Syria Table of Contents

Hafez al-AssadSoon after taking power, Hafez al-Assad moved quickly to create an organizational infrastructure for the government. In February 1971, the 173-member People's Council was organized, with the Baath Party taking 87 seats; the remaining seats were divided among the "popular organizations" and other minor parties. In March 1971 the Baath Party held its regional congress and elected the 21-member Regional Command headed by Assad. That same month, by a national referendum, Assad was elected president for a 7- year term and in April Major Abdul Rahman Khulayfawi was designated prime minister with Mahmud al Ayyubi as vice president. The transfer of power from Jadid to Assad was widely regarded as a conservative and moderating movement away from Communist radicalism.

In foreign affairs Syria's relations with the Soviet Union, strained toward the end of 1970, improved dramatically in 1971 and 1972. Syria's relations with other Arab states, particularly Egypt and Libya, became more cordial, as demonstrated by the April 1971 formation of the short-lived Federation of Arab Republics, made up of Syria, Egypt, and Libya.

In March 1972, the Progressive National Front was formed. It consisted of the Baath Party and four non-Baathist groups: the Syrian Arab Socialist Union, a Nasserite group under Jamal Atassi; the Socialist Union Movement under Jamal Sufi; the Arab Socialist Party, composed of the followers of the Baathist Akram Hawrani; and the Syrian Communist Party, under Khalid Bakdash.

In March 1973, the Permanent Constitution went into effect, further strengthening Assad's already formidable presidential authority. However, the Assad regime was not without underlying tension. This tension stemmed from sectarian differences between the majority Sunni Muslims and the minority Alawis; but it had much wider implications, not the least of which were political. The immediate focus of the opposition to the regime was the demand by Sunni Muslims that Islam be declared the state religion in the constitution. The draft constitution that was adopted by the People's Council at the end of January 1973 had no provision to that effect. Viewing the constitution as the product of an Alawi-dominated, secular, Baathist ruling elite, Sunni militants staged a series of riots in February 1973 in conservative and predominantly Sunni cities such as Hamah and Homs. A number of demonstrators were killed and wounded in clashes between the troops and demonstrators. As a result of these demonstrations, the Assad regime had the draft charter amended to include a provision that the president of Syria must be a Muslim. Implicit in this amendment was a declaration that Alawis are Muslims--a formula not accepted by many Sunni Muslims. The draft was approved in a popular referendum held in mid-March for formal promulgation. Assad's compromise, coupled with the government's effective security measures, calmed the situation, but sporadic demonstrations continued through April 1973. Other major developments in 1973 included the holding in March of parliamentary elections for the People's Council, the first since 1962, and the Syrian-Egyptian war against Israel in October. Syrian forces acquitted themselves better against the Israeli forces in the October 1973 War than in the 1967 one; in fact, the war was widely regarded in Syria as a "victory" and helped to boost Syrian morale substantially. Moreover, in 1974, as a result of the disengagement agreement, Syria recovered parts of the Golan Heights it initially had lost to Israel.

In foreign affairs, the Assad regime charted a pragmatic and increasingly independent course. It maintained close ties with the Soviet Union and East European states, ensuring a sustained flow of Soviet military aid, especially after the October 1973 War. At the same time, Assad moved to improve Syrian relations with Jordan and with the United States and other Western nations.

In May 1973, diplomatic relations with Britain, severed in 1967, were fully restored. Relations with the United States, also severed in 1967, were normalized in June 1974. Two months later diplomatic ties with the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) were resumed after having been severed in 1965, when the West German government exchanged ambassadors with Israel. Meanwhile, relations with Jordan grew progressively more cordial, so that in August 1975 Syria and Jordan announced the establishment of a joint supreme command to direct political and military action against Israel.

Perhaps the severest test of the Assad regime came in the latter half of the 1970s as a result of Syrian intervention in the Lebanese civil war. During 1976, Assad was firmly resolved to stabilize the volatile Lebanese situation by providing troops, first unilaterally and later as part of the Lebanese-based peacekeeping Arab Deterrent Force (ADF). The Syrian intervention, in effect on the side of the Lebanese Christian right against the Palestinians and Muslim left, tended to aggravate relations with other Arab countries, Egypt and Iraq in particular. In addition, the intervention in Lebanon was economically costly for Syria and not popular domestically, and a cease-fire was arranged in October 1976. Even so, in early 1987 Syrian troops still controlled large portions of eastern Lebanon.

Domestically, Assad's supremacy remained unassailable. He brooked no opposition and his control of the Baath Party and the military and security organizations was complete. All political activities continued to be closely monitored by the party and a multiplicity of intelligence and security forces. The regime did not rely primarily on coercion, however; the Baath Party sought, with mixed results, to evolve into a truly mass-based organization. The peasants, workers, and revolutionary intellectuals continued to receive much rhetorical attention, and the party's high command continued to explore the relative merits of socialism for the Syrian economy. The regime's responsiveness to public opinion after 1976 apparently was prompted by three factors: first, renewed concern about the persistence of sectarian tensions; second, an economic slowdown stemming from the burden of military intervention in Lebanon as well as the considerable decline and uncertainty of foreign aid from other Arab oil states; and finally, signs of corruption in the higher echelons of the government and state-run economic enterprises. In August 1976, official concern was manifested when Prime Minister Mahmud al Ayyubi was replaced by Abdul Rahman Khulayfawi, a Sunni who formerly headed the cabinet (1971-72) and who was also highly popular among army officers for his honesty and thoroughness.

A major test of the regime's popularity came in August 1977 when Syrians went to the polls to elect the People's Council for a 4-year term (1977-81). Election results gave cause for concern; the voter turnout was dismally low even by Syrian standards. It was estimated to range from 4 to 6 percent of the 4 million eligible voters, even though the polls were kept open an extra day because of the low turnout.

The election indicated the public's unhappiness with the government, an unhappiness that prompted Assad to institute what came to be known as his "anti-corruption campaign". To this end, the Committee for the Investigation of Illegal Profits was formed. Opposition to the regime did not abate however, and, on November 1, 1977, Ali ibn Abid al Ali, an Alawi professor of agriculture at the University of Aleppo and a close a friend of Assad, was assassinated.

In February 1978, Assad was reelected for a second 7-year term (1978-85). However, his reelection coincided with the beginning of a period of domestic unrest. Even Assad's inner circle showed signs of dissolution; one of the first was the dismissal of Naji Jamil, who was air force commander, chief of the National Security Bureau, and deputy defense minister. His replacement was Brigadier Muhammad Khuli, chief of air force intelligence and an Alawi. On March 30, 1978, the cabinet of Khulayfawi was dismissed and Muhammad Ali al Halabi was asked to form a new cabinet. No significant changes were made in cabinet membership.

The most important opposition groups during this period were Sunni Muslim organizations, whose membership was 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 is rumored, received financial assistance from private sources in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, and the revolutionary committees in Iran. It is 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 March 31, 1980, in Aleppo and Hamah. Additional opposition came from expatriate Syrian politicians, mostly Sunni Baath 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 Baath 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 two 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 March 5. Although Aleppo was the primary target, violence spread to Hamah, Homs, and Dayr az Zawr, where Baath 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.

In February 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood ambushed government forces who were searching for dissidents in Hamah. Several thousand Syrian troops, supported by armor and artillery, moved into the city and crushed the insurgents during two 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 Baath party, and other independent political figures. The destruction of Hamah and the ruthlessness of Assad's measures apparently has had a chastening effect on Syria's estimated 30,000 Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers.

In the 1980s, Syria continued to rely heavily on the Soviet Union, which resupplied the Syrian armed forces with sophisticated weapons, and with which it concluded a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation on October 8, 1980. This relationship did not evolve, however, to either country's complete satisfaction. As of 1987, Syria has not granted the Soviets permanent port facilities, and, although the Soviets had pledged to defend Syria if it were attacked by Israel, it refused to support a Syrian blitz on the Golan.

Since the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, Syria has aligned itself with Iran, to the chagrin of the moderate Arab countries. Despite this alienation, Syria has been receiving generous amounts of financial aid from Saudi Arabia, which hopes that the funding will moderate Syria's radical policies. In addition, since 1982, Syria has been receiving a substantial amount of oil from Iran as repayment for its support and as compensation for the closure of the Iraqi oil pipeline, which runs through Syria. Syrian-Israeli relations were tense during the early 1980s. In December 1981, Israel formally annexed the Golan Heights; in June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and destroyed Syrian surface-to-air missiles deployed in the Biqa Valley as well about 79 Syrian MiG-21 and MiG-23 aircraft.

In late 1986, Syria faced a multitude of domestic and foreign challenges, some more threatening than others. The economy, for example, was in steady decline as a result of, among other factors, a chronic balance of payments deficit, foreign exchange shortages, a 3-year-long drought, low commodities prices, and reduced subsidies from other Arab states. With President Assad in uncertain health, aspirants appeared to be maneuvering to succeed him. In foreign relations, Syria remained fairly isolated from other Arab states, while considerable numbers of Syrian troops were stationed in Lebanon, entangled in that country's conflict. Furthermore, with Egypt at peace with Israel, and Iran and Iraq preoccupied with their war, Syria assumed a major role in the Arab-Israeli dispute; in fact, some Western observers openly speculated about renewed Syrian-Israeli hostilities over the Golan Heights. Meanwhile, on the basis of investigations of incidents which occurred in Europe, the United States and some Western European governments were accusing the Syrian regime of actively supporting international terrorism. Thus, in the late 1980s, serious uncertainty remained concerning Syria's future.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress