The Struggle of Syria



Since gaining its independence from the French in 1946, Syria has had a rocky and troubled history. Located in one of the most conflict ridden parts of the world, Syria's turmoil has involved both its regional neighbors as well as its own internal factions that have made self rule a challenging goal. Join Active Minds as we seek to understand Syria's history and how this informs current and future challenges for this pivotal player in the Middle East.

Key Lecture Points

  • Syria has a long (and frequently troubled) history. Over the course of two millennia, ancient Syria was conquered and occupied by various peoples/empires in the region including the Egyptians, Hebrews, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, and French.
  • The people of this varied land are reflective of those centuries of conflict. While 90% of the population is Muslim, reflect many various Muslim divisions: Sunni, , Druze, Alawi and others. 12% of the population are Allawi Shia Muslims, including the President, Bashar al-Assad, who rules over a land that is 74% Sunni Muslim.
  • Syria’s present-day borders are the result of the end of World War I and the French and the British dividing up the defeated Ottoman imperial lands. During the period between the world wars, the French sought to increase their strength in Syria (and neighboring Lebanon) by supporting and separating religious minorities and thereby weakening the Arab nationalist movement.
  • Syria gained its independence from France in 1946. With a legacy of division, exacerbated by regional upheaval including participation in Arab wars against Israel, combined to make rule over Syria difficult.
  • In 1963 the secular Ba’ath Party took control of Syria and emergency law was declared. It was not lifted until 2011. Later, in 1970, Hafez al-Assad took control of the Syrian Ba’athist party and stayed in control of the country until his death in 2000. Hafez’ rule was characterized by swift and frequently bloody crackdowns upon dissent, including the 1982 quelling of a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the city of Hama. Hafez was succeeded in 2000 by his son, Bashar al-Assad.
  • The so-called “Arab Spring”, characterized by peaceful protests against long-standing regimes, reached Syria in March 2011 when teenagers were arrested and tortured for painting anti-regime graffiti. Assad ordered his military and security forces to open fire on protests and laid siege to towns across Syria, triggering a conflict that has reached the level of a civil war. The war has lasted more than two years killing 100,000 people and displacing over 6.5 million as of September, 2013, 2 million of whom have fled the country. The Syrian civil war has become a proxy war between Shiites and Sunnis and raises fears of a sectarian conflict that could enflame the entire region.
  • In August 2013, a chemical weapons attack killed over 1400 Syrians. The US and other nations cited intelligence that pointed to the Assad regime as responsible for the attack. In the weeks that followed, President Obama appeared poised to order limited strikes on Assad’s forces in response to the attack. Some critics argued that the US should not allow itself to be drawn into another conflict in the Middle East. Others argued that President Obama should act, but should have acted more decisively, with greater support for the Syrian Opposition forces. Defenders of the President argue that his threats of force were effective in getting Syria to agree to give up its chemical arsenal, based upon a US-Russia Agreed Framework composed in late September 2013.

Exploration Questions

  • How is the Syrian civil war different from the other uprisings that took place during the Arab Spring of 2011? How are they the same?
  • Why is the Syrian civil war described as a proxy war?
  • What are the events that led up to the chemical weapons agreement?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think Assad will be able to remain in power? Why? Why not?
  • Have you ever been to Syria? The Middle East? What were your impressions?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Brooke, Allen. The Other Side of the Mirror: An American Travels Through Syria. Paul Dry Books, 2011. 259 pages. Introduction to contemporary Syria.
    Click here to order
  • Lesch, David W. Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, Yale University Press, 2012. 384 pages. Chronicles the regime of Bashar Assad, the causes of the Syrian uprising and Assad’s tactics to remain in power.
    Click here to order