North of the Arabian Peninsula are three Arab states that surround Israel: Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Each country possesses its own unique physical and cultural geography. The country of Jordan was created through the British Mandate after World War I, when Britain defeated the Turks in Palestine. The area east of the Jordan River became the modern country of Jordan in 1946. From 1953 to 1999, during the most volatile period of the region, the country was ruled by a pragmatic leader, King Hussein, who was able to skillfully negotiate his way through the difficult relationship with Israel and yet keep his country stable. When Palestine was divided by the UN to create the State of Israel, the region of Jordan received more than a million Palestinian refugees from the West Bank and Israel. Refugees make up a large portion of the more than six million people who live in Jordan today; about a half million refugees from the US war in Iraq are included in that total.
Jordan is not large in physical area. Natural resources such as oil and water are not abundant here, and the country often has to rely on international aid to support its economy. Inflation, poverty, and unemployment are basic issues. The government of Jordan is a constitutional monarchy. King Hussein’s son ‘Abdullah II took power after the king’s death in 1999. Economic reforms were implemented by King ‘Abdullah II to improve the long-term outlook of the country and raise the standard of living for his citizens. The king allowed municipal elections to be conducted, which allowed for 20 percent of the positions to be dedicated to women candidates. Parliamentary elections were held by a democratic vote.
Jordan has demonstrated how a country with few natural resources in a volatile region of the world can proceed down a progressive path despite difficult circumstances. Jordan has developed a positive trade relationship with Europe and the United States while at the same time working with its Arab neighbors to access oil and to maintain a civil state of affairs. Jordan is not without its challenges but has managed to confront each issue yet retain a sense of stability and nationalism.
The strategically located country of Syria is at the center of the Middle East’s geopolitical issues. Syria gained its independence from the French Mandate in 1946, the same year as Jordan. Syria has strived to work out and stabilize its political foundation. In a move to create greater Arab unity in the realm, Egypt and Syria joined forces and created the United Arab Republic in 1958. This geopolitical arrangement lasted until 1961, when the partnership was dissolved. Syria returned to its own republic. The Arab Socialist Baath Party gained strength, and in 1970 Hafiz al-Assad, of the Alawite minority (an offshoot branch of Shia Islam making up about 10 percent of the Syrian population), took over leadership in a coup that stabilized the political scene. It was during this era that the Golan Heights was lost to Israel in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. This strategic geographical location is a point of contention in the peace negotiations between Syria and Israel.
Hafiz al-Assad served as the leader of Syria for twenty-nine years without having been democratically elected to the office by the people. His son Bashar took the reins of leadership after Hafiz died in 2000. The Alawite sect held power in Syria through the Assad family under military control. Syria has been accused of using its military power to influence conditions in Lebanon, where it brokered a peace deal in its civil war (1975–1990). Syria has also been accused of supporting the anti-Israel groups headquartered in Lebanon.
Syria is located in an ancient land with a long history of empires and peoples. The region of Syria was once part of the cradle of civilization that sprung up in Mesopotamia. Damascus claims to have been continually inhabited longer than any other capital city on Earth.
The largest city and the center of industrial activity is Aleppo, which lies in the north of Syria. Syria’s physical area is slightly larger than the US state of North Dakota. Overall, Syria’s climate is characterized as an arid type B climate; some regions receive more rain than others. The western region, because it borders the Mediterranean Sea, is an area that receives more rainfall. The additional rainfall translates into extensive agricultural production.
The northeast area of Syria is also productive agriculturally through water resources provided where the Euphrates River cuts through the country. Oil and natural gas have been the country’s main export products. The petroleum reserves are being depleted, and few new fields are being developed. Eventually, the wealth generated by the sale of petroleum reserves, which are finite resources, is projected to diminish, even as the population continues to increase.
The Syrian government has exerted strict control over the economy. The country will face serious economic issues in the future. There is a high rate of unemployment. Because oil production has not been increasing, the government has been forced to take on additional national debt. The arid climate and the need to supplement agriculture production have placed additional pressure on precious fresh water supplies. The Euphrates River provides fresh water, but it originates in Turkey, where large dams restrict the flow. Water rights for the region are therefore an issue.
One-third of Syria’s population is under the age of fifteen, which indicates a rapid population growth pattern that will tax future resources at an increasing rate. The country holds political significance; its strategic location between Iraq and Israel makes it is a vital player in any solution for lasting peace in the Middle East.
Syria has experienced protests and demonstrations similar to those that swept through North Africa in the Arab Spring of 2011.
The Arab Spring was a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across much of the Arab world in the early 2010s. It began in response to oppressive regimes and a low standard of living, starting with protests in Tunisia. The protests then spread to five other countries: Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, where either the regime was toppled or major uprisings and social violence occurred, including riots, civil wars or insurgencies. Sustained street demonstrations took place in Morocco, Iraq, Algeria, Iranian Khuzestan, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman and Sudan. Minor protests occurred in Djibouti, Mauritania, the Palestinian National Authority, Saudi Arabia, and the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. A major slogan of the demonstrators in the Arab world is ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-niẓām (“the people want to bring down the regime”).
Citizens in Syria expressed dissatisfaction with the government because of the lack of democratic reforms, high unemployment, and the loss of civil rights, which had been taken away when the government declared a state of emergency in 1963. Student protests escalated to massive citizen demonstrations that emerged in various Syrian cities in the spring of 2011. The government cracked down on protesters, killing some. After extensive demonstrations on March 15, the government arrested more than three thousand people. Hundreds have been killed in violent clashes between the people and government security forces. The Syrian civil war is currently the 2nd deadliest of the 21st century with millions of people who’ve been made refugees. Almost half the population of Syria has been displaced.
Conflict in Syria is ongoing, at least at the time of this writing. You may want to do an online search to see what the current state of this country is.
Here’s a positive video about history by a blogger, Drew Binsky:
Drew has lots of other great videos about Syria! Click here to view the list on his YouTube channel.
Phoenicians created an empire and trade routes along the Mediterranean coast of present-day Lebanon four thousand years ago. Many armies fought over the strategically located region.
After the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the area became a European protectorate under the French Mandate. Independence was granted by the French in 1943.
Lebanon is smaller than the US state of Connecticut with a population of about four million. The country’s high central mountain chain, the Lebanon Mountains, reaches as much as ten thousand feet in elevation. At these elevations, precipitation turns to snow and allows the operation of ski resorts.
To the east of the central range is the fertile Bekaa Valley, which plays a vital role in the country’s agriculture. On the eastern side of the Bekaa Valley is another shorter mountain range that borders Syria.
Following World War II, Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon, became known as the “Paris of the Middle East,” complete with Western-style night clubs and a jet-setting business class. In the past, of Lebanon was called the “Switzerland of the Middle East” because of its capabilities in banking and finance, which were supported by a relatively stable political climate.
Unfortunately, stable and progressive conditions were not enough to keep the country from escalating into division and civil war in the 1970s.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, internal tensions were building between the many religious and cultural factions competing for power in Lebanon. By the early 1970s, the minority Christian government clashed with a majority Muslim population. Many factions entered the arena on both the Christian and Muslim sides. On the Christian side are Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant factions. The Islamic side includes the Sunni, the Shia, and the Druze, a semi-Islamic offshoot group.
Lebanon was experiencing a full-scale civil war by 1975 that continued until 1990, when the Syrian military brokered a peace deal. By the time it ended, the bitter civil war had destroyed the infrastructure of the country. Only one-third of Beirut’s population remained. The former thriving city had been reduced to a collection of bullet-ridden empty buildings.
It took more than a decade, but through the resiliency of the people, Beirut rebounded and continues to recover. A massive rebuilding program has resurrected the city of Beirut and stimulated the economy.
Still, conflicts linger, and discord between Israel and Syria has violent results. Israel has taken military action against anti-Israel factions within Lebanon on a number of occasions. In 1982, Israel attacked PLO strongholds, which were operating out of Lebanon in the Bekaa Valley and West Beirut. In 1993, Israel conducted air raids and military strikes against guerilla bases in Southern Lebanon. Anti-Israel groups such as Hezbollah operate out of Lebanon and receive aid from other Arab states, a source of contention that has prompted Israel to confront Hezbollah on Lebanon’s territory.
As a result, Lebanon has become a battleground on which factions try to work out their differences.
Syria’s continual intervention in Lebanon has sometimes been unappreciated; in 2004, massive demonstrations advocated for the removal of all Syrian troops. Syria withdrew its forces in 2005.
There is no dominant majority political party in Lebanon to coalesce power. Lebanon consequently developed a unique parliamentary democratic system to relieve some of the tension between the various cultural-political factions. In this system, a number of positions in government are reserved for specific religious/political parties. The deputy prime minister position, for example, is reserved for an Orthodox Christian; the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim; the speaker of the parliament is a Shia Muslim; and the president can only be a Maronite Catholic Christian.
Lebanon’s cultural and religious factions within its small state clash with political fervor and conviction, at times creating chaotic conditions that interrupt economic growth and discourage international investments. Add the dynamic cultural conditions to Lebanon’s attractive physical features—the beautiful Mediterranean coast, the attractive interior mountains, and the cosmopolitan city of Beirut—and it is easy to see why Lebanon is such a fascinating geographic study. Lebanon holds a unique location and position in the Middle East that will remain a focus of interest to the rest of the world.
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Additional information and image credits:
By Berthold Werner – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8624697
By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32650092
By Golan_Heights_relief_v1.jpg: Kbh3rdderivative work: Night w (talk) – Golan_Heights_relief_v1.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17516799
By Bernard Gagnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12267678
Golan Heights info
By Jadd Haidar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60362897
Arab Spring info
Syrian Civil War
By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32296133
By Linaduliban at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21320324
By Nassif.seif – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11443552
Beirut in 1978
By Beirut2_i_april_1978.jpg: Bobby Zlatevski, Denmark; uploaded by User:Bobbyderivative work: Hic et nunc (talk) – Beirut2_i_april_1978.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17358020