When Assad Won

A bloody six-year civil war fought against Bashar al-Assad's father presents a cautionary tale for Syria's modern-day rebels.


It was a massacre. On June 16, 1979, Capt. Ibrahim Yusuf ordered some 200 cadets at the Aleppo Artillery School to attend an urgent meeting in the mess hall. Once they were assembled, he opened the door to a squad of gunmen who opened fire on the defenseless crowd. At least 32 cadets, most belonging to then President Hafez al-Assad’s Alawite sect, were cut down in the hail of gunfire and grenades.

The civil war that raged in Syria from 1976 to 1982 was — until the past 11 months of unrest — the most severe threat to the Assads’ grip on power. The uprising would be crushed, brutally and infamously, with the Hama massacre in 1982. But even before the bloody assault on Hama, the long guerilla war had claimed the lives of thousands of Syrians, and resulted in the imprisonment of at least 10,000 more. The events leading up to the final confrontation should provide the current generation of protesters with a blueprint for how not to overthrow the Assad regime.

The Aleppo attack was not only the bloodiest strike to date against the government, it raised disturbing questions for the Damascus political elite about the fundamental pillars of their power. Yusuf, a Sunni officer, was himself a member of the ruling Baath Party. Assad’s enemies, it seemed, had not only risen through the ranks of the army — they had penetrated into the political heart of the regime.

As the shadow war between the Alawite-dominated security forces and their Sunni opponents continued, Assad’s opponents formed an umbrella organization called the Islamic Front in Syria. In November 1980, the front published a manifesto that noted the Alawite community "cannot [indefinitely] dominate the majority in Syria," and that "the [Alawite] minority has forgotten itself and is ignoring the facts of history." It ended with an appeal for the Alawites to abandon "the imposed scourge Hafez al-Assad and his butcher playboy brother [Rifaat] … [in order to] participate in preventing the tragedy from reaching its sad end."

The campaign of assassinations against leading Syrian officials and Alawite personalities was also gaining steam — in August 1979, Assad’s personal doctor, Muhammed Shahada Khalil, was killed. Other victims included the head of the military’s garrison in Hama, the rector of Damascus University, and the prosecutor of the Supreme State Security Court. "Assassination is the only language with which it is possible to communicate with the state," said one of Assad’s opponents during his trial in September 1979, according to Nikolaos van Dam’s The Struggle for Power in Syria.

The winter of 1979 might have been the most perilous time for the regime: Its leading lights were slowly being snuffed out, its support within key segments of the army and broader population was in doubt, and even its top officials were beginning to breaking away. On Dec. 27, Syrian ambassador to the United Nations Hammud al-Shufi abruptly resigned, due to what he termed "the anti-democratic and repressive methods and corruption of the Assad regime." (No Syrian ambassadors have yet defected during the present unrest.)

The chill of civil war even fell across cities that were not at the center of the violence. Samuel Pickering Jr. — an acclaimed English professor who would later go on to serve as the model for Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poets Society —  taught as a Fulbright scholar in the city of Latakia from the winter of 1979 until the summer of 1980. "The good are silent, and violence has spiraled as the government’s secret police have viciously repressed dissent or potential dissent," he wrote in a memoir of his year in Syria. "At times during the year, Aleppo and Hama seemed foreign countries brought back under Damascus’s rule only by tank law. ‘You don’t know,’ a student told me with tears in her eyes. ‘The people die like rain.’"

History is written by the victors, and the story of Syria’s civil war is no exception. The Assad regime painted the revolt as a terror campaign waged by "the Muslim Brotherhood," a catch-all phrase that it would wield against its many opponents during the crisis. The story is more complicated than that — not all opposition to Assad was expressed through violence, and the insurgents did appear to enjoy substantial latent support among segments of Syrian popular opinion. What does appear clear, however, is that the revolt was driven by a wide array of groups that resented the Alawites’ rise to preeminence and believed that the Sunnis, which account for roughly 75 percent of the population, were Syria’s natural rulers.

Drawing on interviews from Baathist officials in Aleppo, Patrick Seale’s Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East estimates that more than 300 leading supporters of the Syrian regime were killed in the city from 1979 to 1981. The violence soon prompted Assad to take a more radical course: In the Seventh Regional Congress, held in December 1979 and January 1980, Assad’s younger brother Rifaat won Baathist support for a war to exterminate the Sunni terrorists once and for all. To end the insurgency, he promised to fight "a hundred wars, demolish a million strongholds, and sacrifice a million martyrs."

Rifaat made good on his promise. In March, 30,000 troops of the Third Army Division, under the command of Gen. Shafiq Fayadh, moved from Damascus and Lebanon to seal off Aleppo. They were soon joined by Rifaat’s Defense Brigades, a paramilitary force of Assad loyalists that echoes today’s shabbiha. According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report "Syria Unmasked," which surveyed human rights abuses under the Assad regime, Fayadh stood on a tank turret in the early days of the operation to proclaim that he was "prepared to kill a thousand people a day to rid the city of the Muslim Brother vermin."

The violence wielded by the Syrian military far exceeded anything that the Sunni insurgents could muster. In the year-long occupation of Aleppo, HRW estimates that Assad’s security forces killed between 1,000 and 2,000 people — "some at random, many in summary executions" — and arrested 8,000 more.

Resistance to the Assad regime was not expressed solely through military means. In March 1980, the same month the military moved on Aleppo, the opposition convinced the markets in Aleppo to strike for two weeks — a tactic that soon spread to centers of unrest such as Hama, Homs, and Idlib, threatening to destroy Syria’s already battered economy.

Trade unions and professional associations also represented a thorn in Assad’s side. In early March, they organized street demonstrations in which thousands of people took part across the country, with the striking exception of Damascus. On March 31, the Syrian Bar Association led a number of other professional groups — such as the Medical Association, the Association of Engineers, and the merchant class — in a nationwide strike.

Assad’s response was as cunning as it was ruthless. He retaliated by dissolving the associations and arresting their leaders. By mid-April, according to HRW, the regime had imprisoned hundreds of doctors, engineers, and lawyers — many of whom were tortured, and some of whom were summarily executed. Meanwhile, he found allies in the Damascene merchant class and was able to weather the economic storm. According to Seale, the merchants’ support for Assad at this critical juncture cemented the regime’s relationship with the Damascus businessmen — an alliance that has persisted through the present day.

Having cut off all avenues of dissent but violence, the Assad regime then moved to ensure that its enemies had no hope of winning through armed revolt. After a failed assassination attempt against Assad on June 26, 1980, the regime’s strongmen determined to make the Muslim Brotherhood pay. Less than 24 hours after the attack, Rifaat’s Defense Brigades were helicoptered to the desert city of Palmyra, where they were joined by members of the army. In the early morning hours of July 27, they were let loose in Tadmor Prison, one of the primary detention centers for Islamists at the time. They gunned down an estimated 500 prisoners in cold blood.  "The operation lasted about half an hour," an Alawite soldier who took part in the operation told HRW. "During it, there was a terrible tumult, with exploding grenades and cries of ‘Allah Akbar!’"

The Sunni insurgents responded by escalating their campaign of terror in Damascus. In 1981, they bombed the prime minister’s office in August, the Air Force headquarters in September, and a military recruitment center in November. In February 1982, the "Islamic Revolution Command in Syria" claimed credit for bombing the Damascus offices of the regime’s al-Baath newspaper, killing at least 76 people. "It was a great accomplishment to be added to the series of tremendous explosions carried out by the mujahidin," the statement read. "We draw attention to the fact that all the Syrian information media are nationalized and that the explosion was timed for all the authority’s hirelings to be present."

For all the stresses put on the Syrian regime, the sharp and unbridgeable sectarian rifts that the conflict had opened made it virtually impossible for the Alawite ruling class to do anything but fight to the death. "[The Muslim Brotherhood] has succeeded in widening the distance between the government and the majority of the people, but not in destabilizing the regime," wrote the historian Hanna Batatu in December 1982. "Instead of splitting the ‘Alawis and thus weakening their foothold in the army, they have, by their anti-‘Alawi practical line, frightened the ‘Alawi community into rallying behind Asad."

With the military remaining largely loyal, nothing could stop Assad from crushing the opposition’s strongholds. By the time the city of Hama rose in open revolt in February 1982, the stage was set for a final confrontation between Assad’s opponents and more than 10,000 well-equipped Syrian security forces — a battle the Sunni insurgents could not hope to win. The Hama massacre, which claimed the lives of anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 Syrians, according to an Amnesty International report from the period, may have permanently stained the reputation of the Assad dynasty in the eyes of the world, but it also crushed the organized Islamist insurgency in Syria and paved the way for three more decades of relatively unchallenged rule by the Assads. In the end, the Sunni insurgency of the late 1970s and early 1980s was too focused on Sunni revivalism, too shadowy — simultaneously too violent to attract widespread support and not violent enough to pose an existential threat to the regime.

Could the modern-day opponents of Bashar al-Assad, Hafez’s son, suffer the same fate as the insurgents of years past? Luckily for today’s opposition, it is no carbon copy of the movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most notably, popular nonviolent protests have been a mainstay of the effort to topple Assad. In major cities such as Hama, Homs, and recently Damascus, Syrians have taken to the streets to call for the end of the regime — lending the opposition a degree of popular legitimacy it never achieved in the 1980s. Defections from the Syrian military are also higher than they ever were under Hafez al-Assad’s watch, and by all accounts are growing more numerous and effective. And the opposition’s political representatives, such as the Syrian National Council, may have myriad problems — but they are still savvier than the underground "Islamic Front" that guided the opposition to Hafez.

But at the same time, Syria’s revolutionaries have not been able to make a complete break with the past. After months of largely peaceful protest, the effort to topple Assad is increasingly defined as a struggle between Syria’s security forces and an armed insurgency. According to activists’ own figures, the past two months have seen a higher proportion of Syrian soldiers killed than at any other point in the revolt — totaling roughly 25 percent of the total deaths. This surge in violence has also been marked, in the past two weeks, by devastating car bombings in Aleppo and the first assassination of a Syrian general — tactics that carry an echo of the dark days of civil war.

This new generation of Syrian revolutionaries has brought the Assad regime closer to collapse than it has ever been in its four-decade history. But if they are to push it over the edge, they would do well to learn from the cautionary tale of their elders.