Anyone with a television, smartphone or computer has heard about the horrible civil war in Syria and the resulting refugee crisis. Several times my children have asked questions about the surrounding issues and I have come to realize I know next to nothing about this country. Although I have often stated an opinion on current news reports about what is going on, truly my opinion is steeped in ignorance. So, I set out to remedy my condition.
Syria is the outgrowth of the Assyrian empire of tenth century BC and was home to one of the most ancient civilizations on Earth. Within Dederiyeh Cave archaeologists discovered remains of a Neanderthal child that could be as old as 200,000 years. As life continued to flourish upon Earth, Syria, being a part of the “Fertile Crescent”, gave rise to societies that were based on agriculture and cattle. Ancient ancestors of present day Syrians left behind evidence of their lives in stone vessels and tools made of obsidian.
A site in northern Syria held ancient tablets which revealed a civilization with a written language and a vibrant economy trading with Egypt. Researchers believe the language is similar to the Akkadian language of Mesopotamia which is one of the oldest written languages known to man.
Historians theorize that Syria was occupied, in succession, by the nations of Sumeria, Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Persian dominance over Syria ended when Alexander the Great conquered Syria and brought it into the Seleucid Empire. He relocated the Syrian capital to the city of Antioch which was located in what is now modern day Turkey. Eventually Antioch was captured by new invaders and Syria became a province of Rome.
Under Roman rule, Syria thrived. Antioch grew to become the third largest Roman city, with only Rome’s capital city of Rome and Alexandria in Egypt exceeding it in population, greatness and significance. With population estimates of almost half a million citizens, Syrians became a prosperous people in the first couple of centuries due to Syria’s importance as an industry and trade center.
Several Roman emperors were Syrian or had a parent that was Syrian: Elagabalus, Alexander Severus, and Philip the Arab (Marcus Julius Philippus). As Rome declined, Syria was eventually absorbed into the Byzantine Empire. This gave way to being conquered by the Rashidun army and Syria becoming part of the Islamic Empire of the Umayyad dynasty. Syria’s capital was once again relocated to the city of Damascus. The nation of Syria was divided into four separate districts: Damascus, Jordan, Horns, and Palestine.
Once again Syria experienced prosperity becoming the trade center of the Islamic Empire. The country experienced the construction of beautiful palaces and gorgeous mosques. Social toleration of many different races and religions was regularly practiced and Syria became a cosmopolitan mecca of the most talented artists, artisans and scholars in the region.
When the Caliphate collapsed, the power vacuum led to many factions struggling for control. The racial and religious tolerance that once held sway was now threatened as race and religion was used to fracture unity for different groups who sought support. Syria then began to go through multiple revolutions of power through different dynasties as well as periods of anarchy until the “Sword of the State”, Ali Saif al-Daula, brought the country stability which led to Syria once again becoming the center of Arabic literature and culture.
After al-Daula’s death, Syria experienced, again, much unrest. It was conquered successively by: the Byzantines, the Turks, the Ayyubid dynasty, the Mongols, Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire.
The nation has had many political and leadership changes in modern history. In the early 1900s it was occupied by the French, finally gaining independence in 1946. In 1958, known as the Republic of Syria, it joined the United Arab Republic but withdrew after three years. Two years later the Ba’ath party, led by the Assad family, began ruling the country. This political/religious faction and family have remained in power until now.
Under Ba’ath party rule through the Assad regime, the Assad family has led Syria since 1971. Its constitution declares it to be a secular socialist nation with Islam as the recognized religion. Syria has aggressively challenged Israeli-occupied territories, such as the Golan Heights, supporting Lebanon when it was engaged in hostilities with Israel.
When Iran and Iraq were at war, Syria’s support was with Iran. Syria also supported the coalition of countries that moved against Iraq when Iraq invaded Kuwait. In the year 2000, the current Assad ruling Syria came into power. Soon, many groups of people emerged hoping to bring about social and political changes. Hundreds of political prisoners were released and in 2001 Syria even received a visit from the Pope.
Despite these hopeful and historical indicators, authorities began to suppress the reform movements and tensions began to fray between Syria and the United States. The U.S. accused Syria of amassing weapons and considered the nation to be a terror group supporter. Sanctions were eventually imposed upon Syria and trouble has only escalated. It seems it has been one thing after another, protests ending in bloody massacres, assassination attempts, riots, and imprisonment of dissidents. And now the war.
Needless to say, Syria has a rich and complicated history. And, the opinions that I earlier had stated in ignorance were ignorant. I had no idea of this nation’s ancient history or the details of the modern history that has culminated in this bloody civil war.