Syria history is full of political instability and hostility with both the West and neighboring countries. The unrest and widespread violence characterized Syria throughout the 21st century.
Since the Islamic conquests of the 7th century, Damascus and the larger Syrian region have played a significant role in both the stability and unrest of the Arab world.
This article will explore the tumultuous history of Syria, from its ancient roots to the Syrian Civil War of 2010.
Early History of Syria
In ancient prehistory, the region of Syria was referred to as “Eber Nari” (across the river) by ancient Mesopotamians.
The ancient Syrian cities of Mari and Ebla were important cultural hubs for the Sumerian people of the Levant and have been a central location for archaeologists searching for remnants of Mesopotamian society.
Ancient History of Syria
Modern-day Syria was part of the Persian Empire from the 6th to 4th centuries B.C., until Alexander the Great conquered the region in 333 B.C. However, over time Macedonian control of the Middle East began to deteriorate, and in 66 Roman, general Pompey conquered the entire Levant region.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the region came under the control of the Byzantine Empire. Eventually, it fell under the rule of the Muslim Arab armies in the 7th century. Damascus became the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate until 750, when the capital changed to Baghdad.
In 1516 the Ottoman Empire conquered Syria, and it remained one of the most prominent provinces of the empire. During World War I Syria and Palestine was the location for many battles between the Central and Entente forces. The allied capture of Jerusalem put an end to over 700 years of Muslim control of the city.
The French Mandate
Following the Ottoman defeat in World War I, the Middle East was divided up between the British and French governments.
France took control of Syria as a mandate and decided to divide the country into six distinct regions: Damascus, Aleppo, Jabal Druze, Alawite State, Sanjak of Alexandretta, and Greater Lebanon. These regions were primarily divided up based on the various ethnicities and religions of the Syrian population.
In 1936, the French and Syrian governments reached an agreement that gave Syria partial autonomy, though France would maintain great influence over the country’s economy and military.
Britain and French forces invaded Syria in 1941 when it was discovered that the German Luftwaffe had used airfields in the country. In September, the Syrian Republic was officially declared independent, though it would remain occupied by allied forces throughout World War II.
In 1943, Shukri al-Kuwatli was elected the first president of Syria, and in 1944 the country gained independence. However, French troops were not fully withdrawn from the country until 1946.
After fully gaining its independence, Syria joined the Arab League with its neighboring countries, which was defeated in the 1948 war against Israel.
The Arab defeat against Israel caused great political instability in the newly independent nation, as three different coups occurred in the Syrian government in 1949. With assistance from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Husni al-Za’im led the third coup and seized power but was shortly executed afterward after a subsequent coup removed from power.
Hashem al-Atassi came to power but was eventually deposed by Adlib al-Shishakli, who ruled as a dictator until 1954 when a coalition government removed Shishakli from power and reinstated Quwatli as president.
The Syrian government greatly strengthened its ties with the Soviet Union in 1956. In exchange for weapons, the Syrian government allowed increased Soviet political and military influence in the region.
In 1958 Syria joined the United Arab Republic with Egypt, and both countries established close ties with the USSR to combat growing western influence in the Arab world. This union would be short-lived, and in 1961 a group of officers took control of the country and left the alliance with Egypt.
The Ba’ath Party
In 1963, the Ba’ath party, which committed itself to Arab nationalism and socialism, seized power. The new Ba’ath government nationalized much of the country’s economy and carried out land distribution policies throughout the countryside.
After the revolution, the Ba’ath party gradually began to fracture between radicals and moderates, with the radicals eventually conducting a successful coup in 1966. The new government, led by Salah Jadid, with Nureddin al-Attassi acting as a figurehead, strengthened the country’s ties with the USSR and Egypt.
During this period, the tension between Israel and Syrian increased greatly, and during the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel took the Golan Heights region from Syria. The defeat humiliated the Arab countries and caused further dissent against Jadid’s regime, especially from the military.
Following the defeat against Israel, the Ba’ath party began to fracture further. Jadid’s faction believed that the country should focus on a socialist economy with strong ties to the USSR. The other faction led by General Hafez al-Assad believed in stronger ties with other Arab governments and less dependency on aid from Moscow.
In 1970, Hafez al-Assad, a military officer belonging to the Alawite religious minority came to power through a bloodless coup, and his rule would ultimately last for 30 years.
He increasingly appointed the Alawite religious minority to high positions in the military, with many of them being his close relatives.
While Sunni Muslims dominated the lower ranks of the armed forces, the high-ranking officers were nearly all Alawites. This plan was surely a strategy used to secure his power after watching decades of coups at the hands of a disloyal military.
Assad removed many of the leading figures of the former regime from the government and sought out many officials, writers, and other intelligentsia that were forced underground by Jadid and brought them back into the Syrian bureaucracy.
Assad significantly strengthened the Syrian military through his alliance with the Soviet Union, then he allowed them to build a port at Tartus in exchange for weapons and munitions.
Syria and Egypt fought against Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. While Syria made territorial gains at the beginning of the conflict, Israel soon regained the territory and pushed deep into Syrian territory. The three countries agreed to a ceasefire, and Israel retained the Golan Heights.
Syria involved itself in the Lebanese Civil War by sending a peacekeeping force, which initially aligned with the Christian Maronites. However, Assad changed sides, and his forces increasingly became allied with the Muslims fighting against the Christian forces.
In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, where many Syrian troops were stationed. The Syrian troops were eventually pushed back, though they would reassert their military presence in the country after Israel’s withdrawal in 1985. Lebanon would remain under significant political influence from the Syrian government until 2005.
Between 1976 and 1982, radical Sunni Muslims increasingly caused unrest through the cities, as the Sunni majority felt underrepresented by the rule of the Alawite minority. A rebellion organized by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 was brutally put down by the Assad regime in the city of Hama. A large portion of the city was destroyed by bombing, and Assad’s forces killed an estimated 10,000 people.
While Egypt went to great lengths to establish diplomatic relations with Israel to gain back the Sinai Peninsula, Assad refused to conduct any peace negotiations with the Israeli government. In 1982 Israel officially announced the annexation of the Golan Heights.
During the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union began to collapse, Assad increasingly made attempts to establish friendlier relations with the West. Assad expressly condemned Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and sent 20,000 Syrian troops to fight for the U.S.-led coalition in the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
During the final years of his life, Assad made increased efforts to make peace with Israel, mainly to take back the Golan Heights, though these talks would never be successful.
Upon Assad’s sudden death in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad took control of the country.
Bashar initially showed promise in being a more democratic leader. He released hundreds of political prisoners from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni groups. He also allowed considerably more freedom to writers and intelligentsia throughout the country.
However, Bashar quickly began brutally arresting protestors and activists throughout 2001. He also began greatly distancing Syria from the West by allying with Iran and Hezbollah.
In 2002, as part of the “War on Terror,” the United States condemned Syria, claiming that it was harboring and funding terrorist groups. Despite his dislike for Saddam Hussein’s regime, Assad condemned the United States for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Syria increasingly became a harbor and base of operations for the Sunni insurgency Iraq, and Bashar made little effort to fight the growing Iraqi insurgency in his country.
In October, the Israeli Air Force conducted an airstrike on an alleged training base for extremists after multiple suicide bombings occurred in Israel. Israel would launch another airstrike on a different facility in 2007.
In 2004 the Syrian military forcibly extended the Lebanese president’s term through military force, despite his loss in an election. Syria faced increased international condemnation and was forced to withdraw in 2005 entirely.
The Arab League met in Syria in early 2008, but many of the Arab leaders did not attend out of protest against Assad’s involvement in Lebanon. In October, U.S. forces led a raid into Syria that killed many leaders of the Iraqi insurgency. The U.S. reinstated sanctions on the country in 2010 on the grounds that it was harboring and funding extremists in the region.
By 2010, decades of Alawite domination had brought much of the Sunni population to a breaking point. The Alawite minority had controlled the country’s economy, military, and government since the Assad family rose to power in 1970. The Sunni majority grew increasingly disgruntled by their lack of power in the country.
A drought that devastated Syria from 2007 to 2010 greatly exacerbated the growing Sunni unrest. Farmers increasingly had to sell their land and move into the country’s cities, which were becoming increasingly crowded.
An influx of refugees from Iraq during this period further increased the competition for water, housing, and employment in the country’s urban centers. The Syrian police increasingly arrested Sunni and Kurdish protestors as the Assad regime became increasingly authoritarian.
Syrian Civil War
During the Arab Spring of early 2011, a group of teenagers was arrested and brutally tortured for writing graffiti that critiqued Assad’s regime. This news sparked nationwide protests, especially in the cities of Deraa, Homs, and Hama. Initially, Damascus and Aleppo had very few protests.
The Assad government began arresting and torturing protestors throughout Sunni-dominated cities, and Sunni Muslims increasingly targeted the Alawite population with violence and harassment.
The rebels of the Free Syrian Army began to lead an armed uprising against the regime throughout 2011. The authoritarian measures of Assad increasingly caused many Sunni soldiers in the Alawite-controlled military to desert and fight against Assad’s government.
The cities of Damascus and Aleppo became the central locations for the civil war, and the government was accused of mass arrests and executions of the cities’ populations.
Relations with Turkey, who had been openly critical of Assad’s regime, deteriorated further after a Turkish fighter airplane was shot down over Syria. Turkey and Syria constantly bombarded each other’s borders, and both Jordan and Israel led strikes against Syrian military installations.
While the rebel forces proved to be a formidable force, they were unable to unite fully and often fought each other. Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Russian and Iranian governments sided with Assad, and this strong alliance gave the Syrian government a powerful advantage over the rebel groups.
Throughout 2014, the Islamic State extremist group increasingly gained territory in northern and eastern Syria, sparking international concern. A U.S.-led coalition of forces increasingly launched airstrikes against Sunni extremists throughout Syria.
Hundreds of civilians were killed in 2013 by a chemical attack conducted by government forces. In June 2014, Assad won reelection as president, though many opponents criticized the election as fraudulent. By June of 2015, Assad’s forces controlled most of eastern Syria, while the rebels controlled most of the north and west of the country.
While the rebel forces had made significant gains against both government forces and the Islamic State, the tide of the civil war began to shift back to Assad’s favor when Iran and Russia began to fund and supply government forces increasingly.
Russia began to conduct air attacks on Syrian rebel positions throughout 2015, which greatly aided the momentum of government forces, who increasingly began to take back territory throughout 2015 and 2016. In 2016, Syrian government forces finally took back the city of Aleppo.
On April 7, 2017, Assad’s forces killed hundreds of civilians in a chemical attack, which caused international outrage. Following the massacre, the U.S. began conducting military operations against Assad’s regime. By late 2017, the Islamic State had lost nearly all of its previously held territory in the country, and the organization was forced underground.
As of 2021, Assad’s government controls 80 percent of the country, while rebel forces only control the Idlib province. While many outsiders have called for Assad to simply step down from power and create a more representative government, the Shia population of the country, especially the Alawites, believe that they will be massacred if a Sunni government replaces the Assad regime.
The sanctions placed on the country by the U.S. and the destruction of the Civil War devastated the Syrian economy. As of 2021, 80 percent of the country’s population is living below the poverty line, and many of the country’s major cities lie in ruins.
It is estimated that 11 million people, around half of the country’s population, have been displaced due to the civil war. Syrian refugees have primarily migrated to other countries throughout the Middle East. Others have settled in Europe, with Germany taking in the most Syrian migrants.
We have covered many aspects of Syria’s long, tumultuous history.
Let’s review the main ideas:
- The Assad family took the country’s power in 1970 and appointed members of the Alawite minority to high government positions, especially in the military.
- In 2000, Bashar al Assad became the President of Syria and increasingly cracked down on dissenters of his regime.
- Leading up to 2011, the Sunni population increasingly became disgruntled by decades of Alawite rule, authoritarianism, a stagnant economy, and overcrowded cities.
- In 2011 rebel groups began an armed struggle against the Assad Regime that is still raging today.
Only time will tell what the 21st century will add to Syria’s history of political instability and unrest. The Syrian Civil War has shown many weaknesses in the Assad family’s regime. It is unclear if the government’s strong alliance with Russia and Iran will be strong enough to prevail over the growing volatility of the Syrian political system.