Syria, derived from Assyria, is the land of one of the world's most ancient civilisations.
The Syrian, or Assyrian civilisation was one of the first to develop agriculture and the breeding of cattle (Neolithic culture c. 10,000 BC).
In northern Syria in 1975, archaeologists discovered evidence in the region of Ebla, that a great Semitic empire spanning from the Red Sea north to Turkey and East to Mesopotamia existed in c. 3000 BC. This empire grew through the development of commerce. During their excavations archaeologists found important Egyptian items proving that Elba was also in close contact with Egypt.
It's thought that the language of Ebla is one of the oldest written of the Semitic languages.
The Eblan civilisation was constantly effected by waves of war. It was conquered by Sargon of Akkad (2260 BC), successfully restored under the Amorites then conquered by the Hittites. It was occupied by Canaanites or Phoenicians, and Arameans.
Syria was a strategic point exploited by the empires of the Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Hittites. It eventually fell under the control of the Persian Empire before being transferred to the Greeks after the conquest of Alexander the Great. Then it was to come under the rule of the Romans and the Byzantines.
In 83 BC the King of Armenia conquered Syria and the Armenians ruled until it became a Roman Province in 64 BC.
Syria is often cited in Biblical history. Paul the Apostle, formerly known as Saul of Tarsus, was converted on the road to Damascus. He was, and perhaps still is, a prominent and emblematic figure relating to the first Christian Church of Antioch.
As with Persia, Syria became part of the Islamic Empire by AD 640. Damascus was chosen as the capital. Syria was then made up of four regions- Damascus, Homs, Palestine and Jordan. Being by then the centre of the Islamic Empire encompassing Spain, Morocco, the Middle East, India and some parts of Central Asia, Syria flourished in all respects. Splendid palaces and mosques were built, especially in Aleppo, Damascus and Homs.
It was an era of relative tolerance. Christians were often designated for governmental posts, but totalitarianism, corruption and laxity were to cause its decline.
After being overthrown by the Abbasid dynasty in 750, the capital of the Empire became Baghdad and the official language was then Arabic.
It's interesting to note that some of the coastline of Syria was held by Frankish Crusaders for a brief period during the 12th century. It was known as the Crusader State of the Principality of Antioch. (Perhaps this brief colonisation planted early seeds for the much later French mandate of Northern Syria and thus Lebanon, and the subsequent Syrian rebellions, all resulting from the aftermath of the First World War. Prior to the Great War, Syria or 'Greater Syria' included the total region of the Levant).
Even in the 12th century there were Shi'a extremists. There were known as Assassins (Hassassin). They threatened the region generally.
The Mongols arrived in 1260. They destroyed the irrigation systems and cities. Aleppo was the first to fall in January of that year, the fall of Damascus followed in March.
As the Mongol commander Hulegu had to return to China, his army was entrusted to Kitbuqa, a Christian Mongol. Some months later they were defeated by the Mamluks who had arrived with an Egyptian army (Battle of Ain Jalut, at Galilee).
There were more wars between the Mongols and the Mamluks, finally won by the latter at the cost of almost all those who fought in the Second Battle of Homs (1281).
Weakened by the Mongols and centuries of wars and instability, Syria was easily taken over by the Ottoman Empire from the 16th until the 20th century, an era during which Syria remained relatively poor. By the end of the 18th century only 12% of the villages were still inhabited.
Resulting from the defeat of the Ottomans who had allied with Germany during WW1, the Ottoman Empire was fatefully divided into various zones. France was provided with the northern zone of Syria and what was then to become Lebanon. The UK had the southern zone which included Iraq, Palestine and Jordan. The borders established in 1918 still remain the same today.
France and Syria negotiated a treaty allowing Syria independence in 1936 but it wasn't then ratified by France. It was not until January 1944 that Syria was recognised as an independent republic. British and Syrian pressure persuaded the French to finally evacuate their forces in 1946.
Since then Syria has been considerably involved in the Arabo-Israelian wars and has suffered from several military coups.
In 1956 the republic signed an agreement with the Soviet Union allowing the influence of communism in exchange for military equipment including tanks and aircraft.
Instability helped to bring about the 1963 coup of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command orchestrated by the Arab Socialist Resurrection Party (Ba'ath Party) active since 1940. The Baath ruling in Syria followed that of Iraq.
Under Hafez al-Assad 1970 - 2000 the Baath party continued to have majority control. During this period and since, there has been an unconvincing display of a token vestige of democracy. It's 1973 constitution confirmed Syria as a secular socialist state.
In that same year the Yom Kippur War was initiated by Egypt and Syria in a surprise attack against Israel. Their first successes were eventually reversed resulting in Israel's occupying of Syria's Golan Heights.
In Lebanon in 1976 the Maronite Christians requested aid from Syria to help with the Lebanese civil war. Syria sent 40,000 troops, but instead of helping, Syria took advantage of the situation which led to 30 years of Syrian military presence.
Although they were never proven, crimes such as the assassinations of Rafik Hariri, Kamal Jumblat and Bachir Gemayel were alleged to have been perpetrated by the Syrian regime and its secret service.
Due to Lebanese and international pressure, most of the Syrian forces finally withdrew from Lebanon by April, 2005.
Today much of the world is concerned by the brutality of Bashar al-Assad, but his father set the paternal precedent in 1982 when he responded to a rebellion in Hama by sending in a military force. It is reported that the Syrian military indiscriminately assassinated between more than fifteen thousand civilians including women, children and elderly folk.
Although Bashar al-Assad has promised reforms, nothing of any real consequence has yet been forthcoming. Emergency law was dropped in April, 2011
Obviously this is only a rough synopsis of Syrian history, from various sources. Much has been glossed over, but it might serve as an adequate backdrop for the cruel drama that began in January this year, and still continues today.
In view of Syria's history, the dream of the 'Great Syria' that has to include Lebanon, is bound to continue. But Syria often seems too obsessed with its past, far less aware of the present, and virtually blind to the future.
Its endlessly turbulent and chaotic history may also be a contributing factor to what appears to be fatalism shown by the thousands of Syrian protesters. Although since the beginning of this year they have been manifesting for what is perfectly reasonable, they have also been constantly exposing themselves like sacrificial lambs to the ruthlessness of their tyrannical regime. Yet as it seems clear that what they are manifesting for is being denied them, surely it's time they organised themselves more effectively in order to gain what every modern civilisation today has, or should have, every right to.
Armed anti government groups do exist, but it appears that there's still not enough unity for them to be able to establish a joint engagement similar to that of the Libyan opposition. Until this unity is established, the Syrian opposition cannot be openly helped, at least not without those willing and able to help, then being accused of interference.
Once they are organised and properly represented, then they can officially request aid through their representatives as did the Libyans. Assuming there is little doubt that this request is indeed the majority wish of the Syrian population, then surely democratic nations not only have a moral obligation to help them, but it follows that they also have the responsibility to defend the Syrian people's right to democracy.
Text © Mirino. Historic source- Wikipedia. Satellite image Nasa (May, 2003).
With many thanks. September, 2011