As political turmoil sweeps through the Arab world, from Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen and Jordan, questions arise about the future of historically the most ruthless Arab dictatorship in the region, Syria.
In Tunisia, the regime was toppled without violence. In Egypt, the military has let it be known they will not fire on protesters calling for the downfall of the Hosni Mubarak government. In Jordan, King Abdullah sacked his government in the wake of street protests.
But when insurgents took to the streets in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982, the government unleashed a ferocious attack that has been called the “Hama massacre,” destroying much of the city and slaughtering tens of thousands of citizens.
Syria’s brutal response in Hama was termed “the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East” by Robin Wright, author of the book “Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East.”
And Hama has had a lasting effect on people in the Arab world, Middle East expert Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University told PBS’s Charlie Rose on Jan. 31: “In many ways you can look at the Arab world over the last few decades and really if you want a turning point, I think the turning point was the terror unleashed on the Syrian people in the city of Hama in 1982.
“For about 25 years the Arab people have been terrified of their rulers and the security states have really marginalized them and demolished their sense of dignity.”
Syria today is ruled by Bashar al-Assad, son of Hafez al-Assad, who ruled the nation with an iron fist from 1970 until his death in 2000 and ordered the attack on Hama.
Bashar has done little to loosen his Baath Party’s tight control of the country. In the most recent “referendum” on his rule, Bashar was credited with receiving 97.2 percent of the vote.
The question then is, would the Syrian government respond to an Egypt-like outbreak of popular opposition with a reprise of the “Hama massacre?”
Before the massacre, members of the Muslim Brotherhood had been waging an insurgent campaign against Assad’s government. Assad was an Alawite, a Shiite sect that comprises less than 20 percent of the population yet has dominated Syria’s politics and military.
In 1980, following an assassination attempt against Assad, membership in the Brotherhood was declared a capital offense.
In early February 1982, a number of Syrian soldiers were killed by snipers in Hama, and an Islamist leader called for a general uprising against the Assad regime. Police posts and the homes of government officials were attacked, and opposition groups declared Hama a “liberated city” and urged an uprising through Syria.
Assad responded forcefully by sending 12,000 troops to besiege the city. Tanks surrounding Hama shelled the city for more than three weeks, reducing much of it rubble.
When troops moved in, they combed through the rubble for surviving members of the Brotherhood, and executed as many as 1,000.
The total loss of life from the massacre was 38,000, according to one Syrian official. The Brotherhood claims 40,000 were slaughtered.
After the Hama uprising, the Islamist insurrection was broken, and the Brotherhood has since operated in exile while other factions surrendered or slipped into hiding.
Syrian journalist Subhi Hadidi has written that soldiers killed “30,000 or 40,000 of the city's citizens - in addition to the 15,000 missing who have not been found to this day, and the 100,000 expelled."
As for the Syrian government’s possible response today to a popular uprising, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman warned in 2005:
“When Syria's Baath regime feels its back up against the wall, it always resorts to ‘Hama Rules.’ Hama Rules is a term I coined after the Syrian Army leveled — and I mean leveled — a portion of its own city, Hama, to put down a rebellion by Sunni Muslim fundamentalists there in 1982.”
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