Now called the Syrian Arab Republic, the region was once the center of the Islamic Caliphate and covered an area that was both invaded and influenced by Romans, Mongols, Crusaders and Turks. Modern Syria gained its independence from France in 1946, but has lived through periods of political instability driven by the conflicting interests of these various groups.
The country consists of fertile plains, high mountains and deserts, and is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Christians, Druze, Alawite Shia and Arab Sunnis, the last of whom make up a majority of the Muslim population.
Since 2011, the country has been engaged in a bitter civil conflict initially sparked by the Arab Spring that turned into a complex war involving regional and international powers. This was to contest political power, long held by a small, mainly Alawite, elite.