History of Syria

History of Syria

In this article, we shall examine and then discuss the political history of Syria. We shall examine the early origins of the state of Syria, various historical events in the country, as well as the how those events related to the latest Syrian news.

Syria after World War I

The history of Syria cannot be complete without discussing the politics of the region following World War I. Looking at the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the events of World War I altered the history of Syria for decades to come. During the war, Britain and France were making agreements with one another (through the Sykes-Picot Agreement, for example) that divided the territories of the Middle East. With this “advanced booking” agreement, Britain would control Iraq, with France maintaining control over Lebanon and Syria. However, as we shall see, French government actions severely impacted the political situation in Syria. In the meantime, Syria was never its own state. For example, the Ottoman Empire controlled Syria, but not as a singular political unit. In fact, it was not under one district, but rather, divided in many district units (Robinson, 2012).

Looking at the situation in Syria during World War I, it is clear that the country “suffered horribly during World War I. Famine and disease decimated the civilian population, and thousands of local military conscripts never returned from the far-flung Ottoman fronts” Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). In addition, hundreds of thousands of Syrians were killed during the war, and in addition, the French government policies following the war affected any ability to move on from the conflict to what Syria was like before World War I (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

France had a strong interest in Syria for a number of reasons. Some of it was political. With the role of Britain as a superpower–and the increased influence of Britain in the region, France was looking for a way in which to challenge their political and military influence in the Middle East and North Africa. This is evident as early as the late 1700s, where, for example, Napoleon went to Egypt in part to challenge British influence in the region. However, this was only a part of French interest in the politics and region of Syria. For example, “[t]he economic rationale for a French presence in the Levant stemmed from the extensive investments in railways, port facilities, and commercial exchanges the French enterprises had undertaken during the last Ottoman decades” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 202).

However, France also had a political and cultural reason for not only controlling Syria, but also for ensuring that a powerful domestic government would not exist. France, as interested as it was in Syria, viewed Lebanon as much more of a valuable asset to the French government. Culturally, “[a]s the self-proclaimed protector of the Christian communities in the Levant–and especially of the Catholic Maronites of Mount Lebanon–France professed a moral duty to continue its long-standing religious and educational activities in the region” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 202). However, as we shall see, the history of Syria was greatly affected by France’s interest to provide extensive support for neighboring Lebanon. Namely, the French government disrupted local political and economic conditions in Syria because they wanted to support the Lebanese state. They did so through territorial reassignment.

Thus, in the history of Syria, territories that were governed a certain way during the Ottoman Empire were organized quite differently under France. Some have even suggested that these events during the World War I and Post-World War I period have been a factor in more recent politics of Syria. Justin Fantauzzo (2014) writes that: Without the First World War, Syria, plagued today by sectarian strife and almost unimaginable violence, might also look different. From a loose conglomerate of Ottoman sanjaks and vilayets – an administrative system akin to provinces and territories – Syria was transformed into the Arab Kingdom of Syria in March 1920. The Hashemite Prince of the Hejaz, Faisal ibn Hussein, was declared its king, and the Syrian National Congress, a parliamentary body, was convened. However, Arab-Syrian democracy did not mesh with France’s foreign policy of colonial expansion and what can only be described, albeit retrospectively, as an absurd sense of irredentism; the belief that Syria and Lebanon were tied inextricably to France by the medieval crusades. Ignoring its own promises of Arab self-governance, France invaded Syria, occupied Damascus, expelled Faisal and Arab-Syrian nationalists, and replaced the Syrian Parliament with a League of Nations Mandate for Syria and Lebanon.

In France establishing Greater Lebanon in the year 1920, they began to alter Syrian borders, such as “remov[ing] the fertile Biqa Valley from Syrian jurisdiction and placed it within the frontiers of the expanded Lebanese state…The main benefactors of this territorial reallocation were France’s clients, the Maronite Christians, who remained the single largest religious community within the new Lebanon” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 202). However, when France added the territories to Lebanon, it greatly altered the Maronite Christian majority the country. This would come to be seen as a highly destabilizing action in the country.

However, France’s actions not only hurt the political stability of Lebanon, but in Syria itself, the French leaders set up a state in a way that they hoped would allow them to government Syria easily. However, their actions quickly alienated the public. Within the country, France (and its direct rule approach) divided the country into three political units.

Much of this was to foster individual identities, at the expense of a unified Syrian national identity. France was able to do this by treating Damascus and Aleppo as separate entities, each of which had their own political leadership (and separate French officials who oversaw the respective states). However, along with separating Damascus and Aleppo politically, “[i]n a further effort at political fragmentation, France stressed the distinctiveness of Syria’s two regionally compact minority groups, the Alawites…and the Druze, by providing them each of them with a separate state in 1922. The Alawite state was situated around the northern coastal city of Latakia; that of the Jabal Druze was located in an area of Druze concentration south of Damascus[,]” and except for the a period in the late 1930s, each were governed separately until 1942 (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 203).

However, while these different states clearly served to divide Syria, it was more than mere territorial differences that the French manipulated. In fact, “[w]hat was different about Syria was that both the French colonial power and the ruling Arabs in Damascus worked to deny the construction of a modern Syrian national identity. France went beyond its usual divide-and-conquer strategy, and actually tried to split the Mandate of Syria into a half-dozen nominally independent states. Given strong local opposition in the 1920s, this effort never fully materialized, but two of those pro- posed states ultimately went their own way: an in- dependent Lebanon, and the Hatay (Alexandretta) province of Turkey, ceded by France on the eve of the Second World War” (331).

Furthermore, the French government cracked down on any opposition in Syria. This included but was not limited to restricting the publication of newspaper and other media in the country, as well as working to ensure that anti-colonialist political organizations were not able to fully function. In addition, they went against the League of Nations’ call for sovereignty of local populations (Library of Congress, 2005). Moreover, the French government was willing to use violence to quell any anti-colonist sentiments. For example, throughout the 1920s, Syria saw various rebellion movements. Some of them in the early 1920s were controlled by the French authorities. However, in 1925-1927 Syrians mounted a large revolution against the French authorities. The revolution began in 1925 in the Jabal Druze state. Sultan Atrash, and his followers challenged French rule in the state, and effectively pushed them out. As a result of the military victory against the colonialist power, others throughout Syria (in areas such as Homs, as well as Damascus) attempted to establish their own revolts. However, “[t]he French military commanders, frustrated by their inability to contain the uprising, resorted to an ill-conceived display of imperial force; beginning on the evening of October 18, 1925, they subjected the venerable city of Damascus to an air and artillery bombardment that lasted for forty-eight hours and may have killed as many as 1,400 people” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 206-207). However, it was not until 1927, only after about 6,000 total deaths, as well as many other human rights abuses that France completely ended the uprising (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 207).

Syrian Response to French Colonialism

As a response to French imperialism in the country, and following the crimes committed by the French government in Damascus (mentioned above), various Syrian political leaders organized to form the National Bloc. Many within the National Bloc were in power during the Ottoman Empire. Those within the National Bloc were looking to increase their power in Syria. They aimed to do this by challenging the French rule, but also by showing the French government that they could be the representatives between the people and the French government. And the French, seeing what transpired politically in the country, did begin working with the National Bloc (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). In the mid-1930s (1936), with the election of the Popular Front Coalition in France, Syrians hoped that they would be able to establish a treaty with France that offered significant autonomy (if not independence) from France. And while there was a Franco-Syrian treaty in 1936, with the fall of the coalition government in 1937, the new French leadership, “and the French chamber refused to ratify the Franco-Syrian Treaty. Instead of achieving independence, Syria was once again placed under French control” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 208).

Syria Post World War II

Scholars argue that even following the independence from France, Syria never established a unified political identity within the country. According to Robinson (2012), “[w]hen the Arab nationalist Baath party seized power in a military coup in 1963, it replicated one part of French colonial rule by denying Syrian nationalism and national identity. Syria’s new rulers rejected national identity as a European colonial construct. Instead, they regarded Syria as a “region- al command” of the Baath party and of the Arab nation, not as a separate country in its own right” (332).

 And because of the lack of political identity, it was difficult to establish a unified political governance; France’s regional governance made a unified political system more difficult. In addition to this, Syria’s entrance into war against Israel in 1948 further challenged domestic coalescence.  Then, in 1949, a military coup took out Shukri al-Quwwatli and his allies, many of whom were educated under the Ottoman System, or European institutions. However, there were other coups that took place, a couple within the year, and Colonel Adib Shishakli was overthrown by another military coup in 1954 (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). This made domestic politics even more unstable in the country. 

There were a number of reasons for this. As Cleveland & Bunton (2013) explain: 

“Syria’s political instability can be traced back to several factors. First, the divide-and-rule-policies of the French had encouraged Syrians to identify with their regional, religious, or ethnic community at the expense of loyalties to the Syrian nation as a whole. After independence, individuals tended to retain their communal loyalties, even when they were members of such national institutions as the armed forces or the civil service. A second source of instability was the fictionalization and politicization of the officer corps. Husni Za’im’s coup in 1949 weakened the old order and made the military the paramount political force in the country. However, the unlike the Free Officers in Egypt, the Syrian military did not produce a figure who was able to secure the loyalty of the entire armed forces for a sustained period of time. Factions within the military continuously maneuvered against whatever officer had most recently seized power and thus prevented the consolidation of a strong military regime” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 302).

They go on to say that “The emergence of political parties also contributed to the factionalization of Syrian political life. The political style of the urban notables, with its shifting alliances and informal agreements among prominent individuals, was replaced by the rise of broadly based parties committed to specific programs and ideologies. During the mid-1950s the Syrian Communist Party, though not large, became a major force in political life because it was able to attract a following among military officers and minority groups” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 302-303).

Ba’th Party

In 1954, one of the most successful political parties in Syria was the Ba’th. The Ba’th party, founded by Michel Aflaq, as well as Salah al-Din al-Bitar, they wanted to organize based on notions of Arab nationalism, as well as ides of socialism (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). On this front, they shared a great deal of commonality with Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. In fact, both the Ba’th and Nasser shared the importance of not only anti-colonialism and self-governance, but there was a belief among the Ba’th party that there needed to be a complete social resurrection (which translated to Ba’th). In fact, Nasser himself was influenced by some of the ideas of the Ba’th (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). However, the Ba’th party was losing power to a rising Communist party in Syria. And thus, in 1958, they reached out to Nasser to form the United Arab Republic. This unity lasted three years, until 1961, when Syrian military leaders ended the political agreement. 

Hafez Al-Assad

In 1963, members of the Ba’th party carried out another coup. Hafiz Al-Assad, then 33 years of age, was designated to serve as the commander of the air force. Other influential members of the government included the top leader, Amin al-Hafiz, as well as Muhammad Umran, and Salih Jadid. Al-Asad, Umran, and Jadid were all of the Alawite sect of Islam. The new members of government wanted to reinstall unity and Ba’th principles to Syrian society. 

On the lines of their socialist and populist messages, the Ba’th party embarked upon a nationalization campaign in the country. For example, in 1965, they went after a number of companies, nationalizing 100 of them. Furthermore, they also began redistributing land (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 416). Then in 1965, there was an internal coup that brought Jadid to power, and Al-Assad to the Defense Minister post, which was closer to the top leadership of the country. Then, a few years following the 1967 war in which the Golan Heights of Syria were first occupied by Israel, in 1970, Al-Asad called for Jadid and his supporters in the state to be arrested (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

Al-Asad continued to rule for decades, until 2000, when, following his death, his son Bashar Al-Assad took over (visit our individual page on Hafez Al-Assad for more detailed information on his time in power).



Fantauzzo, J. (2014). The First World War and the Middle East One Hundred Years On. Nato Association. August 15, 2014. Available Online: http://natoassociation.ca/the-first-world-war-and-the-middle-east-one-hundred-years-on/

Library of Congress (2005). Country Profile: Syria. April 2005. Available Online: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/profiles/Syria.pdf

Robinson, G.E. (2012). Syria’s Long Civil War. Current History, pages 331-336.

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