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Most of the country has a desertlike climate, with hot, dry summers and milder winters.
What little rain there is falls in the winter, mainly along the coast. The population in 2000 was 16,673,282 (not including the 35,150 people living in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, of whom 18,150 are Arabs and 17,000 are Israelis). Kurds are estimated to constitute between 3 and 9 percent of the population.
Hafez al-Assad, the leader of a radical wing of the Arab Socialist party, the Baath, seized control in 1971.
He cracked down hard on dissent and in 1982 killed thousands of members of the the Muslim Brotherhood opposition organization.
Anti-French sentiment grew when France turned over control of the Syrian province of Alexandretta to Turkey.
It was exacerbated by the promise of independence in 1941, which was not delivered until five years later.
That era came to an end in 1920 with the end of World War I, when the French took control of Syria and Lebanon.
The French drew a straight-line border to separate this territory from British-ruled Transjordan.
It is 71,000 square miles (183,900 square kilometers) in area.
There are two natural lakes: Arram in the crater of an extinct volcano in the Golan Heights and Daraa along the Jordanian border.
There are several artificial lakes created by dams that supply irrigation and electrical power.
The Gharb Depression, a dry but fertile valley, lies between this range and other mountains to the east.
The Euphrates River and several of its tributaries pass through Syria, supplying more than 80 percent of the country's water.After independence, civilian rule was short-lived, and the early 1950s saw a succession of coups, after which Syria formed the United Arab Republic with Egypt in 1958.