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Hama: A rebirth from the ashes?

On February 2, 2012, almost a year after the start of the Syrian uprising, the city of Hama was reduced to “point zero” of its history. It was both a beginning and an end. Leading to the estimated death of up to 40,000 civilians, the massacre brought an end to decades of rebellion against the Ba’ath regime by the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated Islamist factions. Prominent members were either exiled or endured a long journey to death in Syrian regime torture chambers.

Today, we can no longer say that Syria underwent the “bloodiest three weeks”1 in 1982, when Hama’s population was also massacred, at that time by President Bashar Al-Assad’s father, Hafez. We can, however, suggest that the Syrian people are witnessing the bloodiest three, almost four, years of their history. Events are proving that Hama has never been erased from the people’s memory. Furthermore, links between historical and present events cannot be undermined when the hatred inflaming some of today’s anti-regime factions takes its source from the bitterness tasted in Hama. As Lefebre asserted in his recently published book, Ashes of Hama: the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, the country is witnessing a rebirth of the “ashes of Hama”. This time, the fire of a costly rebellion has spread on a national scale.

Hama: back to the scene

With the start of the uprising in March 2011, a major weapon of the Assad regime was broken: the people were no longer silent; an “information uprising” was born. For three decades, virtual and written evidence about the 1982 Hama events was hidden intentionally in the shadows of the regime. The uprising meant that what was a mysterious event suddenly made the headlines of international newspapers.

Numerous articles drew parallels between the inhuman techniques used against civilians in 1982 and the 2011 uprising, especially before opposition groups turned to armed struggle, and some “long hidden photos” appeared on the internet.

Likewise, for the first time a documentary about the events was produced and published by Al-Jazeera last November. As the reporter mentioned, the team faced a lot of difficulties in trying to conduct interviews with some prominent figures involved in the events. While some agreed to give their testimonies despite a lot of hesitation, others like Rifaat Al-Assad, Hafez Al-Assad’s brother and the executioner of the Hama massacre, refused harshly and threatened the journalists who tried to interview him. Undeniably, inaccessibility of information was an intentional regime policy.

It is for this reason that the need to look back into Syria’s history is crucial. It could, at least, prevent nationals and internationals alike from falling into the same trap which is being dug by the many erroneous interpretations of the current uprising. Putting the current events into context in this way would provide insight to comprehend decades of dictatorship, oppression, violence and fear. I maintain that the Hama tragedy is a reflection of the repressive and violent policies implemented by Al-Assad the father and consolidated by the son. This implies the necessity to bring Hama back to the fore, now that the politics of silence and fear have failed. Equally important is the need for future research during such a crucial time, given the absence of Hama in academia.

A rather revealing slogan carried by a woman during a peaceful demonstration on the eve of the commemoration of the massacre in 2012 is noteworthy: “Tomorrow the memory of Death’s birthday will be renewed.” Those words drive us back in time.

The general context

The history of the Islamist opposition in Syria dates back to the country’s independence from the French in 1946. Not surprisingly, it started as an anti-colonial struggle, which only later, more precisely after the Ba’ath Party’s first coup in March 1963, shifted its attention to the regime.

Since the Ba’athists came to power, the gradual nationalisation and implementation of socialist policies disintegrated the traditional order forming the country’s dominant socio-political forces. Resentment and a sense of inequality emerged, especially against pro-rural policies which favoured specific areas while the majority were abandoned by the regime. Undeniably, this engendered frustration and increased class-based tensions, which only accentuated the crisis caused by a massive urban influx.

The “Alawisation” of the state apparatus characterised the new nature of Syrian politics and contributed to the rising tensions. They revealed the paradoxical nature of Hafez Al-Assad’s Ba’athist rule; while fighting the Brotherhood’s religious and ideological views, the regime wore a sectarian costume to defend its “secular” nature. Bashar later adopted the same tactic.

The turning point: 1980-1981

The events of February 1982 was the fiercest state retaliation ever experienced in Syrian history. Villages were destroyed completely, as were Hama’s historical sites; neighbourhoods were flattened and became unrecognisable. According to a former Brotherhood leader, it was “like an earthquake” for the movement. The testimony of a nurse who was working at that time in the Hama Hospital is alarming but informative: “Some government officers entered the hospital and saw a mother holding her newborn son. They took the baby and scratched him to death, saying that it was to prevent him from becoming an Ikhwani [member of the Muslim Brotherhood] when he grows up.”

Furthermore, as reported by human rights activists, alleged Brotherhood members who were arrested endured the most horrific torture. Prisoners were deprived of sleep and food; they were also forced to stand on one foot or crawl on the floor while freezing or boiling water was poured on their naked bodies. Other common techniques like the “dulab” (wheel) and the “farraj” (chicken) were also used. They cannot but be an indication of the torture techniques deployed today.

The scale of the regime’s repression was brutal to the extent that the Muslim Brotherhood and any other effective opposition was silenced decisively. The opposition’s recourse to violence undeniably pales in comparison to the regime’s atrocities given material and practical differences between the two. Besides, the offensive launched in Hama proves that the bombardment, by Bashar’s forces, of cities controlled by opposition forces across the country is not a novelty. Since 2012, when the uprising turned violent, it was the regime which was behind the violence, triggering an increasing number of radical factions to take up arms.

The original Hama massacre, however, did not put an end to resistance to the regime. It continued through the distribution of pamphlets by the Brotherhood, which urged the assassination of Hafez Al-Assad and the toppling of his regime. If the “Damascus wing” of the Brotherhood, which called consistently for non-violent resistance in the 1970s, ended up joining the struggle, it was because of its desperation under the Ba’athists’ unjust and sectarian policies. This assumption is stated clearly in Al-Nadhir newspaper’s April 1980 issue. While it had not started as an anti-Alawite struggle in the beginning, the armed rebels used a sectarian discourse to carry the struggle forward. As such, Hafez Al-Assad succeeded in manipulating a political rather than a religious sectarianism in the service of his rule.

With this in mind, one could even wonder whether the Brotherhood, if not also the more radical jihadists and some of the Syrian armed factions which emerged in 2012, would have turned to armed struggle had the regime made more concessions and allowed more space for political participation and power sharing. Under the pretext of a “war against terrorism”, thousands of Syrian opposition members and their relatives became the target of Ba’athist officers and the Mukhabarat (secret police). Today, the son is deploying a similar discourse. Putting peaceful protestors and extremists in the same pot is an intentional attempt to confuse in order to justify his lost legitimacy. If the Brotherhood’s history of resistance gave birth to more radical groups in the 1980s, just as that of the peaceful protests which originally started the uprising, one should not take that argument to discredit the initial just cause that its rebellion carried.

In his book Modern revolutions: an introduction to the analysis of a political phenomenon, John Dunn says: “The populace at large does not rebel for fun”. Indeed, “Lacking the rationalist assurance of a better order waiting in the future to be grasped, and having invested a lifetime of often highly repressed effort in the struggle to survive at all, most men (…) rebel as a final gesture of misery, not as an expression of optimism about the future.

These words transcend time and space. In reality, they could refer equally to the Hama tragedy, or the disastrous consequences of the ongoing once-peaceful uprising. The unwritten history of Hama keeps it alive to this day. An understanding of the dynamics and the precise flow of events leading to the confrontation between the Islamic opposition and the regime in 1982, and the questions they continue to raise is indeed vital to “those Syrians who, today, more than ever, look into their past to learn more about the crucial 1980-1982 period.” The early non-violent opposition formed in 2011, like the Islamist resistance throughout the 1970s-1980s, denounce the same violent and unjust state.

Why was Hama silenced? If the “divide-and-rule” principle served the Assad regime quite well, what accounts for the indifference of the outside world? Several reasons explain the Syrians’ silence: what Lefebre calls the “Hama trauma”; the successful co-option of the Sunni elites and religious clerics; and the support that Al-Assad received from Christian minorities who fear an Islamist ascent to power. This, though, does not explain the silence of Syria’s Arab neighbours and the international community. When addressing this issue, it has been argued that they all contributed to the “killing” of Hama on February 2, 1982, while the “brave ones who questioned and spoke up ended up dead, exiled or in detention”.

Today, long-hidden information gives us insightful accounts. The CIA, for instance, published a detailed report recently providing very important information about the massacre, which it has had in its possession since 1982; there is no need to comment on that three-decades-long delay in publication. While it was deemed preferable to turn a blind eye to acts which should be judged internationally and officially as crimes against humanity, the time has probably come to put the “normalised” silence on trial. As some lawyers have suggested, a transitional justice process, like the one in Rwanda, must be implemented for Hama and today that could be true for the whole of Syria. Only when Rifaat Al-Assad, who lives at liberty in Paris, and all those involved in the massacre face trial at the International Criminal Court, can justice spring from the “ashes of Hama”. Today, it is the whole Syrian nation that is transforming into ashes, and the list of massacres continues.

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