Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

History of Syria

History of Syria
Aleppo (Photo by RAMZI HAIDAR / AFP)


Syria has recently been in a crisis, which holds a lot of historical fluctuations and incidents. Ruled by al-Ba’ath Party and al-Assad family for more than half a century, this country was the Umayyad caliphate’s center. Moreover, Syria is among the key places that witnessed the birth of Arab Nationalism.

Fanack will dive in this section into Syria’s history from present to past. By this, we attempt to get through the conclusive events that laid out this country’s present and identity from a historian’s perspective.

The Reign of the two Assads (2020 - 1970)

In Syria, the civil war turned into a worldwide conflict; a revolution turned into chaos, then into a proxy battlefield for several international forces, including Russia, Iran, the USA, and Turkey.

Since mid-March 2011, Bashar al-Assad authorities have been facing public protests, where people demand their basic rights. The demonstrations led to violent clashes with the Syrian Security Forces. Many protestors were arrested or killed. Somehow, foreign forces got involved in the conflict, which escalated the sectarian tension in the region. Millions of Syrians fled from their homeland, and thousands were killed.

Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000 to succeed his father Hafez and secure the regime that has been established since 1971 by the latter.

Al-Assad’s regime was merciless, and many human rights organizations denounced over and over how the regime treated political prisoners. In 1982, thousands were killed when the army crushed a rebellion made by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama.

In 1976, Hafez al-Assad sent forces to Lebanon to intervene in the civil war (1975-1990) as per the Lebanese President Élias Sarkis’ request. Syrian forces remained in Lebanon until 2005.

In 1970, the Air Force General Hafez al-Assad (Alawite) seized power, and he was re-elected several times with no opposition. Side by side with Egypt, Assad fought in October 1973 against Israel in the October Liberation war (Yom Kippur war).
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From The Mandate to the Naksa (1967 - 1920)

As a result of the Six-Day War in 1967, Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel. These events happened when Nurenddin al-Atassi was the president who was succeeded by Hafez al-Assad later on.

In 1949, the Army took over the power. By 1958, Syria joined Egypt in unification and has been called “The United Arab Republic.” However, this unity didn’t last long, as a military coup quickly ended it in 1961.

The defeat the Arabs suffered to Israel in 1948 shocked Syria, especially because Syria considered Palestine a part of Greater Syria. This defeat led to a massive influx of Palestinian refugees into Syria.

Syria was under the French Mandate between 1920 and 1946. Syria suffered from political instability during this period. The Sanjak of Alexandretta was separated from Syria and annexed by Turkey after the 1939 referendum.

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The Conflict Over Syria (1920 - 1860)

Between 1922 and 1924, Alawite, Damascus, and Aleppo states joined together in a Syrian federation. In January 1925, Damascus and Aleppo were united into a single Syrian state, while the Alawite state maintained its quasi-independence.

As per the Treaty of Ankara between France and Turkey in 1921, the Sanjak of Alexandretta was added to Syria that year as an autonomous province. At that time, the Sanjak population was comprised of Turks, Armenians, and Arabs. Under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s rule, the Sanjak of Alexandretta was appended to Aleppo in 1923 while retaining a special administrative status.

In autumn 1918, the Turkish forces were defeated in the Levant by the Arab, British and French forces. On the 30th of October 1918, a truce was signed between the parties.

The last decades of the 19th century witnessed the awakening of the Arab Identity. In this phase, the empire tightened its grip on intractable areas, such as Syria.

After the violent incidents of 1860, Mount Lebanon was separated from Damascus and Sidon. At the time, the mount was turned into an independent province. The Vilayet of Syria united Damascus and Sidon, encompassing the central and southern part of present-day Syria and Palestine and present-day Jordan, and a large part of present-day Lebanon.

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The Ottoman Empire (1914 - 1516)

In 1516, the Levant – including Syria – became a part of the Ottoman Empire. Syria remained a part of the Ottoman Empire until World War I (1914 – 1918), when the Arab and British forces expelled the Turkish rulers from the region.

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The Mamluks (1517 - 1291)

After half a century from the death of Saladin in 1193, the Ayyubid dynasty ended, and the Mamluks took over in Egypt.

Around 1250, The Mongols invaded all countries in Middle Asia and most of Western Asia. In the Middle East, the Mongols and their allies penetrated Damascus and passed by Aleppo. In the battle of Ayn Jalut (1260), the Mamluks defeated the Mongols and then conquered Syria and Mount Lebanon.

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The Crusades (1292 - 1095)

The first crusades began in 1095. At that time, Pope Urban II called for a military expedition to help the Byzantine Empire fight against the Seljuk (Turkic) assailants. Moreover, the crusades aimed to take control of the Holy Land.

In the name of Jihad, Emir Nur al-Din (1116 – 1174) conquered Damascus and united the Syrians. Nur al-Din appointed Saladin as a commander of the Syrian forces in Egypt and as a vizier. Saladin announced the Fatimid (Shiite) rule, replacing it with his own Ayyubid dynasty. The Battle of Hattin in 1187 was one of his famous victories.

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The Arab Conquests and the Umayyads

In the 7th century, the Muslim Conquerors came into the region from the Arabian Peninsula. Arabs have lived in Syria at the time for centuries. Muawiya bin Abu Sufyan became the first governor of ‘Greater Syria’ and the first Umayyad caliph.

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Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians

Since the 3rd millennium BC, Hittites, Assyrians, and Babylonians have successively governed the region.

In the 6th century BC, Syria became a part of the Persian Empire, which fell on Alexander the Great in 330 BC. After Alexander’s death, the Seleucids ruled the region (301 – 164 BC). Later on, the region became a part of the Roman Empire (64 BC), then a part of the Byzantine Empire (around 300 – 634 AD).

In the Bronze Age (3200-1200 BC), the western parts of present-day Syria belonged to the ancient kingdom of Canaan, while the eastern parts belonged to the Mesopotamian civilizations on the Euphrates.

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