The Cradle of Civilizations
The Land and Natural Resources
and Cultivable Zone.
in Way of Life.
and Communications as a Unifying Force.
History and Government
Population growth rate:
Life expectancy at birth:
Total fertility rate:
Note: Jews are 400 persons but they have a strong power.
Introduction to Syria
SYRIA, an Arab republic of southwest Asia. Its population is primarily Muslim. Syria (Arabic, Suriya) has been an independent nation in modern times only since the end of World War II. But Syria's history is as long as that of any country in the world, and in the past the nation embraced an area significantly larger than it covers today.
Syria possesses a varied land surface, extending from the coastal plain along the Mediterranean in the west, across mountains, to the vast desert in the east that is traversed by the Euphrates River. Syria's economy is primarily agricultural. The country is poor in natural resources. Nonetheless it has attracted migrants throughout history. Some of its diverse minority peoples, including Druzes, Alawites, and Kurds, still retain a recognizable identity, chiefly because they have lived in natural geographical enclaves.
Central to Syrian history has been the country's domination over centuries by powerful neighbors, although it has had brief periods of self-rule and of high cultural achievement. Important remains of Syria's past that can be seen today include traces of a Bronze Age township at Ras Shamra, of Hittite settlements on the Euphrates at Jerablus and Kadesh, and of Assyrian (and much earlier) habitation at Tel Ahmar. There are Phoenician ruins on the Mediterranean coast at Amrit and imposing Roman buildings at mid-desert Palmyra. Important examples of Muslim architecture are found in Damascus, Aleppo, and elsewhere, and the Christian tradition in Syria is represented by the cathedral at Tartus and by many Christian monuments elsewhere. Finally, there are the splendid Crusader castles, including the remarkable Krak des Chevaliers, and those at Markab and Sahyun.
Contemporary Syria, since its independence, has experienced a number of military coups and government changes. Successive governments have attempted to balance pan-Arabism and Syrian nationalism, in a socialist context. Major domestic goals have included economic improvement and the welding together of diverse elements in the population to achieve a cohesive national outlook. Syria's relations with its Arab neighbors have often been less than amicable, and its hostility to neighboring Israel is unremitting.
The Land and Natural Resources
Syria is a land of variety and contrast. About one third of the country is desert or barren mountain, one third scanty and unreliable pasture, and one third potentially cultivable land. Skirting the Mediterranean is a narrow, flat coastal strip. To the east of this strip are mountains and valleys. The mountain zone is extended southward, after a fertile gap, by the Anti-Lebanon (Jebel esh-Sharqi) range, the crest of which forms the Lebanese frontier. To the east of the mountain zone is the main cultivable area, in which are found Syria's major cities and the bulk of its population. Still farther to the east is the Syrian Desert, traversed in a southeasterly direction by the great Euphrates River. Each region has distinctive scenery, climate, and resources.
Mediterranean forms about one fourth of Syria's western
border. Extending inland from the coast for 5 to 20 miles
(8–32 km) is a populous and cultivated plain. Its climate,
though humid in summer, is never excessively hot. Winter frost
is rare, and rainfall is adequate.
From the coastal plain's small ports of Tartus and Baniyas and the important city of Latakia the immemorial fishing fleets ply. Latakia has a good harbor but poor inland communications.
east of the plain, and extending far south of it, are
discontinuous mountain ranges. The northern range, the
internally complex Jebel Ansariya, reaches 5,200 feet (1,585
meters). The ridge is broken and irregular. In the northern
part of the range is Syria's nearest approach to woodland. The
lower western slopes are heavily terraced to avoid soil
denudation by rains of some 40 inches (100 cm) a year. The
Ansariya range affords sites for dozens of villages but no
major town. There is good cultivation around the villages, and
summer conditions at the higher levels are pleasant, though
the area is among those least known to foreigners.
South of the Ansariya range is a fertile gap west of Homs. The mountains resume with the Anti-Lebanon range. These are authentic mountains often approaching 7,000 feet (2,135 meters) and snowcapped for half the year, but the terrain is generally barren and offers poor grazing. There are a few sizable villages, wherever a spring makes habitation possible, with limited cultivation at the infrequent favorable sites. Most of the heavy winter rains are quickly absorbed, and the rain-fed streams descend eastward. The Hermon range forms, almost continuously, the southern section of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. At Mt. Hermon it reaches 9,232 feet (2,814 meters), a snowcapped landmark visible from afar. The region is mostly barren and uncultivated.
Cities and Cultivable Zone.
major cities—from north to south, Aleppo, Hama, Homs, and
Damascus—lie to the east of the mountains. These cities are
located within Syria's most productive agricultural areas,
which are interspersed with steppe-desert land.
Aleppo (Haleb), Syria's second-largest city with more than 1,591,400 inhabitants, is of legendary antiquity and crowned with an imposing medieval fortress. The city below agreeably mingles old and new building styles. For centuries it has been a political nucleus and a great trading and communications center for northern Syria. The mainly flat or undulating region around Aleppo enjoys a favorable climate, though winter frost is common and August temperatures can exceed 100° F (38° C). Rainfall ranges from 15 to 20 inches (380–510 mm), and the humidity is low.
Southwestward lies the great marsh of the Ghab, fed by the Orontes River and by mountain streams. Having been drained, it affords a valuable irrigation source. The Orontes rises in Lebanon and passes northward to the sea by way of the cities of Homs, Hama, and (in Turkey) Antioch. Homs and Hama are important cities central to Syrian political and social life, and they dominate their provinces as administrative and economic centers. This west-central Syrian countryside is flattish and often monotonous. Like that of Aleppo, it supports considerable agriculture but has much more steppe-desert, though all existing means of irrigation are in use and the rainfall suffices in average years for good or fair crops.
Damascus, the capital and largest city of Syria, reflects modern developments in building and planning as well as medieval structures and quarters of great picturesqueness. Well watered by its carefully fostered streams, the city lies on the edge of the famous Ghuta oasis, rich in shady fruit gardens. Today historic Damascus teems with governmental, academic, and commercial life. The climate, like that of all Syria east of the mountains, is continental, with great day-to-night variations, low rainfall, and dry atmosphere.
To the southeast, between Damascus and the Jordan border, the Jebel Druze rises from a base surrounded by wide areas of lava-strewn desert. An elevated plateau rather than a single mountain, the Jebel Druze attains some 5,500 feet (1,675 meters). It is formed of basalt capped by volcanic cones and presents a grim yet attractively romantic aspect. There is little agriculture here. Good roads and some railroad communication with the outside world exist.
West of the Jebel Druze lies the fertile Hauran district, partly occupied (the “Golan Heights”) by Israel in 1967.
The Syrian Desert.
the main cultivable zone lies the wide Syrian Desert, which is
hilly in the center and northeast. Here are half a dozen
isolated villages, including the magnificent ruins of ancient
Palmyra (Tadmor). There is cultivation mainly in a belt along
the Turkish border, flourishing most in the northeast.
Along the ever-impressive Euphrates lie scores of riverain villages—and also along its major tributaries, the Khabur and Balikh. The only significant, though isolated, city in this wide area is Deir ez-Zor, an attractive place with pleasant gardens. Summer heat in the desert is intense and oppressive.
The natural resources of the desert and steppe areas are scanty. There is, after good spring rains, some short-lived grazing for sheep and goats but otherwise only the barest living, from scrub and thorn, for the camel herds. There are mid-desert gazelle, jerboa, and bustard, but little else of economic value—except for oil discovered in the northeast.
As a whole, Syrian natural resources are minimal. Except for oil in the northeast and plentiful gypsum and basalt—and unconfirmed hopes of phosphates, lead, and copper—exploitable minerals and timber are almost completely lacking. Only in Latakia province are a small outcrop of bitumen and some chrome being worked.
almost total predominance of the Arabic language in Syria
indicates that the main migrations to Syria over the centuries
have been those of Semitic-speaking peoples from Arabia.
However, from prehistoric times people from other parts of
Asia have flowed into this area as well. The amalgam of all of
these migrants, with very small additions from Europe, have
produced the present-day Syrian tribesman, villager, and city
Today there is no more uniformity in physical type in Syria than in any other modern nation. If an Arab physical type truly exists at all, it is confined to the desert tribes, who have, also, a darker skin pigmentation than other Syrians.
The Arabic spoken in Syria is remarkably uniform, though there are slight variations from area to area and between Muslims and Christians. In most cases members of the small non-Arabic-speaking communities can understand Arabic.
Modern Arabic literature in Syria dates from its struggles for independence—first from the Ottomans, then from the French. Until the 1940's there was thought to be a conflict between the modern and a romanticized Arabic past.
Nizar Qabbâni, a prolific love poet with a spontaneous grace, became the most popular poet in the Arabic world. Hann# M&na wrote novels about slum life, while H#n& al-R#hib's examination of sociopolitical changes within Syria may be found in his novel Al-Wabâ (1982; “The Plague”). The Syrian-born “Adunis” (Ali Ahmad Sa‘id) displays versatility as both critic and poet; while he has been charged with obscurity, he remains one of the most lively and controversial writers in the Arabic world.
Variations in Way of Life.
Although 80% of the Syrian population are Sunnite Muslims
and nearly all Syrians speak Arabic, there are significant
differences in Syrian life patterns. The way of life of the
city dwellers differs substantially from that of the country
people. It also varies between those who have received a
modern education and those who have received a traditional
education or who are almost without education. The generations
also differ in their life styles, and even party affiliations
sometimes affect the mode of living.
Until the end of the 19th century, the prevailing way of life in Syria was un-ambitious, traditional, non-European, and almost static. Today, in perhaps a half of the whole population—including two thirds of the tribesmen and villagers—it remains substantially the same. This was and is a life of great simplicity, of devotion to local and habitual interests. It focuses on traditional housing, clothing, food, amusements, and outlook—and is especially characterized by the subjection of women.
But this pattern of life has been modified or abandoned during the past century, and with acceleration since World War I, by an increasing minority that today claims to stand for Syria and holds all public power—civil, military, and industrial. This dominant element in the population, the great majority of whom live in the cities or towns, controls the nation's life. Its members—and their wives—play bridge and tennis, read, listen and dance to music, and practice modern professions and occupations. This element is the creation of rapid East-West communications, two world wars, and a keen desire to “catch up” with the West.
Thus, “a Syrian” today may be a cultivator or peddler in his native village; or he may be a polished lawyer, doctor, professor, or politician in Aleppo or Damascus—or at the United Nations. And within the elite there is room both for the left-wing revolutionaries (communists), who came to power in the 1960's, and for the representatives of conservative and now dispossessed families. There is room also for those in militant student movements or in military or ideological cliques critical of the established regime, and for many more who seek only security and continuity.
The differences or strata that are found among Syria's
majority Muslim population also exist, though to a lesser
degree, within the important minority communities, both
Christian and Islamic.
Of these, the Christian sects, which total some 500,000 to 600,000 persons but are widely dispersed and disunited, have tended to favor the more modern ways. They retain a keen sense of community and revere their own bishop, archimandrite, or cardinal.
The Catholic communities, mostly Eastern rite, consist of 65,000 Catholic Melchites, 20,000 each of Armenian and Syrian Catholics, 17,000 Maronites, 6,000 Catholic Chaldeans, and 5,000 Latin-rite Roman Catholics. The large congregations are in the cities or among northeastern farmers. This is also true of the Orthodox Eastern, the Monophysite, and Protestant communities. The Syrian Orthodox number some 175,000. Among the Monophysite communities there are about 100,000 Syrian Jacobites and about 115,000 Armenian Church members. There are also about 10,000 Assyrian Christians (Nestorians).
In addition to the Sunnite Muslims, there are various sects belonging to the Shiite branch of Islam. Among these are the doctrinally heterodox Ismailis, located chiefly in Hama. They were followers of Aagha Khan. There are Kurdish Sunnite groups in the northeast and in Damascus, and also the Yazidis, a “devil worshiping” group in the northeast (Sinjar Mountain near the borders of Iraq) and around Aleppo.
The Alawites of Latakia and Tartus provinces, whose ethnic admixtures are unknown but who profess a unique form of Islam mixed with paganism and elements of Christianity, form about 70% of the population of these provinces and are well represented also in those of Homs and Hama. They may number 400,000. They are men of strong, dour character, shaped through centuries of self-sufficiency and near-autonomy. A remarkably high proportion of them are found in senior central government and military posts. The Alawites believe that god is just a spirit which can be represented in a human shape.
The Druzes, not dissimilar in type although dominated by two or three noble but quarrelsome families, have for the last century tried hard to isolate themselves and to live untroubled in the Jebel Druze in the south. Such a policy of isolation has no future now, however, and gradual assimilation probably awaits them. Their religion, since it broke off from true Islam in the 11th century, has been kept jealously secret. It venerates the strange 6th Fatimid caliph, al-Hakem, and incorporates non-Islamic elements.
A few hundred Jews in Syria have survived emigration or expulsion, out of a total of 30,000 living in Syria at the end of World War II.
Education and Communications as a Unifying Force.
Since World War I, Syria's leaders have sought to weld
together a score of disparate communities. The means they have
chosen to form a homogeneous nation have included close
control of the Christian community's schools, education of
more of the young and through this education a broadening of
the Syrian's outlook, and also government propaganda.
The strictly educational effort of successive Syrian governments since 1920 has been very considerable. There are learned societies, libraries, and museums in the biggest cities, and universities at Damascus and Aleppo, with an Arab academy and an institute of music and the arts, also in Damascus. Teachers' training colleges, high schools, primary schools, and preprimary schools are widespread, employing in all over 149,000 teachers.
The work of unifying and modernizing the country has been abetted by the development of a government-controlled press, as well as by broadcasting, the cinema, and the spread of paperback literature.
natural economic assets of Syria are limited. It is
primarily an agricultural country. About 40% of its land is
arable, and there is a fair if insufficient supply of water.
Oil, discovered in 1959, is the leading mineral resource. But
Syria's deficiency in natural resources is the most important
factor hindering the nation's economic development.
A sound economic substructure for Syria has failed to materialize. This is partly due to the low level of personal income, which has limited purchasing power and the accumulation of savings for investment in the nation's enterprises. Syria therefore must seek from abroad financial aid and help in developing industrial skills and experience. Another economically inhibiting factor is that the citizenry expects the economy to support a full range of social, military, bureaucratic, diplomatic, and other services that meet modern Western standards.
Successive governments, also, have shaped their economic policies more often than not according to their own political ideologies rather than purely economic considerations. Much governmental action in the economic field—agricultural, industrial, and commercial—has flowed from the prescriptions of state socialism. For ideological reasons private property has been expropriated wholesale, and private enterprise has been discouraged.
is still by far the largest-scale activity in Syria, even
though a bare sixth or less of the country is under
cultivation. Cotton, from improved seed, is the most important
export, Syrian output rivaling that of the Sudan. Export of
grain—wheat, barley, millet, and maize—is on a small scale
and annually variable. In some years, a net import of grain is
necessary. Fruit, except for grapes, and vegetables are mostly
consumed locally. Little has been done to increase, or to
create, a forest-timber output. The small but valuable tobacco
crop is largely exported. Sugar-beet growing is increasing.
The Ghab Valley, through which the Orontes flows, has been drained and canalized to increase the land under cultivation. A huge dam on the Euphrates River was begun in 1968, partly financed by Soviet loans. It is intended to irrigate 1.5 million acres (6.07 million hectares) of land.
The government has expropriated all privately owned agricultural land above a certain limited acreage. This massive expropriation and redistribution among the peasants has had the effect of diminishing agricultural output in those cases where large-scale farming is potentially more productive.
Stockbreeding, the occupation of thousands of desert tribesmen and villagers, is essentially unchanged from earlier years. It supplies subsistence needs with a small potential for export both on the hoof and as products such as wool, hair, and hides. It also utilizes land that would otherwise be valueless.
hopes have been placed on industrial development in Syria as a
source of pride and wealth and as the hallmark of a truly
modern state. And in this field much has been done. Syria
claims to be, after Egypt, the leading state in the Arab world
in manufacturing, which provides almost half as much revenue
to the treasury as does agriculture. The government has
acquired almost all privately owned factories or has major
shares in them.
Syrian workshops produce cotton yarn, cotton and silk textiles—the largest in scale of local industries—woolen fabrics, cement, asphalt, glass, soap, sugar, canned foods, edible oils, tobacco, beer, wine, and arrack, a liquor of high alcoholic content. The traditional silverwork and the inlaid furniture of Damascus and Aleppo are still produced and valued, and some minor cottage industries contribute to the national wealth.
Petroleum reserves are estimated at 1.5 billion barrels, mostly in the northeastern part of the country. Production of crude oil reached a peak of 45.2 million barrels in 1972, after which output was limited. Russians operate some small oil fields in the northeast, from which a pipeline extends to Tartus. Except for deliveries to a small refinery at Homs, all oil is exported by sea. Pipelines from Iraq and Saudi Arabia cross Syria and provide oil-transit revenues.
The labor force is sufficiently large for Syrian agriculture and industrial activities. Syrians readily acquire new skills, and Western technology is taking root. Underemployment exists chiefly in white-collar occupations and on the fringes of the bureaucracy. Women are employed widely in clerical and the lighter technical occupations, as well as in medicine, the civil service, commerce, and communications. The Islamic public quickly forgets how revolutionary this innovation is. Trade unions are not unknown but are ill-organized, markedly political, and in any case closely controlled by the government.
Transportation and Power.
facilities in Syria have been improved. Roads, both dirt and
hard surfaced, have been greatly extended. Telegraph and
telephone services are countrywide, adequate, and in part
automated. The port of Latakia, transformed by Yugoslav
engineers, is busy with ocean shipping. The state-owned
railways are still as the Syrian government inherited them.
The rail system is linked with lines in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan,
and Lebanon. A British company has operated a transdesert
Damascus-Baghdad bus service since 1923. Internal civil
aviation is developed, and foreign lines use the modern
facilities of the international airport at Damascus.
All these means of transport foster the growing tourist industry, for which the country's many ancient sites and remains form the basis. Hotels are generally adequate and improving.
Trade and Finance.
marketing is partly conducted by amicable bargaining in the
bazaars and partly along Western lines in modern shops.
Banking and insurance are widely developed but have been under
state control since the expropriation of all foreign
institutions in these fields. The state's Central Bank manages
the currency. Loans to agriculture and industry are made by
Syria's foreign trading partners are mainly the Communist countries (including Cuba and China), Arab neighbors, Italy, France, Turkey, Germany, and Japan. Its main exports are crude oil, raw cotton, textiles, cereals, and live animals and animal products. Its principal imports are textiles, solid fuels, cement, oilseeds and other plants and foods, machinery, building materials, metals, chemicals, vehicles, and tobacco. The visible balance of payments is clearly adverse, causing the Syrian economy to depend, especially for all capital works and munitions, on foreign sources.
History and Government
geography of Syria, which in the ancient world comprised
roughly the territories of present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel,
Jordan, and part of Turkey, has been a determining factor in
Syria's political and cultural history. At the crossroads of
historic military and trade routes between the Mediterranean
and Mesopotamia, Syria was the object of invasion and
occupation by powerful neighbors from earliest times.
Archaeological finds from the Stone Age confirm that Syria was one of the areas in which early man lived and developed. Later, but still in prehistoric times, Semitic-speaking peoples moved into the territories of the original inhabitants. One such invasion was that of the Amorites in the 3d millenium B.C. Later there were those of the Canaanites (Phoenicians), Aramaeans, Hebrews, and similar tribes of the same Arabian origin.
The earliest Syrian historical period was in the 2d millenium B.C., during the incursions of the Hittites from Asia Minor, who achieved dominance in northern Syria. Egyptians conducted similar raids and temporary occupations. Although it was the prey of both these neighbors for centuries in the 2d millenium, Syria retained its identity, Semitic dialects, and local autonomy in sizable areas.
As Hittite power declined, its place was assumed by the Assyrians of northern Iraq. Assyrian monarchs, from the mid-8th century B.C., repeatedly occupied the more attractive Syrian areas, levied tribute, and seized hostages. In the face of these and Egyptian invasions the population centers of Syria could not maintain their independence as city-states. Then, in the 6th century, the Persian empire intervened and held hegemony over Syria for two centuries.
Persian domination ended in 332 B.C. with the conquest of Syria by Alexander the Great. It was followed by three centuries of vigorous Hellenization and the founding of important Greek cities. Under Pompey in 64–63 B.C. the Roman occupation began. Rome administered Syria as a Roman province but normally tolerated some local self-rule. The language and traditions of the Syrian cities and tribes survived, and most were spared the rigors inflicted on Palestine, the cradle of a new religion, Christianity.
In 330 A.D., when the administrative center of the Roman world shifted from Rome to Byzantium (Constantinople), Syria was little affected, except for a greater spread of Christianity. Frequent incursions and partial occupations by the Sassanian Persians concerned the Syrians from the 4th to 7th centuries.
its passively endured foreign invasions and occupations, Syria
had gained new experience of community life, politics,
culture, and ideas. Yet the Syrians were unprepared for the
crucial event of 635. In March of that year, the city faced
the onslaught of the Islamic armies that was very welcomed by
the Syrians at large. The Muslim invaders had traveled north
from the Arabian peninsula,inspired by their new religion, and
had come across little opposition (from the Romanians) on
Within a quarter century Damascus had become the capital of the first imperial Islamic caliphate, the Umayyad (661–750). Massive conversion of town and tribe alike to Islam occurred, the Arabic language began to prevail over all others (Syriac/Aramaic), and Arab culture was everywhere in evidence. This Islamization and Arabization continued after the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad superseded the Umayyad in the mid-8th century.
In succeeding centuries, as the caliphate lost its hold, Syria and other Muslim lands paid mere lip service to the enfeebled caliph. Turkish elements entered the Fertile Crescent as mercenary troops and stayed on as masters and finally as dynasts. At times Syria maintained a fitful, fragmented autonomy, while at other times it suffered the short-lived rule of the partially revived Abbasids or that of the Tulunids and Ikhshidids, based in Egypt, of the northern Iraqi Hamdanids—a brief cultural “golden age”—and of Seljuk and Zangid rulers from northern Iraq and Turkey.
From the mid-10th to mid-12th century petty local dynasties rose and fell within Syria, but the country was mostly under the uninspiring sway of the Shiite Fatimids of Egypt. During the latter period the European Crusaders were able, against feeble resistance, to establish military states in Syria, at Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem. The effect of these Crusading states within Syria was local and limited. However, the 200-year stay of the Crusaders in the Levant did much to increase familiarity between West and East, Christianity and Islam.
The virile Ayyubids, whose greatest ruler was Saladin, evicted the Fatimids from Egypt in about 1160, effectively ruled Egypt and Syria, and expelled most of the Crusaders. Declining morally and militarily, the Ayyubids were in turn (1249) succeeded in Egypt, and thereby as de facto rulers of most of Syria, by the Mamluks. These were a remarkable corps of mainly Turkish and Circassian former slaves who had evolved into an oligarchic military elite. Mamluk commanders succeeded in repelling invasions by the Mongol hordes—the brutal scourge of western Asia in the 13th and 14th centuries—from Genghis Khan to Timur (Tamerlane). Even so, Mongols devastated the land and committed mass slaughter in 1260, 1270, and 1300. In the period from 1250 to 1515, Syria was an unhappy country, as it suffered the ambitions of its local dynasties and resisted non-Arab rule from outside.
as sudden as that of the Arab conquest, though less
unexpected, now settled Syria's fate for four centuries: the
invasion and occupation of the country by the Ottoman Turkish
Sultan Selim I in 1517. For the next 400 years Ottoman rulers,
who were Muslim but non-Arab and unsympathetic toward or
contemptuous of all Arabs, permitted Syria some limited
regional autonomy, granted intra-community self-rule to the
Christian sects, and allowed some privileged foreign trade.
But they ignored local social conditions, which were backward
and impoverished. For Syria, the Ottoman period was in the
main one of nonprogressive passivity until about 1800.
From roughly 1800, Syria was emerging from Ottoman stagnation. The territory today known as Syria was edging toward its future as a revitalized, ambitious state, in control of its own destiny as it had rarely been in the past. This movement resulted in part from reforms in the central Turkish government—reforms that were greatly accelerated early in the 20th century under the revolutionary Young Turks.
Also contributing to Syrian emergence was the increasing Arab-Islamic pride of Syrians and Lebanese, who were then indistinguishable, and indeed of Arabs everywhere. Other factors included a remarkable Arab literary revival in modern styles, improved communication with Europe through trade, books, and newspapers, better schools, and the fast evolution of the upper social strata from ancient ways. Direct French, American, and British educational and philanthropic work also contributed. Syria also drew lessons from the national self-liberation efforts of long-suppressed communities in East Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere.
Also educative, in terms of broadening Syrian perspectives, was the 10-year Egyptian occupation of Syria-Lebanon by Ibrahim Pasha from 1831 to 1840. French intervention in Druze-Maronite quarrels in 1860–1861 had a similar effect. It was at this point that half the Druze community moved from their Lebanese home to their present Jebel Druze abode in southern Syria.
By 1914 tribal and village life was actually little changed from that of earlier centuries, except for higher standards of law and order and a habituation to better organized government. But members of the Syrian elite, with increased numbers and greater aspirations, were attending universities, forming social and political clubs, and formulating, with like-minded Arabs elsewhere, a political program. Their program was intended to lead to “decentralization” in the Ottoman Empire, to a greater share of power for Arabs in, or against, Turkish officialdom, and finally, though not yet specifically, to an Arab state or states.
During the period 1900–1914 this movement—in Paris as well as in Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, and elsewhere in the eastern Arab world—attained a strength alarming to the Turkish authorities. In fact, however, Arab reformers had achieved nothing practical before the outbreak of World War I in 1914. And during the war the brutal execution by the Turks of dozens of the Arab ideological leaders as traitors, the army's firm grip on the entire country, and sheer hunger paralyzed all reforming effort.
movement revived, however, after British forces entered Syria
in October 1918 and evicted the Turks. The League of Nations
bestowed on France a mandate for Syria-Lebanon in 1920, and
the local Christian, especially the Catholic communities,
hailed the move with delight. But the great majority strongly
opposed the mandate and the French presence, which was to last
25 years. They objected to the detachment by France of
considerable Muslim areas of Syria to form the separate
Greater Lebanon—which later (1926) became a republic—and
to the pervasive closeness of French control and the French
policy of “divide and rule” in a Syria now diminished
Syrian nationalists, eager for self-determination and power, were not placated by French excellence in the techniques of administration, justice, the social services, and communications. Their chronic discontent took the form in 1925 of a sizable, though partial and ill-organized, uprising, the so-called “Druze rebellion.” To crush it, the French were compelled to devote increased forces over a two-year period.
By 1939, successive Syrian ministers and French high commissioners had still not solved the conflicts between mandatory and mandated in the constitutional, political, and administrative fields. Feeling was further embittered by the enforced cession of the Antioch-Alexandretta province, which Syrians claimed was strictly Arab, to Turkey in 1939. France consented to the transfer of this area, the present-day Turkish province of Hatay, because of its desire for Turkish goodwill.
Nevertheless, by 1939, Syria was better organized and equipped and its elite better trained and experienced than ever before. And the nationalists' goal, that of complete independence, was within reach.
During World War II, in 1941, British forces expelled from Syria French troops of the Vichy government. Their Free French successors still withheld independence from Syria. They refused to admit the termination of the hated mandate, although in 1941 they had promised this to the country, and the British favored the move. The French did allow elections in 1943, and in August, Shukri el-Kuwatli of the National party was elected president of the republic.
As the war ended, discontent was acute among all political elements, and disorders broke out in urban centers. Only British intervention cut short a French bombardment of Damascus. The mandate, never officially abrogated, in fact faded and disappeared in 1945–1946, and the last foreign troops withdrew, leaving a number of Syro-French problems still unsolved. But Syria, having become a sovereign member of the United Nations in 1945, was now an independent, constitutional republic.
first years of independence the government, ministerial and
parliamentary in form, strove to settle its outstanding
disputes with France and Lebanon. Unlike Lebanon, it left the
franc currency bloc. It tried to achieve economies and
necessary reforms, permitted political parties to revive,
endured student demonstrations, and sustained frequent cabinet
changes. But Syria's relations with its neighbors were mostly
suspicious or hostile, and the shock of the foundation of
Israel in 1948 and the failure of the Arab armies'
campaign—in which Syria played little part—was traumatic
and lasting. The elder “founding fathers” of the country's
independence soon lost their prestige, hoped-for progress
seemed unattainable, and disillusion spread.
Early in 1949 the government was overthrown and President Kuwatli deposed in a military coup. The next four years saw two short-lived military dictatorships and one longer, but less absolute, regime, all sullenly resented by most politicians. A new constitution was proclaimed in 1950 and another in 1953. Elections were held but widely boycotted. Street demonstrations increased, inevitably to be suppressed by the army, while the army itself was “purged.” Frontier incidents with Israel multiplied. The third dictator, Col. Adib el-Shishakli, was forced by mounting opposition to leave the country early in 1954.
Political discord persisted, and Syria's relations with its neighbors were as unstable as ever. Syria rejected the Iraqi-Turkish Baghdad defense pact of 1955 (later to be known as the Central Treaty Organization) and viewed with indignation the Franco-British assault on the Suez Canal in 1956. Following Egypt's lead, Syria acquired arms from the USSR. The latter power became widely popular, and the Syrian Communist party flourished. Partly in reaction against these developments, the newly created Baathist party, which advocated pan-Arab nationalism abroad and a socialist regime at home, led the country into an unexpected union with Egypt. The United Arab Republic (UAR), composed of Egypt and Syria, was formally established in February 1958.
Elections were held in December 1961, and a new constitution was drafted.
But in the following years military coups occurred almost annually, with changes of cabinets and of the military revolutionary councils. Syria concluded various pacts with its neighbors, but in practice these agreements were largely ignored. Arab League meetings and “summits” were sometimes attended, sometimes boycotted. Reformation of the union with Egypt was proposed, pressed, resisted—and refused outright by Nasser.