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Syria: History of Modern Syria

by Mitchell G. Bard

France had a longstanding interest in the area that is today Lebanon and Syria dating back to the Crusades. Great Britain acknowledged this special relationship when it agreed under the Sykes-Picot agreement that France would control the area after World War I.

Syria and Lebanon did not exist as separate states. They, too, had been districts in the Ottoman Empire. When the French were awarded the mandates for the area, they divided it up into four areas: Great Lebanon, the state of Damascus, the state of Aleppo, and the territory of Latakia. In 1925, Aleppo and Damascus became unified under the title of the state of Syria. A government was elected to carry on most functions while remaining under the umbrella of the French mandate.

As in other places controlled by the foreign powers, the native population was divided among those who chafed at imperialist intervention and those who were willing to cooperate with their foreign masters. Growing resentment toward French rule and a desire for independence resulted in the signing of a treaty in 1936 in which France agreed to grant Syria independence within three years in exchange for a military alliance that allowed the French to protect their regional interests. France never ratified the treaty, however, and took direct control of the country again on the eve of World War II.

Promises, Promises

When France was defeated by Germany, the mandates came under the control of the Vichy government. In 1941, British troops, accompanied by Free French forces, invaded Syria and ultimately occupied the area along with Lebanon. Both the British and French promised to support independence for Syria and Lebanon.

Not surprisingly, the pledges had little to do with satisfying Arab nationalist interests and everything to do with imperial interests. Britain was interested in improving its standing with the Arabs, which was viewed as suffering because of its policy toward Palestine, and also hoped to minimize French influence in the area. The French wanted to protect their privileged position in the area and hoped to delay independence. Nevertheless, in 1941 France agreed to allow Syria to declare its independence. Formal independence would come after the war five years later when the last French troops were withdrawn.

The first election held after the war and Syria’s emancipation brought longtime nationalist Shukri el-Quwatli to power. The principle concern at the time was to maintain Syria’s newly won independence, which was now threatened primarily by the Hashemite kings in Transjordan and Iraq who hoped to unite the three nations, along with Lebanon and Palestine, under their banner.

Tumultuous Times

The war over Palestine in 1948 once again was a catalyst for change as the Syrians joined the invading forces seeking to destroy Israel and were defeated. The public was angry at the humiliation. The government and army blamed each other for what was popularly viewed as a catastrophe for the Arabs. The head of the army, Colonel Husni Zaim, responded by seizing control of the government.

Zaim alienated many of his supporters, however, by retreating from his support for closer ties with the Hashemites and seeking alliances with Egypt and Saudi Arabia instead. This decision, along with other missteps, provoked another military coup in August 1949 in which Zaim was executed. The new military leader, Colonel Sami Hinnawi, agreed to the creation of a new civilian government, which began to again express interest in close ties with Iraq and Jordan. To prevent the unionist movement, another army leader, Lieutenant-Colonel Adib Shishakli, deposed Hinnawi. Three governments in less than a year, and we’re not done yet.

Shishakli initially allowed a civilian government to function, but grew dissatisfied with its direction and took total control of the country in late 1951. His despotic rule provoked increasing opposition and he was finally forced by the military to resign just three years later. The old president, Hashim el-Atassi, was reinstated.

Moving to the Dark Side

Opposition to the Baghdad Pact, Western support for Israel, and the Anglo-French conspiracy with Israel in the Sinai campaign all contributed to the growing popularity in Syria of socialism, communism, and Pan-Arabism. When Egypt signed an arms deal with the Soviet Union, Syria followed suit, and the Syrians gradually became close allies of both governments. This culminated in February 1958 with the announcement that Egypt and Syria were uniting. This marked a temporary end of Syrian independence as it became the northern province of the United Arab Republic.

The marriage lasted barely three years. The two countries had vastly different histories, economies, and foreign policies. The bottom line for the Syrians, especially the army, was that they resented Egypt’s effort to dominate them. It was not a union of equals from Egypt’s perspective, and Nasser left no doubt who was calling the shots. In 1961, a group of army offices led a successful coup that resulted in a divorce with Egypt.

A civilian government was again elected to rule Syria in December 1961, but the army was not content with the results and seized control again the following March. Less than a year later, the regime changed again as the Syrian branch of the Baath party, backed by members of the army, established a dictatorship, following the Baath’s ascendancy in Iraq by a month. The two nations subsequently concluded agreements to unify their military and economies while remaining separate nations.

Musical Governments

The revolving door turned again in February 1966 when yet another coup, brought Nureddin Atassi to power. Syria subsequently became increasingly close to the Soviet Union and hostile toward the United States. Syria also took a more belligerent posture toward Israel and cross-border incidents became more frequent, leading ultimately to the 1967 war.

Syrian forces were routed in the war. The humiliating defeat did not prompt Syria to negotiate peace with Israel; rather, it stimulated even greater hostility that manifested itself in increased support for terrorist organizations. Several of the major Palestinian groups set up headquarters in Damascus, and Syria sponsored its own terrorist organization, al-Saiqa. Syria was careful, however, to maintain tight control over the terrorists and not to allow them to mount operations from Syrian territory. Doing so helped spare Syria the problems that Jordan and Lebanon faced, namely, provoking Israeli counterattacks on its territory and allowing the terrorists to create their own state within the state.

This last point played a key role in the future of Syria. In September 1970 King Hussein decided to go to war against the Palestinian terrorists in Jordan because they had created what amounted to their own state within Jordan and threatened the Hashemite regime. Syria decided to intervene on behalf of the Palestinians and sent tanks into Jordan. The Syrian minister of defense — the former commander of the air force, Hafez Assad — opposed the move and refused to use the air force to support the incursion. This allowed King Hussein’s air force the freedom to attack the Syrian forces and ultimately rout them.

Assad Takes Command

Hafez Assad* claimed the debacle was a result of the government’s failure to coordinate its actions with the military and that it had strengthened Israel. Assad and his allies then forced Attasi to resign, and, within a few weeks, the defense minister had assumed control of the country. In the succeeding years, Assad skillfully solidified his power by a combination of popular moves, such as announcing that a new constitution would require that the president of the Republic be a Muslim, and by ruthless suppression of his enemies.

Under Assad, Syria became one of the Soviet Union’s closest allies and received large amounts of military and economic assistance. In October 1973, Syria joined Egypt in the surprise attack against Israel. Although it initially reclaimed the Golan Heights, Israel successfully repulsed the Syrian forces and was ultimately in a position to threaten Damascus.

Despite suffering a defeat, Syria emerged from the war with a sense of accomplishment at having demonstrated the vulnerability of the Israelis. While Anwar Sadat used this restoration of Arab honor as the basis for entering peace negotiations with Israel, Assad took the exact opposite approach and became a leader of the Rejectionist Front.

Although Assad’s principal obsession was with Israel, he was also committed to the policy of creating a Greater Syria that would include Lebanon. He got his chance to achieve his ambition when the civil war broke out in Lebanon and Assad ordered his troops to invade in April 1976 under the pretext of acting as peacekeepers. The troops have never left, which has enabled Syria to control the Lebanese government ever since. This also brought the Syrians into conflict, however, with Israel. With the exception of a few instances, such as the air battles during the Lebanon war in 1982, Syria has been very careful not to directly take any action against Israel that might provoke retaliation, preferring to use terrorist groups in Lebanon as proxies to make mischief along Israel’s northern border.

Hama Rules

Although he ruled with absolute power, Assad was not without his domestic opponents. In 1982, he decided to take care of his rivals, and to do so in a way that would send the message to anyone else with thoughts of challenging his rule that he would brook no dissent. On February 2, Assad sent thousands of troops to the city of Hama to crush an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood (more about this group in the next chapter). As many as 20,000 people may have been killed. Journalist Thomas Friedman refers to this tactic as "Hama Rules."

These tactics were applied again in October 1990, while the world was distracted by events in Kuwait. To end Christian-led opposition to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, Syrian troops overran the Beirut stronghold of Phalangist leader General Michel Aoun. Approximately 700 people were massacred in the fighting, which eliminated the last remaining threat to Syrian dominance of Lebanon. A few months later, the Lebanese president went to Damascus to sign a treaty that allowed Syria to keep its troops in his country.

Unlike what happened after the Sabra and Shatila massacre, no international outcry was heard after the Syrian massacres in Hama or in Beirut. The United Nations did not condemn Syria’s actions, no investigations were called for, and no Arab leaders came forward to condemn Assad’s actions.

Syria Loses its Patron

A turning point for Syria occurred with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Syrians had relied on the Soviets for more than two decades to provide financial assistance to keep their economy afloat and military hardware to threaten Israel. Once the money and arms stopped flowing, Syria’s economy deteriorated and its military strength declined. It remained strong enough to control Lebanon, but not to seriously threaten Israel. Syria has tried to compensate for the loss of Soviet support by seeking aid from the former Soviet Union and by building alliances with other radical regimes — in particular the Iranians, who now use Damascus as the transit point for arms to Hizballah in Lebanon. Also, to offset the growing imbalance in its conventional capability vis-a-vis Israel, the Syrians have been more actively building a nonconventional arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.

Hafez Assad maintained control over Syria until the end of his life. As he grew old and sick, he groomed his son, Bashar, as his successor. Hafez Assad died on June 10, 2000. His son has subsequently worked to consolidate his power and has, to date, pursued policies consistent with those of his father.

*One sensitive aspect of Hafez Assad’s rule is that he was a member of the minority Alawi religion, which was not accepted by the majority of the population, which is Sunni.

Sources: Mitchell G. Bard,The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict. 4th Edition. NY: Alpha Books, 2008.