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Middle East Studies-A Reflection: Syria

Jenkins Macedo
March 21, 2010
Prof. Mohamed Eskandari
Chapter 9


Middle East Heartland

This chapter opens the discussion of the book from the physical and cultural geographic features of the Middle East to its regional geographical aspects discussing Middle Eastern countries in detail in individual chapters. Chapter 9 as such is focus on the nation of Syria, which is situated in the center of the Middle East and has significant historical events to the region.
Syria is one of the oldest nations in the Middle East, which traces its origin to about 3,500 years ago. It lies between the Mediterranean Sea and middle Euphrates River and has since played significant roles in the overall historical, economic, military and cultural developments of the region. Syria reached its political dominance in Middle Eastern political history between 661-750. However, throughout the region’s long history, Syria has served as the epicenter of political leadership. Policies planning and relations have been associated with the country’s difficult economic development. For the sake of the reaction paper, the term “Syria” refers herein means “the Syrian Arab Republic which was officially named in 1961. There is a technical difference between the historical Syria from the modern day Syria, as we know it to be. The “historical Syria existed for more than 2,000 years and included area that are now distributed among Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, western Iraq, Israel and the Israeli-occupied parts of Palestine” (Held, 2006).
Physically, Syria has immense challenges. The country is subdivided into six regions namely: the Mediterranean coast plain, succession of mountains, geologic active zones (Palmyra Folds), steppe-lands that support agricultural activities, extensive basaltic lava flows of several geologic ages and the Jazirah that is located on the eastern portion of the Euphrates River. Syria has one the productive lands that support agricultural activities, which serve as sustainable economic inputs to its economy. Nevertheless, about two-thirds of the country posses a serious physical challenge which is as a result of the problems of aridity and rough relief systems.
Historically, the northern and western portions of the country were once the sites of earliest villages, towns and cities and can be dated as far back as the 9th millennium BCE (Held, 2006). The city of Damascus known in biblical periods and the banks of the Euphrates River provided significant evidence to these facts. Discoveries from archaeologists throw light on the ancient inhabitants and their cultures and how these affect current and future geopolitical significance of the region. For example, the earliest known alphabet with twenty-nine characters was discovered in Syria in the fifteen century BCE as a result of the excavation of Ugarit by archeologists. For about 1,000 years, the region of Syria was the epicenter of political and military conquests by various empires and kingdoms including the Amorites, Aramaeans, Greece, and Romans. The region was included in Alexander the Great Empire after the conquest of Persia in 334-326 BCE. Later with the rise of the Roman Empire in 64 BCE, the evolving Greco-Roman culture became infused with Christianity (Held, 2006). The country still has evidence of some of the historical imprints of the past such as several “dead cities,” ruins of churches and landmarks of ancient Greco-Roman buildings and architectures can still be visited today as tourists sites. With the invasion of the Arabs in about 636 CE, the Byzantines were potentially weakened and could not protect their Syrian possessions (Held, 2006). Subsequently, Syria became part of the Umayyad Empire and Damascus was declared as its capital. This period is known in history as the “Golden Age” of Syria, which lasted for about 90 years. As a result, Arabic was considered the official language, which considerably weakened Aramaic and Greek with Islam as the new dominant religion over Christianity, which still is influential in the region.
Population wise, Syria ranked the seventh among the sixteen Middle Eastern nations with a debated population size between 17.9 million and 19.1 million (Held, 2006). It is estimated that Syria has an annual population growth rate between 3.5-4 percent. This rapid growth in the population was attributed to socioeconomic challenges such as high unemployment, stagnant per capita income, scarce and limited housing. Because of the socioeconomic crisis, people of the majority of the population are now moving into ancient cities such as the dead cities to seek housing, which may cause further economic problems, because these sites generate income for the country as sites of tourists attraction.
In the midst of the French dominance, Syria developed economically. However, as a new state Syria encountered several challenges in the process to enter the modernized industrial economic systems. Also, external conflicts with other nations such as Iraq during the late 1940s, Israel and the United States had substantial negative impact on Syria’s economic potential (Held, 2006). Notwithstanding, Syria as an independent state began to experience economic growth and development in the 1960s. The country’s economic growth and development after 1961 can be expressed into five distinct stages namely: 1960s was a period of economic build up, from mid 1960s to early 1970s was characterized by economic improvements, 1982 to 1990 was considered to be the downturn of Syrian economy, 1990s was characterized by the improvement, downturn and finally leveled off of the economy and lastly, the opening of the new millennium brought exponential changes to the Syrian economic system. Agricultural production is still the leading productive sector of the Syrian economy. This sector is responsible for providing employment opportunities for about one-fourth of the labor force and continues to serve as the major sector of the GDP and export trade (Held, 2006). The government of Syria over the past few decades used the agricultural and oil industries as the leading industries for economic development priorities. Cotton, Wheat and barley are some of the agricultural produces that are grown in Syria. For example, in 2000 cotton production reached a record high and constitutes about 4 percent of the country’s exports.
However, the variation in annual rainfall in Syria is of significance, because as in other countries in the Middle East water is a key economic, social and political factor that crosses national borders and can either enhance production of crops and animals or severely hinder the production process. Damascus is a vibrant city that enjoys for many centuries fame for great metalwork, damask fabrics, muslins, linens, silk brocades, tapestries, carpets, tooled leather, carved and inlaid furniture, glassware, pottery, jewelry, mosaics and other forms of arts and crafts.
Politically, Syria’s political future came to the world stage after World War I. As such, she emerged as an independent nation in 1946. The amputation of Lebanon is a burning issue to most Syrians, because the piece of land upon which Lebanon is situated once belongs to Syria. This also includes some lands occupied by Palestine and Transjordan. The French and British influenced these annexations for their own gain.


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