Syria is home to one of the oldest civilizations in the world, with a rich artistic and cultural heritage. From its ancient roots to its recent political instability and the Syrian Civil War, the country has a complex and, at times, tumultuous history.
Modern-day Syria, a country located in the Middle East on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, is one of the most ancient inhabited regions on Earth.
The oldest human remains found in Syria date back to roughly 700,000 years ago. Archeologists have uncovered skeletons and bones of Neanderthals that lived in the region during this period.
Ebla, a city in Syria that’s thought to have existed around 3,000 B.C., is one of the oldest settlements to be excavated.
Throughout ancient times, Syria was occupied and ruled by several empires, including the Egyptians, Hittites, Sumerians, Mitanni, Assyrians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Arameans, Amorites, Persians, Greeks and Romans.
Ancient Syria was a region referred to often in the Bible. In one well-known account, the apostle Paul cited the “road to Damascus”—the largest city in Syria—as the place where he had visions that led to his Christian conversion.
When the Roman Empire fell, Syria became part of the Eastern or Byzantine Empire.
In 637 A.D., Muslim armies defeated the Byzantine Empire and took control of Syria. The Islamic religion spread quickly throughout the region, and its different factions rose to power.
Damascus eventually became the capital of the Islamic world, but was replaced by Baghdad in Iraq around 750 A.D. This change led to economic decline in Syria, and for the next several centuries, the region became unstable and was ruled by various groups.
In 1516, the Ottoman Empire conquered Syria and remained in power until 1918. This was considered a relatively peaceful and stable period in Syria’s history.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement
During World War I, French and British diplomats secretly agreed to divide the Ottoman Empire into zones, as part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.
Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, most Arab lands under the rule of the Ottoman Empire were divided into British or French spheres of influence with the conclusion of World War I.
British and Arab troops captured Damascus and Aleppo in 1918, and the French took control of modern-day Syria and Lebanon in 1920. These arrangements put an end to roughly 400 years of Ottoman rule in the region.
The French reign led to uprisings and revolts among the people in Syria. From 1925 to 1927, Syrians united against the French occupation in what’s now known as the Great Syrian Revolt.
In 1936, France and Syria negotiated a treaty of independence, which allowed Syria to remain independent but gave France military and economic power.
During World War II, British and Free French troops occupied Syria—but shortly after the war ended, Syria officially became an independent country in 1946.
Syria as an Independent Nation
The years immediately following Syria’s declared independence were marked by instability and repeated government coups.
Syria joined with Egypt and became the United Arab Republic in 1958, but the union split a few short years later in 1961. The 1960s brought more military coups, revolts and riots.
In 1963, the Arab Socialist Baath Party, which was active throughout the Middle East since the late 1940s, seized power of Syria in a coup known as the Baath Revolution.
In 1967, during the Six Day War, Israel seized the Golan Heights, a rocky plateau located in southwestern Syria. Conflict over this coveted area continued for years and is still ongoing.
In 1970, Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian minister of defense, overthrew the de facto leader of Syria, Salah Jadid. He remained in power as president for 30 years, until his death in 2000.
Hafez al-Assad was part of the Islam Alawite, which is a minority Shiite sect. During his presidency, Hafez was credited with strengthening the Syrian military with the help of the Soviets.
Syria and Egypt went to war with Israel in 1973. Shortly after this conflict, Syria also got involved in the civil war in Lebanon, where it has maintained a military presence ever since.
In 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood organized a rebellion against the Assad regime in the city of Hama, and Assad responded by arresting, torturing and executing political rebels. Estimates vary, but many experts believe the retaliation took the lives of about 20,000 civilians.
The same year, Israel invaded Lebanon and attacked the Syrian army stationed there. But by 1983, Israel and Lebanon announced that the hostility between the two countries was over.
Toward the end of his life, Hafez attempted to make more peaceful relations with Israel and Iraq.
When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, his son Bashar became president at age 34.
After Bashar took power, the constitution was amended to reduce the minimum age of the president from 40 to 34.
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A medical student, Bashar wasn’t the first choice for successor. His older brother, Bassel, was the next in line to take his father’s place, but he was killed in an automobile accident in 1994.
At the start of his presidency, Bashar al-Assad released 600 political prisoners, and Syrians were hopeful that their new leader would grant more freedoms and impose less oppression than his father.
However, within a year, Bashar used threats and arrests to stop pro-reform activism.
Syria and the ‘Axis of Evil’
In 2002, the United States accused Syria of acquiring weapons of mass destruction and listed the nation as a member of the so-called “axis of evil” countries. The Syrian government was also accused of being involved in the assassination of Rafic Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, in 2005.
After a few years of what seemed like potential diplomacy between Assad and other nations, the United States renewed sanctions against Syria in 2010, saying that the regime supported terrorist groups.
Many human rights groups reported that Assad regularly tortured, imprisoned and killed political adversaries throughout his presidency. Revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, which became known as the “Arab Spring,” broke out in early 2011.
In March of 2011, a group of teens and children were arrested and tortured for writing anti-government graffiti that was thought to be inspired by the Arab Spring rebellion.
Peaceful protests broke out in Syria after the graffiti incident and became widespread. Assad and the Syrian government responded by arresting and killing hundreds of protestors and their family members.
These events combined with other circumstances, including a lagging economy, a severe drought, a lack of general freedoms and a tense religious atmosphere, led to civilian resistance and, ultimately, an uprising.
Syrian Civil War
By July 2011, rebels had formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and pockets of insurrection broke out. But by 2012, Syria was engulfed in a full-blown civil war.
Estimates vary, but according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 321,000 people have been killed since the start of the war or are missing.
Hundreds of people were killed outside of Damascus in 2013 during a chemical weapons attack. The United States said the assault was carried out by the Syrian government, but the regime blamed rebel forces.
What started as a war between the Assad government and Syrian rebels became more complicated as the battle progressed. New forces, including the Islamic State (ISIS), joined the fight against the Syrian regime.
In 2014, ISIS took over large areas of Iraq and Syria. Since that time, U.S.-led forces have strategically bombed ISIS targets throughout the region.
The United States has stated their opposition to the Assad regime but has been reluctant to get deeply involved in the war. Russia and Iran have declared themselves allies of the Syrian government.
In 2015, Russia launched airstrikes on rebel targets in Syria for the first time. Syria’s government forces took control of Aleppo in late 2016, ending more than four years of rebel rule in the city.
On April 7, 2017, the United States initiated its first direct military action against Assad’s forces after accusing them of carrying out another chemical weapons attack on civilians.
The Syrian civil war has caused an international humanitarian crisis for the country’s civilians.
According to the nonprofit organization World Vision, more than 11 million Syrians—roughly half of the country’s population—have been displaced from their homes as of April 2017.
Many refugees have moved to neighboring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt or Iraq. Others have relocated to areas within Syria itself.
Europe has also been an important asylum for refugees, with Germany taking in the most. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 18,007 Syrian refugees resettled to the United States between October 1, 2011 and December 31, 2016.
The CIA World Factbook: Syria: U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Short Overview of the History of Ancient Pre-Hellenistic Syria: UCLA/Syrian Digital Library of Cuneiform (SDLC).
Syria’s civil war explained from the beginning: Al Jazeera Media Network.
Syria profile – Timeline: BBC News.
A Guide to the United States’ History of Recognition, Diplomatic, and Consular Relations, by Country, since 1776: Syria: Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State.
Massacre City: Foreign Policy.
SOHR Coverage: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Syrian Refugees in the United States: Migration Policy Institute.