Modern history of Syria

Modern history of Syria
Flag of the Kingdom of Syria (1920)
Flag of Syria under French mandate, 1920-1922
Flag of the Syrian Republic (1932-1958, and again from 1961-1963
Flag of the United Arab Republic (1958-1961) and again of the Arab Republic of Syria since 1980
Flag of the Syrian Arab Republic 1963-1991
Flag of the Syrian Arab Republic, 1972-1980

Ottoman Syria was turned into the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria in 1920, which was however soon committed under French Mandate. From 1938 known as a Republic, Syria gained independence in 1946, entering the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, and remaining in a state of political instability during the 1950s and 1960s.

In a coup of 1970, Hafez al-Assad and his Baath Party took power. Syria was ruled autocratically by Assad during 1970–2000, and after Hafez al-Assad's death in 2000, he was succeeded by his son Bashar al-Assad.

In the context of the Arab Spring of 2011, Bashar al-Assad's regime faces the ongoing 2011 Syrian uprising.


Independence, instability and growth 1946-1970

Syrian independence was acquired in 1946. Although rapid economic development followed the declaration of independence, Syrian politics from independence through the late 1960s was marked by upheaval. The early years of independence were marked by political instability.

In 1948, Syria was involved in the Arab-Israeli War with the newly created State of Israel. The Syrian army was pressed out of the Israeli areas, but fortified their strongholds on the Golan and managed to keep their old borders and occupy some additional territory.[citation needed] In July 1949, Syria was the last Arab country to sign an armistice agreement with Israel.

In 1949, Syria's national government was overthrown by a military coup d'état led by Hussni al-Zaim. Later that year Zaim was overthrown by his colleague Sami al-Hinnawi. A few months later, Hinnawi was overthrown by Colonel Adib al-Shishakli. The latter undermined civilian rule and led to Shishakli's complete seizure of power in 1951. Shishakli continued to rule the country until 1954, when growing public opposition forced him to resign and leave the country. The national government was restored, but again to face instability, this time coming from abroad. After the overthrow of President Shishakli in a 1954 coup, continued political maneuvering supported by competing factions in the military eventually brought Arab nationalist and socialist elements to power. Between 1946 and 1956, Syria had 20 different cabinets and drafted four separate constitutions.

During the Suez Crisis of 1956, after the invasion of the Sinai Peninsula by Israeli troops, and the intervention of British and French troops, martial law was declared in Syria. Later Syrian and Iraqi troops were brought into Jordan to prevent a possible Israeli invasion. The November 1956 attacks on Iraqi pipelines were in retaliation for Iraq's acceptance into the Baghdad Pact. In early 1957 Iraq advised Egypt and Syria against a conceivable takeover of Jordan.

In November 1956 Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union, providing a foothold for Communist influence within the government in exchange for planes, tanks, and other military equipment being sent to Syria. This increase in the strength of Syrian military technology worried Turkey, as it seemed feasible that Syria might attempt to retake Iskenderon, a formerly Syrian city now in Turkey. On the other hand, Syria and the USSR accused Turkey of massing its troops at the Syrian border. During this standoff, Communists gained more control over the Syrian government and military. Only heated debates in the United Nations (of which Syria was an original member) lessened the threat of war.

Syria's political instability during the years after the 1954 coup, the parallelism of Syrian and Egyptian policies, and the appeal of Egyptian President Gamal Abdal Nasser's leadership in the wake of the Suez crisis created support in Syria for union with Egypt. On February 1, 1958, Syrian president Shukri al-Kuwatli and Nasser announced the merging of the two countries, creating the United Arab Republic, and all Syrian political parties, as well as the Communists therein, ceased overt activities.

The union was not a success, however. Following a military coup on September 28, 1961, Syria seceded, reestablishing itself as the Syrian Arab Republic. Instability characterised the next 18 months, with various coups culminating on March 8, 1963, in the installation by leftist Syrian Army officers of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command (NCRC), a group of military and civilian officials who assumed control of all executive and legislative authority. The takeover was engineered by members of the Arab Socialist Resurrection Party (Ba'ath Party), which had been active in Syria and other Arab countries since the late 1940s. The new cabinet was dominated by Ba'ath members.

The Ba'ath takeover in Syria followed a Ba'ath coup in Iraq, the previous month. The new Syrian Government explored the possibility of federation with Egypt and with Ba'ath-controlled Iraq. An agreement was concluded in Cairo on April 17, 1963, for a referendum on unity to be held in September 1963. However, serious disagreements among the parties soon developed, and the tripartite federation failed to materialize. Thereafter, the Ba'ath regimes in Syria and Iraq began to work for bilateral unity. These plans foundered in November 1963, when the Ba'ath regime in Iraq was overthrown.

In May 1964, President Amin Hafiz of the NCRC promulgated a provisional constitution providing for a National Council of the Revolution (NCR), an appointed legislature composed of representatives of mass organisations—labour, peasant, and professional unions—a presidential council, in which executive power was vested, and a cabinet. On February 23, 1966, a group of army officers carried out a successful, intra-party coup, imprisoned President Hafiz, dissolved the cabinet and the NCR, abrogated the provisional constitution, and designated a regionalist, civilian Ba'ath government on March 1. The coup leaders described it as a "rectification" of Ba'ath Party principles. In June 1967 Israel captured and occupied the Golan. The Six Day War had significantly weakened the radical socialist regime established by the 1966 coup.

On September 18th 1970, during the events of Black September in Jordan, Syria tried to intervene on behalf of the Palestinian guerrillas. Hafez al-Assad sent in armored forces equivalent to a brigade, with tanks, some of them allegedly hastily rebranded from the regular Syrian army for the purpose. Other Syrian units were the 5th Infantry Division and Commandos. On 21 September the Syrian 5th Division broke through the defenses of the Jordanian 40th Armoured Brigade, and pushed it back off the ar-Ramtha crossroads. On 22 September the Royal Jordanian Air Force began attacking Syrian forces, which were badly battered as a result. The constant airstrikes broke the Syrian force, and on the late afternoon of 22 September the 5th Division began to retreat.[1] The swift Syrian withdrawal was a severe blow to Palestinian guerillas. Jordanian armored forces steadily pounded their headquarters in Amman, and threatened to break them in other regions of the Kingdom as well. Eventually, the Palestinian factions agreed to a cease-fire. King Hussein and Yasser Arafat attended the meeting of the Arab League in Cairo, where the hostilities briefly ended. The Jordanian-Palestinian Civil War shortly resumed, but without Syrian intervention.

By 1970 a conflict had developed between an extremist military wing and a more moderate civilian wing of the Ba'ath Party. The 1970 retreat of Syrian forces sent to aid the PLO during the "Black September" hostilities with Jordan reflected this political disagreement within the ruling Ba'ath leadership.

Baath Party rule under Hafez al-Assad, 1970–2000

Power takeover

On November 13, 1970, Minister of Defense Hafez al-Assad effected a bloodless military coup, ousting the civilian party leadership and assuming the role of President. Upon assuming power, Hafez al-Assad moved quickly to create an organizational infrastructure for his government and to consolidate control. The Provisional Regional Command of Assad's Arab Baath Socialist Party nominated a 173-member legislature, the People's Council, in which the Baath Party took 87 seats. The remaining seats were divided among "popular organizations" and other minor parties.

In March 1971, the party held its regional congress and elected a new 21-member Regional Command headed by Assad. In the same month, a national referendum was held to confirm Assad as President for a 7-year term. In March 1972, to broaden the base of his government, Assad formed the National Progressive Front, a coalition of parties led by the Baath Party, and elections were held to establish local councils in each of Syria's 14 governorates. In March 1973, a new Syrian constitution went into effect followed shortly thereafter by parliamentary elections for the People's Council, the first such elections since 1962.

October War

On October 6, 1973, Syria and Egypt began the Yom Kippur War (also called the "Ramadan War" or "October War" because Syria and Egypt attacked during Muslim Ramadan holiday) by staging a surprise attack against Israel. Despite the element of surprise, Egypt and Syria lost their initial gains in a three week long warfare,[citation needed] and Israel continued to occupy the Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula.

Intervention in Lebanon

In early 1976, the Lebanese Civil War was going poorly for the Maronite Christians, so the Lebanese President Elias Sarkis officially requested Syria intervene militarily. After receiving their first mandate from Lebanese President, Syria was given a second mandate by the Arab League to intervene militarily in Lebanon. Syria sent 40,000 troops into the country to prevent the Christians from being overrun, but soon became embroiled in this war, beginning the 30 year Syrian presence in Lebanon. Over the following 15 years of civil war, Syria fought both for control over Lebanon, and as an attempt to undermine Israel in southern Lebanon, through extensive use of Lebanese allies as proxy fighters. Many saw the Syrian Army's presence in Lebanon as an occupation, especially following the end of the civil war in 1990, after the Syrian-sponsored Taif Agreement. Syria then remained in Lebanon until 2005, exerting a heavy-handed influence over Lebanese politics, that was deeply resented by many.

About one million Syrian workers came into Lebanon after the war ended to find jobs in the reconstruction of the country. Syrian workers were preferred over Palestinian Arabs and Lebanese workers because they could be paid lower wages, but some have argued that the Syrian government's encouragement of citizens entering its small and militarily dominated neighbor in search of work, was in fact an attempt at Syrian colonization of Lebanon. In 1994, under pressure from Damascus, the Lebanese government controversially granted citizenship to over 200,000 Syrians resident in the country.

Muslim Brotherhood uprising and Hama Massacre

The authoritarian regime was not without its critics, though most were quickly murdered. A serious challenge arose in the late 1970s, however, from fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, who reject the basic values of the secular Baath program and object to rule by the Alawis, whom they consider heretical. From 1976 until its suppression in 1982, the arch-conservative Muslim Brotherhood led an armed insurgency against the regime. In response to an attempted uprising by the brotherhood in February 1982, the government crushed the fundamentalist opposition centered in the city of Hama, leveling parts of the city with artillery fire and causing many thousands of dead and wounded. Since then, public manifestations of anti-regime activity have been very limited.

During Gulf War

Syria's 1990 participation in the U.S.-led multinational coalition aligned against Saddam Hussein marked a dramatic watershed in Syria's relations both with other Arab states and with the Western world. Syria participated in the multilateral Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid in October 1991, and during the 1990s engaged in direct, face-to-face negotiations with Israel. These negotiations failed, and there have been no further Syrian-Israeli talks since President Hafiz al-Assad's meeting with then President Bill Clinton in Geneva in March 2000.

Internal power struggle

In what has become known as the 1999 Latakia incident,[2] violent protests and armed clushes erupted following 1998 People's Assembly's Elections. The violent events were an explosion of a long-running feud between Hafez al-Assad and his younger brother Rifaat,[2] who previously attempted to initiate a coup against Hafez in 1984, but was eventually expelled from Syria. Two people were killed in fire exchanges of Syrian police and Rifaat's supporters during police crack-down on Rifaat's port compound in Latakia. According to opposition sources, denied by the government, the clushes in Latakia resulted in hundreds of dead and injured.[3]

Under Bashar al-Assad, 2000–present

President Bashar al-Assad

Hafiz al-Assad died on June 10, 2000, after 30 years in power. Immediately following al-Assad's death, the Parliament amended the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34, which allowed his son, Bashar al-Assad, to become legally eligible for nomination by the ruling Baath party. On July 10, 2000, Bashar al-Assad was elected President by referendum in which he ran unopposed, garnering 97.29% of the vote, according to Syrian government statistics.[citation needed]

Bashar, who speaks French and English and has a British-born wife, was said to have "inspired hopes" for reform, and a "Damascus Spring" of intense political and social debate took place from July 2000 to August 2001.[4] The period was characterized by the emergence of numerous political forums or salons where groups of like minded people met in private houses to debate political and social issues. The phenomenon of salons spread rapidly in Damascus and to a lesser extent in other cities. Political activists, such as, Riad Seif, Haitham al-Maleh, Kamal al-Labwani, Riyad al-Turk, and Aref Dalila were important in mobilizing the movement.[5] The most famous of the forums were the Riad Seif Forum and the Jamal al-Atassi Forum. The Damascus Spring ended in August 2001 with the arrest and imprisonment of ten leading activists who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience.[6] Renewed opposition activity occurred in October 2005 when activist Michel Kilo launched with leading opposition figures the Damascus Declaration, which criticized the Syrian government as "authoritarian, totalitarian and cliquish" and called for democratic reform.[7]

On October 5, 2003, Israel bombed a site near Damascus, claiming it was a terrorist training facility for members of Islamic Jihad. Islamic Jihad said the camp was not in use; Syria said the attack was on a civilian area. The Israeli action was condemned by European governments. The German Chancellor said it "cannot be accepted" and the French Foreign Ministry said "The Israeli operation… constituted an unacceptable violation of international law and sovereignty rules." The Spanish UN Ambassador Inocencio Arias called it an attack of "extreme gravity" and "a clear violation of international law."[citation needed]

The United States Congress passed the Syria Accountability Act in December, 2003, with the goal of ending what the U.S. sees as Syrian involvement in Lebanon, Iraq, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction through international sanctions.

Ethnic tensions increased in Syria, following an incident in a football stadium in Al Qamishli, 30 people were killed and more than 160 were injured in days of clashes starting from March 12. Kurdish sources indicated that Syrian security forces used live ammunition against civilians after clashes broke out at a football match between Kurdish fans of the local team and Arab supporters of a visiting team from the city of Deir al-Zor. The international press reported that nine people were killed on March 12. According to Amnesty International hundreds of people, mostly Kurds, were arrested after the riots. Kurdish detainees were reportedly tortured and ill-treated. Some Kurdish students were expelled from their universities, reportedly for participating in peaceful protests.[8]

In June 2005, thousands of Kurds demonstrated in Qamishli to protest the assassination of Sheikh Khaznawi, a Kurdish cleric in Syria, resulting in the death of one policeman and injury to four Kurds.[9][10]

On September 6, 2007 Syrian facility was bombed in the Deir ez-Zor region. While no one claimed responsibility on this act, Syria accused Israel, which in turn declared that indicated the site was a nuclear facility with a military purpose. Syria denied the claim.

In March 2008, according to Human Rights Watch,[11] Syrian security forces opened fire at Kurds celebrating spring festival of Newroz and gathering for reviving the 2004 riot in Qamishli. The shooting left three people dead.

On October 26, 2008 helicopter-borne CIA paramilitary officers[12] and United States Special Operations Forces[13] carried out a raid to the Syrian territory from Iraq[14] The Syrian government called the event a "criminal and terrorist" attack on its sovereignty, alleging all of the reported eight fatalities were civilians.[15] An unnamed U.S. military source, however, alleged that the target was a network of foreign fighters who travel through Syria to join the Iraqi insurgency against the United States-led Coalition in Iraq and the Iraqi government.[13]

2011 Syrian protests

Protests in Syria started on 26 January and were influenced by other protests in the region; on the same day, one case of self-immolation was reported. Protesters have been calling for political reforms and the reinstatement of civil rights, as well as an end to the state of emergency which has been in place since 1963.[16] One attempt at a "day of rage" was set for 45 February, though it ended up uneventful.[17][18]

On March 15, demonstrations took place in major cities across Syria. Thousands of protestors gathered in Damascus, Aleppo, al-Hasakah, Daraa, Deir ez-Zor, and Hama.[19][20][21][22] Recently released politician Suhair Atassi became an unofficial spokesperson for the "Syrian revolution"[23][24][25][26] Atassi paid tribute to "the Syrian people who took the initiative ahead of the opposition," recalling the popular uprisings that shook Tunisia and Egypt. After the first day of the protests there were reports of approximately 3000 arrests and a few "martyrs", but there are no official figures on the number of deaths.[27]

On 16 March, Syrian authorities forcibly dispersed a demonstration in front of the Syrian Interior Ministry. al-Arabiya reported that protesters were a mix of activists and jurists, writers, journalists, young academics and family members to people detained in Syrian prisons.[28][29][30] The security forces arrested a number of protestors, Al Jazeera reported 25,[31] while Al Arabiya said 32[32] including activist and lawyer Suhair Atassi and Kamal Cheikho, an activist who was released two days earlier.[33][34][35] Mohamed al-Ali, a spokesman for the Syrian Interior authority denied that it has happened any demonstrations in Syria and that the Facebook campaign has been proved unsuccessful. According to the spokesperson, the "claimed protests" consisted of a few people who were "hiding" among the already packed souq and tried to make it look like a demonstration.[36] In another statement, he went further by saying that the demonstration which was outside the Interior authority was actually in support of President Bashar al-Assad.[37]

On 18 March, thousands of protesters in several Syrian cities set to streets after the Friday prayers and chanted "God, Syria, Freedom, that's enough", challenging the classical pro-regime slogan "God, Syria, Bashar that is enough". In Damascus, security forces broke into the Omayyad Mosque and attacked protesters violently. Several people were injured, and several others were arrested. In the southern city of Daraa, people chanted against Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of the Syrian president. The regime replied by sending helicopters and water cannons. At least three people were killed by security forces.[38]

On 22 March, as a result of the protests, the Governor of Daraa was fired,[39] but this did not mollify the protesters. Demonstrations increased, and on 24 March, it was reported that hundreds had been killed.[40] in marches at Daara that exceeded 20,000.

On 29 March, the entire Syrian cabinet resigned as a concession to protesters.[41]


  1. ^ Pollack, Arabs at War, 2002, p. 339–340
  2. ^ a b George, Alan. Syria: neither bread nor freedom. 2003. p.115.
  3. ^ Taylor & Francis Group. Europea World Year Book 2004. Europa Publications, 2004. Volume 2, p.4056
  4. ^ "No Room to Breathe: State Repression of Human Rights Activism in Syria". Human Rights Watch 19 (6): 8–13. October 2007. Retrieved 5 July 2011. 
  5. ^ "Syria Smothering Freedom of Expression: the detention of peaceful critics". Amnesty International. Retrieved 5 July 2011. 
  6. ^ George, Alan (2003). Syria : neither bread nor freedom. London: Zed Books. pp. 56–58. ISBN 1842772139.,+Syria:+Neither+Bread+nor+Freedom&hl=en&src=bmrr&ei=IDYTTojlFYaRswbp56CKDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=book-preview-link&resnum=1&sqi=2&ved=0CDIQuwUwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false. 
  7. ^ "The Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change". 15 October 2005. Retrieved 5 July 2011. 
  8. ^ Syria: Address Grievances Underlying Kurdish Unrest, HRW, March 19, 2004.
  9. ^ Blanford, Nicholas (June 15, 2005). "A murder stirs Kurds in Syria". USA Today. 
  10. ^ Fattah, Hassan M. (July 2, 2005). "Kurds, Emboldened by Lebanon, Rise Up in Tense Syria". The New York Times. 
  11. ^ Syria: Investigate Killing of Kurds - Human Rights Watch
  12. ^ Landay, Jonathan S.; Youssef, Nancy A. (2008-10-27). "CIA led mystery Syria raid that killed terrorist leader". McClatchy. Retrieved 2008-10-27. 
  13. ^ a b "US special forces launch rare attack inside of Syria". Associated Press. 2008-10-26. Retrieved 2008-10-26. 
  14. ^ "'US troops' strike inside Syria". BBC. 2008-10-26. Retrieved 2008-10-26. 
  15. ^ "Syria hits out at 'terrorist' US". BBC. 2008-10-27. Retrieved 2008-10-27. 
  16. ^ Q&A: Syrian activist Suhair Atassi. Al Jazeera English. 2011-02-09. Retrieved 2011-02-13. 
  17. ^ "'Day of rage' protest urged in Syria - World news - Mideast/N. Africa -". MSNBC. Retrieved 2011-02-03. 
  18. ^ ""Day of Rage" planned for Syria; protests scheduled for Feb 4-5 - - Hot news from Armenia". Retrieved 2011-02-03. 
  19. ^ "Fresh Protests Erupt in Syria". Retrieved 15 March 2011. 
  20. ^ Youtube/Al Arabiya. "السوريون يكسرون جدار الخوف بالتظاهر في قلب دمشق". Retrieved 15 March 2011. 
  21. ^ Al Arabiya. "ردّدوا هتافات تدعو لمحاربة الفساد وفتح باب الحريات". Retrieved 15 March 2011. 
  22. ^ "الاف السوريين يثورون في قلب دمشق و المحافظات مطالبين بالحرية". Retrieved 16 March 2011. 
  23. ^ Youtube/Al Jazeera. "آخر اخبار انتفاضة سورية من فضائية الجزيرة". Retrieved 15 March 2011. 
  24. ^ Youtube/BBC. "تقرير قناه ال BBC للانتفاضه السوريه". Retrieved 15 March 2011. 
  25. ^ Youtube. "مظاهرة أمام السفارة السورية اليوم بالتزامن مع إنطلاق الثورة السورية". Retrieved 16 March 2011. 
  26. ^ BBC. "مظاهرة احتجاج في دمشق تطالب بالحريات". Retrieved 15 March 2011. 
  27. ^ "معلومات عن سقوط شهداء في تظاهرات الثلاثاء في سوريا". Retrieved 16 March 2011. 
  28. ^ "Syrian Security Forces Break Up Damascus Protest". Retrieved 16 March 2011. 
  29. ^ Al Jazeera. "Rare public protest quashed in Syria". Retrieved 16 March 2011. 
  30. ^ AFP. "Syrian security forces disperse Damascus demo". Retrieved 16 March 2011. 
  31. ^ Youtube. "مظاهرة أمام القنصلية السورية في اسطنبول". Retrieved 16 March 2011. 
  32. ^ Youtube/Al Arabiya. "أسماء الناشطين المعتقلين من قبل قوات الأمن السورية". Retrieved 16 March 2011. 
  33. ^ Al Arabiya. "أهالي سجناء وناشطون حقوقيون شاركوا في التجمع". Retrieved 16 March 2011. 
  34. ^ Al Jazeera. "اعتقالات وتفريق مظاهرة في دمشق". Retrieved 16 March 2011. 
  35. ^ BBC. "سورية: مظاهرة امام وزارة الداخلية في العاصمة دمشق". Retrieved 16 March 2011. 
  36. ^ Youtube/Al Jazeera. "تصريح العميد العلي عن مظاهرة وزارة الداخلية". Retrieved 16 March 2011. 
  37. ^ Youtube/BBC. "وزارة الداخلية السورية - المظاهرات كانت لتأييد الرئيس". Retrieved 15 March 2011. 
  38. ^ Aljazeera. "Clashes erupt at protests in Syria". Retrieved 18 March 2011. 
  39. ^ "UN calls for Syria probe as hundreds protest". Al Jazeera English. Retrieved 2011-03-24. 
  40. ^ Sabel, Robbie (2011-03-20). "'More than 100 killed in Syrian anti-government rallies'". Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 2011-03-24. 
  41. ^ "Syrian cabinet resigns as regime seeks to calm protests". The Guardian (London). 29 March 2011. 

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