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Country profile - Syria


From a short stretch of the eastern Mediterranean coast just north of Israel and Lebanon, Syria spreads east and south-east towards Iraq and Jordan. Nearly 70% of the country is either arid grassland or desert, the tough grasses offering limited grazing for sheep and cattle. Crop production is, for the most part, restricted by rainfall to the semi-arid west of the country, including the wetter coastal plain and mountains, and to the northern region along the Turkish border. In the drier cultivated areas, cereal and fallow rotations are traditionally combined with sheep rearing, although with increased land pressure, fallow is becoming less common. In northern Syria, where rainfall varies between 150-600mm per year, fallow is replaced with continuous cropping of cereals, and cereals rotated with forage (vetch) or food legumes (chickpea, lentil and faba bean). While oil constitutes Syria's greatest export commodity, agriculture is still of major importance in the economy, contributing around 40% of GDP and employing nearly 30% of the workforce, particularly women.

Wheat and barley account for nearly two-thirds of Syria's cropped area. Bread and durum wheat dominate, in terms of areas and yields, and are grown in more favourable areas. Barley is grown for feed grain and forage for small ruminants as well as for bread. Despite a history of government price controls designed to ensure self-sufficiency in grain, the sector is very under-developed. The vast majority of grain production continues to be rain-fed, with farmers trying to coax a harvest from poor soils that suffer from being shallow, high in salinity, with poor moisture retention and low nutrient levels, particularly nitrogen. Harvests of barley can be as little as half a tonne of grain per hectare, and when rain is either too late or insufficient, many farmers are unable to plant a crop at all. Successive years of drought are not uncommon, with disastrous effects both for the farmers and the economy in general. While Syria was once an exporter of grain to the Roman Empire, it is now a net importer, largely because of increased population and land degradation.

Irrigation is fairly extensive in parts of the west, particularly close to urban centres, such as Aleppo in the north, Hamah and Hims in the centre and Damascus in the south. Irrigated crops in these areas include cotton, sugar beet and fruit, with water mostly drawn from open wells. There is also irrigated production, particularly of cotton, along the valley of the Euphrates river, (and some of its major tributaries), which cuts across the desert from the eastern border with Iraq. Cotton is Syria's most important cash crop, supplying the domestic textile industry, as well as those in Italy, Taiwan and Turkey. However, despite achieving good harvests under irrigated conditions, Syria's poor infrastructure for storage and milling of cotton has seriously undermined the industry.

A farmer and his grandson in Syria's Khanasser valley
A farmer and his grandson in Syria's Khanasser valley

Fruit and vegetable production have expanded greatly in the last twenty years, and together they now form the largest of Syria's agricultural exports. The biggest increases have been in tree crops. Olives occupy the largest area, which itself nearly doubled between 1980 and 1996. Syria is currently the sixth biggest exporter of olives in the world. Other important fruit crops include grapes, pistachio nuts, apples and oranges, and the majority of fruit farmers grow two or three different types on their land. Production of citrus fruits in the coastal plain has risen dramatically since the early 1980s, and despite whitefly infestations during the mid-1990s, revenues from fruit sales have enabled farmers to invest in improved technology such as drip irrigation and better fertiliser application. Around the city of Lattakia, on the Mediterranean coast, new irrigation projects are set to boost yields. However, while citrus harvests in the 1999-2000 season totalled 750,000 tons, quantities exported have only been a fraction of this, owing to a poorly developed export policy, and little co-operation between the Ministry of Agriculture and producers.

Like the rest of the economy, agriculture has traditionally been under close government control, and liberalisation has been slow. Production, pricing and marketing of fruit and vegetables have been in private hands since 1986. In addition, the last decade has seen the elimination of subsidies on pesticides and seeds, and a reduction in fertiliser subsidy. Import restrictions on agricultural inputs have also been abolished. However, to compensate farmers for the loss of subsidy, produce prices have been raised. Land reform policies of the 1950s substantially reduced the legal size of land holdings, and as a result, by 1975 over 90% of farms were less than 25 hectares, compared with only 30% in 1958. However, the fragmentation of farm land, partly also as a result of inheritance customs, is thought by some to have hindered progress in mechanisation, irrigation and soil conservation.

The strongest focus of agricultural policy has been expansion of Syria's irrigated land. From the 1960s to the 1980s, irrigation projects absorbed up to 70% of annual agricultural budgets, with the majority of this focussed on the Euphrates valley. Success, however was limited by a combination of technical, economic and social factors: irrigation canals dug in gypsum soils were prone to collapse, private investors were discouraged by the slow rate of returns, and farmers were reluctant to move to the sparsely populated valley from their homes in the west. In addition, large areas of irrigated land became degraded by salination and waterlogging, particularly in the lower parts of the valley, because of poor drainage systems. As a result, more recent work has focussed on putting in better drainage and restoring existing areas, rather than expanding into new ones. Other recent projects include a scheme to pump water from al Assad lake to the productive farming areas around Aleppo and Maskhanet.

Statistical information
  • Country: Syria (Suriya)
  • Capital: Damascus (Dimashq)
  • Area: 185,180 sq km
  • Population: 16,728,808 (July 2001 est.)
  • Population growth: 2.54% (2001 est.)
  • Language: Arabic (official); Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, Circassian widely understood
  • Ethnic groups: Arab 90.3%, Kurds, Armenians, and others 9.7%
  • Labour force: agriculture 40%, industry 20%, services 40% (1996)
  • GDP: $50.9 billion (2000 est.)
  • GDP per capita: $3,100 (2000 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture 29%; industry 22%; services 49% (1997)
  • Urbanisation: 52.7%
  • Population below poverty line: 15-25%
  • Major industries: petroleum, textiles, food processing, beverages, tobacco, phosphate rock mining
  • Land use: arable land 28%; permanent crops 4%; permanent pastures 43%; forests and woodland 3%; other 22% (1993 est.)
  • Natural resources: petroleum, phosphates, chrome and manganese ores, asphalt, iron ore, rock salt, marble, gypsum, hydropower
  • Agricultural products: wheat, barley, cotton, lentils, chickpeas, olives, sugar beets; grapes, pistachio nuts, citrus fruit, beef, mutton, eggs, poultry, milk
  • Export commodities:petroleum 65%, textiles 10%, manufactured goods 10%, fruits and vegetables 7%, raw cotton 5%, live sheep 2%, phosphates 1% (1998 est.)
  • Major Export Partners: Germany 21%, Italy 12%, France 10%, Saudi Arabia 9%, Turkey 8% (1999 est.)

Date published: September 2002


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