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'The Light in Her Eyes' in Context

Syria: A Modern History

From 1976 until 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria organized revolts and an armed insurgency against Assad’s regime. The government mobilized to crush the Muslim Brotherhood culminating in a massacre in Hama in 1982, and until March 2011, public displays of anti-regime activity were very limited.

Currently, Bashar al-Assad’s regime faces an ongoing uprising, which many believe was sparked by the Arab Spring — a wave of protests in the Arab world that began in Tunisia in 2010. While the uprising is dominated by Sunni Muslims, there are protesters from Druze, Christian and even Alawite backgrounds, many calling for more political rights, social reform and regime change.



In the aftermath of World War I and the weakening of the Ottoman Empire, Syria functioned as a French protectorate heading toward independence. That independence would become official in 1946, following World War II. The decades of the 1950s and 1960s were marked by political instability and a series of military coups. In one of those coups, Hafez al-Assad and the secular Ba’ath Party ousted the civilian party leadership and Assad assumed the role of prime minister. He ruled Syria autocratically from 1970 to 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar al-Assad after his death in 2000.

Allied with the Soviet Union, the Syrian dictator established a secular state with a pan-Arab outlook, forging strong relations with Iraq. Though the head of state was required to be a Muslim, the nation was nominally tolerant of its Christian minority. Compulsory and free public education was established for both boys and girls; women served in government posts, and wearing of the niqab (a veil covering the face) was banned in public places like universities. As happened elsewhere, from the United States (where legislators added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance) to Afghanistan (where religiously-inspired mujahadeen attempted to oust Soviet troops), the forced secularization was met with resistance from people of faith. The trend in Middle Eastern countries was that the initial resistance came primarily from faith-based political opposition, and Syria was no exception. From 1976 until 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria organized revolts and an armed insurgency against Assad’s regime. The government mobilized to crush the Muslim Brotherhood culminating in a massacre in Hama in 1982, and until March 2011, public displays of anti-regime activity were very limited.

Today, Syria has a population of approximately 22.5 million people, about a quarter of whom live in the capital city of Damascus (the location of Houda al-Habash’s school). Ethnically, the nation is approximately 90 percent Arab, with significant minority populations of Druze, Kurds and Turks. Religiously, about three quarters of Syrians identify as Hanafi (the oldest and largest denomination of Sunni Muslims). Another 12 percent, including the ruling Assad family, are Alawi (a heterodox Shiite Muslim sect). Approximately 10 percent of the country’s population identifies as Christian. Until recently, there was also a significant Jewish community in Syria.

The nation shares large borders with Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, and also a short border with Israel. In the region, its strongest alliance is with Iran (which, like the Assad family, is identified with the Shiite practice of Islam).

Currently, Bashar al-Assad’s regime faces an ongoing uprising, which many believe was sparked by the Arab Spring—a wave of protests in the Arab world that began in Tunisia in 2010. While the uprising is dominated by Sunni Muslims, there are protesters from Druze, Christian and even Alawite backgrounds, many calling for more political rights, social reform and regime change. The government responded with a violent crackdown and, according to a July 2012 report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 16,500 people have been killed in the uprising thus far.

In November 2011, the Arab League suspended Syria's membership in the alliance and called for political and security reforms, urging the Syrian army to withdraw its security forces from civilian areas and to release its political prisoners. The Arab League formed a "monitoring mission" to assess the regime's response to its mandate. In late January 2012, the Arab League suspended the mission due to a dramatic increase in violence. The diplomatic focus switched to the United Nations Security Council with the hope that it would vote on a draft resolution for a quick transition to an interim government.

As of the publishing of this page, violence against civilians in Syria continues, and the United Nations has failed to reach an agreement on appropriate action.

Caption: The day begins with recitation and prayer at the school at Al-Zahra Mosque  Credit: Itab Azzam

» Al Jazeera. “Q-and-A: Nir Rosen on Syria’s Protest Movement.”
» Central Intelligence Agency. ”Syria.”
» CNN. “Regime Backers Express Anger at Other Nations After Arab League Suspends Syria.”
» Coutts, Adam. “Syria’s Uprising Could Have Been Avoided Through Reform.” The Guardian, May 18, 2011.
» MacFarquhar, Neil. “Arab League Votes to Suspend Syria Over Crackdown.” The New York Times, November 12, 2011.
» NOW LEBANON. "Syrian uprising death toll tops 16,500, Observatory says."
» PBS Newshour. “Author and Activist Elie Wiesel: Syria Is ‘a Bloody Center of History.’”
» U.S. Department of State. “Background Note: Syria.”



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