Syria: Its history, its culture and why the civil war erupted

With the wave of rebellion sweeping across the Middle East including Egypt and Tunisia, the Syrian people felt their moment had come

LocationSyria is located in south-western Asia. It is bordered by Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan

Population – 21.1million

Religion – Islam is the dominant religion (74 per cent Sunni, 12 per cent Alawite, four per cent Druze), Christians and Jews make up the remaining 10 per cent

Climate – Varied between coastal, mountain and desert regions

– Official language is Arabic

Literacy rate
– 79 per cent

Key cities – Capital city is Damascus - considered one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Aleppo is the largest city

More than two million refugees have fled Syria and now live in limbo in neighbouring countries. (PA)

Main industries – Agriculture, petroleum, textiles, mining

Culture – Importance is placed on family, religion and education

Archaeology – Syria is extremely rich in archaeological treasures. There are six World Heritage sites

– Bashar al-Assad (an Alawite Muslim in the Ba’ath party) has been the president of Syria since his father’s death in 2000. He studied medicine at Damascus University and then trained in ophthalmology in London before returning to Syria in 1994. He is married to British-born Asma al-Assad. The couple have three children

Recent history

Delving into Syria’s recent history can help to shed some light on the current conflict, according to Dr Eugene Rogan, a lecturer at Oxford University and author of 'The Arabs'. He sHafez al-Assad, father of Syria's current president Bashar, pictured in 1976. He came to power in 1970 by a military …tates there are three key points in time which can give some insight into the origins of today’s civil war: The beginning of the al-Assad family rule; the uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood; and Bashar al-Assad succeeding his father.

The beginning of al-Assad family rule

The current president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, came to power through a military coup in 1970. It was one of a series of coups which had wracked Syria since the 50s and 60s.

It created tensions in an already politically volatile country. Hafez al-Assad was an Alawite Muslim – part of a minority group - but the constitution of Syria declared the president had to be a Sunni Muslim.

Dr Rogan explained: “The Sunni religious officials objected to the idea but they were forced to concede the point because they didn’t want to cross the president as he was a powerful military man.

'Like many of his predecessors, he was seen as being a dynamic and nationalist figure and, through a cult of personality, he was able to develop a strong support base.”

The people who opposed him came from the Sunni community and the strongest opposition came from the Muslim Brotherhood – a Sunni political party.

The uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood

The uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood was marked by a series of revolts against the government between 1976 and 1982. After an attempt by the Brotherhood to assassinate president Hafez al-Assad in 1980, his brother Rifaat al-Assad ordered the killing of 1,200 Muslim Brotherhood prisoners in their cells.

In 1982, things came to a head when the Syrian army besieged the town of Hama under the orders of the president, to quell a rebellion. Thousands of civilians as well as members of the Muslim Brotherhood were massacred by Syrian soldiers.

Dr Rogan said: “It’s really when the regime cut the head off what was essentially a Sunni religious opposition movement which saw the Alawite-led government as illegitimate. The regime won and they lost, and that was going to secure the al-Assad family rule from 1982 to when Hafez died and was able to pass the presidency on to his son.”
Bashar al-Assad who came to power in 2000 after his father died.  (Syrian Presidency/Rex Features)
Bashar al-Assad coming to power

Syria’s current president Bashar al-Assad, the son of Hafez, came to power in 2000.

He studied in the UK and was called back to Syria to take over the role of heir apparent after his elder brother Bassel was killed in a car crash.

“He was not seen as a particularly strong leader,” said Dr Rogan. “He was very mild mannered and had done medical training. He was someone everyone thought would be a reformer. They thought he would open up Syrian society.”

From 2000 - 2001 there was a brief period called the Damascus Spring characterised by the emergence of forums also known as ‘salons’ where groups of people met to discuss political and social matters.

This would have been unheard of during Hafez’s al-Assad’s rule where any such discussion was strictly controlled. Political prisoners were released and allowed to gather to talk about reform.

Dr Rogan said: “This was all tolerated until advisors around the president persuaded him to clamp down on it. Then that was the end. People were re-arrested and thrown back into jail. The salons were no longer allowed and any discussion of political reform was a reason for being arrested. Reform was to be left to the president and his advisors, and citizens were not invited to be engaged.”

Those who had hoped for change were left disappointed.

Then in 2011, with the wave of rebellion sweeping across the Middle East including Egypt and Tunisia, the Syrian people felt their moment had come. It was time to speak out against the Government and petition for reform.

The first demonstrations in Syria, organised through social media, didn’t get very big turnouts, but then a group of high school children who sprayed graffiti on the walls of a school in the provincial town of Daraa sparked the flame.

Dr Rogan explained: “The graffiti repeated the slogans of the Arab Spring: ‘the people want the fall of the regime’. The children were all arrested. They just disappeared. When their families protested and petitioned for their release they were bullied and given short shrift. When the kids were finally released, after a lot of pressure, they were sent home with signs of torture. The town just exploded.”

Anti and pro-Assad protesters clash after Friday prayers in Damascus, Syria, in March 2011. It was around this …

Dr Rogan said there was a lot of sympathy for the people in Daraa across Syria from those who were tired of living in fear of the government. Demonstrations called for the fall of the regime and real reforms.

“They started as peaceful protests before evolving into an armed conflict and then a civil war,” said Dr Rogan. “The government responded by the same methods that Hafez al-Assad used in 1982 - when you face determined resistance you crush it with great violence.”

Ancient History to the 20th century

Damascus, Syria’s capital, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The country was claimed by the Hittite kingdom in the early second millennium BC, then later the Persians and then the Romans. When the Roman Empire split, the Byzantine Empire took control of the Syrian province. However in 640 it was conquered and became part of the Islamic Empire.

The Arabs controlled the region for centuries until it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1516. When the Turks, who had joined the Germans, were defeated in World War 1, the Ottoman Empire was divided between the British and the French - who took Syria. Following the French takeover, Syria spent years fighting for independence before finally achieving it in 1946.

A series of military coups followed until Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970. He then went on to rule for 30 years.

A remarkable video series depicting the extraordinary challenges faced by aid workers and refugees in Zaatari will be shown exclusively on Yahoo UK starting on Tuesday November 12. See the trailer for the series here.

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About this series

Zaatari is a refugee camp in Jordan, and is now home to over 120,000 people who have fled the ongoing civil war in Syria.

Starting 12 November, Yahoo UK will post an exclusive series of UNHCR videos depicting life during a typical day in what has become one of the largest temporary cities in the region.