The Struggle of Syria



Since gaining its independence from the French in 1946, Syria has had a rocky and troubled history. Since 2011, Syria has been fighting a brutal Civil War in which the Assad regime (with support from Russia and Iran) has used brutal tactics to cling to power. On the other side, opposition forces have included ISIS (which originated in Syria) and al Qaeda, making for a complicated situation relative to U.S. interests. Join Active Minds as we seek to understand Syria's complex history and how this informs current and future challenges for this pivotal player in the Middle East.

Key Lecture Points

  • Syria has a long (and frequently troubled) history. Over the course of two millennia, ancient Syria was conquered and occupied by various peoples/empires in the region including the Egyptians, Hebrews, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, and French.
  • The people of this varied land are reflective of those centuries of conflict. While 90% of the population is Muslim, it reflects many various Muslim divisions: Sunni, Druze, Alawi and others. Twelve percent of Syrians are Allawi Shia Muslims, including President, Bashar al-Assad, who rules over a land that is almost 75% Sunni Muslim.
  • Syria’s present-day borders are the result of the end of World War I and the French and the British dividing up the defeated Ottoman imperial lands. During the period between the world wars, the French sought to increase their strength in Syria and neighboring Lebanon by supporting and separating religious minorities, weakening the Arab nationalist movement.
  • Syria gained its independence from France in 1946. A legacy of division, exacerbated by regional upheaval including participation in Arab wars against Israel, combined to make rule over Syria difficult.
  • In 1963, the secular Ba’ath Party took control of Syria and emergency law was declared. It was not lifted until 2011. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad took control of the Syrian Ba’athist party and stayed in control of the country until his death in 2000. Hafez’s rule was characterized by swift and frequently-bloody crackdowns on dissent. Hafez was succeeded in 2000 by his son, Bashar al-Assad.
  • The so-called “Arab Spring”, characterized by peaceful protests against long-standing regimes, reached Syria in March 2011, when teenagers were arrested and tortured for painting anti-regime graffiti. Assad ordered his military and security forces to open fire on protests and laid siege to towns across Syria, triggering a conflict that has reached the level of a civil war. The war has lasted seven years, has killed between 350-500,000 people and displaced an estimated 11 million more.
  • The Syrian civil war has become a proxy war for other regional and international conflicts: Iran against Iraq, Shia against Sunni Islam, Iran against Israel, Turkey against the Kurds and Russia against the US and its allies.
  • Chaos in Syria led to the growth of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in the region. They established their capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2014. Raqqa fell in the fall of 2017 and ISIS has lost much of its power, territory and credibility.
  • More than 6 million Syrians have fled the country since 2011. Turkey and other neighbors host the vast majority of Syrian refugees. Controversy over the fate of refugees in Europe helped fuel the growth of nationalist parties and contribute to Great Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. During the Obama Administration, about 16,000 Syrian refugees resettled in the US. The Trump Administration has preferred to provide aid to Syria’s neighbors. As of April 2018, only 11 Syrians had been resettled in the US that calendar year.

Exploration Questions

  • How is the Syrian civil war different from the other uprisings that took place during the Arab Spring of 2011? How are they similar?
  • Why is the Syrian civil war described as a proxy war?
  • What are the events that led up to the chemical weapons agreement?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think Assad will be able to remain in power? Why? Why not? Should he?
  • Have you ever been to Syria? The Middle East? What were your impressions?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Abouzeid, Rania. No Turning Back: Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria. W. W. Norton, 2018. 400 pages. The stories of four young people seeking safety and freedom tell the broader tale of the Syrian Civil War.
    Click here to order
  • Brooke, Allen. The Other Side of the Mirror: An American Travels Through Syria. Paul Dry Books, 2011. 259 pages. Introduction to contemporary Syria.
    Click here to order
  • Lesch, David W. Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, Yale University Press, 2012. 384 pages. Chronicles the regime of Bashar Assad, the causes of the Syrian uprising and Assad’s tactics to remain in power.
    Click here to order
  • Van Dam, Nikolaos. Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria. I. B. Tauris, 2017. 336 pages. Explains the recent history of Syria, including disenchantment with Assad, the outbreak of violence and the way the war has restructured Syrian society.
    Click here to order