Historically, Syria included the territories that now make up modern Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon and Syria itself. Due to its strategic position, its coastal towns were important Phoenician trading posts. Later the area became an equally pivotal part of the Egyptian, Persian and Roman empires - and many others in the empire-building business, for that matter.
Syria finally ended up as part of the Ottoman domains ruled from İstanbul, and was dished out to France (along with Lebanon) when the Ottoman Empire broke up after WWI. This caused considerable local resentment, as the region had been briefly independent from the end of WWI until the French took over in 1920.
France never had much luck with its Syria-Lebanon mandate. Local opposition to its policy of carving up the country into mini-states (Grand Liban, Lebanon, Aleppo and Damascus) and minority enclaves (for the Druze and Alawite) led to revolts against French rule. Elections were held in 1928 and 1932, but moves to establish a constitution were stymied by the occupying power, which compounded its unpopularity in 1939 when it ceded the northern cities of Antioch (Antakya) and Alexandretta (Iskenderun) to Turkey in an effort to ensure Turkey's neutrality in WWII.
After the surrender of France to Germany in 1940, Syria came under the control of the Vichy government; its overthrow in 1941 paved the way for Syria's independence to be formally recognised, though it took a while for the French to acknowledge this and finalise the handover.
A nationalist government was formed under Shukri al-Kuwatli in August 1943, but the French continued to be in denial about the waning of its influence in the region, bombing Damascus after locals had demonstrated in support of a final handover of administrative and military ser- vices to the new government. The situation was only resolved after the British intervened and oversaw the final departure of all French troops and administrators at the end of the war.
A period of political instability followed and by 1954, after several military coups, the nationalist Ba'ath Party (Ba'ath means 'renaissance') took power virtually unopposed. A brief flirtation with the Pan-Arabist idea of a United Arab Republic (with Egypt) in 1958 proved unpopular and coups in 1960, '61 and '63 saw the leadership change hands yet again. By 1966 the Ba'ath Party was back in power, but it was severely weakened by losses in two conflicts - the Six Day War with Israel in 1967 and the Black September hostilities in Jordan in 1970. At this point, Defence Minister Hafez al-Assad seized power.
Assad maintained control longer than any other postindependence Syrian government, with a mixture of ruthless suppression and guile. In 1998, he was elected to a fifth seven-year term with a predictable 99.9% of the vote. It took a failing of health to finally remove the man from power; his death was announced on 10 June 2000.
Following the death of Assad senior, his son Bashar acceded to power. A new government was formed in December 2001 with a mandate to push forward political, economic and administrative reforms. This proved a challenge, particularly when it came to reforming the country's unwieldy bureaucracy, many members of which had been recruited due to their political contacts rather than their level of competence. As a result, change didn't occur as swiftly as many observers had hoped.
Improving the country's relations with the international community proved even trickier. Publicly branded a 'rogue state' by the US president, George W Bush, Syria was forced to withdraw its army and intelligence personnel from Lebanon. It was also criticised by the US for its support of Hezbollah and for allegedly turning a blind eye to the movements of Iraqi insurgents. Though making every effort to stand firm in the face of the superpower's displeasure, Syria became increasingly isolated on the world's political stage.
Syrian security forces responded to Arab Spring-inspired anti-government protests in 2011 with mass arrests and tanks and guns turned on its own people. What started as a civilian opposition morphed, in reaction to a response so brutal as to draw widespread international condemnation, into something more organised, and Syria is in the midst of a tragic civil war. At the time of writing (August 2012) this bloody conflict shows no sign of abating and Assad shows no sign of surrendering power despite high-profile defections. This chaos leaves the country off-limits for travellers.
This page was updated on 20 August 2012 to reflect the current situation in Syria. We urge readers contemplating visiting to consult the advice of governmental foreign offices.