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History of Syria from Past to Present

Syrian Army soldiers stand next to apparent rebel bombers dressed in military gear after they were shot near the scene where multiple bombs explosions hit the center of Aleppo
Syrian Army soldiers stand next to apparent rebel bombers dressed in military gear after they were shot near the scene where multiple bombs explosions hit the center of Aleppo, Syria on October 3, 2012. (Photo SANA)


The Citadel in Aleppo
The Citadel in Aleppo

Syria’s present borders and name stem from the French mandate (1920-1946). The area has been inhabited for several thousands of years. From the third millennium BCE, the region was under the successive control of – among others – Hittites, Assyrians, and Babylonians. In the 6th century BCE, it became part of the Persian Empire, which fell to Alexander the Great in 330 BCE. After Alexander’s death, Seleucid rulers (301-164 BCE) governed the region. Later, the area became part of the Roman Empire (64 BCE), and afterwards of the Byzantine Empire (ca. 300-634 CE). In the 7th century, Muslim Arab tribes from the Arabian Peninsula established control. From then on, the region was ruled by successive Arab dynasties, of which the Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid are among the best known.

During the 12th and 13th centuries, Syria was the target of several crusades. The crusaders were driven out of most of the region by the famous Kurdish Syrian emir Saladin, and finally defeated by the Mamluks from Egypt.

In 1516, the region became part of the Ottoman Empire and remained so until World War I (1914-1918), when Arab and British troops eventually defeated the Turkish rulers in the region.

French officer with the Druze in 1940
French officer with the Druze in 1940 (Photo HH)

In 1920, Syria became a French mandate. At that time it received its present name and borders (except for the Golan Heights). It became fully independent in 1946. Politically, the country has been marked by instability. In 1948, Israel’s victory over the Arabs came as a great shock to Syria, especially as it considered Palestine to be part of historic Greater Syria (as it did Lebanon and Transjordan). An influx of Palestinian refugees followed. In 1949, the military took power. The pan-Arabist and, later, Arab Socialist Baath Party became the ruling party. In 1958, Syria was united with Egypt in the United Arab Republic. However, in 1961 another military coup ended this union. The Baath Party – dominated by officers belonging to the Alawite minority – remained in firm control. Although an extremely authoritarian regime, the military weakened the once powerful and immensely rich landowners, who had ruled the country before. For this they earned the support of the economically disadvantaged in Syrian society.

During the June War of 1967 (or Six Day War), Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel, which again came as a huge blow. In 1970, air force general Hafiz al-Assad seized power. He was re-elected several times without opposition and was to remain President until his death in 2000. Al-Assad’s regime was harsh. Human rights organizations repeatedly denounced its treatment of political prisoners. In 1982, thousands of people were killed when the army crushed a Muslim Brotherhood revolt in the town of Hama. However, the President also brought stability, stimulating and modernizing the economy. In 1976, at the request of the then Lebanese President Elias Sarkis, al-Assad sent troops to Lebanon in order to intervene in the Civil War (1975-1990). The Syrian troops remained in Lebanon until 2005.

When al-Assad died in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad succeeded him. He was re-elected in 2007. After 9/11, American President George W. Bush ranked Syria among the states which sponsored terrorism, because of its support for the Palestinian resistance organizations and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Earlier, the United States and Syria had acted side by side, in particular in Lebanon and during the Kuwait Crisis (1990-1991), when Hafiz al-Assad had been a political and military ally of President George Bush Sr. Adel Safar became Prime Minister of Syria in April 2011.

In mid-March 2011 the Syrian authorities faced mass protests as people demanded basic rights. These protests soon led to violent clashes with the Syrian security forces, and many protestors were killed or arrested. The uprising culminated in a large-scale conflict in which the opposition took up arms to defend itself against the government forces, leading to severe destruction and many casualties. The conflict has increasingly attracted the involvement of outside forces, leading to growing sectarian tensions in the region. As of October 2015, more than 4 million Syrians had fled the country and the death toll since 2011 had passed 250,000.

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