Syria: History

Archaeologists have demonstrated that Syria was the center of one of the most ancient civilizations on earth. Around the excavated city of Ebla in northern Syria, discovered in 1975, a great Semitic empire spread from the Red Sea north to Turkey and east to Mesopotamia from 2500 to 2400 B.C. The city of Ebla alone during that time had a population estimated at 260,000. Scholars believe the language of Ebla to be the oldest Semitic language. In the east, the ancient site of Mari contains archeological remains of multiple cultures and religions living concurrently in the city.

Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Arameans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Nabataeans, Byzantines, and, in part, Crusaders before finally coming under the control of the Ottoman Turks. Syria is significant in the history of Christianity; Paul was converted on the road to Damascus and established the first organized Christian Church at Antioch in ancient Syria, from which he left on many of his missionary journeys.

Damascus, settled about 2500 B.C., is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It came under Muslim rule in A.D. 636. Immediately thereafter, the city's power and prestige reached its peak, and it became the capital of the Omayyad Empire, which extended from Spain to India from A.D. 661 to A.D. 750, when the Abbasid caliphate was established at Baghdad, Iraq.

Damascus became a provincial capital of the Mamluk Empire around 1260. It was largely destroyed in 1400 by Tamerlane, the Mongol conqueror, who removed many of its craftsmen to Samarkand. Rebuilt, it continued to serve as a capital until 1516. In 1517, it fell under Ottoman rule. The Ottomans remained for the next 400 years, except for a brief occupation by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt from 1832 to 1840.

French Occupation
In 1920, an independent Arab Kingdom of Syria was established under King Faysal of the Hashemite family, who later became King of Iraq. However, his rule over Syria ended after only a few months, following the clash between his Syrian Arab forces and regular French forces at the battle of Maysalun. French troops occupied Syria later that year after the League of Nations put Syria under French mandate. With the fall of France in 1940, Syria came under the control of the Vichy Government until the British and Free French occupied the country in July 1941. Continuing pressure from Syrian nationalist groups forced the French to evacuate their troops in April 1946, leaving the country in the hands of a republican government that had been formed during the mandate.

Independence to 1970
Although rapid economic development followed the declaration of independence of April 17, 1946, Syrian politics from independence through the late 1960s were marked by upheaval. A series of military coups beginning in 1949 undermined civilian rule and led to army colonel Adib Shishakli's seizure of power in 1951. 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 movements to power.

Syria's political instability during the years after the 1954 coup, the apparent parallelism of Syrian and Egyptian policies, and the appeal of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's leadership in the wake of the 1956 Suez crisis created support in Syria for union with Egypt. On February 1, 1958, the two countries merged to create the United Arab Republic, and all Syrian political parties ceased overt activities. Cairo directed economic policies in Syria, generating resentment among many Syrians.

The union was not a success, and, following a military coup on September 28, 1961, Syria seceded, reestablishing itself as the Syrian Arab Republic. Instability characterized 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 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 an appointed legislature called the National Council of the Revolution (NCR) composed of representatives of mass organizations--labor, 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. The coup leaders described it as a "rectification" of Ba'ath Party principles. The defeat of the Syrians and Egyptians in the June 1967 war with Israel weakened the radical socialist regime established by the 1966 coup. Conflict developed between a moderate military wing and a more extremist 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. On November 13, 1970, Minister of Defense Hafiz al-Asad effected a bloodless military coup, ousting the civilian party leadership and assuming the role of prime minister.

1970 to 2000
Upon assuming power, Hafiz al-Asad moved quickly to create an organizational infrastructure for his government and to consolidate control. The Provisional Regional Command of Asad's Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party nominated a 173-member legislature, the People's Council, in which the Ba'ath 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 (covering Syria, rather than the pan-Arab countries) and elected a new 21-member Regional Command headed by Asad. In the same month, a national referendum was held to confirm Asad as President for a 7-year term. In March 1972, to broaden the base of his government, Asad formed the National Progressive Front, a coalition of parties led by the Ba'ath 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.

The authoritarian regime was not without its critics, though it dealt quickly with most. A serious challenge arose in the late 1970s, however, from fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, who rejected the basic values of the secular Ba'ath program and objected to rule by the minority Alawis, whom some considered heretical. From 1976 until its suppression in 1982, the Islamist Syrian 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. From 1982 until March 2011, public manifestations of anti-regime activity were very limited.

Syria's 1990 participation in the U.S.-led multinational coalition aligned against Iraq's Saddam Hussein marked a dramatic shift in Syria's policies toward other Arab states and the West. Syria participated in the multilateral Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid in October 1991. During the 1990s, Syria engaged in direct, face-to-face negotiations with Israel, although these negotiations failed.

Hafiz al-Asad died on June 10, 2000, after 30 years in power. Immediately following Asad's death, the parliament amended the constitution to reduce the mandatory minimum age of the president from 40 to 34 years old. This allowed his son, Bashar al-Asad, legally to be eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba'ath Party. On July 10, 2000, Bashar al-Asad was elected President by referendum in which he ran unopposed, garnering 97.29% of the vote, according to Syrian Government statistics. He was inaugurated into office on July 17, 2000 for a 7-year term.

2000 to 2011
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the Syrian Government began limited cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism efforts on the basis of shared opposition to al-Qaeda’s goals. Syria opposed the Iraq war in March 2003, and bilateral relations with the United States swiftly deteriorated. In December 2003, President George W. Bush signed into law the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, which provided for the imposition of a series of sanctions against Syria if Syria did not end its support for Palestinian terrorist groups, curtail its military and security interference in Lebanon, cease its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and meet its obligations under United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq. In May 2004, the President determined that Syria had not met these conditions and implemented sanctions that prohibit the export to Syria of U.S. products except for food and medicine, and the taking off from or landing in the United States of Syrian Government-owned aircraft. At the same time, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced its intention to order U.S. financial institutions to sever correspondent accounts with the Commercial Bank of Syria based on money-laundering concerns, pursuant to Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act. Acting under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), the President also authorized the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to freeze assets belonging to certain Syrian individuals and entities.

Tensions between Syria and the United States intensified from mid-2004 to early 2009, primarily over issues relating to Iraq and Lebanon. The U.S. Government recalled its ambassador to Syria in February 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Prior to the assassination, France and the United States in 2004 had co-authored UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1559 calling for “all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon.” Under pressure from the international community following the Hariri assassination, Syrian units stationed in Lebanon since 1976 were withdrawn by April 2005. Sensing its international isolation, the Syrians strengthened their relations with Iran and radical Palestinians groups based in Damascus, and cracked down on any signs of internal dissent. During the July-August 2006 conflict in Lebanon between Israel and Hizballah, Syria placed its military forces on alert but did not intervene directly on behalf of its Hizballah ally.

On May 27, 2007, President al-Asad was reaffirmed by referendum for a second 7-year term, with 97.6% of the vote. During 2008, though Syria’s relations with the United States remained strained, Syria’s international isolation was slowly being overcome as indirect talks between Israel and Syria, mediated by Turkey, were announced and a Qatar-brokered deal in Lebanon was reached. Shortly thereafter, French president Nicolas Sarkozy invited President Asad to participate in the Euro-Mediterranean summit in Paris, spurring a growing stream of diplomatic visits to Damascus. Since January 2009, President Barack Obama’s administration has continued to review Syria policy in light of dynamic changes in Syria and the region, and a succession of congressional and U.S. administration officials visited Syria while in the region.

Despite high hopes when President al-Asad first took power in 2000, there was little movement on political reform, with more focus on limited economic liberalizations. The Syrian Government provided some initial cooperation to the UN Independent International Investigation Commission, which investigated the killing of Hariri until superseded by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Since the 34-day conflict between Lebanon and Israel in July and August 2006, evidence of Syrian compliance with its obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1701 not to rearm the Lebanese group Hizballah is unpersuasive. On April 17, 2007, the United Nations Security Council welcomed the Secretary General's intention to evaluate the situation along the entire Syria-Lebanon border and invited the Secretary General to dispatch an independent mission to assess the monitoring of the border and to report back on its findings and recommendations. As of January 2012, the border had yet to be demarcated, and Syrian military attacks on Syrian oppositionists have occurred in areas claimed by both countries.

After 2009, the United States attempted to engage with Syria to find areas of mutual interest, reduce regional tensions, and promote Middle East peace. These efforts included congressional and executive meetings with senior Syrian officials, including President Asad, and the return of a U.S. Ambassador to Damascus. The Syrian Government’s violent response to public protests since March 2011, however, has isolated Syria politically not only from the United States but also from Europe, the Arab world, and other parts of the international community. Before operations were suspended in February 2012, the U.S. embassy’s role in Syria strongly supported the movement toward political reform and greater openness.

Sources:

CIA World Factbook (March 2012)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( March 2012)

Glossary