Independence

Although rapid economic development followed the declaration of independence, Syrian politics from independence through the late 1960s were marked by upheaval. Between 1946 and 1956, Syria had 20 different cabinets and drafted four separate constitutions. In 1948, Syria was involved in the Arab-Israeli War, aligning with the other local Arab states who were attempting to prevent the establishment of the State of Israel. The Syrian army was pressed out of most of Israel, but fortified their strongholds on the Golan Heights and managed to keep their old borders and some additional territory (this was converted into "supposed" demilitarized zones under UN supervision; the status of these territories have proved a stumbling-block for Syrian-Israeli negotiations). It was during this period that many Syrian Jews, who faced growing discrimination, emigrated from the country as part of Jewish exodus from Arab countries, many of whom ended up as refugees in Israel, and are now Israeli citizens.

 The humiliating defeat suffered by the army was one of several trigger factors for the March 1949 Syrian coup d'état by Col. Husni al-Za'im, in what has been described as the first military overthrow of the Arab World since the start of the Second World War. This was soon followed by another overthrow, by Col. Sami al-Hinnawi, who was himself quickly deposed by Col. Adib Shishakli, all within the same year.

After exercising influence behind the scenes for some time, dominating the ravaged parliamentary scene, Shishakli launched a second overthrow in 1951, entrenching his rule and eventually abolishing multipartyism altogether. Only when President Shishakli was himself overthrown in a 1954 overthrow was the parliamentary system restored, but it was fundamentally undermined by continued political maneuvering supported by competing factions in the military.

By this time, civilian politics had been largely gutted of meaning, and power was increasingly concentrated in the military and security establishment, which had now proved itself to be the only force capable of seizing and, perhaps, keeping power. Parliamentary institutions remained weak and ineffectual, dominated by competing parties representing the landowning elites and various Sunni urban notables, while economy and politics were mismanaged, and little done to better the role of Syria's peasant majority. That, as well as the influence of Nasserism and other nationalist and anti-imperial ideologies, created fertile ground for various Arab nationalist, Syrian nationalist, and socialist movements, who represented disaffected elements of society, notably including the religious minorities, and demanded radical reform.

During the Suez Crisis of 1956, after the invasion of Egypt by Israel, Britain, and France, martial law was declared in Syria. The November 1956 attacks on Iraqi pipelines were in retaliation for Iraq's joining of the Baghdad Pact. In early 1957 Iraq advised Egypt and Syria against a conceivable takeover of Jordan.

In November 1956, as a direct result of the Suez Crisis, Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union, providing a foothold for Communist influence within the government in exchange for planes, tanks, and other military equipment being sent to Syria. This increase in the strength of Syrian military technology worried Turkey, as it seemed feasible that Syria might attempt to retake İskenderun, a matter of dispute between Syria and Turkey. On the other hand, Syria and the Soviet Union accused Turkey of massing its troops at the Syrian border. During this standoff, Communists gained more control over the Syrian government and military. Only heated debates in the United Nations (of which Syria was an original member) lessened the threat of war.

Syria's political instability during the years after the 1954 overthrow, the parallelism of Syrian and Egyptian policies, and the appeal of Egyptian President Gamal Abdal Nasser's leadership in the wake of the Suez Crisis created support in Syria for union with Egypt. On 1 February 1958, Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli and Nasser announced the merging of the two states, creating the United Arab Republic, and all Syrian political parties, as well as the communists therein, ceased overt activities.

The union was not a success, however. Following a military overthrow led by Abd al-Karim al-Nahlawi on 28 September 1961, Syria seceded, re-establishing itself as the Syrian Arab Republic. Instability characterized the next 18 months, with various overthrows culminating with 8 March 1963 coup, resulting in installation by leftist Syrian Army officers of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command (NCRC), a group of military and civilian officials who assumed control of all executive and legislative authority. The takeover was engineered by members of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party, led by Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, which had been active in Syria and other Arab countries since the late 1940s. The new cabinet was dominated by Ba'ath members.

The Ba'ath takeover in Syria followed a Ba'ath overthrow in Iraq the previous month. The new Syrian Government explored the possibility of federation with Egypt and with Ba'ath-controlled Iraq. An agreement was concluded in Cairo on 17 April 1963, for a referendum on unity to be held in September 1963. However, serious disagreements among the parties soon developed, and the tripartite federation failed to materialize. Thereafter, the Ba'ath government in Syria and Iraq began to work for bilateral unity. These plans foundered in November 1963, when the Ba'ath government in Iraq was overthrown.

In May 1964, President Amin Hafiz of the NCRC promulgated a provisional constitution providing for a National Council of the Revolution (NCR), an appointed legislature composed of representatives of mass organizations—labour, peasant, and professional unions—a presidential council, in which executive power was vested, and a cabinet. On 23 February 1966, a group of army officers carried out a successful, intra-party overthrow, imprisoned President Hafiz and nearly jailed Prime Minister al-Bitar and Ba'ath party founder Aflaq, dissolved the cabinet and the NCR, abrogated the provisional constitution, and designated a regionalist, civilian Ba'ath government on 1 March. The leaders of the overthrow described it as a "rectification" of Ba'ath Party principles. The coup led to a split within the original, pan-Arab Ba'ath Party; one Iraqi-led ba'ath movement (ruled Iraq from 1968 to 2003) and one Syrian-led ba'ath movement was established.

We shall never call for nor accept peace. We shall only accept war. We have resolved to drench this land with your blood. To oust you aggressors, to throw you into the sea.
Hafez al-Assad, then Syrian Defence Minister, 24 May 1966


When Nasser closed the Gulf of Aqaba to Eilat-bound ships, the Ba'ath government supported the Egyptian leader and amassed troops in the strategic Golan Heights. Syria sponsored Palestinian raids into Israel[36] and Syrian artillery repeatedly bombed Israeli civilian communities from positions on the Golan Heights. Concerning the raids on Israel's territory, Syria claimed that it could not be held responsible for the activities of El-Fatah and El-Asefa, nor for the rise of Palestinian organizations.

Conflicts also arose over different interpretations of the legal status of the Demilitarized Zone. Israel maintained that it had sovereign rights over the zone, allowing the civilian use of farmland. Syria and the UN maintained that no party had sovereign rights over the zone. Israel was accused by Syria of cultivating lands in the Demilitarized Zone, using armored tractors backed by Israel forces. Syria claimed that the situation was the result of an Israeli aim to increase tension so as to justify large-scale aggression, and to expand its occupation of the Demilitarized Zone by liquidating the rights of Arab cultivators.

Conflict over the cultivation of disputed lands sparked into April 7 prewar aerial clashes between Israel and Syria.

The Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan said in a 1976 interview that Israel provoked more than 80% of the clashes with Syria.

After Israel launched a preemptive strike on Egypt to begin the June 1967 war, Syria joined the battle against Israel as well. In the final days of the war, after having captured the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, as well as the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem from Jordan, Israel turned its attention to Syria, capturing the entire Golan Heights in under 48 hours.

Conflict developed between an extremist military wing and a more moderate civilian wing of the Ba'ath Party. The 1970 retreat of Syrian forces sent to aid the PLO during the "Black September" hostilities with Jordan reflected this political disagreement within the ruling Ba'ath leadership.[45] By 13 November 1970, Minister of Defense Hafez al-Assad was solidly established as the strongman of the government, when he effected a bloodless military overthrow ("The Corrective Movement").

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