Hama: One City, Two Massacres

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Smoke rises near a tank in Hama in this still image taken from video, August 3, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

The ancient city of Hama, in northern Syria, has a long history of violence: it has weathered the marches of Romans and Byzantines, the ravages of Turks and Mongols and the brutality of the Crusades. But none of these invaders had the tanks, heavy artillery and air power deployed by the Assad family on their own people.

Hama is currently in the grips of a bloody offensive by state security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, seeking to root out dissidents who had wrested almost total control of the city in recent weeks from the Assad regime. Days of shooting and shelling, often through the muzzles of tanks, have led to nearly 150 civilian deaths, according to human rights groups.

Hama, of course, is no stranger to such government brutality. The largely Sunni city came under attack in 1982 when Bashar’s father Hafez decided to stomp out a budding Islamist insurgency, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, that had apparently taken root in the city. The Assads and many key members of their regime are Alawites, an obscure minority Muslim sect that has had control over the levers of power in the Ba’athist state for decades. Like in 1982, the Assad regime now also blames Syria’s instability on Islamist elements and “criminal gangs.” Here’s what TIME reported about the Hama massacre in 1982:

The fighting apparently began when security forces searched throughout Hama to uncover hideouts of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Islamic organization violently opposed to Assad’s secularist policies. Members of the Brotherhood reacted by attacking the homes of Baath Party officials and the police station. Describing the incident over Damascus Radio, Baath officials said the rebels, “driven like mad dogs by their black hatred, pounced on our comrades while sleeping in their homes and killed whomever they could of women and children, mutilating the bodies of the martyrs in the streets.”

When the rebels issued a dramatic call to arms over the loudspeakers atop the city’s minarets, the government responded in force. The old quarter was sealed off, helicopter gunships attacked insurgents from outlying villages rushing to aid the rebels, and heavy artillery was wheeled up. In the end, the vicious fighting was house to house. The government said it had discovered an arms cache containing 1,000 machine guns. Some ob servers believe that the arms were supplied by opponents of the Assad regime in Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, and were being stockpiled in preparation for a major challenge to Assad’s rule.

The Brotherhood does not have a large following of its own in Syria, but has been directing an increasingly fierce terrorist campaign. Religious friction continues to smolder. Although the country is predominantly Sunni Muslim, Assad’s minority Alawite sect dominates the government and armed forces. Assad has also been challenged by elements in his own military, most recently in January, when some 150 officers in elite air force and armored units were arrested on charges of plotting a coup. Still, Western diplomats in the Middle East believe that Assad remains in command. There were no signs last week that the trouble in Hama was spreading elsewhere.∙

The scale of the massacres now don’t rival that of two decades ago — between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians died in Hama in 1982, and much of the city’s historic old quarter was leveled — but, unlike then, the government offensives are lashing out across the country, far from Hama, in cities and towns whose names are becoming infamous for the bloodshed on their streets: Dara’a, Jisr al-Shoghour, Latakia, Homs and others.