Syria

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الجمهورية العربية السورية
Al-Jumhuuriyya al-‘Arabiyya as Suuriyya
Syrian Arab Republic
Flag of Syria
Cities:  
 Capital: Damascus
 Other: Allepo, Homs, Latakia, Tartus, Hama, Antioch, Al-Iskanderun
Languages:  
 Official: Arabic
 Others: Syriac, Armenian, Turkmen, Circassian
President:
Area: 60,510 sq.miles
Population: 19 million Syrians
Independence: from Ottoman Empire
 Date: 1920
Currency: 1 Syrian Pound = 96 piastres = 3840 para
Organizations: League of Nations, Arab Community

Syria, officially the Syrian Arab Republic, is the largest country in the Middle East sub region of the Levant. Historically the name Syria referred to the region bounded by the Mediterranean on the west, the Anatolian Peninsula on the north, the Syrian Desert on the east and the Arabian Desert on the south. Nowadays such whole region is more commonly known as the Levant and is divided in three independent countries of which the Syrian Arab Republic is the largest representing nearly half of the whole region.

Contents

Administration

Government

Multiparty democratic parliamentary republic. The president is elected by parliament for five years terms and is both head of state and head of government.

History

Ancient history and the Crusader States

I assume Syrian history was more or less the same until The Crusades. As *Here* the Crusaders established a series of states over the coastal Levant region but these states survived much longer than *Here*.

Moslem weren’t able to expel the Crusaders and with long-lasting Christian presence they got used to each other, trading but also sometimes skirmishing. Also Muslim pilgrims were accepted in Jerusalem. During the 13th century the invasion by the Manichean Mongols to the Fertile Crescent region pressured many Arab Muslim refugees to find a safe haven in the Levant. The Crusaders accepted to receive them under the payment of a fee while were able to avoid the fall of the Crusader Kingdoms by colligating with the Egyptian Mamlukes against their common enemy being able to defeat the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut (1260), held in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

In time these refugees and their descendents got fully integrated in Levantine population which developed into a rather tolerant society. Such society was ruled by a foreign descendant elite made of European noblemen and catholic clerics who followed mostly the Roman or Cambrian Rites. Despite the tolerance between the multi religious and multicultural local population these started little by little to feel discriminated by the ruling elites who concentrated nearly all of the political power leaving no place of decision to them.

The Crusader States acted since then as buffer states between the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and the growing Ottoman Empire. In the passage between the 15th and 16th centuries European powers started to lose part of their interest in the Levantine region due to the discovery of sea routes to the Spice Islands. These new routes took away much of the trading importance from the Levant and local traders were starting to lose much of their profits.

When Ottomans and Mamlukes engaged in a war in 1516 the local Levantine population expected a reaction from European kingdoms. Instead the Crusader Kingdoms were left alone while the Ottomans ravaged the entire region. Being unable to stop the Ottomans the Crusader dynasties were rumored their intention to run away leaving the Levantine with their own luck. Such caused a widespread rebellion all over the Levant on which the Crusaders were expelled by their own subjects while also fought back successfully the Ottoman invaders. The Mamlukes weren’t that lucky as they were conquered by the Ottomans in 1517.

From the Crusaders to the Ottomans

1516 was the year the several Crusader Kingdoms were replaced by a series of new states ruled by local noblemen. The Kingdom of Jerusalem came once again under Jewish control becoming the Fourth Jewish Commonwealth; the County of Tripoli came under Druze Maanid dynasty control and would be the base of the modern Lebanese Union. Finally the Principality of Antioch became an Eastern Catholic Church dominated new country, The Patriarchate of Antioch.

Initially the Patriarchate of Antioch was an elective monarchy of which the Patriarch was both political sovereign and religious leader. Being the Patriarch subordinated to the Pope this country was the last remaining with connections to Catholic Europe. But things changed by early 17th century. Due to polygamy Muslim population exceeded Christians and then tensions arose between the two communities. Later the Patriarch of Antioch was ousted by an Alawi rebellion that transferred capital from Antioch to the port of Latakia and renamed the country as Sheikdom of the Alawi Mountains. However despite Alawi ruled the country remained quite tolerant to other ethno-religious communities.

From times to times political power changed as later Shia and Sunni dynasties toppled each other while Christians never again returned to power. Since then Christians gradually abandoned Syria going mostly to Lebanon.

During these centuries relations between Syria and its Levantine neighbors were often strained but due being now completely surrounded by the Ottoman Empire, their common enemy, their relations tended to get better progressively.

On early 19th century Muhammad Ali, governor of Ottoman Egypt, tried to seize power over the empire. Syria and the other Levantine countries saw with sympathy Ali’s pretensions hoping a possible fall of the Ottoman Empire. But European powers weren’t interested in such fall. They intervened on the behalf of the Ottoman ruler and Ali was defeated, although found ensured his position as hereditary viceroy of Egypt through a convention signed in London that year of 1840.

Secretly another convention was signed in Bergamo, Lombardy, by which the Ottoman rights over the Levant were recognized in exchange of Lombard military presence in Lebanon (on the behalf of the Papal States) in order to “protect the Maronite Christians”. In reality Lombardy intended to occupy strategic positions for vigilance of the canal they intended to build in Suez.

With the complicity of Lombard vessels which bombed several Levantine ports the Ottoman Empire invaded and defeated one by one the three small states during the late 1840’s thus ending their independence.

Ottoman Syria

The Levant became then divided in the Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate, which was directly dependent to the Minister of Interior, the Jerusalem Mutasarrifate, also directly linked to the Minister of Interior in view of its importance to the three monotheistic religions. Their borders were kept nearly unchanged from pre-ottoman times. On the other hand the newly created Vilayet of Syria was made by uniting the former independent coastal state to the Vilayet of Damascus providing to this one a way out to the Mediterranean. Basically the Levant became divided in a Jewish autonomy, a Druze/Maronite autonomy and a Shiia/Sunni autonomy.

To avoid general unrest the new ottoman rule allowed keeping in the new Levantine vilayets some of the infrastructures related to local civil life. In fact these peoples never found themselves really "Ottomanized" as the Ottoman power usually used to respect the dominated nations' cultures being much more interested in empire building than assimilation. It also permitted to keep a certain national consciousness among population from pre-occupation times somehow tolerated by the Ottomans as long they wouldn’t interfere too much in the Porte affairs. Also the presence of the Lombards (so as later of other Europeans) made possible the creation of missions and colleges which would contribute to the rise of an urban well-educated class, but after Lombards gave up their interest of building the Suez Canal they withdrew and were completely replaced by English and French.

Since the opening of the Suez Canal the Levant started to recover its prosperity due to proximity to the canal. Also foreign presence was constantly growing. By early 20th century several Syrian intellectuals mostly educated in foreign colleges and influenced by nationalist movements in Europe started to defend the full independence and union of the Arabs. Syrian thinkers of different religious backgrounds but Arab ethnicity helped by a developing local press made an important contribution to make the average people supporting claims in order to rule their own affairs and unite around the ideal of ethnicity and not on a religious base. Such were the roots of the future Pan-Arabist movement of which Syria would later became a major irradiation center.

Ottomans started to reply to this movement by repressing it and forcing to exile some of the Arab intellectuals. With the First Great War Levantine conscription by the Ottomans and the use of Arab troops by both sides in conflict in the Near East gave even more strength to Pan-Arabist ideal.

Following the Battle of Megiddo (September 1918), on which Ottoman forces had a severe defeat against FK-Egyptian forces, the Arab rebels leaded by Faisal bin Hussayn and Llawrent di Arabia were able to briefly occupy Damascus (30 September 1918). Syrian support to the Arab Rebellion basically existed just in the eastern part of the country where most of population was Sunni like the Hashemite.

Independent Syria

Hashemite Syria

flag of the Sultanate of Syria (1920-1932)

In 1920 several nationalist rebellions spread all over the Ottoman Empire. Following inspiration from the 1800’s rebellions in Ottoman Europe so as the more recent Arab Rebellion (1916-18) Kurds and Armenians attempted to get independence but were defeated and forced by Sultan Ibrahim to march from Turkey to the vilayets of their co-nationals. On July 1920 rebellion occurred in eastern Syria under the leadership of Abdullah, one of the brothers of King Faisal of the Hijaaz. Abdullah proclaimed then the Hashemite Sultanate of Syria which initially was the region east of the Alawite Mountains populated mostly by Arab Sunni.

In the coastal areas, populated by a mix of Shiite, Alawites and some remaining Eastern Christians, rebellion was just a few skirmishes with the Ottoman authorities. Western Syrians didn’t know what to expect from Sunni Hashemite rule and, at least, they knew what to expect from the occupiers. Ottomans didn’t punish hardly western Syrian rebels but tried to smash the newly proclaimed sultanate. Despite better armed Ottomans were defeated by a smaller unprofessional army under General Yusuf al-‘Azma command, who later started a counter attack in order to reach the Mediterranean.

Over the next two years the empire faced permanent rebellions all over Near East losing one by one its vilayets until it became a rump state, the Anatolian Kingdom of Turkey. In 1922 Lebanon and Judea became once again independent while Syria was unified under Hashemite rule.

Under Sultan Abdullah rule industrialization and trade with Europe were promoted, so as tolerance with non-Sunni population. Abdullah initially supported his brother’s pretentions to create the Hashemite Caliphate which should unite the whole Arab nation under Faisal’s rule so as provided armies to fight back the Saudi (1926) and to pacify Iraaq (under Hashemite rule since 1921) . But European powers (notably FK and France which weren’t interested in a large new country which could threat their control over the Suez Canal) instigated on Abdullah the idea that he would become just a mere local leader under the proposed caliphate so as promoted policies making Syria more and more dependent from Europe due to external debt and disastrous contracts. The sultan became increasingly divided about a stronger integration on Faisal’s plans while secretly France gave support to nostalgic Christian conspirers in order to further deposition of Abdullah.

For many nationalist Syrians the contracts with European countries were seen as a prove of the weakening of central monarchist power and interference of foreign countries on national politics. Soon the Syrian Hashemite branch became contested by politic leaders while new forms of Pan-Arabism were appearing, notably visions of secular ideals (thus refusing a caliphate) or at least not connected with Islam as in Syria remained an important Christian Arab community. For many Pan-Arabism should be independent from religion.

Republic

Finally in 1932 several Christian militaries staged a coup and the Hashemite fled for exile while the sultanate was renamed Syrian Republic. Following the old tolerance tradition a provisional junta was established with members from different religious denominations. A parliament was later formed which elected a Sunni Muslim as first president of the country, Hashim al-Atassi.

Al-Atassi tried to maintain a nationalist agenda and to keep out foreign interferences without hostility. In 1936 an iraaqi-backed pro-Hashemite rebellion occurred in eastern region but Syrian troops were able to defeat it thanks to modern weapons such as tanks, machine guns, aircraft and dirigibles.

Al-Atassi resigned from presidency in 1939 being replaced by pro-French Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar but his presidency was short. After a strong nationalist campaign Shukri al-Kuwatli, a Sunni pan-Arabist was elected in 1943. The new president proposed to Lebanese president, Khayreddin al-Ahdab, the merger of the two countries in a new state, the Levantine Arab Republic. Despite al-Ahdab sympathies to pan-Arabist ideal refused due to mass demonstrations among the local Maronite community who was afraid to be assimilated by much larger Muslim Syria. But al-Kuwatli didn’t give up his ideals and made hard diplomatic efforts which would lead to the creation of the Arab Community, in 1949.

Also during this decade the world was at war. Ethiopia tried to make Lebanon side with Grossartige Allianz. Lebanon, afraid Syria would join the Allied Powers, refused. Such gave strength to al-Kuwatli’s position of neutrality and was his chance to dominate those who wanted Syria to back the Allies, considering the Second Great War wasn’t a Syrian concern.

Snorist Syria

flag of the Christian State of Greater Syria (1949-1955)

In 1949, while al-Kuwatli was in Egypt signing the treaty which created the Arab Community, a Christian-backed coup deposed him. The military, lacking for true ideological background, adopted a nationalist Christian pan-Arab rhetoric proposed by Antun Saadeh and Mishil Aflaq. Such combined Pan-Arabism with Snorism becoming new official guideline for Syrian politics. It was the end of democracy. For the first time in four centuries Christians had the control of the country.

Internally the new regime instituted Russian inspired governing bodies and Antun Saadeh was titled as National Leader, analogue to the Supreme Leader of the Russian People. Muslim majority faced discrimination, the forbidding of polygamy (for the first time in a Muslim country) and even birth control. Many of the Muslim-owned businesses were nationalized and given to loyal Christians of the regime. Eastern Syria was somehow colonized by Arab Christians.

Externally it intended to unify the whole region of Greater Syria (or Levant) including the Sinai Peninsula under Arab Christian domination. Obviously such militaristic rhetoric alarmed Syrian neighbors as Syria was the largest and most powerful Levantine country.

But Saadeh was surrounded by corrupt people who had much more interest in their own personal agenda than in national politics. Corruption spread and in 1951 the National Leader in person accused his partners during a reunion. Those, alarmed, conspired and killed him blaming Muslims and ironically surrounded Saadeh of a strong cult of personality. Persecutions against Muslims increased causing international protest. Syrian regime pursued its nationalist rhetoric but in fact its leaders were more occupied in getting richer.

It was then a turbulent period on which in just four years there were three coups. The last one ended the regime in a time Syria was divided and weak and its people was poorer and its militaristic rhetoric no more scared any other neighboring country.

Following the end of arab snorist rule thousands of Christian Syrians left the country afraid of persecutions by Muslim majority but also due to disastrous Syrian economy situation. Mediterrranean basin countries, especially Greece, received this Syrian diaspora.

See also: Arab Snorism

Arab unification

Political veteran Hashim al-Atassi was made interim president in 1955 and was followed once again by Shukri al-Kuwatli some months later. Inspired in the reforms made in Egypt by Nasser renamed the country as the Syrian Arab Republic, promoted a land reform, the end of discrimination based on religion and large public works to fight unemployment (and get popular support) so as made a series of nationalizations and promoted industrialization. Also promoted reconciliation between Muslims and Christians. With the start of commercial oil exploitation (1956) economy boomed granting al-Kuwatli undisputed national leadership. Syrian standard of living recovered fast from the years of dictatorship.

Externally promoted fast approximation to Nasser’s Egypt which would lead to the establishment of the United Arab Republic (1958) by merging both countries into a confederation. It was something like a marriage of convenience: Egypt needed Syrian money to finance itself while Syria needed Egypt as a large open exporting market. By taking into practice, Pan-Arabism it no longer was just an ideal. However the union wasn’t as successful as expected. Syrian opposition started feeling persecuted while local bourgeoisie didn’t reach Egyptian market as well they expected. There were also differences between both countries as Syria remained mostly a democracy while Egypt was a socialist inspired dictatorship. Common Syrian people started to feel being colonized by much larger Egypt and the initial popular support to the union faded.

In 1961 Syrian nationalist (but not pan-arabist) militaries deposed once again al-Kuwatli while he was in Egypt. Syria (now once again called Syrian Republic) withdrew from the United Arab Republic and Nasser resigned leaving al-Kuwatli (the union’s vice-president) at presidency. Al-Kuwatli became then president of a confederation which no longer existed and ruling a foreign country. Knowing Egypt would soon or later face a coup al-Kuwatli fled for exile in Iraaq.

Throughout the 1960’s Syria suffered from political instability. Short military regimes were followed by civil ones which in turn were deposed by militaries who ousted each other. By mid-1970’s the last coup in Syria occurred by deposing General Hafiz al-Assad. By then Syria was under a severe debt crisis caused by consecutive years of instability, bad spending, corruption and past military adventures.

Back to democracy

During the 1970’s and 1980’s democracy was gradually restored and the country recovered its previous name. With more political stability economy improved. As result of the Oil Crisis of Hijra 1393 (1973 in Christian countries) oil prices dramatically decreased due to overproduction. Despite Syria was by then a mere medium producer (it saw its apply for COPEN membership refused in 1971 due to that fact) was able to escape from economic crisis which ravaged Middle Eastern COPEN members by selling oil at a price below larger producers granting new exporting markets. Later, as consequence of the Persia-Iraaq War during the 1980’s, economy once again boomed as oil prices rose to all time records.

During the late 1980’s Syria together with Lebanon, Judea and Egypt signed the Levant Trade Charter with created a regional economic organization aiming to their markets integration. Externally Syria was also one of the leading Arab countries of the mandated coalition which freed Kuwayt from Iraaqi occupation during the Gulf War. Since the fall of Saddaam Hussayn Syrian troops are among those which remain in Iraaq, helping government to fight the Party of God insurgency.

Today Syria is one of the freest and democratic Arab countries. Despite sometimes relations are a bit strained with its neighbors due to water partition resources relationship with them is considered good.

Geography

The country consists mainly in an arid plateau although the region west of the Alawi Mountains is fairly green.

Borders

North: Turkey and Kurdistan East: Iraaq South: Bedouin Free State West: Lebanon, Judea and the Mediterranean Sea

Economy

Syria has a diversified economy based on oil, agriculture and industry but tourism is increasing. Among the Levantine countries is considered the poorest but still people enjoy a reasonably high standard of living.

People

Syria has a population of 19 million people, being 90% ethnic Arabs. The remaining is composed by Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians and Circassians.

Arabic, in its Syrian Arabic dialect, is the official language. Garshuni script is usually the one used.

Religion

Islam is the major religion being the faith of 90% of the overall population. Muslims are divided by half in Sunni (mostly in the eastern region) and Shiite (mostly in the western region). Among the Shiite about one third of them are Alawi existing also a Druze minority close to Lebanese border.

The Christian population makes up nearly 10% of the population and is mostly made up of Arabs, Assyrians and the Armenians. Most Arab Christians live in the western region and were more numerous in the past. The largest Christian denominations are (in order from largest to smallest), the Antiochian Orthodox Church, the Eastern Catholic Church (mostly Melkite) and the Assyrian Church. There is also a very small minority of Western-Rite Roman Catholics in the western region resulting from the presence of Europeans dating from the 19th century.

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