Country Briefing

Update 2011: Days of Rage

Syrian protesters and critics of the al-Assad government allege massive human rights abuses, and object to an emergency powers law has been in effect since 1963. Earlier in March, Syrian human rights attorney Haitham Maleh -- arrested in October 2009 during a government crackdown on lawyers and activists -- was freed. The move comes amid demands by many citizens for more economic prosperity, political freedom, and civil liberty.

More than 15 people were killed as tens of thousands took to the streets in the city of the Daraa, where deadly clashes erupted over the last week between protesters and security forces.

A source known only as Abdullah reported to CNN: "Thousands gathered and moved to the governor's building in Daraa and there, they burned a large picture of Bashar al-Assad, and then they toppled statue of Hafez al-Assad in the center of the square," he said, referring to the current president and his late father, the former president. "After that, armed men came out from the roof of the officers' club in front of the governor's officer and started firing at the crowd."

The Assad regime is infamous for its willingness to attack its people. In 1982, government troops were sent into the town of Hamas to crush a rebellion, slaughtering over 20,000 Syrian citizens, leveling the town of Hamas and ending the rebellion. Assad's tactics became known as "Hamas Rules," meaning a no-holds-barred approach to destroying opponents and intimidating critics. Dictators rarely mellow as they age, so it's likely that the regime will again unleash the security forces against its opponents.


Located at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, Syria shares borders with Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. Syria and Lebanon are known as the Levant states and share much common history and many modern day problems.  After invading Iraq the U.S. has focused its political rhetoric on Syria, claiming that the country has developed chemical weapons and is possibly pursuing a nuclear program.

America has since 1979 has also designated Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism. Syria admits supporting resistance groups involved in "legitimate" struggles for independence, or to reclaim occupied territories, meaning Lebanese and Palestinian groups. Meanwhile, Syrian culpability for a number of terrorist incidents has been disproved, or called into question by evidence. Many wonder whether Syria is the next target for the Bush Administration’s policy of unilateral liberation.

America’s invasion of Iraq and subsequent saber rattling at Syria and Iran added new uncertainty and risk to an always-volatile region. The US government complained that Syria has failed to police its borders with Iraq, thereby facilitating passge of foreign fighters into Iraq and enabling former Iraqi Ba'athist and Saddam Hussein loyalists to flee into Syria.

Individuals suspected of criminal and terrorist activity in Iraq are believed to have taken refuge in Syria. Bowing to international pressure, Syria withdrew virtually all of its troops from Lebanon in mid-2005. This move may have helped emboldened Hizbollah to undertake more provocative action versus Israel. In the summer of 2006, after two IDF soldiers were kidnapped by Hizbollah, Israel invaded Lebanon, sparking international outrage as overwhelming IDF forces pounded militarily impotent Lebanon.

Historical Background

In ancient times the Levant was home to the Phoenicians who established the foundations for western civilization, inventing the alphabet, building sea-going ships and creating the first large-scale manufacturing of textiles and ceramics as early as 1250 B.C. In 332 B.C. the region was conquered by Alexander the Great and in 63 A.D. fell to Rome’s Byzantine conquest and remained under at least marginal Roman control for nearly 600 years.

Christianity took firm root in the region until 636 when the Ummaia Caliphs rose to power and Damascus became home of the Caliphate, the ruling base of the fast-growing Islamic world prior to its move to Bahgdad. In the 11th century the Levant came under control of the Seljuk Turks, European Crusaders, Saladin’s Kurds, the Egyptian Mamluks and finally the Ottoman Turks in 1516.  Syria remained part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 400 years, except for a brief period of occupation by Napoleon.

Centuries of competing Christian and Muslim influence created powerful communal differences between Maronite Christians and Druze Muslims, as well as Sunni, Shia Muslims. Disagreements over land ownership led to a Maronite rebellion and the Druze massacred thousands of Maronites, prompting intervention by French forces to protect the Christians in 1860. France forced the Turks to establish a separate province of “Little Lebanon,” over which European states would have substantial influence. With European backing the Maronites assumed superiority over their Muslim neighbors.

Seeking to exploit Europe’s distraction with World War I and rid themselves of European influence, Arab nationalists revolted and established a short-lived government. After World War I, the League of Nations awarded France control over Syria and Lebanon, a measure to protect French interests in the Iraq Petroleum pipeline from Iraq to Tripoli, while England took control over Iraq, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt. France divided the region into territories, roughly based on communal differences. In 1926 Lebanon became independent. Even today some Syrians continue to argue for reunification of Syria and Lebanon.

In 1940, British and Free French forces occupied Syria after the local French administration declared its loyalty to the pro-Nazi Vichy government. Syria became independent in 1944 although French forces didn’t withdraw until 1946 at U.N. direction.

An Era of Turmoil and Conflict

Syria helped found the Arab League and fought against establishment of Israel in the war of 1947-48. During the war many Palestinians fled to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, adding complexity to the diverse national, political and religious mosaic. After a series of coups, the Ba’ath Party took power in 1963 with Hafez al-Assad becoming president in 1971. Assad imposed harsh totalitarian rule until his death in June 2001. The government is mainly controlled by members of the Alawite Muslim minority, representing just 12% of the Syrian population. His son, Bashar a-Assad, succeeded him. Syria again joined the Arab coalition forces attacking Israel in the 1967 Six-day War during which Israel occupied the Golan Heights in southwestern Syria.

In 1970 Syria supported Palestinians fighting against Jordanian forces and subsequently suspended relations with Jordan. In 1973 Syria massed its armies near the Israel border, prompting Israel to attack, launching the Yom Kippur War. In 1976 Syria sent troops into Lebanon as part of the Arab Deterrent Force to forestall partitioning of the country and in hopes of mediating the civil war. Syrian forces became embroiled in fighting against Lebanese Christian militias in 1981 as Lebanon slid into all-out civil war. Amidst Lebanon’s internal conflict, Israel invaded in support the Christian militias, destroying Syrian planes and Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missile batteries.  Syria then backed Palestinian factions seeking expulsion of Yassir Arafat’s PLO from its base in Tripoli.

In the late 1970’s, members of the Sunni majority associated with the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and rose in armed opposition to the secular Assad regime. As the resistance gained strength Assad sent government troops into the town of Hamas in 1982 to crush the rebellion, slaughtering over 20,000 Syrian citizens, leveled Hamas and put an end to internal dissent. The insurgents reportedly received support from Iraq and Jordan. Syria closed its border with Iraq, which responded by closing the Kirkuk-Banius oil pipeline. Subsequently, Syria’s relations with Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia deteriorated. Syria charged Jordan with continuing support of the Muslim Brotherhood and threatened military action against Jordan. As the Iraq-Iran war erupted, Syria backed Iran against Iraq and henceforth, strengthening relations with Iran, but aggravating relations with Iraq. In the 1991 Gulf War, Syria joined the coalition forces to expel the Iraqi invaders from Kuwait.  In mid-2005, bowing to international pressure, Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon under UN supervision.

Arguably, the absence of Syrian forces contributed to the rise of Hizbollah in Lebanon and to the Israeli invasion in the summer of 2006. The US has continually criticized Syria for harboring Iraqi exiles and failing to secure its borders with Iraq, thus permitting foreign fighters to enter and disrupt Iraq. Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Syria announced plans to re-deploy troops from its Iraq border to the border with Lebanon, further aggravating US-Syrian relations.Syrian Support International TerrorismSyria has remained steadfast in demanding return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in1967 and in demanding Israeli withdrawal from other occupied territories. Syria’s fertile Bekaa Valley, a prime agricultural area, is better known as a training base for insurgent groups operating in Lebanon, Palestine and Turkey. 

Since 1979 Syria has been designated as a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. State Department.  Syria acknowledges its support and/or tolerance of certain organizations and argues that its support is limited to legitimate resistance movements. Since 1984, Syria provided a safe haven for Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) resistance fighters seeking independence from Turkey as had been directed under the Treaty of Sevres after World War I, but never achieved. In 1998, Syria agreed to expel the PKK from its territory and has done so.

Likewise, Syria has permitted Palestinian resistance groups to train and operate from bases in its Bekaa (Biqa’) Valley and permits the re-supply of Hizballah, a Shia Muslim militia operating in southern Lebanon. Syria argues that these activities are legitimate resistance to Israeli occupation in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria’s Golan Heights.   The U.S. has also claimed Syrian links to specific terrorist events, but in each case information has been developed to refute such allegations or to raise questions as to the accuracy of such charges.

For instance, Syria was initially implicated in the Pan Am airliner bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, but ultimately responsibility fell to Libya; in other cases evidence points to Iran not Syria.  Nonetheless, Syria remains a target of U.S. political animosity and economic sanctions.Syria and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)In 1998, the Clinton Administration charged that Syria had developed and armed missiles with Sarin nerve gas.

The U.S. also claimed that Syria and Russia have cooperative agreements to upgrade Syrian military equipment, namely anti-tank weapons, and possibly programs to develop nuclear power facilities in Syria.  Meanwhile, Israel charges that Syria has developed long-range Scud missiles, capable of hitting targets throughout Israel. Before the smoke had cleared over defeated Iraq, the U.S. re-focused attention on Syria, reiterating concerns over Syrian weapons and intentions. Meanwhile, Syria has called for establishing a WMD-Free zone in the Middle East, reminding that Israel already has nuclear weapons and possibly Bio-Chem weapons as well.

Syria currently produces small amounts of oil, but its reserves are expected to run out in 10-12 years and the recent Iraqi oil embargos put pressure on Syria to sustain its energy sources. As a result, Syria, not surprisingly, imported Iraqi oil in violation of U.N. sanctions for which it has been criticized. Given its diminishing reserves, U.N. and U.S. sanctions and erratic relations with Arab neighbors, it’s also not surprising that Syria finds itself compelled to pursue nuclear energy sources, regardless of any future weapons potential.

As the U.S. maintains the rhetoric and increases the political heat on Syria, the potential for renewed conflict involving Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the numerous resistance groups can be expected to increase. Syria’s relations with Russia and Europe add uncertain complexity to an already difficult situation and put considerable pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to manage the many conflicting interests that could lead to further violence in this troubled region. For related information, refer to the Country Briefings on Lebanon, Israel-Palestine and Turkey-Kurdistan.

Days of Rage 2011

I the aftermath of the 2011 mass uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrians took to the streets demanding government reforms. Not surprisingly, the Assad regime responded with a heavy hand and demonstrators were beaten, shot and killed by security forces. Rather than quell the uprising, government actions inflammed the situation, demonstrators greww more determined and their numbers grew. Demands for reform evolved into demands to replace the dictatorial regime.

The government announced measures to address the protesters' demands. The regime declared it would cut taxes and raise government workers salaries by 1,500 Syrian pounds ($32.60 US) a month and pledged to provide more press freedoms, increased job opportunities and curbs on government corruption. It also said it would "consider"study lifting the country's emergency law that has been in force since 1963. The regime said it would pass legislation allowing political parties.

But promises were not enough to dissaude demonstrators. "The whole of the city was out in the street to bury the dead and demand that those responsible be tried for their crimes against the people of Daraa," a witness said. "We broke the barrier of fear today and the security forces could not touch us."

The Human Rights Watch, among other groups, said that around three dozen people were killed in clashes in a 48-hour period. "Syria's security forces are showing the same cruel disregard for protesters' lives as their counterparts in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "President Bashar al-Assad's talk about reforms doesn't mean anything when his security forces are mowing down people who want to talk about them."






Capital: Damascus
Area: 185,180 sq km
Population: 19,988,000

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