by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe on September 17, 2014


1970: Hafiz al-Asad seizes power. He represents the rise of a new rural elite who claim power at the expense of the established urban politicians and merchants. His regime is authoritarian, based on the military and the Ba’ ath Party. Holding absolute power, al-Asad becomes the object of a personality cult. He adopts socialist economic policies and stands for egalitarian reform. Syria becomes a net exporter of oil.

Early 1971: Al-Asad is elected to a 7 year term as president. He retains the presidency until his death in 2000.  Al-Asad’s government pursues the socialist policies enshrined in Ba’athist doctrine, and is more tolerant of private enterprise than the military regimes of the 1960s.

 Al-Asad takes the office of secretary general of the Ba’ ath, combining the roles of head of state and head of the party.

Al-Asad attempts to ensure loyalty to his regime by appointing relatives and trusted associates to key positions in the ruling hierarchy. Alawite officers are promoted to the most prominent commands in the military and security agencies, giving them a stake in the preservation of the regime.

Members of al-Asad’s family are placed in charge of an array of special forces outside the regular military structure. An elite praetorian guard (the Defense Companies) is commanded by the president’s younger brother Rif’at. 

The dominance of Alawites in the regime makes it suspect in the eyes of the Sunni majority.

As previously mentioned, the Sunni Muslims who gain appointments in the new power structure are from modest social backgounds rather than from the old urban nobility. So, in addition to its Alawite coloring, the regime has a decidedly rural composition and represents the rise of the countryside at the expense of the former elite class of urban-based notable families.

The goals of the new elite of al-Asad’s state are focused on the needs of their country in its Middle Eastern context and on keeping themselves in power.

1970s: Syria and Iraq engage in a heated rivalry for regional dominance.

Syria experiences an economic boom. The principle of public-sector domination of the economy is retained, but policies are not as stringent as before. Financial aid from Arab oil-producing countries, and increased revenues from Syria’s own modest petroleum industry enable the government to embark on major development projects and to expand the range of state services. 

Later, al-Asad’s policies alienate the oil-rich states and the country’s economy suffers. The government is forced to introduce austerity measures. There are also internal problems:

  • there is an inadequate supply of trained managers and technicians
  • top managerial posts are often awarded on the basis of loyalty to the Ba’ ath Party rather than on merit
  • corruption.

Syria’s economy shifts from primarily agrarian based — the country’s leading cash export was cotton — to one dominated by the service, industrial, and commercial sectors. Oil replaces cotton as the main source of foreign exchange.

Al-Asad prioritizes improving the living conditions of the peasantry, but the regime’s efforts to manage agricultural production aren’t particularly successful. Cotton production increases substantially in the 1970s. The cultivation of food crops is sluggish and doesn’t keep pace with consumer needs. Syria is forced to import constantly increasing supplies of food.

The long-standing rivalry between Syria and Iraq intensifies when both states come under the rule of different factions of the Ba’ath Party.

Late 1970s: Syria’s population growth rate (3.7% per year) is among the world’s highest, and its illiteracy rate remains at 50% despite attempts to improve. The classroom provides a forum for indoctrinating students into the Ba’athist ideology. The system is designed to instill obedience to authority and devotion to the principles of the party, especially at the university level.

The al-Asad regime pushes ahead with social reforms. It makes a public commitment to female equality, legislating equal rights and privileges for women. However, conservative social attitudes continued to limit women’s participation in the workforce. At the same time, the regime also imposes political rigidity, cultural uniformity, and intellectual obedience. Contradictions aplenty.

 Al-Asad spends enormous amounts on military equipment to support his claim of regional superiority and to confront region enemies — especially Israel. Syria’s principle arms supplier is the Soviet Union. The Syrian armed forces grow from 50,000 in 1967 to 225,000 in 1973 to over 400,000 in the early 1980s. 

1973: The Syrian government introduces a new constitution that provides for an elected assembly known as the People’s Council. Still, the constitution provides the president with such sweeping powers that the assembly is little more than a symbol of democratic government.

The most controversial aspect of the constitution is its omission of the usual clause requiring the president of the republic to be a Muslim. Consequently, the Sunni majority within Syria perceives that the regime is secular and sectarian (Alawite). They organize protest demonstrations in major cities.

Al-Asad backs down and arranges for the insertion of a clause calling for a Muslim president. He also arranges for a prominent member of the Shi’a ulama to issue a decree affirming that Alawites are Muslims. Obviously, sectarian tensions were continuing to play a role in Syrian political life.

Syria commits to achieving military parity with Israel. This will make Syria the most powerful state in the Arab world. Al-Asad’s goal is to dominate the states that fall naturally within Syria’s orbit — Lebanon and Jordan as well as the PLO.

October 1973: On Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the Egyptians and Syrians launch a sudden attack on Israel. The attack drives the Israeli Army back. The Israelis counterattack, surround the Egyptian Army in the Sinai, and threaten to invade all of Egypt. Al-Asad’s overriding concern is to recover the Golan Heights, the territory that Syria lost to Israel in 1967. He wants this to be done on the battlefield, and finds a willing ally in President Sadat of Egypt. The effort ends in defeat for Syria, but the new Syrian army performs capably. NOTE: Egypt eventually abandon the campaign against Israel; Sadat signs an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979.

1976: Syria intervenes in Lebanon on behalf of the Maronite Christians against the leftist Muslim-PLO alliance. Syrian forces become bogged down in a costly and indecisive military occupation.

Mid 1970s: Syrians are not happy with al-Asad’s intervention against the PLO in Lebanon and his support for Iran in its war with Iraq. His government is almost toppled. Other factors in play:

  • a conservative Muslim and Sunni protest against an Alawite regime that is overtly secular and reformist
  • an urban protest against a regime that caters to rural and minority groups at the expense of once dominant urban families
  • protest against a corrupt and oppressive regime that is creating a new elite of wealthy party government officials. 

Opposition is centered in the old commercial cities — Aleppo, Homs, and Hama. It is spearheaded by young militants associated with the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Late 1970s: Anti regime forces intensify their activities, mainly through a campaign of urban guerilla warfare against the government. Activities include the formation of an Islamic Front whose aim is to overthrow the regime and establish an Islamic state in Syria. Security forces crack down, but violence spreads.

1979: The Iranian Revolution brings a militant Shi’a Islamic regime to power under Ayatollah Khomeini and increases the tensions between Syria and Iraq. 

Saddam Hussain, Iraq’s president, fears that Khomeini’s call for Islamic revolution may affect Iraq’s Shi’a majority.

Early 1980s: Syria is devoting over 20% of its gross national product (NP) to military expenditures. The arms purchases strain the country’s economy and consume funds that might otherwise be invested in domestic projects.

1980: Hussain sets out to destroy the new Iranian regime by launching an armed invasion. Most Arab states support Iraq, but not Syria. Instead, Al-Asad sides with Iran. He chooses to see Khomeini’s regime as a protest against the US-Israeli order.

Syria becomes increasingly isolated within the Arab world, but still acquires regional influence.

Mid-1980s: Syria is in a position to ensure that no Arab-Israeli peace settlement can be negotiated without her participation and that any peace proposals from other parties can be sabotaged by Syrian action.

1980: The Islamic Front destroys government installations in Damascus as the protest movement begins to take on the features of a full-scale rebellion.

1982: Anti regime forces seize control of parts of the city of Hama and call on all Syrians to join in a jihad against the government. Al-Asad responds to the rebellion with brutality. 

The Syrian military launches a deadly campaign against Hama and its civilian population. At least 10,000 inhabitants are killed before the military operation is halted after 2 weeks. The events serve as a warning to other potential dissidents.

1983-1984: As al-Asad recuperates from a heart attack, his brother, commander of the elite Defense Companies, makes a bid for power. Asad manages to prevent violence and reassert his authority. His brother is edged out of power and eventually out of Syria. 

It becomes clear that al-Assad is unpopular and that his authority rests on the loyalty of the armed forces. The regime becomes more and more repressive. A personality cult develops around the president.




by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe on September 10, 2014

French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon map en

Syria is in the news. But how much do you really know about that country and its Twentieth Century history? Here’s the first part of a Syria Timeline to help you out.

1915-1918: Over 600,000 inhabitants of greater Syria lose their lives during World War I, roughly 18% of the prewar population.

September 1918: An Arab military force occupies Damascus and Faisal ibn Husayn is declared king of Syria. He believes that Arab support for British military ambitions will be rewarded by British support for the creation of an Arab state consisting of most of Syria.

1920: French forces drive Faisal from Damascus, leading to 25 years of mandate authority. The French claim to Syria is based on a combination of religious, economic, and strategic interests. The French see themselves as protectors of Christian communities in the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean region) but face strong resistance as they enter Syria.

Damascus and Aleppo are divided into two separate states; each has its own governor and its own set of French advisers.

A military academy is founded employing French instructors and producing a cadre of Syrian officers who are attached to the newly formed Syrian Legion. The force numbers around 6,000 by the mid-1930s.

1922: The French stress the distinctiveness of Syria’s two regionally compact minority groups. They provide both the Alawites (adherents to a form of Twelver Shi’ism) and the Druze (rooted in Ismailism — a branch of Shi’ism with Seven Pillars) with a separate state. Except for a brief period from 1936-1939, these states are administratively separate from Syria until 1942.

1924: France introduces a new political arrangement by combining the states of Damascus and Aleppo into a single unit called the State of Syria. This unit also comprises the cities of Homs and Hama, the next two largest urban centers in the mandate.

These four cities are dominated by Sunni Muslim merchants and landowners. In effect, France has isolated the Druze and the Alawites from national politics.

1925-1927: Beginning as a localized rebellion, a revolt soon engulfs most of Syria and becomes a symbol of the common Syrian objection to the mandate. It becomes known as “the great revolt.”

July 1925: The revolt begins in the State of Jabal Druze. The armed uprising succeeds in driving French forces from the Jabal Druze.

Autumn 1925: Homs and Damascus are in full revolt.

October 18, 1925: French military commanders subject Damascus to an air and artillery bombardment that lasts for 48 hours and kills as many as 1,400 people.

Spring 1927: Massive French military reinforcements manage to quell the revolt. Some 6,000 Syrians have died and thousands more are left homeless. Parts of the commercial center of Damascus have been reduced to rubble.

1946: The French withdraw from Syria.

1946: The Ba’ath becomes a formal party dedicated to revolutionary activism. It aims to bring about a complete transformation of Arab society. The ‘party’ believes in the existence of a single Arab nation and is committed to the achievement of Arab unity. Goals include  the restoration of  Arab dignity and Arab virtues. It equates Islam with Arabism, both of which are thought to express the Arab spirit.

The Ba’ath mission is to bring an end to social injustice, class exploitation and tyranny and to establish freedom, democracy, and socialism. The ‘party’ attracts a following among young Arabs that extends beyond the borders of Syria.

1948: The first president of independent Syria, Shukri al-Quwwatli, commits the inexperienced Syrian armed forces to the Arab war against newly independent Israel in 1948. Syria is defeated and the officer corps blames the defeat on Syria’s corrupt civilian regime.

March 1949: The Syrian army stages the first in a series of military coups. The coup is led by Colonel Husni Za’im. The defeat of President Quwwatli brings an end to the political domination of the urban notable classes. Wealthy urban politicians educated in Ottoman or European schools are replaced by young men of mainly peasant origins trained in the Syrian military academy.

The coup ushers in a period of extreme political instability marked by two additional coups before year’s end. The second of the coups is led by Colonel Adib Shishakli who manages to hang onto power until 1954.

Shishakli establishes a centralized military dictatorship and brings a temporary end to the factionalism within the officer corps. He adopts a neutralist foreign policy, refusing to participate in Western-sponsored defense pacts.

1954: Shishakli is ousted by a faction within the military after he resorts to repressive measures to keep himself in power.

1954-1958: Syria returns to civilian parliamentary government, but the military continues to interfere in politics. The Syrian political structure is so fragmented that the government can barely function. Instability is traced to:

  • the divide and rule policies of the French
  • the factionalization and politicization of the officer corps
  • the emergence of political parties
  • the country’s place in the struggle for domination of the eastern Arab world. Egypt and Iraq both want to bring Syria into their orbit to increase their own regional power.

1954: The Ba’ath Party demonstrates its strength in 1954 elections. It will develop as the most significant Arab party of the postwar era and will exercise an influence on Nasser and other prominent figures outside Syria. Party doctrine combines aspects of nationalism and socialism.

Mid-1950s: The Syrian communist party — led by Khalid Bakdash — becomes a major force in the country’s political life.

1956: Syria receives Soviet arms supplies. Czech and Soviet military advisers arrive to assist with training and maintenance.

April 1956: Syria joins Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen in forming a joint military alliance aimed at Israel. These nations, along with Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan, refuse to recognize the Israeli government.

Late 1957: Syrian Ba’athist leaders recognize that they aren’t strong enough to bring the country under their control. Fearing that continued chaos will benefit the Communists, they approach Nasser about a union.

February 1958: Syria becomes part of the United Arab Republic (UAR), a loose federation of Egypt, Syria and Yemen. The group is dominated by Egypt and held together by the Egyptian president’s Arab nationalist convictions. Egyptian President Nasser insists that the Syrian Ba’ath Party be dissolved.

1960s: Ba’athist regimes reorient Syria’s existing private enterprise economy to an economy based on state control. Major business firms, banks, industrial plants, and transportation companies are nationalized. Large landed estates are expropriated and a program of land redistribution is begun.

1961: The UAR breaks up. In Syria, two years of chaos follow.

1963: Military officers carry out a coup d’etat that brings the Ba’ath back into power. The coup brings to the fore a tightly knit group of young Alawite officers who work to consolidate their control over Syrian political life. Amin al-Hafiz, a Sunni Muslim, becomes head of state, but three young Alawites (Hafez al-Asad, Muhammad Umran, and Salih Jadid) control the levers of power. Their domestic policies are designed to consolidate Ba’athist rule and remake Syrian society along more equitable lines.

1965: The Syrian regime nationalizes 100 companies and begins to expropriate and redistribute land from large privately owned estates.

1966: All members of old influential families are purged from government service. The new military regime forges an alliance between individuals of rural origins and lower middle-class urbanites — school teachers, civil servants and university students, the backbone of the Ba’ath.

A violent internal coup led by al-Asad ousts Amin al-Hafiz. Al-Asad is now minister of defense as well as commander of the air force, and he becomes the dominant figure within the armed forces.

1967: June or Six Day War: Israel destroys the Syrian air force and captures Syrian territory. The Syrian regime is discredited, especially the minister of defense. Al-Assad is convinced that Syria’s defeat is caused primarily by the mistakes of his associates. He resolves to gain control over all aspects of Syrian decisionmaking.

1970s: For al-Asad, the conflict with Israel takes precedence over all other foreign policy considerations. During the late Ottoman period, the territory that eventually became the Palestinian mandate was regarded as part of southern Syria, and its transformation into the state of Israel was felt to be a keen loss by most Syrians.

November 1970: Al-Asad orders the arrest of Jadid and other members of the government.


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