Syria has long been dominated by the socialist Ba’ath party and the powerful Assad family. Hafez al-Assad seized power in a coup in 1970 and gathered all the power around himself. When he died in 2000, his son, the current president Bashar al-Assad, took over.
The country has been ruled tightly, and media censorship, corruption, political repression, restricted rights and torture have long been part of everyday life. At the same time, the country’s involvement in conflicts with neighboring countries has hampered development.
Since 2011, the situation in Syria has been marked by the civil war that began with the so-called Arab Spring reaching the country. President Assad’s government is fighting a large number of different rebel groups, from secular groups to Islamist fundamentalists. Both sides have committed horrific abuses and brutality, such as massacres of civilians and the use of chemical weapons.
The massive violence has created large flows of refugees, and it is estimated that 6.5 million Syrians are fleeing within the country, and that almost five million are fleeing to other countries.
Despite attempts to resolve the conflict, the violence has continued and it has now been going on for over five years. Following negotiations in Geneva in early 2016, a ceasefire was concluded between the regime, moderate rebel groups in the country, the United States and Russia. At first, the ceasefire seemed to slow down the fighting in the country, but in April the ceasefire seemed to have broken down.
The conflict gained new momentum in 2015 when Russia sent bombers against the opposition and coordinated its attacks with ground troops from Iran. These forces managed to retake the strategic city of Palmyra from the Islamic State (IS) at the end of March 2016.
Syria has been ruled with an iron fist by the Assad family since 1970. Since 2011, the country has been involved in an extremely bloody civil war that began with demonstrations for democracy. The war has claimed huge numbers of lives and created a humanitarian catastrophe. Negotiations and attempts by the outside world to take a collective grip on the situation have failed.
Syria is one of the Middle East’s most densely populated countries. There are several dividing lines within the country: the majority are Arabs, and the second largest group is Kurdish. Most Arabs are Sunni Muslims, but there are several Christians and other Muslim groups. The ruling elite in Syria is Alawites. Their interpretation of Islam is close to that of Shia Muslims.
Although the country is officially a democracy, the reality has long been different: Syria has been dominated for decades by the Ba’ath party and the powerful Assad family. Criticism of the military, the Ba’ath party or the president has been strictly forbidden. Torture and disappearances have been commonplace, as have politically motivated prison sentences.
In 2012, in connection with the ongoing war in Syria, a new basis was adopted. It would make the country more democratic, but in practice it seems to have been developed as a way to keep the president in power until 2028, and to ensure that his family continues to rule.
Syria’s modern history
Syria became independent from France in 1946. Syria’s economy was poor and governments took turns. In response, the United Arab Republic was formed in 1958 with Egypt.
However, when the leader of the United Arab Republic, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, later decided to dissolve all political parties within the Union, dissatisfaction began to ignite, especially within the Ba’ath party.
Egypt’s increasingly prominent role in the United Arab Republic provoked a coup in Syria, and the union was dissolved just three years after its founding. A civilian government took power, but this too was temporary when another military coup brought the Ba’ath party to power in March 1963.
The Ba’ath party was tired of the way the country was governed and wanted to quickly push through reforms based on their ideology based on pan-Arabism, secularism and socialism. But despite the change of power and the new reforms, political life in Syria was stormy.
The Assad family takes power
In 1970, Hafez al-Assad came to power in a new coup. He created an authoritarian regime in which all power was centered around him. With the help of security services and the military, he ruled for 30 years.
The concentration of power around Assad, the secularization of the state, and an increasingly widespread corruption provoked the opposition within Syria. Starting in 1979, the Ba’ath party therefore ended up in sharp clashes with the Muslim Brotherhood. The main ideology of the fraternity was that state and religion should not be separated and that the laws of society should be based on the Qur’an.
Attempts were made to resolve the conflict through talks, but when the fraternity tried to assassinate the president in 1980, the talks came to an abrupt end.
The conflict lasted until February 1982, when government forces launched a massive crackdown on the Brotherhood’s stronghold, the city of Hama. There are reports of between 7,000 and 30,000 dead. After this three-week offensive, there was not much left of the fraternity and the conflict was considered over.