Syria Table of Contents
Figure 4. Physical Features
Figure 5. Population Distribution by Age and Sex, 1985
Figure 6. Population Distribution, 1981 Census
Throughout its history, Syria's political and economic importance has been largely attributable to its position at the crossroads of three continents and several cultures. Because of its strategic geographic location, Syria continues to be a focus of transit trade among many countries of the Middle East and to be a vital factor in Arab politics and in Arab-Israeli hostilities.
The area includes about 185,180 square kilometers of deserts, plains, and mountains. It is divided into a coastal zone--with a narrow, double mountain belt enclosing a depression in the west-- and a much larger eastern plateau. The climate is predominantly dry; about three-fifths of the country has less than 25 centimeters of rain a year. Fertile land is the nation's most important natural resource, and efforts have been made, and in the 1980s were continuing, to increase the amount of arable land through irrigation projects (see Agriculture , ch. 3).
In mid-1986, the population was estimated at 10.6 million, including beduin and Palestinian refugees, and was increasing at an annual rate of approximately 3.3 percent a year. The Syrian government encourages population increase, even though it tends to offset improvements in the national standard of living. In the mid-1980s, double-digit inflation cut real income and eroded some of the gains in standard of living achieved in the late 1970s. Despite austerity budgets, the government boosted annual price subsidies for essential commodities to a total of LS 1.4 billion and continued to maintain a safety net of health, welfare, and public housing services.
Social welfare and development projects have been concentrated in rural areas. Although in 1970 only 10 percent of rural dwellers had access to electricity, by the mid-1980s electricity had been brought to virtually every village. However, progress lagged in providing sewage disposal, potable water, and health facilities to rural areas. City-dwellers benefited from the proximity of medical, transportation, and educational facilities, but suffered from a severe housing shortage. In addition, municipal services such as sanitation were inadequate for the rapidly increasing urban population.
Increasing government responsibility in the field of social welfare has been consistent with the program of the Baath Party to create a socialist society. Official initiative in economic and social improvements has been reflected in substantial allocations set aside for these purposes in development plans. However, government-financed projects designed to bring about these improvements tend to be delayed because of frequent cabinet changes and shifting emphases within development budgets.
The principle of linking long-term economic development to social welfare has been voiced in official statements, calling for a better geographic distribution of industrial production and social services, accompanying development plans. Persistent welfare problems, however, arising from rural poverty and urban crowding, and compounded by rapid population growth and the influx of refugees, often necessitate the diversion of funds earmarked for long-term planning to ad hoc relief measures.
Data as of April 1987