by Terry Tait

In the early morning hours of the 3rd of February in 1982, Syrian Army units patrolling in the city of Hama were ambushed when they happened upon a compound belonging to a local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, led by ‘Umar Jawad. The fighting escalated as Jawad’s group distributed weapons among the population and called for a jihad against the government forces. Dozens of Ba‘athist officials were killed as violent rioting erupted in the city.[1] Members of the Muslim Brotherhood would take control of Hama for ten days–killing the provincial governor and hundreds of Ba‘athist officials–until the regime’s 3rd Armored Division and the Defense Companies laid waste to the city of Hama and its residents.[2] Amid violent street combat and relentless mortar shelling, tens of thousands of civilians fled, and an estimated 10-40,000 people were killed in the city over a three-week period.[3]

The Hama uprising shaped the discourse of opposition in Syria for the next three decades, during which the Asad regime maintained relative stability by neutralizing the Brotherhood’s militant factions and co-opting its moderate elements.[4] However, the events of Hama in 1982 did not take place in isolation. The Muslim Brotherhood and the greater Islamist movement’s objections to the Ba‘athist regime were long-standing: rooted partly in the government’s secular and socialist policies, as well as its sectarian composition. The Islamist movement in Syria had been deeply involved in the debates on reform within Syria since the post-independence period in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. The Muslim Brotherhood’s platform at that time sought to address the inequalities and injustices that had been rampant under the rule of the Ottomans and the local elites who took an Islamic approach to the administration of the country. At the same time, the Ba‘ath party had a similar competing program based in socialism. From the outset, these two visions of a new Syria—one Islamic, and one secular and socialist—were deeply opposed to one another, and their rivalry would play a significant role in creating the conditions that led to the uprising in Hama and its brutal suppression. By illustrating the variety of factors that contributed to the uprising in 1982, it is possible to contextualize this event within a larger history and to understand how these developments influenced activism in modern Syria.

What defined these two groups was initially ideological and represented deeper questions arising within Syria and the rest of the Middle East on the subject of how to define society and government—whether it be socialist, Islamic, or Pan-Arab. The tensions between these approaches were never resolved, and “the rise to prominence of the Ba‘ath from 1955 onwards was a bitter blow to Muslim activists, who grew angry and restive as traditional Sunni society was overturned by secular radicals.”[5] However, minority communities like the ‘Alawi, the Druze, and the Isma‘ilis saw the secularism of the Ba‘ath Party as an opportunity to attain a certain status that was equal to that of the Arab Sunni majority that had dominated the region for centuries.[6] The coup of the secular Ba‘ath party in 1963–and the rise of the ‘Alawis to the top positions of government as a result of the 1966 coup–strengthened the Arab Sunni opposition to these minority communities and the new regime.

Both of these coups hardened the resolve of opposition groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1964 there was a groundswell of opposition in Syria directed at the new regime and influenced by prayer leaders in Syrian cities. However, the base of these demonstrations was much wider than the conservative Sunni community because, as journalist Patrick Seale notes, “the Syrian economy was stagnant; merchants, dreading the inroads of Ba‘athist radicalism, sat on their money; city and country notables resented the rise of minority upstarts and their humble Sunni allies; while the common people were greatly frustrated at being kept in ignorance of what the new rulers were up to behind closed doors.”[7] The resistance to the Ba ‘ath stemmed from a fear that their programs would target particular groups like the country’s traditional elites and its Sunni majority. These fears were realized as Asad’s nationalization of the land in the 1970’s eroded the livelihoods of wealthy merchants and landowners.[8] Additionally, the proposed 1973 draft constitution caused a public outcry over its omission of a requirement that the president be a Muslim. The Muslim Brotherhood quickly mobilized, seeing this act of secularism as a threat to their special status granted by the previous constitution. Meanwhile the ‘Alawi community saw its fate being increasingly interwoven with that of the regime; it began to fear the violent retribution of the Arab Sunni population that would occur if the Ba‘athists lost power.[9]

Although opposition to the Ba‘athist regime acquired a sectarian tinge, this movement should be understood within the context of larger social, economic, and political grievances that had never been resolved in Syria. The new elite was resented by the Arab Sunni majority not only because of the dominance of the ‘Alawi sect, but also because they were unable to acquire equal representation within or receive equal benefits from the government.[10] While there were several Sunnis in high administrative positions such as Mustafa Tlas and ‘Abdel Halim Khaddam—the defense minister and the vice-president under Hafiz al-Asad, respectively—they came from the same rural and military background as Asad himself. The exclusion of the majority Arab Sunni population stoked feelings of inequality and injustice, making the Muslim Brotherhood’s program of opposition attractive to many. Despite its extreme–even religiously fundamentalist–approach, the growing complaints of corruption, inequality, and oppression within Syria contributed to the appeal of the Brotherhood’s program beyond its conservative base.

In 1976 this opposition intensified following the Syrian state’s military intervention in the Lebanese Civil War. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states stopped sending financial aid to Asad in response to the growing public outrage over his defense of the “pro-Western Maronite minority” over and against the Arab Palestinians. To many in Syria, Asad’s actions were perceived to be anti-Sunni and drew attention to the ‘Alawi composition of the regime.[11] This was especially true of the militant wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which initiated a violent assassination campaign against the government and the larger ‘Alawi community that would last from 1976 until the Hama uprising in 1982, setting the stage for rising levels of hostility between the regime and the Islamic opposition that bordered on a civil war.

Tensions between the state and the Islamic opposition reached a new level of intensity in 1979 and 1980 following three major events: the Aleppo Artillery School Massacre in June 1979, which was carried out by a Sunni officer connected to the “Fighting Vanguard,” a militant offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, who killed 83 ‘Alawi cadets; the endorsement of violence as a legitimate mode of resistance by the Muslim Brotherhood’s shura council in October;[14] and the failed assassination attempt of President Hafiz al-Asad in June of 1980.[15] These developments, along with the Brotherhood’s ongoing campaign of terrorism in the country, precipitated a violent crackdown by the regime on opposition groups, whom the government erroneously referred to en masse as the Muslim Brotherhood. As Middle East scholar Raphaël Lefèvre points out, this broad definition of the opposition allowed the state to target all members of the Sunni community, not just the militant factions. The subsequent repression against the “Muslim Brotherhood” represented the determination of the “‘Alawi-dominated security forces to humiliate and crush its primarily Sunni opponents.”[16] Beginning in 1980, this crackdown was focused on the religious cities of Aleppo and Hama, and even targeted individuals in Jordan and Lebanon.[17]

While much of the government’s attention was focused on its religious opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood and the more militant factions often associated with it were part of a larger movement including secular opposition groups, Nasserites, Communists, and dissident Ba‘athists.[18] This broad base of opposition within Syria reveals that the discontent leading to the uprising in 1982 was not wholly sectarian in character. The grievances that had been raised and debated in the post-independence period with regard to social, political, and economic inequalities–as well as injustices related to corruption and oppressive government practices–had been largely unresolved by the Ba‘athist regime. In fact, the policies that the state had enacted served to create new tensions within Syria because the government’s base of support had narrowed to an ‘Alawi minority. Furthermore, the government had continued certain practices of nepotism and corruption among the new ruling elite, inciting resentment among the Arab Sunni majority of the population. This can be observed in the Hama uprising itself, where an estimated 2,000 civilians joined the Muslim Brotherhood’s 400 fighters in resisting the regime’s security forces.[19]

Leon Goldsmith, a scholar of political science at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, points out that the ‘Alawi community held the same grievances against the government as Sunnis and other groups in the country because “ultimately, the Asad regime [had] not delivered significant advances in the social status or living standards of the great majority of Syrian ‘Alawis who are subject to the same political repression and socio-economic challenges as most Syrians.”[20] Despite this lack of advancement under Asad, the ‘Alawi community feared that the collapse of his rule would lead to its own demise. This longstanding fear of a sectarian backlash from the Sunni population prompted the  ‘Alawis to take a more prominent role in the military. After 1970, ‘Alawis dominated most of Syria’s military and the intelligence services or mukhabarat.[21] This growing presence of ‘Alawis in the oppressive arms of the state only reaffirmed the government’s sectarian character for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. The 3rd Armored Divisions and the Defense Companies that crushed the dissident movement in Hama, are two examples of elite units that were primarily composed of ‘Alawi officers and soldiers.

In February 1982, Asad’s assault on Hama would disrupt all opposition to his rule and send the Muslim Brotherhood into disarray. The city of Hama itself  “was reduced to the status of a village,” according to one official, and information about the government’s suppression of opposition was widely distributed in order to curb any further dissent.[22] The brutal way in which the regime acted in Hama effectively silenced opposition groups in Syria–that is, until the Damascus Spring in 2005. In the intervening period the underlying problems of inequality and injustice that fostered support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s platform of opposition to the Syrian state remained unresolved. In Syria, the memory and fear of this incident of ruthless suppression was still on the minds of many demonstrators as they took to the streets in 2011.

Terry Tait is a Senior at Miami University studying history with a focus on Middle East studies.


[1] Raphael Lefevre, Ashes of Hama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013),126-127

[2] Daniel Pipes, Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 182

[3] Raphael Lefevre, Ashes of Hama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013),128

[4] Rober G. Rabil, “The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood,” in The Muslim Brotherhood, ed. Barry Rubin (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 73

[5] Patrick Seal, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 1988), 322

[6] Daniel Pipes, Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 170

[7] Patrick Seale, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 1988), 92

[8] Dara Conduit, “The Patterns of Syrian Uprising: Comparing Hama in 1980-82 and Homs in 2011,” in British Journal of Middle East Studies 44, no. 1 (2017), 174

[9] Goldsmith, Leon, Cycle of Fear (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015),88-89

[10] Goldsmith, Leon, Cycle of Fear (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 84

[11] Raphael Lefevre, Ashes of Hama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013),72

[12] Patrick Seale, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 1988), 320-321

[13] Goldsmith, 93. Most notably there had been a crackdown by Rif‘at al-Asad’s Defense Companies in Hama, a center for the Muslim Brotherhood and a conservative merchant class in February of 1976

[14] Raphael Lefevre, Ashes of Hama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 109-110

[15] Patrick Seale, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 1988), 328

[16] Raphael Lefevre, Ashes of Hama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 75-76

[17] Patrick Seale, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 1988), 329

[18] Dara Conduit, “The Patterns of Syrian Uprising: Comparing Hama in 1980-82 and Homs in 2011,” in British Journal of Middle East Studies 44, no. 1 (2017), 174 75

[19] Raphael Lefevre, Ashes of Hama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 127

[20] Goldsmith, Leon, Cycle of Fear (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 3

[21] Ibid, 85

[22] Daniel Pipes, Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990),182-183