The Ottoman centuries: 1516-1920

Ottoman rule over the region of Palestine and Syria lasts for four centuries from the arrival of the sultan and his army in 1516. The region is ruled for most of that period by a provincial administration in Damascus. From time to time there is unrest, turmoil and violence - but as if in a vacuum. Firm Ottoman control seals the area from outside influence or intrusion (apart from a few dramatic months in 1799, when Napoleon arrives in the district).

A longer and more significant interlude is the period from 1831 to 1840, when Mohammed Ali - the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt - seizes Palestine and Syria from his own master, the sultan. The military campaign is conducted by Mohammed Ali's son, Ibrahim Pasha, who becomes governor general of the area. He rules rather better than the Ottoman administration, allowing a degree of modernisation. But Britain, Austria and Russia come to the aid of the sultan in 1840, forcing Mohammed Ali to withdraw his armies to Egypt.

During the following decades the most significant development is the beginning of European Jewish settlement in Palestine, from 1882. But it is World War I which changes the region out of recognition, ending the Ottoman centuries and bringing into existence the modern territories of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine (the region now including Israel), Jordan and Iraq.

When Germany seeks an armistice, in early November 1918, the war ends. Delegates to the peace conference gather in Paris two months later. Their task is a complex one – working out the precise terms that will be imposed if a treaty is to be signed with each of the defeated nations. The treaty with the Ottoman empire is the last to be agreed, not being signed until August 1920 at Sèvres.

Its terms are harsh. The empire is to be entirely dismantled, with all the Middle Eastern provinces previously under Turkish control now made the responsibility of France and Britain as mandated territories. The division between the two European nations has already been agreed between them, foreseeing this possible outcome if Turkey is defeated. In 1916 the Sykes-Picot agreement has been signed. Its details have been negotiated by François Picot for France and Mark Sykes for Britain. Their proposed borders, drawn in a fairly arbitrary fashion, are adopted when the League of Nations in 1920 allots to France the mandate for Syria and Lebanon and to Britain the mandate for Palestine, Jordan and Iraq.

French Mandate: 1920-39

The establishment of the French mandate is faced with an immediate challenge. The problem is that the Arabs have already taken things into their own hands. To them Syria means the entire region distributed between France and Britain by the treaty of Sèvres, known also as Greater Syria. In July 1919 a body calling itself the Syrian National Congress is established in Damascus and one of its first acts, in March 1920, is to proclaim Faisal bin Husayn as king of the entire region. He is a charismatic young man, one of the sons of the emir of Mecca and in 1917 he becomes the leader, with T.E. Lawrence, of a highly successful campaign against the Turks. He becomes king of the entire region of Greater Syria just one month before France is given its mandate.

The first task for the French, therefore, is to remove Faisal. The issue can only be resolved by battle, so within a month of being granted the mandate the French are forced to assert their authority by military means. The battle takes place in July 1920 at Maysalun, about twelve miles west of Damascus. The superiority of the French forces ensures their victory. Faisal is deposed, within three months of being proclaimed king. (But things move fast in this year in this region. In August 1921 the British appoint him king of Iraq).

In 1925 France is again faced with a situation that involves them in full-scale warfare within their mandated territory. An uprising lasting two years, known as the Great Syrian Revolution, is prompted by the French imposing a centrist form of rule in disregard of the local autonomy that the sheikhs have enjoyed under the Turks. It is led by Sultan al-Atrash, a member of one of Syria's minorities, the Druzes. He wins several engagements against the French in the summer of 1925 until large French reinforcements turn the tide, but the uprising is not fully suppressed until 1927. Al-Atrash is sentence to death but escapes into exile.

In 1936 France negotiates a treaty allowing Syrian independence. It is signed by both sides and is immediately ratified by the Syrians, who now call themselves the Republic of Syria. But the French drag their heels in ratifying it. By 1938, with world war on the horizon, it becomes clear that they have no intention of doing so. In July 1939 the Syrian president and parliament resign.

Independence: 1946

In the first few years of independence the country is governed, on a democratic basis, by the political parties that have been involved in the struggle against France. But the defeat of Syria and the other Arab states in the region in 1949, in the first Arab-Israeli war, prompts a very rapid series of military coups d' états – no fewer than three in that same year, with a succession of generals seizing power. The third remains in power until displaced in 1954 in a fourth coup.

This time the military reintroduce parliamentary government, with elections in 1954. They bring into government for the first time a party, the Ba'ath, that will prove in the longer term to be the most significant in Syria. It derives from two political groups formed in Syria in the 1940s, each defining its policy as ba'ath, an Arabic word meaning renewal or renaissance. Its slogan, 'Unity, Liberty, Socialism', defines very precisely its pre-independence position, moving towards the unity of Arab states in a shared cause, Liberty from colonial rule, and left-wing politics.

Ba'athist influence leads to the country's merger with Egypt in 1958, together forming the United Arab Republic. The combined region is to be ruled by a single government involving Syrian and Egyptian politicians, consistent with the Ba'athist creed of Arab unity but also giving both countries a stronger hand against fast-growing Communist parties within their borders. However the project fails, partly because Egypt becomes increasingly the dominant partner. Syria withdraws from the union in 1961.

Syria's next coup d' états, in 1963, is led by the Ba'ath party which puts in place a civilian administration. One of the junior officers involved in the coup is Hafez al-Assad, talented and ruthless. Three years later, in 1966, there is another Ba'athist coup, this time with Assad playing a more central. It replaces the party's constitutional government with a military one in which Assad becomes minister of defence. His political skills enable him to survive the disaster of the Six-Day War in 1967, which ends with four days in which Israeli forces capture Syria's strategically important Golan Heights.

Assad steadily increases his power base. The effective ruler of the country, the man with real power, is Salah Jadid although his colleague, Nureddin al-Atassi, is officially president and head of the Ba'ath party. Jadid is well aware of the danger from Assad and in November 1970 he tries to dismiss him from his post as minister of defence. Assad reacts by launching a coup, so immediately successful that it is bloodless. With power now fully in his hands the party is immediately purged of senior Jadid supporters. Jadid himself is arrested and remains in prison until his death in 1993.

The Assad years to 2000

Assad becomes prime minister and in 1971 is elected president by the newly purged Ba'ath party. His regime soon takes on its lasting character. He is an Alawite, a member of a small Shia sect amounting to about 12% of Syria's population. By far the majority within the state, in the region of 80%, are Sunni Muslims. They now find themselves ruled by the tightly-knit Alawite community from which Assad selects his closest political colleagues and appoints the senior members of the armed forces.

It is a position which they will have to accept for at least the next forty-five years with Assad applying the ruthless methods of a modern police state against his political opponents. The most extreme example is the Hama massacre in 1982. In an uprising in the city by the Muslim Brotherhood, long-time Sunni opponents of the secular Ba'ath party and regime, about 70 leading local Ba'athists have been killed and Hama has been declared a liberated city before Assad's troops arrive to exact heavy reprisals.

The city is shelled and bombed for a week and entirely isolated for another two while insurgents are tracked down. Deaths, many of people not related to the insurgency, are variously calculated from 25,000 to possibly as many as 40,000. The example, understandably and intentionally, discourages any Sunni uprisings against the Alawite regime in other Syrian cities. Like other successful middle-eastern and north-African dictators, Assad presides henceforth over an apparently peaceful and stable community kept in that state by ruthless central control and appalling treatment of dissidents.

There is one detail beyond his control. Again like other dictators, Assad is determined to found a dynasty. After he recovers from a serious illness in 1984 he begins the process of making his eldest son, Bassel al-Assad, familiar to the nation as his successor. From now on Bassel often accompanies his father on public occasions and he is soon appointed head of presidential security. But these plans for the succession come to a sudden and disastrous end. Bassel has a passion for fast cars. In 1994 he is driving at speed towards the airport in fog. He crashes and dies instantly.

His younger brother Bashar, studying in London at the time as a postgraduate ophthalmologist, is immediately recalled to Syria for the preparation for the succession to begin again. Unlike Bassel he is as yet little known to the republic, but a phrase is coined to identify him as successor to his brother in the role of president-in-waiting: 'Bassel the example, Bashar the future'. The future begins in 2000, when Hafez al-Assad dies at the age of sixty-nine.

The Assad years since 2000

Bashar al- Assad is immediately elected president, unopposed (a familiar process, repeated in 2007).The early months of the new presidency seem promising from a civil rights point of view. Open discussion of desirable reforms is tolerated and soon becomes widespread, causing the changed situation to become known as the Damascus Spring. The resulting proposals are radical. A document encapsulating them is the Statement of 99, issued in September 2000 by ninety-nine Syrian intellectuals. They call for the elements that characterize a modern democratic society – legal protection for free speech and free assembly, political prisoners to be released, constraints and surveillance in everyday life to be suspended. And some of their demands relate more specifically to Ba'athist rule. The state of emergency in place since the Ba'athist coup d' états in 1963 is to be ended. And article 8 of the Syrian constitution must be repealed; it states that 'the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party leads the state and society'.

The government responds positively. Hundreds of political prisoners are released and the country's most feared prison, the Mezze, infamous for its methods of torture, is closed. In spite of all this the new relaxed atmosphere is allowed to continue, and in January 2001 the first manifesto is followed by a more detailed and demanding one, with ten times as many signatories, the Statement of 1000.

The Damascus Spring ends during 2001 when the Ba'athist government returns to its familiar methods, but the voice of opposition has not been entirely suppressed – for example at an unauthorized press conference in September 2005 the Damascus Declaration is issued by five small opposition groups in the tradition of the Statement of 99. But any trace of moderation is swept away after the Arab spring of 2010, when the response of Bashar al-Assad to public protest leads to a major humanitarian disaster.

Civil War: from 2011

Demonstrations begin in Syria in March 2011, three months after the beginning of the Arab Spring. At the start there are especially large numbers of protesters in Daraa, a city in the southwest of the country near the border with Jordan. They demandthe resignation of Bashar al-Assad. Protests spread rapidly across the country, with increasingly large numbers of people on the streets, much damage done to Ba'ath buildings and inevitable deaths at the hands of the security forces.

But before the end of the month, on the March 29, large crowds also demonstrate in Damascus and other large cities in support of the president. It is evident from the start that this is far from a unified uprising against a regime seen by all as oppressive and corrupt. There are formidable numbers of people on both sides, for and against the Ba'athist regime. Underlying the rift is the ancient Muslim hostility between Sunni and Shia. The Alawite sect, from which the Assad family derive, are part of a Shia minority within Syria, and the family has packed the higher levels of the government and armed forces with Alawites and Shias. The Sunni, excluded for decades from power, have a sectarian motive for dethroning Assad as well as their outrage at his family's method of rule.

The potential for civil war between these groups is evident but in the early months the president, using the full force of the Syrian army while also offering certain concessions, is able to some extent to control the situation. This begins to change when members of the Syrian army, angry at the methods they are expected to use against protesters, begin to defect and join the rebels. They take their weapons with them and thus make possible, in July, the formation of the Free Syrian Army. The clash by now is unmistakably taking on the appearance of war. And over the following months the rebel army succeeds in controlling a large section of the counry, particularly in the north. It even has a foothold in the suburbs of Damascus.

But every important metre is fiercely fought over. Aleppo, the largest city in the north, is a good example. It is infiltrated during July 2012 by Free Syrian forces from the surrounding countryside. The sections of the city they occupy become the target of sustained artillery fire and assaults from jets by the Syrian army and airforce, while house-to-house fighting becomes common. A year later the city is still divided, with the Syrian army holding the western part and the Free Syrian Army established in the east. Meanwhile many thousand people have been killed, mainly civilians, and their ancient city has been very severely damaged. Both sides stand accused of atrocities on the ground here and elsewhere, with a disregard by many of basic human rights and the maltreatment, including torture, of their opponents.

Internationally the response to this humanitarian disaster is complex and largely ineffective. On the political level the western nations are eager for the United Nations to apply sanctions on the regime. But this proves impossible owing to determined opposition in the Security Council by Russia and China. (Russia has an important naval base at Tartus in Syria, its only access to the Mediterranean, and has existing contracts to supply Syria with arms)

There has therefore been a wish by some western countries to supply not only medical aid to the rebels but also arms, to give them at least an equal chance of prevailing in the conflict. In the summer of 2013 the European Union lifts an existing embargo on supplying weapons to either side, thus making it possible to help the rebels. And in July President Obama, convinced that the Syrian regime has on at least one occasion used nerve gas against its opponents, announces that the US will start supplying weapons to the Free Syrian Army. The problem in doing so is that there is by now a major rift, leading even to fighting, between different rebel factions. The rebels have been joined by some fighters linked to al-Qaeda, seeing a great opportunity for their movement if Assad falls. The danger in giving arms to rebels in sympathy with the west is that they will fall into the hands of some equally strongly opposed.

Meanwhile even humanitarian aid is very difficult to get to those in most urgent need of it, the very large number of displaced people within Syria who are short of food and medical supplies. In broad terms the aid only reaches the Syrian refugees, amounting in all to about 1.5 million, living in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. According to the United Nations the death toll in Syria, civilian as well as military, is more than 100,000 by the summer of 2013.