Independence was secured largely through the efforts of a diverse group comprised primarily of Sunnis who united under the banner of al-Kutla al-Wataniya (the National Bloc). Their main focus was the end of French mandate rule. Though independence was secured in 1946, the French strategy of fragmentation meant that there was no unified national sensibility upon which a new Syrian identity could be forged. The Alawis dominated the military rank and file and the Sunnis dominated the officer corps and the political arena.
In an effort to unify the country immediately following independence, Sunni political leaders abolished the jurisdictional rights of the Alawis and the Druze, which reignited longstanding fears of repression under Sunni authority. Sunni political and military leaders also promoted Arab nationalism which was concerning to minority groups because of the historical marginalization of non-Sunni Arabs in nationalist movements.
The early years of independence were defined by political instability and internal fragmentation, as evidenced by a series of coups orchestrated by diverse Sunni political and military leaders promoting differing interpretations of Arab unity.
The Rise of the Ba’ath Party
The Ba’ath Party was founded in 1940 in Syria by two Paris-educated intellectuals: Michel Aflaq, an Orthodox Christian, and Salah al-Din Bitar, a Sunni Muslim. It originally promoted Arab unity from a secular foundation and was thus distinguished from Sunni led Arab nationalist movements. In 1953 the party united with Akram al-Hawrani’s Arab Socialist Party to form the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party which was strongly supported by Alawis due to its secular and socialist foundations.
During the short lived Syrian-Egyptian union (1958–61) the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party was dissolved but the party rose to power in a 1963 military coup initiated by diverse factions that were heavily populated by Alawis. Among those was Hafez al-Assad who staged his own successful coup in 1970 and continued to hold power until his death in 2000. He was succeeded by his son, Bashar al-Assad, who remains in power.
Bashar al-Assad won his third election in June 2014, where he won 88.7% of the votes. Many critics have questioned the legitimacy of this election, in spite of the fact that, for the first time, Assad faced candidates to whom he was not related. That same month, the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons were intended to be completed following an agreement between Russia and the United States. Assad blamed the conflict for the delay, and the disposal of the chemical weapons was eventually confirmed in January 2016.
The disposal of Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons was called for after a chemical weapon was used in the Syrian conflict in Damascus in 2013, with devastating consequences for civilians. Many critics argued that Assad had deployed one of the country’s chemical weapons, although he himself vehemently denied this, and still blames terrorist groups. As a result, the United States and Russia made an agreement for Syria’s chemical weapons to be destroyed in mid-2014. Use of both chlorine and mustard gas is suspected, and the UN voted to initiate an official investigation into who launched these chemical weapons in August 2015.21 Even after the destruction of Syria’s chemicals weapons, evidence of the use of such weapons continued to present itself in 2016. ISIS, along with rebel forces and the Syrian government, are the possible perpetrators of these attacks.
 “Destruction of Syrian chemical weapons completed,” Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, January 4, 2016,https://www.opcw.org/news/article/destruction-of-syrian-chemical-weapons-completed/, accessed February 5, 2016.
"Baath Party founder Michel Aflaq in the late 1930s," The Online Museum of Syrian History, from Wikimedia Commons.