Syria is in the news. But how much do you really know about that country and its Twentieth Century history? Here’s the first part of a Syria Timeline to help you out.
1915-1918: Over 600,000 inhabitants of greater Syria lose their lives during World War I, roughly 18% of the prewar population.
September 1918: An Arab military force occupies Damascus and Faisal ibn Husayn is declared king of Syria. He believes that Arab support for British military ambitions will be rewarded by British support for the creation of an Arab state consisting of most of Syria.
1920: French forces drive Faisal from Damascus, leading to 25 years of mandate authority. The French claim to Syria is based on a combination of religious, economic, and strategic interests. The French see themselves as protectors of Christian communities in the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean region) but face strong resistance as they enter Syria.
Damascus and Aleppo are divided into two separate states; each has its own governor and its own set of French advisers.
A military academy is founded employing French instructors and producing a cadre of Syrian officers who are attached to the newly formed Syrian Legion. The force numbers around 6,000 by the mid-1930s.
1922: The French stress the distinctiveness of Syria’s two regionally compact minority groups. They provide both the Alawites (adherents to a form of Twelver Shi’ism) and the Druze (rooted in Ismailism — a branch of Shi’ism with Seven Pillars) with a separate state. Except for a brief period from 1936-1939, these states are administratively separate from Syria until 1942.
1924: France introduces a new political arrangement by combining the states of Damascus and Aleppo into a single unit called the State of Syria. This unit also comprises the cities of Homs and Hama, the next two largest urban centers in the mandate.
These four cities are dominated by Sunni Muslim merchants and landowners. In effect, France has isolated the Druze and the Alawites from national politics.
1925-1927: Beginning as a localized rebellion, a revolt soon engulfs most of Syria and becomes a symbol of the common Syrian objection to the mandate. It becomes known as “the great revolt.”
July 1925: The revolt begins in the State of Jabal Druze. The armed uprising succeeds in driving French forces from the Jabal Druze.
Autumn 1925: Homs and Damascus are in full revolt.
October 18, 1925: French military commanders subject Damascus to an air and artillery bombardment that lasts for 48 hours and kills as many as 1,400 people.
Spring 1927: Massive French military reinforcements manage to quell the revolt. Some 6,000 Syrians have died and thousands more are left homeless. Parts of the commercial center of Damascus have been reduced to rubble.
1946: The French withdraw from Syria.
1946: The Ba’ath becomes a formal party dedicated to revolutionary activism. It aims to bring about a complete transformation of Arab society. The ‘party’ believes in the existence of a single Arab nation and is committed to the achievement of Arab unity. Goals include the restoration of Arab dignity and Arab virtues. It equates Islam with Arabism, both of which are thought to express the Arab spirit.
The Ba’ath mission is to bring an end to social injustice, class exploitation and tyranny and to establish freedom, democracy, and socialism. The ‘party’ attracts a following among young Arabs that extends beyond the borders of Syria.
1948: The first president of independent Syria, Shukri al-Quwwatli, commits the inexperienced Syrian armed forces to the Arab war against newly independent Israel in 1948. Syria is defeated and the officer corps blames the defeat on Syria’s corrupt civilian regime.
March 1949: The Syrian army stages the first in a series of military coups. The coup is led by Colonel Husni Za’im. The defeat of President Quwwatli brings an end to the political domination of the urban notable classes. Wealthy urban politicians educated in Ottoman or European schools are replaced by young men of mainly peasant origins trained in the Syrian military academy.
The coup ushers in a period of extreme political instability marked by two additional coups before year’s end. The second of the coups is led by Colonel Adib Shishakli who manages to hang onto power until 1954.
Shishakli establishes a centralized military dictatorship and brings a temporary end to the factionalism within the officer corps. He adopts a neutralist foreign policy, refusing to participate in Western-sponsored defense pacts.
1954: Shishakli is ousted by a faction within the military after he resorts to repressive measures to keep himself in power.
1954-1958: Syria returns to civilian parliamentary government, but the military continues to interfere in politics. The Syrian political structure is so fragmented that the government can barely function. Instability is traced to:
- the divide and rule policies of the French
- the factionalization and politicization of the officer corps
- the emergence of political parties
- the country’s place in the struggle for domination of the eastern Arab world. Egypt and Iraq both want to bring Syria into their orbit to increase their own regional power.
1954: The Ba’ath Party demonstrates its strength in 1954 elections. It will develop as the most significant Arab party of the postwar era and will exercise an influence on Nasser and other prominent figures outside Syria. Party doctrine combines aspects of nationalism and socialism.
Mid-1950s: The Syrian communist party — led by Khalid Bakdash — becomes a major force in the country’s political life.
1956: Syria receives Soviet arms supplies. Czech and Soviet military advisers arrive to assist with training and maintenance.
April 1956: Syria joins Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen in forming a joint military alliance aimed at Israel. These nations, along with Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan, refuse to recognize the Israeli government.
Late 1957: Syrian Ba’athist leaders recognize that they aren’t strong enough to bring the country under their control. Fearing that continued chaos will benefit the Communists, they approach Nasser about a union.
February 1958: Syria becomes part of the United Arab Republic (UAR), a loose federation of Egypt, Syria and Yemen. The group is dominated by Egypt and held together by the Egyptian president’s Arab nationalist convictions. Egyptian President Nasser insists that the Syrian Ba’ath Party be dissolved.
1960s: Ba’athist regimes reorient Syria’s existing private enterprise economy to an economy based on state control. Major business firms, banks, industrial plants, and transportation companies are nationalized. Large landed estates are expropriated and a program of land redistribution is begun.
1961: The UAR breaks up. In Syria, two years of chaos follow.
1963: Military officers carry out a coup d’etat that brings the Ba’ath back into power. The coup brings to the fore a tightly knit group of young Alawite officers who work to consolidate their control over Syrian political life. Amin al-Hafiz, a Sunni Muslim, becomes head of state, but three young Alawites (Hafez al-Asad, Muhammad Umran, and Salih Jadid) control the levers of power. Their domestic policies are designed to consolidate Ba’athist rule and remake Syrian society along more equitable lines.
1965: The Syrian regime nationalizes 100 companies and begins to expropriate and redistribute land from large privately owned estates.
1966: All members of old influential families are purged from government service. The new military regime forges an alliance between individuals of rural origins and lower middle-class urbanites — school teachers, civil servants and university students, the backbone of the Ba’ath.
A violent internal coup led by al-Asad ousts Amin al-Hafiz. Al-Asad is now minister of defense as well as commander of the air force, and he becomes the dominant figure within the armed forces.
1967: June or Six Day War: Israel destroys the Syrian air force and captures Syrian territory. The Syrian regime is discredited, especially the minister of defense. Al-Assad is convinced that Syria’s defeat is caused primarily by the mistakes of his associates. He resolves to gain control over all aspects of Syrian decisionmaking.
1970s: For al-Asad, the conflict with Israel takes precedence over all other foreign policy considerations. During the late Ottoman period, the territory that eventually became the Palestinian mandate was regarded as part of southern Syria, and its transformation into the state of Israel was felt to be a keen loss by most Syrians.
November 1970: Al-Asad orders the arrest of Jadid and other members of the government.
LOOK FOR THE NEXT PART OF THE SYRIAN TIMELINE. IT’S COMING SOON!
Thank you for this thumbnail history of post-Ottoman Syria. Most informative in supplying information prescient to what is going on there today.