7 Moments in Modern Syrian History You Simply Have to Know


The war has been going on for the past two years in Syria. According to the United Nations, over 100,000 people have died in the conflict up to this point. The war, which has reached a very large scale, is at the center of current regional and world affairs. Everyone seems to have an opinion on what to do about the situation and a very specific view of the Syrian regime. 

However, you can only have an informed view if you look back to what forces actually shaped Syria's current position in the region. Here are some key historical moments in the modern history of the country that you simply must be aware of:

1. 1916 — The Sykes-Picot Agreement

World powers do not usually talk about the division of conquered land until it's conquered. But when they do, they make a real mess.

Until the end of World War I, Syria, like most Middle Eastern and North African Arab countries, was under Ottoman rule. The British and French aligned themselves with Arab nationalists in order to bring down the "Sick Man of Europe." Promises made to both Arab leaders and the World Zionist Organization were overshadowed by a closed-door meeting between French and British diplomats Picot and Sykes, who actually partitioned the former Ottoman land between French and British influence before the conflict had even neared the end. 

Modern Syria, as part of to-be-French-controlled territory (in blue), was created out of Greater Syria (the entirety of the Levant), and was to comprise a heterogeneous population within artificial boundaries.

Until this day, the same boundaries have grouped Alawites, Syrian Sunnis, Druze, Kurds, and Christians together, based on frontiers drafted decades ago at 10 Downing Street.

2. 1949 — The American-Sponsored Al-Zayimy Coup

After having finally achieved actual independence from the French a few years before, Syria became a pioneer in the Arab world by experiencing the first coup d'etat in its modern history. 

Since 1946 and the withdrawal of the French from Syrian shores, the army was slowly growing until it became the most prominent domestic institution. Egypt would soon begin to follow the same trend.

In 1949 Zaymiy, sponsored by the one and only Central Intelligence Agency, overthrew President Al-Quaatilii, who was exiled to Egypt until his return later in the 50s. Al-Zaymiy's regime was to be short lived, leading to a constant and prolonged succession of regimes until the 1970s. 

The coup, which failed to give the U.S. a stable ally in the Arab World, backfired, fueling anti-American sentiment that lives on until today (even within the current Syrian opposition). Zayimy's coup is important as it ignited the eventual Syrian alignment with the Soviet bloc, fostering a deep relationship with Russia alive until today.

3. 1961 — The Failed Project of the United Arab Republic

The 1950s marked the rise of Arab nationalism and Pan-Arab sentiments in the region, guided by Nasser's formidable charisma and consolidation of power in Egypt.

This regional movement affected much of Syria's structure of government, solidifying the role of the army in daily affairs and emphasizing social cohesion among Arab neighbors.

This culminated in a three-year project in 1958, the United Arab Republic. Through a series of shuttle-diplomacy meetings between Nasser and Damascus' members of parliament, Egypt and Syria became one country under Cairo's control. 

This proved short-lived, and relations between Syria and its regional neighbors never returned to be the same, along with Pan-Arab ideology.

4. 1970 — Hafez Al-Assad's Takeover of the Ba'ath

After the long succession of legislatures, Hafez Al-Asad, minister of defense, took over Syria's civil government through a bloodless coup. The "Corrective Coup" was meant to reinvigorate the political momentum of the Ba'ath Party in Syria.

Through a series of domestic structural and judicial reforms, Hafez Al-Asad consolidated power, made the party the sole de-facto political platform in the country, and expanded the party's base.

Black September soon followed, a civil war between Jordan's Hashemite rulers and the PLO in an attempt to determine who would be the leader of the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel. Syria aligned with Arafat's PLO, eventually leading to its expulsion from Jordan and Syria's complete isolation from its southern neighbor until these days.

5. 1976 — Changing Sides in the Lebanese Civil War

Initially, in an effort to push down Islamist movements within and outside Syria, the Ba'ath allied with the Maronite Christian establishment in Lebanon. Originally, the French had established a 6:5 Christian to Muslim and Druze ratio in Lebanon. The proportion did not reflect in any way the demographics and the constitution required the president to be Christian and the prime minister to be Muslim.

After Islamist threats to the Ba'ath were defeated within Syria, Assad switched camps in Lebanon, siding with Amal, the militia of the Lebanese Shiites. They had lost faith in the head of the opposition, Jumblatt, and showed grave tensions with the Palestinian community in Lebanon

By participating in the war, Syria established a prolonged relationship with militant Shiite groups in Lebanon that lives until these days, with Hezbollah. The war eventually ended with Syria's occupation of Lebanon and the Taif agreement, which changed the Lebanese parliamentary ratio to 1:1 and enhanced Muslim prime ministerial powers.

6. 1980 — Siding with Iran

After a tumultuous decade in which Hafez Al-Assad had changed regional alignment with regards to the PLO, the Hashemites, and the Shiite political community, the Islamic Revolution took over Iran and new internal Islamist movements began to rise within Syria.

The Assads, a Alawi family, were now facing pressure to establish a stronger Shiite identity in government. While in the the government had previously responded with a firm hand to this type of influence, Assad decided to appease Shiite pressure, siding with Iran against Iraq's Ba'ath in the Iran-Iraq war. In return, Iran became a vehement supporter of a Syrian presence in Beirut, creating a Shiite crescent between Tehran, Damascus, and Hezbollah.

7. 2005 — Hariri's Death and Syria's Withdrawal from Lebanon

In 2000, Bashar Al-Assad took over the Ba'ath following his father's death.

Initially, his advent was seen as a one-time possibility for domestic reform and overture. However, this soon was proved to not be true. The Syrian army in fact pushed for a prolonged stay in Lebanon.

Things culminated in 2005 with Rafik Hariri's assassination. Hariri had been the president of multiple legislatures in Lebanon. Western-educated and coming from the business world, Hariri was credited with much of the post-war reconstruction of Beirut.

Hariri was killed by a bombing in 2005. Allegedly, Syrian cells played a role in the assassination through Hezbollah. Following the bombing, international pressure for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon increased, ultimately leading to the long-awaited return of the army to Damascus' barracks. 

This event, like the ones above, has been at the core of Syria's long-term positioning in the region. As the current crisis in Syria unwinds, it is important to keep in mind why Syria has developed such relations with Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Lebanon, and most of its neighboring countries.