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___ History of Syria


Present-day Syria is only a small portion of the ancient geographical Syrian landmass, a region situated at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea from which Western powers created the contemporary states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel in the post-Ottoman era of the early twentieth century. Greater Syria, as historians and political scientists often refer to this area, is a region connecting three continents, simultaneously cursed and blessed as a crossroads for commerce and a battleground for the political destinies of dynasties and empires. Exploited politically, Greater Syria also has benefited immeasurably from the cultural diversity of the people who came to claim parts or all of it, and who remained to contribute to the remarkable spiritual and intellectual flowering that characterized Greater Syria’s cultures in the ancient and medieval periods. Throughout history, Greater Syria has been the focal point of a continual dialectic, both intellectual and bellicose, between the Middle East and the West. Today, Syria remains an active participant in the trials and tribulations of a troubled and volatile region.

Early History

Since before 2000 BC, Syria has been an integral part of, or the seat of government for, powerful empires. The struggle among various indigenous groups as well as invading foreigners resulted in cultural enrichment and significant contributions to civilization, despite political upheaval or turmoil. The ancient city of Ebla existed at the center of an expansive empire around 2400 B.C. The chief site, unearthed in the vicinity of Aleppo in the 1970s, contained tablets providing evidence of a sophisticated and powerful indigenous Syrian empire that was involved with, and probably controlled, a vast commercial network linking Anatolia (today part of Turkey), Mesopotamia (an ancient region of southwestern Asia in present-day Iraq), Egypt, and the Aegean and Syrian coasts. The language of Ebla is believed to be the oldest Semitic language, and the extensive writings of the Ebla culture are proof of a brilliant culture that rivals those of the Mesopotamians and ancient Egyptians.

After the King of Akkad (Mesopotamia) destroyed Ebla, Amorites ruled the region until their power was eclipsed in 1600 B.C. by the Egyptians. The following centuries saw Syria ruled by a succession of Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Aramaeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Seleucids, Romans, Nabataeans, Byzantines, Muslim Arabs, European Christian Crusaders, Ottoman Turks, Western Allied forces, and the French. Although Syria has absorbed the legacies of these many and varied cultures, the very existence of this string of foreign dominating powers exemplifies the political, economic, and religious importance of Syria’s strategic location.

Highlights of early Syrian history include the impact made by such dominant powers as the Phoenicians, Aramaeans, and Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Empires. During the second millennium B.C., the seafaring Phoenicians established a trade network among independent city-states and developed the alphabet. The Aramaeans, overland merchants who had settled in Greater Syria at the end of the thirteenth century B.C., opened trade to southwestern Asia, and their capital at Damascus became a city of immense wealth and influence. Aramaic ultimately displaced Hebrew as the vernacular in Greater Syria and became the language of commerce throughout the Middle East. Beginning in 333 B.C., with the conquest of the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great and his successors brought Western ideas and institutions to Syria. Following Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., control of Greater Syria passed to the Seleucids, who ruled the Kingdom of Syria from their capital at Damascus for three centuries. In the first centuries A.D., Roman rule saw the advent of Christianity in Syria. Paul, considered to be the founder of Christianity as a distinct religion, was converted on the road to Damascus and established the first organized Christian Church at Antioch during the first century.

The Coming of Islam

Syria remained at the center of the new Christian religion until the seventh century, when the area succumbed to Muslim Arab rule. Prior to the Arab invasion, Byzantine oppression had catalyzed a Syrian intellectual and religious revolt, creating a Syrian national consciousness. The Muslim Arab conquest in A.D. 635 was perceived as a liberating force from the persecution of Byzantine rule, to which Syria had been subjected since A.D. 324. But with Damascus as the seat of the Islamic Umayyad Empire, which extended as far as Spain and India between 661 and 750, most Syrians became Muslim, and Arabic replaced Aramaic. Syrian prestige and power declined after 750 when the Abbasids conquered the Umayyads and established a caliphate in Baghdad. Syria then became a mere province within an empire.

Muslim control of Christian holy places was elemental in provoking the first major Western colonial venture in the Middle East, when European Crusaders established the principalities of Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem between 1097 and 1144. The ensuing jihad against the foreign occupation was a unifying force for Arabs in Greater Syria until the area became a province of the Ottoman Empire in 1516. Syria’s economy did not flourish under Ottoman rule, which lasted for 400 years. Yet, Syria continued to attract European traders and with them Western missionaries, teachers, scientists, and tourists whose governments began to agitate for certain rights in the region, including the right to protect Christians.

A Brief Period of Independence

The period between the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and the granting of France’s mandate over Syria by the League of Nations in 1922 was marked by a complicated sequence of events during which Syrians achieved a brief period of independence (1919– 20). However, three forces were at work against Arab nationalism: Britain’s interest in keeping eastern Mesopotamia under its control in order to counter Russian influence and to protect British oil interests; the Jewish interest in Palestine; and France’s determination to remain a power in the Middle East. Ultimately, Syria and Lebanon were placed under French influence, and Transjordan and Iraq, under British mandate. The termination of Syria’s brief experience with independence left a lasting bitterness against the West and a deep-seated determination to reunite Arabs in one state. This quest was the primary basis for modern Arab nationalism.

The French Mandate

The period of French Mandate brought nearly every feature of Syrian life under French control. This oppressive atmosphere mobilized educated wealthy Muslims against the French. Among their grievances were the suppression of newspapers, political activity, and civil rights; the division of Greater Syria into multiple political units; and French reluctance to frame a constitution for Syria that would provide for eventual sovereignty, which the League of Nations had mandated. Only in the wake of a widespread revolt instigated by the Druze minority in 1925 did the French military government begin to move toward Syrian autonomy. Despite French opposition, the Soviet Union (today Russia) and the United States granted Syria and Lebanon recognition as sovereign states in 1944, with British recognition following a year later. These Allied nations pressured France to leave Syria, but it was not until a United Nations resolution in February 1946 ordering France to evacuate that Syrians finally attained sovereignty. By April 15, 1946, all French troops had left Syrian soil.


Syria endured decades of strife and turmoil as competing factions fought over control of the country’s government following independence in 1946. This era was one of coups, countercoups, and intermittent civilian rule during which the army maintained a watchful presence in the background. From February 1958 to September 1961, Syria was joined with Egypt in the United Arab Republic (UAR). But growing Syrian dissatisfaction with Egyptian domination resulted in another military coup in Damascus, and Syria seceded from the UAR. Another period of instability ensued, with frequent changes of government. The Arab Socialist Resurrection (Baath) Party (hereafter, Baath Party), with a secular, socialist, Arab nationalist orientation, took decisive control in a March 1963 coup, often referred to as the Baath Revolution. The Baath Party had been active throughout the Middle East since the late 1940s, and a Baath coup had taken place in Iraq one month prior to the Baath take-over in Syria.

Bashar Al-Assad
Hafez al-Assad (Arabic: حافظ الأسد‎ Ḥāfiẓ al-Asad,
6 October 1930 – 10 June 2000)
President of the Syrian Arab Republic on Time magazine cover, 19 December 1983. He was in office from 22 February 1971 – 10 June 2000.

Image: Time magazine
Factionalism continued within the Baathist regime until the assumption of power by then Minister of Defense Lieutenant General Hafiz al Assad following a bloodless military coup in November 1970. Internal conflict between the Baath Party’s more moderate military wing and more extremist civilian wing had been exacerbated by external events, including Israel’s defeat of the Syrians and Egyptians in the June 1967 war, as a result of which Syria lost territory in the Golan Heights, as well as Syria’s disastrous intervention on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Jordan in September 1970 (events later dubbed Black September).

Assad, approved as president by popular referendum in March 1971, quickly moved to establish an authoritarian regime with power concentrated in his own hands. His thirty- year presidency was characterized by a cult of personality, developed in order to maintain control over a potentially restive population and to provide cohesion and stability to government. The dominance of the Baath Party; the socialist structure of the government and economy; the military underpinning of the regime; the primacy of members of the Alawi sect, to which Asad belonged, in influential military and security positions; and the state of emergency imposed as a result of ongoing conflict with Israel further ensured the regime’s stability. Nevertheless, this approach to government came at a cost. Dissent was harshly eliminated, the most extreme example being the brutal suppression in February 1982 of the Muslim Brotherhood, which objected to the state’s secularism and the influence of the “heretical” Alawis. Moreover, the country’s economy suffered, and progress was hindered by an overstaffed and inefficient public sector run overwhelmingly according to Baath Party dictates.
Bashar Al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad (Arabic: بشار الأسد‎, Baššār al-ʾAsad; born 11 September 1965)
President of the Syrian Arab Republic and Regional Secretary of the Ba'ath Party.
Image: Agência Brasil

Hafiz al Assad died in 2000 and was promptly succeeded by his son, Bashar al Assad, after the constitution was amended to reduce the mandatory minimum age of the president from 40 to 34. Bashar was then nominated by the Baath Party and elected president in a popular referendum in which he ran unopposed. From the start, the younger Assad appeared to make economic and political reform a focus and a priority of his presidency. He has faced resistance from the old guard, however. After a brief period of relaxation and openness known as the Damascus Spring (July 2000–February 2001), dissent is once again not tolerated in Syria, and it appears that any reforms will be slow in coming. Nevertheless, Assad reportedly is slowly dismantling the old regime by enforcing mandatory retirement and replacing certain high-level administrators with appointments from outside the Baath Party.

2011 Syrian Uprising
Syria was under an Emergency Law since 1962, effectively suspending most constitutional protections for citizens. Its President Hafez al-Assad led Syria for nearly 30 years, banning any opposing political party and any opposition candidate in any election. The Syrian government justified the state of emergency to the fact that Syria was in a state of war with Israel. According to BBC News, the government and ruling Ba'ath Party own and control much of the media. Criticism of the president and his family is banned and the domestic and foreign press are censored. The state exercises strict internet censorship and blocks many global websites with local appeal, including Facebook and YouTube, as well as opposition sites.
The popular uprising, taking place in various cities in Syria, began on 26 January 2011. Like other pro-democracy rebellions which have erupted across the Middle East, the protests have taken the form of various types, including marches and hunger strikes. In reacting to the largest uprising to take place in the country for decades, Syrian security forces have killed hundreds of protesters and injured many more.

Source: Library of Congress and others
More about Syria:

 Searchable Map and Satellite View of the City of Damascus (capital city)

 Searchable Map and Satellite View of Syria
Political Map of Syria

 Syria Country Profile
Syria in Figures
Syria key statistical data.

Map of Western Asia and the Middle East
Map of Northern Africa and the Middle East
Political Map of Asia

External Links:
Syrian History
A Syrian website documenting the recent history of Syria, from 1900 to 2000, by Sami Moubayed.

Wikipedia: History of Syria
Wikipedia article about the History of Syria.
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