarantee of greater political freedoms were openly demanded. In the new international scenario following the terrorist attack on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers in New York (11 weeks 2001), Syria appeared to collaborate with the United States in the search for al-Qā̔ida terrorists, but maintained its support for the Palestinians and the Lebanese organization of ḥ ezboll ā h (Party of God). The precipitate of events, first with the war in Afghānistān (Oct 2001), then with the attack on Irāq (March 2003), exposed Syria to the threats, now explicit, now more veiled, from the United States which intended to prevent any room for maneuver in the region. In reality, relations between the two states appeared more complex: the GW Bush administration proceeded with caution in enacting sanctions against the Syria and only in May2004, and in little more than symbolic form, the president of the United States approved a package of sanctions in preparation as early as November 2002 ; for its part, Syria, which through its president declared illegal any plan to attack Iraq, in November 2002, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, chose to vote in favor of resolution 1441, wanted by the United States, which imposed immediate disarmament on Irāq.
While the internal political life appeared marked by a strong immobility in spite of the pronouncements expressed by the president at the beginning of his mandate, the legislative elections of 2003 registered the usual victory of the Progressive National Front, a coalition hegemonized by the al-Ba ̔ ṯ party . In the meantime, no reform had changed the structure of the country, and B. al-Asad appeared increasingly sidelined in a regional panorama that saw the emergence of new protagonists: among them the Iranian president M. Ahmadinejad and the leader of the Lebanese ḥ ezboll ā h Ḥ. Naṣrallāh. The repressive force of the regime appeared unchanged, as was verified on the occasion of the Kurdish revolt in March2004, which from the north-east of the Syria spread rapidly to the whole province, skirting Damascus; once again the violent Syrian discriminatory policy towards the Kurds was confirmed, the largest non-Arab minority in the country (about 10 %), which has always been considered a threat to its autonomist aspirations.
Between the end of 2003 and the beginning of 2004, international pressure on Syria grew. Negotiations with Israel, never resumed after 2000, remained blocked despite the attempts of B. al-Asad, considered artificial by Israel, to reopen the negotiating table. But the intransigence of the Israeli Prime Minister A. Sharon, the ambiguities of Baššar and above all the complexity of the knots to be solved (the fate of the approximately 8000 Israeli settlers, questions relating to military security and the dispute over the access of the Syria to the north-eastern shore of Lake Tiberias) made the positions of the two interlocutors increasingly irreconcilable. The situation in ̔Irāq appeared even more threatening on the eastern borders: the state of chaos that reigned in the occupied country and the US maneuvers in the region to break the axis between Damascus and Teherān seemed to jeopardize the very survival of the Alawite dynasty and of B. al-Asad. But it was in Lebanon that the Syria suffered a growing international isolation. From the mid-seventies, at the time of its intervention in the Lebanese civil war (1976), Syria had progressively increased its presence in Lebanon, managing to maintain approximately 30,000 soldiers (2000-01), but above all by managing to place numerous legitimate and illegal economic traffics under his control, also exploiting the widespread presence of his secret services in the area. In June 2001 a gradual redeployment of the Syrian troops present in Lebanon began, then continued in successive stages in the following years; in September 2004, the intervention of the UN Security Council in Lebanese affairs (resolution 1559) underlined the urgency of the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, helping to outline a plan to overcome the crisis and supporting the anti-Syrian protests of Lebanese civil society. In February 2005, the assassination of the outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister R. al-Ḥarīrī, who had sided with the opposition in condemning Syrian meddling, caused protests to spread to Lebanese streets as the last Syrian soldiers left the country (April). The investigations by the UN commission of inquiry into the murder of al-Ḥarīrī highlighted the involvement of the Syrian military leaders and in April 2006 the same B. al-Asad was heard by investigators regarding his alleged and direct responsibility in ‘ murder, according to the accusations brought against him by the former Syrian vice president Abd al Ḥalīm H̱addām.