CultureShock! Syria: A Survival Guide to Customs and by Coleman South

By Coleman South

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Mari, an archaeological site on the Euphrates River near Iraq, has turned up evidence of settlers as far back as those in Ugarit —7,000 years ago. While the Babylonians spread throughout the Fertile Crescent, the Assyrian civilisation was developing on the northern Tigris River. The Assyrians, from which Syria got its name, were as well known for their military conquests and brutality as the Babylonians were for their accomplishments in science, the arts and religion. In the 45th century BP a group of Semitic people under a leader known as Sargon conquered Babylonia and established a kingdom called Akkad.

For one thing, they brought a certain amount of material success to the land. For another, they were Sunni Muslims like most Syrians. They also allowed local administration by Arabs who were at least nominally loyal to them. These administrators were wealthy landowners with deep roots in cities such as Damascus and Aleppo. The Ottomans ruled until the end of World War I, about 400 years, which brings us to the turbulent 20th century. In order to understand the conflicts in this area, it is important to know a little about the background of the conflicting factions.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union—Syria’s longtime patron, Syria began to move away from its strong central economic control. Investment Law No. 10, a 1991 directive of the president’s, liberalised economic restrictions and encouraged private investment in certain areas. The government, however, remained the country’s banker and still remains its utilities and petroleum manager. The government also still heavily subsidises public transportation, sets prices on fuel as well as bread, lamb and other basic foods, and operates many heavy industries.

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