Global Security Series: The Foundation of Syria

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

This is the first post in Colorado Technical University’s Global Security Series in which Dr. Morag will offer background and analysis on issues related to U.S. national security and homeland security. Dr. Morag will post weekly, addressing each country or topic in a series of posts over several weeks before moving on to the next country or topic.

This week, we will begin a five-part series on Syria.  Syria is currently in a state of near civil war and the conflict in that country is only likely to become worse and is expected to lead to the overthrow of that country’s government.  Syria is also an important regional player in the Middle East and the ongoing instability in that country has significant implications for other countries in the region and for America’s regional interests.

Syrian FlagIn order to understand the current conflict, its regional implications and how it is likely to play out, we first need to understand the context in which the country operates as well as the nature of the country.  We will therefore start at the beginning and discuss the origins of modern Syria.

Syria is an ancient land that has played host to a large number of diverse civilizations over at least five millennia.  In fact, modern Syria’s capital city, Damascus, is considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.  Much of Syria lies within what historians refer to as the “Fertile Crescent,” an arc of agriculturally rich territory that begins in Iraq and stretches northwards into parts of Turkey before curving back into western Syria, Lebanon, western Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories.  With the exception of Egypt and parts of Persia, all the major ancient Middle Eastern civilizations arose from the Fertile Crescent area.  Syria also lies astride major ancient north-south routes along the eastern Mediterranean and thus was strategically important to those who wished to dominate the Fertile Crescent area.  Accordingly, the list of Syria’s conquerors is very long and includes: the Hebrews, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Hittites, the Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Crusaders, the Mongols, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, the British and the French.

Despite its ancient pedigree, Syria was no more than a geographic term until the establishment of the French Mandate of Syria in 1920.  Somewhat ironically, it was the European powers, rather than the Syrians themselves, who, during the First World War, drew up the boundaries of Syria and thus created the basis for the country of Syria.

Syria includes very diverse geographic regions.  The country, which is about the size of North Dakota, is bordered by mountains to the north and southwest and its long eastern border with Iraq and most of the interior of the country is desert.  Not surprisingly most of the population lives in the more fertile areas in the west of the country (which receives moisture from winter rains coming from the Mediterranean, the only other major source of water being the Euphrates river, which cuts across the northeast of the country).  This means that not only does the vast majority of Syria’s population live in the West of the country near its borders with Turkey, Lebanon and Israel (this area includes Syria’s capital, Damascus, and its second city, Aleppo) but also that its industry and agricultural production are concentrated in the west.  This makes the country very vulnerable strategically – an issue we will discuss in a future post.

As with its geography, Syria’s population is also highly diverse.  Ninety percent of the population is Arab (meaning that they speak Arabic as their native tongue and identify themselves as Arabs) but the Arab population is divided along religious lines and, in the Middle East, religion is not just a reflection of one’s beliefs, but a community into which one is born and identifies with – regardless of how much, or how little, personal faith one has.  The majority of the Arabs are Sunni Muslims; but approximately twelve percent of the Arab population are Alawis, about ten percent are Christian and three percent are Druze.  Among the non-Arab population, the largest community is the Kurds (about nine percent of the country’s overall population).    We will discuss Syria’s ethnic and religious divisions in greater depth next week, as they are critical to understanding modern Syria and how it operates.

Syria was conquered by the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1517 and was thereafter ruled from the Ottoman capital, Istanbul, until the territory was conquered from the Ottomans by the British army in 1917.  For centuries the Ottomans ruled most of the Arab world (from Algeria to Iraq), but by the end of the nineteenth century, North Africa was ruled by European colonial powers and the territory of the Empire was reduced to Turkey and the area between the Mediterranean and Red Seas on one side and the Iranian border on the other.  The fact that the Ottoman rulers, who were Turks, ruled over Arabs in the Arab part of the Empire was not usually a problem because the Ottoman Empire was a Sunni Muslim Empire that ruled in the name of Islam (for the last several centuries of the Empire’s existence, Ottoman Sultans also claimed the title of the successor to the Prophet Muhammad – Caliph).  However, by the late nineteenth century, some Arab intellectuals, influenced by the rise of nationalist movements in Europe, were fostering nationalistic ideas of their own. They argued for Arabs’ right to determine their own fate through the creation of an independent Arab state that would represent and rule over all Arabs. It is important to note that the Turkish elites in the Empire were also gradually becoming more nationalistic; thus helping fuel Arab disenchantment with being part of what seemed to be becoming a Turkish Empire, rather than an Islamic one.

After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Ottomans allied themselves with Germany and Austria-Hungary, thus joining what turned out to be the losing side of the war.  This made them the enemies of Britain and France and eventually led to the British army invading the Ottoman Empire from its bases in Egypt.  By 1918, the Ottomans had not only been pushed out of their Arab lands, but the Empire itself was on the verge of collapse. It eventually disappeared in 1922 with the creation of the modern Turkish Republic.  During most of 1917, Britain’s effort to drive the Ottomans out of the Empire’s Arab lands, was assisted by guerrilla warfare on the part of various nomadic or semi-nomadic Arab clans (based in what is today Saudi Arabia), who tied down Ottoman divisions, cut strategic rail lines, and generally caused significant disruption to the Ottoman war effort.  As an inducement to make these clans wage war against the Ottomans, the British promised the most prominent clan, the Hashemites, leadership of an Arab state to be founded on the Ottoman Empire’s Arab territories.  Unfortunately for the Hashemites and their allies, the British never had any intention of turning over these conquered lands to an Arab clan and had, instead, secretly agreed to divide the Arab territories conquered from the Ottomans between themselves and their French allies.  Britain would have probably been happy to control all these lands itself but it needed France, both to fight World War I and also to make sure that Germany would remain isolated and weak after the war was over.  Consequently, an agreement was reached whereby France would get Syria and Lebanon and the British would get Iraq and Palestine - the borders of which initially included modern-day Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Since outright colonialism was no longer politically correct by this period in history, the British and French secured international endorsement (via the newly-created League of Nations, the precursor to today’s United Nations) that they would have a “mandate” to rule these territories until such time as the local populations were able to rule themselves. This meant the British and French would be the ones to judge when the locals would be ready for independence. 

Consequently, the Syrian state was initially created as the French Mandate of Syria. But this did set the stage for the eventual creation of an independent Syria – something we will discuss in next week’s post.

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