“We shall remember …… Damascus, the “Pearl of the East”, the pride of Syria, the fabled garden of Eden, the home of princes and genii of the Arabian Nights, the oldest metropolis on Earth, the one city in all the world that has kept its name and held its place and looked serenely on while the Kingdoms and Empires of four thousand years have risen to life, enjoyed their little season of pride and pomp, and then vanished and been forgotten”Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad (1869)
March 15th, 2021 will mark the 10th anniversary of the Syrian Civil War, which has devastated the nation since 2011. As of this year, roughly half a million people have been killed in the war, and 12 million Syrians have been displaced from their country. The Syria of the past ten years little resembles the paradise Mark Twain describes, and the “Pearl of the East” no longer elicits images of Eden and empire. The Damascus of today calls to mind images of incessant bombings, deadly gassings, and scenes of starved and frightened civilians fleeing their homes. However, a decade of civil war makes up a small fraction of Syrian history. The events of the past ten years have misrepresented and undermined the rich history of the Syrian people and their resilience in the face of the Middle East’s constantly shifting landscape. Reflecting upon Syrian history and its tradition of perseverance implies to me that Mark Twain’s eternal Damascus is not a foregone conclusion.
Magnifying the events of the past ten years does a disservice to Syria’s ancient history. Syria is home to one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Its strategic location in the Mediterranean was a source of constant political upheaval: the land’s status as an intersection for commerce and as the birthplace of powerful ruling dynasties and empires was both a blessing and a curse to its people. Many ancient empires including the Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Arameans, Persians, and eventually, Greeks with the conquest of Alexander the Great have occupied this much sought-after land. Several centuries later, Pompey the Great captured the region, turning it into one of the most important Roman provinces.
With the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires, Syria benefited from the diversity of the people who came to claim her, and many of her conquerors remained to contribute to the unique cultural and intellectual community. Immigrants flocked to the Kingdom of Syria, expanding trade and developing a massive commercial network stretching from India to Europe. Syrian and Hellenistic cultures merged as a result of the flow of trade and people, leading to novel developments in law, philosophy, and science. By the time the Romans arrived, Syrians had developed or improved upon irrigation techniques, the alphabet, and astronomy.
Syria would also produce key figures in these empires. In the Roman Empire, for instance, Syrian-born emperors such as Philip the Arab and Elagabalus and empresses such as Julia Domma and Zenobia would represent a Syrian political dynasty that dominated the grand stage of Roman politics. After the seemingly indomitable Western Roman Empire fell, Byzantine (Eastern Roman) rule in Syria continued. Byzantine Syria was marked by constant warfare with the Persian Sassanid Empire to the east. In these struggles, Syria often served as the battleground between the two empires. However, despite the incessant fighting, the ancient cities of Syria remained of key interest to rising powers in the mid-seventh century.
The Umayyad caliphate, ruled by the Muslim Umayyad dynasty, stretched from Iraq to Spain with its capital in Damascus. This Syrian-centered caliphate ushered in an Islamic golden age that led the world in advancements in science, medicine, and philosophy. After the Umayyad dynasty was overthrown, power began moving away from Syria, with the Abbasid dynasty shifting its capital from Damascus to Baghdad. Control of Syria would continue to change hands; Syria was ruled from Egypt for long periods, including under the Tulunids, the Ikhshidid, the Ayyubid dynasty led by Saladin, and then by the Mamluks, who wrested control of the land from the various European Crusader kingdoms. Syria moved into a more permanent status after Ottoman Sultan Selim I conquered most of the region in 1516 after defeating the Mamluks, making Syria part of the Ottoman Empire until 1918.
World War I saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, yet Syria’s autonomy would not soon follow. The League of Nations partitioned parts of the former Ottoman Empire for the British and French to govern until the region was deemed ready for self-governance. The majority of the Syrian population desired independence, and in December 1919, Syrian nationalists had rebelled against the French government and declared independence on March 8, 1920. Yet the French suppressed this revolt along with many that would arise throughout their administration. Syria finally achieved independence in 1946 when continuing pressure from Syrian nationalist groups forced the last of the French forces to evacuate.
The era following 1946 was the closest resemblance thus far to Syrian autonomy. Kingdoms and empires that vied for control of the land with varying degrees of success are ubiquitous in the nation’s history. For most of Syrian history, the people who occupied modern-day Syria were rarely truly autonomous. Yet the newly acquired independence did not bring stability: military coups and wars with other Arab states led to turmoil. By the 1970s, strings of coups culminated with the ascension of Hafez al-Assad, who would remain as the President of Syria from 1970 to 2000, bringing stability to the country and establishing it as a powerful presence in the Middle East.
Entering into the 2000s, Hafez’s son Bashar succeeded him as President of Syria. Initially bringing hopes of reform, Bashar’s government quickly began to resemble the authoritarian regimes of his predecessors. This is where the narrative of the Syrian Civil War begins to emerge. Civil war erupted with the onset of the Arab Spring — a series of pro-democratic protests and rebellions that spread across the Arab world in the early 2010s — coupled with the repressive nature of Bashar’s government. The Free Syrian Army eventually formed as the de facto opposition group to the government. By 2013, Islamic Militants, under the name ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), seized regions of Syria as the war continued to wage between the government and the various rebel groups. The intensifying conflict led to outside powers becoming more involved. Three rival coalitions — Kurdish forces and their American allies, pro-Assad Syrian forces supported by Iran and Russia, and a Turkish-backed coalition of rebel groups — succeeded in squeezing ISIS out of the region yet remained antagonistic with one another.
Today, a cease-fire stands between the government and the various opposition groups, such as the Kurdish rebels who control much of northeastern Syria. However, Bashar’s government has regained control of much of the nation and seems unwilling to compromise with the opposition. His unwillingness to negotiate as well as the government’s use of chemical weapons has earned him hostility from the West. The lack of global support, an international refugee crisis, massive loss of human life, and the destruction of the country’s infrastructure and rich cultural heritage have made many wonder whether the damage is irreparable. The tension in the region makes the renewal of conflict a very real possibility, which would exacerbate the already damaging effects of the last ten years of conflict.
Yet if you have taken anything from this article so far it should be that the Assad regime and the civil war make up a fraction of what Syria as a place and people have experienced over time. Each section of Syria’s history could fill volumes, and the people of the region have a rare ability to face adversity and to rebuild and prosper. The horrors of civil war will not prevent future generations of Syrians from eventually rising out of the dust and debris of their shattered nation to rebuild their country. Mark Twain’s Damascus is an idealized version of Syria, but it conveys the fact that Syria has proven its mettle against the fickle tides of history for thousands of years. Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, and other ancient Syrian cities will continue to look on the world “serenely” as eternal bastions of human civilization.
Categories: Foreign Affairs