The wave of unrest spreading across the Arab World has now arrived in Syria. This is interesting, as Syria is a bit of an outlier in the region and some commentators had assumed that its unusual features would lead it to escape an emergence of people demanding political rights. What are those unusual features? Well, for one, Syria is rigidly authoritarian, with almost no space for political activity not sanctioned by the state. The country has also declined to sign a peace treaty with Israel, with Damascus hosting the exiled leadership of several of the more radical Palestinian groups. The Syrian regime is also a bit of a historical relic, flying the flag for a kind of vaguely leftist, secular, pan-Arab nationalism that largely died out elsewhere with the end of the 1960s. How did Syria get to where it is today? Read on.
Until the First World War, Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire, existing as a geographic concept running from what is now Turkey to the borders of Egypt and what is now Saudi Arabia (and so including all of Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel). After the First World War, this region was divided up and modern Syria came into being under French rule. Some people there continued (and continue) to hanker after a restored Greater Syria, with many Syrians in particular finding it hard to think of Lebanon as a truly independent country.
Syria became independent after the Second World War, initially with a parliamentary regime on the French model. The new Syrian state was remarkably plural in its ethnic and religious make-up. Sunni Muslim Arabs made up about 60% of the population, with the rest being Arabs of all kinds of religious persuasion (Shia, Druze, Alawite, varieties of Christian) and there are also ethnic minorities (Kurds and Armenians, notably).
Once independent, Syria fell into a long period of instability in which military coups followed each other every couple of years, with politics in the country being characterised by conspiracy and intrigue. The country even merged with Egypt for a time in the 1960s, to create a United Arab Republic, but the union proved short-lived and was dissolved acrimoniously.
One ongoing feature of Syrian political life in the 1950s and 1960s was the rise of the Ba'ath Party. The Ba'ath (which literally translates as "Awakening") was a party advocating a secular, socialist pan-Arab nationalism. Yet for all its pan-Arabism, the Ba'ath never really amounted to much outside Syria (apart from in Iraq, where the local Ba'athists soon became the bitter enemies of their Syrian comrades) and it never attracted a mass following in Syria itself. It was however influential in the military, the state administration and intellectual circles. However, the Ba'ath was also highly factionalised and much of Syria's period of instability saw different groups of Ba'athists feuding with each other and struggling to suppress their rivals.
In 1967 Syria joined in the Six Day War against Israel and received a sound thrashing in return. After destroying the Syrian air force, Israeli forces overran the Golan Heights. This triggered more instability within Syria, culminating in a 1970 coup led by the Defence Minister, Hafez al-Assad. Assad's new government wished to conduct a more pragmatic foreign policy, avoiding the radical adventurism that had led to the 1967 disaster.
From Hunting Monsters