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History of Syria from Past to Present

Aleppo (Photo by RAMZI HAIDAR / AFP)

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

The civil war in Syria 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 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 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 for long, as it was quickly ended by a military coup in 1961.

The defeat the Arab 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 the rule of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, 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, in addition to 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 as far as Damascus and passed by Aleppo. In the battle of Ayn Jalut (1260), the Mamluks defeated the Mongols and then proceeded to conquer 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 in its 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 end of 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 Conquest 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 successively governed the region.

In the 6th century BC, Syria became a part of the Persian Empire, which fell on the hand of 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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Further Reading

From the 16th until the end of the 13th centuries BCE the city of Ugarit (Ras Shamra) on the coast was the most important harbour of the Levant, trading with Egypt, Greece, Anatolia and Mesopotamia. Archaeologists have excavated r...
Syria began its fully independent life as a parliamentary democracy, but within months the military took the lead, staging a series of coups and wielding power in cooperation with a political and economic elite comprising a small ...
In 1963, only two years after the military coup that put an end to both the United Arab Republic and the predominance of the Baath Party, yet another coup brought the Baath back to power. The new regime believed in socialism, and...
Hafiz al-Assad understood that to ensure real security for his regime every part of society had to be brought firmly under his control. The formal structures of the state were key arenas for his programme. Within a few years of se...
Bashar al-Assad, reportedly an indecisive personality, has not dominated the regime as his father did, and other members of the al-Assad family have wielded significant influence in a way they might not have done under Hafiz al-As...
Syria has not been immune from the wave of pro-democracy agitation that has swept the Arab world since the end of 2010. Beginning in January 2011 and gathering momentum in mid-March, major protest demonstrations took place through...
The contested Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, was reelected on 3 June 2014 for a third seven-year term, despite widespread local and international opposition to his remaining in power. The election took place amid a bloody thre...
In recent weeks, Ali Mamlouk, al-Assad’s national security advisor, has made secret visits to both the Saudi city of Jeddah and to Muscat, Oman, where he met with high-level officials. This according to both Saudi-based sources ...
In the Syrian anti-Assad opposition as a whole, alliances between the independently operating rebel brigades have been changing constantly. There were also ambiguous relations between some rebel groups and the Syrian regime.
In addition to the high density of population, the too many security checkpoints here are causing horrible traffic jams. They take their time checking every car and each passenger. A trip that used to take 10 minutes before, now t...

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