Syria may be passing through the most difficult of times, but this is a country that has seen it all before. Through the centuries, Syria has stood at the crossroads of empires and civilisations, and its territory has been the scene for invading armies and era-defining wars. Damascus and Aleppo are among the oldest cities on earth. It all makes for a fascinating story, and one that provides much-needed context for the terrible events that have engulfed the country since 2011.

A Storied History

Historically, Syria included the territories that now make up modern Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon and Syria itself. Because of its strategic position, its coastal towns were important Phoenician trading posts. Later, the area became a pivotal part of the Egyptian, Persian and Roman Empires, and of many others in the empire-building business.

Syria finally ended up as part of the Ottoman domains ruled from Istanbul 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 Alawites) 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 encourage Turkey’s neutrality in WWII.

A nationalist government was formed under Shoukri Al Quwatli in August 1943, but the French continued to be in denial about the waning of their influence in the region, bombing Damascus after locals had demonstrated in support of a final handover of administrative and military services 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.

Post WWII

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, 1961 and 1963 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 post-independence Syrian government, with a mixture of ruthless suppression and guile. The most widely condemned example of the former came on 2 February 1982, when Assad ordered the shelling of the old city in Hama in response to a growing campaign by the Muslim Brotherhood. He followed this with a warning that anyone left in the city would be declared a rebel. In the fighting that followed, between 10,000 and 25,000 people were killed out of a total population of 350,000, and mosques, churches and archaeological sites were damaged and destroyed.

In 1998, Assad was elected to a fifth seven-year term with a predictable 99.9% of the vote. It took failing health to finally remove him from power; his death was announced on 10 June 2000.

Disappointment

Following the death of Assad senior, his son Bashar acceded to the presidency, continuing the minority Alawites’ hold on power. A new government was formed in December 2001 with a mandate to push forward with political, economic and administrative reforms. For a while, a wave of change swept Syria, the so-called ‘Damascus Spring’ buzzing with a proliferation of private newspapers, internet bloggers, and public debate not seen in the country in decades. Foreign goods flooded into Syria, private banks were allowed to open, and mobile phones made a belated but wildly popular appearance.

But ‘not so fast’ was the message that came from the old guard that had surrounded Bashar’s father – anything perceived as opposing the government was quickly shut down. Reforming the country’s unwieldy bureaucracy, of which membership depends more on political patronage and nepotism than merit, also proved a bridge too far, as did any hope of curbing the state’s far-reaching powers under the emergency laws brought in in 1963, after the coup that brought the Ba’ath Party to power.

As a result, while many of the economic reforms were left untouched, political reforms stalled. There was more freedom and less fear than during the rule of Assad senior, but Syrians suffered low wages and rising prices. The country appeared to be going through a boom – certainly a tourism boom – as a result of an improving international standing (even the US reopened its embassy in Damascus), and there was an influx of investment and hope, in some places. But life for the majority of Syrians continued to be difficult, with around a quarter of young people out of work. This tense situation was finally ignited by the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings that swept across the region from late 2010.

Uprising & War

Small-scale public protests that began in Deraa in March 2011 may not have escalated had security forces not killed four unarmed protestors and then killed one of the mourners at the funeral. President Assad’s brother, Maher Assad, then led an armoured division to suppress any further dissent. The death of dozens of unarmed people in the assault led to protests around the country. By mid-May, the UN reported that at least 1000 people had been killed by security forces and by shabiha – pro-Assad armed gangs. Shabiha have also been involved in torture, which Amnesty International says is now widespread, with many of the cases coming from Deraa.

President Assad did make some concessions, ending the emergency laws and promising electoral reform, but armed resistance to the regime grew along with the security forces’ use of heavy weapons, including tanks and the air force. Defecting soldiers from the Syrian Army formed the basis for the creation of the Free Syrian Army. In October 2011, the Syrian National Council (www.syriancouncil.org) – an organisation of dissidents and defected politicians made up predominantly of Sunni Muslims, including the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood – announced its mission to replace the Assad government. Based outside Syria and promising to uphold democratic rights and abide by the rule of law, it soon won support from Western governments, while Russia continued to support Assad.

The result has been years of conflict, with the Syrian government pitched against Islamist, secular and ethnic militias, all supported by their foreign backers.