Modern history of Syria
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Ottoman Syria was turned into the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria in 1920, which was however soon committed under French Mandate. From 1938 known as a Republic, Syria gained independence in 1946, entering the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, and remaining in a state of political instability during the 1950s and 1960s.
Syria under the Mandate
Initial civil administration
Following the San Remo conference in April 1920 and the defeat of King Faisal's short-lived monarchy in Syria at the Battle of Maysalun on 24 July 1920, the French general Henri Gouraud established civil administration in the territory. The mandate region was subdivided into six states. They were the states of Damascus (1920), Aleppo (1920), Alawites (1920), Jabal Druze (1921), the autonomous Sanjak of Alexandretta (1921) (modern-day Hatay), and the State of Greater Lebanon (1920), which later became the modern country of Lebanon.
The drawing of those states was based in part on the sectarian make-up on the ground in Syria. However, nearly all the Syrian sects were hostile to the French mandate and to the division it created. This was best demonstrated by the numerous revolts that the French encountered in all of the Syrian states. Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon, on the other hand, were a community with a dream of independence that was being realized under the French; therefore, Greater Lebanon was the exception to the newly formed states.
Syrian Federation (1922-24)
In July 1922, France established a loose federation between three of the states: Damascus, Aleppo, and the Alawite under the name of the Syrian Federation (Fédération syrienne). Jabal Druze, Sanjak of Alexandretta, and Greater Lebanon were not parts of this federation, which adopted a new federal flag (green-white-green with French canton). On 1 December 1924, the Alawite state seceded from the federation when the states of Aleppo and Damascus were united into the State of Syria.
Great Syrian revolt
In 1925, a revolt in Jabal Druze led by Sultan Pasha el Atrash spread to other Syrian states and became a general rebellion in Syria. France tried to retaliate by having the parliament of Aleppo declare secession from the union with Damascus, but the voting was foiled by Syrian patriots.
Republic of Syria
On 14 May 1930, the State of Syria was declared the Republic of Syria and a new constitution was drafted. Two years later, in 1932, a new flag for the republic was adopted. The flag carried three red stars that represented the three districts of the republic (Damascus, Aleppo, and Deir ez Zor).
1936 Independence treaty
In 1936, the Franco-Syrian Treaty of Independence was signed, a treaty that would not be ratified by the French legislature. However, the treaty allowed Jabal Druze, the Alawite (now called Latakia), and Alexandretta to be incorporated into the Syrian republic within the following two years. Greater Lebanon (now the Lebanese Republic) was the only state that did not join the Syrian Republic. Hashim al-Atassi, who was Prime Minister under King Faisal's brief reign (1918–1920), was the first president to be elected under a new constitution adopted after the independence treaty.
Separation of Hatay
In September 1938, France again separated the Syrian district of Alexandretta and transformed it into the Republic of Hatay. The Republic of Hatay joined Turkey in the following year, in June 1939. Syria did not recognize the incorporation of Hatay into Turkey and the issue is still disputed until the present time.
World War II and the founding of the UN
With the fall of France in 1940 during World War II, Syria came under the control of the Vichy Government until the British and Free French invaded and occupied the country in July 1941. Syria proclaimed its independence again in 1941 but it wasn't until 1 January 1944, that it was recognized as an independent republic.
On 27 September 1941, France proclaimed, by virtue of, and within the framework of the Mandate, the independence and sovereignty of the Syrian State. The proclamation said "the independence and sovereignty of Syria and Lebanon will not affect the juridical situation as it results from the Mandate Act. Indeed, this situation could be changed only with the agreement of the Council of the League of Nations, with the consent of the Government of the United States, a signatory of the Franco-American Convention of 4 April 1924, and only after the conclusion between the French Government and the Syrian and Lebanese Governments of treaties duly ratified in accordance with the laws of the French Republic.
Benqt Broms said that it was important to note that there were several founding members of the United Nations whose statehood was doubtful at the time of the San Francisco Conference and that the Government of France still considered Syria and Lebanon to be mandates.
Duncan Hall said "Thus, the Syrian mandate may be said to have been terminated without any formal action on the part of the League or its successor. The mandate was terminated by the declaration of the mandatory power, and of the new states themselves, of their independence, followed by a process of piecemeal unconditional recognition by other powers, culminating in formal admission to the United Nations. Article 78 of the Charter ended the status of tutelage for any member state: 'The trusteeship system shall not apply to territories which have become Members of the United Nations, relationship among which shall be based on respect for the principle of sovereign equality.'"
On 29 May 1945, France bombed Damascus and tried to arrest its democratically elected leaders. While French planes were bombing Damascus, Prime Minister Faris al-Khoury was at the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco, presenting Syria's claim for independence from the French Mandate. Continuing pressure from Syrian nationalist groups and British pressure forced the French to evacuate their last troops on 17 April 1946.
Republic of Syria 1946-1963
Syrian independence was acquired in 1946. Although rapid economic development followed the declaration of independence, Syrian politics from independence through the late 1960s was marked by upheaval. The early years of independence were marked by political instability.
In 1948, Syria was involved in the Arab-Israeli War with the newly created State of Israel. The Syrian army was pressed out of the Israeli areas, but fortified their strongholds on the Golan and managed to keep their old borders and occupy some additional territory. In July 1949, Syria was the last Arab country to sign an armistice agreement with Israel.
In March 1949, Syria's national government was overthrown by a military coup d'état led by Hussni al-Zaimy thus ending democratic rule in a coup sponsored by the United States CIA, with the help of agents Miles Copeland and Stephen Meade.
Later that year Zaim was overthrown by his colleague Sami al-Hinnawi. Adib al-Shishakli. The latter undermined civilian rule and led to Shishakli's complete seizure of power in 1951. Shishakli continued to rule the country until 1955, when growing public opposition forced him to resign and leave the country. The national government was restored, but again to face instability, this time coming from abroad. After the overthrow of President Shishakli in a 1954 coup, continued political maneuvering supported by competing factions in the military eventually brought Arab nationalist and socialist elements to power. Between 1946 and 1956, Syria had 20 different cabinets and drafted four separate constitutions.
During the Suez Crisis of 1956, after the invasion of the Sinai Peninsula by Israeli troops, and the intervention of British and French troops, martial law was declared in Syria. Later Syrian and Iraqi troops were brought into Jordan to prevent a possible Israeli invasion. The November 1956 attacks on Iraqi pipelines were in retaliation for Iraq's acceptance into the Baghdad Pact. In early 1957 Iraq advised Egypt and Syria against a conceivable takeover of Jordan.
In November 1956 Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union, providing a foothold for Communist influence within the government in exchange for planes, tanks, and other military equipment being sent to Syria. This increase in the strength of Syrian military technology worried Turkey, as it seemed feasible that Syria might attempt to retake Iskenderon, a formerly Syrian city now in Turkey. On the other hand, Syria and the USSR accused Turkey of massing its troops at the Syrian border. During this standoff, Communists gained more control over the Syrian government and military. Only heated debates in the United Nations (of which Syria was an original member) lessened the threat of war.
Syria's political instability during the years after the 1954 coup, the parallelism of Syrian and Egyptian policies, and the appeal of Egyptian President Gamal Abdal Nasser's leadership in the wake of the Suez crisis created support in Syria for union with Egypt. On 1 February 1958, Syrian president Shukri al-Kuwatli and Nasser announced the merging of the two countries, creating the United Arab Republic, and all Syrian political parties, as well as the Communists therein, ceased overt activities.
The union was not a success, however. Following a military coup on 28 September 1961, Syria seceded, reestablishing itself as the Syrian Arab Republic. Instability characterised the next 18 months, with various coups culminating on 8 March 1963, in the installation by leftist Syrian Army officers of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command (NCRC), a group of military and civilian officials who assumed control of all executive and legislative authority. The takeover was engineered by members of the Arab Socialist Resurrection Party (Ba'ath Party), which had been active in Syria and other Arab countries since the late 1940s. The new cabinet was dominated by Ba'ath members.
Ba'athist Republic of Syria 1963-today
First Ba'ath government
The Ba'ath takeover in Syria followed a Ba'ath coup in Iraq, the previous month. The new Syrian Government explored the possibility of federation with Egypt and with Ba'ath-controlled Iraq. An agreement was concluded in Cairo on 17 April 1963, for a referendum on unity to be held in September 1963. However, serious disagreements among the parties soon developed, and the tripartite federation failed to materialize. Thereafter, the Ba'ath governments in Syria and Iraq began to work for bilateral unity. These plans foundered in November 1963, when the Ba'ath government in Iraq was overthrown.
In May 1964, President Amin Hafiz of the NCRC promulgated a provisional constitution providing for a National Council of the Revolution (NCR), an appointed legislature composed of representatives of mass organisations—labour, peasant, and professional unions—a presidential council, in which executive power was vested, and a cabinet.
Second Ba'ath government
On 23 February 1966, a group of army officers carried out a successful, intra-party coup, imprisoned President Hafiz, dissolved the cabinet and the NCR, abrogated the provisional constitution, and designated a regionalist, civilian Ba'ath government on 1 March. The coup leaders described it as a "rectification" of Ba'ath Party principles. In June 1967 Israel captured and occupied the Golan. The Six Day War had significantly weakened the radical socialist government established by the 1966 coup.
On 18 September 1970, during the events of Black September in Jordan, Syria tried to intervene on behalf of the Palestinian guerrillas. Hafez al-Assad sent in armored forces equivalent to a brigade, with tanks, some of them allegedly hastily rebranded from the regular Syrian army for the purpose. Other Syrian units were the 5th Infantry Division and Commandos. On 21 September, the Syrian 5th Division broke through the defenses of the Jordanian 40th Armoured Brigade, and pushed it back off the ar-Ramtha crossroads. On 22 September, the Royal Jordanian Air Force began attacking Syrian forces, which were badly battered as a result. The constant airstrikes broke the Syrian force, and on the late afternoon of 22 September the 5th Division began to retreat. The swift Syrian withdrawal was a severe blow to Palestinian guerillas. Jordanian armored forces steadily pounded their headquarters in Amman, and threatened to break them in other regions of the Kingdom as well. Eventually, the Palestinian factions agreed to a cease-fire. King Hussein and Yasser Arafat attended the meeting of the Arab League in Cairo, where the hostilities briefly ended. The Jordanian-Palestinian Civil War shortly resumed, but without Syrian intervention.
By 1970 a conflict had developed between an extremist military wing and a more moderate civilian wing of the Ba'ath Party. The 1970 retreat of Syrian forces sent to aid the PLO during the "Black September" hostilities with Jordan reflected this political disagreement within the ruling Ba'ath leadership.
Ba'ath Party under Hafez al-Assad, 1970–2000
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On 13 November 1970, Minister of Defense Hafez al-Assad effected a bloodless military coup, ousting the civilian party leadership and assuming the role of President. Upon assuming power, Hafez al-Assad moved quickly to create an organizational infrastructure for his government and to consolidate control. The Provisional Regional Command of Assad's Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party nominated a 173-member legislature, the People's Council, in which the Ba'ath Party took 87 seats. The remaining seats were divided among "popular organizations" and other minor parties.
In March 1971, the party held its regional congress and elected a new 21-member Regional Command headed by Assad. In the same month, a national referendum was held to confirm Assad as President for a 7-year term. In March 1972, to broaden the base of his government, Assad formed the National Progressive Front, a coalition of parties led by the Ba'ath Party, and elections were held to establish local councils in each of Syria's 14 governorates. In March 1973, a new Syrian constitution went into effect followed shortly thereafter by parliamentary elections for the People's Council, the first such elections since 1962.
On 6 October 1973, Syria and Egypt began the Yom Kippur War (also called the "Ramadan War" or "October War" because Syria and Egypt attacked during Muslim Ramadan holiday) by staging a surprise attack against Israel. Despite the element of surprise, Egypt and Syria lost their initial gains in a three-week-long warfare, and Israel continued to occupy the Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula.
Intervention in Lebanon
In early 1976, the Lebanese Civil War was going poorly for the Maronite Christians, so the Lebanese President Elias Sarkis officially requested Syria intervene militarily. After receiving their first mandate from Lebanese President, Syria was given a second mandate by the Arab League to intervene militarily in Lebanon. Syria sent 40,000 troops into the country to prevent the Christians from being overrun, but soon became embroiled in this war, beginning the 30 year Syrian presence in Lebanon. Over the following 15 years of civil war, Syria fought both for control over Lebanon, and as an attempt to undermine Israel in southern Lebanon, through extensive use of Lebanese allies as proxy fighters. Many saw the Syrian Army's presence in Lebanon as an occupation, especially following the end of the civil war in 1990, after the Syrian-sponsored Taif Agreement. Syria then remained in Lebanon until 2005, exerting a heavy-handed influence over Lebanese politics, that was deeply resented by many.
About one million Syrian workers came into Lebanon after the war ended to find jobs in the reconstruction of the country. Syrian workers were preferred over Palestinian Arabs and Lebanese workers because they could be paid lower wages, but some have argued that the Syrian government's encouragement of citizens entering its small and militarily dominated neighbor in search of work, was in fact an attempt at Syrian colonization of Lebanon. In 1994, under pressure from Damascus, the Lebanese government controversially granted citizenship to over 200,000 Syrians resident in the country.
Muslim Brotherhood uprising and Hama Massacre
On 31 January 1973, Assad implemented the new Constitution which led to a national crisis. Unlike previous constitutions, this one did not require that the president of Syria must be a Muslim, leading to fierce demonstrations in Hama, Homs and Aleppo organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and the ulama. They labeled Assad as the "enemy of Allah" and called for a jihad against his rule. Robert D. Kaplan has compared Assad's coming to power to "an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development shocking to the Sunni majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries." The authoritarian government was not without its critics, a serious challenge arose in the late 1970s from fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, who reject the basic values of the secular Ba'ath program and object to rule by the Alawis whom they consider heretical. From 1976 until its suppression in 1982, the arch-conservative Muslim Brotherhood led an armed insurgency against the government. In response to an attempted uprising by the brotherhood in February 1982, the government crushed the fundamentalist opposition centered in the city of Hama, leveling parts of the city with artillery fire and causing many thousands of dead and wounded. During the rest of Hafez al-Assad's reign, public manifestations of anti-government activity have been very limited.
During Gulf War
Syria's 1990 participation in the U.S.-led multinational coalition aligned against Saddam Hussein marked a dramatic watershed in Syria's relations both with other Arab states and with the Western world. Syria participated in the multilateral Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid in October 1991, and during the 1990s engaged in direct, face-to-face negotiations with Israel. These negotiations failed, and there have been no further Syrian-Israeli talks since President Hafiz al-Assad's meeting with then President Bill Clinton in Geneva in March 2000.
Internal power struggle
In what has become known as the 1999 Latakia incident, violent protests and armed clashes erupted following the 1998 People's Assembly's Elections. The violent events were an explosion of a long-running feud between Hafez al-Assad and his younger brother Rifaat, who previously attempted to initiate a coup against Hafez in 1984, but was eventually expelled from Syria. Two people were killed in fire exchanges of Syrian police and Rifaat's supporters during police crack-down on Rifaat's port compound in Latakia. According to opposition sources, denied by the government, the clashes in Latakia resulted in hundreds of dead and injured.
Under Bashar al-Assad, 2000–present
The Damascus Spring
Hafiz al-Assad died on 10 June 2000, after 30 years in power. Immediately following al-Assad's death, the Parliament amended the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34, which allowed his son, Bashar al-Assad, to become legally eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba'ath party. On 10 July 2000, Bashar al-Assad was elected President by referendum in which he ran unopposed, garnering 97.29% of the vote, according to Syrian government statistics.
Bashar, who speaks French and English and has a British-born wife, was said to have "inspired hopes" for reform, and a "Damascus Spring" of intense political and social debate took place from July 2000 to August 2001. The period was characterized by the emergence of numerous political forums or salons where groups of like minded people met in private houses to debate political and social issues. The phenomenon of salons spread rapidly in Damascus and to a lesser extent in other cities. Political activists, such as, Riad Seif, Haitham al-Maleh, Kamal al-Labwani, Riyad al-Turk, and Aref Dalila were important in mobilizing the movement. The most famous of the forums were the Riad Seif Forum and the Jamal al-Atassi Forum. The Damascus Spring ended in August 2001 with the arrest and imprisonment of ten leading activists who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience.
International and internal tensions
On 5 October 2003, Israel bombed a site near Damascus, claiming it was a terrorist training facility for members of Islamic Jihad. Islamic Jihad said the camp was not in use; Syria said the attack was on a civilian area. The Israeli action was condemned by European governments. The German Chancellor said it "cannot be accepted" and the French Foreign Ministry said "The Israeli operation… constituted an unacceptable violation of international law and sovereignty rules." The Spanish UN Ambassador Inocencio Arias called it an attack of "extreme gravity" and "a clear violation of international law."
The United States Congress passed the Syria Accountability Act in December 2003, with the goal of ending what the U.S. sees as Syrian involvement in Lebanon, Iraq, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction through international sanctions.
Ethnic tensions increased in Syria, following an incident in a football stadium in Al Qamishli, 30 people were killed and more than 160 were injured in days of clashes starting from 12 March. Kurdish sources indicated that Syrian security forces used live ammunition against civilians after clashes broke out at a football match between Kurdish fans of the local team and Arab supporters of a visiting team from the city of Deir al-Zor. The international press reported that nine people were killed on 12 March. According to Amnesty International hundreds of people, mostly Kurds, were arrested after the riots. Kurdish detainees were reportedly tortured and ill-treated. Some Kurdish students were expelled from their universities, reportedly for participating in peaceful protests.
In June 2005, thousands of Kurds demonstrated in Qamishli to protest the assassination of Sheikh Khaznawi, a Kurdish cleric in Syria, resulting in the death of one policeman and injury to four Kurds.
Renewed opposition activity occurred in October 2005 when activist Michel Kilo launched with leading opposition figures the Damascus Declaration, which criticized the Syrian government as "authoritarian, totalitarian and cliquish" and called for democratic reform.
On 6 September 2007 a Syrian facility was bombed in the Deir ez-Zor region. While no one claimed responsibility for this act, Syria accused Israel, which in turn declared that the indicated site was a nuclear facility with a military purpose. Syria denied the claim.
On 26 October 2008 helicopter-borne CIA paramilitary officers and United States Special Operations Forces carried out a raid to the Syrian territory from Iraq The Syrian government called the event a "criminal and terrorist" attack on its sovereignty, alleging all of the reported eight fatalities were civilians. An unnamed U.S. military source, however, alleged that the target was a network of foreign fighters who travel through Syria to join the Iraqi insurgency against the United States-led Coalition in Iraq and the Iraqi government.
Syrian civil war
The Syrian civil war is an ongoing internal violent conflict in Syria. It is a part of the wider Arab Spring, a wave of upheaval throughout the Arab World. Public demonstrations across Syria began on 26 January 2011 and developed into a nationwide uprising. Protesters demanded the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, the overthrow of his government, and an end to nearly five decades of Ba’ath Party rule.
Since spring 2011, the Syrian government deployed the Syrian Army to quell the uprising, and several cities were besieged, though the unrest continued. According to some "witnesses", soldiers, who refused to open fire on civilians, were summarily executed by the Syrian Army. The Syrian government denied reports of defections, and blamed armed gangs for causing trouble. Since early autumn 2011, civilians and army defectors began forming fighting units, which began an insurgency campaign against the Syrian Army. The insurgents unified under the banner of the Free Syrian Army and fought in an increasingly organized fashion; however, the civilian component of the armed opposition lacked an organized leadership.
The uprising has sectarian undertones, though neither faction in the conflict has described sectarianism as playing a major role. The opposition is dominated by Sunni Muslims, whereas the leading government figures are Alawites, affiliated with the Shia Islam. As a result, the opposition is winning support from the Sunni Muslim states, whereas the government is publicly supported by the Shia dominated Iran and the Lebanese Hizbullah.
According to various sources, including the United Nations, up to 13,470–19,220 people have been killed, of which about half were civilians, but also including 6,035–6,570 armed combatants from both sides and up to 1,400 opposition protesters. Many more have been injured, and tens of thousands of protesters have been imprisoned. According to the Syrian government, 9,815–10,146 people, including 3,430 members of the security forces, 2,805–3,140 insurgents and up to 3,600 civilians, have been killed in fighting with what they characterize as "armed terrorist groups." To escape the violence, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled the country to neighboring Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, as well to Turkey. The total official UN numbers of Syrian refugees reached 42,000 at the time, while unofficial number stood at as many as 130,000.
UNICEF reported that over 500 children have been killed, Another 400 children have been reportedly arrested and tortured in Syrian prisons. Both claims have been contested by the Syrian government. Additionally, over 600 detainees and political prisoners have died under torture. Human Rights Watch accused the government and Shabiha of using civilians as human shields when they advanced on opposition held-areas. Anti-government rebels have been accused of human rights abuses as well, including torture, kidnapping, unlawful detention and execution of civilians, Shabiha and soldiers. HRW also expressed concern at the kidnapping of Iranian nationals. The UN Commission of Inquiry has also documented abuses of this nature in its February 2012 report, which also includes documentation that indicates rebel forces have been responsible for displacement of civilians.
The Arab League, US, EU states, GCC states, and other countries have condemned the use of violence against the protesters. China and Russia have avoided condemning the government or applying sanctions, saying that such methods could escalate into foreign intervention. However, military intervention has been ruled out by most countries. The Arab League suspended Syria's membership over the government's response to the crisis, but sent an observer mission in December 2011, as part of its proposal for peaceful resolution of the crisis. The latest attempts to resolve the crisis has been made through the appointment of Kofi Annan, as a special envoy to resolve the Syrian crisis in the Middle East. Some analysts however have posited the partitioning the region into a Sunnite east, Kurdish north and Shiite/Alawite west.
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