Syria, under continuous Baathist rule since 1963, has relinquished its image of the 1950s and early 1960s as a peculiarly ungovernable and unstable state. Next year the regime hopes to celebrate its twentieth anniversary. A good measure of its maturity is that a majority of Syrians were born after the revolution. The regime’s younger members may have been 10 or so when the Baath seized power. For several years now entrants to the military academy cannot remember a time when Syria was anything but Baathist.

There is danger, though, in trading one political cliche — that Syria is coup-prone — for another, that the regime is a durable feature of the region’s political landscape. In 1966 and 1970, intra-party disputes led to “corrective” coups d’etat. During the last five years or so, it has been confronted with well-organized, large scale manifestations of popular discontent, particularly in Aleppo in March 1980 and in Hama in February 1982. These have been contained only through massive repression. At the same time, the regime has been increasingly ostracized within the region. Support for Iran in its war with Iraq, and impotence in the face of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, could well heighten this isolation and further tarnish the regime’s Arab nationalist credentials.

One of the regime’s greatest liabilities, from the beginning, has been the overly simplistic and often exaggerated perception that, the country is ruled by and for the traditionally disadvantaged minority ‘Alawis, a splinter Shi‘i sect which makes up some 10 to 15 percent of the total population. Some Syrians saw the Baathist revolution in the crudest possible terms as a revanchist minority conspiracy, Druze and Isma‘ili as well as ‘Alawi in the beginning, against the majority Sunnis. In fact, the regime’s first and foremost goal in 1963 was to destroy the largely reactionary traditional landowning and mercantile ruling class of Damascus and Aleppo and to create a secular, socialist Syria. Most of its leading figures were young officers, teachers, lawyers and physicians with peasant or petit bourgeois family backgrounds. They came from the rural hinterland or small provincial towns. Many were Sunnis, but minorities were conspicuous in the regime. One reason was their long-standing overrepresentation in the armed forces and the Baath Party. Another was their use of these primordial, traditional relationships to facilitate the seizure and consolidation of power. [1]

Many of those who supported the revolution’s aims, including many Sunnis, excused this manipulation of sectarian ties as a means to an end. They explained the ascendance of the geographic and ethnic periphery in class terms. Not all Syrians saw things in the same way, of course. Those whose influence and wealth were destroyed by land reform and nationalization typically dismissed the regime’s secularism and socialism as a way to dress the transfer of power to the minorities and to the rural sector in a more ideologically acceptable garb. Many Syrians also saw a contradiction between the regime’s pronouncements about the irrelevance and illegitimacy of subnational identities and the role these same identities increasingly played in appointment to sensitive positions, especially in the military. The accuracy of these perceptions is irrelevant: What mattered was that a sufficient number of Syrians believed them. This presented the regime with a nagging, perennial legitimacy problem, and made the sectarian issue an extremely sensitive one.

Characterizations of the regime as an ‘Alawi one are still overstated, and based on an unsophisticated conception of the dynamics of ethnicity. With the passage of time, however, they have become less far-fetched, and represent a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, particularly since the mid-1970s. Sunnis are still well represented in most sectors of the elite. They hold numerous highly visible positions. At the same time, a disproportionate share of key posts in the officer corps, the internal security forces and the Baath Party are held by ‘Alawis. Many of these people are related, or come from the same tribal subdivisions or villages. [2] As long as the Baath’s nation-building credentials remained plausible and it seemed as if the regime were diligently addressing the country’s developmental problems, discontent over the ‘Alawi role was muted and tractable. Criticism could be deflected. Anyone who dared to broach the subject of the regime’s communal composition was immediately accused of encouraging sectarianism and acting as an agent for Syria’s enemies.

Since the mid-1970s, criticism of the ‘Alawi role has widened and intensified for many reasons. As the regime has aged, it has lost much of its dynamism and direction, and evolved into something that bears scant resemblance to the original, reasonably progressive Baathist vision. Whereas during the 1960s the Baath tried to subordinate the military as its instrument, now it is the other way around. The regime has become a conventional, authoritarian military one.

Party organization and discipline, never very strong, have steadily deteriorated. The party has been likened to a large government ministry — hardly something to inspire enthusiasm. Because party membership is often a precondition for getting ahead, it has attracted a goodly number of opportunists who know and care little about its original aims. Baathist ideology, whose intellectual contributions were in any case somewhat meager, is now ossified and bankrupt, as well as at variance with the regime’s behavior. Few can take it very seriously any more.

These problems within the party received attention once the extent of popular disaffection with the regime became apparent. At the party’s seventh quadrennial Regional Congress (December 22, 1979-January 6, 1980) a report criticized the “insufficient experience and educational level” of many party apparatchiks, the “inadequate ideological education” of cadres, and “a growing tendency toward dissipation among the (younger) generation.” It also expressed concern that the party was suffering from “indifference…lack of enthusiasm and party spirit; opportunism; misunderstanding of democracy; and the growth of inherited illnesses of society.” The latter phrase is presumably a euphemism for sectarianism and nepotism, among other things. [3] One result of the Congress was the creation of a new 75-member central committee to watch over the Regional (i.e. national Syrian) Command and to serve as a link between it and other levels in the party hierarchy. The Congress also appointed a “control and inspection committee” to supervise party discipline and behavior. Although 14 of the Regional Command’s 21 members were new, which suggested a major housecleaning, few Syrians believed things had really changed. The regime’s key figures were still firmly entrenched.

The regime has also lost much support because of the dramatic spread of corruption. This accompanied the party’s degeneration, the growth of a huge, inefficient public sector, increased government spending, the influx of the Arab aid, and the easing of restrictions on local capitalists after Hafiz al-Asad’s 1970 coup. Corruption is so deeply rooted and endemic that many are skeptical whether the regime can extirpate it without simultaneously destroying itself. Asad’s younger brother Rif‘at, for instance, is widely believed to have amassed a fortune through illegal or questionable means; he is considered untouchable by virtue of his control of a powerful, almost entirely ‘Alawi palace guard, Saraya al-Difa‘ [Defense Units] without which the regime would be markedly more vulnerable to a military coup d’etat. Anti-corruption drives seem to have a way of rapidly and mysteriously losing momentum.

The widespread belief that ‘Alawis have benefited disproportionately from this activity has not helped. Unquestionably, many ‘Alawis have flagrantly enriched themselves under the regime, cashing in on communal links with those in power. Resentment of ‘Alawi nepotism and favoritism is so wide and deep that even those ‘Alawis are suspect who genuinely abhor such behavior and recognize its dangers. Sectarianism has acquired an uncontrollable dynamic of its own. The more apprehensive the regime feels because of resentment about the ‘Alawi role, the more it is bound together by communal ties. The number of situations in which ethnic affiliations matter has grown. The extreme politicization of ethnicity has eroded much of the subtlety, fluidity and complexity of intercommunal relations. Some ‘Alawis fear that if the present regime is overthrown, they will suffer retribution. They identify even more closely with it as a matter of survival.

The Complications of Lebanon

It is too early to assess the likely repercussions of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon on Syria’s future. Despite the regime’s claims to the contrary, this humiliating defeat underlined its impotence. At first hesitant to confront the invading Israeli forces, and then willing to accept a ceasefire while the Palestinians were still being attacked, the regime drew much Arab criticism, notwithstanding the complete inaction of its detractors.

During the Lebanese civil war, the regime frittered away the political capital it had accumulated as a result of the creditable performance of the armed forces in the October 1973 war. The dispatch of 30,000 troops into Lebanon in June 1976 to restrain the leftist-Palestinian alliance was profoundly unpopular among elements of the regime’s core constituency and seriously tarnished its Arab nationalist image. Some criticized the intervention as a complete betrayal of what the Baath stood for. Certainly few of the regime’s supporters could have been proud when the Syrian army stood idly by while the Phalangists massacred 2-3,000 Palestinians in Tall al-Za‘tar camp. Nor could they have been pleased by the regime’s suspected involvement in the assassination of Kamal Jumblatt.

Others, like the traditional ‘ulama’ who had always disliked the regime, viewed the Lebanon intervention in vulgar, sectarian terms: The ‘Alawis were heretics, not Muslims, who were suspected of having shady theological links with the Christians. Didn’t they permit wine drinking? Didn’t some of them have fair coloring, too? The Lebanon intervention, to protect “the Christians” from “the Muslims,” seemed to draw renewed attention to the non-Sunni origins of many of Syria’s leaders, and to underline the differences between ruler and ruled. The regime’s subsequent attempts to control Israel’s Phalangist allies and to prevent Lebanon’s partition improved its image only marginally.

It was inevitable that sooner or later some of Lebanon’s sectarian problems would spill over into Syria, given the close geographic, cultural, and historical links between the two countries. If these matters were being openly discussed in Lebanon, why not in Syria also? The regime’s most incorrigible Sunni critics thought they saw parallels between their underrepresentation in an ‘Alawi-dominated state and that of Lebanese Muslims in a Maronite-dominated state. The rotation of thousands of Syrian soldiers accustomed to austerity into the freewheeling atmosphere of Lebanon placed the troops under severe strain. Their professionalism suffered as a result of occasional checkpoint extortion and general thuggery. The Phalangists especially tried to foment sectarian strife between ‘Alawi, Sunni and Christian soldiers. By far the worst offender in this respect was Sa‘d Haddad, Israel’s myrmidon in southern Lebanon. In one appeal to his “brother Syrian Sunnis and Christians,” he said: “I tell the Sunnis that the ‘Alawi intends to destroy you, and I remind the Christians that the ‘Alawi is using you to kill the Christians and Lebanon.. .We are prepared to receive any Syrian Sunni or Christian soldier who kills an‘ Alawi. We are prepared to receive him with his family and relatives, and we shall provide him with all the assistance he needs.” [4]

Maronite radio broadcasts also gave the widest possible coverage to real and imagined sectarian incidents within Syria. For several years now, hardly a day has gone by without such reports, although it is difficult to gauge the impact of this propaganda. There are also good reasons to suspect that the Phalangists have covertly funneled arms to Syrian opposition groups. Sectarian polarization in Syria obviously serves the interest of the Maronites, who see the Syrian presence as an obstacle to the creation of a Christian state. For their part, the Israelis, like the French between World Wars I and II, favor the Balkanization of the regime into sectarian micro-states. Both Maronites and Israelis have openly speculated about the beneficial possibilities of an ‘Alawi state in the future.

Arab Oil and Syria’s Economy

Involvement in Lebanon has aggravated Syria’s economic problems. In the early 1970s, Syria’s economy boomed. In 1974 and 1975, for example, GDP grew in real terms at an annual rate of 13 percent. The major factor was an influx of oil money following Asad’s liberalization measures and the oil price explosion. Arab aid amounted to $500-600 million annually in the mid-1970s. Higher prices for Syrian exports — cotton, phosphates and especially oil — also played a part. [3] As a result of price increases, oil overtook cotton as Syria’s chief export in 1974. Whereas in 1973 oil exports were valued at $67 million, in 1974 they amounted to $412 million. In the same years, cotton exports totaled $116 million and $195 million respectively. [5]

In 1976, the economy started to sour. Arab aid declined, while the huge costs of a military presence in Lebanon — at least $1 million daily by one estimate — mounted. Syria began running up larger and larger trade deficits — from $497.8 million in 1976 to $2,282.6 million by 1980. In the same period, inflation climbed to over 30 percent annually, where it has remained. The government also lost $136 million yearly in oil transit fees after Iraq closed down its pipelines to Banyas and Tripoli in 1976, ostensibly to protest Syria’s intervention in Lebanon, but actually as a result of a royalty dispute. To make matters worse, the closure deprived Syria of light oil, priced preferentially at pre-1973 levels, for its Homs refinery. When pumping resumed in 1979, after the brief Iraqi-Syria rapprochement, Iraq only shipped 10 million tons annually through the lines, far from their 60 million-ton capacity. (In the meantime Iraq had built one new pipeline to the Mediterranean coast via Turkey and another one between Haditha and Faw on the Gulf to lessen its dependence on trans-Syrian routes.) In April 1982, Syria closed the lines again, along with all other transportation links, to punish Iraq for its alleged role in the Hama uprising and to help Iran in its war effort. Recent Iraqi threats to abandon the trans-Syrian pipelines altogether after this latest closure are not idle; plans to build alternate lines through Saudi Arabia to the Red Sea or via Jordan to the Gulf of ‘Aqaba are well under way. [6]

The 1974 windfall in Syrian oil export revenues came through price rises, not increased production. Exports peaked in 1976 at only 9.6 million tons (190,000 barrels per day, approximately). Since then they have fallen steadily, amounting to only 6.2 million tons in 1981. [7] Price rises have cushioned the effects of this drop — petroleum exports were worth $1.65 billion in 1980 and make up about 63 percent of exports — but Syria’s oil fields are past their prime and will need careful management in the future. The government’s fifth five-year plan (1982-1986) projects that by the middle of the decade the value of production will have declined to $1.5 billion at current prices.

During the 1970s, economic and social disparities widened. A parasitic new class, which feeds off of the public sector, has come into existence. Fortunes have also been made in a booming real estate market; prices in some sections of Damascus rose tenfold between 1974 and 1976. Housing costs in parts of the capital befit a major European city more than a country in which per capita GNP is still only $1,340 per annum, and many people still do not have access to clean drinking water and electricity. Others have fared less well. For the substantial number of middle and lower level government and public sector employees, salaries have not kept pace with rapid inflation despite large periodic adjustments. In 1980 they were increased 40 percent, for example. Many have to moonlight, or increase their earnings in other ways. To prevent even more serious disaffection as a result of economic conditions, the regime has developed an enormous program of food and fuel subsidies. By one account in 1981, these amounted to $1.53 billion. This is about $150 per capita, and equivalent to what the country earned from its oil exports. [8]

Between 1965 and 1980, Damascus’ population doubled from 678,000 to 1,327,000. This growth, and the resulting housing crisis in the capital, shows no signs of abating. Rapid urbanization is countrywide. Whereas in 1960 only 37.5 percent of all Syrians lived in urban areas, by the early 1980s over one half did. Urbanization has concentrated geographically the poverty found throughout rural areas, making it more visible. Inequalities have become harder to ignore, and thus more problematical in a political sense.

Even without any rural-urban migration, Syria’s cities would have grown quickly, simply through natural increase. Since the 1963 revolution, the population has virtually doubled to almost 10 million. [9] Almost half of the population is under 15, and have yet to enter the labor force and have their children. The current rate of natural population increase is 3.8 percent, the highest in the Middle East and one of the highest in the world. This translates into a doubling time of 18 years and a total population of almost 19 million by the year 2000 at current rates of growth. [10]

Food imports amounted to $414 million in 1978, and have been increasing. In part this is due to the inability of agriculture to keep pace with demand, despite considerable government investment in this sector in all five-year development plans, and progress on the Euphrates and other irrigation and land reclamation schemes. Until Syria substantially reduces its dependence on rain-fed cultivation in steppe regions, where productivity fluctuates drastically from year to year, it will continue to encounter difficulties feeding the population. More than a third of the labor force is still engaged in agriculture. Much of Syria’s textile and food processing industries, which account for a significant share of all industrial production, also depend on a healthy agriculture. The attention the regime gives to this sector is partly a result of the importance of these agro-industries.

The combination of poor opportunities in Syria and good ones in the oil-producing Arabian Peninsula states has promoted heavy emigration. By one estimate, the emigration rate is 0.7 percent annually. This amounts to between 45,000 and 60,000 a year over the past decade. [11] Remittances are officially put at about $700 million annually. As in Egypt and Yemen they are mostly spent on consumption items and exacerbate inflation, especially in property values. Many of those who have left are skilled. An estimated 14,000 Syrians with higher technical qualifications — doctors, engineers and the like — left the country in the 1970s. [12] The exodus of teachers has been so worrisome that in 1979 the Ministry of Education asked the Saudi Arabian government not to renew the expired contracts of expatriate Syrian teachers. Engineers have difficulties obtaining exit visas.

Military Expenditure

Syria’s participation in a ruinous and accelerating regional arms race has compounded its economic difficulties. Especially since the 1973 war, military consumption has diverted resources away from economic and social development. In 1982, defense and internal security will cost $2.4 billion, or 58.5 percent of current government expenditure and almost 30 percent of the total budget. [13] This exceeds combined government investment expenditures on agriculture, forestry, and fisheries; the extraction and transformation industries; electricity, gas and water; and transportation and communications.

In 1981, defense expenditures amounted to 13.1 percent of GNP, which puts Syria in the select group of 10 countries in the world to spend over 10 percent of GNP on the military. Syria was one of the top four arms importing states in the world in 1979. It imported arms worth $7.4 billion between 1961-1979, one of the highest totals worldwide. [14] It has an armed forces of approximately 230,000. By comparison, Brazil, with 13 times as many people and the largest military in Latin America, has only 274,000 in uniform. On paper, Syria’s combat aircraft and tank fleets are not much smaller than those of major European countries. The level of militarization is clearly very high, no matter what the criteria. Regardless of regime, patterns of military expenditure are unlikely to change soon, especially in view of the intense confrontation with Israel in Lebanon, during which an estimated one third of Syria’s air force and several hundred tanks were destroyed.

Syria does not, of course, pay its military bill all by itself. As a result of the 1978 Baghdad Arab summit, convened in the wake of the Camp David accords, Syria is supposed to receive $1.85 billion annually in Arab aid. This would amount to about one fifth of the 1981 budget. In reality, subventions have always fallen short. By some estimates, Syria received $1.4 billion in 1979 and 1980, but considerably less in 1981. [15] Dependence on such aid is clearly risky, especially given the regime’s frequent and sometimes deep differences with the donor states. Syria’s open support for Iran has particularly upset the Gulf sheikhdoms; in early 1982 they threatened to terminate their subsidies. The extent of Libyan assistance is uncertain. It is probably substantial and may equal cutbacks from other Arab sources. Libya reportedly paid off a $1 billion Syrian debt to the Soviet Union for weapons purchases shortly after the September 1979 unity declaration. It would not be far wrong to suggest that Syria married Libya mostly for its money.

Sectarian Troubles

Ever since 1963, conservative Sunni ‘ulama’ have been among the Baath’s most implacable critics. This stems from two factors. The first is their traditional links to the urban mercantile class, which suffered as a result of the large-scale nationalization and land sequestration measures of the mid-1960s. The second factor is the regime’s avowed secularism, which the ‘ulama’ may equate with atheism. The regime’s secularism is all the more distasteful because these Sunni clergy do not regard the ‘Alawis as Muslims, even though the ‘Alawis steadfastly insist they are Shi‘i and no less pious than anyone else. The ‘Alawis’ Muslim credentials are a key issue in the Islamic movement’s current war against the regime. The underground al-Nazir newspaper refers openly to the “infidel Nusayris [i.e., ‘Alawis] who are outside Islam.” It depicts the struggle as being “between the suppressed Muslim majority [i.e., Sunnis] and the infidel Nusayri minority,” whose adherents have “made Islam their traditional enemy.” [16] This comes at a time when fundamentalist Islam has experienced a resurgence and the Iranian revolution has illustrated that corrupt, repressive regimes can be overthrown by a mass uprising. The Syrian regime is doubly vulnerable: once because it can be accused of having put more distance between religion and state than in most Middle Eastern countries, and twice because it can be depicted as not Islamic in even the most fundamental, literal sense.

The regime has faced serious unrest as a result of religious opposition before. In 1964, large-scale riots erupted in Hama, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, disturbances erupted ostensibly over the proposed new secular constitution. This constitution originally did not specify that the president had to be a Muslim. Apart from anything else, some Sunnis wrongly took this as an implicit admission that the ‘Alawis were not Muslim, since Hafiz al-Asad was the only contender for the position. Since these disturbances, Asad, unlike his immediate Baathist predecessors, has endeavored not to offend conservative Muslim sentiment. Clearly he has not been very successful. He has been careful to convey an image of scrupulous piety, whether by ostentatious participation in public prayer, going on the hajj or sprinkling his speeches with frequent Qur’anic references. The regime has also tried hard to rehabilitate and bolster the ‘Alawis’ claim to be Muslim by securing pronouncements to that effect from religious leaders. Sometimes these efforts backfire. For example, the regime’s distribution of a Qur’an with Asad’s picture as the frontispiece upset many people. The current campaign by the Muslim Brothers and related fundamentalist organizations began in 1976 with a wave of bombings and assassinations of prominent ‘Alawis. [17] The regime was obviously rattled and resorted to heavy-handed repression by the mukhabarat [intelligence service] and Rif‘at al-Asad’s Saraya al-Difa‘. The assassination campaign was probably intended to polarize Syrians along sectarian lines. That, at any rate, was one of its consequences: ‘Alawis drew together, and Sunnis who had little real sympathy for the Muslim Brothers’ goals became increasingly resentful of the regime’s repressiveness.

The religious opposition displayed great power and daring in June 1979, when gunmen obtained access to the Aleppo artillery school and massacred over 60 cadets, mostly ‘Alawi. Apart from anything else, the episode indicated that the Muslim Brothers had infiltrated the armed forces. The regime quickly rounded up several hundred alleged members of the organization and other Baathist critics. Some were executed that summer.

A more serious challenge to the regime occurred in March 1980 in Aleppo, where several strands of opposition coalesced. From December 1979 onward, demonstrations, strikes, and escalating violence paralyzed parts of the city. In early March, merchants protesting price controls declared a general strike. This quickly spread to Hama, Idlib, and other major towns. Soon, various professional groups representing lawyers, physicians, engineers, academics and others issued manifestos demanding democratic rights, the release of political prisoners and an end to sectarianism. Explicit anti-‘Alawi overtones ran through the disturbances. The regime, concerned that a popular, Iranian-style revolution was in the making, dispatched 12,000 troops to Aleppo and cordoned the city off. It gradually reimposed its authority, but not before killing many hundreds of Syrians — no one can know precisely how many. The regime superficially appeared conciliatory after this episode, [18] but basically its response was an even greater dose of repression. On April 9, it dissolved the executive councils of the various professional associations of lawyers, doctors, and engineers. Many of their members were arrested and detained without trial. The government also seized human rights activists pushing for the abolition of the infamous state security courts, where political opponents are tried in closed session. By one estimate, the government detained about 5,000 people during the months following the northern uprising. On June 27, 1980, after an attempted assassination of Hafiz al-Asad, al-Saraya al-Difa‘ reportedly massacred 250-300 political prisoners at a prison in Tadmur (Palmyra). [19]

The regime’s public explanation of the events of the spring of 1980 was simple. Ahmad Iskandar Ahmad, the minister of information, claimed that “the people who have tried to instigate trouble represent the Muslim Brothers and the remaining feudalists — those who owned lands but were included in the agrarian reforms at the beginning of 1963 — together with Syrian capitalists who were affected by the nationalization laws.” [20] Prime Minister ‘Abd al-Ra’uf al-Qasm’s analysis was more typical. Syria, he asserted, “is in the forefront of the Arab countries that reject the Camp David agreement. This does not please Sadat and Israel, or the United States…. So it is natural for [them] to fight us and try to overthrow our regime.” [21] The government repeatedly accused the Phalangists, Iraq and Jordan of complicity in Syria’s troubles. These accusations were not without good basis. Nonetheless, the scale of the uprising suggests that deep internal grievances were the locomotive force.

The regime addressed discontent over sectarian practices only obliquely. The prime minister, for instance, conceded that “there are mistakes in every revolution” but insisted that these were being rectified. He blithely claimed that “what used to be said in the past about the existence of a sectarian movement has been disproved.” [22] President al-Asad rarely alludes to the subject at all, presumably for fear of opening it up as a matter of legitimate discussion and debate. He merely urged continued struggle “against the reactionary mentality,” which “fosters regionalism, sectarianism, tribalism and clannishness.” [23]

The government took some care after the Aleppo events to distinguish between the Muslim Brothers and devout Muslims generally, lest it repeat its previous mistake of aiming disconcertingly wide attacks and alienating even more people. At one point, Asad was so cautious he even appeared to defend the Muslim Brothers:

The Muslim Brothers in Syria are not all with the assassins. The great majority of them condemn murder and are opposed to the killers. This majority believes that they should work for the sake of religion and not for any other objective. We have absolutely no differences with these. On the contrary we encourage them. We encourage anybody who works for religion and to uphold religious values. [24]

However, he did not take any chances. On July 7, 1980, a new law made membership of the organization, after a brief grace period, a capital offense.

Uprising in Hama

In February 1982, an even bloodier uprising occurred in Hama, a city of 200,000 some 120 miles north of Damascus. The Hama region has traditionally been a center of opposition to the regime. It has been a stronghold of religious orthodoxy, and in recent years the government has encouraged the resettlement of a substantial number of poor ‘Alawis from the adjacent mountains in the rich farmland of the nearby Ghab region. This has aroused considerable resentment among displaced Hamawis. Sectarian tensions in the area have generally been more acute than elsewhere.

The rebels were perhaps emboldened by a sense that the regime was preoccupied: In January it had scotched preparations for a coup by some air force officers; the month before, in December, Israel had annexed the Golan Heights. The outbreak apparently began when troops from the (largely ‘Alawi) Third Armored Division based near the city were attacked while raiding a Muslim Brother arms cache, to which they may have been lured. [25] The insurgents began attacking anything that symbolized the regime. Hama’s governor, Muhammed Khalid Harba, in a revealing interview on national television a few weeks later, recounted how he had been awoken by “the sounds of the mosques’ loudspeakers instigating people to fight.” City residents, he went on, “gave vent to anger by looting and burning public sector institutions…and…our [Baathist] comrades’ houses.” [26] Many Baathists and their families were killed in this onslaught.

The insurgents were by no means confined to the Muslim Brothers. For several days they held out against government and militia forces. The Islamic revolution command, in a broadcast from Iraq, urged Syrians in general and Damascenes in particular to

announce a civil mutiny against the regime…do not pay a single piaster to the regime. This is a fatwa by the nation’s ‘ulama’…. You must close stores, shops, schools, universities, institutes, factories and all public establishments. [27]

The government dispatched as many as 12,000 troops to the city, completely sealing it off and then systematically pummeling it with heavy artillery, tanks and helicopter gunships. In over two weeks of fighting, some 5,000 to 10,000 civilians were killed. [28] Once again, precise figures will probably never be available. Whole sections of the old city, particularly the al-Hadra quarter, were totally razed. Their residents were annihilated or expelled. The city may cost $500 million to rebuild and has only one sixth of its former population. ‘Ali Bayanuni, one of the Islamic Front’s exiled leaders, alleged that those who fled would never be permitted to return to the city. The regime, he asserts, will try to crush Hama once and for all as an opposition center by allocating all rebuilt houses only to ‘Alawis. [29]

The Aftermath of Hama

This was no ordinary insurrection. It may prove to have been an historic turning point in Syria’s political development. The utter ruthlessness and ferocity of the regime will not be forgotten soon in Syria.

Whether because of intimidation or lack of organization and support, and despite appeals for help, the rebellion did not spread to other cities as in the spring of 1980. If the opposition intended Hama to be the start of a national uprising, it made a tragic miscalculation. The regime has had blood on its hands for many years now. What happened in Hama did not necessarily create large numbers of new opponents. Those who were likely to desert the regime did so long ago. Despite opposition reports to the contrary, there were not massive desertions among troops putting down the rebellion. In view of the blood shed in this operation, one must conclude the armed forces are still loyal.

At the same time, revulsion over the excessiveness of the response may have planted seeds for a future coup d’etat. Syrians are increasingly opposed to the regime’s methods, but they are also more fearful of and cowered by them. The Hama events showed the extent to which the regime was willing to go. They further reaffirmed that it will be difficult to oust Asad without a radical change in the orientation, structure and composition of the armed forces.

One significant direct result of the Hama rebellion was the formal establishment in March 1982 of a broad-based opposition front, the National Alliance for the Liberation of Syria. This combines such disparate elements as the Muslim Brothers and Islamic Front with dissident Baathists and miscellaneous socialist and Nasserist groups. The Alliance’s charter calls for the regime’s overthrow. It advocates an ill-defined constitutional parliamentary regime, which “will treat citizens equally regardless of their various religions, sects and trends.” It stresses the urgency posed by the “overwhelming danger which is menacing Syria and threatening to disintegrate its national unity.” Islam will be the state religion and the shari‘a the main authority for legislation and reform. The charter pledges “to rebuild the Syrian armed forces and all the state’s establishments on the basis of loyalty and efficiency and on the principle of equal opportunities.” It similarly talks of the need for economic reconstruction, “to end the state of plundering of wealth and bribery.” [30]

The regime’s version of what happened in Hama is predictable. Initially, it expressed extreme displeasure when the Reagan administration quickly announced that fighting had erupted. It denounced news reports of a rebellion as unfounded and as part of a psychological war by Syria’s enemies. It invited, a bit rashly, the State Department spokesman “to visit Syria and spend a tourist holiday at the Syrian government’s expense to become certain that his allegations are false.” [31] Journalists who volunteered to substitute and expressed a particular desire to sightsee in Hama did not get very far. For about three weeks, the government did not concede that anything more serious was happening than a weapons search and minor skirmishes.

It is difficult, however, to explain the sudden disappearance of a large city, especially one located on the main highway between Damascus and Aleppo. When it could no longer deny the obvious, the regime had its list of instigators. Externally, it blamed the United States, Iraq and those who opposed Syria’s “steadfastness” against the Camp David framework; internally it singled out the Muslim Brothers. Nevertheless, there were opaque admissions that discontent in Hama was widespread. The governor, for example, felt compelled to defend the Baath’s record in upholding Islam: “We have built more mosques in the city of Hama than have been built since the foundation of this city.” Judging by the scale of the city’s destruction, the regime will have ample opportunity to add to this stellar record. The governor also asserted that “Hama province has received even more [government investment] than any other province.” [32]

It is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the regime’s attacks against the Muslim Brothers. These can easily be mistaken for gratuitous attacks on Islam itself, especially if made by ‘Alawis. Given the regime’s record of secular reform, many Syrians are disinclined to believe its sudden solicitude for Islam. The Baathist argument has invariably been that the Brothers, not the regime, is acting against true Islam. Sometimes this message is delivered on television by alleged former members confessing their miscreancy and outlining links between the organization and Syria’s enemies. The regime can also wheel out its own supportive ‘ulama’ For example, on February 22, 1982, Syrian television read out a cable said to be from sheikhs Ahmad Sultan and al-Awwad stating: “The Muslim clergymen in Hama strongly condemn the filthy criminal acts of the agent Muslim Brother gang,” which was made up of “apostates, traitors and agents.” [33] In a word play, regime members regularly refer to the Muslim Brothers not as al-ikhwan al-muslimin but as khuwwan al-muslimin (traitors to the Muslims).

Soon after the Hama uprising, in a speech commemorating the nineteenth anniversary of the revolution, Asad castigated the Muslim Brothers for “killing in the name of Islam…. They are butchering children, women and old people in the name of Islam. They are wiping out entire families in the name of Islam. They extend their hand to the foreigner and his agents and to the pro-US puppet regimes on our borders. They extend their hands to them to receive funds and arms to double-cross their homeland and to kill fellow citizens…. They carried out every act banned by God…. They are apostates. We are the ones who defend Islam, religion and the homeland.” [34]

Since the mujahidin themselves believe they are engaged in a holy war against murderous, corrupt, infidel tyrants, and that God is obviously on their side, Asad’s jeremaids do not persuade everyone. Nevertheless, the Muslim Brothers’ methods do repel many Syrians. Particularly sickening was a car bomb explosion near a school in Damascus’ al-Azbakiyya quarter on November 29, 1981: The death toll may have exceeded 150. Although authorship was uncertain and the Front to Liberate Lebanon from Foreigners among others claimed responsibility, the regime did not hesitate to blame the Muslim Brothers. National television, in a 15-minute news film, showed exceptionally grisly scenes of mangled, dismembered and charred bodies, and over 80 badly wounded people. A distraught man who had six children wounded was shown saying he would strangle any Muslim Brother he came across with his bare hands. These obviously are powerful images and it is difficult to discount their effect, even in a country conditioned to be skeptical of the official media.

If there are many Syrians who disapprove of the regime’s behavior, so also are there many who have no desire to see the Muslim Brotherhood in power. Perhaps one third of all Syrians are not Sunni Muslims. The Baath’s secular reforms do have considerable support. In addition, the regime still has a sizable constituency in rural areas especially. On paper, the Baath Party has over 200,000 members; many can presumably be quickly mobilized. Shortly after the Hama uprising, there was a huge, well-publicized rally to back the regime. At another rally in March, marking the anniversary of the 1963 revolution, Asad conspicuously marched in the crowd, an act that, in view of prior assassination attempts, was either recklessly stupid or a measure of his confidence.

External Factors

While the regime is incorrect in attributing almost all its problems to external factors, there is no question that its enemies have exploited and accentuated its internal political difficulties. The most open and serious quarrels have been with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. All have helped the regime’s opponents and engaged to some degree in sectarian propaganda to undermine national unity and attack the regime where it is weakest.

The quarrel with Egypt began in earnest in 1975, after Sadat signed the second Sinai disengagement agreement. This left Syria facing Israel alone. With the Camp David accords and Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the break became complete. From the mid-1970s on, Sadat and the Egyptian mass media openly labeled the Syrian regime an ‘Alawi one, something other Arab regimes had previously been reluctant to do. At times, Sadat’s attacks were egregiously provocative: “These dirty ‘Alawis…are people who have lost all life’s meaning…. We all know what the ‘Alawis are in the eyes of the Syrian people [who] will deal with them. Afterwards things will be different.” [35] Mubarak has been altogether more restrained.

The eastern front established with Jordan after Asad came to power deteriorated after the mid-1970s. The Syrians feared that Hussein would be drawn into the Camp David framework and renege on the commitment made at the 1974 Rabat summit to recognize the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians. Syria also vigorously opposed Jordan’s alliance with the arch-rival Baathist regime in Iraq. In addition, it accused Jordan of harboring and abetting the Muslim Brothers. Late in 1980, Syria massed some 35,000 troops and several hundred tanks along its southern border, threatening to march in and crush Muslim Brother bases unless Jordan prevented its territory from being used as a sanctuary. Although this particular crisis was defused through Saudi mediation, others quickly took its place. In February 1981, Jordan accused the Syrian regime of plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Munir Badran. Shortly thereafter, it charged Syria with kidnapping the Jordanian ambassador in Lebanon, lashing out with inflammatory sectarian propaganda. [36]

The sorry shape of Syrian-Iraqi relations is not easy to explain in view of the fact that both are nominally Baathist. Objectively they have much to offer one another. In October 1978, Syria was seeking to counter Egypt’s peace initiatives and to avoid isolation. It joined Iraq in signing a National Charter for Joint Action, thereby shelving their rancorous decade-long feud and anticipating eventual unification. By mid-1979, this scheme had been abandoned and the two were estranged yet again. In the past three years, each has repeatedly charged the other with involvement in plots against it. These accusations are probably correct; neither hides its desire to see the other toppled. There are good grounds to believe that many of the weapons finding their way into the hands of some Syrian opposition groups originate in Iraq. Although the ideological differences between the two regimes are still somewhat arcane, the breach has widened considerably as a result of Syria’s backing for Iran in the Gulf war. [37] It remains to be seen whether Syria’s stance will change now that Iran has invaded Iraqi territory.

In its external relations, Syria is entering a new phase. Asad is a consummate pragmatist, and can adapt quickly to changed circumstances. At no time has his agility been more apparent than in the last few months. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon has provided him with an opportunity to take a new direction. There is no reason to doubt Syria’s claim to want out of Lebanon. In this sense, the Israeli invasion has had a welcome consequence. More significantly, Syria has greeted the Reagan settlement plan with uncharacteristic caution. The Fez summits of 1981 and 1982 provide a yardstick for measuring how far Syria has reappraised its approach to a general Arab-Israeli settlement. In the fall of 1981 Asad sabotaged the meeting rather than allow Prince Fahd’s peace plan to get a hearing. This September, he agreed to a similar minimalist plan that emerged under Saudi Arabia’s aegis. Moreover, Syria has volunteered to join states like Morocco and Tunisia in formally presenting the plan to Washington.

For all its internal and external problems, its wars at home and abroad, the Syrian regime has shown remarkable resilience. It will be interesting to see if this fence mending will reduce the regime’s internal problems at all. The problems it currently faces are formidable. It survived the Aleppo and Hama uprisings, but what about the next one? There are no indications that Asad is willing or able to broaden his base of support, dismantle or severely restrain the state’s repressive apparatus, or make serious attempts to eradicate corruption and sectarianism.


[1] This is discussed in fuller detail in my “Ethnicity in the Syrian Officer Corps: A Conceptualization,” Civilisations 29 (1979) and in my “The Syrian Armed Forces in National Politics: The Role of the Ethnic and Geographic Periphery,” in Roman Kolkowicz and Andrzej Korbonski, eds., Soldiers, Peasants and Bureaucrats (London: Allen and Unwin, 1982).
[2] For examples, see Hanna Batatu, “Some Observations on the Social Roots of Syria’s Ruling, Military Group and the Causes for Its Dominance,” Middle East Journal 35 (1981), pp. 331-332.
[3] Nikolaos van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria: Sectarianism, Regionalism and Tribalism in Politics, 1961-1980 (London: Croom Helm, 1982) p. 114.
[4] Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), April 9, 1981.
[5] Middle East Economic Digest, March 1980.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Middle East Economic Digest, August 7, 1981 and August 14, 1981.
[8] Middle East Economic Digest, December 4, 1981.
[9] Middle East Economic Digest, July 24, 1981.
[10] The regime’s ability to decrease illiteracy and improve school enrollment ratios and access to health care and other social services in the face of these demographic pressures must be considered among its greatest achievements. For details, see my “The Regional Equalization of Health Care and Education in Syria Since the Baathist Revolution,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 13 (1981).
[11] Figures are from the 1982 World Population Data Sheet (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, 1982).
[12] Middle East Economic Digest, May 14, 1982.
[13] Middle East Economic Digest, March 21, 1980.
[14] Middle East Economic Digest, May 28, 1982.
[15] See Ruth Leger Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures, 1981 (Leesburg, VA: World Priorities, 1981) and the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency’s World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers, 1969-1978 (Washington, DC, 1980) for details.
[16] Middle East Economic Digest, May 28, 1982.
[17] Cited in Nikolaos van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria (London, 1981), pp. 105-106.
[18] As in Egypt, the old Muslim Brothers, active since the 1940s under Mustafa al-Siba‘i and his successor, ‘Isam al-‘Attar, has been supplemented and possibly eclipsed by other variously named and somewhat amorphous groups. The regime makes no nominal distinction among these, referring to them all as the Muslim Brothers. Marwan Hadid, who played a prominent role in the 1964 and 1973 disturbances, was one of the newer movement’s leaders and became a martyr after his death in prison in 1976. Among the present leaders are ‘Adnan ‘Uqla, ‘Adnan Sa‘d al-Din, ‘Ali al-Bayanuni and Sa‘d Hawwa.
[19] For example, it released over 200 political prisoners, dismissed 25 directors of state companies for corruption or incompetence, and replaced several unpopular provincial governors.
[20] US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (Washington, DC, February 1981) pp. 1100-1101.
[21] Times (London), March 25, 1980.
[22] Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), March 31, 1980.
[23] Ibid.
[24] FBIS, April 24, 1980.
[25] FBIS, March 24, 1980.
[26] The Third Armored Division played a major role in suppressing the Aleppo uprising. It is commanded by ‘Ali Ja‘ja‘, an ‘Alawi born in al-Qardaha, Asad’s home village.
[27] FBIS, February 26, 1982.
[28] FBIS, February 22, 1982.
[29] Estimates ran as low as several hundred and as high as 20,000.
[30] FBIS, March 26, 1982.
[31] FBIS, March 24, 1982.
[32] FBIS, February 11, 1982. The Baath Party’s Hama branch secretary, in which it is claimed that “the services rendered to Hama province, particularly after the (1970) corrective movement, surpassed those rendered to any other province in Syria” (FBIS, February 25, 1982).
[33] FBIS, February 23, 1982.
[34] FBIS, March 8, 1982.
[35] Cited in van Dam, p. 108.
[36] For example, in a two-minute Amman radio editorial on Syria, the word ‘Alawi was used 15 times. In a television report, the regime was openly described as “founded on domination by a faction of the ‘Alawi sect.” (FBIS, February 26, 1981 and March 2. 1981).
[37] During this phase of the Iraqi-Syrian dispute, Iraq has also resorted to sectarian propaganda. For example, the Voice of Arab Syria radio, based in Baghdad, accused the Asad regime of having “fostered secessionist trends and odious sectarianism” in order to “fragment Syria into small states,” just as in Lebanon. (FBIS, March 11, 1981.)

How to cite this article:

Alasdair Drysdale "The Asad Regime and Its Troubles," Middle East Report 110 (November/December 1982).

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