Syria Already Fought a Civil War Between Islamists and Secularists in 1979-82
But without outside support for the Islamists they were defeated much more easily and with less destruction and loss of life
The Syrian Civil War is now in its sixth year [text from 2016]. Hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, a country ravaged and destroyed, one might be forgiven for thinking this is an unprecedented situation never before seen in Syria. Certainly, as far as the humanitarian toll is concerned, the war ranks as one of the worst in the recent history of the Middle East.
However, this is not the first civil war Syria has faced since its independence. Brutality against prisoners, the use of artillery and airstrikes against cities, the pitting of Islamists versus non-Islamists have all occurred previously as well, in the insurgency from 1976-82 which culminated in the infamous battle or massacre, depending on the point of view, at the city of Hama in central Syria.
This piece will briefly examine the history and background of that conflict and discuss why that insurgency failed while the current war has no foreseeable end in sight.
The main organization behind the insurgency was the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria. Formed in 1942 by Syrian confederates of Hassan al Banna, the Brotherhood was politically active in the early years after the country’s independence, winning seats in Parliament and participating in governments. However, the secular Baath party came to power in the coup of 1963 and sought to undermine its Islamist rivals by banning the Brotherhood’s activities in 1964.
Mustafa al Sibai, one of the original founders, was moderate but two of his students from Hama, Marwan Hadeed and Said Hawwa, adopted a radical approach and due to Sibai’s illness, were able to push the organization in a less moderate direction. Under Hadeed’s leadership, the movement’s Hama branch seceded between 1969 and 1975, when he formed the Al-Tali’a al-Muqatila [Fighting Vanguard] Group to provide armed resistance against the Baath government, by now dominated by the Alawite Assad family and which added a sectarian dynamic to the conflict.
Hadeed and his followers received military training in Fatah camps in Jordan and in 1976, began a stream of assassinations targeting government officials, military officers and educated professionals, many of whom were Alawite.
At this stage, the Brotherhood attempted to distance itself from Al-Tali’a al-Muqatila but on June 16, 1979, Hadeed’s organization slaughtered up to 80 Alawite cadets at the Aleppo Artillery School with the connivance of a member of the academy staff.
Thereafter, the main Brotherhood organization joined Hadeed in armed resistance against the government and this hearkened the beginning of full scale guerilla warfare, with insurgents attacking Baath members, military installations, government buildings and pro-government clerics.
The government responded with a heavy hand, using torture, mass arrests and other repressive tactics. In March 1980, a series of anti-government strikes spread from Aleppo to other cities, though government soldiers deployed in April and regained control of the city by May, despite hundreds of civilian deaths.
On June 26, Hafez al Assad narrowly escaped assassination which resulted in an escalation by the government, beginning with the massacre of 1152 prisoners in Tadmur Prison at Palmyra. On July 7, a law was enacted proclaiming membership of the Muslim Brotherhood to be a capital crime.
In practice, government units often used indiscriminate punishment, killing between 80-100 people in Aleppo in August 1980, and massacring 400 males in Hama in April 1981 as revenge for a failed insurgent attack on a nearby Alawite village. The Brotherhood retaliated with major car bomb attacks on government installations in Damascus during the last months of 1981.
However, Hama was the focal point of the revolt and the place where it culminated. In February 1982, an army unit was ambushed when it discovered the hideout of a local insurgent leader Abu Bakr. This prompted the activation of insurgent cells across the city and hundreds of insurgents attacked government buildings, police posts, armouries etc., swiftly taking over the city. While Islamists declared Hama a liberated city, it was surrounded and besieged by government troops bolstered by elite units, special forces and the Mukhabarat (secret police).
Over the course of three weeks, the military under the command of Rifaat al Assad, Hafez’s brother, used artillery, airstrikes and tanks to shell the city and demolish buildings, following which infantry units combed the rubble looking for surviving militants and their sympathizers, killing and torturing thousands. With the recapture of Hama, the government crushed the insurgency and the remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood left for abroad, living in exile in countries such as Saudi Arabia.
Despite the seeming similarities, the 1979 uprising differs in a fey key areas from the current conflict, which may help explain the vastly different situations.
Firstly, unlike the current war where the first defectors and revolutionaries escaped to Turkey and Jordan, enabling them to continue fighting and launching raids from a safe zone, the Muslim Brotherhood insurgents decided to stay and fight from 1979-1982. While they had a great deal of support among elements of the Sunni population, this strategy meant that they had little to fall back on once they were decisively defeated by the government in Hama and across the country, forcing them to flee into exile.
Secondly, there was little or no foreign involvement in the earlier Islamist insurgency. While Iraq is alleged to have provided some support to the Brotherhood, it was clearly insufficient to overcome the vast deficit in capabilities between the government and insurgents, a gap that could only have been bridged by the involvement of major powers such as the United States or Saudi Arabia, as is the case today.
Thirdly, there were no large scale defections, either military or civilian. In the current war, the defection of tens of thousands of conscripts and military officers enabled the formation of early rebel organizations such as the FSA and allowed the rebels to take territory from the government while it was disorganized and reeling from the loss of so many personnel; such an opportunity did not present itself to the Muslim Brotherhood, with Hafez al Assad’s government remaining cohesive and the military not experiencing any significant defections, even among Sunni personnel.
Fourth, there was no singular, rallying event for people opposed to the government; unlike the death of Hamza Khatib and subsequent crackdown on protesters, Hafez al Assad’s government did not provide a single, particular instance of repression that stood out. If anything, the violence was perpetuated in the beginning by the Brotherhood, which had begun targeting individuals associated with the government since 1976 and slaughtered the cadets in Aleppo in 1979.
Lastly, the flow of information was much more restricted in 1979 than in 2011. Tech-savvy revolutionaries and activists were easily able to circumvent government restrictions on print media, television, radio etc. by using social media and the internet to share material and organize for demonstrations. In 1979, the Islamist insurgents did not have access to such tools and therefore were unable to communicate their message widely enough. Despite having a base of support among Sunnis, the inability of the insurgents to widely disseminate proofs and images of government atrocities ensured that enough people would never be motivated enough to fight the government that would make a difference.
In many ways, the 1979 uprising was the predecessor of the revolution in 2011. Certainly, there would be many individuals, especially in the cities where the bloodiest fighting occurred, who would harbour a grudge towards the government as responsible for the death or disappearance of their loved ones. Furthermore, it appears the government took the lessons of the Brotherhood’s war too literally, as its response to the more recent crisis failed to take into account the factors that made it different from the previous one and thus more difficult to defeat solely using military force. These factors have enabled the rebels to survive in the modern era, for better or worse.
Source: Mi Shebeirach
- Seale, Patrick. 1989. Asad, the Struggle for the Middle East.