The Syrian Arab Republic gained its independence from France in 1946 but has lived through periods of political instability driven by the conflicting interests of its diverse ethnic and religious groups. These include Armenians, Assyrians, Alawite Shias, Druze and Kurds, as well as the Sunni Arabs who make up a majority of the Muslim population.
In 1958-1961, Syria was united with Nasser's Egypt, but an army coup restored independence before the Alawite-controlled pan-Arab Baath (Renaissance) party took control in 1963. It rules to this day. The Ba'ath Government has seen authoritarian rule at home and a strong anti-Israeli policy abroad, particularly under former President Hafez al-Assad. In 1967, Syria lost the Golan Heights to the Israelis, while civil war in neighbouring Lebanon allowed it to extend its political and military influence in the region.
Syria pulled its forces out of Lebanon in 2005, having come under intense international pressure to do so after the assassination of Lebanese former premier Rafik Hariri. A UN report implicated Syrian and pro-Syria Lebanese officials in the killing. Damascus denied any involvement.
The Government has dealt harshly with domestic opposition. Following the death of Hafez al-Assad, Syria underwent a degree of relaxation. Hundreds of political prisoners were released. But the granting of real political freedoms and a shake-up of the state-dominated economy have not materialised.
Internationally, Damascus has been increasingly isolated in recent years, having come under fire for its alleged support of insurgents in Iraq, and over its role in Lebanon. That isolation appeared to be easing after efforts by France to bring Syria back into the international fold. In October 2008, Syria established diplomatic ties with Lebanon, formally recognising its neighbour.
Syria is one of Israel's staunchest enemies and is said to support a number of militant groups that carry out attacks against Israel. Their current relationship founders on the continued occupation by Israel of the Golan Heights -- Syrian land taken in the 1967 war. Peace talks between the two countries stalled in January 2000. In October 2003, Israel launched an air strike against Syria, claiming it was targeting a Palestinian refugee camp. On 6 October 2007, Israel seemingly launched another air strike, although the precise details of the incident are not known.
On 26 October 2008, the US reportedly launched a raid against an Iraqi member of Al-Qaeda inside Syria. The circumstances surrounding this attack remain unclear. Syria's foreign minister accused the US of an act of "criminal and terrorist aggression" over what it said was a helicopter raid on its territory that killed eight unarmed civilians on a farm. The attack was also criticised by the Government of Iraq. The US has not commented publicly on the case. An unnamed US official reportedly claimed that they had killed Abu Ghadiyah, a sernior figure in the non-state armed group, Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Anti-government protests erupted in Syria in March 2011, with demonstrators calling for reforms and, increasingly, the toppling of President Assad’s regime. Government forces responded violently and, in joint operations with security forces and militas known as Shabbiha, reportedly engaged in excessive use of force, kidnappings, torture and other forms or ill-treatment. A UN independent international commission of inquiry, issuing its report in November 2011, called the abuses carried out by Syrian authorities “crimes against humanity”. The opposition became progressively organised, with the main armed opposition group the Free Syrian Army (composed largely of defectors from the Syrian army) and the nonviolence-advocating Syrian National Council announcing in December 2011 that they would coordinate their efforts. The opposition has also been accused of abuses, including the recruitment of child soldiers. (See also Current Conflict section)
Despite initially agreeing to a League of Arab States workplan toward ending the violence in November 2011, the Syrian Government failed to cooperate and was suspended from the League, as well as issued sanctions against (the United States and the European Union had already instituted sanctions against the country). Following a year of violent clashes and the failed adoption of a Security Council resolution on the Syrian situation, the UN Secretary-General and the Arab League appointed Kofi Annan as Joint Special Envoy with the mandate to bring a negotiated peace and the halting of hostilities. On 27 March 2012, it was announced that the Syrian Government had agreed to a six-point plan put forth by the Special Envoy. The fragile ceasefire entered into effect on 12 April 2012 and UN observers began their monitoring work on 16 April 2012, despite reports of ongoing shellfire from government forces in Holms and other areas.
Over a hundred civilians, including women and children, were infamously killed in the Houla massacre on 25 May 2012, in an attack strongly condemned by the Human Rights Council and by the Security Council. Reports continued to surface of forces linked to the Syrian government being responsible for abuses including indiscriminate attacks, extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence. In June 2012, the UN announced it was suspending its mission in Syria, due to its monitors’ inability to conduct patrols and following reports of them being shot at.
On 30 June 2012, the UN-backed Action Group on Syria agreed on the necessary steps for the implementation of the six-point peace plan and for the country to transition toward stability. Meanwhile, members of the Syrian opposition, having previously criticised the UN peace plan, met in Cairo to discuss a political transition plan backed by the UN, Russia and the US. President Assad renewed his commitment to the plan in early July 2012. However, fighting continues, with a new helicopter and tank attack in opposition-controlled Hama taking 220 civilian lives in mid-July 2012.
Last updated: 13 July 2012