Syria - Reflections


الجمهورية العربية السورية
Al-Jumhūriyyah Al-‘Arabīyah As-Sūriyyah


In 1516, the Ottoman Empire invaded the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, conquering Syria, and incorporating it into its empire, before conquering Egypt itself the following year. From that time until the 20th century, Syria found itself largely apart from, and ignored by, world affairs.

ولايت سوريه‎
Vilâyet-i Sûriye

Ottoman Syria is a European reference to the area that during European Renaissance from the late 15th to early 18th century was called the Levant within the early period of the Ottoman Empire, the Orient until the early 19th century, and Greater Syria until 1918 when it was replaced by the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration.
Ottoman Syria provinces were initially the Damascus Elayet and autonomous Principality of Lebanon.
Eyalet of Aleppo was formed out of Damascus Elayet in 1549, the Eyalet of Tripoli in 1579 and the Elayet of Safed/Sidon/Beirut was formed in 1660.
The Mutassariffate of Mount Lebanon was formed in 1861 designated for Christian autonomy; it remained through the Tanzimat reforms.
The Elayets were later transformed into the Vilayet of Syria, the Vilayet of Aleppo and the Vilayet of Beirut, following the 1864 Tanzimat reforms.
The province of Syria was sequently subpartitioned further into the Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem in 1874.

Territory of the Greater Syria under the Ottoman rule in its final historical period included modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Palestinian Authority, Gaza Strip and parts of Turkey and Iraq.

Before 1516, historical or Greater Syria was part of the Mamluk Empire centered in Egypt.
The Ottoman Sultan Selim I conquered Syria in 1516 after defeating the Mamlukes at the Battle of Marj Dabiq near Aleppo in northern Syria.
Selim carried on his victorious campaign against the Mamlukes and conquered Egypt in 1517 following the Battle of Ridanieh, bringing an end to the Mamluk Sultanate.
The Syrian economy did not flourish under the Ottomans.
At times attempts were made to rebuild the country that had been shattered by the Mongols, but on the whole Syria remained poor.
The population decreased by nearly 30%, and hundreds of villages virtually disappeared into the desert.
At the end of the 18th century only one-eighth of the villages formerly on the register of the Aleppo pashalik (domain of a pasha) were still inhabited.

Syria and the First World War

In the midst of World War I two Allied diplomats (Frenchman François Georges-Picot and Briton Mark Sykes) secretly agreed on the post war division of the Ottoman Empire into respective zones of influence.
The end of the war and defeat of the Central Powers, of which the Ottoman Empire was one, allowed the victorious Entente powers of Britain and France to realise its provisions.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 set the fate of modern Southwest Asia for the coming century; providing France with the northern zone (Syria, including what would become the state of Lebanon), and the United Kingdom with the southern one (Iraq and later, after renegotiations in 1917, Palestine (including what would become the state of Jordan) – 'to secure daily transportation of troops from Haifa to Baghdad' – agreement n° 7).
Initially, the two territories were separated by a border that ran in an almost straight line from Jordan to Iran, however, the discovery of oil in the region of Mosul just before the end of the war led to yet another negotiation with France in 1918 to cede this region to 'Zone B', or the British zone of influence.
The borders between the 'Zone A' and 'Zone B' have not changed from 1918 to this date.
The two zones were recognized internationally under mandate of the League of Nations in 1920.

French Mandate

In 1920, an independent Arab Kingdom of Syria was established under King Faisal of the Hashemite family, who later became the 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.



 فيصل بن حسين بن علي الهاشمي‎ (Fayṣal ibn Ḥusayn; 20 May 1885 – 8 September 1933) was for a short time King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria or Greater Syria in 1920, and was King of the Kingdom of Iraq (today Iraq) from 23 August 1921 to 1933.
He was a member of the Hashemite dynasty.
Faisal encouraged overcoming cleavage between Sunni and Shiite to foster common loyalty and promote pan-Arabism in the goal of creating an Arab state that would include Iraq, Syria and the rest of the Fertile Crescent.
While in power, Faisal tried to diversify his administration by including different ethnic and religious groups in offices.
He faced great challenges in achieving this because the region was under European, specifically French and British, control and other Arab leaders of the time were hostile to his ideas as they pursued their own political aspirations for power.
In addition, Faisal’s attempt at pan-Arab nationalism inevitably isolated certain religious groups.


French troops occupied Syria later that year after the League of Nations put Syria under French mandate.
In 1925, Syrian resistance to French colonial rule broke out in full scale revolt.
Despite French attempts to maintain control by encouraging sectarian divisions and isolating urban and rural areas, the revolt spread from the countryside and united Syrian Druze, Sunnis, Shiites, Allawis, and Christians.


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 درزي - The Druze

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The Alawi

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Christianity in Syria

Once the rebel forces had besieged Damascus, the French military responded with brutal counter-insurgency techniques that prefigured those that would be used later in Algeria and Indo-China.
These techniques included house demolitions, collective punishments of towns, executions, population transfers, and the use of heavy armor in urban neighborhoods.
The revolt was eventually subdued via French aerial bombardment of civilian areas, including Damascus.
Syria and France negotiated a treaty of independence in September 1936, and Hashim al-Atassi, who was Prime Minister under King Faisal's brief reign, was the first president to be elected under a new constitution, effectively the first incarnation of the modern republic of Syria. However, France reneged on the treaty and refused to ratify it.
The allocation of seats in the provincial assembly was based on the 1938 census held by the French authorities under international supervision: out of 40 seats, 22 were given to the Turks, nine for Alawi Arabs, five for Armenians, two for Sunni Arabs, and two for Christian Arabs.
The assembly was appointed in the summer of 1938 and the French-Turkish treaty settling the status of the Sanjak was signed on July 4, 1938.

On September 2, 1938, the assembly proclaimed the Sanjak of Alexandretta as the Republic of Hatay, taking as an excuse that rioting had broken out between Turks and Arabs.
The Republic lasted for one year under joint French and Turkish military supervision.
The name "Hatay" itself was proposed by Atatürk and the government was under Turkish control.
The president Tayfur Sökmen was a member of Turkish parliament elected in 1935 (representing Antakya (Greek: Αντιόχεια) and the prime minister Dr. Abdurrahman Melek (see left), was also elected to the Turkish parliament (representing Gaziantep) in 1939 while still holding the prime-ministerial post.
In 1939, following a popular referendum, the Republic of Hatay became a Turkish province.
For the referendum, Turkey had crossed tens of thousands of Turks into Alexandretta to vote.
This referendum has been labeled both "phoney" and "rigged", and that it was a way for the French to let Turks take over the area, hoping that they would turn on Hitler.
With the fall of France in 1940 during World War II, Syria came under the control of the Vichy Government (see left) until the British and Free French occupied the country in July 1941
The Free French declared the conditional 'independence' of Syria again in 1941, but it wasn't until the Syrian Chamber of Deputies unilaterally voted on 30 November 1943 to remove article 116 of the constitution, which gave the French power of veto over any bill, that Syria gained any real measure of independence.
This was influenced by a similar move by the Lebanese Chamber on 8 November 1943 which the French failed to overturn by force because of British opposition.
On 27 December 1943 the Free French authorities agreed to transfer their remaining powers to Syria from 1 January 1944.
On February 26, 1945 Syria declared war on Germany and Japan.
Continuing pressure from Syrian nationalist groups and British pressure 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.

الجمهورية السورية - The Republic of Syria

Syrian independence was acquired in 1946.
Although rapid economic development followed the declaration of independence, Syrian politics from independence through the late 1960s was marked by upheaval.
The early years of independence were marked by political instability.
In 1948, Syria was involved in the Arab-Israeli War with the newly created State of Israel.
The Syrian army was pressed out of the Israeli areas, but fortified their strongholds on the Golan and managed to keep their old borders and occupy some additional territory.
In July 1949, Syria was the last Arab country to sign an armistice agreement with Israel.

In 1949, Syria's national government was overthrown by a military coup d'état led by Hussni al-Zaim thus ending democratic rule in a coup which was probably sponsored by the United States CIA.

Husni al-Zaim was the first military ruler of post-independence Syria. After a troubled career in the French-sponsored Army during the years of the French Mandate, he was discharged from service during World War II. President Shukri al-Quwatli re-appointed him to the Syrian Army in 1946 and he rose to become commander of Military Police, then Chief-of-Staff of the Syrian Army during the Palestine War of 1948. He launched a coup against President Quwatli on March 30, 1949 and ruled Syria for 137 days, only to be deposed, and killed, in August 1949. His era was marked with improved relations with the US, a harsh campaign against Syrian Communists, and signing of an armistice agreement with Israel.

Later that year Zaim was overthrown by his colleague Sami al-Hinnawi.
A few months later, Hinnawi was overthrown by Colonel Adib al-Shishakli.
The latter undermined civilian rule and led to Shishakli's complete seizure of power in 1951. Shishakli continued to rule the country until 1954, when growing public opposition forced him to resign and leave the country.
The national government was restored, but again to face instability, this time coming from abroad.
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 elements to power.
Between 1946 and 1956, Syria had 20 different cabinets and drafted four separate constitutions.
During the Suez Crisis of 1956, after the invasion of the Sinai Peninsula by Israeli troops, and the intervention of British and French troops, martial law was declared in Syria.
Later Syrian and Iraqi troops were brought into Jordan to prevent a possible Israeli invasion.
The November 1956 attacks on Iraqi pipelines were in retaliation for Iraq's acceptance into the Baghdad Pact.
In early 1957 Iraq advised Egypt and Syria against a conceivable takeover of Jordan.
In November 1956 Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union, providing a foothold for Communist influence within the government in exchange for planes, tanks, and other military equipment being sent to Syria.
This increase in the strength of Syrian military technology worried Turkey, as it seemed feasible that Syria might attempt to retake Iskenderon, a formerly Syrian city now in Turkey.
On the other hand, Syria and the USSR accused Turkey of massing its troops at the Syrian border.
During this standoff, Communists gained more control over the Syrian government and military. Only heated debates in the United Nations (of which Syria was an original member) lessened the threat of war.
Syria's political instability during the years after the 1954 coup, the parallelism of Syrian and Egyptian policies, and the appeal of Egyptian President Gamal Abdal Nasser's leadership in the wake of the Suez crisis created support in Syria for union with Egypt.
On 1 February 1958, Syrian president Shukri al-Kuwatli and Nasser announced the merging of the two countries, creating the United Arab Republic, and all Syrian political parties, as well as the Communists therein, ceased overt activities.
The union was not a success, however.
Following a military coup on 28 September 1961, Syria seceded, reestablishing itself as the Syrian Arab Republic.
Instability characterised the next 18 months, with various coups culminating on 8 March 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.

حزب البعث العربي الاشتراكي – قطر سورياThe First Ba'ath Government

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 with Ba'ath-controlled Iraq.
An agreement was concluded in Cairo on 17 April 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 governments in Syria and Iraq began to work for bilateral unity.
These plans foundered in November 1963, when the Ba'ath government in Iraq was overthrown.
In May 1964, President Amin Hafiz of the NCRC promulgated a provisional constitution providing for a National Council of the Revolution (NCR), an appointed legislature composed of representatives of mass organisations—labour, peasant, and professional unions—a presidential council, in which executive power was vested, and a cabinet.

The Second Ba'ath Government

On 23 February 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 on 1 March.
The coup leaders described it as a "rectification" of Ba'ath Party principles.
In June 1967 Israel captured and occupied the Golan.
The Six Day War had significantly weakened the radical socialist government established by the 1966 coup.
On 18 September 1970, during the events of Black September in Jordan, Syria tried to intervene on behalf of the Palestinian guerrillas.
Hafez al-Assad sent in armored forces equivalent to a brigade, with tanks, some of them allegedly hastily rebranded from the regular Syrian army for the purpose.
Other Syrian units were the 5th Infantry Division and Commandos.
On 21 September, the Syrian 5th Division broke through the defenses of the Jordanian 40th Armoured Brigade, and pushed it back off the ar-Ramtha crossroads.
On 22 September, the Royal Jordanian Air Force began attacking Syrian forces, which were badly battered as a result.
The constant airstrikes broke the Syrian force, and on the late afternoon of 22 September the 5th Division began to retreat.
The swift Syrian withdrawal was a severe blow to Palestinian guerillas.
Jordanian armored forces steadily pounded their headquarters in Amman, and threatened to break them in other regions of the Kingdom as well.
Eventually, the Palestinian factions agreed to a cease-fire.
King Hussein and Yasser Arafat attended the meeting of the Arab League in Cairo, where the hostilities briefly ended.
The Jordanian-Palestinian Civil War shortly resumed, but without Syrian intervention.
By 1970 a conflict had developed between an extremist military wing and a more moderate 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.

The Baath Party under Hafez al-Assad

On 13 November 1970, Minister of Defense حافظ الأسد - Hafez al-Assad effected a bloodless military coup, ousting the civilian party leadership and assuming the role of President.
Upon assuming power, Hafez al-Assad moved quickly to create an organizational infrastructure for his government and to consolidate control.
The Provisional Regional Command of Assad's Arab Baath Socialist Party nominated a 173-member legislature, the People's Council, in which the Baath 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 and elected a new 21-member Regional Command headed by Assad. In the same month, a national referendum was held to confirm Assad as President for a 7-year term.
In March 1972, to broaden the base of his government, Assad formed the National Progressive Front, a coalition of parties led by the Baath 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.

Syrian Intervention in Lebanon

In early 1976, the Lebanese Civil War was going poorly for the Maronite Christians, so the Lebanese President Elias Sarkis officially requested Syria intervene militarily. After receiving their first mandate from Lebanese President, Syria was given a second mandate by the Arab League to intervene militarily in Lebanon. Syria sent 40,000 troops into the country to prevent the Christians from being overrun, but soon became embroiled in this war, beginning the 30 year Syrian presence in Lebanon. Over the following 15 years of civil war, Syria fought both for control over Lebanon, and as an attempt to undermine Israel in southern Lebanon, through extensive use of Lebanese allies as proxy fighters. Many saw the Syrian Army's presence in Lebanon as an occupation, especially following the end of the civil war in 1990, after the Syrian-sponsored Taif Agreement. Syria then remained in Lebanon until 2005, exerting a heavy-handed influence over Lebanese politics, that was deeply resented by many.
About one million Syrian workers came into Lebanon after the war ended to find jobs in the reconstruction of the country. Syrian workers were preferred over Palestinian Arabs and Lebanese workers because they could be paid lower wages, but some have argued that the Syrian government's encouragement of citizens entering its small and militarily dominated neighbor in search of work, was in fact an attempt at Syrian colonization of Lebanon. In 1994, under pressure from Damascus, the Lebanese government controversially granted citizenship to over 200,000 Syrians resident in the country.

The Muslim Brotherhood and Hama Massacre

The authoritarian government was not without its critics, though most were quickly murdered.
A serious challenge arose in the late 1970s, however, from fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, who reject the basic values of the secular Baath program and object to rule by the Alawis, whom they consider heretical.
From 1976 until its suppression in 1982, the arch-conservative الإخوان المسلمون - Muslim Brotherhood - led an armed insurgency against the government.
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.

Syria Under Bashar al-Assad

Hafiz al-Assad died on 10 June 2000, after 30 years in power.
Immediately following al-Assad's death, the Parliament amended the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34, which allowed his son, بشار حافظ الأسد Bashar al-Assad, to become legally eligible for nomination by the ruling Baath party.
On 10 July 2000, Bashar al-Assad was elected President by referendum in which he ran unopposed, garnering 97.29% of the vote, according to Syrian government statistics.
Bashar, who speaks French and English and has a British-born wife, was said to have "inspired hopes" for reform, and a "Damascus Spring" of intense political and social debate took place from July 2000 to August 2001.
The period was characterized by the emergence of numerous political forums or salons where groups of like minded people met in private houses to debate political and social issues.
The phenomenon of salons spread rapidly in Damascus and to a lesser extent in other cities. Political activists, such as, Riad Seif, Haitham al-Maleh, Kamal al-Labwani, Riyad al-Turk, and Aref Dalila were important in mobilizing the movement.
The most famous of the forums were the Riad Seif Forum and the Jamal al-Atassi Forum.
The Damascus Spring ended in August 2001 with the arrest and imprisonment of ten leading activists who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience.


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Syria was for much of its history a province of the Ottoman Empire.
It should be remembered that the eventual inheritors of the effects of the Ottoman Tanzimat were the Ottoman military, and this inheritance was passed on to all the military successors to the Ottomans in the various territories ruled by the Turks - including Syria.
It is for this reason that most of the regimes that followed the demise of the Ottoman Empire were controlled by a modernising, westernised military.

In Syria that military was not fully secularised, however, as it was controlled mainly by Alawis.

So what we now see in Syria is not a struggle of democracy against tyranny and dictatorship, as presented in the media, but rather a continuation of the apparently never ending struggle between Shia (Alawi) and Sunni - and it is this struggle that makes the possibility of a spreading, devastating Middle Eastern war a dangerous posibility.


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SYRIA - REFLECTIONS