The ongoing uprising in Syria has been front page news in most online newspapers for the past few weeks. What most readers don’t realize is that the killing of innocent civilians in Syria is pretty much business as usual for the al-Assad family. One particular incident in the city of Hama, Syria’s fourth largest city back in 1982, was Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s response to an attempt to usurp his power.
Let’s open with a map showing the location of Hama (or Hamah) in the west-central part of Syria:
The Syrian Arab Republic was established at the end of World War I and achieved full independence from France in 1946. A coup in 1963 by the Baath Party resulted in the establishment of a 48 year long State of Emergency. The country has been ruled by its Alawite minority who make up only about 6 percent of Syria’s population since that time and by the Assad dynasty since 1970. To put the size of the Alawite ruling class into perspective, the Sunni Muslim sect comprises about 70 percent of Syria’s population, dwarfing the size of the country's ruling class. On November 16, 1970, Hafez al-Assad, the country’s Minister of Defence, took control of the country in a military coup. At that time, a state of emergency was imposed which has allowed Hafez al-Assad and his handpicked successor and son, Bashar, to maintain strict authoritarian control of all sectors of political and social life in Syria. All forms of dissent have been crushed for decades and any citizen that is suspected of being a security threat can be arbitrarily arrested and detained.
The al-Assad regime regards the Muslim Brotherhood as its arch-nemesis. In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood was established in the mid-1940s by pedigreed scholars of Islam in close alignment with wealthy Sunni landowners and merchants in the cities of Aleppo and Hama. It quickly established itself as the leading opposition bloc in Syria’s Parliament, however, the movement was banned in 1958 when Syria joined with Egypt in the United Arab Republic. After the UAR was dissolved in 1961, the Muslim Brotherhood returned to politics, winning ten seats in Parliamentary elections.
After the 1963 coup, the Baath Party banned the Muslim Brotherhood and used land reform and nationalization to marginalize the Sunni majority. From that time, the Brotherhood took up arms against the ruling Alawite minority, especially as the al-Assad regime steadily appointed increasing numbers of their Alawite cronies to positions of power within Syria. An underground jihadi movement responded by launching an assassination campaign against prominent Alawite military officers, Baath Party leaders and Alawite government officials; the leadership of the Brotherhood denied any involvement. Nonetheless, the al-Assad government cracked down and began arresting, jailing and executing the Brotherhood leadership, including several hundred who were gunned down in their cells in 1980.
In the early 1980s, the west central Syrian city of Hama (or Hamah) had a population of 200,000 people, the fourth largest city in the country. The majority of the residents of Hama were Sunni Muslim and it was considered one of the most conservative cities in Syria, despite its small population of Christians. On February 3, 1982, a Syrian army patrol in Hama happened on the hideout of the city’s underground commander, Omar Jawwad, and as many as 20 Syrian soldiers were ultimately killed in the scuffle. As a response, mosque loudspeakers were used to call the citizens of Hama to rise up against the Baath Party. Syrian army units including members of the Special Forces surrounded the city of Hama and sealed it off, preventing residents from leaving. The city was then subjected to aerial bombing, cannon and mortar bombardment for four weeks, killing all of the citizens in some sectors of the city. On the third day of the invasion, Syria’s defence brigades gathered citizens from the “new Hama district”, brought them to a football pitch and killed an estimated 1500 people. On the fifth day, the Sooq Alshajarah district of the city was heavily bombed. Syrian forces then invaded and shot and killed an estimated 160 young and old citizens as they ran through the streets. Massacres took place in mosques, shops, market places and in private homes. Methods used to kill Hama’s citizens included rounding up people and bombing or burning down the building where they were being held, running over citizens with tanks and shooting and stabbing both young and old men, women and children. One of the worst massacres took place in the Sereeheyn Cemetery where hundreds of civilians were rounded up and shot. The exact number of victims in this part of the Hama tragedy is unknown, however, witnesses saw hundreds of shoes and piles of corpses in trenches in at least one location.
Here is one particularly horrifying massacre taken from the Syrian Human Rights Committee website:
“Some soldiers from the defence brigades broke into a school for blind students in the Mahattah area, where blind clergymen teach and live. The soldiers only found the blind teachers, most of who were above the age of 60; some of them were married and had several children. The soldiers hit the clergymen with metal chains until their heads and hands began bleeding and they started to beg the soldiers to stop. The soldiers didn’t stop hitting the poor teachers until they performed certain funny dances to please the soldiers who then burnt the teacher’s beards, threatening them either to carry on dancing or to die burning. So the blind clergymen dance, and the soldiers laugh. When the play is over the soldiers simply set fire to the clothes of the blind men. They then shoot them so the blind men fall dead and their bodies carry on burning. Some of these men who were murdered in this massacre were the Sheikh Shakeeb, who was blind, and roughly 60 years old, and the Sheikh Adeeb Kizawy, who had 9 children, and the Sheikh Ahmed Shamiah, the blind Qur’an reciter.”
During the siege, four of Hama’s ancient districts were completely destroyed and two were 80 percent demolished. Demolition took place in three stages; random bombardment through the use of artillery, tanks and surface to surface missiles, specifically targeted bombardment and finally deliberate destruction by detonation or bulldozing. In total, 63 mosques were destroyed or demolished with 76 percent of the 63 mosques completely destroyed. Christian churches were not spared; of the four ancient churches in Hama, two were completely destroyed with explosives, one was partially demolished and the fourth was ransacked. The Syrian army also blew up a fifth brand new Christian church that had taken 17 years to build using dynamite.
Most of the schools in Hama were also destroyed or damaged with either dynamite or by shelling.
Syrian authorities also randomly arrested thousands of Hama’s citizens including scholars, engineers, physicians, teachers, farmers and clergymen among others. It is estimated that one makeshift prison contained 15000 citizen prisoners and another contained between 7000 and 8000. These citizens were often subjected to torture including:
“…sharp tools to cut off the fingers and the toes and tortured the detainees with clamps by pressing their limbs until their flesh ripped and bones are broken. Another kind of torture was the iron compressor used to press on the head; another was the stake, which the detainee had to sit on until his backside began to bleed. More means of torture was to hang the detainees by their hands and feet chained to the ceiling, and using a sharp tool to make several cuts from his front and back. Another mean of torture was electrocuting the detainee in the genitals, and the burning with hot iron, also hitting with the stick and the whip.”
Thirty years later, up to 15,000 of those civilians who were arrested are still unaccounted for.
It is estimated that over 25,000 (some estimates put the total as high as 40,000) residents of Hama were killed during the 27 day siege by the al-Assad regime in an attempt to crush this Sunni rebellion. This massacre is still regarded by many Middle East historians as the single most bloody assault by an Arab ruler against his own people in modern times.
…and to think that Bashar learned about the concept of freedom at his father’s knee. Frightening indeed.