Archaeologists have demonstrated that civilization in Syria was one of the most ancient on earth. Around the excavated city of Ebla in northern Syria, an Italian mission led by Prof. Paolo Matthiae discovered in 1975, a great Semitic empire spread from the Red Sea north to Turkey and east to Mesopotamia from 2500 to 2400 BC Ebla appears to have been founded around 3000 BC and gradually built its empire through trade with the cities of Sumer and Akkad, as well as with peoples to the northwest. Gifts from Pharoah found during excavations confirm Ebla's contact with Egypt. Scholars believe the language of Ebla to be among the oldest known written Semitic languages. The Eblan civilization was likely conquered by Sargon of Akkad around 2260 BC; the city was restored as the nation of the Amorites a few centuries later and flourished through the early second millennium BC until conquered by the Hittites.
During the second millennium BC, Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Arameans as part of the general disruptions associated with the Sea Peoples. The Hebrews eventually settled south of Damascus, in the areas later known as Palestine; the Phoenicians settled along the coastline of these areas as well as in the west, in the area (Lebanon) already known for its cedars. Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Hittites variously occupied the strategic ground of Syria during this period, as it was a marchland between their various empires. Eventually the Persians took control of Syria as part of their general control of Southwest Asia; this control transferred to the Greeks after Alexander the Great's conquests and thence to the Romans and the Byzantines.
In the Roman period, the great city of Antioch (called "the Athens of the east" at that time) was the capital of Syria. It was one of the largest cities in the ancient world, with a total estimated population of 500,000, as well as one of the largest centers of trade and industry. As one of the wealthiest and more populous provinces of the Roman Empire, it is estimated that the population of Syria in the early Roman Empire was only exceeded in the 19th century.
In the 3rd century Syria was home to Elagabalus, a Roman emperor of the Severan dynasty who reigned from 218 to 222. Elagabalus' family held hereditary rights to the priesthood of the sun god El-Gabal, of whom Elagabalus was the high priest at Emesa (modern Homs) in Syria.
In 616 Syria was subjugated for a brief period by the Persian Khosrau II; from 622 till 628 it was again Byzantine; 636 and the immediately following years saw its conquest by the Muslims (see Battle of Yarmuk). Muawiya I, the first Omayyad caliph, chose Damascus for his residence. Syria formed the central part of the Umayyad empires. Syria was divided into the following military districts (gonds):
During the struggles of the Islamic dynasties for the possession of Syria the country still enjoyed a considerable degree of prosperity. In 750, it came under Abbasid dominion, losing prominence due to the move of Abbasid capital to Baghdad.
From 960 to c. 1020 the Byzantine Empire launched a string of successful counter-attacks, capturing Antioch, Tarsus and Aleppo (twice). Under John Tzimiskes Syria was completely overrun; Damascus itself, the former capital of the Islamic world was captured, although only for a brief period. The invasion of Seljuk Turks in the latter half of the 11th century put an end to Byzantine Syria. Nonetheless the majority of the Population remained Christian, allowing for a significant pool of Turcopoles to be raised in the Crusader armies.
In the late 11th century, Syria was conquered first by the Seljuks and then carved between Turkmen tribes and participants of the first Crusade. In time, the Islamic part of Syria expanded up to the Orontes river and became a center of anti-crusader activity, especially for Zengi, Nur-ed din and his successor and rival, Saladin. Even so, sections of the coastline of Syria were briefly held by Frankish crusader states. In the 13th century, the first Mongols arrived, destroying cities and irrigation works. By the end of the 15th century, the discovery of a sea route from Europe to the Far East ended the need for an overland trade route through Syria.
Shattered by the Mongols, Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire from the 16th through 20th centuries, and found itself largely apart from, and ignored by, world affairs. It reached the population it had in late Antiquity only in the 1960s.
After World War I, the Ottoman Empire was dissolved, and in 1922 the League of Nations split the dominion of the former Syria between two countries: the United Kingdom received Transjordan and Palestine, and France received what was to become modern-day Syria and Lebanon.
In 1920, an independent Arab Kingdom of Syria was established under King Faisal of the Hashemite family, who later became the King of Iraq. However, his rule over Syria ended after only a few months, following the clash between his Syrian Arab forces and regular French forces at the Battle of Maysalun. French troops occupied Syria later that year after the League of Nations put Syria under French mandate. In 1925, Syrian resistance to French colonial rule broke out in full scale revolt. Despite French attempts to maintain control by encouraging sectarian divisions and isolating urban and rural areas, the revolt spread from the countryside and united Syrian Druze, Sunnis, Shiites, Allawis, and Christians. Once the rebel forces had besieged Damascus, the French military responded with brutal counter-insurgency techniques that prefigured those that would be used later in Algeria and Indo-China. These techniques included house demolitions, collective punishments of towns, executions, population transfers, and the use of heavy armor in urban neighborhoods. The revolt was eventually subdued via French aerial bombardment of civilian areas, including Damascus.
Syria and France negotiated a treaty of independence in September of 1936, and Hashim al-Atassi, who was Prime Minister under King Faisal's brief reign, was the first president to be elected under a new constitution, effectively the first incarnation of the modern republic of Syria. However, France reneged on the treaty and refused to ratify it. With the fall of France in 1940 during World War II, Syria came under the control of the Vichy Government until the British and Free French occupied the country in July 1941. Syria proclaimed its independence again in 1941 but it wasn't until January 1, 1944 that it was recognized as an independent republic. On February 26 1945 Syria declared war on Germany and Japan. Continuing pressure from Syrian nationalist groups and British pressure forced the French to evacuate their troops in April 1946, leaving the country in the hands of a republican government that had been formed during the mandate.
During the Suez Crisis of 1956, after the invasion of the Sinai Peninsula by Israeli troops, and the intervention of British and French troops, martial law was declared in Syria. Later Syrian and Iraqi troops were brought into Jordan to prevent a possible Israeli invasion. The November 1956 attacks on Iraqi pipelines were in retaliation for Iraq's acceptance into the Baghdad Pact. In early 1957 Iraq advised Egypt and Syria against a conceivable takeover of Jordan.
In November 1956 Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union, providing a foothold for Communist influence within the government in exchange for planes, tanks, and other military equipment being sent to Syria. With this increase in the strength of Syrian military technology worried Turkey, as it seemed feasible that Syria might attempt to retake Iskenderon, a formerly Syrian city now in Turkey. On the other hand, Syria and the U.S.S.R. accused Turkey of massing its troops at the Syrian border. During this standoff, Communists gained more control over the Syrian government and military. Only heated debates in the United Nations (of which Syria was an original member) lessened the threat of war.
Syria's political instability during the years after the 1954 coup, the parallelism of Syrian and Egyptian policies, and the appeal of Egyptian President Gamal Abdal Nasser's leadership in the wake of the Suez crisis created support in Syria for union with Egypt. On February 1, 1958, Syrian president Shukri al-Kuwatli and Nasser announced the merging of the two countries, creating the United Arab Republic, and all Syrian political parties, as well as the Communists therein, ceased overt activities.
The union was not a success, however. Following a military coup on September 28, 1961, Syria seceded, reestablishing itself as the Syrian Arab Republic. Instability characterised the next 18 months, with various coups culminating on March 8, 1963, in the installation by leftist Syrian Army officers of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command (NCRC), a group of military and civilian officials who assumed control of all executive and legislative authority. The takeover was engineered by members of the Arab Socialist Resurrection Party (Baath Party), which had been active in Syria and other Arab countries since the late 1940s. The new cabinet was dominated by Baath members.
The Baath takeover in Syria followed a Baath coup in Iraq the previous month. The new Syrian Government explored the possibility of federation with Egypt and with Baath-controlled Iraq. An agreement was concluded in Cairo on April 17, 1963, for a referendum on unity to be held in September 1963. However, serious disagreements among the parties soon developed, and the tripartite federation failed to materialize. Thereafter, the Baath regimes in Syria and Iraq began to work for bilateral unity. These plans foundered in November 1963, when the Baath regime in Iraq was overthrown. In May 1964, President Amin Hafiz of the NCRC promulgated a provisional constitution providing for a National Council of the Revolution (NCR), an appointed legislature composed of representatives of mass organisations—labour, peasant, and professional unions—a presidential council, in which executive power was vested, and a cabinet. On February 23, 1966, a group of army officers carried out a successful, intra-party coup, imprisoned President Hafiz, dissolved the cabinet and the NCR, abrogated the provisional constitution, and designated a regionalist, civilian Baath government on March 1. The coup leaders described it as a "rectification" of Baath Party principles. In Junewar 1967 Syria opened an attack on Israel and shelled Israeli villages from the Golan, and Israel invaded , captured and occupied the Golan. Syria and captured and occupied the Golan. This invasion weakened the radical socialist regime established by the 1966 coup.
Conflict developed between an extremist military wing and a more moderate civilian wing of the Baath Party. The 1970 retreat of Syrian forces sent to aid the PLO during the "Black September" hostilities with Jordan reflected this political disagreement within the ruling Baath leadership. On November 13, 1970, Minister of Defense Hafiz al-Asad effected a bloodless military coup, ousting the civilian party leadership and assuming the role of President.
On October 06 1973, Syria and Egypt began the Yom Kippur War by staging a surprise attack against Israel (Arabs call it the "Ramadan War" or "October War" because Syria and Egypt attacked during Ramadan in the month of October). But despite the element of surprise, Egypt and Syria lost the war, and Israel continued to occupy the Golan Heights as part of the Israeli-occupied territories. In early 1976, the Lebanese civil war was going poorly for the Maronite Christians. Syria sent 40,000 troops into the country to prevent them from being overrun, but soon became embroiled in the Lebanese Civil War, beginning the 30 year Syrian presence in Lebanon. Over the following 15 years of civil war, Syria fought both for control over Lebanon, and as an attempt to undermine Israel in southern Lebanon, through extensive use of Lebanese allies as proxy fighters. Many see the Syrian Army's presence in Lebanon as an occupation, especially following the end of the civil war in 1990, after the Syrian-sponsored Taif Agreement. Syria then remained in Lebanon until 2005, exerting a heavy-handed influence over Lebanese politics, that was deeply resented by many.
About one million Syrian workers came into Lebanon after the war ended to find jobs in the reconstruction of the country. Syrian workers were preferred over Palestinian and Lebanese workers because they could be paid lower wages, but some have argued that the Syrian government's encouragement of citizens entering its small and militarily dominated neighbour in search of work, was in fact an attempt at Syrian colonization of Lebanon. Now, the economies of Syria and Lebanon are completely interdependent. In 1994, under pressure from Damascus, the Lebanese government controversially granted citizenship to over 200,000 Syrians resident in the country. (For more on these issues, see Demographics of Lebanon)
The authoritarian regime was not without its critics, though most were quickly murdered. A serious challenge arose in the late 1970s, however, from fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, who reject the basic values of the secular Baath program and object to rule by the Alawis, whom they consider heretical. From 1976 until its suppression in 1982, the arch-conservative Muslim Brotherhood led an armed insurgency against the regime. In response to an attempted uprising by the brotherhood in February 1982, the government crushed the fundamentalist opposition centered in the city of Hama, leveling parts of the city with artillery fire and causing many thousands of dead and wounded. Since then, public manifestations of anti-regime activity have been very limited.
Syria's 1990 participation in the U.S.-led multinational coalition aligned against Saddam Hussein marked a dramatic watershed in Syria's relations both with other Arab states and with the Western world. Syria participated in the multilateral Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid in October 1991, and during the 1990s engaged in direct, face-to-face negotiations with Israel. These negotiations failed, and there have been no further Syrian-Israeli talks since President Hafiz al-Assad's meeting with then President Bill Clinton in Geneva in March 2000.
On October 5, 2003, Israel bombed a site near Damascus, claiming it was a terrorist training facility for members of Islamic Jihad. The raid was in retaliation for the bombing of a restaurant in the Israeli town of Haifa that killed 19. Islamic Jihad said the camp was not in use; Syria said the attack was on a civilian area. The Israeli action was condemned by European governments. The German Chancellor said it "cannot be accepted" and the French Foreign Ministry said "The Israeli operation… constituted an unacceptable violation of international law and sovereignty rules." The Spanish UN Ambassador Inocencio Arias called it an attack of "extreme gravity" and "a clear violation of international law."
The United States Congress passed the Syria Accountability Act in 2003, with the goal of ending what the U.S. sees as Syrian involvement in Lebanon, Iraq, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction through international sanctions.