What: Massacre and siege of Hama
Where: Hama, Syria
When: 2 February-28 February 1982
Since the 1940s, clashes between the secular Ba’ath Party of Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood were common. The city of Hama became known as a Brotherhood stronghold and the centre of anti-regime uprisings.
Between 1979 and 1981, rebels associated with the Muslim Brotherhood orchestrated attacks against the regime; hundreds of people were killed. In turn, operations by the army killed thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and their sympathisers.
Measures to quell any uprisings, such as increasing the salaries of civil servants and other attempts to root out corruption, did little to deter the people of Syria. President Hafiz Al-Assad (the current President’s father) soon became the face of repression in doing what he could to crush the insurgency. Military units armed with heavy weapons were deployed to cities to hunt for militants and to send a clear message to the population that their loyalty would mean that they would be left alone to get on with their lives.
On 26 June 1980, an assassination attempt on Assad’s life during an official state reception for the President of Mali would prove to have serious consequences. In revenge, Assad executed hundreds of opposition prisoners being held in Tadmor Prison.
Pockets of uprisings would continue with attacks against the regime, which looked for ways to quell dissent once and for all. In 1982, the opportunity arose. By 2 February, the centre of the country’s revolution, Hama, was surrounded by over 12,000 government forces lead by Assad’s brother, Rifaat. Laying siege to the city, government forces called for the inhabitants to surrender and warned that they would be treated as insurgents if they ignored the call.
Army units rolled into the city in search of insurgents and anti-government sympathisers; tens of thousands of innocent Syrians were killed. The first week of the regime operation in the city was intended to regain control and then purge the city of anti-government rebels.
For three weeks, though, the infrastructure in Hama was bombed to allow infantry and tanks to enter relatively easily, destroying most of the old city. Boots on the ground allowed for soldiers to identify members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their families. Torture and mass executions of suspected sympathisers resulted in the deaths of thousands within a very short period.
Rifaat Al-Assad made sure to boast about the number of casualties, to show Syrians how dissent would be dealt with. He was proud to point out that 38,000 people had been killed during the operation.
As a result of the three-week-long siege and killing spree, the regime was successful in quelling the uprising and ensuring that any opposition in the country was annihilated. The cost of that repression was an estimated twenty to forty thousand Syrians murdered in Hama.
What happened after?
Rebels in Hama were broken by the massacre and the fact that sympathisers in the rest of the country had failed to use the opportunity to rise alongside them against the regime. Most fled the country soon after or exiled themselves to Jordan, Iraq, the US and Britain.
Talk of the massacre was repressed in Syria by the Assad regime, which referred to what happened as “events” or the “incident” at Hama. Since 1982, Syria has experienced another Hama and a lot worse. In March 2011, as the Arab world became enthralled by the Arab Spring, Syrians joined the uprising by taking to the streets peacefully to call for political changes after a group of boys were tortured to death for writing anti-government graffiti.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Bashar Al-Assad made sure to repress the first protesters in Deraa violently in the hopes of preventing the demonstrations from spreading, but he failed. Cities like Homs and Hama soon became the heart of the protest movement, and as more people rallied peacefully for Bashar to step down across the country, so too did the government’s violent crackdown increase in intensity. In the seven years since the uprising started in 2011, the Assad regime has been guilty of using barrel bombs and chemical gas attacks against civilians as well as mass torture and the execution of thousands. To date, in fact, around 500,000 Syrians have been killed.