This month in Middle Eastern history: the Hama massacre (1982)

Lest you think that Assads killing Syrians en masse was some kind of recent phenomenon, a brief mention of the Hama Massacre, which took place during the month of February 1982, should disabuse you of that notion. Bashar al-Assad was just 16 when this massacre took place, and the idea of barrel bombing an open market in Aleppo for larfs was probably just a glimmer in his adolescent imagination. But I’m sure Hafez al-Assad’s decision to kill thousands of unruly citizens made quite an impact on impressionable dictator-in-training Bashar.

Hafez (R) and Rifaat al-Assad, the perpetrators of this particular massacre (Wikimedia)

The Hama Massacre spun out of a much larger confrontation between the secular nationalist Syrian Baʿath Party, dominated by the Assads, and Sunnis affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Sound familiar? Although it didn’t spiral into a full-on civil war, the fault lines in Hama in 1982 looked a lot like the fault lines that started Syria’s current conflict over four years ago. Even the location sounds familiar. Hama was a historic center for Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and its resistance to the Baʿathists–massive rioting took place there in 1964, as a result of the 1963 coup that brought the Baʿath Party to power–and it’s no coincidence that the Siege of Hama in 2011 was really the first battle of the current civil war.

In the mid-1970s the Brotherhood, partly in reaction to Syria’s move to intervene in the Lebanese Civil War, began a serious campaign of terror throughout Syria, which was naturally met with an equally violent backlash from the Assad regime. By 1982 there had been at least one (obviously unsuccessful) attempt on Hafez al-Assad’s life (in 1980), which only inspired him to be more brutal toward his opposition. On February 2, 1982, a Syrian army unit sniffing around Hama for troublemakers was ambushed by a guerrilla resistance group, who then raised a general alarm throughout the city. In the uprising that immediately followed, government and Baʿath Party buildings were ransacked and captured, dozens of Baʿath officials were killed, and the rebels proclaimed Hama “liberated.”

The government responded quickly. Hafez sent his brother, Rifaat al-Assad, commander of the paramilitary Syrian Defense Companies, as well as some regular Syrian army units, to Hama to put the rebellion down. I should note here that Rifaat now claims that he had little to do with Hama, because it’s become politically expedient for him to say that, but I’m not sure anybody outside his own immediate family actually believes him. These government units had little interest in how the rebels were defeated, so they started out by indiscriminately bombarding Hama before attempting to send tanks into the city. When the first ground assault was resisted, they spent the next three weeks lobbing artillery into the city, some of it maybe/probably/who knows containing cyanide gas. Anybody who wasn’t killed or somehow managed to escape the siege was rounded up and tortured before being executed. Rifaat even had tunnels under the city pumped full of fuel and set on fire, to flush out anybody trying to hide.

Estimates vary on the number of casualties, from a low of around 10,000 to a high of about 40,000. Rifaat, and remember he wasn’t involved, is said to have boasted of killing 38,000 people at Hama, and it’s not like the Assads have ever been reluctant to max out a body count, so I say 40,000 sounds about right. Even half of that, 20,000, would make Hama one of the bloodiest acts of violence perpetrated by a modern Arab dictator. The massacre broke the Muslim Brotherhood’s resistance and sent the bulk of the organization’s leadership into exile. And Hafez al-Assad lived long enough to bequeath Syria to young Bashar, unfortunately for Syria.

Rifaat’s story is interesting. After perpetrating this massacre (um, allegedly or whatever) and another at Tadmur Prison in 1980, both on his brother’s behalf, in 1983 Rifaat became the key figure in what appears to have been an Alawite-driven attempt to usurp Hafez’s position. Hafez was quite ill, you see, and many high-ranking Alawites were concerned that his inner circle had become too Sunni-dominated and that those Sunnis were running the country while Hafez was out of commission. So Rifaat began to act like he was running Syria. When Hafez, miracle of miracles, returned to health, Rifaat was left holding the bag. His few remaining supporters were purged, Rifaat himself was stripped of his military commands, and he was made a titular vice president as a way to sideline him. Then he was sent on a “working visit” to Moscow and was never allowed back into the country (except for a brief period in 1992 to attend the funeral of his/Hafez’s mother). He argues that he, not Bashar, should have succeeded to the presidency of Syria upon Hafez’s death in 2000, but he does his arguing from France, where it surprisingly doesn’t have much effect.

If you’re interested in more detail about the Hama Massacre, there were a number of retrospectives written about it on its 30th anniversary, in 2012 (the parallels with the civil war in particular brought it extra attention). The Guardian had one, for example, and political scientist Larbi Sadiki wrote about the massacre for Al Jazeera. But the most impactful one I’ve seen is this photo essay by NPR, which really shows the devastation that Assad’s forces wreaked on Hama.

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3 thoughts on “This month in Middle Eastern history: the Hama massacre (1982)

  1. As it happens, when I was in Hama the (metaphorical) paint had not really dried on all the spanking new buildings and the ghosts were never far from this side of the Veil. An odd, unsettling place that more people need to know about, so thank you for another good piece of education.

      1. Thanks for the offer! Not that much to tell, really, The tale starts twenty years ago, crossing the border on the highway from Hatay to Aleppo. The barbed wire, permanent machine gun emplacements, and artillery up in the hills was the clue that maybe Syria was not the same country as Turkey. So the bus stopped at this compound in the middle of nowhere, and we all showed our papers and entry stamps, and some guy got hustled off and we never saw him again.

        The Syrian people I met were great, and I am confident that you understand all the qualifications. No swarms of touts, you had to put yourself out, but once you made contact they were the warmest and most hospitable people – right up there with the Argentines (which is a whole long story in itself). Unfortunately, the Army was a presence: gangs of pimply faced kids in T-shirts, humping assault rifles and zipping around in jeeps; the antithesis of the disciplined cadres of the Turkish Army. Cyrillic lettering was commonplace in public places, so it was clear that the Russians were down but never really out.

        So I knew about Hama and the Moslem Brotherhood, and how they were coming back to life after the catastrophe, but my companion didn’t know and didn’t care and I thought it gauche to ask people if they had lost friends or family, so I mostly kept my mouth shut and my ears open. The famous Groaning Water Wheel was pretty much the only Old Thing in town, and I don’t know how much of that was artful reconstruction. Everything else was a brutalist Concrete Modern. Funny story, my companion spoke Arabic and refused to pay the tourist fare from Aleppo so we were kicked out at edge of the highway and left to our own devices. Initially unphased, as the guidebook had warned that the bus stop was a bit of a hike from the city center, we wound up hiking a couple of hours through a completely deserted town. No people. No street life. Just silent brutalist concrete building blocks. Eventually we found a kiosk, doused ourselves in water, and found our way to the pension.

        Quite the oasis, on the inside, grape arbor and warm people in the cool shade. The cheerful old man who ran the place joked “Ho ho ho! Your State Department told you not to come here because they think we will kill you! Ho ho ho!” Well, yeah, that’s the size of it. The travel restrictions to Beirut were suddenly relaxed and we tried to wangle a ride across the border, but then the radio had a report about Israeli operations around Mt Harmon and thought better of it.

        People would kind of come out in the evening, but not really. By way of contrast, Homs was the next city South and a major transportation hub where you had more chances to catch a bus to where ever, and while in some respects it was a dreary industrial dump in other respects it had the kind of exuberance that I expect from cities away from the cold and sterile North. I hope you can tell that I found the contrast quite unsettling.

        One final note, food: there was plenty of food and everyone seemed to eat well, but you could tell that they did not have the kind of agricultural abundance that you saw over the border in Turkey. This was in the days of peace and prosperity, before the world economy cratered and the climate shifted to plunge the Levant into drought. All of that, does not bode well.

        So I wonder what happened to that pension operator. Surely he arrived after the disaster, and I like to think he had the good sense to escape the recent fighting, but where might he have gone under the circumstances?

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