Syria was in ancient times a political and economic center. This part of the world is considered to be the origin of modern civilization. Throughout history, Syria has changed its reach and character both geographically and politically. Historically, Syria has primarily been a term for a geographical and partly administrative area under various rulers until the state of Syria was established in modern times.
The name Syria was introduced by the Greeks. See abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of Syria. Ancient Syria usually covered a larger area than today’s state. This included lands west of the Mediterranean including present-day Lebanon, south of Palestine with Sinai, east into the Iraqi desert, and north into present-day Turkey.
In Syrian nationalism there has been a desire to recreate “Greater Syria”. A version of this was attempted by Lebanon becoming part of Syria between the world wars and then dominated by the independent state of Syria. Modern pan-Arab ideology has sought to unite the Arab world, and Syria has been one of the countries that has sought to become the center of the Arab world. Within the geographical area of Syria lay the ancient Phoenician trading empire. Here is the origin of Judaism and Christianity.
Damascus ‘ religious and political position during the period of the caliphate is a major source of Syrian pride. At that time, the country had influence far beyond today’s borders. In recent times, Syria has sought significant regional influence through its ambition to assume a leading pan-Arab position. This applies, among other things, to the fight against Israel in 1948. Syria has continued to play a role in the region, especially through its influence in Lebanon. The Syrian civil war that started in 2011 has become a political situation affecting the entire region.
Recent History of Syria
Syria’s recent history here includes the period from Syria’s incorporation into the Ottoman Empire in 1516, and up to 2000. Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, from 1516 to 1918. Prior to that, Syria had experienced nearly a thousand years of alternating Islamic rule and growing Arab influence, but also periods of Turkish invasion. Both before and during the Ottoman era, there was close contact between Syria and Egypt, which was once ruled as one state, which was once again tried as a pan-Arab experiment after independence in 1946.
World War I led to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and the modern Middle East, with today’s state formation, came into being. After two decades under French rule, Syria became an independent state in 1946. Syria then became a key player in regional politics, not least in the conflict with Israel, but also in neighboring Lebanon. Both Lebanon and Palestine were part of historic Syria. Relations with Israel have significantly influenced modern Syrian politics and history, leading to three wars between the two countries.
After a period of lack of political stability after 1946, the Baath Party gained power in 1963. From 1970, the country has been ruled by an authoritarian regime led by the Assad family, first with Hafez al-Assad as president, from 2000 by his son Bashar al-Assad. Expectations of political liberalization were not met, and in 2011 the regime was challenged by popular protests. These evolved in 2012 into civil war and then to the war in Syria with international participation.
The Ottoman regime was started when Sultan Selim I fought the Mamluks at the Battle of Marj Dabiq in 1516. Thereafter, historic Syria was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire, and today’s Syria was an integral part of this, ruled from Constantinople (Istanbul), with partial autonomy. “Greater Syria” consisted of the Ottomans of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Transjordan, and was divided into the three provinces (vilayet) Aleppo, Beirut (later also Tripoli and Saida) and Damascus, as well as the independent district (sand yak) Jerusalem. The division persisted until the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.
The foreign regime meant that Ottoman law applied and that taxes were levied. Within this framework, there was room for local custom and government, and for various religious groups.
Syria remained economically important as a producer and exporter of agricultural products, with Aleppo in particular being the center of trade. From the 18th century, local autonomy was strengthened by strong families who had their own military power, especially in Damascus and Saida. At the same time, Akko became an important trading town. From 1888 until the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, there were three administrative units (provinces) in Syria: Aleppo, Beirut and Damascus.
Ottoman Sultan Mahmut 2 promised Syria to Egyptian Pasha Muhammad Ali, but did not fulfill the promise. This led to an Egyptian conquest of Syria in 1831-1833, led by Muhammad Ali’s son Ibrahim Pasha, and renewed centralized rule. After an uprising in 1840, the great powers intervened on the sultan’s side, and a British-Ottoman-Austrian force landed on the Syrian coast, after which Muhammad Ali declared the claim on the land. After this, the European great powers became more prominent in Syria.
In Lebanon, a power struggle ensued in the 19th century between the religious groups of the Druze and the Maronites. The Great Powers also had interests in the conflicts, especially France which protects the Maronites and sent military forces to Lebanon. The fighting there in 1860 spread to Damascus where Christians were massacred by Muslims. In the early 1900s, the contradictions between Turks and Arabs increased. At the same time, nationalist movements grew in Syria. However, their demands for independence in 1918 did not win, and Syria came under a new foreign power: France.
Turkey joined World War I in 1914, ending on the losing side. British forces defeated the Ottomans who, under German leadership, advanced against Suez in 1915. The British then, together with a French contingent, entered Palestine from Egypt in 1916; thence into Lebanon and Syria. An Arab force led by Prince Feisal, son of Sharif Husain, ruler of Hijaz, supported the British advance towards Damascus and took over the city in October 1918. The French took control of the coast, with Beirut as its center; the British took Palestine. At the end of the war, the British deployed an Arab administration in Damascus under the leadership of Feisal, but adhered to the Sykes-Picot agreement and left Syria to France despite Feisal’s protests.
In line with the Sykes-Picot agreement, Syria (including Lebanon and parts of today’s Turkey and Iraq) was to become a French sphere of interest. Britain thus broke the agreement with the Arabs to support the demand for independence. Feisal attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and raised demands for recognition of Syria’s independence.
The Arab population was asked about the region’s future, but was little heard. Prior to the war, Arab nationalists had agitated for independence within a united Greater Syria, which included Palestine and Transjordan – and was far and away supported by Britain. On the basis of the Sykes-Picot agreement, a temporary French administration was established in 1918 over parts of Syria, and parliamentary elections were held in 1919.
In the autumn of 1919, armed clashes between Arab and French forces in the Bekaa Valley occurred, and Alawites campaigned against the launch of French troops on the coast. The French government was further challenged when the Syrian parliament in 1920 proclaimed the kingdom of Syria, including Lebanon and Palestine, and crowned Feisal 1 as king.
At the San Remo Conference in 1920, Syria and Lebanon became French mandate areas. King Feisal did not accept France’s demands to dissolve the Syrian kingdom, the National Assembly and the army – and to recognize the French mandate. French forces captured Damascus in July, after defeating a minor Arab force in the Battle of Maysaloun. Feisal was banished to Palestine to become king of Iraq in 1921. The mandate was divided into four: Lebanon, the Syrian Republic and the districts of Latakia and Jebel Druse. In 1922, France chose to bring together three provinces into one federation; only Jebel Druse maintained self-government.
The League of Nations reaffirmed the French mandate over Syria and Lebanon in 1922, and gave France the responsibility of setting up an administration and governing the area, and preparing for independence.
Dissatisfaction with the French government, especially related to the issue of autonomy and later independence, led to revolts in 1925, which was not beaten until 1927. It began in the Druze mountain areas of Jebel Druse and was supported by nationalists in Damascus. The conflict spread to large parts of the mandate area, and France sent troops to Syria and bombed Damascus. French military supremacy led to the complete rebellion. Elections were held for a legislative assembly in 1928, which was won by the nationalists who then formed government.
The French governor refused to approve the constitution and dissolved the National Assembly in 1930. The negotiations after the new elections in 1932 did not lead to agreement, but in 1936 an agreement was signed which in principle recognized Syria’s right to independence, while at the same time France retained two military bases in country. However, France did not ratify the agreement, justified, among other things, for fear that Syria would come under German influence. Nationalist Hashim al-Atassi was elected president. When the French administration left the Syrian area of Alexandretta in Turkey in 1939, it caused further dissatisfaction. The same year, the Syrian president and government resigned, and the constitution was suspended.
After France’s capitulation in 1940, the French authorities in Syria recognized the Vichy government – which opened Syria to the Axis forces and retained control of the French forces, the Armée du Levant. Among other things, German planes were given intermediaries and thought of their way to Iraq, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill feared that Germany would take control of Syria and Iraq as soon as the Soviet Union was defeated.
In May 1941, the British bombed the most important airstrikes in Syria and destroyed German aircraft, while Germany invaded Crete. The British feared German espionage against Palestine from bases in Syria, while Italian (then German) forces advanced into Libya. This caused an allied invasion of Syria in June – July 1941, known as the Syria-Lebanon Campaign. Damascus was captured in June 1941, and the whole country came under Allied control in July. From there and to independence in 1946, Syria was occupied by British and French forces jointly.
In support of the Allied invasion and the new French government, in September 1941, Commander-in-Chief of the Free French forces, General Georges Catroux, proclaimed the independence of Syria (and Lebanon) on behalf of the French government. The United Kingdom supported this, among other things, to curb Arab discontent in Palestine. In fact, independence was no greater than the autonomy under the mandate. The 1943 election was won by the Syrian nationalists, who formed the government with Shukri al-Quwatli as president.
France retained real power and did not fully control the government, leading to political confrontations and a crisis in 1945. It led to France bombing Damascus, supported by a British intervention. The action led to even greater opposition to the French government and that France lost its influence in Syria. Following discussions in the UN Security Council, an agreement was reached on British and French withdrawal, completed in April 1946. By then, Syria, as an independent state, had already been instrumental in founding the United Nations and the Arab League.
Three years after the formal independence and five years after the independence was first proclaimed, Syria became truly independent in 1946. The day the last French soldiers left the country, April 17, 1946, is celebrated as Syria’s National Day.
Following the British-French withdrawal, Syria underwent a period of political instability and a series of coups, three in 1949 alone. A new military coup followed in 1951, then in 1954, and again in 1961, 1962 and 1963.
A longer period of greater stability was initiated by the takeover of the Baath Party in 1963, and even more so after Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970. Under him, Syria’s position in the region was strengthened, the position of the Baath party in Syria – and the Alawites position in Syrian society strengthened.
The development was largely marked by the conflict that followed the establishment of Israel in 1948, with several wars and later attempts at peace solutions. In parallel, there was a rivalry between Arab countries and regimes over the leadership of the Arab world and the Pan-Arab movement, and a power struggle especially between the Baath parties and the leaders of Syria and Iraq.
The new Syrian Republic was far smaller than ancient Greater Syria, but still not ethnically and religiously homogeneous. Syria was mainly Arab, but with multiple faiths within Islam, and Christian and Jewish minorities. By independence, the autonomous regions were incorporated into one Syria.
The first coup d’etat took place in March 1949 when the government of Shukri al-Quwatli was overthrown by Colonel Husni al-Za’im. He was then deposed in a coup in August, led by Colonel Sami al-Hinnawi, who was overthrown by Colonel Adib al-Shishakli in December. A fourth palace coup followed in 1951, before Shishakli himself was removed in yet another coup, in 1954, led by Colonel Hashim al-Atasi, who reinstated parliament. The military leaders were not ideologically entrenched, but represented Arab nationalism that was strengthened throughout the region following the establishment of Israel and as a result of the Arab defeat of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948.
Syria participated in the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, and in 1949 entered into a ceasefire agreement with Israel. There is still no peace agreement.
The political development after independence was characterized by the struggle between the forces that formed a radical, pan-Arab policy and the more moderate, nationalist wing. The latter was dominated by the Sunni elite of the big cities, which had traditionally ruled the country. Wide layers of the people, both urban and urban, looked for parties and leaders who could provide independence, politically as well as economically and socially.
The burgeoning panarabism that was nurtured especially after the revolution in Egypt in 1952, and with Gamal Abdel Nasser as inspirer – and with the front against Israel and Zionism. With strong pan-Arab sentiments also in Syria, and following a Syrian initiative, the two countries merged in 1958 into one state, the United Arab Republic, until it was repealed as a result of a coup in Damascus in 1961, whereupon Syria again became an independent state.. The experiment helped strengthen the Syrian national feeling – without compromising the Pan-Arabian vision. Syria itself wanted to lead the pan-Arab movement, but soon entered a rivalry with Iraq with the same ambitions.
At the same time, Syria was characterized by cultural and social inequality, with ethnic and religious contradictions. The ethnic minorities (Kurds, Armenians, Turkmen, Circassians) have not played a major role in Syrian politics. However, the contradictions between the Sunni majority and the religious minority Alawites, made clear during the 2012 civil war.
Under traditional Sunni leadership, the Alawites were kept far away until they gained influence from 1963: A group of radical officers, several of whom were affiliated with the Baath Party, conducted a coup on March 8, 1963, which initiated a new era in Syrian history. Under the Baath regime, the country embarked on a socialist-oriented policy, and a corporate state under the leadership of the party emerged. The dominance of the Sunni elite came to an end, and other groups gained more influence. The officer corps received a significantly larger number of Alawites, Drusters and Ismailers – at the expense of Sunnis.
In the new constitution of 1964, Syria was defined as a “democratic, socialist republic”, and the country sought alliances in Eastern Europe. The Baath party was divided into a moderate and a radical wing. The first was the party’s founders, Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar. The radical wing had the support of several social and religious groups, and in particular the officers behind the coup that brought the party to power. After internal strife, a group called ‘neo-Baath’, led by Salah Jadid, emerged. After a coup in 1966, this radical faction came to power. It led Syria in the Six Day War against Israel in 1967, which inflicted severe defeat on Syria, with the loss of the Golan. The outcome of the war, as well as a radical economic policy, caused Jadid’s faction to lose support.
The post-war power struggle was decided in November 1970 when General Hafez al-Assad led a coup. His faction put Arab cooperation, independent of ideology, as well as confrontation with Israel, ahead of the development of socialism in Syria. The coup also came as a result of a failed Syrian military intervention in Jordan 1970 (Black September).
With Hafez al-Assad’s takeover of power on November 13, 1970, a new era began: the Assad family took political control, and the Alawites gained more influence – and greater reputation.
As president of 1971, Assad became Syria’s first Alawite head of state; until then the position had been reserved for Sunnis. Assad developed Syria into a police state, with the absence of political freedom and frequent violations of human rights.
Political parties other than Baath were allowed, but there was no freedom to establish either parties or other organizations; those that existed should be affiliated to the National Progressive Front, an umbrella organization controlled by the regime.
The first years of Assad’s reign were a boom, with economic growth and political stability strengthening the country’s political position in the Arab world and the region.
After the Six Day War, relations with Israel were the main concern for Assad, who, with Soviet help, built a strong military force. Syria joined forces with Egypt in 1973 to attack Israel. After Egyptian-Syrian progress in the first days of the October war, Israel manages to strike back and win the war. Despite the defeat, Syria had shown the Arab world’s willingness to stand up to Israel. At the same time, Assad’s regime chose a more active policy in support of the Palestinian liberation movement, including by allowing more factions to operate from Syria.
Under Assad, Syria politically and militarily intervened in Lebanese politics. After the civil war broke out there in 1975, Syria sent forces to the country in 1976. Syria and Israel partly fought their balance in Lebanon by supporting various groups. During Israel’s 1982 invasion, air strikes between Israel and Syria – over Lebanon – occurred. After Egypt entered into a bilateral peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Syria remained as the frontline state itself in the fight against Israel, helping to isolate Egypt in the Arab world. When Assad failed to build a stronger front against Israel, it was partly due to the rivalry with Iraq. Both countries were ruled by factions in the Baath party, but each withdrew.
Personal contradictions between Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, who came to power in Iraq in 1979, contributed to the split. When Iraq attacked Iran in 1980, Syria definitely broke with Iraq and supported Persian, Shiite Iran. Following Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, Syria’s breach of Iraq and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, Assad devised a new strategy and sought – with Soviet arms deliveries – military equality with Israel. In this way, Syria could stand against Israel alone, either to defend itself against a possible invasion or to attack itself.
In the mid-1970s, the economic downturn came. Assad’s position was also challenged by a power struggle among the Alawites. The Baath regime was challenged by a revolt initiated by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1976. The revolt gained the largest support in Aleppo, Hama and Homs.
After new clashes in 1980, Aleppo and Hama were surrounded and searched by security forces; several were killed. The situation worsened with an assassination attempt against Assad in June 1980 and the killing of hundreds of imprisoned Muslim brothers in response. Several Sunni groups joined forces in an Islamic front against the Baath regime; The Brotherhood called for holy war. The rebellion was put to rest after a confrontation in Hama in 1982, with fights demanding thousands of lives. The use of power helped to remove open opposition. The Baath Party retained power without legal opposition. Assad remained president without a counter candidate in the 1978, 1985, 1991 and 1998 elections.
A power struggle between Hafez al-Assad and his brother Rifaat al-Assad threatened military confrontation in 1984. Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar al-Assad. President’s eldest son Basil al-Assad was appointed as successor, but died in an accident in 1994. Bashar al-Assad was elected by the National Assembly; the election was confirmed in a referendum in July 2000. He was re-elected in 2007 and 2014 – without a candidate.
Syria developed under the Baath Party and Hafez al-Assad into a police state where security services (mukhabarat) monitored the population and were responsible for the abuse. Syria was criticized for human rights violations and was accused by the US of supporting terrorism, among others. The minority Alawites dominated this apparatus of power. Equally full, the Baath regime is not Alawite, but secular. The opposition to the regime came especially from the Sunnis and the Sunni-dominated trade stand, which experienced its position threatened by, among other things, that central positions in the state apparatus were taken over by Alawites and Drusters.
The two presidents of Assad have pursued a pragmatic domestic policy, with an emphasis on keeping the regime in power. Demands for liberalization increased after Bashar al-Assad took over, and in 2000 it was an opening for freer political activity and hopes for genuine change. Some reforms were also implemented during the so-called Damascus Spring, but liberalization occurred more in the economy than in politics.