Syria has a population of 21,906,000 people UN, 2009 estimate, of which 6 million are concentrated in the capital Damascus. A moderately large country 185,180 sq km or 72,150 sq miles, Syria is situated centrally within the Middle East region and has land borders with Turkey in the north, with Israel and Lebanon in the south, and with Iraq and Jordan in the east and south-east respectively.
The population of Syria is predominately Arab 90%, with large minorities from other ethnic groups: Kurds, Armenians, Circassians and Turks. The official language is Arabic, but other tongues that are occasionally understood include Kurdish, Armenian, Turkish, French and English. The Syrian Republic is officially secular. Nonetheless, it is greatly influenced by the majority religion of Islam 80% of the population, split between 74% Sunni Muslim and 16% other Muslim, Alawites and Druze. There is a large Christian minority that amounts to about 10% of the population.
The President of Syria is Bashar al-Assad, who replaced his father Hafez al-Assad soon after his death on 10 June 2000. Having studied to become an opthalmologist eye doctor in Damascus and London, Bashar was groomed for the presidency after the 1994 car accident of his elder brother Basil. As a consequence, he joined the army and became colonel in 1999. Bashar's modernising credentials were somewhat boosted by his role in a domestic anti-corruption drive. More recently, however, after an initial period of increased openness. Bashar's position as head of the Syrian state rests on his presidency of the Baath Party and his command-in-chief of the army.
Assad's regime and the Baath Party own or control the vast majority of Syria's media. Criticism of the president and his family is not permitted and the press both foreign and domestic is heavily censored for material deemed threatening or embarrassing to the government. A brief period of relative press freedom arose after Bashar became president in 2000 and saw the licensing of the first private publications in almost 40 years. A later crackdown, however, imposed a range of restrictions regarding licensing and content. In a more relaxed manner perhaps owing more to the fact that these matters are largely beyond possible government control, many Syrians have gained access to foreign television broadcasts usually via satellite as well as the three state-run networks. In 2002 the government set out conditions for licensing private, commercial FM radio stations, ruling at the same time, however, that radio stations could not broadcast news or political content.
Tourist Information Offices; Damascus: 2323953, Damascus Int'l Airport: 2248473, Aleppo: 2121228, Daraa Jordanian-Syrian border gate: 239023, Latakia: 216924, Palmyra Tadmur: 910636, Deir-az-Zur: 358990