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Syrian Arab Republic History, Language and Culture

History of Syrian Arab Republic

The Syrian Arab Republic has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years and, as a result, has a rich cultural history. The area that is now the Syrian Arab Republic was part of the Empire of Mesopotamia around 2300 BC, during which time the cities of Ugarit (where the oldest written alphabet in the world is believed to have been developed) and Byblos grew to become powerful commercial centres. By about 500 BC, southern Syria had fallen under the control of Egypt, while the northern principalities had been welded into the Mitanni Empire. Within a few centuries, however, the Hittites from the north had overrun all of Syria, an empire that in turn collapsed in the face of invasions by the Mediterranean Sea peoples. The history of the following centuries, until the eventual destruction of the Kingdom of Judah in 539 BC, is one of a struggle by Babylonians, Canaanites, Assyrians, Phoenicians and many other tribes and empires for control of Syrian trade. Alexander the Great absorbed Syria into his empire in 333 BC; however, control of the region was disputed for the following two centuries – on this occasion, between the various people trying to gain control of his inheritance.

For several centuries, the Province of Syria enjoyed the mixed blessings of the Pax Romana and was a province of the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire after the division of the Roman Empire. But even then, Syria was regarded as a frontier region, bordered to the east by the Arabs and Persians. The Persian invasions were repulsed but Syria eventually fell to the Muslims in the mid-seventh century. From then on, Syria was to be firmly part of the Muslim world, although retaining Christian and Jewish populations. Muslim control of Syria was vital to the defeat of the Christians and their expulsion from Jerusalem. However, during the 13th century, a far greater threat was the terrifying force of the Mongols. In the space of 50 years, they swept through Asia, creating an empire that stretched from Korea to Moscow. By 1260, they had overrun Syria and deposed the Abbasid Khalif. The Muslim world – and, indeed, the Christian one – seemed doomed. But in that year, the Mamluk General Baybars defeated the massive army of Hulagu at the Battle of Goliath's Well – a victory that, in retrospect, must be seen as one of the world's most decisive military engagements. By 1520, the region had fallen under the sway of the Ottoman Turks and, as a result, Syria prospered once – for the most part.

The 19th century was a period of increasing restlessness in the area – Napoleon's campaign in 1799/1800, the Egyptian invasion in the 1830s and the insurrection in 1860-61 are three instances of this. The Turks were defeated in World War I and Syria was occupied by the French for a short time, before Syria was granted full independence in 1946. Three years later, the country came under the first of a series of military dictatorships that have governed the country for most of the subsequent period. As in the rest of the Middle East, Arab nationalism became a major political force during the 1950s – indeed, the influence of Nasser's revolution in Egypt on the Syrians was so strong that Syria joined Egypt in forming the United Arab Republic in 1958. The alliance was short-lived, Syria seceding in 1961, to form the Syrian Arab Republic. The most powerful political force in Syria since then has been the Ba'ath Party or Arab Socialist Renaissance (see Iraq), which seized power in 1971, under the leadership of General Hafez al-Assad, who ruled at the head of a tightly controlled dictatorship, until his death in June 2000. Assad's main power base was the Alawite group, a Muslim sect to which 10 per cent of the Syrian population is affiliated. With the tactical and strategic skill that was his trademark, Assad comfortably dealt with the challenges to his supremacy – largely through his control of the army and the country's myriad intelligence organisations.

The major exception occurred in February 1982, when the Muslim Brotherhood – the principal opposition group confronting the Assad regime – launched a rebellion from the town of Hama. The rebellion was crushed, with several thousand deaths, by military forces led by Assad's brother Rifaat who then controlled the country's security forces. A few months afterwards, Assad then faced his most serious foreign policy challenge since the loss of the Golan Heights (an area bordering the Syrian Arab Republic and Israel) in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The Syrian Arab Republic perceived Israel's strategy as establishing a Christian-dominated client state, underpinned by Israeli military power. The Syrian Arab Republic could not hope to match the Israelis militarily but Assad nonetheless managed to manoeuvre the Syrian Arab Republic into a dominant position in Lebanon. This he achieved by supporting the main Lebanese Muslim militias, Amal and Hezbollah, and then introducing a substantial military presence of its own, remaining careful to avoid direct confrontation with the Israelis (see Israel and Lebanon). In 1984, the Israelis moved into a self-styled 'security zone' south of the Litani River and in 1999, after a decade and a half of attritional guerrilla warfare with the Syrian-backed Hezbollah, the Israelis pulled out altogether. The Syrian Arab Republic, meanwhile, had established a political and military dominance over Lebanon, which continues to this day, although events in early 2005 - such as the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Hariri, the UN Security Council and the USA's increasing pressure on Syria, and rallies on both sides - have prompted Syria to begin the process of withdrawing its troops, although it is not know how quickly or how thoroughly this process will be undertaken. Apart from anything else, their presence in Lebanon served to confirm that the Syrian Arab Republic was indispensable to a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East. The Syrian Arab Republic has yet to secure its main objective – the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights – and has made clear that unless the issue is settled, the Syrian Arab Republic will not follow Egypt and Jordan in reaching a formal peace with the Jewish state. It is therefore uncertain whether Syria will be prepared to exit Lebanon entirely, when it is so key to their objective in Israel. There have been some discreet contacts between the Syrian Arab Republic and Israel in the last few years, most recently in early 2004. Israeli premier Ariel Sharon has invited President Bashar Assad to visit Israel, an offer which so far has not been accepted. The relationship between the two countries took a turn for the worse in 2005 over an alleged deal Syria was making with Russia to acquire missiles.

The Syrian Arab Republic's relations with the West reached a nadir during the late-1980s, but the 1991 Gulf War came as an unexpected blessing, with the USA eager to attract Arab states into the anti-Iraqi coalition. Assad had been an implacable opponent of Saddam Hussein's Iraq from the beginning: the pan-Arab Ba'athist movement had suffered a fatal ideological split in the 1960s which has never been healed. The Syrians were happy to back the UN coalition and as part of the deal, they also secured substantial financial support and the guarantee of a free hand in Lebanon (which they still have, although, as aforementioned, this is subject to increasing contention and it is possible Syria may withdraw completely by later within the tear).

In June 2000, after years of failing health, President Assad died. Having fallen out with his brother, Rifaat, some years earlier, and with the accidental death of his eldest son, Basil, in 1994, Assad had selected his second son, Bashar, as heir. While domestic policy has seen something of a relaxation under Bashar, Western hopes that the Syrian Arab Republic would pursue a more pro-Western line have proved misguided – in the vocabulary of the US Bush administration, the Syrian Arab Republic is a 'state of concern' (one level below the 'axis of evil'). The Syrians have provided some assistance to the Western 'War Against Terror' but were strongly opposed to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Syria pulled its forces out of Lebanon in 2005, after coming under intense international pressure after being implicated by a UN report for the assassination of former premier of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri. Both Syria and Pro Syria Lebanese officials were thought to be involved although this has been strongly denied by Damascus.

Syrian Arab Republic Culture

Religion in Syrian Arab Republic

Over 80% Muslim (mostly Sunni), with sizeable Christian (mostly Orthodox and Catholic) groups and Jewish minorities.

Social Conventions in Syrian Arab Republic

The Syrians take as much pride in their modern amenities as in their unique heritage and in the tradition of exquisite craftsmanship, and both should be appreciated. Visitors will enjoy the hospitality that is a deep-rooted Arab tradition and sharing the pleasures of an attractive Oriental way of life. It is customary to shake hands on meeting and on departure. A visitor will be treated with great courtesy and will frequently be offered refreshment, usually coffee. As a guest in someone's home or, more usually, in a restaurant, visitors should respect Arab customs and traditions. A souvenir from the visitor's home or company is well received. Conservative casual wear is suitable. Beachwear or shorts should not be worn away from the beach or poolside. Smoking follows Western habits and in most cases it is obvious where not to smoke. Smoking is prohibited in public from dawn to dusk during Ramadan.

Photography: No attempt should be made to photograph anything remotely connected with the armed forces or in the vicinity of defence installations, which even includes radio transmission aerials. It is wise to take a good look at what will be appearing in the background before pointing the camera.

Language in Syrian Arab Republic

Arabic, French and English. Kurdish is spoken by a small minority.