This is cross posted by Ciarán, who blogs at Impartial Eclipse
Syria is a country in the Middle East of some 22 million people. It’s bordered by Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south, Israel and Lebanon to the south-west and Turkey to the north. It’s western coast on the Mediterranean Sea is just under 200km long.
Syria was ruled by the Ottoman Empire between the 16th and 20th centuries after which it was occupied by French forces in 1920. The French used brutal methods to maintain a pre-eminent role in the country until after World War II when the Syrians finally attained independence.
The first two decades of independence were marked by instability despite rapid economic growth. The Sunni Islamic community that had been the elite since the time of the Ottoman Empire continued to dominate economically at the expense of other minorities. In 1963, a military coup brought the Ba’ath Party to power. The Ba’ath Party advocated Arab socialism and was dominated by the minority Alawite community. Alawites claim to be Muslims but are regarded as heretics and apostates by the more orthodox Sunnis.
The ideology espoused by the Ba’ath Party included amongst other things land reform and by the late 1960s, the estates of the Sunni elite were being broken up and expropriated. This added to the sense of resentment amongst Sunnis towards the Ba’ath regime and the Muslim Brotherhood (founded in Syria in the 1930s) became the focal point for Sunni resistance.
The city of Hama in west-central Syria is some 200km north of the capital, Damascus. It had for decades been known to be a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. As early as 1964, there had been anti-Ba’ath riots in Hama which were brutally crushed. Resistance continued however and in the late 1970s, anti-Baath violence and resistance to the Alawite president, Hafez al-Assad, became ever more deadly. An attack on a military school in Aleppo resulted in the deaths of scores of mainly Alawi cadets and in the autumn of 1980, car bombs in Damascus caused the deaths of hundreds.
On the morning of February 3rd, 1982 a Syrian army unit carrying out a search in Hama came across the hideout of a rebel commander. The rebels attacked and alerted other insurgents in the city. Word was spread by radio and by mosque loudspeaker. By morning, the city was in open revolt and the homes of Ba’ath leaders and government officials were being attacked.
The government in Damascus responded quickly calling on the city to surrender and warning that anyone found within the city would be considered an insurgent. The attack started with the airforce bombing the city from the air to allow the entry of infantry and tanks through the narrow streets. Heavy artillery caused much devastation too. The city was then cleared of insurgents street by streets. Some reports say that poison gas was also used to exterminate anyone left alive in the rubble. All in all, the violence lasted for three weeks and estimates of those killed run as high as 40,000 and there is no doubt that huge numbers of civilians were indiscriminately slaughtered in the bloodletting.
Eyewitness reports speak of horrific atrocities that were committed against defenceless men, women and children. Some speak of people being lined up to be shot along trenches already half-filled with bodies. When that line of people was riddled with bullets and fell into the trench, a new line of victims was brought forward.
The end result was that the power of the Muslim Brotherhood was shattered in Syria. Most of its leadership fled abroad and acrimonious splits occurred amongst those who stayed in Syria. Others reached an accommodation with the Ba’athist regime. Open discussion is strictly suppressed in Syria. Everyone knows it happened but 29 years later, no-one dares mention the Massacre of Hama