Syria’s modern history has been shaped by imperial domination.
France claimed the country as it divided up the region with Britain at the end of the First World War. In 1920, Emir Faisal proclaimed independence, but French troops crushed his revolt.
Despite frequent rebellions, it was 1946 before the colonialists were forced out.
The landowners and merchants who formed the post?independence governments soon faced workers’ strikes and peasant rebellions.
The Ba’ath party was founded in this radical atmosphere—preaching pan-Arabism and state socialism. It was based on middle class intellectuals, professionals, students, traders and businessmen. Its founding members were from a range of ethnic and religious backgrounds.
In 1958 Syria joined with Egypt’s nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser to form the United Arab Republic. But it lasted less than three years as Syrian capitalists opposed Nasser’s land reforms and nationalisation plans.
Syrian Ba’athists came to power in a coup in 1963. They combined anti-imperialist rhetoric and support for the emerging Palestinian guerrilla groups with state capitalist economic policies. Syria was now firmly in Russia’s orbit.
The party was riven with infighting and in 1966 lurched in a more nationalist direction.
Israel—the West’s watchdog in the region—occupied Syria’s Golan Heights as part of its decisive victory in the 1967 “Six Day War”.
A “corrective revolution” in 1970 placed the military wing of the Ba’ath firmly in control under Hafiz al-Assad. Egypt and Syria launched a war against Israel in 1973 in an attempt to reclaim territory lost in 1967. But again Israel won.
Syria’s claim to be a defender of the Palestinians unravelled when Assad sent troops to support the fascist Phalangists in the Lebanese civil war in 1976. The Phalange was fighting against Palestinian and Muslim groups. Syrian troops remained until 2005.
In Syria itself the Ba’ath government used severe repression against any resistance.
The population of the city of Aleppo rose up in 1980. The regime retook it by military force, killing up to 2,000 people. The same year, it killed 1,000 people while crushing a revolt at a detention camp in Tadmur.
The most savage crackdown came when the town of Hama rose up in 1982. The military butchered tens of thousands of people. It aimed to terrify opposition forces—a tactic that succeeded.
In the 1980s the Syrian economy stagnated as the Soviet Union, on which it was modelled, went into terminal decline.
The 1991 Gulf War provided an opportunity for Syria to realign itself with the West. New laws encouraged foreign investment, but as with many such schemes, left most ordinary people in poverty.
Hafiz’s son, Bashar, took over when he died in 2000. Despite continuing state repression, he was initially cheered by the West as a reformer. After 9/11, the US even outsourced torture to Syria as part of its rendition programme.
But that relationship changed in 2005, when the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was blamed on Syria.
A wave of demonstrations across Lebanon forced Syrian troops to withdraw. The US imposed sanctions on Syria, accusing the Ba’athist government of aiding the resistance in Iraq.
Today, Western leaders talk about Assad in similar terms to the way they once described Saddam Hussein, forgetting that not long ago they were prepared to back his regime–just as they did Iraq.