Syria covers an area that has seen invasions and occupations over the ages, from Romans and Mongols to Crusaders and Turks.
It is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Christians, Druze, Alawite Shia and Arab Sunnis, the last of whom make up a majority of the Muslim population.
Modern Syria gained its independence from France in 1946, after which it saw considerable political instability with multiple military coups and coup attempts between 1949 and 1971. Between 1958 and 1961 it briefly joined with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic. Significantly, the 1963 coup saw the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party establish a one-party state.
General Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970, setting up a repressive political system. After his death in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad inherited the presidency.
SYRIAN ARAB REPUBLIC: FACTS
- Capital: Damascus
- Area: 185,180 sq km
- Population: 22.1 million
- Language: Arabic
- Life expectancy: 68 years (men) 75 years (women)
President: Bashar al-Assad
In power since succeeding his father in 2000, Bashar al-Assad has fought for control of his country after protests turned into civil war.
He inherited a repressive political structure from his father Hafez al-Assad, with an inner circle dominated by members of the family’s minority Alawite Shia community.
Cracks began to appear in early 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring wave of popular dissent, but a divided opposition and strong support for President Assad from his Iranian and Russian allies steadily turned the tide of battle in the government’s favour after 2017.
Syria has three distinct media environments – pro-government, opposition and Kurdish – reflecting its territorial divisions after more than a decade of war.Journalists face clear red lines on reporting, and media workers have been targeted by all parties to the conflict: the Syrian army and its allies; armed opposition factions; Kurdish-led forces; and militant or jihadist groups.
Some key dates in Syria’s history:
3500-2300BC – Kingdom of Ebla, the earliest recorded indigenous civilization in the region.
c. 2300BC – Part of the Akkadian Empire under Sargon the Great and his grandson Naram-Sin.
1800-1200BC – Rise of the coastal kingdom of Ugarit.
During the Bronze Age, Syria becomes a battleground between the competing empires of the Hittites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Mitanni and Babylonia.
1274BC – Battle of Kadesh between the Egyptians under Ramesses II and the Hittites under Muwatalli II – the best-documented battle of the ancient Near East including records of the world’s first surviving peace treaty.
c. 1200BC – Canaanites come to dominate the area after the Bronze Age collapse of civilisations in the Eastern Mediterranean.
911-605BC – Area part of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.
605-539BC – Becomes part of the Neo-Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar the Great.
539-330BC – Becomes part of the Persian Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great and his successors.
330BC – Greeks under Alexander the Great conquer the area, on his death it subsequently becomes part of the succeeding Seleucid Empire.
63BC – Roman general Pompey the Great annexes Syria – which becomes a Roman province.
5th Century AD – Syria becomes part surviving eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire following the fall of the western half of the empire.
636 – Arab armies defeat Byzantine forces at the Battle of Yarmuk and conquer Syria.
c. 650 – Umayyad dynasty make Damascus the capital of their empire.
750 – Abbasids overthrow the Umayyads and move their capital to Baghdad.
887-1100s – Egypt-based rulers annex Syria, and are later replaced by the Aleppo-based Hamdanids.
1098-1189 – Areas of Syria held by various Crusader states, primarily the Principality of Antioch.
1175-1185 – Syria largely conquered by the Kurdish leader Salah ad-Din, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty.
1260 – Mongol invasion; Mongols defeated by Egyptian Mamluk forces at the Battle of Ain Jalut.
1400 – Turco-Mongol leader Tamurlane sacks Aleppo and Damascus.
1516 – Ottomans invade the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, conquering Syria, and incorporating it into their empire.
1914-1918 – Ottoman Empire fights on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. It ultimately suffers defeat and loss of control of the entire Near East to the British and French.
1918 – Arab and British forces capture Damascus, ending 400 years of Ottoman rule.
1920 – San Remo conference splits up newly-created Arab kingdom by placing Syria-Lebanon under a French mandate, and Palestine under British control.
1925-27 – Great Syrian revolt; led by Sultan al-Atrash against French rule.
1940 – Fall of France in World War Two sees Syria under the control of Vichy France until British and Free French forces invade in the 1941 Syria-Lebanon campaign.
1946 – France evacuates its troops and Syria becomes independent. Syrian politics are characterised by instability and periodic coups from independence until the late 1960s.
1958-61 – Egypt and Syria form the short-lived United Arab Republic
1967 – Egypt, Jordan, and Syria are defeated in the Six-Day War with Israel. Israel seizes the Golan Heights.
1970 – Hafez al-Assad comes to power in a coup. His rule is characterised by repression and a major arms build-up.
1973 – Syria and Egypt initiate the Yom Kippur War against Israel. The Israeli army reverses initial Syrian gains and pushes deeper into Syria.
1976 – Syria intervenes in the Lebanese civil war. It maintains military presence there for next three decades, and exerts significant influence on Lebanese politics.
1982 – Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama is suppressed in a month-long siege by the military, who kill an estimated 10-40,000 civilians.
2000 – Hafez al-Assad dies and is succeeded by his son, Bashar al-Assad.
2005 – Syrian forces withdraw from Lebanon under international pressure following assassination of Lebanese premier Rafiq al-Hariri.
2011 – Outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Inspired by the “Arab Spring” uprisings, confrontation between the government and opposition soon develops into a multi-sided fight involving Islamists and rebels that draws in world powers. Some 300,000 people are estimated to have died.
2023 – The main external military threat and conflict are the continuing fight with Islamic State militants and concerns about possible Turkish military offensives in the northeast in order to strike Kurdish groups.