Syria is an ancient land that has played a major role throughout world history. Going back thousands of years, Syria has been ruled by a variety of rulers, including the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatimids, the Seljuk Turks, the Zengids, the Ayyubids, the Mameluks, the Ottomans and finally, the French before gaining independence in April 1946. This long and rich history resulted in the creation of a diverse mosaic of faiths and ethnicities in Syria.
The modern-day boundaries of Syria were created by the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, which was negotiated by the British and French governments in anticipation of the eventual defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Despite attempts by Prince Faisal to establish a monarchy in Damascus after winning control of the country in 1918 from the Ottomans in a joint mission with British forces, France imposed its mandate in Syria following the Battle of Maysaloun in 1920. The French authorities subsequently won the approval of the League of Nations. They divided Syria into a number of states brought together under a federal system, which lasted for two decades until the country was reunited prior to independence.
The formation of the Syrian state started to take shape in 1932 when the Syrian Republic was created on the basis of a parliamentary system with authority officially emanating from the country’s legislature. Muhammad Ali Abed became the country’s first president that year followed by Hashim Atassi in 1936. Nevertheless, resistance within Syria against French domination continued particularly following the failure of the French to ratify a 1936 treaty that would have promised eventual independence and the fact that the north-western province of Alexandretta was ceded to Turkey in 1939 following a fabricated referendum. This state of hostility between Syrians and the French mandate authority continued up until the end of the Second World War. By that time, an international agreement was reached whereby France withdrew its troops and Syrian President Shukri Quwatli consequently declared independence on April 17, 1946.
During this time, Syria was considered to have a free market economy with limited government interference. Soon after independence, the first Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1948, in which Syria played a leading role. The poor results of the conflict led to infighting between the government and the army, which manifested itself in the first ever coup d’état in March 1949 led by General Husni Zaim, the Army Chief-of-Staff. Despite taking over the presidency, the Zaim administration would only last for 138 days.
During the short term of Zaim’s government, substantial legal reform was initiated under Assaad Kourani, the Minister of Justice. Inasmuch as Syria was considered a civil law jurisdiction, various codes and other laws that laid down the foundations of the Syrian legal system were enacted during this time. Among these were the Civil Code, the Commercial Code and the Criminal Code. Furthermore, women’s suffrage was granted. The legal regime that was being developed was reinforcing the secular, continental European model, which was influenced by the French legal system.
Not long after assuming power, Husni Zaim was deposed in another coup and the period of switchovers between civilian and military leaderships continued. The next military leader to lead a coup was Adib Shishakli when he took over the powers of the state in 1951. He set about establishing a presidential republic with a redistribution of power from the legislative to the executive branch. The Shishakli administration’s policies were a mixture of attempts at socialist policy through a land reform program that was never completely implemented, and at the same time the promotion of free market principles and lower taxes. It appeared that the government was adopting a pragmatic approach depending on the circumstances it faced, especially since supporters of socialist ideology were on the rise in the country. One of the results during this period was the continued growth of the public sector, which became a hallmark of future governments to come. Splits in the army and popular unrest eventually led to Adib Shishakli’s resignation in 1954.
While civilian rule resumed under the veteran statesmen Hashim Atassi in 1954 and Shukri Quwatli in 1955, the emergence of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser along with his socialist and pan-Arab credentials was finding a favourable reception in Syria. Nasser found a number of supporters in Syria among both the political and military elites. As a result, both Syria and Egypt began to seriously consider a union between the two countries, which exhibited itself in February 1958 with the establishment of the United Arab Republic (UAR). President Shukri Quwatli stepped down from his position in favour of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who took over as President of the UAR.
The era of Nasser was characterized by a push towards greater socialism and away from Syria’s historic free market position. The growing disparities in wealth between the economic and political elite on the one hand and the middle-classes and rural populace on the other helped to spur on a variety of legislative changes. Nationalizations of the commercial, industrial, banking and insurance sectors were carried out while land reform sought to carve up the holdings of wealthy landowners and distribute them to the peasantry. In addition, agrarian reform was carried out to improve the bargaining power of farmers vis-à-vis their landowners and landlords. Eventually, resentment within the political and military establishment towards Nasser’s policies grew, especially since Syria had become a junior partner in the UAR. In September 1961, a military coup in Syria overturned the UAR and restored an independent government in Damascus.
While civilian rule returned to Syria under the old political elite, the administration of President Nazim Qudsi adopted legislation that sought to repeal the socialist measures passed during the Nasser era and attempted to reverse the expropriations that had taken place. But this policy would not prove long-term or successful as within just over a year, the socialist left-leaning Baath Party, which espoused pan-Arabism, would come to power in March 1963 and reinstate a number of laws from the Nasser era. The Baath Party had been building a popular base in Syria since the 1940s by promoting itself to the middle classes and rural populace as an alternative to the traditional urban political elite that favoured free-market policies.
The traditional structures of the state, which included a parliament, were suspended by the Baathists who set up the National Revolutionary Command Council to run the country. This initial period of the Baathists again witnessed various nationalizations, land redistribution measures and public sector growth. Furthermore, a state of emergency was declared and martial law was imposed. Internal rivalries within the Baath Party led to a split in February 1966 when the far-leftist Baathists seized control. In June 1967, Syria and Israel fought the Six-Day War in which Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel, fuelling further divisions among the new political and military elites before Hafez Al-Assad came to power in November 1970 and officially became president in March 1971.
Upon assuming power, President Hafez Al-Assad reintroduced various political structures that had existed previously but whose functions were reconfigured. While state institutions such as a parliament were reestablished, Syria emerged as a presidential republic with power mainly concentrated in the executive branch. While theoretically socialist in nature in keeping with Baathist doctrine, the new government attempted to promote limited private sector activity that favoured the business classes while simultaneously complementing it with the continued expansion of the public sector. The rise in oil prices and foreign aid during the 1970s enabled Syria to finance a massive infrastructure program before a recession set in during the next decade. Moreover, Syria attempted to regain the Golan Heights during the October War of 1973 while a US-sponsored disengagement treaty the following year saw the main city of Quneitra returned to Syrian control.
The 1980s witnessed a period of instability on the political and economic levels as the government faced both domestic and foreign challenges. During this time, Syria continued to build strong ties with the Soviet Union while difficult relations developed with the United States and the Gulf Arab states as a result of divergent policies on the conflict in Lebanon and the Iran-Iraq War. On the economic side, a drop in oil prices combined with Arab aid cuts, a shortage of foreign currency reserves and inefficiency in the public sector led to a crisis, which culminated in 1986. The government responded to this state of affairs by imposing foreign exchange restrictions and import controls. At the same time, governmental policy also shifted towards encouraging private sector activity in order to improve the declining economic situation and increase capital investments.
By the early 1990s, Investment Law 10/1991 was enacted with the goal of stimulating private investments in a range of sectors. This period followed the end of the Cold War and witnessed Syria improving its relations with the United States, especially following Syria’s support of the US-led campaign to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait and its subsequent participation in the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 to resolve the longstanding conflict with Israel. However, only in the next decade would Syria witness sweeping changes to its economic structure.
Bashar Al-Assad became president in July 2000 as economic policy drifted more towards private enterprise, particularly as there was a decline in oil reserves that the government could not rely on in the long term to cover its expenses. Yet, the hallmarks of state intervention in the economy continued to a significant degree. This new policy was officially declared as a shift towards a social market economy in 2005 that attempted to reach a compromise between socialism and a market economy. During this period, Syria was gradually opening up to foreign investors and seeking to lure back its large expatriate population abroad with potential business opportunities. A series of legislative initiatives led to the return of private investments in the following sectors: commerce, industry, finance, insurance, real estate, education and others. A new investment law contained in Legislative Decree 8/2007 was also promulgated.
As part of the change in economic policy, many import restrictions were removed and international free trade agreements signed, most notably the Greater Arab Free Trade Agreement between Syria and its Arab neighbours, and one with Turkey. Both have been affected at present due to deteriorations in relations between Syria and those countries. Negotiations were also ongoing with the European Union to conclude an association agreement that would have increased trade between Syria and the European countries but it was never ratified. Syria also gained observer status in the World Trade Organization in May 2010 but its application for membership appears to have stalled.
There were no shortages of foreign policy challenges facing Syria during the 2000s. Not long after President Bashar Al-Assad assumed office, the Palestinian uprising erupted and it was followed by the 9-11 attacks in the United States. The consequences of those events began highlighting a growing divergence in the policy objectives of both Syria and the United States under the Bush Administration before the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the Lebanon crisis of 2005 exacerbated the already tense US-Syrian relationship. That state of affairs also affected Syria’s ties with other Western and Arab countries but they initially started to recover after the Obama Administration came to power. However, this new diplomatic honeymoon lasted briefly until 2011. In response, Syria began consolidating its alliances with Iran, Russia and China while expanding its ties with the other BRICS countries.
As unrest gripped Syria starting in March 2011, the economic liberalization process was put on hold and in some cases reversed depending on circumstances brought on by the current conflict. Since the situation in Syria has effectively unfolded into a war now in its fifth year, the future direction of the country remains to be determined once peace has been restored. What is clear is that the events that have taken place in Syria since 2011 will no doubt shape its future for generations to come in ways that no other time periods have over the course of the last century.