Today marks thirty years since the start of President Hafez al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on the city of Hama in Syria. I asked Ella Lipin, a Fulbright grantee last year in Cairo who lived and worked in Yemen in 2007, to offer her thoughts on the Hama massacre and any parallels that may exist between President Hafez al-Assad and his son, current president Bashar al-Assad.
Tonight marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Hama massacre during which Syrian president Hafez al-Assad’s security forces killed tens of thousands of citizens to quell an Islamic uprising. For three weeks, from February 2 to 28, 1982, the Syrian regime cracked down on insurgents and the innocent residents of Hama in what Robin Wright termed “the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East.”
Thirty years later, Hama is once again a flashpoint in the first major outbreak of unrest in Syria since the massacre. Hafez’s son and successor Bashar al-Assad sent a reported four thousand troops to Hama in a new offensive last Wednesday as part of an intensification of his crackdown. On Saturday, the bodies of seventeen prisoners who had been arrested earlier in the week were found dumped in the streets of Hama with bullet wounds to the head. Is the intensification of violence a sign that Bashar is heading down the same path as his father?
The Hama massacre began in the middle of the night on February 2, 1982, when a Syrian army unit triggered a Muslim Brotherhood ambush in the old city of Hama. The conflict sparked a general uprising in the city, turning the night into one of killing and looting as hundreds of Islamic fighters raided regime leaders’ homes and offices in a bid to seize control of the city.
Syria had already suffered five years of internal unrest led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which had aimed to topple the Assad regime through targeted assassinations, guerilla warfare, and large-scale uprisings. As late as January 1980, Hafez still seemed to be wavering between cracking down and appearing to offer concessions. He appointed a new prime minister who increased civil servant salaries, attempted to crack down on corruption, and allowed a small amount of public criticism.
However, the minor concessions failed to quell the uprisings, and so Assad adopted a more forceful strategy. Military units were armed with heavy weapons and deployed to cities to hunt insurgents and intimidate local populations. Citizen militias that sided with the government were armed as well. The militarization of the conflict led to crackdowns in Aleppo and Jisr al-Shugur that left hundreds dead. Between 1979 and 1981, terrorists had killed over three hundred supporters of the Assad regime in Aleppo alone, and the Syrian security apparatus had responded by killing some two thousand Muslim Brothers. In late 1980 the opposition united to form an ‘Islamic Front’ calling for free speech, free elections, and an independent judiciary.
All of this came to a head in February of 1982 when Rifaat al-Assad, Hafez’s brother, brought twelve thousand troops to besiege Hama and end the uprising once and for all. For three weeks, the troops shelled Hama until it was nearly leveled and then sent gunmen door to door to ‘mop up’ any remaining Muslim Brothers, indiscriminately killing tens of thousands of innocents in the process. Initial reports of casualties ranged between two thousand and twenty thousand, although according to one account, Rifaat boastingly inflated the numbers because he wanted to send a signal to Syrians that he would not tolerate any dissent. And it worked. The Hama massacre (now estimated to have killed twenty thousand to forty thousand Syrians) marked the end of the turbulent years of unrest in Syria, tightening Hafez al-Assad’s grip on the security apparatus of the state and on society.
In Syria today, the security situation seems to be rapidly unraveling, but the level of violence has yet to match the brutality of the Hama massacre. The actions of Bashar’s forces have been decried for killing more than six thousand Syrians since this past March; the Hama massacre saw the near destruction of a whole city in a matter of weeks. Bashar’s father adopted such an extreme measure after symbolic concessions and five years of combating insurgents–perhaps we just haven’t seen Bashar’s worst yet. Is Bashar willing and able to emulate his father? Does he command enough loyalty from the military to conduct such a massacre today, and if so, has he missed his opportunity to maneuver because of increasingly intense international scrutiny? Hopefully there are enough differences between Bashar and his father to prevent a repeat of history.