In the agreement, signed in the midst of World War I, Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and Georges Picot of France agreed to divvy up a post-war Middle East after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Although their victory was anything but assured when the two governments entered the pact in 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement granted France and Britain huge swaths of land that stretched from deep into what would become modern Turkey all the way west to Iraq and south into the Arabian Peninsula along the Persian Gulf.
But in their war against the Ottoman Turks, the allies had rallied, inspired and armed Arab chiefs who were more interested in freeing themselves from the yoke of the aged empire in Turkey than in carving out new spheres of influence for the European powers. The British in particular worked with the Hashemite king and his sons, including Prince Faisal, to battle the Turks.
Faisal, aided by the dashing and Romanticized British officer T.E. Lawrence, drove his soldiers deep into Ottoman territory and seized Damascus in 1918. British forces, and the French who were meant to control Syria under the Sykes-Picot pact, were largely absent from Damascus from 1918 through much of 1920. Once freed from Ottoman control, Arab nationalists flocked to the oasis city, fueling a growing desire to be free of all foreign influence. The move toward an independent state finally took the critical step in June 1919.
“The orientation of the General Syrian Congress was revealed as soon as it met in mid-1919, by its call for a completely independent Greater Syria that would include all of the area that is occupied today by Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel,” David Fromkin wrote in his study of the creation of the modern Middle East, A Peace to End All Peace.
Faisal, as leader of this government, was in Paris for much of 1919, trying to persuade the war-time victors to honor the vague pledges of Arab independence made during the Great War. But his case drew little support from any of the gathered powers and in the end both France and Britain insisted the Sykes-Picot agreement would stand.
Dreams of an empire defeated
Greater Syria was dismembered by the two powers, with France taking Lebanon and Syria and Britain gaining sway in Iraq, Jordan and what was called at the time Palestine. Faisal was ousted by the French, who seized Damascus in 1920, and sent into exile. Eventually the prince would lead a nation, installed by the British as King of Iraq as they moved to pull their troops out.
But for Arab nationalists, many of whom still made their home in Damascus, the Sykes-Picot agreement was a betrayal by the West that denied the dream of a Pan-Syrian state.
It is this ideal, many analysts have written, that has driven much of Syria’s foreign policy for more than 80 years.
“The division of Greater Syria after World War I proved one of the worst of many political traumas experienced in the Middle East at that time,” wrote Daniel Pipes in his book “Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition.” “Pan-Syrianism explains many of the conflicting aspirations among Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians; it lies behind much of the volatility of public life in Jordan and Syria; and it partially accounts for the Lebanese civil war and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The goal of piecing Syria’s parts together drove Jordanian foreign policy for over two decades, and it had nearly as great a role in Iraq.”
The political ferment also made ruling Syria difficult for the French. Repeatedly after 1920, French forces bombed Damascus and battled insurgents who loathed their rule. By 1946, under international pressure to leave and badly weakened by World War II, the French withdrew.
But what followed in Syria was decades of political turmoil and chaos. The long Ottoman and French occupations had unified the country and allowed deep political and societal differences to be papered over. The first president after French rule, Shukri al-Quwatli, governed over a deeply fractured parliament and at a troubled time.
His leadership was constantly contested and he is reported to have warned Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser on the eve of the Syrian-Egyptian union in 1958 that the Syrian state was nearly ungovernable.
“You have no idea, Mr. President, of the immensity of the task entrusted to you,” al-Quwalti is said to have told Nasser. “You have just become a leader of a people all of whom think they are politicians, half of whom think they are national leaders, one quarter that they are prophets, and one tenth that they are gods. Indeed, you will be dealing with a people whom worship God, Fire and the Devil.”
Al-Quwalti would lead the country for less than two years, ousted after Syrian forces were unable to destroy the newly created Israel and the domestic economy foundered.
A short-lived United Arab Republic
What emerged in Syria was a series of either weak civilian governments or military strongmen punctuated by coups and countercoups. It was during this tumultuous time that leftist radical parties began to flourish. The Syrian Baathist Party, a left-leaning party that aimed to create a pan-Arab state, rose to power and by 1957 controlled the government.
As part of their effort to create a single Arab state, the Baathists entered into talks with Egypt about the creation of a United Arab Republic and on Feb. 1, 1958, the two countries merged.
“The form in which the UAR emerged was not what the Baathists had envisioned,” the Library of Congress wrote in a study of Syria. “One of Nasser’s conditions for union was that the two countries be completely integrated, not just federated as the Syrians proposed, and Syria soon found itself dominated by the stronger, more efficient Egypt.”
Nasser tightened his control over Syria, dissolving all political parties and placing Egyptian officers in charge of Syrian troops. Growing dissatisfaction culminated in a 1961 military coup that ousted the provisional leaders and allowed Syria to secede from the UAR.
The country again descended into an increasingly bloody cycle of coups, political disorder and street protests as the Baathist Party once again seized control, but then split in bitter feuding between the more radical civilian branch of the government and the moderate military.
The reign of Hafez Assad
Defeat in the 1967 war with Israel left the Syrian government deeply unpopular, with many in the streets of Damascus calling for new leadership, and further strained the ties between the civilian Baathists and the military branch of the party.
Infighting culminated in a disastrous military confrontation with neighboring Jordan. Jordan’s King Hussein ordered his military in September 1970 to attack Palestinian refugee camps in his country where Palestinian militants were working to depose he and other Arab monarchs. The civilian government in Damascus dispatched some 200 tanks to aid the Palestinians. Syrian Minister of Defense, Hafez Assad, refused to dispatch the Syrian air force to aid the tanks, undermining the civilian government, and the Jordanians quickly defeated the Syrian/Palestinian forces.
The fiasco further undercut the support of the civilian government and helped lead two months later to a final military coup where much of the civilian government was arrested, a coup which propelled Assad to the position of prime minister.
Assad quickly centralized control, deftly bridging the dicey ethnic and religious differences within Syria. He modeled the state as a marginally Islamic, but largely secular one. He appealed to the Sunni majority, but was careful to include the smaller ethnicities.
The long-time ruler also walked a fine line between aiding more radical Islamic groups who supported his effort against Israel and combating the more fundamental interpretations of Islam put forward by the government of Iran and other clerics.
Even while allowing the Sunni political parties to maintain their religious nature, he was clear in “rejecting every uncultured interpretation of Islam that lays bare an odious narrow-mindedness and a loathsome bigotry, Islam being the religion of love, progress, social justice and equality for all.”
Assad would dominate the country, crafting a stable government for more than 30 years and guiding his nation in a stridently independent policy during a tumultuous time in the Middle East.
“The reign of Hafiz al-Assad lasted until his death in 2000; that is, it was longer than the period that had elapsed between the country’s independence and his accession,” Yasin al-Haj Saleh wrote in a study of modern Syria. “For this reason, the state-monopolized media always focus on the political stability that marked the reign of Hafiz al-Assad, contrasting it with the days of continuous coups and instability.”