Foreign policy and defense
According to abbreviationfinder, Syria is a nation in Western Asia. Its capital city Damascus. Syria has long had conflicting relations with the outside world, but the Assad regime has also skillfully exploited Syria’s influence in neighboring countries, in order to gain support and financial assistance. Relations with Lebanon and the conflict with Israel have long characterized the government’s foreign policy. Since 2011, however, the focus has been entirely on finding allies in the ongoing civil war.
Syria has fought three wars against Israel, 1948-1949, 1967 and 1973, and also fought against Israel inside Lebanon during the 1980s. Formally, wars still exist between them. Many Palestinian refugees from today’s Israel live in Syria. President Hafiz al-Assad strongly opposed Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and Syria has continued to support Palestinian organizations that do not recognize Israel’s existence and refuse to participate in peace talks.
- Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in Syria for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.
The major dispute between Syria and Israel concerns the Golan Heights that Israel conquered in 1967. A total Israeli retreat from occupied territories is Syria’s basic requirement. There is also conflict between Lebanon, Syria and Israel about the so-called Sheba farms, which are at the intersection of southeastern Lebanon, southwestern Syria and northern Israel. The 25-square-kilometer area was occupied by Israel during the six-day war in 1967. Israel claims that the area belongs to the Golan Heights while the UN believes its maps show that Shebaa is Syrian territory, which Lebanon in turn questions.
During the 2011 civil war in Syria, Israel first pursued a cautiously neutral policy. Later, targets began to be bombed inside Syria, suspected of being Syrian and Iranian weapons deliveries to Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah, which occasionally conflicts with Israel and has also been actively involved in the civil war in Syria (see Calendar). Israel has also repeatedly opened fire on Syrian army forces following fires in the Golan area.
Long presence in Lebanon
Syria had long been unwilling to accept that Lebanon became a separate area of mandate in 1920 (see Older History) and refused to diplomatically recognize the independent state of Lebanon in 1943. Not all parts of the common border are formally regulated either. In 1976, Syria intervened in Lebanon’s civil war and gradually strengthened the Syrian influence. In practice, no political decisions were made in Beirut that had not been approved by Syria. The Syrian security service persecuted and silenced oppositionists.
According to the 1989 Taif Agreement in Saudi Arabia, which ended the civil war, the Syrian army would withdraw within two years to the Bekaa Valley in the east, but Syria did not follow the agreement. The government justified this with Israel occupying the disputed area of the Sheba farms.
Following the assassination of Lebanese politician Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, the demands of the UN and many states were tightened on a Syrian retreat from Lebanon (see Lebanon: Modern History). From several directions, Syria and pro-Syrian forces in Lebanon were accused of being behind the murder. Following Arab pressure, Syria accepted UN demands and in late April, the last soldiers left Lebanon after 29 years of presence. However, the UN continued to criticize Syria, which was accused of sending arms to Hezbollah.
Only after a multi-year political crisis in Lebanon had been resolved and a new unifying government formed could relations between Syria and Lebanon be improved, in principle by Syria’s opponents giving up and accepting continued influence for Bashar al-Assad in Lebanon. In October 2008, for the first time, full diplomatic relations were established between the countries. Syria has liaised with various groups in Lebanon for different periods, but since the beginning of the 21st century, it has relied primarily on Hezbollah and other Shiite groups, as well as on certain Christian groups. About half of Lebanon’s population supports Assad-friendly parties, while the other half supports Assad-hostile parties, including most Sunni Muslims. Hezbollah is actively involved in the Syrian civil war.
Relations with the great powers
Syria worked closely with Eastern Europe, not least militarily, until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Contacts with Russia have been maintained since 1991 and during the civil war of 2011, Russia has served as an important ally to the Syrian regime. In early autumn 2015, at the request of the Syrian government, Russia launched anti-rebel forces. For Russia, it was about guarding Syria as Moscow’s oldest ally in the Middle East (Russia’s only foreign war base is located in the Syrian port city of Tartus), but also about building up its own superpower role in the region. The Russian efforts have intensified during the war and helped the government side recover land from rebels.
Damascus has also sought better relations with the western countries, not least the former colonial power of France and the United States, but Syria is on the US list of states that support terrorism and was thus excluded from US aid even before the civil war. In 2004, the United States resumed sanctions on Syria for the Assad regime hosting Palestinian terror groups, but above all for Syrian “volunteers” crossing the border into Iraq and helping to fight the US occupation forces there after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Syria’s close friendship with Iran was also a red blanket for the United States.
However, Washington has not been able to completely ignore Syria. For the United States, cooperation with Syria was a key to initiating the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians in the 1990s and to stabilize the situation in Lebanon. After taking office as US President in early 2009, Barack Obama attempted to initiate a dialogue with Syria. In 2010, he decided to send a new ambassador to Damascus, the first in almost six years. When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, the United States first tried to call for a compromise solution, but Obama demanded in August 2011 Assad’s departure. Subsequently, the United States was drawn step by step into the conflict, but Obama resisted all demands for military intervention against Assad and tried to get the parties to conclude a unity government agreement. Since 2013, the United States has been openly supporting certain rebel groups to pressure Assad and try to increase its own influence over the rebels. In the fall of 2014, a US-led alliance began to bomb the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. IS has since been driven away from most of its holdings, prompting Obama’s successor Donald Trump to make a decision to take home the US squad (despite opposition from both the US Defense Headquarters and Trump’s own party). In both spring 2017 and spring 2018, the United States initiated the bombing of places where the Assad regime was supposed to store nuclear weapons or substances that could be used for combat gas. which prompted Obama’s successor Donald Trump to make a decision to take home the US troops (despite opposition both from the US Defense Headquarters and from Trump’s own party). In both spring 2017 and spring 2018, the United States initiated the bombing of places where the Assad regime was supposed to store nuclear weapons or substances that could be used for combat gas. which prompted Obama’s successor Donald Trump to make a decision to take home the US troops (despite opposition both from the US Defense Headquarters and from Trump’s own party). In both spring 2017 and spring 2018, the United States initiated the bombing of places where the Assad regime was supposed to store nuclear weapons or substances that could be used for combat gas.
The EU was previously Syria’s most important trading partner and an association agreement had been negotiated but not signed by Syria when the war broke out. In 2011, the EU imposed sanctions on Syria and from August that year demanded Assad’s departure. Britain and France have been pushing for support for Syria’s rebels, while the majority of EU states, including Sweden, have been pushing a more cautious line. Germany, which has received a large number of refugees from Syria, has become the arena for some of the judicial trials that are taking place. This applies to both crimes committed by the Assad regime and atrocities staged by the Islamic State (IS), see Calendar.
Disputes with neighboring states
Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has been Syria’s closest ally in the region, mainly because they have shared interests in the view of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Israel and Lebanon, among others. Both countries have also been subject to US sanctions. In the civil war, Iran supports the government side with money, weapons and soldiers. For the Iranian government, it is also important that Syria acts as a willing transit country for deliveries to Iran’s key allied Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
Relations with Iraq have swung back and forth. Until 2003, Syria and Iraq were ruled by competing branches of the Baath Party and there was fierce rivalry between the countries. During the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, Damascus stood on Iran’s side. Syria also participated in the UN-backed alliance that drove Iraq’s occupation forces out of Kuwait in 1991.
For financial reasons, however, some trade with Iraq was resumed in 1998, including those that violated UN sanctions on Iraq. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Syria received more than one million Iraqi refugees, including Saddam followers and Iraqi Christians. At the end of 2006, the states resumed diplomatic relations, which had been interrupted since 1982. Since 2011, Iraq’s Shiite-led and Iran-friendly government has kept a low profile on the Syrian issue, although over time its support for the Assad government has escalated. The two governments have been allied in the fight against the Sunni Muslim extremist group Islamic State (IS), which, having subjugated large areas in both Iraq and Syria, has now been displaced and lost most of its influence, although the group is still seen as a potentially threatening.
Relations with Turkey have long been strained for several reasons: Turkish irrigation projects that jeopardize the flow of water to Syria, the Kurdish issue and the role of Israel. Turkey’s military cooperation with Israel has been considered a threat in Syria. Turkey’s accusations against Syria for supporting the Kurdish guerrilla PKK, which operates in Turkey, threatened in 1998 to lead to armed conflict. Following pressure from the United States, Syria decided to stop PKK’s operations in the country and expel leader Abdullah Öcalan. Thereafter, relations between the countries improved significantly and Turkey sought to mediate between Syria and Israel. In 2011, however, Turkey swung and began to support the Syrian opposition. The divide between Turkey and the Syrian government increased when the Assad regime in 2012 allowed the Kurds to establish a zone in northern Syria where PKK-loyal Kurdish groups could operate (see Political system). The Turkish government has also aired claims on Assad’s case and the countries have been involved in several military incidents. Since Turkey began to engage militarily in the conflict on Syrian soil in 2014, including through air strikes, the country has focused primarily on fighting the PKK-loyal groups in Syria and the regions, called Rojava, where a form of Kurdish state building has been underway.. In 2019, Turkey’s defense force launched its third military offensive in northern Syria since 2016. However, the peace initiative with Russia and Iran that Turkey is involved in is in practice a support for the Assad government. Turkey’s efforts against Kurdish forces also benefit Assad, which has clearly stated its intention to reclaim the entire territory of Syria, including Rojava.
Jordan and Syria have historically often had tense relationships, as they have had different allies and belonged to different power blocks. Jordan has stood close to the United States, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Sunni states of the Persian Gulf, and has pursued a cautious policy against Israel. During the 2011 civil war, Jordan has taken on a less prominent role than most of Syria’s neighboring countries, worrying about the large influx of refugees. However, the Jordanian leadership has accepted that the United States, Saudi Arabia and other countries finance and train rebels from Jordanian soil.
Before 2011, Syria’s defense force was one of the largest in the Arab world. Its leadership is closely linked to the political elite. From 1956 the defense was equipped almost entirely with weapons from the Soviet bloc and after the defeat of Israel in the October 1973 war, thousands of Soviet military advisers were stationed in Syria. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Syria no longer has access to the most modern equipment but still buys weapons from Russia and to a certain extent also from Belarus, China and North Korea.
Tens of thousands of soldiers have been killed, wounded or deserted by the Syrian army since 2011. Conscription soldiers are still used, but Assad is increasingly forced to rely on loyal special forces and militia, not least those recruited among Alawites, the religious group he himself belongs to. Russia has continued to support the Syrian army following the outbreak of the war in 2011, not least through aerial bombings against both IS and the rebel strongholds. Iran has contributed weapons, military training and financing of Syrian weapons purchases, and by mobilizing Shiite Muslim militia forces from Iraq and Lebanon in support of Assad.
For decades, Syria had built up a large stockpile of weapons of mass destruction in the form of nerve gases. Following reports that nerve gas was used against the rebels in 2013, the United States threatened to intervene, which led Syria to abandon chemical weapons in the fall of 2013 and spring of 2014. However, the government has been accused of using both sarin and improvised chlorine gas bombs even after this. Syria has also been accused of wanting to develop nuclear weapons. In 2007, Israel bombed what was claimed to be a nuclear reactor under construction in eastern Syria.
During the Civil War, a large number of militia forces have also emerged on the government side, many but far from all recruited from the religious minorities. The largest umbrella group that gathers such forces is called the National Defense Forces and consists of a variety of regional groups, which in many cases appear to have been funded and trained with the help of Iran. Other groups include, for example, the Baath Battalions, which fall under the ruling Baath Party. Foreign Shiite Muslim militias from Iraq and Iraq, such as Hezbollah, are also fighting the Syrian government, as well as some small Christians and other groups. Together, these militia forces now constitute a very significant part of the troops that Assad relies on.
Mandatory military service applies to all men from 18 years. The length of military service has been gradually reduced since the 1990s and in 2011 it was reduced to one and a half years.
For the rebel forces, see Political system.
FACTS – DEFENSE
Army: 105,000 men (2017)
The air Force: 15,000 men (2017)
The fleet: 2,500 men (2017)
Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 4.1 percent (2010)
Military spending’s share of the state budget: 13.6 percent (2010)