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Syria: Historical Background
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Syria and the Middle East Conflict > Historical Background


For more than 4,000 years the area known as Syria has been populated by successive waves of Semitic peoples, including nomadic tribes. It has also been a battleground for myriad conquerors, including Akkadians, Assyrians, Hittites, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, Macedonian Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, European Crusaders, Kurds, Ottomans, and the French. Countless dynasties, whether local or foreign, have ruled the area (see Introduction , ch. 1). From the time of the Arab conquest in the seventh century A.D. until it became part of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, the region was repeatedly invaded, occupied, merged, and fragmented. Syrian armed units were formed under the Umayyad caliphate during the eighth century A.D. and for the next 100 years played an important role in the Arab campaign against the Byzantine Empire.

Under Ottoman rule, which lasted until the end of World War I, Syrians were regularly conscripted into the empire's forces or pressed into service in the armies of contending local chieftains Syrians fought on one side or the other but without a sense of national purpose. These centuries of foreign subjugation, combined with political and social fragmentation, provided scant grounds for the development of a national military tradition; new generations learned regional consciousness or gave their allegiance to tribe, clan, or village.

The Arab inhabitants of the provinces of historical Greater Syria took part in World War I. When the Ottoman Empire allied itself with Germany and Austria-Hungary, new opportunities opened up for the Arabs and some came to the defense of the Ottoman Empire. Others, as in the case of the small semisecret societies operating in Syria, which advocated various forms of Arab nationalism, and the Arabs from the Hijaz, opposed the Ottomans.

The Arab Revolt in the Hijaz, headed by the ruling Hashimite family of Mecca, occurred in 1916. A number of Syrians served in the forces advised by T.E. Lawrence and other Britons during the revolt and also in the Eastern Legion (La Legion d'Orient), a French-organized unit. The revolt did not lead to a major uprising in Syria but, in 1918, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Syria was conquered by the Allies, Arab troops commanded by Amir Faysal, son of Sharif Husayn of Mecca, entered Damascus and were greeted warmly by the local population. Amir Faysal proclaimed himself king of Syria in 1918, but his reign was short (1918-20). Faysal had been supported by officers of the Arab Army from the Hijaz, former Ottoman officers, and local Syrian nationalists. However, there were many conflicts among these diverse groups. Following their defeat by the French (and the intervention of Britain, who compensated the Hashimites for their loss of Syria by giving them Transjordan and Iraq), the French Mandate was established in Syria (and Lebanon) in April 1920, and a volunteer Arab force was formed to maintain internal order.

Data as of April 1987

Last Updated: April 1987

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Syria was first published in 1991. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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