History of Syria

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Syria > Map Economy History

PRESENT-DAY SYRIA constitutes only a small portion of the ancient geographical Syria. Until the twentieth century, when Western powers began to carve out the rough contours of the contemporary states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, the whole of the settled region at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea was called Syria, the name given by the ancient Greeks to the land bridge that links three continents. For this reason, historians and political scientists usually use the term Greater Syria to denote the area in the prestate period.

Historically, Greater Syria rarely ruled itself, primarily because of its vulnerable position between the Mediterranean Sea and the desert. As a marchland between frequently powerful empires on the north, east, and south, Syria was often a battlefield for the political destinies of dynasties and empires. Unlike other parts of the Middle East, Greater Syria was prized as a fertile cereal-growing oasis. It was even more critical as a source of the lumber needed for building imperial fleets in the preindustrial period.

Even though it was exploited politically, Greater Syria benefited immeasurably from the cultural diversity of the peoples who came to claim parts or all of it and who remained to contribute and participate in the remarkable spiritual and intellectual flowering that characterized Greater Syria's cultures in the ancient and medieval periods. Incorporating some of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Greater Syria was in a unique position to foster intellectual activities. By 1400 B.C., Damascus (Dimashq), Aleppo (Halab), Hamah (Hamath), Byblos (Gubla), Joffa (Joppa), Homs, Gaza, Tyre (Sur), and Sidon already had been established; some of these cities had flourished for many centuries. Because Greater Syria was usually ruled by foreigners, the inhabitants traditionally identified themselves with their cities, and in contemporary Syria each city continues to have a unique sociopolitical character.

A recurrent theme of Greater Syria's history has been the encounters between Eastern and Western powers on its soil. Even in the ancient period, it was the focus of a continual dialectic, both intellectual and bellicose, between the Middle East and the West. During the medieval period this dialectic was intensified as it became colored by diametrically opposed religious points of view regarding rights to the land. The Christian Byzantines contended with Arabs, and later the Christian Crusaders competed with Muslim Arabs, for land they all held sacred.

The advent of Arab Muslim rule in A.D. 636 provided the two major themes of Syrian history: the Islamic religion and the world community of Arabs. According to traditionalist Muslims, the greatest period of Islamic history was the time of the brief rule of Muhammad--the prototype for the perfect temporal ruler-- and the time of the first four caliphs (known as rashidun, rightly guided), when man presumably behaved as God commanded and established a society on earth unequaled before or after. During this period religion and state were one and Muslims ruled Muslims according to Muslim law. The succeeding Umayyad (661-750) and Abbasid (750-1258) caliphates were extensions of the first period and proved the military and intellectual might of Muslims. The history of Greater Syria in the early medieval period is essentially the history of political Islam at one of its most glorious moments--the period of the Umayyad caliphate when the Islamic empire, with its capital at Damascus, stretched from the Oxus River to southern France.

A different view of Syrian history denies that the greatness of the Arab past was a purely Islamic manifestation. The history of the Arabs began before the coming of Muhammad, and what Arabs achieved during the Umayyad and Abbasid empires was evidence not only of the rich inheritance from Greek and Roman days but also of the vitality of Arab culture.

Since independence in 1946, Syria's history has been dominated by four overriding factors. First is the deeply felt desire among Syrian Arabs--Christian and Muslim alike--to achieve some kind of unity with the other Arabs of the Middle East in fulfillment of their aspirations for regional leadership. Second is a desire for economic and social prosperity. Third is a universal dislike of Israel, which Syrians feel was forcibly imposed by the West and which they view as a threat to Arab unity. The fourth issue is the dominant political role of the military.

FROM INDEPENDENCE in 1946 through the late 1960s, Syria stood out as a particularly unstable country in a geographic region noted for political instability. Illegal seizures of power seemed to be the rule as Syrians were governed under a series of constitutions and the nation's political direction made several abrupt ideological lurches. Therefore, when Minister of Defense Hafiz al Assad assumed authority in yet another coup in November l970, many believed his regime was merely one more in a long string of extralegal changes of government. Indeed, because of the coup's similarity to previous ones, at the time there was little evidence to suggest otherwise. Nonetheless, from 1970 until mid-1987, Assad has provided Syria with a period of uncommon stability, all the more remarkable when viewed against the backdrop of the nation's postindependence history of political turbulence.

Although uncertainty and internal tension are threads that run through Syrian history, not all conflict has been negative. From the earliest days of civilization to more recent times, struggle among various indigenous groups as well as with invading foreigners has resulted in cultural enrichment. Phoenicians, Canaanites, Assyrians, and Persians are but a few of the peoples who have figured prominently in this legacy. As significant were the contributions of Alexander the Great and his successors and the Roman and Byzantine rulers.

But as great as these considerable foreign influences were, few would disagree that the most important additions to Syria's rich culture were made following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, when Arab conquerors brought Islam to Greater Syria. By A.D. 661, Muawiyah, the governor of Syria, had proclaimed himself caliph, or temporal leader, and established Damascus as the seat of the Umayyad Empire. Thus began a dynasty whose realm stretched as far west as southern France and as far east as Afghanistan, an expanse of territory that surpassed even that which Rome had held a few centuries earlier. Thirteen hundred years after his death, the memory of Muawiyah and his accomplishments still stirs pride and respect in Syria. Likewise, the image of the great Muslim general Saladin (Salah ad Din al Ayubbi), who defeated the Christian Crusaders in 1187, is deeply imprinted on the Syrian psyche.

These native heroes notwithstanding, it was foreign domination that determined the political boundaries of present- day Syria. First the Ottoman Turks, then after World War I the French, and, more recently, the Israelis shaped the contours of the nation, breaking off chunks of what was Greater Syria and repositioning borders to leave the configuration of the contemporary state. In spite of these territorial changes, support for a return to the glory that was Greater Syria and a development of a powerful nation-state has remained strong. Syrians share a vision of a pan-Arab entity--the unification of all Arab brethren throughout the region.

Despite the rhetoric and idealism, in Syria, as in many developing nations, strife between and among communities has hindered development of a genuine national spirit. Also, the importance of regional, sectarian, and religious identities as the primary sources of loyalty have frustrated nation-building. Although about 85 percent of Syrians were Muslims, in 1987 most scholars agreed that the domination of Assad's small Alawi sect over the larger Sunni community was at the root of much of the internal friction, even though ethnic issues also accounted for a certain amount of tension. Other significant minorities that contributed to social tensions were Druzes, Kurds, Armenians, and Circassians.

Although internal discord is a fact of life in every country in the Middle East, it is difficult to imagine that dissent in any of them could have been met more brutally than it was in Syria in the 1980s. One dissident group was the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni fundamentalist, antigovernment movement whose popularity grew markedly in the late 1970s. Unlike Islamic fundamentalist movements in certain other Middle Eastern countries, the Muslim Brotherhood opposed the Assad regime not so much for its secularism as for its sectarian favoritism. To protest Alawi domination, the Muslim Brotherhood and other like- minded groups undertook a series of violent attacks against the Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party government. After Assad's attempts at negotiation failed, Muslim Brotherhood attacks increased in frequency, and the government responded in kind. Using his armed forces, in late 1981 Assad finally isolated Muslim Brotherhood adherents in their strongholds of Aleppo and Hamah. In February 1982, with no regard for civilian safety, the full force of the Syrian army was brought to bear on the rebels in Hamah. Entire sections of the city, including the architecturally magnificent ancient quarter, were reduced to rubble by tank and artillery fire, as upward of 25,000 citizens were killed. This lesson in abject obedience was not lost on the populace, for as of mid- 1987, the Muslim Brotherhood and its antigovernment allies were almost moribund.

Other violent stresses on internal stability occurred later in 1982. In June, Israel invaded Lebanon with the stated aim of driving away Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrillas from Israel's northern border. After a few days of fighting and constant Israeli advances, it became obvious that Israel's goal was not merely the creation of a security zone, but rather the complete destruction of the PLO or at least its forced expulsion from Lebanon. In achieving this objective, armed confrontation with Syrian forces was inevitable. Although some of the Syrian units gave a good accounting against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), in general the IDF overwhelmed the Syrians. This domination was nowhere more evident than in air battles over the Biqa Valley in which the Israeli Air Force destroyed nineteen air defense sites and downed more than eighty Syrian aircraft, while losing only two aircraft. Despite these setbacks, as the only Arab leader to stand up to the Israeli assault, Assad gained the respect of other Middle Eastern states. The defeats were not enough to induce Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, and eventually it worked out a modus vivendi with the IDF.

But for Syria there was no relief from internal pressures. Having weathered a "miniwar" in Lebanon, in 1983 another crisis arose when in November Assad suffered a severe heart attack that hospitalized him for several months. In February 1984, in a premature effort to succeed his brother, Rifaat al Assad moved his Defense Companies (now called Unit 569) into positions around the capital. Fighting broke out but soon subsided; however, in May it erupted once more in Latakia. As Hafiz al Assad recovered and reasserted his authority, he neutralized political opportunists (including his brother) while making changes in the Baath Party and army hierarchies. To restore faith in his regime, Assad began promoting a personality cult, the net effect of which was to identify government with Hafiz al Assad rather than to encourage government through political and social institutions. Thus, in 1987 many concerns remained about succession and about whether or not Syria could peacefully survive the loss of Assad as the adhesive that held together the diverse elements of society.

An added concern was the perilous state of the economy. Years of drought in the early 1980s had effectively stymied agricultural growth. By the time production began to rebound in the mid-1980s, commodity prices for Syria's agricultural goods were dropping. Furthermore, the fledgling oil industry was retarded by the worldwide slump in petroleum prices and by Syria's own decision to cease pipeline transportation of Iraqi oil, thus surrendering lucrative transit fees. Moreover, Syria's stance in the Iran-Iraq War and its intransigence on other regional matters so angered wealthier Arab nations that they reduced financial support to the Assad regime.

And perhaps most salient, the need to provision tens of thousands of troops stationed in Lebanon and to maintain strong defenses against Israel caused a crushing defense burden. Although figures on defense outlays varied widely, in the late 1980s they apparently accounted for anywhere from one-third to just over one-half of all government spending. Regardless of which figure is accepted, clearly military spending was inhibiting development by diverting funds from desperately needed social programs.

The armed forces has played a central role in Syria's recent social and political history. As in many Third World countries, the army has provided minorities with a channel for upward mobility. Alawis in particular used this route of social advancement, and by the early 1960s they held influential positions in the military government. When in 1966 General Salah al Jadid overthrew General Amin al Hafiz, a Sunni, for the first time in the modern era an Alawi ruled Syria. Jadid, in turn, was overthrown in 1970 by Assad, another Alawi. Since then Assad has seen to it that only trusted relatives or friends, most of them Alawis, occupied or controlled politically sensitive or powerful positions. Similarly, because the armed forces are both the mainstay of his regime and the most likely threat to it, Assad has been deferential to the needs of the military forces and has raised the standard of living for those in uniform.

In addition to domestic discord, Syria has been subjected to many external strains. Not the least of these has been Syria's long-standing engagement in Lebanon. Although some analysts saw this involvement as part of a desire to recreate Greater Syria, others viewed it as a pragmatic manifestation of Assad's ambitions toward regional hegemony. Regardless of motive, Syria's presence in Lebanon presented dangers and opportunities. The principal problem was that the worsening Lebanese situation jeopardized the safety of Syrian troops and drained Syria's fragile economy. Nevertheless, at various times since 1976, Syrian intervention has had the positive effect of quelling some of the violence that has swept Lebanon and raised faint hopes of peace. Such positive intervention occurred most recently in February 1987, when Assad sent his forces into West Beirut to restore order to the Muslim half of the city.

Some scholars call Syria a nation of contradictions with good reason. Certainly these are inconsistencies in Syria's regional and international politics. In spite of the pan-Arab ideology that is at the heart of the ruling Baath Party principles, Syria was one of only two Arab states (Libya being the other) supporting non-Arab Iran against Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. In addition, Syria's steadfast refusal to negotiate with Israel ever since the June 1967 War and its support for radical Palestinian factions have set it apart from most of the Arab world.

In foreign relations, Syria proved it could be a supportive friend or obstinate foe--in fact, sometimes both within a short period of time. For example, every few years Syria seemed to begin a rapprochement with Jordan and Iraq, its neighbors to the south and east, but these thaws in otherwise cool relations have been short. Likewise, relations with various Lebanese and Palestinian factions have blown hot and cold.

Certainly the Soviet Union has found Assad a less than pliable client. Throughout the Soviet-Syrian relationship, Assad has taken much more in military assistance than the Soviets have received in terms of influence in Syria or the rest of the region. For the most part, Soviet efforts to dominate Syrian political and even military activities have had limited success.

In 1987 Assad was thought by many to be an enigma, thus his nickname, "the sphinx." Having survived the tribulations of seventeen years of rule, he deserved his reputation as a wily and able politician. Diplomatic and practical when circumstances called for these qualities, Assad could also be manipulative and merciless, especially with regime opponents. Syrian dissidents in exile or regional political enemies have not been immune from Assad's intelligence and security networks. Insofar as Assad has assented to terrorist training in Syrian-controlled Lebanon and even on Syrian soil, he most likely has at his disposal a pool of individuals willing to carry out certain violent missions. Clearly, media attention given to Syria's complicity in terrorist incidents in Western Europe in the mid-1980s has underscored such activity.

In summary, in mid-1987 Syria was enjoying a period of unprecedented internal stability. In many ways, Assad had very nearly realized his ambitions for leadership in regional affairs. Syria was a key to the Palestinian problem and to any resolution of the Arab-Israeli dispute; it was also at the vortex of the Lebanese situation. Furthermore, it was making its presence felt in the Iran-Iraq War. Its economy, although by no means burgeoning, was at least resilient in the face of difficult circumstances. And even though its international image was tarnished because of its association with terrorism, that, too, was improving as a result of Syria's crackdown on Shia extremists in Lebanon. Most troublesome, perhaps, was the unresolved question of who would succeed the somewhat frail president. It was uncertain if any successor could overcome the conflicts that were sure to surface after Assad or could maintain the nation's pace of development.

August 31, 1987

SOURCE: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Syria > Map Economy History