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Ancient country and modern republic. Historic crossroads at the E end of the Mediterranean Sea, its modern counterpart belies the vastness and complexity of Syria’s long history. It was dominated by the early empires of Akkad and Sumer before 1900 b.c., while the Semitic Amorites established several kingdoms in Syria, notably at Aleppo. Meanwhile the Indo-European Hittite Empire, moving south from Asia Minor c. 1800 b.c., clashed with the empire of Egypt between 1750 and 1000 b.c. on Syrian soil. The two eventually divided the Syrian region between their spheres of influence. Nevertheless, large city-states, such as Ugarit, flourished in this period, nurturing the earliest writing and the arts. South of Syria, in Canaan, the Canaanites were subdued by the wand ering Hebrews, but their northern branch became the seafaring people of the maritime empire of Phoenicia, based on the Lebanese coast of Syria.

From the 11th to the seventh centuries b.c. the various empires of Assyria to the east invaded the area several times, capturing Damascus in 732 b.c. Within a century the succeeding empire of Babylon conquered Syria again, only to be displaced by Cyrus the Great, who took Babylonia in 538 b.c. and united the Middle East under the new empire of Persia until 333 b.c., when Alexand er the Great of the Macedonian Empire defeated Darius III of Persia at Issus. Near the site of his victory Alexand er founded Antioch, which became the new political and cultural center of Syria.

The division of Alexand er’s empire among his generals in 323 b.c. gave most of the East to Seleucus, who founded the Seleucid Empire. It introduced Hellenistic civilization to the area and ruled Syria until the first century b.c. Invasions from Armenia and Parthia ended the dynasty. In 64 b.c. the Romans under Pompey conquered the Near East and incorporated Syria into a Roman province.

Under the Roman Empire Christianity took root in the area, soon penetrating north from Palestine into Syria. While traveling to Damascus in this period, St. Paul, a Roman civil servant, was converted to Christianity. The first use of the word “Christian” to describe the new religion was used in Antioch. Syria flourished under the empire, contributing emperors and eastern cults to the amalgam that was Roman culture. It then became part of the Byzantine Empire, but in a.d. 636 was lost to Islam when religious schism between Antioch and Constantinople alienated its population and the resurgent Arab hosts defeated the Byzantines at the Battle of the Yarmuk.

From 661 to 750 the Muslim Umayyad dynasty, ruling from Damascus in Syria, carved out an empire that eventually stretched from Spain to India. Syria lost its central position in Islam, however, when the Abbasid Caliphate replaced the Umayyad in 750 and moved the center of power to Baghdad in Iraq.

In the Middle Ages Syria continued to be a crossroads of dissension as the crusaders struggled to gain the Holy Land . In 1098 they took Antioch on the First Crusade and expand ed E to Edessa and Aleppo but were forced to defend them against the Byzantine Empire, Fatimids of Egypt, the Seljuk Turks, and finally the great Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria.

Saladin emerged victorious, but after his death in a.d. 1193 Syria fell into disarray and in 1260 was devastated by the Mongols. They sacked Damascus and Aleppo, whose inhabitants they massacred. But in the same year the Mamluk Empire of Egypt defeated the Mongols and dominated Syria until 1516, when the Ottoman Empire took over the region. For 400 years the Turks held sway over Syria, interrupted only by a French invasion under Napoleon I in 1798–99, two brief incursions by Egypt from 1831 to 1833 and 1839–40, and an insurrection in 1860–61. Turkish rule weakened and collapsed during World War I as the Arabs of the Hejaz, acting with those of Syria and supported by the British under Lord Allenby and the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, threw off their yoke.

The Syrian region was made a French mand ate under the League of Nations in 1920, and in 1925 Damascus and Aleppo were united to form modern Syria, which became a republic in 1930. In the meantime by agreement Lebanon was carved out of the area as an independent state in 1926. In World War II Syria was at first under the control of the collaborationist French Vichy government. It was captured by the British and Free French in June–July 1941, and the French mand ate was brought to an end. In 1944 the Syrian Arab Republic achieved independence, although French troops did not leave the country until 1946.

The nation united briefly with Egypt in 1958 as the United Arab Republic, which was dissolved at Syrian insistence in 1961. In the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948–49 the Syrian armies were defeated, as they were again in 1967 and 1973, by Israel, which occupied the strategic Golan Heights on the border of both countries and formally annexed them in 1981.

In 1970 General Hafez al-Assad took over the government in a Baath Party coup. Syria’s invasion of Lebanon in 1976 to put down the civil war was followed by a cease-fire, which was broken in 1981 by more dissension. While Syrian troops remained in the country, Israel invaded it in June 1982 in pursuit of the Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas and clashed with the Syrians. A series of uneasy cease-fires were again imposed through 1982 and 1983, while protracted negotiations for the withdrawal of both armies from Lebanon continued. Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 1985, but Syria continued to occupy much of the country until 2005.

In the 1980s Syria was closely allied and supported by the Soviet Union, but with the breakup in 1990 relationships improved with the West. Syria was the first Arab country to condemn Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and in 1991, contributed 20,000 soldiers to the coalition forces in the Persian Gulf War.

Syria, along with Lebanon and a joint Palestinian- Jordanian delegation, entered peace talks with Israel in late 1991, but negotiations broke down over the Golan Heights. Talks were resumed in 1999, but broke down again in 2000 after a secret draft treaty with Syrian concessions was published in Israel, leading to a public hardening of Syria’s position with respect to the Golan. In June 2000, Assad died and his son Bashar al-Assad became command er in chief of the army, head of the Baath Party, and then president.

The son has slowly implemented some economic reforms toward a free market. Syria has strongly opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and was accused by U.S. government officials of supplying aid to Iraq and helping Iraqi officials to escape from U.S. forces. The Syrian border has been a flashpoint of resistance activity and contraband.

In 2004 Syria forced Lebanon to extend President Lahoud’s term, an act that was denounced by the UN Security Council. In 2005 the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who had opposed Syrian interference in Lebanon, led to anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon. Syria agreed to withdraw from Lebanon, and all were removed from Lebanese territory by April 2005.


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