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Syria Table of Contents



Figure 12. Transportation System


A portion of the Beirut-damascus highway
Courtesy Murhaf Jouejati

Since antiquity, Syria has served as a major crossroads for international trade. Syrian merchants traditionally have prospered from the east-west and north-south movement of goods and people. In the early twentieth century, Syrian transportation links continued to be more provincial than national. The boundaries preceding independence further fragmented the country's transportation system. Splitting off Lebanon from Greater Syria (see Glossary) deprived the country of its main port, Beirut, and placed part of the rail network connecting Syria's main cities in Lebanon. The French cession of Syria's northwest corner to Turkey before World War II took away the country's other port, Iskenderun (Alexandretta), and important rail and road segments. At independence, the country lacked a port, adequate links between the main cities of Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo, and transportation arteries to the important northeast agricultural area and the fertile coastal plain. Moreover, the traditional east-west and north-south transit trade had diminished considerably.

After independence, the state began a major effort to develop a national transportation system of roads, railroads, and (later) pipelines. Three ports (Tartus, Latakia, and Baniyas) served domestic and transit trade. Two international airports (Damascus and Aleppo) and several secondary airports provided international and internal connections for freight and passengers. By the mid- 1970s, the main population and economic areas were connected by the various forms of transport (see fig. 12, Transportation System).

In 1986 about one-half of the roads, one-half of the railroads, and two-fifths of port capacity had been added during the previous 16 years. However, the transportation system remained overtaxed as a result of the country's development boom and the increase of transit goods destined for the Gulf states. Under the Fourth Five-Year Plan, a high level of investment in transportation infrastructure was planned to remove constraints on economic development caused by inadequate transportation.

In the mid-1980s, over 95 percent of freight and passenger traffic moved by truck or bus on the highways. The main arteries were north-south between the Turkish and Jordanian borders (but primarily between the major west-central cities of Damascus, Hamah, Homs, and Aleppo) and north-south along the coastal plain; east-west traffic also was heavy between the main west-central cities and towns and the port cities of the coast. Important corridors, although less heavily used, extended from Damascus eastward to the border (the primary road to Baghdad), from Homs eastward to Tadmur for the export of phosphates via the port of Tartus, and from Aleppo eastward to the important northeast economic area and continuing to Baghdad.

Major road improvements began in the late 1960s. The paved highway network had approximately tripled by 1983, reaching 21,000 kilometers or about 90 percent of the highway system. The state spent LS598 million on road construction in 1984. From 1980 to 1984, major roads grew from 4,527 kilometers to 5,230 kilometers. About 99 percent of the paved roads were two lane, inadequate for the north-south traffic between the major cities, towns, and coastal ports. By the late 1970s, overuse of particular arteries caused congestion, maintenance problems, and shortened life span of trucks. In the mid-1980s, the government studied a number of plans to ease congestion in the capital; plans included construction of a southern ring road, a ring road along the city wall, and more bridges. The state also continued plans to upgrade four-lane highways in some heavily populated western portions of the country and complete a new 104-kilometer highway to the Jordanian border by 1988. The 1980s also witnessed an expansion of the rural road network, which grew from 16,290 kilometers in 1980 to 21,796 kilometers in 1984.

After independence, the country developed three major ports. By 1984 Tartus port, opened in 1965, was the most important, handling 8.8 million tons of cargo. Tartus handled general cargo imports, phosphate exports (857,000 tons in 1984) and large crude-oil exports. Tartus also handled 8,000 passengers. Latakia port handled general cargo (1.7 million tons in 1984), including 147,000 tons of cotton exports. The government planned to increase the capacity of Latakia to 3.5 million tons a year in the late 1980s. Both of these general cargo ports experienced congestion and unloading delays in the mid-1970s because of the rapid increase (up to 50 percent between 1974 and 1976) of seaborne cargo destined for Syria and transit trade to Persian Gulf countries. Closing of the port of Beirut 1976 as a result of the Lebanese Civil War temporarily diverted additional transit cargo to Syrian ports. In the late 1970s, Syrian port congestion diminished, and waiting time in the 1980s was minimal.

Syria's other port was located at Baniyas, the terminal for the crude oil pipeline from Iraq. In 1975 crude exports from Baniyas totaled about 27 million tons, but when export of Iraqi crude ceased in 1982, activity in Baniyas dropped off considerably. Completion of the 6-million-ton capacity oil refinery at Baniyas in 1978 maintained some activity at the oil port. In 1984 Baniyas exported 1,520 tons of petroleum.

At independence, the country inherited two separate railroads. The narrow gauge (1.05 meters) Hijaz Railway served Damascus and the southwest, with connections to Lebanon and Jordan. In 1984 it had 327 kilometers of track. The standard gauge (1.4 meters) Northern Railway had 757 kilometers of track from the port of Latakia to the northeast corner of the country and Iraq via Aleppo, Ar Raqqah, Dayr az Zawr, and Al Hasakah. The link between Latakia and the northeast was completed in the mid- 1970s, and it resulted in a substantial rise in freight, primarily shipments of cotton, wheat, and barley.

By the late 1970s, the railroads required considerable rehabilitation in order to make an important contribution to the economy. Transportation policy needed attention and equipment needed upgrading. The government had long-term plans to add equipment and trackage, link the two systems, and make the railroads much more important carriers of passengers and traffic. In 1978 work began on lines linking the phosphate mines near Tadmur to Tartus. In 1981 the Soviet Union provided Syria US$49.5 million in development aid, including funding for the 150- kilometer railroad from Dayr az Zawr to Abu Kamal and an 80- kilometer line between Tartus and Latakia, with a 10-kilometer spur to the Tartus cement factory. The 209-kilometer line from Damascus to Homs opened for freight in 1983. The opening of the Homs to Tadmur and Homs to Tartus routes, coupled with other expansions of the railroad network, connected Syria's main towns and industrial centers in the mid-1980s. By 1984, total standard extended gauge track stood at 1,686 kilometers.

Syria's civil aviation sector experienced considerable growth in the 1980s. Syrian Arab Airlines (SAA), the state-owned carrier established in 1961 as a successor to Syrian Airways, provided domestic service from Damascus to Aleppo, Latakia, Al Qamishli, and Dayr az Zawr. SAA's service included thirty-three overseas routes to major Middle Eastern, European, and South Asian capitals. In 1986 the airline added biweekly flights to Tehran and Riyadh. The airline had a total of twenty-three major transport aircraft.

The General Directorate of Civil Aviation reported a steady increase in the number of arrivals and departures at Damascus International Airport, Syria's major air terminal in the 1980s. The number of passengers rose from 1.3 million in 1983 to 1.5 million in 1984 and 1985, an increase of approximately 16 percent. About 95 percent of Syrian air traffic went via Damascus, with about 3.3 percent using the Aleppo airport. In 1985 the number of planes arriving at Damascus International Airport totaled 10,997: 607 arrived at Aleppo and 539 at Dayr az Zawr. In 1985, freight unloaded at Damascus International Airport totaled 2.8 tons vs. 2.2 tons loaded.

Not until the 1980's did the country's telecommunications facilities experience significant growth. The ratio of telephones to people remained extremely low throughout the 1960s and 1970s, numbering 13.5 telephones per 1,000 people in 1963 and 17.5 telephones per 1,000 people in 1970. In 1979, Syria embarked upon a major expansion of the country's telecommunications infrastructure. The Public Telecommunications Establishment, Syria's state-owned agency responsible for overseeing and developing the country's telecommunications, signed a major contract with a Japanese firm to install two 40,000-line electronic switching systems in Damascus and Aleppo, a project that placed Syria's local telephone exchanges among the largest in the world. By autumn 1983, Syria possessed an improved network of microwave links and digital systems. In 1983 the number of telephones per 1,000 people increased to 43 and by 1985 the country had 512,600 telephones, an increase to 53 telephones per 1,000 inhabitants. Dimashq province accounted for about 40 percent of the country's telephones, followed by Halab province with 15 percent, and then by Hims, Hamah, and Al Ladhaqiyah provinces.

In the late 1980s, Syria's international links depended on its participation in the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (INTELSAT), a coaxial cable to Crete and radio relay to neighboring countries. Furthermore, plans to link Syria with the Soviet-sponsored Intersputnik network and the regional Arab Satellite Organization (ARABSAT) system would significantly contribute to Syria's telecommunications capabilities, as would the new telecommunications network slated to link Damascus, Sheikh Meskin, and Dar'a in Syria with towns in Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the 1990s.

Radio-broadcast transmissions were made from six AM stations for domestic service and from a high-frequency station located at Sabburah for international service. Television is broadcast from 13 transmitters, including a 350-kilowatt transmitter which broadcasts into Israel, and 27 low-power relay stations.

In the mid-1970s, construction became a major growth sector of the economy and, because it is labor intensive, an important employer, particularly of unskilled labor. The construction industry helped absorb the large flow of agricultural workers who moved to urban areas seeking a better living. Construction expanded an average of 8.2 percent a year (in constant prices) between 1953 and 1976, but there were great variations in growth. From 1977 to 1984, construction expanded a total of 160 percent. The sector expanded in terms of value added (at constant prices) by nearly 20 percent a year between 1970 and 1976. Between 1978 and 1984 the sector expanded 7.5 percent a year in terms of value added at constant prices.

Housing construction had fallen considerably behind the needs of the population in the mid-1970s. From 1975 to 1978, the number of residential building licenses issued by the government grew from 12,388 to 22,626, but in 1984 the state issued only 14,666 new residential building licenses--a signal that the mid-1970s construction boom was winding down. The high rate of population increase, the rural to urban migration, and the desire of Syrians to invest in secure areas like housing put severe pressures on housing and services such as water, sewerage, electricity, and telephones in most cities and towns. Figures to measure the housing shortages were lacking in 1987, but soaring real estate prices in the major cities in the 1980s confirmed the shortage. Those with limited incomes and young couples experienced particular difficulties as a result of sharply rising land and construction costs that priced moderate wage earners out of the market. By 1986 government efforts to curb urban land speculation and to ease the supply of building material had had only limited success. The average price of ordinary apartments in Damascus topped LS1 million in the mid-1980s, with little hope for relief.

Data as of April 1987

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