Calling this post “today in Middle Eastern history” is kind of fake newsy, I’m sorry. The Hama Massacre took place during the month of February 1982, so really we’re talking about this month in Middle Eastern history if you’re going to be pedantic about it. But here we are. While I try to make a point of keeping modern problems out of these historical posts as much as possible, you may find some parallels between how Hafez al-Assad handled protesters in Hama in 1982 and how his son Bashar handled protesters in Hama, and elsewhere, almost 30 years later. That’s probably not a coincidence.
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. So, although it didn’t spiral into a full-on civil war, the fault lines in Hama in 1982 looked to some degree like the fault lines that started Syria’s current conflict in 2011. 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, for example, 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 intervention in the Lebanese Civil War, began a serious campaign of terror throughout the country, which was met with an equally violent backlash from the government. In 1980 the Brotherhood made an (obviously unsuccessful) attempt on Hafez al-Assad’s life, 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, along with some regular Syrian army units, to Hama to put the rebellion down. These government forces 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 their first ground assault met heavy resistance, they decided to slow things down and spent the next three weeks lobbing artillery into the city, some of it maybe/probably/who knows containing cyanide gas. Government forces finally reentered the pulverized city in late February, and rounded up anybody who’d managed to survive and hadn’t fled for imprisonment and torture. Rifaat even had tunnels under the city pumped full of fuel and set on fire, to flush out anybody trying to hide.
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 (you’ll see why below), but I’m not sure anybody outside his own immediate family actually believes him.
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 40,000 is probably in the ballpark. 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 Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s resistance and sent the bulk of the organization’s leadership into exile. Hafez, of course, lived long enough to die of natural causes and leave the country to Bashar.
Rifaat’s story is interesting. After perpetrating this massacre (um, allegedly or whatever) and having already perpetrated another at Tadmur Prison in 1980–both of them 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 just began to act like he was running Syria. There was no obvious move against Hafez, but the expectation was that he was about to kick the bucket, and Rifaat and his Alawite supporters figured they could just fake it until then.
When Hafez, miracle of miracles, returned to health, Rifaat was kind of dangling in the wind. Most of his support quietly abandoned him. 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). Rifaat argues to this day 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. That’s why he stopped bragging about how many people he killed at Hama and started claiming that he wasn’t even there. It became more advantageous for him to distance himself from his brother and their crimes against humanity.
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 the Syrian military wreaked on the city.