Syria’s history

Internal conflict against a historical backdrop

Syria has a long and rich history stretching back into ancient civilisation; its capital, Damascus, is often said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, and the country has 6 UNESCO World Heritage sites. The current conflict has damaged or destroyed many of Syria’s landmark sites, such as the historic souk in Aleppo, leaving the country’s past threatened — not just its present and future.

Ancient history

Syria traces its history back to 10,000BC, and its capital, Damascus, is one of the oldest cities on earth, possibly founded around 9000BC. Syria’s chequered history includes control by the Neo-Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans (several Roman emperors came from Syria) and Byzantines. By 640BC, Syria had been conquered by the Rashidun army and Arabic became the main language. Parts of Syria became Crusader states, and Syria was conquered by Saladin (1175-1185BC), the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria, before falling under a Mamluk army from Egypt. In 1516, the Ottomans invaded the Mamluk Sultanate and conquered Syria, leading to many centuries of peace.

Modern history

During World War I, two British and French diplomats secretly agreed to divide up the Ottoman Empire into zones of influence, and Syria moved first to a French mandate and then a British mandate in 1918 before returning to French control two years later. Syria negotiated independence from France in September 1936. Syria was involved (and defeated) in the Arab-Israeli War, and then underwent a series of coups at home.

The rise of the al-Assad family

In 1958, Egypt and Syria merged to form the United Arab Republic; however, a secret opposition committee was set up, involving a Captain Hafez al-Assad, and 3 years later a coup was engineered by members of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. In November 1970, a bloodless coup saw Hafez al-Assad take charge, becoming president in 1971. In 1973, under al-Assad, Syria waged war with Egypt against Israel, and three years later began a 30-year occupation of Lebanon. In the late 1970s, al-Assad’s troops massacred up to 40,000 civilians in Hama following an anti-government uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The current regime

After 30 years in command, Hafez al-Assad died in 2000. That same year, his son Bashar ran for the presidency in an uncontested election. Bashar did liberalise the country somewhat, following his father’s dictatorship, but the pace of change soon slowed or even reversed. Critics are imprisoned; domestic media are tightly controlled; economic policies often benefit the elite. Syria’s human rights record is among the worst in the world.

The current crisis

The Syrian conflict began on 15 March, 2011 as part of the wider regional protest movement known as the Arab Spring, when people took to the streets to demonstrate for democratic change. The following month, the 400,000-strong Syrian Army began firing on demonstrators, and the conflict began. Read more about Syria today.

Isolation and allies

Syria has since become increasingly isolated from its neighbours and the wider community. Diplomatic relations have been severed with the USA, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Spain and the Gulf States, among others. The UK government no longer recognises the Assad regime, and in November 2012 it formally recognised Syria’s new umbrella opposition group as the sole representative of the country’s people. Syria was suspended from the Arab League, but has been reinstated (represented by the interim government) and remains suspended from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Syria enjoys good relations with Iran, China, Venezuela and Russia (the few countries which still support the Assad regime).

The economy

Since the conflict began, the economy has shrunk by 35%, and the Syrian pound has fallen to a sixth of its previous value. The World Bank had already classified Syria as a lower-middle-income country. In the recent past, Syria depended on tourism and agriculture (which contributes about 20% of GDP), and oil. Oil once provided about 40% of export earnings, but reserves are declining and Syria is now a net oil importer. The fighting has destroyed or damaged 1.2 million homes nationwide — a quarter of all Syrian houses. Three years into the conflict, the UN estimates that the overall damage to Syria’s economy stands at $60-$80 billion.

Religious adherence

74% of Syrians make up the Sunni Muslim majority (including Sufis), but only around 60% of these are of Arab origin; the remainder are Kurds and Turkmens. There are also significant minorities of Alawites (the Shia heterodox sect to which the president, Bashar Al-Assad, belongs). 10-12% of the population is Christian. While Mr Assad promotes a secular identity for the country, he has concentrated power in the hands of family and other Alawites. Opposition remains strongest among the poorer sections of the majority Sunni community.

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