Damascus, Syria — Despite vigorous attempts to crush it, dissent against the 10-year-old regime of President Assad is growing on many fronts. It is centered in Syria's second largest city, Aleppo, a trading center in the northern part of the country. More than 2,000 commandos have been airlifted to quell opposition there, usually reliable sources here in the capital report.
But the efforts to stamp out resistance to the regime appear to be meeting little success in this country, which is a linchpin for Soviet strategy in the Middle East.
Syrians here report that the forces deployed in Aleppo toward the end of December consisted of "special units," commanded by Brig. Ali Haydar. Of the 2, 000 men, more than 150 were subsequently killed or wounded in actions by local rebels and 200 more deserted, they say.
Aleppo was the scene last June of a massacre at an artillery training school in which scores of cadets were killed. That action was blamed on Islamic fundamentalists of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Reports here say that after Brigadier Haydar's troops failed to quell the Aleppo opposition, a similar number of commandos of the top-flight "defense brigades," which are led by the President's brother, Rifaat, were called in to do the job.
They arrived in Aleppo shortly after Jan. 20, bringing with them a number of the latest-model Soviet-built T-72 tanks, which have never been deployed outside the Warsaw Pact nations, except in Syria.
But already the defense brigades reportedly have suffered at least 17 killed in Aleppo during an ambush of one of their troop transports. The commander of the brigades units in Aleppo already has asked for reinforcements, according to information in Damascus.
During a visit to Aleppo in early December, this reporter confirmed that opposition to the central government was widespread among the city's nearly 1 million residents.
The launching of massive security operations in Aleppo since then coincided with the holding, early in January, of the quadrennial general congress of the ruling Baath Party's regional command.
Analysts here say that the congress enhanced the position in all-important party circles of Rifaat Assad, the President's brother. One veteran Syrian commentator said Rifaat clearly had emerged as the No. 2 man in the regime, and possibly as his brother's successor.
Rifaat Assad is believed to favor a tough line against internal dissent. At one recent stormy meeting with members of the Syrian writers' and journalists' union, he angrily told those present that he did not blame them for speaking their minds, but he blamed his brother for allowing them to do so.
But despite the gravitation of this once left-leaning intellectual officer toward the center of power, opposition to the regime is growing on many counts:
* The Islamic extremists who are thought to be spearheading the opposition movement in Aleppo are also active in Damascus and all other major cities. Targets of their assassination squads have included random members of President Assad's own minority Alawite Muslim sect, suspected collaborators with the regime or informers on the extremists's activities, and at least 12 Soviet advisers so far in 1980.
* Opposition among the intelligentsia has been expressed in recent elections to the engineers', doctors', and pharmacists' unions. In Damascus, the only three Baathists to win election were in the relatively apolitical pharmacists' union, while in at least one other city no known Baathists even dared to declare their candidacy.
* Members of the four regional lawyers' syndicates have threatened to strike if all special security courts are not abolished. The lawyers have also threatened not to cooperate in the proceedings of any of these courts.
* A rash of workers' strikes meanwhile has highlighted the economic grievances expressed by many social groups against the Assad government. Fifteen thousand workers at oil installations in Rumeilan, north Syria, recently had all their demands granted after a three-day strike.
* Despite the pervasive presence of the vastly inflated security services, ordinary citizens are increasingly daring to speak their mind in public on a whole range of issues.