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SYRIA - Historical Background.

The founding dynasty of the Arab/Islamic empire, the Sunni Omayyads, ruled from Damascus. Their reign in the 7th and early 8th centuries AD stretched from India to Spain. Much of the confrontations between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades took place on battlegrounds in today's Syria. The Alawite community, to which the Assads and most members of the new elite belong, is said to be descended from the Crusaders.

The longest uninterrupted period of rule by a foreign power over the Syrians was during the Ottoman period (1516-1918). At the time, Syria had an area twice the size it is at present - including what is now Jordan, the Mosul area of Iraq and major parts of Israel and Lebanon.

The turning point in Syria's modern history was the intervention of Britain and France which, under the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, carved out spheres of influence in the region that led to the British and French mandates. This was to alter the structure of society in a way which is still evident today.

France, whose mandate covered present-day Syria and Lebanon, applied a policy of divide and rule on the Syrian side by splitting it up into four autonomous administrations covering Damascus, Aleppo, the territory of the Alawites and the mountains of the Druze community. The division reflected existing social demarcations, but it also served to enhance them.

At the same time, the French mandate put in place mechanisms which allowed for elevation in social position of poor minorities, notably including the Alawites. That was done through the army and through opportunities for better education offered to rural groups, such as the Alawites. This channel was used by the Alawites to gradually work their way into the ruling elite.

The Alawites are followers of a breakaway Shiite sect. Until the early decades of the past century, they were an impoverished rural community often providing servants to the wealthier Sunnis of Damascus or Aleppo. With the beginning of the French mandate in the 1920s, the Alawites got a chance to receive education and, more importantly, join the armed forces in large numbers. With Alawite support Hafez Al Assad, an air force general, was able to execute a coup within the Baathist regime in 1970. When he died in June 2000, it was said in the West the next presidency under his son Bashar would not last long.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Fate of the Arabian Peninsula
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Nov 22, 2004
Previous Article:The Sunni/Wahhabi Threat.
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