Syria - History
Historically, Syria included Jordan, Israel and Lebanon as well as the area now known as Syria. Although the modern state of Syria is a creation of the 20th century, the region can lay claim to having one of the oldest civilisations in the world. The Mesopotamian Akkadians were the first to covet the area, followed by the Egyptians, a brief period of autonomy before the Hittites came to town. Evidence of the first alphabets have been found at the ancient site of Ugarit. The country was in a top strategic spot, and its coastal towns became important Phoenician trading posts. The region became an ethnic potpourri as, for 400 years, it became a spoil of war for every neighbouring warmonger. Later, Syria was a pivotal part of the Persian, Greek, then Roman empires. When Byzantium went pear-shaped, the Islamic Ummayads, who for a time made Damascus the capital of the Muslim world, followed in 750 by the Abbasids, who moved to Baghdad, setting in a period of decline. The Crusaders arrived, bringing with them their patented brand of mayhem, until their defeat at the hands of Nur ad-Din, whose son, Salah ad-Din, brought prosperity back to the region. They were followed by the Mamluks and Mongols until finally, in 1516, the Ottomans took over and brought the to and fro to a temporary end.
Syria prospered under Ottoman rule except for a brief period in the 19th century when the Egyptians came a-conquerin'. They were soon sent a-packin' and the Ottoman Turks dished it, along with Lebanon, out to France when the Turkish Empire broke up after WWI.
The Syrians weren't too pleased with this arrangement (they had been an independent nation from 1918-20) and staged an insurrection in 1925-6, which resulted in the French bombing Damascus.
In 1932, Syria had its first parliamentary elections, and although the candidates had been picked by the French, they refused to accept France's proposed constitution for the country. In 1939, France granted Turkey the Syrian province of Alexandretta, further sharpening feeling against the imperial overlords. France promised independence in 1941 but didn't come through with it until 1946.
Civilian rule didn't last long in Syria: in 1954, after several military coups, the Ba'athist section of the army took over the country. The Ba'ath Party was founded in 1940 by a Christian teacher and was committed to a form of pan-Arabism under which Syria would forfeit its sovereignty. This led to the formation of a United Arab Republic with Egypt in 1958, but several people thought this wasn't such a hot idea, and another series of military coups trundled across the country. By 1966 the Ba'ath were back in power, but the celebrations were curtailed by the 1967 Six Day War with Israel and the 1970 Black September spat with Jordan. While everyone was otherwise occupied, Defence Minister Hafez al-Assad seized power.
Since 1971 Assad has held onto the presidency with a mixture of ruthless suppression and guile, and used his position to maneuver Syria into a position of power negotiating the terms of peace in the Middle East. In 1999, he was elected to a fifth seven-year term with a predictable 99.9% of the vote. Although falling oil prices instigated much hand-wringing throughout the Middle East, Assad's astute exploitation of the Gulf War in the early 1990s brought improvements in the Syrian economy. During the war, Syria joined the anti-Iraq coalition, getting into the USA's good books in an effort to get off Washington's list of states supporting international terrorism.
In 1997, Syria was removed from the US list of drug-trafficking states, while Assad moved to strengthen ties with the fledgling EU, Turkey and the US. Attempts to diversify the oil-reliant economy, primarily with investment in agricultural products, have had mixed success. In early 2000, US State Department officials discussed removing Syria from from the terrorism list, admitting that even according to US intelligence, the country hadn't sponsored any terrorist activity since 1986. The chaotic withdrawal of Israeli troops from Southern Lebanon in May 2000, occuring under fire from the alledgedly Syrian-sponsored Hezbollah, would have probably delayed further talks under the best of circumstances. President Assad's death the following month added another variable to that equation and to the future of the Middle East peace process as a whole. Assad's son Bashar stood poised to take over the presidency as of June 2000.