It was a massacre. On June 16, 1979, Capt. Ibrahim Yusuf ordered some 200 cadets at the Aleppo Artillery School to attend an urgent meeting in the mess hall. Once they were assembled, he opened the door to a squad of gunmen who opened fire on the defenseless crowd. At least 32 cadets, most belonging to then President Hafez al-Assad's Alawite sect, were cut down in the hail of gunfire and grenades.
The civil war that raged in Syria from 1976 to 1982 was -- until the past 11 months of unrest -- the most severe threat to the Assads' grip on power. The uprising would be crushed, brutally and infamously, with the Hama massacre in 1982. But even before the bloody assault on Hama, the long guerilla war had claimed the lives of thousands of Syrians, and resulted in the imprisonment of at least 10,000 more. The events leading up to the final confrontation should provide the current generation of protesters with a blueprint for how not to overthrow the Assad regime.
The Aleppo attack was not only the bloodiest strike to date against the government, it raised disturbing questions for the Damascus political elite about the fundamental pillars of their power. Yusuf, a Sunni officer, was himself a member of the ruling Baath Party. Assad's enemies, it seemed, had not only risen through the ranks of the army -- they had penetrated into the political heart of the regime.
As the shadow war between the Alawite-dominated security forces and their Sunni opponents continued, Assad's opponents formed an umbrella organization called the Islamic Front in Syria. In November 1980, the front published a manifesto that noted the Alawite community "cannot [indefinitely] dominate the majority in Syria," and that "the [Alawite] minority has forgotten itself and is ignoring the facts of history." It ended with an appeal for the Alawites to abandon "the imposed scourge Hafez al-Assad and his butcher playboy brother [Rifaat] ... [in order to] participate in preventing the tragedy from reaching its sad end."
The campaign of assassinations against leading Syrian officials and Alawite personalities was also gaining steam -- in August 1979, Assad's personal doctor, Muhammed Shahada Khalil, was killed. Other victims included the head of the military's garrison in Hama, the rector of Damascus University, and the prosecutor of the Supreme State Security Court. "Assassination is the only language with which it is possible to communicate with the state," said one of Assad's opponents during his trial in September 1979, according to Nikolaos van Dam's The Struggle for Power in Syria.
The winter of 1979 might have been the most perilous time for the regime: Its leading lights were slowly being snuffed out, its support within key segments of the army and broader population was in doubt, and even its top officials were beginning to breaking away. On Dec. 27, Syrian ambassador to the United Nations Hammud al-Shufi abruptly resigned, due to what he termed "the anti-democratic and repressive methods and corruption of the Assad regime." (No Syrian ambassadors have yet defected during the present unrest.)
The chill of civil war even fell across cities that were not at the center of the violence. Samuel Pickering Jr. -- an acclaimed English professor who would later go on to serve as the model for Robin Williams's character in Dead Poets Society -- taught as a Fulbright scholar in the city of Latakia from the winter of 1979 until the summer of 1980. "The good are silent, and violence has spiraled as the government's secret police have viciously repressed dissent or potential dissent," he wrote in a memoir of his year in Syria. "At times during the year, Aleppo and Hama seemed foreign countries brought back under Damascus's rule only by tank law. ‘You don't know,' a student told me with tears in her eyes. ‘The people die like rain.'"