Syria is one of the oldest nations in the world, with a 4,500-year history of evolution, occupation and division.

Ancient Syria covered land that today includes Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Arab and Christian armies made Syria a battleground in their many wars over the years.

Egypt conquered it around 1500 BC. Syria also fell to Hebrews, Assyrians, Persians, Alexander the Great, Romans, Mongols and Turks. Syria was a Turkish province for 400 years, from 1516 until a secret Anglo-French pact during the First World War divvied up the Middle East.

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France took Syria and occupied it until 1946, when Syrian nationalists rose and demanded independence. Two years later, Syria got an unwanted neighbour when Israel was established to the west, and thousands of Palestinians were displaced, some of whom took refuge in Syria. Arab nationalism became more fervent in Syria, and calls were made for Arab unity.

Syria has been ruled by the Ba'ath Party since it took control in a coup in 1963 and declared a state of emergency. After that coup, military officers replaced civilians in top positions in the party. While almost three-quarters of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, a disproportionately large number of military officers came from the Alawite minority.

Quick facts: Syria

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Population: 22,517,750 (July 2010 estimate)

Area: 185,180 sq. km

Borders: Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey

Languages: Arabic is the official language but Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic and Circassian are widely used. French and English are used to a lesser extent.

Religion: 74 per cent Sunni Muslim; 16 per cent Alawite, Druze and other Muslim sects; 10 per cent Christian.

Government: Republic under authoritarian regime.

Source: CIA World Factbook 2010 - Syria

The rise of the Assad family

Among them was Hafez al-Assad, who assumed the presidency in 1971 in a bloodless coup. In the years that followed, he surrounded himself with loyalists and transferred power to himself through direct control of the army and police.

Syria was seen primarily as a secular state, where religious minorities were tolerated. Dissension, however, was not.

In 1972, Assad changed the law so that only approved opposition parties would be allowed to operate. To be approved, an opposition party had to accept the leadership role of the Ba'ath Party and support the government's socialist and Arab nationalist vision. Even then, there were severe restrictions on what those parties could do.

In 1976, Syria got involved in Lebanon's civil war by sending troops to support Muslims who were clashing with Christians supported by Israel. Syria remained heavily involved in Lebanon's affairs in the years following, providing key backing for Hezbollah, which emerged as a paramilitary force in the early 1980s determined to drive Israeli troops out of Lebanon.

Assad maintained his iron grip on Syria and routinely won re-election as president with a little less than 100 per cent of the vote. Syria's constitution says the president must come from the Ba'ath Party. It's up to parliament to propose a candidate for president, who must be approved by two-thirds of legislators. That candidate must then win the approval of 51 per cent of voters in a national referendum.

Assad easily managed to get re-elected every time he ran, until his death on June 10, 2000.

Reformer no more

Ten days after Assad died, the Ba'ath Party nominated his son, Bashar al-Assad, as its choice for president.

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Young supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad demonstrate in Damascus. (Bassem Tellawi/Associated Press)

Trained as an ophthalmologist, the younger Assad was seen as a reformer and more open to dealing with the West. However, he quickly slipped into the same iron-fisted rule as his father, cracking down on dissidents and maintaining a presence in Lebanon and providing support for Hezbollah.

There were allegations that Syria was involved in the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of Lebanon's prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Hariri was a strong critic of Syria's longstanding presence in Lebanon.

Syria denied that it was involved, but growing anger within Lebanon in the days after the killing persuaded Syria to pull its troops out of the country within a few months.

Protests

When pro-democracy demonstrations began springing up across the Arab world in January 2011, Syria was initially unaffected. A call for a day of protest in mid-February in the main square of the capital, Damascus, went unheeded and left security forces with little to do.

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Syrian soldiers, right, stand guard next to a shop that was burned during violence between security forces and armed groups in Latakia, northwest of Damascus on March 27. (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)

But that began to change in late March. The first demonstrations took place on March 18 in the cities of Daraa and Latakia, and security forces were quick to crack down. Since then, more than 3,500 protesters and 1,200 Syrian troops are believed to have been killed, according to UN estimates.

Assad has branded the anti-government protesters as Islamists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood who are opposed to the secular rule that guarantees the rights of Syria's Christian and Alawite minorities. Most of the political power in Syria is controlled by the Alawite minority, although increased economic freedom and prosperity has earned Assad the support of a well-to-do Sunni Muslim merchant class.

With no end to the protests and violence in sight and international pressure mounting, a Syrian delegation met with Arab League representatives Nov. 2 in Cairo. It agreed to a peace plan that would see the government  withdraw its military from city streets, end the violence against protesters, release political prisoners and allow media, Arab League observers and human rights groups into the country.

The same day, however, tanks reportedly surrounded the cities of Homs and Hama. Security forces and pro-government gunmen killed at least 19 civilians in several attacks in Homs while army defectors launched two separate attacks of their own, killing 15 troops and pro-Assad fighters in Hama province.

Since then, the international backlash has increased, with the Arab League voting to suspend Syria on Nov. 12 and Jordan's King Abdullah calling Nov. 14 for Assad to step down. This led Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem to accuse Arab nations of conspiring against Damascus, and call the near-unanimous vote at the Arab League's headquarters in Cairo "shameful and malicious."

Demonstrators backing the Syrian regime stormed Saudi Arabia's embassy in Damascus after the Nov. 12 vote and tried to break into the Turkish embassy in the city, as well as the country's consulates in the cities of Aleppo and Latakia. At Qatar's embassy, pro-regime protesters brought down the Qatari flag and replaced it with the Syrian flag.

The unified Arab League's position puts more pressure on the UN Security Council to impose sanctions, despite objections by Syrian allies Russia and China. Of the Arab League's 22 members, only Syria, Lebanon and Yemen voted against the suspension of Syria, with Iraq abstaining. A similar Arab League decision to suspend Libya's membership earlier this year paved the way for the UN-mandated no-fly zone and NATO airstrikes that eventually brought down Moammar Gadhafi, but the group has stressed international intervention was not on the agenda in Syria.

Assad has warned the West against intervening in Syria as it did in Libya, warning that such an intervention could lead to "another Afghanistan."