Historically, Syria was composed of modern Syria but also Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Due to its strategic position, its coastal towns were important Phoenician trading posts. Later, the area became a pivotal part of the Egyptian, Persian and Roman Empires and many others in the empire-building business.
Lebanon and Syria finally ended up as part of the Ottoman domains ruled from Istanbul, and were dished out to France when the Ottoman Empire broke up after WWI. This caused considerable local resentment, as the region had been briefly independent from the end of WWI until the French took over in 1920.
France never had much luck with its Syria-Lebanon mandate. Local opposition to its policy of carving up the country into mini-states (Grand Liban, Lebanon, Aleppo and Damascus) and minority enclaves (for the Druze and Alawites) led to revolts against French rule. Elections were held in 1928 and 1932, but attempts to establish a constitution were stymied by the occupying power, which compounded its unpopularity in 1939 when Syria ceded the northern cities of Antiock (Antakya) and Alexandretta (Iskenderun) to encourage Turkey’s neutrality in WWII.
In Syria, a nationalist government was formed in August 1943, but the French continued to be in denial about the waning of its influence in the region, bombing Damascus after locals had demonstrated in support of a final handover of administrative and military services to the new government. The situation was only resolved after the British intervened and oversaw the final departure of all French troops and administrators at the end of the war.
A period of political instability followed and by 1954, after several military coups, the nationalist Ba’ath Party (‘Ba’ath’ means ‘renaissance’) took power virtually unopposed. A brief flirtation with the Pan-Arabist idea of a United Arab Republic (with Egypt) in 1958 proved unpopular and coups in 1960, 1961 and 1963 saw the leadership change hands yet again. By 1966 the Ba’ath Party was back in power, but it was severely weakened by losses in two conflicts: the Six Day War with Israel in 1967 and the Black September hostilities in Jordan in 1970. At this point, Defence Minister Hafez al-Assad seized power.
Assad maintained control longer than any other post-independence Syrian government, with a mixture of ruthless suppression and guile. The most widely condemned example of the former came on February 2 1982, when Assad ordered the shelling of the old city of Hama in response to a growing campaign by the Muslim Brotherhood. He followed this with warning that ayone left in the city would be declared a rebel. In the fighting that followed, between 10,000 and 25,000 people were killed out of a total population of 350,000, and mosques, churches and archaeological sites were damaged and destroyed.
In 1998, Assad was elected to a fifth seven-year term with a predictable 99.9% of the vote. It took failing health to finally remove the man from power; he died on June 10 2000.
Following the death of Assad senior, his son Bashar acceded to power, continuing the minority Alawites’ hold on power. A new government was formed in December 2001 with a mandate to push forward political, economic and administrative reforms. For a while, a wave of change swept Syria, the so-called ‘Damascus Spring’ buzzing with a proliferation of private newspapers, internet bloggers, and public debate not seen in the country in decades. Foreign food flooded into Syria, private banks were allowed to open and mobile phones made a wildly popular appearance.
But ‘not so fast’ was the message that came from the old guard that had surrounded Bashar’s father – anything perceived as opposing the country’s unwieldy government was quickly shut down. Reforming the countries unwieldy bureaucracy, whose membership depended more on political patronage and nepotism than on merit, also proved a road too far, as did any hope of curbing the state’s far-reaching powers under the emergency laws brought in in 1963, after the coup that brought the Ba’ath party to power.
As a result, while many of the economic reforms were left untouched, political reforms stalled. There was more freedom and less fear than duting the rule of Assad senior, but Sdyrinas suffered low wages and rising prices. The country appeared to be going through a boom – certainly a tourist boom – as a result of an improving international standing (even the US opened an embassy in Damascus) and there was an inflx of investment and hope, in some places. But life for the majority of Syrians continued to be difficult, with around a quarter of young people out of work. This tense situation was finally ignited by the ‘Arab spring’ uprisings that swept across North Africa from late 2010.
Small-scale public protests that began in Deraa in March 2011 may not have excaled had the security forces not killed four unarmed protetors and the killed one of the mourners at the funeral. President Assad’s brother, Maher Assad, then led an armoured division to suppress any further dissent. The death of dozens of unarmed people in the assault led to rotests around the country. by mid-May, the UN reported that at least 1000 had been killed by the security forces and by shabiha – pro-Assad armed gangs. Shabiha have also been involved in torture, which Amnesty International says is now widespread, with more than half of the cases coming from Deraa.
President Assad did make some concessions, ending the emergency laws and promising electoral reform, but armed resistance to the regime grew along with the security forces’ use of heaby weapons, including tanks and the air force. Defecting soldiers from the Syrian Army formed the basis for the creation of the Free Syrian Army. In October 2011, the Syrian National Council – an organization of dissidents and defected politicians made up predominately of Sunni Muslims including the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party – announced its mission to replace the Assad government. Based outside Syria and promising to uphold democratic rights and abide by the rule of law, it soon won support from Western governments, while Russia, which maintains a naval base along the Syrian coast, and China continued to support Assad.
Protests escalated dramatically and by March 2012, at least 9000 people had been killed in the government’s violent crackdown, the majority of them civilians. Parts of Deraa, Hama, Lattakia, Deir ez-Zur and many other cities and towns were badly damaged, and the Baba Amr district of Homs became a bloodbath, with civilians, fighters of the Free Syrian Army and foreign journalists among an estimated 700 casulaites. Most places in the country continued to see regular protests in spite of violent reprisals.
On March 8 2102, a Syrian minister, Abdo Hussameddin resigned his post and his membership of the ruling Ba’ath Party. He said that he was joining the revolution of the people who reject injustice and the brutal campaign of the regime’.
The Arab League put forward a peace plan in January 2012 that was rejected by the Assad government. A joint Arab League/United Nations plan, put forward in April, called for a ceasefire and the right to protest, the release of detainees and a reformed political process. And the US and other countries continued to call fro President Assad to hand over power.
The rest is well known history. Refer to several posts in “Islam” on the Ideas Page for more recent developments.