Following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, France administered Syria until its independence in 1946. The country lacked political stability, however, and experienced a series of military coups during its first decades. Syria united with Egypt in February 1958 to form the United Arab Republic. In September 1961, the two entities separated, and the Syrian Arab Republic was re-established. In November 1970, Hafiz al-Asad, a member of the Socialist Ba'th Party and the minority Alawite sect, seized power in a bloodless coup and brought political stability to the country. In the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel. During the 1990s, Syria and Israel held occasional peace talks over its return. Following the death of President al-Asad, his son, Bashar al-Asad, was approved as president by popular referendum in July 2000. Syrian troops - stationed in Lebanon since 1976 in an ostensible peacekeeping role - were withdrawn in April 2005. During the July-August 2006 conflict between Israel and Hizballah, Syria placed its military forces on alert but did not intervene directly on behalf of its ally Hizballah.
Climate: Mostly desert; hot, dry, sunny summers (June to August) and mild, rainy winters (December to February) along coast; cold weather with snow or sleet periodically in Damascus. Terrain: Primarily semiarid and desert plateau; narrow coastal plain; mountains in west.
The Syrian economy grew by an estimated 3.3% in real terms in 2007 led by the petroleum and agricultural sectors, which together account for about one-half of GDP. Higher crude oil prices countered declining oil production and led to higher budgetary and export receipts. Damascus has implemented modest economic reforms in the past few years, including cutting lending interest rates, opening private banks, consolidating all of the multiple exchange rates, raising prices on some subsidised items, most notably gasoline and cement, and establishing the Damascus Stock Exchange - which is set to begin operations in 2009. In October 2007, for example, Damascus raised the price of subsidised gasoline by 20%, and may institute a rationing system in 2008. In addition, President Asad signed legislative decrees to encourage corporate ownership reform, and to allow the Central Bank to issue Treasury bills and bonds for government debt. Nevertheless, the economy remains highly controlled by the government. Long-run economic constraints include declining oil production, high unemployment and inflation, rising budget deficits, and increasing pressure on water supplies caused by heavy use in agriculture, rapid population growth, industrial expansion, and water pollution.