The modern Syrian state was born out of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. The land itself is much older, dating back thousands of years. The republic was created in 1932 while its modern borders were altered numerous times, most notably in 1920 when modern Lebanon was carved out of the Syrian motherland. In 1939, Turkey seized land in the Syrian north while in 1967 Israel occupied the Syrian Golan Heights, slightly shrinking the Sykes-Picot boundaries.
At the turn of the 20th century, Syria was part of an old and ailing Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the people of Syria for 400 years. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of the First World War, a Hashemite kingdom was erected in Damascus, run by Emir Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussain Bin Ali, the emir of Makkah and commander of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks. It created modern state institutions, along with Arabic schools and an Arabic Faculty of Medicine (later renamed Damascus University), in addition to a modern parliament.
The Faisal government was short-lived, from 1918 to 1920. French forces, having landed on the Syrian coast shortly after the Ottomans left, began marching on Damascus in the summer of 1920. They were grabbing colonial France’s share of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. A legendary battle followed between the young Syrian Army and invading French troops, creating the cornerstone of national myth and pride for the young nation. The Syrian Army was crushed and its commander killed in combat. The French rumbled into Damascus and imposed martial rule, dividing Syria into border-free mini-states. The first centred Damascus proper and included Homs and Hama in central Syria; the second in Aleppo encompassing the Deir ez-Zour province along the Euphrates. Two mini-sectarian states were also created, one for the Druze in the Syrian South and one for the Alawites along the Syrian coast, with its capital in the port city of Latakia. In 1925, the first two were merged into the State of Syria while the Alawite State and Druze State remained autonomous until 1936 when they were re-incorporated at the insistence of then-President Hashem Al Atasi.
The French gave the country its present form, marking the frontiers between Syria and the British Mandate Palestine on one front, and with and the newly-created State of Greater Lebanon, on another. Another border was drawn up with the newly created emirate of Transjordan in April 1921. The Lebanese enclave was carved out of the Syrian motherland and given independent status in the summer of 1920.
Syrians took up arms against the French in 1925, then resorted to statesmanship to declare their republic in 1932 and achieved independence in 1946. In 1944 and 1945 Syria was a co-founder of both the Arab League and United Nations, respectively. A national army was created in the summer of 1947. The urban notables who emerged to run the state were wealthy, stemming from the landed notability, and trained in politics. They authored Syria’s first republican constitution, preventing an incumbent president from serving for more than one term in office, and supervised free parliamentary elections in 1936, 1943 and 1947.
The Syrian countryside however, lagged in backwardness and poverty, becoming a breeding ground for populist and leftist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Baath Party, and the Communist Party. The Palestine War of 1948 tore the young republic to pieces, sowing discord within its social and political structure, and it led to the first military coup in March 1949, staged by the US-backed Army Commander, General Hosni Al Za’im.
Al Za’im triggered a series of coups and counter-coups that rocked the young republic throughout the 1950s and 1960s — until Egyptian President Jamal Abdul Nasser, who had become a household name in Damascus after the Suez War, merged Syria and Egypt in 1958 to form the United Arab Republic (UAR). It was supposed to last for 100 years, but came crashing down 43 months later — also by coup — in September 1961. The UAR was not the last attempt to reshape the borders of Sykes-Picot and the post-First World War settlements. Unlike all other endeavours however, a century later, these borders are still standing tall across the Fertile Crescent.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015).