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Syria: Ethnic and Religious Opposition Movements
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Anti-Regime Opposition Movements > Ethnic and Religious Opposition Movements


Rivalry among the country's various religious and ethnic minorities has been a perennial source of instability in Syria. During the 1980s, the primary cause of conflict was domination of top-level political and military posts by the minority Alawi community to which Assad belongs.

More worrisome perhaps was intra-Alawi friction. For example, some Alawis honored the memory of former political figure Major General Muhammad Umran, assassinated in Lebanon in 1972, reportedly by Syrian agents. Likewise, some Baath Party members remained loyal to the faction Assad overthrew in his 1970 Corrective Movement. This group, named the 23 February Movement, supported ex-Party Secretary Salah Jadid, ex-president Nureddin Atassi, and ex-prime minister Yusuf Zuayyin -- all three of whom were incarcerated in Syria. Assad has repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, attempted to negotiate with these figures, offering them freedom in return for their approval of his government. In many respects, the Assad regime was more concerned with the activities of the 23 February Movement than with the open revolt of the Muslim Brethren. Whereas the fundamentalists carried out terrorist attacks, the 23 February Movement staged several well-planned but abortive coup attempts in the 1980s and, because Umran and Jadid were Alawis, threatened to split the Alawi community.

On the other hand, Sunni Islamic fundamentalists have posed the most sustained and serious threat to the Baath regime. The government referred to these militants as the Muslim Brethren or Brotherhood (Ikhwan al Muslimin), although this is a generic term describing a number of separate organizations. The most important groups included the Aleppo-based Islamic Liberation Movement, established in 1963; the Islamic Liberation Party, founded in Jordan in the 1950s; Shabab Muhammad (Muhammad's Youth); Jund Allah (God's Soldiers); and At Tali'a al Muqatila (The Fighting Vanguard), established by the late Marwan Hadid in Hamah in 1965 and led in 1987 by Adnan Uqlah. The At Tali'a al Muqatila group, which did not recognize the spiritual or political authority of the exiled veteran leader of Syria's Sunni fundamentalists, Issam al Attar, bore the brunt of the actual fighting against the regime. In the early 1980s, the Muslim Brethren staged repeated hit-and-run attacks against the Syrian regime and assassinated several hundred middle-level government officials and members of the security forces and about two dozen Soviet advisers. The armed conflict between the Muslim Brethren and the regime culminated in full-scale insurrection in Aleppo in 1980 and in Hamah in February 1982. The government responded to the Hamah revolt with brutal force, crushing the rebellion by killing between 10,000 and 25,000 civilians and leveling large parts of the city.

On the third anniversary of the Hamah rebellion in February 1985, the government announced an amnesty for Muslim Brotherhood members. About 500 of the Muslim Brethren were released from prison, and those who had fled abroad were encouraged to return to Syria. As a result of the amnesty many members of At Tali'a al Muqatila surrendered to government authorities.

Following the Hamah uprising, extremist antiregime Muslim groups in Syria seemed fragmented and presented little threat to the Assad regime. The next series of major antiregime terrorist attacks occurred when a truck exploded in northern Damascus on March 13, 1986, followed by explosions on buses carrying military personnel on April 16. A Lebanese, claiming he had been sent by the Iraqi government, publicly confessed to the March incident and was hanged. Outside observers, however, were unable to verify his or Iraqi complicity. Other potential instigators included Lebanese Christian groups (in retaliation for the Syrian role in artillery shelling and car bomb explosions in East Beirut), PLO factions such as al Fatah, and Israel.

Despite these dangers to Syrian internal security, the overall situation in the mid- and late 1980s was stable compared with the situation between 1946 and 1970. The traditional centers of dissatisfaction -- students, labor unions, and dissident Communist Party organizations -- were thoroughly infiltrated by Syrian security personnel and in early 1987 posed no significant threat to the government. However, Syrian society is a mosaic of social groups whose interests and loyalties have often conflicted. President Assad, more than any leader in the Syria's modern history, has been able to focus these conflicting interests and loyalties on national goals. Nevertheless, centrifugal forces, such as sectarianism, persisted in this volatile Arab nation, and the armed forces will probably long remain the ultimate arbiters of power.

Data as of April 1987

Last Updated: April 1987

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Syria was first published in 1991. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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