|About | Contact | Mongabay on Facebook | Mongabay on Twitter | Subscribe
Syria -- 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.
The first recorded mention of Greater Syria is in Egyptian annals detailing expeditions to the Syrian coastland to log the cedar, pine, and cypress of the Ammanus and Lebanon mountain ranges in the fourth millennium. Sumer, a kingdom of non-Semitic peoples that formed the southern boundary of ancient Babylonia, also sent expeditions in the third millennium, chiefly in pursuit of cedar from the Ammanus and gold and silver from Cilicia. The Sumerians most probably traded with the Syrian port city of Byblos, which was also negotiating with Egypt for exportation of timber and the resin necessary for mummification.
An enormous commercial network linking Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Aegean, and the Syrian coast was developed. The network was perhaps under the aegis of the kingdom of Ebla ("city of the white stones"), the chief site of which was discovered in 1975 at Tall Mardikh, 64 kilometers south of Aleppo. Numerous tablets give evidence of a sophisticated and powerful indigenous Syrian empire, which dominated northern Syria and portions of lower Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Iran. Its chief rival was Akkad in southern Mesopotamia, which flourished circa 2300 B.C. In addition to identifying another great cultural and political power for the period--and an independent Syrian kingdom at that--the discovery of Ebla has had other important ramifications. The oldest Semitic language was thought to have been Amorite, but the newly found language of Ebla, a variant of Paleo-Canaanite, is considerably older. Ebla twice conquered the city of Mari, the capital of Amurru, the kingdom of the Semitic- speaking Amorites. After protracted tension between Akkad and Ebla, the great king of Akkad, Naram Sin, destroyed Ebla by fire in either 2300 or 2250. Naram Sin also destroyed Arman, which may have been an ancient name for Aleppo.
Amorite power was effectively eclipsed in 1600 when Egypt mounted a full attack on Greater Syria and brought the entire region under its suzerainty. During the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries, the area was in tremendous political upheaval because of the growing Assyrian power pressing from the east and invasions from the north of Hittites who eventually settled in north and central Syria.
Another Semitic-speaking people, the Canaanites, may have been part of the same migration that brought the Amorites into Syria from northern Arabia in approximately 2400. The Amorites came under the influence of Mesopotamia, whereas the Canaanites, who had intermarried with indigenous Syrians of the coast, were probably under the initial influence of Egypt.
The descendants of the intermarriages between Canaanites and coastal Syrians were the Phoenicians, the greatest seafaring merchants of the ancient world. The Phoenicians improved and developed iron tools and significantly advanced the art of shipbuilding. Their mastery of the seas allowed them to establish a network of independent city-states; however, these entities were never united politically, partially because of the continual harassment from Hittites to the north and Egyptians to the south. The name given to their land--Canaan in Hurrian, Phoenicia in Greek--refers to the fabulously valued purple dye extracted from mollusks found at that time only on the Syrian coast. From this period purple became the color of the robes of kings because only they and other small groups of the ancient Middle Eastern elite could afford to purchase the rare dye. The wealth derived in part from the dye trade sparked the economic flame that made it possible for Greater Syrian city-states to enjoy a wide measure of prosperity.
Many of Greater Syria's major contributions to civilization were developed during the ancient period. Syria's greatest legacy, the alphabet, was developed by Phoenicians during the second millennium. The Phoenicians introduced their 30-letter alphabet to the Aramaeans, among other Semitic-speaking people, and to the Greeks, who added vowel letters not used in Semitic grammatical construction.
The Phoenicians, somewhat pressed for space for their growing population, founded major colonies on the North African littoral, the most notable of which was Carthage. In the process of founding new city-states, they discovered the Atlantic Ocean.
The Aramaeans had settled in Greater Syria at approximately the end of the thirteenth century B.C., the same time at which the Jews, or Israelites, migrated to the area. The Aramaeans settled in the Mesopotamian-Syrian corridor to the north and established the kingdom of Aram, biblical Syria. As overland merchants, they opened trade to Southwest Asia, and their capital Damascus became a city of immense wealth and influence. At Aleppo they built a huge fortress, still standing. The Aramaeans simplified the Phoenician alphabet and carried their language, Aramaic, to their chief areas of commerce. Aramaic displaced Hebrew in Greater Syria as the vernacular (Jesus spoke Aramaic), and it became the language of commerce throughout the Middle East and the official language of the Persian Empire. Aramaic continued to be spoken in the Syrian countryside for almost 1,000 years, and in the 1980s remained in daily use in a handful of villages on the Syrian-Lebanese border. A dialect of Aramaic continues to be the language of worship in the Syrian Orthodox Church.
The plethora of city-states in Greater Syria could not withstand the repeated attacks from the north by the powerful Assyrian Empire, which under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar finally overwhelmed them in the eighth century. Assyrian aggressors were replaced by the conquering Babylonians in the seventh century, and the then mighty Persian Empire in the sixth century. Under Persian aegis, Syria had a measure of self-rule, as it was to have under a succession of foreign rulers from that time until independence in the twentieth century. When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire in 333, local political powers--which probably would have continued to contest for control of Greater Syria--were effectively shattered, and the area came into the strong cultural orbit of Western ideas and institutions.
At Alexander's death, the empire was divided among five of his generals. General Seleucus became heir to the lands formerly under Persian control, which included Greater Syria. The Seleucids ruled for three centuries and founded a kingdom with the capital at Damascus, which later became referred to as the Kingdom of Syria. Seleucus named many cities after his mother, Laodicea; the greatest became Latakia, Syria's major port.
Enormous numbers of Greek immigrants flocked to the Kingdom of Syria. Syrian trade was vastly expanded as a result of the newcomers' efforts, reaching into India, the Far East, and Europe. The Greeks built new cities in Syria and colonized existing ones. Syrian and Greek cultures synthesized to create Near Eastern Hellenism, noted for remarkable developments in jurisprudence, philosophy, and science.
Replacing the Greeks and the Seleucids, Roman emperors inherited already thriving cities--Damascus, Tadmur (once called Palmyra), and Busra ash Sham in the fertile Hawran Plateau south of Damascus. Under the emperor Hadrian, Syria was prosperous and its cities, major trading centers; Hawran was a well-watered breadbasket. After making a survey of the country, the Romans established a tax system based on the potential harvest of farmlands; it remained the key to the land tax structure until 1945. They bequeathed Syria some of the grandest buildings in the world, as well as aqueducts, wells, and roads that were still in use in modern times.
Neither the Seleucids nor the Romans ruled the area without conflict. The Seleucids had to deal with powerful Arab peoples, the Nabataeans, who had established an empire at Petra (in present-day Jordan) and at Busra ash Sham. The Romans had to face the Palmyrenes, who had built Palmyra, a city even more magnificent than Damascus and the principal stop on the caravan route from Homs to the Euphrates.
By the time the Romans arrived, Greater Syrians had developed irrigation techniques, the alphabet, and astronomy. In A.D. 324 the Emperor Constantine moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople (modern Istanbul). From there the Byzantines ruled Greater Syria, dividing it into two provinces: Syria Prima, with Antioch as the capital and Aleppo the major city; and Syria Secunda, ruled frequently from Hamah. Syria Secunda was divided into two districts: Phoenicia Prima, with Tyre as the capital; and Phoenicia Secunda, ruled from Damascus. (Most of Phoenicia Prima is now Lebanon.) The ruling families of Syria during this period were the Ghassanids, Christian Arabs loyal to Byzantium, from whom many Syrians now trace descent.
Byzantine rule in Syria was marked by constant warfare with the Persian Sassanian Empire to the east. In these struggles, Syria often became a battleground. In 611 the Persians succeeded in invading Syria and Palestine, capturing Jerusalem in 614. Shortly thereafter, the Byzantines counterattacked and retook their former possessions. During the campaign the Byzantines tried to force Greek orthodoxy on the Syrian inhabitants, but were unsuccessful. Beset by financial problems, largely as a result of their costly campaigns against the Persians, the Byzantines stopped subsidizing the Christian Arab tribes guarding the Syrian steppe. Some scholars believe this was a fatal mistake, for these tribes were then susceptible to a new force emanating from the south--Islam.
The Byzantine heritage remains in Syria's Christian sects and great monastic ruins. In the fourth century A.D., Roman Emperor Theodosius destroyed the temple to Jupiter in Damascus and built a cathedral in honor of John the Baptist. The huge monastery at Dayr Siman near Aleppo, erected by Simeon Stylites in the fifth century, is perhaps the greatest Christian monument built before the tenth century.
During the first decades of the seventh century, Muhammad, a merchant from Mecca, converted many of his fellow Arabs to a new religion, Islam, which was conceived as the continuation and fulfillment of the Judeo-Christian tradition. By 629 the religious fervor and pressures of an expanding population impelled Muslim Arab tribes to invade lands to the north of the Arabian Peninsula. They called these lands bilad al sham, the country or land of Sham--the name Arabs often used to designate Damascus. The word sham derives from the Arabic word for dignity, indicating the high regard most Arabs have had for Damascus. Arabs, including Syrians, have referred to Syria by this name ever since, and call Syrians Shammis.
In 635 Damascus surrendered to the great Muslim general, Khalid ibn al Walid. Undermined by Persian incursions, religious schisms, and rebellions in the provinces caused by harsh rule, Byzantium could offer little resistance to Islam.
In succeeding centuries, Muslims extended and consolidated their rule in many areas, and by 1200 they controlled lands from the Atlantic to the Bay of Bengal, from central Russia to the Gulf of Aden. Wherever they went, they built mosques, tombs, forts, and beautiful cities. The ruins of such structures are found widely in Greater Syria, a heartland of Islamic and Arab culture.
Muhammad made Medina his first capital, and it was here that he died. Leadership of the faithful fell to Abu Bakr (632-634), Muhammad's father-in-law and the first of the four orthodox caliphs, or temporal leaders of the Muslims. Umar followed him (634-644) and organized the government of captured provinces. The third caliph was Uthman (644-656) under whose administration the compilation of the Quran was accomplished. Among the aspirants to the caliphate was Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, whose supporters felt he should be the Prophet's successor. Upon the murder of Uthman, Ali became caliph (656-661). After a civil war with other aspirants to the caliphate, Ali moved his capital to Mesopotamia and was later assassinated at Al Kufah. Ali's early followers established the first of Islam's dissident sects, the Shia (from Shiat Ali, party of Ali). Those who had accepted the before and after Ali successions remained the orthodox of Islam; they are called Sunnis--from the word sunnia meaning orthodox.
After Ali's murder in 661, Muawiyah--the governor of Syria during the early Arab conquests, a kinsman of Uthman, and a member of the Quraysh lineage of the Prophet--proclaimed himself caliph and established his capital in Damascus. From there he conquered Muslim enemies to the east, south, and west and fought the Byzantines to the north. Muawiyah is considered the architect of the Islamic empire and a political genius. Under his governorship Syria became the most prosperous province of the caliphate. Muawiyah created a professional army and, although rigorous in training them, won the undying loyalty of his troops for his generous and regularly paid salaries. Heir to Syrian shipyards built by the Byzantines, he established the caliphate's first navy. He also conceived and established an efficient government, including a comptroller of finance and a postal system.
Muawiyah cultivated the goodwill of Christian Syrians by recruiting them for the army at double pay, by appointing Christians to many high offices, and by appointing his son by his Christian wife as his successor. His sensitivity to human behavior accounted in great part for his political success. The modern Syrian image of Muawiyah is that of a man with enormous amounts of hilm, a combination of magnanimity, tolerance, and self-discipline, and of duha, political expertise-- qualities Syrians continue to expect of their leaders. By 732 the dynasty he founded had conquered Spain and Tours in France and stretched east to Samarkand and Kabul, far exceeding the greatest boundaries of the Roman Empire. Thus, Damascus achieved a glory unrivaled among cities of the eighth century.
The Umayyad Muslims established a military government in Syria and used the country primarily as a base of operations. They lived aloof from the people and at first made little effort to convert Christians to Islam. The Umayyads administered the lands in the manner of the Byzantines, giving complete authority to provincial governors.
In the administration of law, the Umayyads followed the traditions set by the Hellenistic monarchies and the Roman Empire. The conqueror's law--in this case Muslim law (sharia)-- applied only to those of the same faith or nationality as the conquerors. For non-Muslims, civil law was the law of their particular millet (separate religious community, also called milla); religious leaders administered the law of the millet. This system prevailed throughout Islam and has survived in Syria's legal codes.
During the 89 years of Umayyad rule, most Syrians became Muslims, and the Arabic language replaced Aramaic. The Umayyads minted coins, built hospitals, and constructed underground canals to bring water to the towns. The country prospered both economically and intellectually. Foreign trade expanded, and educated Jews and Christians, many of them Greek, found employment in the caliphal courts, where they studied and practiced medicine, alchemy, and philosophy.
Under later dissolute caliphs, the Umayyad dynasty began to decline at a time when both Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iran began to press against Umayyad borders. By 750 the Abbasids, whose forces originated in Khorasan (in northeast Iran), had conquered the Umayyads and established the caliphate in Baghdad. As a result, Syria became a province of an empire.
Abbasid rule over Syria, however, was precarious and often challenged by independent Muslim princes. The greatest of these was Abu Ali Hasan, who founded a kingdom known as the Hamdani. A Shia, he established his capital at Aleppo, and the Abbasids recognized him as Sayf ad Dawlah (sword of the state). The Hamdanid dynasty ruled throughout the tenth century and became famous for its achievements in science and letters. In Europe it was known for its persistent attacks against Byzantium. The Hamdanid kingdom fell in 1094 to Muslim Seljuk Turks invading from the northeast.
During the same period, the Shia Fatimids established themselves in Egypt and drove north against Syria. The Fatimids were less tolerant of subject peoples than their predecessors. Intolerance reached its height under caliph Abu Ali Mansur al Hakim (966-1021), who destroyed churches and caused Christians to flee to the mountains. When he announced his divinity, his mother murdered him. In the secluded valleys of Mount Hermon in Syria, his followers found tribesmen to adopt his religion, the ancestors of Syria's present-day Druzes.
Muslim rule of Christian holy places, overpopulation, and constant warfare in Europe prompted the Crusades, the first major Western colonial venture in the Middle East. Between 1097 and 1144 Crusaders established the principalities of Edessa (in northeast modern Syria), Antioch, Tripoli, and the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. The politically fragmented area was an easy conquest for the Europeans. The first Muslim threat to European entrenchment came not from within Greater Syria but from Zangi, the amir of Mosul (in modern Iraq). Zangi took Edessa in 1144 and his son, Nur ad Din (light of the faith), secured Damascus, extending the realm from Aleppo to Mosul. When the last Shia Fatimid caliph died, Nur ad Din secured Egypt as well. Eliminating Sunni-Shia sectarianism, the political rivalry that had so aided the European venture, he invoked jihad, holy war, as a unifying force for Arabs in Greater Syria and Egypt.
The jihad was to liberate Jerusalem, the third holiest city to Muslims, who call it Bayt Quds (the house of holiness) in memory of Muhammad's stopping there on his night journey to heaven. It fell to Nur ad Din's lieutenant, Saladin (Salah ad Din al Ayubbi--rectitude of the faith), to recapture Jerusalem. Saladin, a Kurd, unified Syria and Egypt, a necessary preliminary, and after many setbacks, captured Mosul, Aleppo, and the string of cities from Edessa to Nasihin. In 1187 Saladin took Al Karak, a Crusader fort on the route between Homs and Tripoli held by the infamous Reginald of Chatillon, who had broken treaties, molested Saladin's sister, and attacked Mecca with the aim of obtaining the Prophet's body and exhibiting it at Al Karak for a fee. Saladin besieged Jerusalem on September 20, 1187, and 9 days later Jerusalem surrendered. Saladin's behavior and complete control of his troops earned him the respect of all Jerusalemites and the epithet, "flower of Islamic chivalry."
Saladin inflicted Islam's mightiest blows against the Crusaders, raised Muslim pride and self-respect, and founded the Ayyubid dynasty, which governed Egypt until 1260. During his lifetime, he created harmony among Muslims in the Middle East and gained a position of affection and honor among them that remains strong to the present, particularly in Syria.
When Saladin died of malaria in 1192, his rule extended from the Tigris River to North Africa and south to the Sudan. Saladin's death brought this unity to an end. His Ayyubid successors quarreled among themselves, and Syria broke into small dynasties centered in Aleppo, Hamah, Homs, and Damascus. By the fourteenth century, after repelling repeated invasions by Mongols from the north, the Mamluk sultans of Egypt, successors to the Ayyubids, ruled from the Nile to the Euphrates. Their great citadels and monuments still stand. In 1516 the Ottoman sultan in Turkey defeated the Mamluks at Aleppo and made Syria a province of a new Muslim empire.
The Ottomans were nomadic Muslim Turks from central Asia who had been converted to Islam by Umayyad conquerors in the eighth century. Led by Uthman (whence the Western term Ottoman), they founded a principality in 1300 amid the ruins of the Mongolwrecked Seljuk Empire in northwest Turkey. Fifty years later Uthman's successors invaded Europe. They conquered Constantinople in 1453 and in the sixteenth century conquered all of the Middle East. From 1300 to 1916, when the empire fell, 36 sultans, all descendants of Uthman, ruled most of the Muslim world. Europeans referred to the Ottoman throne as the Sublime Porte, a name derived from a gate of the sultan's palace in Istanbul.
From 1516 the Ottomans ruled Syria through pashas, who governed with unlimited authority over the land under their control, although they were responsible ultimately to the Sublime Porte. Pashas were both administrative and military leaders. So long as they collected their taxes, maintained order, and ruled an area not of immediate military importance, the Sublime Porte left them alone. In turn the pashas ruled smaller administrative districts through either a subordinate Turk or a loyal Arab. Occasionally, as in the area that became Lebanon, the Arab subordinate maintained his position more through his own power than through loyalty. Throughout Ottoman rule, there was little contact with the authorities except among wealthier Syrians who entered government service or studied in Turkish universities.
The system was not particularly onerous to Syrians because the Turks respected Arabic as the language of the Quran and accepted the mantle of defenders of the faith. Damascus was made the major entrepot for Mecca, and as such it acquired a holy character to Muslims because of the baraka (spiritual force or blessing) of the countless pilgrims who passed through on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Ottoman administration often followed patterns set by previous rulers. Each religious minority--Shia Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Armenian, and Jewish--constituted a millet. The religious heads of each community administered all personal status law and performed certain civil functions as well.
The Syrian economy did not flourish under the Ottomans. At times attempts were made to rebuild the country, but on the whole Syria remained poor. The population decreased by nearly 30 percent, and hundreds of villages virtually disappeared into the desert. At the end of the eighteenth century only one-eighth of the villages formerly on the register of the Aleppo pashalik (domain of a pasha) were still inhabited. Only the area now known as Lebanon achieved economic progress, largely resulting from the relatively independent rule of the Druze amirs.
Although impoverished by Ottoman rule, Syria continued to attract European traders, who for centuries had transported spices, fruits, and textiles from the Middle East to the West. By the fifteenth century Aleppo was the Middle East's chief marketplace and had eclipsed Damascus in wealth, creating a rivalry between the two cities that continues.
With the traders from the West came missionaries, teachers, scientists, and tourists whose governments began to clamor for certain rights. France demanded the right to protect Christians, and in 1535 Sultan Sulayman I granted France several "capitulations"--extraterritorial rights that developed later into political semiautonomy, not only for the French, but also for the Christians protected by them. The British acquired similar rights in 1580 and established the Levant Company in Aleppo. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Russians had claimed protective rights over the Greek Orthodox community.
The Ottoman Empire began to show signs of decline in the eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century European powers had begun to take advantage of Ottoman weakness through both military and political penetration, including Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, subsequent British intervention, and French occupation of Lebanon. Economic development of Syria through the use of European capital--for example, railroads built largely with French money--brought further incursions.
Western penetration became decidedly political after the Druze uprising in the Syrian province of Lebanon in 1860. The revolt began in the north as a Maronite Christian peasant uprising against Christian landlords. As the revolt moved southward to the territories where the landlords were Druzes, the conflagration acquired an intersectarian character, and the Druzes massacred some 10,000 Maronites. France sent in troops and removed them a year later only after the European powers had forced the Sublime Porte to grant new laws for Lebanon. By the Statute of 1861, for the first time Mount Lebanon was officially detached from Syria, and its administration came increasingly under the control of France.
Because of European pressure as well as the discontent of the Syrian people, the Ottoman sultans enacted some reforms during the nineteenth century. The Egyptian occupation of Syria from 1831 to 1839 under the nominal authority of the sultan brought a centralized government, judicial reform, and regular taxation. But Ibrahim Pasha, son of the Egyptian ruler, became unpopular with the landowners because he limited their influence, and with the peasants because he imposed conscription and taxation. He was eventually driven from Syria by the sultan's forces. Subsequent reforms of Turkish Sultan Mahmud II and his son were more theoretical than real and were counteracted by reactionary forces inside the state as well as by the inertia of Ottoman officials. Reforms proved somewhat successful with the Kurds and Turkomans in the north and with the Alawis around Latakia, but unsuccessful with the Druzes--who lived in the Jabal Druze (now known as Jabal al Arab), a rugged mountainous area in southwest Syria--who retained their administrative and judicial autonomy and exemption from military service.
Although further reform attempts generally failed, some of the more successful endure. Among them are the colonization of Syria's frontiers, the suppression of tribal raiding, the opening of new lands to cultivation, and the beginnings of the settlement of the beduin tribes. Attempts to register the land failed, however, because of the peasants' fear of taxation and conscription.
Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909), sometimes known as Abdul Hamid the Damned, acquired a reputation as the most oppressive Ottoman sultan. Opponents died quickly; taxes became heavy. Abdul Hamid tried to earn the loyalty of his Muslim subjects by preaching pan-Islamic ideas and in 1908 completing the Hijaz Railway between Istanbul and Medina. However, the sultan's cruelty--coupled with that of his deputy in Acre, known in Syria as The Butcher--and increasing Western cultural influences set the stage for the first act of Arab nationalism; World War I opened the next.
The period from the outbreak of World War I in 1914 to the granting of France's mandate over Syria by the League of Nations in 1922 was marked by a complicated sequence of events and power politics during which Syrians achieved a brief moment of independence. Syrian intellectuals, many of them graduates of European and European- or American-run universities, were urging the study of Arab history, literature, and language. Also, groups of Syrians publicly demanded decentralization of Ottoman administration and administrative reform. As Ottoman governors such as Jamal Pasha suppressed them, Syrians went underground and demanded complete Arab independence. One of the first secret groups to form was Al Jamiyyah al Arabiyah al Fatat (the Young Arab Society, known as Al Fatat, not to be confused with the contemporary Al Fatah, or Fatah, of the Palestine Liberation Organization--PLO), of which Prince Faysal, son of Sharif Husayn of Mecca, was a member. Another group was Al Ahd (the Covenant), a secret association of Arab army officers.
Following the outbreak of World War I, Jamal Pasha determined to tighten his control over Syria. Attacking dissidents ruthlessly, he arrested Al Fatat members. Twenty-one Arabs were hanged in the city squares of Damascus and Beirut on the morning of May 6, 1915. The event is commemorated as Martyrs' Day, a national holiday in Syria and Lebanon.
Events leading to Syria's momentary independence began in the Arabian Peninsula. The British--anxious for Arab support against the Ottomans in the war and desiring to strengthen their position vis-a-vis the French in the determination of the Middle East's future--asked Sharif Husayn, leader of the Hashimite family and an Ottoman appointee over the Hijaz, to lead the Arabs in revolt. In return the British gave certain assurances, which Husayn interpreted as an endorsement of his eventual kingship of the Arab world. From the Arab nationalists in Damascus came pleas for the Hashimites to assume leadership. Husayn accepted, and on June 5, 1916, the Hijazi tribesmen, led by Husayn's sons and later advised by such British officers as T.E. Lawrence, rose against the Turks. In October 1918, Faysal entered Damascus as a popular hero.
Faysal, as military governor, assumed immediate control of all Syria except for the areas along the Mediterranean coast where French troops were garrisoned. In July 1919, he convened the General Syrian Congress, which declared Syria sovereign and free. In March 1920, the congress proclaimed Faysal king of Syria.
Faysal and his Syrian supporters began reconstructing Syria. They declared Arabic the official language and proceeded to have school texts translated from Turkish. They reopened schools and started new ones, including the Faculty of Law at the Syrian University and the Arab Academy in Damascus. Also, Faysal appointed a committee to begin drawing up a constitution.
In the areas still held by the French, Syrians continued to revolt. In the Jabal an Nusayriyah around Latakia in the northwest, there was an uprising against French troops in May 1919. Along the Turkish border, the nationalist leader Ibrahim Hannanu incited another rebellion in July 1919. The French defeated these attempts but not before Hannanu and Faysal had acquired permanent places in Syrian history as heroes.
Three forces worked against Arab nationalism and Faysal's budding Arab monarchy. One was Britain's earlier interest in keeping eastern Mesopotamia under control, both to counter Russian influence in the north and to protect oil interests in the area. The second was Zionism and the Jewish interest in Palestine. Although Britain had promised to recognize "an independent Arab State or a Confederation of Arab States" in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 16, 1916, (not published until later-see below), in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 it had also promised Zionists a "national home" in Palestine. The two promises were in direct conflict. The third force was France's determination to remain a power in the Middle East. Earlier in the war, the French, British, Italians, and Russians had met secretly to decide the fate of Arab lands. After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks published secret diplomatic documents, among them the Sykes-Picot Agreement. In this agreement, signed only six months after the British had vaguely promised Husayn an Arab kingdom, Britain and France agreed to give the French paramount influence in what became Syria and Lebanon; the British were to have predominance in what became Transjordan and Iraq.
At the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, Woodrow Wilson asked that the Arab claims to independence be given consideration, and Faysal was invited to present the Arab cause. His pleas were unavailing, as was a report recommending Syrian independence under Faysal or a United States mandate over the country. Disappointed by his failure at Versailles, Faysal returned to Damascus and declared again that Syria was nevertheless free and independent.
France and Britain refused to recognize Syria's independence, and the Supreme Allied Council, meeting in San Remo, Italy, in April 1920, partitioned the Arab world into mandates as prearranged by the earlier Sykes-Picot Agreement. Syria became a French mandate, and French soldiers began marching from Beirut to Damascus. Arab resistance was crushed, and on July 25, 1920, the French took Damascus. Faysal fled to Europe and did not return to the Middle East until the British made him king of Iraq in 1921. Faysal's brother Abdullah was recognized by the British as the amir of the region that became known as Transjordan. The boundaries of these states were thus drawn unilaterally by the European allies after World War I. Syria had experienced its brief moment of independence (1919-20), the loss of which Syrians blamed on France and Britain. These events left a lasting bitterness against the West and a deep-seated determination to reunite Arabs into one state. This was the primary basis for modern Arab nationalism and the central ideological concept of future pan-Arab parties, such as the Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party and the Arab National Movement. Aspects of the ideology also were evolved in the 1950s and 1960s by Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt.
French-British rivalry in the Middle East continued after the two countries had divided the area into spheres of influence at San Remo. In their mandate, the French sought to increase their strength by supporting and separating religious minorities and thereby weakening the Arab nationalist movement. France originally planned to establish three sectarian states: an Alawi state in the north, a Sunni Muslim state at the center, and a Druze state in the south. The three were eventually to be incorporated into a federal Syria. France did create a Christian state in the area of Mount Lebanon. The Sunni Muslim state never materialized. Instead, in 1926 the French, working with Maronite leaders, expanded the original boundaries of the Christian state to create Lebanon. To the east the valley of the Biqa, predominantly populated by Muslims, was added; to the west the Christian state was expanded to the coast and incorporated the cities of Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon, and Tyre.
The rest of Syria was divided into five semiautonomous areas- -the Jabal Druze, Aleppo, Latakia, Damascus, and Alexandretta (modern Iskenderun)--which accentuated religious differences and cultivated regional, as opposed to national pan-Arab, sentiment. The Druzes were given administration of the Jabal Druze, the area of their greatest concentration. The northern coastal region and the Jabal an Nusayriyah (where there was a concentration of Alawis, Syria's largest religious minority) were united in the state of Latakia (present-day Al Ladhiqiyah Province). North of Latakia, the district of Alexandretta (the present-day Turkish province of Hatay), home of some Turks, had a separate government. In the area to the south, in Palestine, European Jews were promised a Jewish homeland. Opposition by nationalistic Arabs to the many divisions proved fruitless, and Arab nationalists became isolated in Damascus.
French rule was oppressive. The franc became the base of the economy, and currency management was in the hands of French bankers concerned with French, rather than Syrian, shareholders and interests. The French language became compulsory in schools, and pupils were required to sing the "Marseillaise." Colonial administrators attempted to apply techniques of administration learned in North Africa to the more sophisticated Arabs of Syria. Nearly every feature of Syrian life came under French control.
The Syrians were an embittered, disillusioned people whose leaders kept them in ferment. Shaykh Salih ibn Ali led the Alawis in intermittent revolt, Shaykh Ismail Harir rebelled in the Hawran, and in the Jabal Druze, Sultan Pasha al Atrash, kinsman of the paramount chief of the Druzes, led continual resistance, most notably in 1925, as did Mulhim Qasim in the mountains around Baalbek. The revolts, however, were not necessarily expressions of desire for unified Syrian independence. They were uprisings by individual groups--Alawis, Druzes, and beduins--against foreign interference, comparable to those earlier fomented against the Ottomans.
In Damascus Arab nationalism was led by educated, wealthy Muslims who had earlier supported Faysal. Their grievances against the French were many, but chief among them were French suppression of newspapers, political activity, and civil rights and the division of Greater Syria into several political units. They also objected to French reluctance to frame a constitution for Syria that would provide for the eventual sovereignty that the League of Nations mandate had ordered. When the Iraqis gained an elected assembly from the British in March 1924, Syrian Arabs became even more distressed. On February 9, 1925, as a placating move, the French permitted the nationalists to form the People's Party. Led by Faris al Khuri, they demanded French recognition of eventual Syrian independence, unity of the country, more stress on education, and the granting of civil liberties.
The most immediate issue was Syrian unity, since France had divided the country into six parts. In 1925 the Aleppo and Damascus provinces were joined, and in 1926 Lebanon became an independent republic under French control. The League of Nations in its session in Rome in February to March 1926 stated: "The Commission thinks it beyond doubt that these oscillations in matters so calculated to encourage the controversies inspired by the rivalries of races, clans and religions, which are so keen in this country, to arouse all kinds of ambitions and to jeopardize serious moral and material interests, have maintained a condition of instability and unrest in the mandated territory."
Devastating proof of the miscalculations of the French burst into the open with the 1925 Druze revolt. The Druzes had many complaints, but chief among them was the foreign intervention in Druze affairs. The Ottomans had never successfully subdued these mountain people; although split among themselves, they were united in their opposition to foreign rule. Led by Sultan Pasha al Atrash, Druzes attacked and captured Salkhad on July 20, 1925, and on August 2 they took the Druze capital, As Suwayda.
News of the Druze rebellion spread throughout Syria and ignited revolts in Aleppo and Damascus among Syrian nationalists, who pleaded with Atrash to attack the Syrian capital. In October the Druzes invaded the Damascus region; nationalist leaders led their own demonstrations; and the French began systematic bombardment of the city, resulting in the death of 5,000 Syrians. The rebellion collapsed by the end of the year, and reluctant order replaced open revolt.
The return of order gave the French military government an opportunity to assist Syrians in self-government, an obligation demanded of France by the League of Nations. In 1928 the French allowed the formation of the National Bloc (Al Kutlah al Wataniyah), composed of various nationalist groups centered in Damascus. The nationalist alliance was headed by Ibrahim Hannanu and Hashim al Atassi and included leading members of large landowning families. One of the most extreme groups in the National Bloc was the Istiqlal (Independence) Party, a descendant of the old Al Fatat secret society of which Shukri al Quwatly was a leading member. Elections of that year for a constituent assembly put the National Bloc in power, and Hannanu set out to write a constitution. It provided for the reunification of Syria and ignored the authority of the French. In 1930 the French imposed the constitution minus articles that would have given Syria unified self-government.
Syrian nationalists continued to assert that they at least should have a treaty with France setting forth French aims, since Britain and Iraq had signed such a treaty in 1922. Unrest after the death of the nationalist leader Hannanu at the end of 1935, followed by a general strike in 1936, brought new negotiations for such a treaty. Under Leon Blum's liberal-socialist government in France, the two countries worked out the Syrian-French Treaty of Alliance in 1936. The French parliament never ratified the treaty, yet a feeling of optimism prevailed in Syria as the first nationalist government came to power with Hashim al Atassi as president.
During 1937 Syria's drive for independence seemed to be advancing under National Bloc leadership. France allowed the return of Jabal Druze and Latakia to the Syrian state and turned over many local government functions to the Syrian government. French administration during the previous years had given some advantages to the Syrians. It had built modern cities in Damascus and Aleppo and roads and schools throughout much of the country; and it had partially trained some Syrians as minor bureaucrats. French cultural influence spread in the schools, in the press, and even in the style of dress; social and economic conditions slowly improved.
Under the French, Syria became a refuge for persecuted groups from neighboring countries. Most of the Kurdish population arrived between 1924 and 1938, fleeing Kemalist rule in Turkey. The major immigration of Armenians occurred between 1925 and 1945 as a result of similar persecution. Assyrians, under attack in Iraq in 1933, settled in eastern Syria.
Although the country appeared to be on the verge of peace, true calm evaded Syria. Claims by Turkey to Alexandretta, Arab revolts in Palestine, an economic crisis caused by depreciation of the French franc, and lack of unity among Syrians served to undermine the stability of the Syrian government. The National Bloc was split by rivalries. Abdul Rahman Shahabandar, a leading nationalist, formed a rival organization in 1939 to compete for Syrian political leadership, but he was assassinated a year later. Separatist movements in the Jabal Druze found French support and antagonized the nationalists.
During the course of the Syrian-French treaty discussions in 1936, Turkey had asked for reconsideration of the situation in Hatay--at that time the Syrian province of Alexandretta--which had a large Turkish minority and already had been given a special administrative system under the Franco-Turkish Agreement of Ankara (sometimes called the Franklin-Bouillon Agreement) in 1921. The case was submitted to the League of Nations, which in 1937 decided that Alexandretta should be a separate, self- governing political state. Direct negotiations between Turkey and France ended on July 13, 1939, with France agreeing to absorption of Alexandretta by Turkey. Disturbances broke out in Syria against France and the Syrian government, which Syrian nationalist leaders felt had not adequately defended their interests. Syrian President Atassi resigned, parliamentary institutions were abolished, and France governed an unruly Syria through the Council of Directors. Latakia and the Jabal Druze were again set up as separate units. The French government officially declared it would not submit the Syrian-French treaty to the French Chamber of Deputies for ratification.
The capitulation of France in June 1940 brought Vichyappointed General Henri Dentz as high commissioner and a new cabinet headed by Khalid al Azm, a wealthy landlord from an old Damascus family who was to play a leading role in Syrian politics 22 years later. Despite continued German military successes elsewhere, British and Free French forces supported by troops of the Transjordan Arab Legion defeated the Vichy forces in both Syria and Lebanon. Control then passed to Free French authorities.
The entry of Allied troops brought a promise from the Free French leader, General Charles de Gaulle, of eventual independence, although de Gaulle declared that so far as he was concerned, the mandate would remain in existence until a new French government legally brought it to an end. When Syrians elected a new parliament in 1943 with the National Bloc in control, the parliament elected Quwatly as president of Syria.
During 1944 the Syrian government took over the functions of 14 administrative departments which had been under direct French control since 1920. These included those dealing with customs, social affairs, excise taxes, control of concessionary companies, and supervision of tribes. France retained control of social, cultural, and educational services as well as the Troupes Speciales du Levant (Levantine Special Forces), which were used for security purposes. Despite French opposition, the Soviet Union in July and the United States in September 1944 granted Syria and Lebanon unconditional recognition as sovereign states; British recognition followed a year later. These Allied nations pressured France to evacuate Syria.
The new Syrian government demanded either the immediate and unconditional transfer of the Troupes Speciales de Levant to Syrian control or their disbandment, and threatened to form a national army unless such action was taken. But France made withdrawal of the troops dependent on Syria's signature of a treaty assigning France a privileged position in the country.
In January 1945, the Syrian government announced the formation of a national army and in February declared war on the Axis powers. In March the nation became a charter member of the United Nations (UN), an indication of its sovereign status, and, in April, affirmed its allegiance to the idea of Arab unity by signing the pact of the League of Arab States (Arab League).
The way in which the French left Syria, however, increased the already bitter feelings the Syrians had toward France. France was adamant in its demand that its cultural, economic, and strategic interests be protected by treaty before agreeing to withdraw the Troupes Speciales du Levant. In May 1945, demonstrations occurred in Damascus and Aleppo and, for the third time in 20 years, the French bombed and machine-gunned the ancient capital. Serious fighting broke out in Homs and Hamah as well. Only after Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill threatened to send troops to Damascus did General de Gaulle order a cease-fire. A UN resolution in February 1946 called on France to evacuate. The French acceded and, by April 15, 1946, all French troops were off Syrian soil. On April 17 Syria celebrated Evacuation Day; the date is a national holiday.
The legacy of ancient Syria, the Arab empire, Ottoman rule, and the French Mandate left the people of Syria with loyalties to both their own nation and their neighbors. During the period of the French Mandate, Syria's leaders--though often competing with each other for power--were generally united in their single goal of freedom from French rule. Conflicts between diverse groups were postponed, as Syrian unity was essential for the independence fight.
With the departure of the French, however, unity among the leaders disappeared. Aleppines contested with Damascenes for dominance in commercial and political life; the Druzes pledged allegiance to Druzes, the Kurds to Kurds, and tribal peoples to tribal institutions. Alawis, the poorest yet largest of the minorities, tried to rebel from Sunni Muslim control. Rural leaders contended with urban leaders; the progressive, increasingly secularized, younger generation vied with the older, religious-minded leaders. Politicians differed over the kind of government Syria should have--monarchy or republic, parliamentary or presidential democracy.
Although most leaders agreed that the Syria they inherited was merely a part of a larger Arab nation, they disagreed on the form such a nation should take. Trade-minded Aleppines preferred Iraq and the Hashimites, as did some of the older leaders who had joined Faysal in 1918. Young, educated Damascenes rejected the Hashimites, who they felt were backed by the British. The cultural heritage of France and the American ideals of democracy induced many Syrians to look westward for friendship. Others looked north to the Soviet Union, which from the Syrian point of view had no record of intrigue in the Arab world.
Syria began its independent life under the presidency of Quwatly, backed by a splintered parliament without real leadership. The nation's first crisis was the independence of Israel, fruit of the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement. In May 1948, Syrian troops invaded Israel in conjunction with other Arab armies.
Toward the end of 1948, Syrian politicians became profoundly disappointed with their government's failure not only to defeat Israel but also to regain the former province of Alexandretta, to free blocked assets in France, and to maintain an independent currency. Prime Minister Azm tried to cut army expenditures, find backing for the Syrian pound, and construct a new pipeline from Iraq to the Syrian coast. He failed in all of these efforts.
On March 30, 1949, Brigadier General Husni az Zaim, army chief of staff, staged the first of Syria's numerous coups. He was cheered by the political opposition and the urban masses who were tired of high prices and an inept bureaucracy. Zaim, first backed by the British and then by the French, was recognized by Arab and Western governments and was elected president of Syria after abolishing political parties and proposing himself as the only candidate. He ratified an agreement with the Trans-Arabian Pipeline Company (Tapline) and declared himself ready to support a Middle Eastern-North Atlantic Treaty Organization if the United States would give economic support to the area.
Although Zaim was deposed less than five months later in a countercoup, his brief whirlwind rule was crowded with constructive action as well as oppressive measures. His achievements included the start of construction on the Euphrates River project to bring water to Aleppo; initiation of the Latakia harbor project; building of new roads and hospitals; framing of new civil laws, commercial laws, and penal codes; granting of suffrage to women; and the abolition of private waqfs (charitable religious endowments). But Zaim's personal ambition depleted the treasury and lost him political support.
Syria's second coup was led by Brigadier General Sami al Hinnawi, who arrested Zaim and Prime Minister Muhsin al Barazi on August 14, 1949. After a trial before the Council of War, both were executed. Under the provisional government of Hashim al Atassi, a new electoral law was adopted, and women voted for the first time in the election of November 15-16, 1949. Although Hinnawi's coup returned Syrian government to civilian politicians, the army remained watchful in the background.
On December 19, 1949, army leadership changed hands when Colonel Adib Shishakli arrested Hinnawi and accused him of conspiring with a foreign power--Iraq--against Syrian interests. While the army waited, civilian politicians tried to stabilize the government, and on September 4, 1950, the Constituent Assembly approved a new constitution and reconstituted itself as the Chamber of Deputies. But the leaderless civilians were unable to maintain authority. Inflation produced dissatisfaction in the cities, and hoarding, unemployment, and rioting followed. An economic dispute with the Lebanese, who were opposed to Syria's protective tariffs policy, led to the breaking of the seven-year- old economic agreement between the countries. Increasing opposition to army influence--Shishakli demanded that the minister of national defense be his specially selected follower, Major General Fawzi Silu--forced Shishakli's hand. On November 28, 1951, he carried out the country's third coup by arresting the cabinet ministers and appointing Silu prime minister. Shishakli exercised blatant dictatorial control, tightening his hold over the civil service and the courts and legislating by decree. On April 6, 1952, he abolished all political parties and tried to fill the vacuum by creating his own party--the Arab Liberation Movement (ALM).
In a July 1953 referendum, Syrians approved a new constitution making Syria a presidential republic with Shishakli as president. The subsequent Chamber of Deputies was packed with ALM deputies, the other parties having boycotted the election.
Signs that Shishakli's regime would collapse appeared at the end of 1953 with student strikes and the circulation of unusually virulent pamphlets urging sedition. The major political parties, meeting at Homs in September, agreed to resist and overthrow Shishakli. Trouble developed among the Druzes, and Shishakli declared martial law. The army, infiltrated by Shishakli's opponents, staged Syria's fourth coup on February 25, 1954, and restored the 1949 government.
The ouster of Shishakli brought out once more the conflicts among the diverse political elements of the country. Cabinet succeeded cabinet as shifting coalitions of conservatives on the one hand and left-wing socialists on the other vied for supremacy. By 1955 the balance began to swing in favor of leftwing elements, notably the Baath Party and the Syrian Communist Party, the only parties in Syria with effective organizations and definite platforms and the only ones not based on sectarian interests. Their platforms coincided on some issues, and they sometimes cooperated in achieving their goals: economic and political reform aimed at dislodging the ineffective entrenched leadership that was at once quasi-feudal, mercantile, and Western connected; Arab unity; and close cooperation with the Soviets to counter alleged Western designs on the Arab homeland.
Anti-Western sentiment had been ever-present in independent Syria, resulting from deep disappointment over perceived British betrayal at Versailles and resentment of French policies under the mandate. It had reached a high pitch after the creation of Israel, considered another example of Western connivance against the Arabs, but was subdued by the pro-Western Shishakli. In 1955 it was vocal again under the stimulation of local politicians and Soviet propaganda. The British-French-Israeli invasion of Sinai in late 1956 gave it additional impetus.
The gradual ascendance to power of left-wing radicals brought close relations with the Soviet Union and other communist countries. Several barter agreements were signed between 1954 and 1956; cultural agreements were concluded, missions were exchanged, and an arms deal was signed in 1956. At the same time, Syria became increasingly isolated from its Arab neighbors.
During 1957 the conservatives were virtually eliminated as a political factor. In May they suffered a crushing defeat in byelections after four traditionally conservative representatives were convicted of conspiracy. Later that year conservatives failed in an effort to form an effective coalition in parliament to counter the radicals, and conservative and moderate army officers failed to dislodge known Communists from strategic posts in the army. By the end of 1957, Baathists, with their Communist and other left-wing allies, were in control of the government.
The success of the radicals in gaining control resulted largely from close cooperation between the Baathists and Communists. The Communists had been growing rapidly in number and strength as popularity of the East and dislike of the West grew, and, by the end of 1957, they threatened Baathist domination of the radical alliance. Moderates in Syria and abroad feared an imminent Communist takeover. The Baathists became alarmed when a new radical party was formed to counter their influence and to cooperate with the Communists. The last months of 1957 saw a fierce behind-the-scenes struggle for supremacy within the radical camp.
Seeing no way to preserve its position through domestic maneuvering, the government turned to Egypt's President Gamal Abdul Nasser for help. Discussions about a union between Syria and Egypt had been held in 1956 but had been interrupted by the Suez crisis. The subject was brought up again in December 1957, when the Baath Party announced that it was drafting a bill for union with Egypt. Although the Baath Party knew that Nasser's declared hostility to political parties would mean the end of its legal existence, it calculated that the group most affected would be the Communists, whose counterparts in Egypt were being ruthlessly persecuted. The Baathists expected Nasser to dissolve all parties but envisaged a special role for themselves in the new state because of their continued support of Nasser and their identification with his views. For his part, Nasser was reluctant to burden himself with a troubled Syria and agreed to the union only after a Syrian delegation convinced him of the seriousness of the communist threat. The union of Syria and Egypt in the United Arab Republic (UAR) was announced on February 1, 1958, and later ratified by a plebiscite in each country.
The form in which the UAR emerged was not what the Baathists had envisioned. One of Nasser's conditions for union was that the two countries be completely integrated, not just federated as the Syrians proposed, and Syria soon found itself dominated by the stronger, more efficient Egypt. The Provisional Constitution of 1958 called for a unitary cabinet and a 600-member assembly, composed of 400 Egyptians and 200 Syrians, half of the members being drawn from the then-existing national assemblies. Syria and Egypt were designated regions of the UAR, each headed by an appointed executive council. Nasser was unanimously chosen president of the republic, and two of the four vice presidents were Syrians, one of them Akram Hawrani, leader of the Baath Party. The first cabinet included 14 Syrians out of 34 members, all of them leading politicians and military figures whom Nasser wanted removed from their bases of power. As expected, all political parties were dissolved; but the Baathists did not find themselves in the favored position they expected. The UAR was completely run by Nasser.
Although a number of nationalization and land reform measures had been implemented in Syria, Nasser felt that socialist reform and integration with Egypt were moving too slowly and, in October 1959, appointed Egyptian Vice President Abdul Hakim Amir to supervise policy in Syria. The Syrians, however, were increasingly dissatisfied with Egypt's domination. Egyptians took over a large number of the important administrative posts in Syria, and Syrian army officers were transferred to Egypt while Egyptians took posts in Syria. Growing political unrest in Syria was exacerbated by an economic crisis brought about by prolonged drought. Nasser made little apparent effort to placate Syrian dissatisfaction and continued with his planned integration of the UAR. On September 28, 1961, a military coup was staged in Damascus, and Syria seceded from the UAR.
The military coup again brought out all the competing factions and interest groups. In December 1961, all political groups, except the Communists and pro-Nasser factions, participated in a general election for a constituent assembly. Although party labels were not used, only a few known Baathists were elected to an assembly dominated by moderates and conservatives.
The new assembly elected Nazim al Qudsi president of the republic, and he in turn named a conservative, Maruf Dawalibi, prime minister. In January 1962, the assembly repealed major sections of a July 1961 decree that had nationalized various industrial and commercial firms, and, in February, it amended in favor of the landlords the land-reform measures that had been implemented during the period of union.
The new government succeeded in pleasing few and alienating many, and, on March 28, 1962, there was another military coup. President Qudsi resigned, as did the prime minister and the cabinet, and the executive and legislative functions of the government were taken over by an organization called the General Command of the Army and Armed Forces. Demonstrations against this new coup broke out in several of the major cities and, on April 5, the seven military officers who had organized and implemented the coup were sent into exile by other military leaders. On April 10 Qudsi resumed the presidency.
The events between April and September were confusing. According to some factions, the assembly had been dissolved; other groups contended that the assembly had voluntarily resigned; and still others asserted that the assembly continued to exist although it was not allowed to meet. A new prime minister formed a government that restored several of the socialist measures of the UAR period but banned all political parties.
By early September 1962 clashes between pro-Nasser and antiNasser elements had become more violent and more frequent, as had the student demonstrations and terrorist bombings. On September 13, President Qudsi appointed Khalid al Azm as the new prime minister and allowed the National Assembly, supposedly defunct, to convene at his residence. In its single session, the Assembly confirmed Azm's appointment and approved three seemingly contradictory measures: first, the reinstated Constituent Assembly was to be called the Constitutional Assembly; second, the government could legislate in the absence of the Assembly; and third, the government was granted the authority to dissolve the Assembly with the understanding that new elections would be held within one year. On September 20 the Assembly was again dissolved.
Although Azm included representatives of all political factions except the extreme pro-Nasser group in this cabinet, he was unable to govern effectively and, by early 1963, four of the seven military officers who had been exiled after their successful coup in March 1962 made another coup attempt. This time they were unsuccessful, and they again went into exile. Their abortive coup was poorly planned and elicited no discernible support from the military, but in February the government attempted to purge the army of an estimated 120 officers who were believed to pose a threat. On March 8 there was yet another coup by the military, and on March 9 Salah al Din al Bitar, who with Michel Aflaq had founded the Baath Party in the 1940s, became prime minister for the first of several times.
Bitar included five pro-Nasserites in his cabinet, but in early May these five ministers were forced to resign, and 47 officers and 1,000 noncommissioned officers who were believed to be pro-Nasser were forced out of the army. On May 11 Bitar resigned, but a week later he returned to form a new government. During May and June 1963, the situation continued to be confused, and on July 17 and 18 an estimated 2,000 Nasserites attempted a coup. The fighting was intense for a few hours in Damascus, but the coup was crushed. Major General Amin al Hafiz--a Sunni Baathist army officer who had risen with the neo-Baathists-- emerged as the strong man, serving as commander in chief of the armed forces, president of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command (subsequently known as the National Council of the Revolution--NCR), deputy prime minister, minister of defense, minister of the interior, and deputy military governor. On August 4, Bitar formed another government, his third in six months.
The attempted coup marked a turning point in the country's domestic affairs. It was the first time that a coup or coup attempt had resulted in widespread violence and loss of life. On July 19, eight army officers and 12 civilians were convicted in summary trials before revolutionary security courts and were executed by firing squads the same day. This pattern of violence was to be repeated by the Baathists in seizing and retaining power.
On November 11, 1963, Bitar again resigned, and Hafiz became prime minister, retaining as well the other posts he previously held. By April 1964 urban unrest had again become serious. In Hamah, for example, the military measures taken to suppress the uprisings resulted in what Hafiz described as "frightful carnage." On May 14, Hafiz resigned as prime minister but retained his other posts, and Bitar formed another government.
Between May 1964 and February 1966, there were frequent changes of government reflecting the contest for power between the centrist and leftist wings of the Baath Party. The occasional urban and town riots, student disorders, and pro-Nasser demonstrations were sternly repressed. During this period Hafiz continued to dominate the public scene, but two other Baathist generals, both Alawis, began to exercise decisive power. On February 23, 1966, these two generals, Salah al Jadid and Hafiz al Assad, joined Nureddin Atassi in a coup that placed the more extremist wing of the Baath Party in power.
During the period of union with Egypt, the first stimulus for revival of the Syrian Baath Party came from a group of Syrian officers stationed in Egypt who styled themselves the Military Committee. This committee at one time or another included a Sunni, Amin al Hafiz; a Druze, Hamad Ubayd; and two Alawis, Muhammad Umran and Jadid. After the secession from the UAR in 1961, the Syrian Baath Party was formally reestablished at a party congress in May 1962. At this time, Hawrani was dismissed from the party on doctrinal grounds for opposing Arab unity. After the coup, these Baathist associates progressively moved to displace the coup leaders from the senior positions in the army and the newly formed, self-appointed, and largely anonymous National Council of the Revolutionary Command. It was with this latter body that effective power rested and not with Bitar's cabinet, as was clearly demonstrated in the provisional constitution decreed on March 24, 1963, and in its replacement promulgated on April 25, 1964.
The coming to power of the Baath Party in 1963 is sometimes referred to as "the revolution," although the March 8 coup was not executed by the Baathists and did not actually initiate the great social revolution postulated in Baathist ideology. In any case the party was supreme, but factionalism continued within the Baathist regime.
Five major centers of power existed in Syria. The National Council of the Revolutionary Command, preeminent in 1963, was changed by the Constitution of 1964 into the NCR, was enlarged in membership, and became an appointed legislative body. Highest authority was vested in a five-man presidency council elected from its membership. Other power centers included the Ministry of Defense and the top army command echelon, the government structure of prime minister and cabinet, the Regional Command, and the National Command. The dominant clique at any time had representation in all of them; many officials held multiple offices with positions in two or more power centers; and top level coordination of the centers was accomplished, in effect, by an interlocking directorate.
Broad factional differences developed between pan-Arab nationalist adherents to the old-guard Baath leadership of Aflaq and Bitar on the one hand and those who became known as regionalists, emphasizing Syria first, on the other. A principal area of contention was their attitudes toward Arab unity, specifically toward some kind of reunion with Egypt or union with Iraq or both.
Aflaq's nationalists varied from strong to moderate in their support of union, although they wanted it on their own terms and at a rapid rate, with a high priority. In contrast, the regionalists, while giving lip service to unity, varied from weak moderates favoring a go-slow approach with low priority to opponents of union. In the regionalist camp were the rising Alawi Baath officers Jadid, Assad, and Umran.
The neo-Baathists as a whole believed that the nationalization and land-reform measures started under Nasser but reversed during the conservative interregnum of September 1961 to March 1963 should be restored. The question centered on the rate of movement to socialization. Aflaq's adherents favored a moderate, slow approach, whereas the regionalists tended to favor extensive measures quickly carried out. The regionalists became known as radicals, the radical wing, or "the extremists." They also inclined to the establishment of closer, more exclusive ties with the Soviet Union than the old guard, which viewed an exclusive Soviet position of influence as nothing but a new form of imperialism.
Discussions with President Nasser in Cairo resulted on April 17, 1963, in a statement of intent to form a union of Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. This venture, however, collapsed by July 22. In Syria a major pro-Nasserite military coup attempt in early July was put down with severity by Hafiz, the minister of interior and military governor. This coup attempt served thereafter to justify Baathist monopolization of power; it confirmed the change in style from the pre-1963 pattern of relatively bloodless coups and marked the advent to the top power position of Hafiz, who was to become a virtual dictator for the lext two and one-half years.
On July 27, 1963, Hafiz acquired the additional titles of president of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command, president of the republic, commander in chief, and minister of defense. He was also a member of both the regional and national commands of the Baath Party. In November he became prime minister, although from time to time he called on civilians, such as Bitar and Yusuf Zuayyin, to hold this post.
From the outset Hafiz aligned himself with Aflaq's old-guard civilian wing of the party, which was dominant in the National Command. This was to their mutual benefit, and the civilian leadership allowed the military Baathists a free hand in purging and structuring the forces into an "ideological army". Coordination between military and civilian party functions was restricted to the top level. This free-hand policy proved to be a mistake for the civilian leadership. Ties of party discipline with the military wing were dissolved and an intensifying military-civilian split developed. In a reversal of positions, the military Baathists became sponsors of the civilian old guard, which then found itself in the role of junior partner.
During party congresses from 1962 to 1964, strong bids for power were made by a new Marxist faction of the party, which, although finally overcome in party maneuvering, exerted influence and precipitated events having lasting effects. At the congress of October 1963, propositions evincing a new ideological tone were adopted. Identity with "oppressed peoples everywhere" was declared, in contrast to the old Baathist limitation to the Arab nation, and terms such as class struggle, scientific socialism, and popular struggle were injected. These generic Marxist phrases were not, in fact, employed in the sense commonly understood in Marxian dialectic but were considerably altered by an Arab nationalist context. Their use, nevertheless, indicated a leftwing drift in the Baath Party. In particular, the notion of popular struggle was used to support the Maoist doctrine of the "people's war of liberation," which became a tenet of neoBaathist ideology in its endorsement of the Palestinian guerrilla movements against Israel.
The regionalist side of the political spectrum welcomed the aspects of the leftward drift in ideology that both mitigated the intense Arab unity theme of the old guard and called for a more intense commitment to nationalization and socialism. The military Baathists welcomed the leftist doctrinal rationale for subordinating individual liberties to the society as a whole. The military, however, took strong exception to the left-wing's demand for exclusion of the military from politics and to personal assaults on the "rightist character" of many Baathist officers.
Hafiz and the inner core of the Military Committee, along with Aflaq and Bitar's old guard, successfully engineered the expulsion of the Marxist wing from the party's Regional Command at a conference early in February 1964 and from the National Command later the same month. A new 15-member Regional Command was then formed and included seven officers of the Military Committee.
Hafiz sought to balance his position by developing support among different factions, even including the politically excommunicated Hawrani, and he made considerable use of both Alawi and Druze officers. In November 1963, he installed the Alawi Baathist Jadid in the key post of army chief of staff. Jadid emerged as a staunch regionalist.
Hafiz's right-hand man in the Baath military-political structure was Umran, another Alawi but of a different tribe from that of Jadid and the latter's quietly rising associate, Hafiz al Assad. By the end of 1964 Umran had reversed his stance on several issues, including the matter of Hawrani and union, and was then at odds with Hafiz. He was removed from party position but allowed to take the post of ambassador to Spain.
At the party convention of April 1965, the military and civilian branches of the regional party were constitutionally merged, and the top post of secretary general of the Regional Command passed to Jadid. The contention between the older AflaqBitar Baathists and the regionalists had long been organizationally reflected in contention between the National Command and the Syrian Regional Command over the location of principal party power. Assumption of control of the Regional Command by Jadid brought to that post an Alawi who was a senior military officer, the strong man of the shadowy Military Committee, and the staunchest proponent of regionalist Baathism.
By the summer of 1965, Hafiz began seeking to limit the influence of the Alawis and Druzes. His own political orientation had begun to shift toward compromise, moderation, union, and the slowing down of socialism. In September 1965, he removed Jadid from the post of army chief of staff, but the latter entrenched himself in his party position as secretary general of the Regional Command. On December 21, 1965, the National Command dissolved the Regional Command and removed Jadid's three supporters from the five-man presidency council.
At the same time, Hafiz dismissed the cabinet of Prime Minister Zuayyin, who had become a regionalist. He then called on the perennial Bitar to form a new cabinet (his fifth) and recalled General Umran as minister of defense. On Hafiz's authority, extensive transfers of Jadid's supporters in the army were planned. On February 18, 1966, Aflaq condemned the Jadid faction for "degenerating into regional separatism" and (although he himself had assisted the process) for the military usurpation of party and government power from the civilian leadership. Thus, the stage was set for a confrontation between the two parts of the Baath Party.
On February 23, 1966, Jadid, the Regional Command, and their army units seized the government in the bloodiest of the many coups d'etat since 1949. The general public, however, displayed no inclination to fight for one Baathist military faction against the other.
Hafiz, wounded in the fighting, was arrested and imprisoned; the old National Command was denounced and expelled; and Aflaq and Bitar were read out of the party. Later released, both took refuge in Lebanon. One of the first acts of the Regional Command after seizing the radio station was the announcement of the appointment of Major General Hafiz al Assad as minister of defense.
On March 1, 1966, a new government was formed. Jadid remained outside the formal structure of government, directing affairs through his position as party leader. So as not to appear as an outright military dictatorship, the regime designated prominent regionalist Baath civilians to office: Nureddin Atassi as president of the republic; Yusuf Zuayyin, again as prime minister; and Ibrahim Makhus as foreign minister. All were physicians and representatives of the urban intellectuals. The first two were Sunnis; Makhus, an Alawi. In the Regional Command, the top five positions were held by Jadid, Atassi, Zuayyin, Makhus, and Assad, in that order.
On September 8, 1966, a military countercoup attempt was led by a Druze, Salim Hatum, a leading partner of Jadid in the February 23 coup. Although Hatum's men actually arrested President Atassi, the army chief of staff Major General Ahmad Suwaydani, and Jadid himself, the attempt failed when Assad threatened to send the air force against Hatum's forces. The Workers' Battalions, a proletarian national guard organized by Khalid al Jundi and influenced by the Chinese Red Guard concept, also declared for Jadid. Agreement was reached between the factions for an exchange of prisoners, and on the following morning Hatum and his associates fled to Jordan. He returned to Syria in early June 1967 to fight, he said, against Israel; he was arrested and shot.
The traumatic defeat of the Syrians and Egyptians in the June 1967 War with Israel discredited the radical socialist regimes of Nasser's Egypt and Baathist Syria. The Jadid faction, which included Atassi, Zuayyin, and Makhus, was particularly hurt. The defeat strengthened the hands of the moderates and the rightists and was the catalyst for Assad's ascent in Syria.
In the fall of 1968, open controversy developed between Assad, reportedly representing a moderate faction centered in the military, and extremists of Jadid's civilian regime. Although Jadid's power in the party remained strong, in March 1969 an ostensible compromise was reached between Assad and Jadid. The new government formed in May made minor concessions to broadening the political base but represented no real change in domestic or foreign policy. The rank order in the party's hierarchy remained unchanged. Assad continued as minister of defense. A number of Syrian Communists were arrested, and their leader Bakdash again left the country.
The conflict between the Jadid civilian wing and the Assad military wing of the party continued through 1970, and the government, although reported to be widely unpopular, remained in firm control of the country. From time to time different measures bore the influence of the two factions. Party purges had decimated the air force, which suffered from a critical pilot shortage, and Assad succeeded in restoring to duty a number of air force pilots who had been retired for political reasons. The Regional Command headed by Jadid, rather than the Ministry of Defense, retained complete control of its institutionalized Palestine guerrilla force, As Saiqa (Thunderbolt).
In its radical revolutionary role, the regime proclaimed support for the guerrilla movements but, while polemically assailing Jordan and Lebanon for their efforts to control Palestinian guerrillas in their territories, did not hesitate to control the guerrillas in Syria. As Saiqa was not allowed to launch operations from Syrian soil against Israel because of the danger of reprisal, but was frequently used within Syria for party security purposes.
In inter-Arab affairs, the Jadid and Assad factions largely negated one another. Syria remained at odds with most Arab states, especially Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.
In September 1970, the Jordanian army launched attacks on PLO camps and on Palestinian refugee camps that were under the control of PLO units; most were in the vicinity of Amman. Jordan's King Hussein ordered the assaults in response to efforts by the PLO to implement its avowed policy of deposing Hussein and other Arab monarchs. The hostilities in Jordan--which became known by the PLO and its supporters as Black September--had a profound impact on the Arab world and particularly on the government in Syria.
During the civil war that lasted 10 days, Syria sent some 200 tanks (nominally of the Palestine Liberation Army--PLA) to aid the PLO forces. Iraq, Syria's Baathist rival, had a force of about 12,000 men stationed near Az Zarqa northeast of Amman; these troops did not participate in the fighting and withdrew to Iraq a few days later. The United States dispatched the Sixth Fleet to the eastern Mediterranean, and the Israeli air force openly assumed a posture of military preparedness. Most important, the Syrian air force refused to provide air cover to the Syrian tank brigade, which came under severe attacks first by the Jordanian air force and then by the Jordanian army. On September 23 and 24, the Syrian expeditionary force withdrew from the battle zone and returned to Syria.
Syria's military fiasco in Jordan reflected political disagreement within the ruling Baath leadership. The Jadid faction argued for full support of and participation with the PLO in Jordan; Assad and his associates opposed such action. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was fear of a devastating Israeli reprisal, Assad refused to commit his air force to support the tank units. Jadid and his supporters were militarily and politically humiliated.
The Baath Party's tenth congress, held in Damascus, lasted two weeks and ended November 12, 1970. This conference, labeled an extraordinary session of the National Command, underscored Jadid's continuing control of the party apparatus. It adopted resolutions reaffirming the government's position in internal and foreign affairs and censuring Assad and his chief of staff Major General Mustafa Tlas on the grounds of improper military influence in the government.
On November 13, 1970, army units arrested Jadid, Atassi, and Zuayyin along with several others and seized the centers of communication without effective opposition. Although a few minor demonstrations occurred, the overthrow was virtually bloodless. Jadid was detained under guard; Atassi, in house arrest. The others were soon released.
On November 16, the Regional Command of the Baath Party issued a statement saying that the change that had occurred was a transfer of power within the party showing that the party's progressive rank and file were stronger than the misdirected forces of dictators. A new party congress was to be convened to reorganize the party; a national front government was to be organized under revised Baathist leadership; and a people's council, or legislature, was to be formed within three months. Continued support for the Palestinian cause was affirmed.
On November 19, 1970, the Regional Command announced the designation of Ahmad al Khatib, a respected but hitherto little- known politician, as acting chief of state and of Lieutenant General Assad as prime minister and minister of defense. Assad then formed a 26-man cabinet, consisting of about one-half Assad Baathists and the balance scattered among Socialists, Nasserists, Independents, and Communists. This cabinet met for the first time on November 23, 1970. In a press interview Assad claimed that the change in government had been neither a coup nor the result of political conflict along lines of military-civilian division, but a natural development in the party's revolutionary movement, often referred to as the "Correction Movement."
Soon after taking power, Assad moved quickly to create an organizational infrastructure for the government. In February 1971, the 173-member People's Council was organized, with the Baath Party taking 87 seats; the remaining seats were divided among the "popular organizations" and other minor parties. In March 1971 the Baath Party held its regional congress and elected the 21-member Regional Command headed by Assad. That same month, by a national referendum, Assad was elected president for a 7- year term and in April Major Abdul Rahman Khulayfawi was designated prime minister with Mahmud al Ayyubi as vice president. The transfer of power from Jadid to Assad was widely regarded as a conservative and moderating movement away from Communist radicalism.
In foreign affairs Syria's relations with the Soviet Union, strained toward the end of 1970, improved dramatically in 1971 and 1972. Syria's relations with other Arab states, particularly Egypt and Libya, became more cordial, as demonstrated by the April 1971 formation of the short-lived Federation of Arab Republics, made up of Syria, Egypt, and Libya.
In March 1972, the Progressive National Front was formed. It consisted of the Baath Party and four non-Baathist groups: the Syrian Arab Socialist Union, a Nasserite group under Jamal Atassi; the Socialist Union Movement under Jamal Sufi; the Arab Socialist Party, composed of the followers of the Baathist Akram Hawrani; and the Syrian Communist Party, under Khalid Bakdash.
In March 1973, the Permanent Constitution went into effect, further strengthening Assad's already formidable presidential authority. However, the Assad regime was not without underlying tension. This tension stemmed from sectarian differences between the majority Sunni Muslims and the minority Alawis; but it had much wider implications, not the least of which were political. The immediate focus of the opposition to the regime was the demand by Sunni Muslims that Islam be declared the state religion in the constitution. The draft constitution that was adopted by the People's Council at the end of January 1973 had no provision to that effect. Viewing the constitution as the product of an Alawi-dominated, secular, Baathist ruling elite, Sunni militants staged a series of riots in February 1973 in conservative and predominantly Sunni cities such as Hamah and Homs. A number of demonstrators were killed and wounded in clashes between the troops and demonstrators. As a result of these demonstrations, the Assad regime had the draft charter amended to include a provision that the president of Syria must be a Muslim. Implicit in this amendment was a declaration that Alawis are Muslims--a formula not accepted by many Sunni Muslims. The draft was approved in a popular referendum held in mid-March for formal promulgation. Assad's compromise, coupled with the government's effective security measures, calmed the situation, but sporadic demonstrations continued through April 1973. Other major developments in 1973 included the holding in March of parliamentary elections for the People's Council, the first since 1962, and the Syrian-Egyptian war against Israel in October. Syrian forces acquitted themselves better against the Israeli forces in the October 1973 War than in the 1967 one; in fact, the war was widely regarded in Syria as a "victory" and helped to boost Syrian morale substantially. Moreover, in 1974, as a result of the disengagement agreement, Syria recovered parts of the Golan Heights it initially had lost to Israel.
In foreign affairs, the Assad regime charted a pragmatic and increasingly independent course. It maintained close ties with the Soviet Union and East European states, ensuring a sustained flow of Soviet military aid, especially after the October 1973 War. At the same time, Assad moved to improve Syrian relations with Jordan and with the United States and other Western nations.
In May 1973, diplomatic relations with Britain, severed in 1967, were fully restored. Relations with the United States, also severed in 1967, were normalized in June 1974. Two months later diplomatic ties with the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) were resumed after having been severed in 1965, when the West German government exchanged ambassadors with Israel. Meanwhile, relations with Jordan grew progressively more cordial, so that in August 1975 Syria and Jordan announced the establishment of a joint supreme command to direct political and military action against Israel.
Perhaps the severest test of the Assad regime came in the latter half of the 1970s as a result of Syrian intervention in the Lebanese civil war. During 1976, Assad was firmly resolved to stabilize the volatile Lebanese situation by providing troops, first unilaterally and later as part of the Lebanese-based peacekeeping Arab Deterrent Force (ADF). The Syrian intervention, in effect on the side of the Lebanese Christian right against the Palestinians and Muslim left, tended to aggravate relations with other Arab countries, Egypt and Iraq in particular. In addition, the intervention in Lebanon was economically costly for Syria and not popular domestically, and a cease-fire was arranged in October 1976. Even so, in early 1987 Syrian troops still controlled large portions of eastern Lebanon.
Domestically, Assad's supremacy remained unassailable. He brooked no opposition and his control of the Baath Party and the military and security organizations was complete. All political activities continued to be closely monitored by the party and a multiplicity of intelligence and security forces. The regime did not rely primarily on coercion, however; the Baath Party sought, with mixed results, to evolve into a truly mass-based organization. The peasants, workers, and revolutionary intellectuals continued to receive much rhetorical attention, and the party's high command continued to explore the relative merits of socialism for the Syrian economy. The regime's responsiveness to public opinion after 1976 apparently was prompted by three factors: first, renewed concern about the persistence of sectarian tensions; second, an economic slowdown stemming from the burden of military intervention in Lebanon as well as the considerable decline and uncertainty of foreign aid from other Arab oil states; and finally, signs of corruption in the higher echelons of the government and state-run economic enterprises. In August 1976, official concern was manifested when Prime Minister Mahmud al Ayyubi was replaced by Abdul Rahman Khulayfawi, a Sunni who formerly headed the cabinet (1971-72) and who was also highly popular among army officers for his honesty and thoroughness.
A major test of the regime's popularity came in August 1977 when Syrians went to the polls to elect the People's Council for a 4-year term (1977-81). Election results gave cause for concern; the voter turnout was dismally low even by Syrian standards. It was estimated to range from 4 to 6 percent of the 4 million eligible voters, even though the polls were kept open an extra day because of the low turnout.
The election indicated the public's unhappiness with the government, an unhappiness that prompted Assad to institute what came to be known as his "anti-corruption campaign". To this end, the Committee for the Investigation of Illegal Profits was formed. Opposition to the regime did not abate however, and, on November 1, 1977, Ali ibn Abid al Ali, an Alawi professor of agriculture at the University of Aleppo and a close a friend of Assad, was assassinated.
In February 1978, Assad was reelected for a second 7-year term (1978-85). However, his reelection coincided with the beginning of a period of domestic unrest. Even Assad's inner circle showed signs of dissolution; one of the first was the dismissal of Naji Jamil, who was air force commander, chief of the National Security Bureau, and deputy defense minister. His replacement was Brigadier Muhammad Khuli, chief of air force intelligence and an Alawi. On March 30, 1978, the cabinet of Khulayfawi was dismissed and Muhammad Ali al Halabi was asked to form a new cabinet. No significant changes were made in cabinet membership.
The most important opposition groups during this period were Sunni Muslim organizations, whose membership was drawn from urban Sunni youth. The largest and most militant of these groups was the Muslim Brotherhood. Other organizations included the Aleppo- based Islamic Liberation Movement, established in 1963; the Islamic Liberation Party, originally established in Jordan in the 1950s; Muhammad's Youth; Jundullah (Soldiers of God); and Marwan Hadid's group, established in Hamah in 1965, often referred to as At Tali'a al Muqatilia (Fighting Vanguard). All, it is rumored, received financial assistance from private sources in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, and the revolutionary committees in Iran. It is also speculated that they received weapons smuggled from Iraq and Lebanon and training and assistance from Al Fatah of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
In addition to the militant Muslim opposition, there was opposition from intellectuals and professional associations, whose purpose was not to overthrow the regime but to reform it. The first time such groups challenged the government was on March 31, 1980, in Aleppo and Hamah. Additional opposition came from expatriate Syrian politicians, mostly Sunni Baath politicians of the pre-1966 era who opposed the military and sectarian nature of the government and its drift away from Arab nationalist policies. The leader of this group was Bitar, the cofounder of the Baath Party.
In the spring of 1980, these nonmilitant professional groups formed a loose alliance called the National Democratic Gathering and demanded freedom of the press, freedom of political action, promulgation of civil law with the ending of the state of emergency, and free parliamentary elections. The alliance had no contact with the Muslim Brotherhood and was considered a peaceful alternative to it.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s there were a number of religiously motivated violent attacks, many instigated by the Muslim Brotherhood and directed at Assad's regime, members of the ruling Baath Party, and members of the Alawi religious sect. At the outset, rather than blaming the Muslim Brotherhood, the government blamed Iraq and disaffected Palestinians for these acts, and it retaliated by holding public hangings in September 1976 and June 1977.
In the spring of 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood claimed credit for a series of attacks on persons, usually Alawis, and government and military installations. The most serious attacks occurred in June 1979 when Muslim Brotherhood gunmen killed 50 Alawi cadets at the military academy in Aleppo. This clearly showed the Muslim Brotherhood's capability and determination. After this incident, the government resolved to crush the opposition and did so ruthlessly. Nevertheless, support for the Muslim Brotherhood grew over the next two years, and operations against Syrian government officials and installations increased in number and severity and included, for the first time, attacks on Soviet military and civilian advisers in Syria.
Terrorist acts by the militant Sunni Muslims during this period centered around urban centers such as Damascus, Hamah, Homs, and the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartus. In March 1980, the attacks were directed at widespread targets, most effectively in Aleppo. The violence reached its height on March 5. Although Aleppo was the primary target, violence spread to Hamah, Homs, and Dayr az Zawr, where Baath Party and military installations were attacked. In June 1980 an attempt was made on Assad's life.
Government security forces tried to uproot the Muslim Brotherhood from Hamah and Aleppo in late March and early April 1981. A large-scale search operation resulted in the deaths of 200 to 300 people and the destruction of sections of both cities. Tight security measures were implemented; membership in the Muslim Brotherhood was made a capital offense, the use of motorcycles was banned in some cities (they were used by the Muslim Brotherhood in hit-and-run attacks), and under the guise of holding a general census, the Ministry of Interior ordered all citizens 14 years of age and older to obtain new identity cards. In addition, a series of political, economic, and social measures were aimed at improving the regime's image and gaining more popular support.
In February 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood ambushed government forces who were searching for dissidents in Hamah. Several thousand Syrian troops, supported by armor and artillery, moved into the city and crushed the insurgents during two weeks of bloodshed. When the fighting was over, perhaps as many as 10,000 to 25,000 people lay dead, including an estimated 1,000 soldiers. In addition, large sections of Hamah's old city were destroyed. This battle led to the establishment of the National Alliance for the Liberation of Syria, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Front, the pro-Iraqi wing of the Baath party, and other independent political figures. The destruction of Hamah and the ruthlessness of Assad's measures apparently has had a chastening effect on Syria's estimated 30,000 Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers.
In the 1980s, Syria continued to rely heavily on the Soviet Union, which resupplied the Syrian armed forces with sophisticated weapons, and with which it concluded a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation on October 8, 1980. This relationship did not evolve, however, to either country's complete satisfaction. As of 1987, Syria has not granted the Soviets permanent port facilities, and, although the Soviets had pledged to defend Syria if it were attacked by Israel, it refused to support a Syrian blitz on the Golan.
Since the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, Syria has aligned itself with Iran, to the chagrin of the moderate Arab countries. Despite this alienation, Syria has been receiving generous amounts of financial aid from Saudi Arabia, which hopes that the funding will moderate Syria's radical policies. In addition, since 1982, Syria has been receiving a substantial amount of oil from Iran as repayment for its support and as compensation for the closure of the Iraqi oil pipeline, which runs through Syria. Syrian-Israeli relations were tense during the early 1980s. In December 1981, Israel formally annexed the Golan Heights; in June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and destroyed Syrian surface-to-air missiles deployed in the Biqa Valley as well about 79 Syrian MiG-21 and MiG-23 aircraft.
In late 1986, Syria faced a multitude of domestic and foreign challenges, some more threatening than others. The economy, for example, was in steady decline as a result of, among other factors, a chronic balance of payments deficit, foreign exchange shortages, a 3-year-long drought, low commodities prices, and reduced subsidies from other Arab states. With President Assad in uncertain health, aspirants appeared to be maneuvering to succeed him. In foreign relations, Syria remained fairly isolated from other Arab states, while considerable numbers of Syrian troops were stationed in Lebanon, entangled in that country's conflict. Furthermore, with Egypt at peace with Israel, and Iran and Iraq preoccupied with their war, Syria assumed a major role in the Arab-Israeli dispute; in fact, some Western observers openly speculated about renewed Syrian-Israeli hostilities over the Golan Heights. Meanwhile, on the basis of investigations of incidents which occurred in Europe, the United States and some Western European governments were accusing the Syrian regime of actively supporting international terrorism. Thus, in the late 1980s, serious uncertainty remained concerning Syria's future.
|what's new | rainforests home | for kids | help | madagascar | search | about | languages | contact
Copyright 2013 Mongabay.com