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Hamah (Hama), Syria, 1982

In February 1982, Syria's Muslim Brotherhood ambushed government forces who were searching for dissidents in Hamah. Several thousand Syrian troops, supported by armor and artillery, subsequently moved into the city and crushed the insurgents during 2 weeks of bloodshed. When the fighting was over, perhaps as many as 10,000 to 25,000 people lay dead, including an estimated 1,000 soldiers. In addition, large sections of Hamah's old city were destroyed. This battle led to the establishment of the National Alliance for the Liberation of Syria, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Front, the pro-Iraqi wing of the Ba'ath party, and other independent political figures. The destruction of Hamah and the ruthlessness of Hafez al-Assad's measures appeared to have a chastening effect on Syria's estimated 30,000 Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers and other opposition until the start of massive anti-regime protests in 2011.

The attack on government forces by the Muslim Brotherhood and the response by the regime of Hafez al-Assad was the product of years of anti-government agitation and violence. The most important opposition groups during this period were Sunni Muslim organizations, whose membership were drawn from urban Sunni youth. The largest and most militant of these groups was the Muslim Brotherhood. Other organizations included the Aleppo-based Islamic Liberation Movement, established in 1963; the Islamic Liberation Party, originally established in Jordan in the 1950s; Muhammad's Youth; Jundullah (Soldiers of God); and Marwan Hadid's group, established in Hamah in 1965, often referred to as At Tali'a al Muqatilia (Fighting Vanguard). All, it was rumored, received financial assistance from private sources in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, and the revolutionary committees in Iran. It was also speculated that they received weapons smuggled from Iraq and Lebanon and training and assistance from Al Fatah of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

In addition to the militant Muslim opposition, there was opposition from intellectuals and professional associations, whose purpose was not to overthrow the regime but to reform it. The first time such groups challenged the government was on 31 March 1980, in Aleppo and Hamah. Additional opposition came from expatriate Syrian politicians, mostly Sunni Ba'ath politicians of the pre-1966 era, who opposed the military and sectarian nature of the government and its drift away from Arab nationalist policies. The leader of this group was Bitar, the cofounder of the Ba'ath Party.

In the spring of 1980, these nonmilitant professional groups formed a loose alliance called the National Democratic Gathering and demanded freedom of the press, freedom of political action, promulgation of civil law with the ending of the state of emergency, and free parliamentary elections. The alliance had no contact with the Muslim Brotherhood and was considered a peaceful alternative to it.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were a number of religiously motivated violent attacks, many instigated by the Muslim Brotherhood and directed at Assad's regime, members of the ruling Baath Party, and members of the Alawi religious sect. At the outset, rather than blaming the Muslim Brotherhood, the government blamed Iraq and disaffected Palestinians for these acts, and it retaliated by holding public hangings in September 1976 and June 1977.

In the spring of 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood claimed credit for a series of attacks on persons, usually Alawis, and government and military installations. The most serious attacks occurred in June 1979 when Muslim Brotherhood gunmen killed 50 Alawi cadets at the military academy in Aleppo. This clearly showed the Muslim Brotherhood's capability and determination. After this incident, the government resolved to crush the opposition and did so ruthlessly. Nevertheless, support for the Muslim Brotherhood grew over the next 2 years, and operations against Syrian government officials and installations increased in number and severity and included, for the first time, attacks on Soviet military and civilian advisers in Syria.

Terrorist acts by the militant Sunni Muslims during this period centered around urban centers such as Damascus, Hamah, Homs, and the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartus. In March 1980, the attacks were directed at widespread targets, most effectively in Aleppo. The violence reached its height on 5 March 1980. Although Aleppo was the primary target, violence spread to Hamah, Homs, and Dayr az Zawr, where Ba'ath Party and military installations were attacked. In June 1980 an attempt was made on Assad's life.

Government security forces tried to uproot the Muslim Brotherhood from Hamah and Aleppo in late March and early April 1981. A large-scale search operation resulted in the deaths of 200 to 300 people and the destruction of sections of both cities. Tight security measures were implemented; membership in the Muslim Brotherhood was made a capital offense, the use of motorcycles was banned in some cities (they were used by the Muslim Brotherhood in hit-and-run attacks), and under the guise of holding a general census, the Ministry of Interior ordered all citizens 14 years of age and older to obtain new identity cards. In addition, a series of political, economic, and social measures were aimed at improving the regime's image and gaining more popular support. The violence largely subsided after the attack on Hamah in February 1982.




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