A Brief History of Syria

A brief history of Syria, officially known as Al Jumhuriyah al Arabiyah as Suriyah, or the Syrian Arab Republic

The first concept of Syria as a country can be traced back to around 1800 BC when King Shamshi-Adad of Assyria established a new and separate capital to a new area in Shubat Enlil (today's Tell Lilan in northeastern Syria). Formally a part of the Assyrian kingdom, the new country that formed around it was quickly conquered by Hammurabi of Babylonia (famous for his codification of laws governing Babylonian life — does "An eye for an eye" sound familiar?). Over the years, different sections of the area were conquered by the Egyptians and the Babylonians (both wielding strong influence in the region) until the whole region again became a part of the Assyrian Empire.

Like a game of "Hot Potato," the country was passed from the Assyrians to the Chaldeans and then the Chaldeans to the Persians (538 BC) before Alexander the Great made it a part of his empire (in 333 and 332 BC).

The end of the 4th century (following Alexander's death) found Syria under the control of Seleucus I, a former general under Alexander the Great and the founder of the Seleucids — a dynasty of Macedonian kings that reigned in the Middle East from the fourth to the first centuries BC. The Seleucids eventually came to control all of what is now know as Syria, as well as the region then known as Palestine, and much of the rest of western Asia. Finally, in 64 BC, the unstoppable tide of the Roman Empire swept over the Middle East and Syria was made a province. When the vast Roman dominions were divided into two sections (in 395 AD), Syria became and remained a Byzantine province for almost 250 years.

With the spread of the Islamic Empire, Damascus, in 661, became the seat of the powerful Omayyid caliphs. It was during this time, under the reign of Abdul Malek bin Marwan and his sons, that Damascus became one of the most important and glamorous cities of the Muslim world, not to mention the known world. The Omayyid Empire would eventually stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the borders of China, surpassing even the Roman Empire in terms of area. (A interesting bit of trivia: It was during this time that the first postal system was developed.) Damascus, with its new, great mosque, was at the center of this empire. Culture, architecture, art, science and administration prospered.

Under the Abbassides (a combination of Iranian, Shiite, and other Muslim and non-Muslim groups dissatisfied with the Omayyid regime), who ruled from approximately 750-1258 AD, the capital of the empire was moved to Baghdad, and Damascus began to diminish in importance. Syria nevertheless remained an important part of the empire since it lay directly on the road to the western part of the Islamic Empire, and guarded the border with the Byzantine State, their main competitor.

The arrival of the Crusaders (in 1099) saw part of Syria's incorporation into the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem (while the rest fell under the jurisdiction of Antioch, managed by a different group if Crusaders). In the Arab campaigns of 1174–1187, Salah ad-Din, Sultan of Egypt, took Syria back and liberated Jerusalem.

The hardship of these many campaigns left the land and its already impoverished people severely weakened, setting the stage for the subsequent Mongol invasions in 1260 that completed their ruin.

With the arrival of the Ottoman Turks and the absorption of Syria into their empire in 1516, four hundred years of Turkish rule started. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Syria, which had always had great importance as the terminus of the overland routes to eastern Asia, diminished yet again in importance. Also, under Turkish rule, the nationalist movements in Syria had grown in strength and resolve. With the outbreak of World War I and the alliance of Turkey with the Central Powers (Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire), the Allies (France, Britain, Russia, and eventually the Italians) held out the possibility of Syria's postwar independence in return for its support.

In January 1916, the British government negotiated an agreement with Hussein ibn Ali, the Grand Sharif of Mecca, promising independence for all Arab lands south of a line corresponding to the northern borders of Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, the British and the French had also secretly negotiated an accord, known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, whereby most lands that had been under Ottoman Turkish control would be divided up into British and French spheres of influence, setting the stage for the post-World War I tangle. Thus, the end of the First World War saw France taking control of Syria and Lebanon, while Britain took control of Jordan (then known as Transjordania) and what was then called Palestine (today's Israel and the Palestinian Autonomous Territories).

The period of time under French and British control is known as the French and British Mandates and what had been anti-Turkish sentiment in Syria and Lebanon quickly turned into anti-French and anti-British sentiment. This quickly developed into organized resistance, and, in Syria, the French soon found themselves busy quelling rebellion (in 1920) after rebellion (in 1925-1927). Finally, in 1938, the French and Syrian leaders reached an agreement which provided for considerable Syrian autonomy in all regions but one, Hatay (the former Turkish administrative district of Alexandretta), which was granted a separate independence. In 1939, Hatay (whose capital is ancient Antioch or today's Antakya) was ceded to Turkey.

Not surprisingly, these events infuriated the Syrians. The start of the Second World War and the subsequent surrender of France to Germany saw Syria come under control of the Vichy (German-controlled) French. Later, the Free French (with the help of the British) regained control and recognized the full independence of Syria (while continuing to occupy the country). It was not until the end of the war and additional anti-French demonstrations (quelled only with the help of the British) that the last foreign troops left Syria.

After the end of World War II, Syria entered a time of serious political instability. For a brief period, the idea of the Arab League (an alliance of all Arab countries) was in fashion, but with the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and the subsequent creation of the State of Israel, any hopes of an Arab League dissipated. That said, for a brief period, Egypt and Syria united to form the United Arab Republic (UAR) with Egypt's Gamel Abdel Nasser as President. The two countries existed as one for three years before concerns in Syria over Nasser's vigorous policy of nationalization of private industry resulted in the Syrian army seizing control of Damascus and, the next day, announcing the renewed independence of Syria.

Syria then wallowed under a series of militant governments; control shifted from military group to military group in coup after coup after coup (1960, 1961, 1963, and 1966). Syria's internal problems were also accentuated by increasing tension along the Syrian-Israeli border. This increased tension resulted in a new defensive pact between Syria and Egypt. During 1966 and 1967, the border between Israel and Syria was repeatedly crossed by Syrian-based guerrilla attacks and also by Israeli reprisal attacks. These border incidents greatly influenced the outbreak of the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and the surrounding Arab nations of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. During this conflict, the Israel Defense Forces seized control of the Golan Heights and advanced to within 40 miles (65 km) of Damascus.

Following the Six-Day War, General Hafez al-Assad seized power, firmly placing control of the government in the hands of the Baathist party and Alawite sect of Islam (which Assad belongs to and which represent around 11% of Syria's population). During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Syrian troops in a coordinated attack with Egyptian forces, tried to retake territory lost to Israel. After making some initial gains towards controlling the Golan Heights, Syria's forces lost ground to the regrouped Israelis who again drove to within 20 miles (32 km) of Damascus.

The period following the Yom Kippur War saw Syria become increasingly isolated as Egypt pursued a bilateral agreement with Israel. In 1975, Syria intervened in the Lebanese Civil War and, as a result, was drawn into the evolving conflict. Syria continues to be an occupying force (with around 30,000 troops stationed in Lebanon) even though most of the fighting in Lebanon ended in 1991. Today, Syria has great influence over Lebanese politics.

During the 1980's, President Assad faced increasing civil disturbances, particularly on the part of a group called the Muslim Brotherhood, and as a result of international accusations of Syria's role in international terrorism. (Terrorist forces in Syria have long been blamed for the terrorist attack that brought down the 1988 Pan Am flight over Locherbie, Scotland.) In 1982, government troops crushed a full-scale uprising in the area around Hama, destroying much of the town in the process.

Relations with the United States and Great Britain have improved since the Persian Gulf War, during which Syria joined the anti-Iraq coalition. While expressing serious reservations about the Israel-PLO peace accord, Assad entered into negotiations with Israel over the status of the Golan Heights. Unfortunately, these negotiations appear to have stalled. The United States has yet to lift its restrictions on economic aid and exports to Syria, still considering it to be a nation that encourages terrorism.

Today, the future stability of Syria is uncertain. In 1994, the President's eldest son, Basel al-Assad, who had long been regarded as Assad's heir, was killed in a car crash. The negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights still appear to be stalled, while Israeli accusations of Syrian-supported Hezbollah guerrilla attacks originating from southern Lebanon continue. Defense spending, accounting for over 50% of the GDP, still hampers economic growth (which has shown improvement due to the loosening of some restrictions on foreign investment and the discovery of new oil fields). The government appears to be maintaining control within the country through a massive internal security force; censorship is common. It is not uncommon to buy a foreign newspaper and find that articles related to Syria or Lebanon have been carefully cut out. In Syria, the Internet does not exist (though some people secretly dial in to Internet service providers in Lebanon), and movies are often censored. Many Syrians travel to Lebanon to buy books, newspapers, and other products not available in Syria.

Things are nevertheless improving as Syria finally begins to thaw out from the Cold War politics that defined the period after the Second World War. Slowly, steps are being taken to prepare Syria for the 21st century.

On June 10, 2000, Hafez al-Assad died. Ten days later, on 20 June 2000, the Ba'th Party nominated his son, Bashar al-Assad, for president and presented his name to the People's Council. On June 25, 2000, Bashar al-Assad was elected president with 97.29 percent of the vote.

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