The Sunni insurgents responded by escalating their campaign of terror in Damascus. In 1981, they bombed the prime minister's office in August, the Air Force headquarters in September, and a military recruitment center in November. In February 1982, the "Islamic Revolution Command in Syria" claimed credit for bombing the Damascus offices of the regime's al-Baath newspaper, killing at least 76 people. "It was a great accomplishment to be added to the series of tremendous explosions carried out by the mujahidin," the statement read. "We draw attention to the fact that all the Syrian information media are nationalized and that the explosion was timed for all the authority's hirelings to be present."
For all the stresses put on the Syrian regime, the sharp and unbridgeable sectarian rifts that the conflict had opened made it virtually impossible for the Alawite ruling class to do anything but fight to the death. "[The Muslim Brotherhood] has succeeded in widening the distance between the government and the majority of the people, but not in destabilizing the regime," wrote the historian Hanna Batatu in December 1982. "Instead of splitting the ‘Alawis and thus weakening their foothold in the army, they have, by their anti-‘Alawi practical line, frightened the ‘Alawi community into rallying behind Asad."
With the military remaining largely loyal, nothing could stop Assad from crushing the opposition's strongholds. By the time the city of Hama rose in open revolt in February 1982, the stage was set for a final confrontation between Assad's opponents and more than 10,000 well-equipped Syrian security forces -- a battle the Sunni insurgents could not hope to win. The Hama massacre, which claimed the lives of anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 Syrians, according to an Amnesty International report from the period, may have permanently stained the reputation of the Assad dynasty in the eyes of the world, but it also crushed the organized Islamist insurgency in Syria and paved the way for three more decades of relatively unchallenged rule by the Assads. In the end, the Sunni insurgency of the late 1970s and early 1980s was too focused on Sunni revivalism, too shadowy -- simultaneously too violent to attract widespread support and not violent enough to pose an existential threat to the regime.
Could the modern-day opponents of Bashar al-Assad, Hafez's son, suffer the same fate as the insurgents of years past? Luckily for today's opposition, it is no carbon copy of the movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most notably, popular nonviolent protests have been a mainstay of the effort to topple Assad. In major cities such as Hama, Homs, and recently Damascus, Syrians have taken to the streets to call for the end of the regime -- lending the opposition a degree of popular legitimacy it never achieved in the 1980s. Defections from the Syrian military are also higher than they ever were under Hafez al-Assad's watch, and by all accounts are growing more numerous and effective. And the opposition's political representatives, such as the Syrian National Council, may have myriad problems -- but they are still savvier than the underground "Islamic Front" that guided the opposition to Hafez.
But at the same time, Syria's revolutionaries have not been able to make a complete break with the past. After months of largely peaceful protest, the effort to topple Assad is increasingly defined as a struggle between Syria's security forces and an armed insurgency. According to activists' own figures, the past two months have seen a higher proportion of Syrian soldiers killed than at any other point in the revolt -- totaling roughly 25 percent of the total deaths. This surge in violence has also been marked, in the past two weeks, by devastating car bombings in Aleppo and the first assassination of a Syrian general -- tactics that carry an echo of the dark days of civil war.
This new generation of Syrian revolutionaries has brought the Assad regime closer to collapse than it has ever been in its four-decade history. But if they are to push it over the edge, they would do well to learn from the cautionary tale of their elders.