This Week in History: Assad flattens Hama

In 1982, then-Syrian president Hafez Assad ordered the massacre of tens of thousands of Sunni rebels.

Smoke rising in Hama, Syria 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Smoke rising in Hama, Syria 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the early hours of February 3, 1982, a call to launch an uprising went out among Sunni rebels as thousands of government troops descended on the western Syrian city of Hama. The military offensive, ordered by then-Syrian president Hafez Assad, came after at least a decade of guerrilla and terror attacks against the regime, and two years after a nearly successful assassination attempt against the president. Tens of thousands of Syrians would be killed by the end of the month.
At the start of the uprising, Sunni rebels began escalating their hit-and-run attacks against Syrian government forces in Hama, which had long been a stronghold for the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood political party. It was not long before Assad tasked his younger brother, one of his most trusted army commanders, with stamping out the rebellion for good.
Religious Sunnis in Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, had opposed the Ba’ath regime since a 1963 coup that installed the secular pan-Arab nationalist government dominated by Alawites, a small minority in the country. For the Muslim Brotherhood, secular governance and nationalism were abominations to their Islamic beliefs. Combined with the iron-fisted rule of a minority group, the Brothers had long despised and sought to overthrow Assad.
As the uprising began in February, government officials’ homes in Hama came under attack, snipers targeted troops and general unrest spread throughout the city. Calls to rise up against the government were broadcast from muezzin loudspeakers and codes to begin the rebellion were sent to Muslim Brotherhood activists in other cities.
The rebels soon – and very much prematurely – declared Hama a “liberated city.”
In response, Assad’s brother, Rifaat Assad, surrounded the town with 12,000 troops and security forces, artillery and tanks. Bombs were dropped on the city center and artillery shells rained down continuously. The army sent out announcements warning that anyone remaining in the city would be considered a rebel and killed.
The shelling continued for three weeks. Large portions of the old city of Hama were completely demolished, upwards of 100,000 were driven from their homes and tens of thousands were killed.
When the heavy weapons finally fell silent, troops were sent to sweep through the wreckage and search for surviving Muslim Brotherhood members, rebels and those considered sympathizers by the government. Of those survivors who were pulled out alive, thousands were slaughtered by the army in systematic mass executions. The carnage was widespread and unprecedented.
Following the nearly month-long military assault, in an act that epitomized the absolute destruction he had ordered, Assad sent army bulldozers to flatten the already destroyed ancient city ravaged by the assault. The regime was sending a brutal message to those seeking to bring it down: No more.
Thirty years after the massacre, which left between 10,000 and 40,000 people dead, Hama today is once again a flashpoint for the Syrian uprising and a stronghold for many of those seeking to overthrow the regime, this time against Hafez Assad’s son, Bashar. This time, despite much lower numbers of casualties compared to the carnage his father left behind, the crackdown against Syrian rebels has brought condemnation from the Arab world and the international community at large.
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Hama today has been the scene of some of the deadliest fighting in the current uprising. Last summer, as Syrian troops once again surrounded the restive city, an estimated 130 people were killed in one day alone as the army pounded it with artillery and indiscriminate fire. It has since seen hundreds killed as anti-regime protests continue and armed rebels launch attacks from the country’s west.
This past week, dozens of prisoners were dumped throughout the city, shot in the head execution-style, an indication that Bashar Assad’s regime is trying to send a message reminiscent of his father’s deadly assault on the city. However the second time around, it remains to be seen whether the Syrian uprising can successfully challenge the regime, and whether the world will allow Assad to defend his rule at such a high human cost.