Ever since the Baath Party came to power in Syria in 1963, it has faced a challenge from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic militants. These Islamists were -- and still are -- bitterly opposed to the Baath Party's secular policies and to the prominence in its leadership of Syria's minorities, notably Alawis, whom extremist Sunnis consider heretics.
The smoldering resentment burst into open conflict during the 30-year rule (1970-2000) of Hafez al-Assad, and again during the rule of his son, Bashar, who took over the presidency after his father's death. In February 1982, Hafez al-Assad put down a rebellion in the city of Hama by his Islamist opponents. Three decades later, in February 2012, Bashar al-Assad faced down a rebellion in Homs, a sister city of Hama in the central Syrian plain. Both responded with great brutality to these regime-threatening uprisings, as if aware that they and their community would face no mercy if the Islamists were ever to come to power.
These two epoch-making events were remarkably similar. Both Hafez and Bashar had been slow to recognize and address the groundswell of complaint against rising poverty, corruption, and government neglect that would fuel the uprisings. Preoccupied with foreign affairs, they failed to pay sufficient attention to the domestic scene, often turning a blind eye to the abuses and profiteering of their close associates, including members of their own family. More fundamentally, both Hafez and Bashar believed in those moments of crisis that they were wrestling not only with internal dissent but with a large-scale American and Israeli conspiracy to unseat them, backed by some of their Arab enemies.
In Hafez al-Assad's mind, his physical battle with Islamist guerrillas was an extension of his long, unsuccessful struggle with Israel and the United States over the nature of the political settlement after the October War of 1973 -- a war that Hafez al-Assad and Egypt's leader Anwar al-Sadat waged together against Israel with the aim of regaining territory captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Once
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