5 Bloody Battles That Defined Syria's History
As the battle for Aleppo, in Syria, rages on, it is striking to note that Syria has a particularly long and bloody history, even by the standards of the Middle East. This is particularly true of a strip of land in the historical region of greater Syria. Consisting of a north-south axis stretching from southern Turkey, through all of Syria, and into northern Israel, this region has been a battlefield for great empires since ancient history.
Why? The answer is geography. Syria—and in particular western Syria—is littered with countless battle sites, because it is situated on the most traversable route between the major centers of power in the Middle East. Much of the southeast of modern Syria is desert, so an army coming from up from Mesopotamia (Iraq) or Persia (Iran) cannot strike due west; it has to travel up the Euphrates River in a semicircular direction, moving north, then west, and finally back south along the Mediterranean coast. Likewise, an army coming down from Turkey or Europe, like those of the Ottomans, Alexander the Great or the Crusaders, has to pass through western Syria to get to Egypt or the Arabian Peninsula. The converse holds true, as armies from Egypt have historically seen this route as the easiest path to Turkey and Iraq. It is no surprise that Syria’s pivotal location has long been the series of disputes and wars. Modern powers, including the United States, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as ISIS, all understand this, which is why the fight for Syria is so fierce.
Fighting over greater Syria was just as fierce in premodern times. Here are five notable battles fought in this region—for some other important historical battles fought nearby, see my other articles on important battles in the Middle East and the five hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Marj Dabiq:
The Battle of Kadesh was a clash between the superpowers of the ancient Middle East: Egypt and the Hittites. Fought in 1274 BCE in northwestern Syria, near today’s border with Lebanon, it was technically a draw. The battle is of particular importance to history because it is the earliest recorded battle for which details and tactics are known. Interestingly, it was the largest chariot battle in history, with about six thousand chariots involved. Additionally, the subsequent peace treaty is the oldest peace treaty surviving today.
The battle came about because of the rivalry between the Hittites (based in modern Turkey) and the Egyptians over control of the rich city-states of the Levant. The new Egyptian pharaoh, Ramses II, came north with an army to capture the city of Kadesh, but found himself cut off from his main army when he moved too quickly and almost rode into a Hittite ambush. However, the Egyptians were saved from defeat by the arrival of the main body of their army and the tenacity of Ramses II.
The Battle of Yarmouk was one of the most consequential battles in human history. Fought in 636 CE between the newly established Muslim Arab caliphate and the Byzantine Empire, near the Syrian borders with Israel and Jordan, it opened the way to the Muslim conquest of the entire Levant, including the cities of Aleppo and Jerusalem. The path to the battle began with the Muslim conquest of Damascus in 634. In retaliation, the Byzantines sent an army to Syria to clear it of Arab raiding parties. However, the Byzantine army wasn’t at its best, because it had spent most of the past three decades fighting the Persians, who had previously occupied Syria.
Nonetheless, the Byzantine army was numerically superior to the Arab forces. In order to counter this advantage, the Arab forces scattered through Syria consolidated at Yarmouk under the esteemed Arab general Khalid Ibn al-Walid. The Arabs then defeated the Byzantine forces over six days due to superior morale and motivation, breaking the Byzantine cavalry. Subsequently, Muslims took over Palestine, the rest of Syria, and Egypt.
The armies of the First Crusade reached Antioch (in modern Turkey, near Syria), an important city on the route to Jerusalem in 1097. However, what ensued was a long siege, lasting from October 21, 1097, to June 2, 1098. After the main siege, where the Crusaders took the city but not its citadel, they found themselves besieged as well by a relieving Muslim army from Aleppo, but eventually prevailed.