Archaeological excavations at Ebla, in northern Syria, have revealed that Syria was the center of a great Semitic empire extending from the Red Sea north to Turkey and east to Mesopotamia around 2500 BC . At that time, Damascus, traditionally the world's oldest continuously occupied city and certainly one of the world's oldest cities, was settled. Later, an advanced civilization was developed along the Syrian and Lebanese coastlands under the Phoenicians (c.1600–c.800 BC ), among whom trade, industry, and seafaring flourished. The wealth of the land attracted many conquerors, and Syria was invaded successively by Hittites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, and others. In the 4th century BC , Syria fell to Alexander the Great, first in a long line of European conquerors. After the breakup of his empire, dominion over Syria was disputed by the Seleucid and Ptolemaic successor states, and Persians invaded when the opportunity arose; eventually the Seleucids gained control. In the 1st century BC , all of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan was conquered by the Romans and organized as the province of Syria; these areas are termed "geographic" Syria. Christianity, particularly after its official recognition in the early 4th century AD by Constantine the Great, spread throughout the region.
In 637, Damascus fell to the Arabs. Most Syrians were converted to Islam, and Arabic gradually became the language of the area. Under the Umayyad caliphs, Damascus became the capital of the Islamic world and a base for Arab conquests. Under the 'Abbasids, the caliphate was centered at Baghdad, and Syria was reduced to provincial status. Thereafter, geographic Syria fell prey to a succession of invaders, including Byzantines and Crusaders from Western Europe. Some parts of Syria came under the sway of Seljuks and Ayyubids, a Kurdish dynasty. The latter was most prominent under its leader Saladin (Salah ad-Din). During the 13th century, Mongols frequently invaded Syria, and for 200 years parts of Syria were controlled by Mamluks, who ruled it from Egypt through local governors. In 1516, the Ottoman forces of Sultan Selim I defeated the Mamluks, and for the next four centuries, Syria was a province of the Ottoman Empire.
During World War I, Sharif Hussein (Husayn Ibn-'Ali) of Mecca threw in his lot with the Allies and revolted against Ottoman rule. After the war, with British forces in control, the formal entry of Allied troops into Damascus was made by Arab forces under Faisal (Faysal), Hussein's son, on 30 October 1918. Faisal and the Arab nationalists, whose number had been growing since 1912, opposed French aspirations to Syria and claimed independence under the terms of agreements between the British government and Hussein. In March 1920, Faisal was proclaimed king by a congress representing Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. However, geographic Syria was divided into British and French mandates. In June, the French, who had been allotted a mandate for Syria and Lebanon by the Agreement of San Remo (April 1920), ejected Faisal and installed local administrations of their own choosing. Arab nationalists resented French rule; there was a major revolt from 1925 to 1927, and unrest persisted until the outbreak of World War II. In 1941, Free French and British forces wrested control of Syria from Vichy France. Two years later, under pressure from the UK and the United States, the French permitted elections and the formation of a nationalist government. The United Kingdom and the United States recognized Syria's independence in 1944, and the last French troops departed on 17 April 1946.
Two parties that had led the struggle for independence, the Nationalist Party and the People's Party, dominated Syrian political life in the immediate postwar period. However, the Palestine War of 1948–49, which resulted in the defeat of the Arab armies and the establishment of Israeli statehood, discredited the Syrian leadership. In December 1948, riots against the government were put down by the army, and several army factions struggled for more than a year to gain control of the Syrian state. Col. Adib Shishakli ruled Syria for most of the period from December 1949 to March 1954, when he was ousted by another army coup.
The years from 1954 to 1958 were marked by the growth of pan-Arab and left-of-center political forces at the expense of the traditional merchant-landowner class, which dominated the Nationalist and People's parties. Foremost among these forces was the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party, which saw in Gamal Abdel Nasser (Nasir), the president of Egypt, a kindred pan-Arabist. Military officers remained active in political affairs but were split into competing factions. Some elements of the Nationalist and People's parties sought to counter the left by seeking help from Iraq and other countries. In late 1957, influential military officers decided to seek unity with Egypt as a means of suppressing factionalism. Enthusiastically supported by the Ba'ath and other pan-Arabists, they appealed to Cairo. Nasser agreed, and on 1 February 1958, Egypt and Syria proclaimed the union of Syria and Egypt as the United Arab Republic (UAR).
A monolithic single-party structure replaced the lively Syrian political tradition; decisions were made in Cairo; land reforms were introduced. Syrians chafed under Egyptian rule, and in September 1961, after a military coup, Syria seceded from the UAR. A period of political instability followed until, on 8 March 1963, power was seized by a group of leftist army officers calling themselves the National Council of the Revolutionary Command, and a radical socialist government dominated by the Ba'ath Party was formed.
The period that followed was marked by internal struggles between the founders of the Ba'ath Party and a younger generation of party militants, many in the military. That generation came to power in 1966 but split in succeeding years. In the June 1967 war between Israel, on one side, and Syria, Egypt, and Jordan on the other, Israel gained control of the Golan Heights. Gen. Hafez al-Assad (Hafiz al-Asad), a former chief of the Air Force and Defense Minister, became chief of state on 16 November 1970; he assumed the presidency, a reinstituted office, for the first of four seven-year terms beginning in March 1971, and a permanent constitution was ratified by popular referendum on 12 March 1973. On 6 October of that year, Syrian troops launched a full-scale attack against Israeli forces in the Golan Heights, as the Egyptians attacked in the Suez Canal area. After the UN cease-fire of 24 October, Israel remained in control of the Golan Heights, and Syria boycotted peace negotiations in Geneva. However, on 31 May 1974, Syria signed a US-mediated disengagement accord with Israel, restoring part of the Golan Heights to Syria and creating a buffer zone, manned by a UN peacekeeping force. The occupied sector of the Golan Heights was annexed by Israel in 1981; outside powers criticized and did not recognize the annexation.
In recent years, Syria has intervened militarily in neighboring Arab states to secure political ends. In September 1970, Syrian armored forces crossed the border into Jordan to support the Palestinians during the Jordanian civil war, but the Syrians were driven back by troops loyal to Jordan's King Hussein (Husayn) and by the threat of Israeli intervention. In 1976, Syrian troops entered Lebanon, nominally to enforce a cease-fire between Christian and Muslim forces but actually to help the Christian forces prevent a victory by leftist Muslims and Palestinians. Syria strongly opposed the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979 and was one of the few Arab states to support Iran in its war against Iraq, with which Syria earlier had hoped to merge. Another merger plan, this one with Libya, was announced in September 1980, but the effort was stillborn. In October, Syria signed a 20-year friendship treaty with the USSR; subsequently Syria received large quantities of Soviet arms, including antiaircraft missiles, which it deployed in the Bekaa (Biqa') Valley in Lebanon. After Israel invaded southern Lebanon in June 1982, the Israelis knocked out the missile batteries, crippled Syria's Soviet-equipped air force, and trapped Syrian as well as Palestinian fighters in Beirut before allowing their evacuation. Having reequipped its army with Soviet weapons, Syria has maintained 25,000-35,000 troops in Lebanon ever since. In the continuing Lebanese civil war, Syria supported the Druze and Muslim militias against the Maronite Lebanese Forces.
Syria made repeated attempts to establish a cease-fire among Lebanon's factions. In 1989, it endorsed the Taif Accord for ending the conflict and, later, when Christian militia General Michel Aoun declared himself president of Lebanon and sought to expel the Syrian forces, assaulted his enclave with artillery and drove him out of the country. In 1991, Syria backed moves to disarm and disband the militias and signed a treaty with Beirut to put relations on a stable and peaceful basis. Under the Taif Accord, Syria was to have withdrawn its forces from Beirut and coastal areas by September 1992. Syria's withdrawal from Beirut took place in June 2001.
The authoritarian Assad regime has been condemned by outsiders for assisting terrorist and drug smuggling groups. Both charges have been played down since Syria joined the coalition of forces against Iraq in 1990 and agreed to participate in direct peace talks with Israel in 1991. The collapse of the Soviet Union removed Syria's most important external support, nullifying Assad's proclaimed strategy of refusing to negotiate with Israel until Syria had gained military parity.
Internally, the regime is resented for its denial of democracy and the concentration of power with members of Assad's minority religious sect, the Alawis. The most serious internal threat came from Islamic militants in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1982, Assad sent the army against their stronghold in Hama, devastating a section of the city and causing tens of thousands of casualties. There has been no serious threat to the regime since then and the Ba'ath Party has continued to be used as a means of control throughout the country. In the 1990s, Assad took steps to liberalize economic controls and to permit some political freedoms. About 300 political prisoners were released in 1992 and Syrian Jews were again allowed to travel. Still, the country remains on the US State Department list of countries which support terrorism and US trade is severely restricted. In 1994 Syrian officials met with representatives of Israel's Yitzhak Rabin-led government on the return of the Golan Heights—something Assad had wanted for decades. After Rabin's assassination, however, the talks were discontinued, and the stalemate between Syria and Israel continued. In 1997, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced that she would visit Syria in an effort to get the stalled peace process back on track. Syria was officially guarded about the prospects for success as it remained deeply suspicious of Israel's right-wing government led by Benjamin Netenyahu. In the same year, the Assad regime entered into negotiations with Iraq to open up its ports to the latter. Syria broke off diplomatic relations with Iraq after backing Iran in the 1980–88 war.
With the election of Labor leader Ehud Barak as prime minister of Israel in May 1999, new hope arose for improved relations with Israel, and a new round of peace talks between Syria and Israel was held in the United States, near Washington, D.C., in January 2000. In May 2000 Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon. By the late 1990s, serious concerns had been raised about the health and mental status of Syria's president, who was reportedly having "mental lapses" and suspected to be suffering from some form of dementia, as well as other infirmities. Nevertheless, Assad was elected to a fifth seven-year term in 1999 in a nearly unanimous vote. Since the 1994 death in an automobile accident of Basel, the son whom the Syrian leader had been grooming to succeed him, another of Assad's sons, Bashar, had been given increased responsibilities. Assad died on 10 June 2000 of a heart attack; 34-year-old Bashar Assad was unanimously elected secretary-general by the Ba'ath Party one week later. Parliament amended the constitution to lower the minimum age for a president from 40 to 34. In a July referendum, Bashar won overwhelming support to succeed his father, and he officially began a seven-year term as president on 17 July 2000.
In November 2000, President Assad ordered the release of more than 600 political prisoners. However, in September 2001, members of parliament and pro-reform activists were detained, which dulled hopes that Bashar had ushered in a new climate of reform in the aftermath of his father's death. Although more than 100 dissidents were released from prison in November, human rights organizations maintained that hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail in Syria. In April 2001, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, whose members were targeted during the 1982 Hama massacre, announced its intention to resume political activity.
Syrian troops withdrew from Beirut in June 2001 to redeploy in other parts of Lebanon, in response to greater Lebanese criticism of Syria's presence there. Following the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, Assad publicly emphasized Syria's stance on terrorism, although it did not support the US-led War on Terror, stating military action was not the appropriate response to terrorism. The United States still lists Syria on its State Department list of countries supporting terrorism. In late 2002, Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accused Syria of supplying Hezbollah in southern Lebanon with thousands of surface-to-air rockets that could strike northern Israel. Israel has repeatedly called on Syria to excercise control over Hezbollah.
One of the main reasons Israel has not pulled out of the Golan Heights has to do with water. The Golan Heights provides approximately 30% of Israel's water needs. The Dan, the Banyas, and the Hatzbani, tributaries of the upper Jordan River, originate in the Golan Heights. Israel's water needs are also tied to Lebanon. Lebanon has begun to divert 50 million cubic meters a year from the Wazzani and Hatzbani Rivers to supply villages in southern Lebanon with water. The Wazzani feeds into the Hatzbani, which in turn flows into the Jordan River watershed and Lake Kinneret (Lake Tiberias or the Sea of Galilee), a major source of Israel's water supply. In 2002, Sharon identified measures to divert water from Israel as a cause for war. In 1964 Syria tried to dam the waters that fed Lake Kinneret, but Israel destroyed the dams as one of the events leading to the 1967 Six-Day War. Since then, Syria has built 23 dams on the Yarmouk River, a tributary flowing into the Jordan River south of Lake Kinneret, affecting the water supplies of Israel and Jordan.