A country of fertile plains, mountain ranges and deserts, Syria is home to many diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Alawite Shi'is and Druze, as well as the Arab Sunni Muslim majority.
Modern Syria gained its independence from France in 1946 but has lived through periods of political instability due largely to the conflicting interests of the various groups in society. For a brief time (1958-61) the country united with Nasser's Egypt, but an army coup restored independence before the Alawite-controlled pan-Arab Baath (Renaissance) party took control in 1963. It still rules the country today.
Baath government has been characterised by authoritarian rule at home and a strong anti-Israeli policy abroad, particularly under former President Hafez al-Assad. In 1967 Syria lost the Golan Heights to the Israelis, while civil war in neighbouring Lebanon allowed it to extend its influence in the region. The government has dealt harshly with any opposition. Thousands are thought to have been killed in the crackdown on the 1982 uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama.
Since the death of Hafez al-Assad, Syria has undergone a degree of relaxation, which has seen dozens of political prisoners released.