In the distant past, the land was not actually called Syria. The term is the Greek rendering of Assyria, which is located a bit more northeastern and overlaps with Upper Iraq. Assyria was one of the pieces left over by the Akkadian Empire when it collapsed around 2000 BCE. As a result, Assyria originally referred to a branch of the East Semitic Akkadians. The ancient Greeks, however, understood Syria as the same as the Fertile Crescent. The name has since stuck.
Located in the middle of the Fertile Crescent, where some of the first civilizations in the world made their home, Syria's history is extremely long. Damascus, the capital, has been settled since the time of the Neolithic (around 11,000 years ago), making it one of if not the oldest continuously-populated settlement in the world. It is also the crossroads of the Old World, connecting the African, Asian, and European continents; this has positive and negative implications. Goods and ideas were exchanged regularly around its plains and oases, but it also has a frequent streak of being the battleground for empires wishing to expand their influence. It has been a part of, among other regimes, the Persian Empires, the Hellenistic Empires, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, various Arab caliphates, Crusader states, the empires of the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, and the French empire after World War I.
The original inhabitants of Syria were an assortment of Northwestern Semitic peoples, including the Amorites and Arameans. After the Macedonian invasion, the Mediterranean coast was colonized by Greeks and made into a part of the wider Byzantine Greek world. The 7th century CE Arab invasion marked a turning point, and the region has since become a firm and confident (especially when compared to Lebanon) part of the Arab world. Pre-Arab customs (particularly cuisine) are however very influential in shaping up modern Syrian culture. Pockets of Aramaic speakers still exist in the north, but they are steadily declining.
Other than the aforementioned Arabs and (Aramaic-speaking) Christians, Syria hosts other large minorities due to its convoluted history. The largest minority is the Kurds, an Iranic ethnic group who are indigenous to the north. They celebrate Nowruz the Iranian New Year. During the civil war, they have established the semi-independent Rojavanote , although unlike their compatriots in Iraq and Turkey, they seem content with a federal system and would happily join the country again after the war ends. The second largest, the Syrian Turkmens are carryovers of Seljuk and Ottoman rules and are basically Turks under a different name. There are also two quasi-Muslim ethnic religions, the Alawites and Druze. The Alawites are nominally Shia Muslims but have a belief system that incorporates reincarnation and a divine Trinity (albeit not the Trinity that you think ofnote ), elevates Ali ibn Abu Thalib over Muhammad, and celebrates various pagan, Christian, and Gnostic festivals. The Druze developed from an Ismaili sect but are not recognized as Muslims by the government. Smaller minorities include the Armenians (the majority came to escape the Genocide), Circassians, and Yazidis.
Having spent most of its previous life under various empires, Syria became independent in its current form in 1946. Since 1963, it has been ruled by an authoritarian group of Ba'athists. Yes, that ideology, the same one as Saddam Hussein—although they had a falling-out with the Iraqi branch in 1966 so bad that Syria backed the Americans in the Gulf War.
Since 1970, Syria has been governed by a guy named al-Assad (meaning "the lion"). From 1970 through 2000, it was Hafez, who modernized the country, opposed Israel and sided with Russia at the height of the Cold War. Upon his death in 2000, he was replaced by his son, Bashar, the target of the ongoing civil war. Assad is an Alawite family, a secretive and nominal sect of Shia Islam that is a minority in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. Some Muslims, especially Sunnis, do not think Alawites are really Muslims at all and this has been at the root of the sectarian conflict that has been ongoing with varying intensity between the country's Sunni majority and Alawite minority for a long time. That the Alawites dominate the government under the leadership of the al-Assad clan has not helped matters in recent years. In 1983, there was a major uprising against the Alawite-dominated government launched by the religious Sunni organizations that was crushed with utter brutality. The centers of this revolt coincide with the centers of the current revolt against the Syrian government today.
Syria has been a Russian ally as far back as the Soviet Union, serving as a surrogate in both the Cold War and the ArabIsraeli Conflict. It assisted Egypt in waging several wars with Israel, and unlike Egypt, there is no ceasefire to be had between Israel and Syria. In fact, Israel destroyed what may have been a North Korean controlled nuclear reactor in 2008 and has occupied the Golan Heights (Syrian territory) since 1967.
Influenced by the Arab Spring, massive protests began mid-March 2011, and later escalated into an armed uprising and (by the summer of 2012) full-fledged Civil War. The war is ongoing, and has killed more than 450,000 people. If you want any testimony in today's world that War Is Hell, look no further than Syria. A lot of the rebel groups have connections to terrorist organizations (including Al-Qaeda), are alleged to be the proxies of foreign powers (such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United States) and have called for the extermination of Syria's many non-Sunni religious minorities. The government is no better, carpet bombing numerous centers of population to draw out capitulation from the opposition and, ostensibly, using chemical weapons to attack rebels and civilians, which is clearly in violation of international law. Debate over what, if anything, can be done about this has become very heated, and there isn't an easy answer. Meanwhile, over 5 million Syrians have fled the country, sparking the largest refugee crisis the world has experienced up until now, while more than 7.5 million live in a war zone every day.
Syria is currently the target of sanctions from the United States, Turkey, Europe, and the Arab League, who accuse the government of crushing the rebellions with an iron fist and a dose of chemical weapons (as said earlier, it's still unknown who used it, so Rule of Cautious Editing Judgment applies). The Arab League suspended Syria on 16 November 2011, similarly in response to the governments continued crackdown on dissent and rejection of reforms.
As of 2018, the Syrian government has recaptured most of the country. The rebels still control most of Idlib Governorate and parts of Aleppo, Hama, Homs, and Latakia Governorates, while the Kurds, however they are amiable to Assad, separately administer major chunks of Aleppo, Hasakah, Raqqa, and Deir ez-Zor Governorates. But the implication is clear to everyone: Assad is not like Saddam or Gaddafi. He is not losing, and any resolution to the war will have to include him on the negotiating table.
- Saint Raphael of Brooklyn, an Orthodox Christian saint and the first to be consecrated in North American soil.
- Hafez al-Assad and his son, Bashar, two of the country's presidents, both known for their brutality. The latter is subject to the current Civil War.
- Paula Abdul - US singer, actress, television personality, and so on. Born to a Syrian Jewish father from Aleppo.
- Steve Jobs - Yes, him. Co-founder and former CEO of Apple, the largest shareholder of Disney, former CEO of Pixar, and one of the most famous figures in the development and expansion of both the computer and entertainment industries. Born to a Syrian Muslim father who emigrated to the US, but didn't know it until much, much later. Though of course, this is pretty much common knowledge by now.
- Queen Noor of Jordan - Widow of former King Hussein of Jordan. Born Lisa Halaby to a Syrian father and a Swedish mother.
- Shannon Elizabeth - US actress, best known for starring in American Pie. Born to a Syrian-Lebanese Christian father.
- René Angélil - Canadian musical producer and singer and husband of Céline Dion. Paternal Syrian Catholic father.
- Teri Hatcher - US actress, famous for starring in Desperate Housewives. You may also know her as the voice of the Other Mother. Part-Syrian.
- Ghassan Massoud - Actor. Best known in the western world for playing Saladin in Kingdom of Heaven.
- Carlos Menem - Former president of Argentina. A full-blooded Syrian and is a Muslim-turned-Christian.
- Creator/Jerry Seinfeld - Really?! Yes, really. Seinfeld's mother was of Syrian Jewish descent, with his grandparents emigrating from Aleppo (yes, that Aleppo).
Due to its alliance with Iran and Russia, Syria has been portrayed as being a second-tier global bad guy, part of the "axis of not-so-evil". Syrian agents are highly likely to get involved in spying operations on the West.
- Assassin's Creed I and Revelations take place in Masyaf, a historic city near Homs. Our hero, Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad, is also a Syrian himself. Famous for presenting the country in a non-stereotypical way.
- Battlefield 2
- The Unit has Jonas Blaine's daughter Betsy kidnapped and held in Syria by terrorists. The team ignore orders and go across from Iraq to rescue her.
- In Spooks, Fiona Carter was first married to a Syrian, who she thought was hanged. He wasn't and came to the UK, where he killed her
- A two-part episode in Castle season 3 involves a dirty bomb set up somewhere in New York. One of the suspects Castle follows a lead on is a Syrian intelligence agent working out of Syria's embassy. He's not the culprit.
- Inescapable - Canadian film about a former Syrian spy who has to evade the corrupt government, who accuse him of being an Israeli spy. Starring Alexander Siddig.
- Syrian settings with plotlines that are Ripped from the Headlines began appearing in media starting in the mid-2010s after the establishment of ISIS, and the escalation of the Syrian Civil War after Russian forces openly allied with the Syrian Arab Army:
- A few levels in Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception take place in a Crusades-era castle in Syria. The civil war is mentioned offhandedly as being a distant threat. The game was released in November 2011, when the civil war was still in its first year and before most of the worst jihadist groups had gotten established.
- Rise of the Tomb Raider - Lara goes to Syria to find the Tomb of the Prophet of Constantinople. Jonah tells her she's crazy to go into a country that's in the middle of a civil war, which she dismisses. Trinity also shows up to oppose Lara, and they even plan to destroy the Tomb and use the civil war as cover to excuse the destruction of a historical site (as ISIS was well-known to destroy many historical sites throughout the country). It's empty.
- Eddy - A 2015 Italian short film about a volunteer who goes to Syria to take care of the war victims. Massive Tear Jerker follows. Declared "Official Human Rights Movie 2015" by the Council of Europe.
- Phantom - A 2015 Indian film about the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Infamous due to an incident during production when the filmmakers built a set for Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon, which the Lebanese government thought was a real militia camp.
- The Brave - The show's first episode is about attempting to rescue a kidnapped American aid worker in Damascus from the al-Nusra Front, complete with an Expy of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (never mind that in Real Life Baghdadi is the leader of ISIS, and al-Nusra despises him for breaking away from al-Qaeda).
- SEAL Team - The second episode goes to Syria as the SEAL team is dispatched to acquire physical evidence of a chemical weapons plant the Syrian regime is illegally running.
- A Real-Time Strategy game called Syrian Warfare was released on Steam for the PC in February 2017. The story revolves around a Syrian police officer named Anwar whose police station comes under heavy attack by terrorists and follows his efforts to fight back and build up a protection force, where he later joins the Syrian Arab Army to take the fight to Al-Nusra and ISIS. An expansion pack called Return to Palmyra was later released that summer.
The Official Syrian flag
The Rebel Syrian flag