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Like any major conflict, when it broke out in 2011 the civil war in Syria didn’t have one single cause and there was no One Simple Trick to preventing it. Some of its causes built on one another. For example, rising food prices caused in part by a severe Mediterranean heatwave/drought exacerbated Syria’s escalating socioeconomic inequality—the product of “Shock Doctrine”-esque free market “reforms” implemented toward the end of his life by former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and continued under his son/successor, Bashar. These tensions were also fed by a burgeoning youth population that simply couldn’t find enough jobs, despite all those supposedly beneficial capitalist innovations. Other causess were somewhat independent, like the Syrian government’s disdain (at best) for basic human rights. Some were brand new, like the external impetus generated by the Arab Spring movement and Bashar al-Assad’s decision to respond to Syrian protests with violence. Others were long-standing, like the tension between the Assads and Syrian Islamists, especially of the Muslim Brotherhood variety.
This brings us to today’s topic, Hafez al-Assad’s brutal 1982 suppression of a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising in the city of Hama. 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 Bashar handled protesters in Hama, and elsewhere, almost 30 years later. That’s probably not a coincidence.
The Hama Massacre was the climax of a years long confrontation between the secular nationalist Syrian Baʿath Party, dominated by the Assads, and Sunnis affiliated with the 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. Even the location sounds familiar. Hama was a historic center for the Syrian 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 again it’s no coincidence that the Syrian military’s siege of Hama in 2011 was really the first battle of the civil war.
In the mid-1970s, the Brotherhood began a serious campaign of terror throughout the country, which was met with an equally violent backlash from the government. As in 2011, the causes were multiple, but the main thrust of the Brotherhood’s grief had to do with Hafez al-Assad himself. As an Alawite, his seizure of power in 1970 was a shock to many in Syria’s Sunni majority, especially to those who were of the Islamist bent. It would be reductive to say that was the entire issue—the Islamist Brotherhood and Assad’s secular Baʿath Party had problems with one another going back several years, well before Assad’s time—but certainly it was kindling for the fire.
Assad’s real offense came in 1973, when he engineered a revision to the Syrian constitution that, among other things, removed the requirement that Syria's president be a Muslim. Alawites operate in sort of a gray area in terms of religious categorization, and there are conservative Muslim scholars who would argue, and have argued, that the tenets of Alawism puts it outside what could be considered “Islam.” Assad worked to have the Alawite community accepted as a branch of Shiʿism, but removing the faith requirement for the presidency was a secondary way of protecting himself against claims that he was unfit to hold the office. The Islamist uprising began soon after the new constitution was adopted.
The uprising was primarily a low-level affair until 1979, when the Brotherhood called for a national resistance movement and began a widespread assassination campaign. In 1980 it made an (obviously unsuccessful) attempt on Hafez al-Assad’s life, which only inspired him to crack down harder on the opposition. On February 2, 1982, a Syrian army unit sniffing around Hama for troublemakers was ambushed by a guerrilla resistance group, which 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, who was commander of the paramilitary Syrian Defense Companies, to Hama to put the rebellion down. These government forces had little interest in how the rebels were defeated, so long as they were defeated. So it was that they started out by indiscriminately bombarding Hama before attempting to send tanks into the city. When their first ground assault met 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. Rifaat even had tunnels under the city pumped full of fuel and set on fire, to flush out anybody trying to hide there.
I should note here that Rifaat later claimed that he had little to do with Hama, because it became 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 in Hama, 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, 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 ruler. The massacre broke the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s resistance and sent the bulk of the organization’s leadership fleeing into exile. Hafez, as we know, lived long enough to die of natural causes and leave the country to Bashar.
Rifaat al-Assad’s story is interesting. After perpetrating this massacre (um, allegedly or whatever) and having already perpetrated an earlier massacre at Tadmur Prison in 1980, in 1983 Rifaat became the key figure in what appears to have been an Alawite-driven attempt to usurp Hafez’s authority. At the time Hafez was quite ill, 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 sort of began to act like he was in charge of Syria. There was no obvious move against Hafez, no official coup attempt, but the expectation was that Hafez 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 supporters quietly abandoned him and Hafez purged those who didn’t. Rifaat himself was stripped of his military commands and made 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 and Hafez’s mother). Rifaat maintained that he, not Bashar, should have succeeded to the presidency of Syria upon Hafez’s death in 2000, but he made that argument from France, where it surprisingly didn’t have much effect. This is why he stopped bragging about how many people he killed at Hama and started claiming that he wasn’t even there. It became politically advantageous for him to distance himself from his brother and their joint crimes against humanity.