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Syria 2017 – Déjà vu – 101 Years Later


Syria – Does History give Insights to Problems Today?

The territory of modern Syria carries imprints from ancient times. As part of a region often called the “cradle of civilization,” Syria has a legacy tracing back over 5,000 years of recorded history and prehistoric archaeological finds that date inhabitants back over 100,000 years.1 Few meaningful conclusions are derived from the prehistoric information but the recorded history side tells a story of shifting fortunes, mostly bad, for the region now known as Syria. Mesopotamia, the collective geography recognized as the “cradle of civilization,” stretches from modern Iraq across to the Mediterranean Sea, including the territory of the Levant (modern Syria, Lebanon, and Israel). However, Mesopotamia was not a coherent culture but a collection of cultures and tribes which experienced waxing and waning fortunes over the millennia. Assyria, a Mesopotamian empire and predecessor of the location of modern Syria, was primarily significant for its geographic location with regard to trade routes, as well as a reputable warrior military tradition.1 In spite of military prowess, the Assyrian Empire fell in 612 B.C., and this collapse led to the Assyrian territory being subjected a trend of various periods of foreign domination that included Egypt, Babylon, and Rome. This trend endures to today: Syria is a land of significant geographic consequence, yet is a minor player politically due to a lack of natural resources, and religious and cultural schisms that cause enough instability to prevent Syria’s full fruition as a political powerhouse. These weaknesses of political Syria mean that Syrian strategic geography will always lure the interest of powerful countries who desire to control that geography. Modern Syria is a strategic security case study for the intelligence profession using that insight.

20th Century Syria: Created by Foreign Powers                                                                     

The Sykes-Picot agreement is a classic example of the latest rendition in the trend of foreign powers to control the strategic geography, while also being contemporaneous with the machinations of imperial powers during the colonial era. The ‘era of empires’ stretched over more than three thousand years, encompassing various regions and cultures around the world; the modern empires (1600-1950) tended to center around European powers. The May 1916 Franco-British Sykes-Picot Agreement was designed to secretly divide the spoils of the Ottoman Empire. England and France determined what spheres of influence would accrue to each nation when World War I ended.2,3 France and Italy had secure positions in North Africa; Britain held sway over Egypt and had influence from Aden northward along the western coast of the Persian Gulf to Kuwait. The Sykes-Picot Agreement would partition the Levant and Iraq to further French and English colonial interests in the Middle East. Russia indirectly collaborated in the agreement but would gain little in the process.2

The Sykes-Picot Agreement reflected two salient historic insights: first, the epitome of power that colonizing nations wielded during this time, carving up foreign territories with little regard to native populations and cultures, creating borders and governmental structures that served those colonial interests; the second insight is that the time in which this agreement was executed was the beginning of the twilight of the colonial era.  

The revelation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement occurred when the Russian Communists disclosed the ‘secret’ agreement, generating a brief international political firestorm. However, the flaws in the Sykes-Picot Agreement were exposed as political decisions were made later based on the outline of the agreement. The British established the Balfour Declaration which provided “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine; in addition, Britain took responsibility for the League of Nations mandate for Palestine.3 These two actions injected the Arab-Jewish confrontation as a violent problem that continues today. Though the Sykes-Picot Agreement is prominent in discussions today, the Sykes-Picot Agreement actually was replaced in 1920 by the San Remo Conference.4 The San Remo conference was an international meeting, including U.S. participation; the conference modified and codified agreements developed during and after World War I that impacted the Middle East strategic geography. However, while the San Remo Conference legitimized the ‘new’ Middle East, particularly the borders and composition of the population mixes, the problems were only exacerbated. The Middle East fate and future were dictated by foreign powers in 1916 and 1920; that future is once again in the hands of foreign powers in 2017.

21st Century Syria: Created by Foreign Powers

After thousands of years of turbulence and violence, modern Syria is a country divided along sectarian, ethnic, tribal, and political lines; these divides today are manifested by a country immersed in violent conflict between multiple factions. This is a civil war in the technical sense, but it is also a proxy war where various Syrian and foreign fighting units are actors for sovereign powers outside Syria. As the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the San Remo Conference decided the political fate of Syria some 100 years ago, the future of Syria will again be decided by outside powers in 2017. Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the United States are the principles that will define the future for Syria. Saudi Arabia will play a supporting role; the UN will be a political olive branch for the convenience of the foreign principles; the rest of the Middle East and NATO are essentially window dressing.  Israel and Jordan may be drawn unwillingly in to the final resolutions on the battlefield.

Syria, as represented by the Assad regime as the official government, is a hollow shell. The Assad military has been decimated by over five years of fighting; the manpower vacancies are filled by forces under the control of Iran: Hezbollah, Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Russia provides Assad airpower, weapons, and Russian special forces troops. Assad is both a political liability and a strategic asset for Russia and Iran. Each of the principles has conflicting strategic security interests in the current resolution of post-war Syria.5,6 Russia wants military bases in Syria and a friendly regime, Assad or otherwise. Iran wants to control a land bridge from Iran across Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean Sea. This requires a friendly regime in Damascus and suppression of Sunni opposition in Syria. Turkey wants control of northern Syria, influence in Damascus, the demise of the Assad regime, and suppression of the Kurds. The U.S. wants to eliminate the radical Islamists, block the Iranian quest to dominate Syria, and bring stability to the region. Many in the intelligence profession and expert analysts outside the IC assert that Syria is currently de facto partitioned into between 5-7 entities based on politics or ethnicity. The entities include several areas where the Syrian rebel forces hold control (and which are in contention with one another); a couple regions where the Kurds are the dominant entity; one area in the west that is controlled by the regime in Damascus (potentially under the influence of Iran); and an area where the radical Islamists continue to exist, but as guerrilla forces.5,6 The final composition of the ‘new Syria’ remains to be seen; what is known is the decision on that political composition will be made once more by foreign powers, and the potential for future problems as a result of these decisions may once again rise up in a different manifestation than what the world is currently experiencing.  

National Security Needs Are a Basis for Continued Job Opportunities

Strategic intelligence based on intelligence analysis is a combined art and science. One imperative in the national security process is to ensure that the intelligence community is visionary in order to deal with the dynamics of geostrategic change and evolving threats. A key component of vigilance and being visionary is continuing education for members of the intelligence community whomust be well educated to deal with the complex and dynamic strategic security challenges. Online intelligence education is a strategic resource to fulfill the need to educate new analysts and upgrade the skills of current analysts. Select schools offer intelligence, counterterrorism, and security as a dedicated curriculum to support US security.


  1.  Mark, J. (2014). Ancient Syria. In Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: http://www.ancient.eu/syria
  2. History.com Staff. (2009). Britain and France conclude Sykes-Picot agreement. Retrieved from: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/britain-and-france-conclude-sykes-picot-agreement
  3. Al-Jazeera Staff. (2016). A century on: Why Arabs resent Sykes-Picot. Al Jazeera. Retrieved from: http://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2016/sykes-picot-100-years-middle-east-map/
  4. The Jewish Virtual Library Staff. (n.d.) Pre-State Israel: The San Remo Conference. etrieved from: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-san-remo-conference
  5. Spyer, J. (2017). Syria has effectively ceased to exist. Middle East Forum. Retrieved from: http://www.meforum.org/6714/syria-has-effectively-ceased-to-exist
  6. Friedman, U. (2017). The scramble for Post-ISIS Syria has officially begun. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/05/trump-syria-iran/527262/

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