Esh Sham

Esh Sham

Currency unit

Syrian pound









War 1

War 2

War 3

 Civil War







Syria is based on the capital Damascus which is one of the world's oldest cities. It was conquered by Alexander the Great and then part of the Roman Empire, though often disputed with the Persian Empire. Much of it was inhabited by Rome's Arab allies. Syria was conquered by the Muslim Arab armies in 635 and Damascus (Esh Sham) became the capital of the second, Omayyad, Caliphate (661-744). For this time it was the most important city in the Muslim world. The capital moved to Baghdad when the Abbasids overthrew the Omayyads in 750 but Damascus remained important.

Glubb observes that Syria occupies the upper reaches of the Euphrates but is separated from what is at present Iraq by a desert. The two areas have been more often opposed than allied throughout recorded history.

During the period of the Crusades the first of the line of Ayubids, Salah ad Din (Saladin) 1137-1193 the Kurdish sultan who defeated the Europeans, made it his capital.

The Mamlukes of Egypt controlled Syria from 1250 and defeated the Mongols in Palestine: the first real defeat these destroyers experienced. Thus the Mamelukes saved Egypt and North Africa from Mongol destruction, and quite possibly Europe as well. Following this Egypt and Syria were united in the Mameluke kingdom (see Egypt). In 1291 came the final defeat of the Crusader principalities.

Later it came under Turkish control and was a province of the Ottoman Empire until 1917 when the British and Arab armies drove them out.

After the Peace Conference in 1920 Syria was awarded as a League of Nations Mandate to the French (in accordance with the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement on post-war policy towards the Arabs) who split off Lebanon. This annoyed the Arab leaders who had believed they would be independent as a result of their role in defeating the Turks and thus assisting the Anglo-French war effort. Feisal the son of the Sharif of Makkah had already been crowned king in Damascus of an Arab kingdom which would have embraced Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, and possibly Iraq as well. After the mandates were awarded Britain gave him the subordinate throne of Iraq and his brother Abdullah the throne of Transjordan (also claimed by Syria). France conquered the interior of Syria with African troops. They then enlarged the traditional Mount Lebanon province by cutting off part of Syria including the Bekaa, Tripoli and Sidon.

On arrival to take up the mandate the French commander was tactless enough to declare at the tomb of Salah ed Din that "we are back".

During the second world war the French Syrian administration was at first part of the Vichy France pro-German sphere.

Following independence in 1943 there was a period of frequent changes of government with civilian regimes alternating with military coups. This came to an end when the Ba'ath Party seized power in 1958 and organized Syria's union with Egypt (then ruled by Gamal Abdul Nasser) to form the United Arab Republic. The UAR was intended to be the nucleus of a state which all other Arab states might join. However, the union did not last and Syria withdrew in 1963 mainly because the Syrians felt they were dominated by the much more populous Egypt.

Following the failure of the union with Egypt the Ba'ath took formal power.

Syria has a common frontier with Israel and there have been wars in 1948, 1967, 1973. Syria also has intervened in Lebanon with the short term aim of bringing the civil war to an end and the long term intention of reincorporating Lebanon into Syria as a Greater Syria. Most Syrian governments, including that of Assad, have claimed Palestine as well as Lebanon and Jordan.

There have been no outright wars with Iraq but during the Iran-Iraq war Syria blocked the pipelines taking Iraqi oil to the Mediterranean and was considered an ally of Iran. During the 1991 Kuwait war Syrian troops were sent to Saudi Arabia, despite the Syrian regime being similar to that of Iraq. Syria is not believed to have territorial ambitions in Iraq but may attempt to improve its position in Lebanon or Jordan. Its main aims are concerned with Israel. Israel occupies part of Syrian territory on the Golan Heights. The Syrians want it back.

Despite the repulsive nature of the regime, and its alleged past activity in promoting such terrorist incidents as the attempt to blow up an Israeli airliner (as well as rumored involvement in the Pan American crash at Lockerbie), Syria seemed to be an ally of the western powers during such periods as the wars against Iraq.

It is still (Sept 1993) unclear how Syria reacts to the Israel-PLO Peace Agreement. Syria wants the Golan Heights back. Syria has fought several wars against Israel, but the main effect has been the loss of Syrian territory. By July 2000 it is still unclear. The new leader had still to reveal his intentions. He was suspected of wishing to improve his relations with western countries. His wife is British born.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein Syria was threatened by some US government sources, no longer in power (2010). It is not clear whether the US government had plans to invade Syria. Presumably the Obama regime does not, but would hope to see the Assad regime fall.

In 2012 the Assad regime showed signs of being challenged by opposition forces.



Aramaic (few villages)

Assyrian (few villages)








Syria, like Iraq formerly, is said to be controlled by a branch of the Ba'ath (Arab Renaissance) Party, though in fact the President Hafiz Assad maintained a personal dictatorship similar to that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He seized power in 1970.

The controlling group around Assad are all from the Alawi religion, an offshoot of Shi'ism, which is a small minority of the country as a whole. The chief opposition to his government comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Muslim organization found in most Arab countries.

Although the two regimes are similar, the elder Assad and Saddam were enemies and are believed to have hated each other. This no doubt explains why Assad was so quick to offer to send Syrian troops to Saudi Arabia to resist Saddam's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Nevertheless, it could be classified as one of the six worst regimes for human rights at present. (Burma, China, North Korea, Sudan, Uzbekistan)

In 1982 an insurrection led by Sunni Muslims (Muslim Brotherhood) in the city of Hama was met with the complete destruction of the old city and deaths estimated to be 20,000 people. This was an event in the same class as those of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in his wars with the Kurds.

During the Iran-Iraq war Assad supported the Iranians, presumably on the grounds that "My enemy's enemy is my friend" .

For a description of the Ba'athist system see Iraq .

Hafiz Assad died in June 2000, and was succeeded by his son, showing that it is a dynastic state. His son has maintained his power with some reforms but no fundamental changes.

By 2003 Bashar seemed to be in control but change is possible. March 2005 Comments by US government people that Syria was in need of democratisation, and the events in Lebanon made change seem more likely.

2011 revolutions
By the end of March 2011 the demonstrations in other Arab countries had reached Syria. Bashar Assad's regime came under criticism. Would he be as brutal as his father, or would he have to resign? The question then would be what would replace the Baath party regime, in reality a dictatorship by the minority Alawite community?

Concessions were offered in words, though never in reality. Would these be enough to prevent total revolution? Bashar was probably not personally hated as other Arab leaders have been and does seem to have some genuine supporters, perhaps from his Alawite sect. However, probably the real power is in the hands of his much more brutal brother.

As the "Security Forces" fired on demonstrators, killing hundreds, his future looks bleak. Thousands of deaths later (November 2011) and the desertion of soldiers to form a "Free Syrian Army" show an incipient civil war, probably supported by Qatar. Turkey's attitude is unclear but is hosting an increasing number of refugees in camps near the frontier.

18 July 2012. Fighting in many parts of Damascus suggests the regime is weakening, after an explosion in one of its supposedly secure buildings, which may have killed key members of the regime. What would follow the Assad regime then becomes the most interesting question.

By November 2012 it is clear that the regime is in serious trouble.

Interesting Reading

John Glubb - A Short History of the Arab Peoples

Patrick Seale - The struggle for Syria

THE Struggle for Syria P Seale

Alawites article







Until recent small oil discoveries Syria had no oil. Syria had some income from transit fees for Iraq's pipelines. But during the Iran-Iraq war, Syria supported Iran and the oil was diverted through Saudi Arabia and Turkey.







The Euphrates river water is being siphoned off by Turkey behind new dams. This threatens Syria's main source of water. There are also dams in Syria which threaten Iraq's water.

In 2009 there have already been three years of no rain and the main grain growing area has had no crops.

What will happen if this drought continues, as in southern Australia, for ten years or more, or indeed, becomes permanent?






Human Rights

One of the six worst countries for human rights abuse along with:

  • Burma (now, 2012, improving)
  • China
  • North Korea
  • Sudan
  • Uzbekistan

Imprisonment without trial, torture and executions without trial are common.

Universal press censorship by the single party. However, since Bashar took over from his father there were reports of improvement.

But once he was challenged by an uprising his behavior reverted to that of his father with indiscriminate killings of demonstrators, mass arrests including foreign journalists who had managed to enter the country.

Climate effects

One degree
Increasingly arid, as with southern Europe

Two degrees
Serious problems supporting the agricultural population, lack of water in major rivers coming from Turkey.

Last revised 18/11/12

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