Tale of a Lost City

Originally appeared in The Daily.

Bashar Assad’s father Hafez destroys Hama and kills thousands

Up until Friday, it was possible to imagine that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad had a softer touch than his brutal father Hafez. One hint: His American biographer, the former minor-league baseball pitcher David W. Lesch, reported in 2006 that Bashar likes the soothing tones of Phil Collins music. But over the last few days, Bashar has responded to protests by killing at least 120, including dozens at funerals in cities all over Syria. If Hafez Assad is gazing up at his son from Hades, he can be certain that the family business of brutality is still going strong.

Bashar Assad has a ways to go, however, before he reaches the pinnacle of savagery that his father attained in February 1982 at the city of Hama, just north of Damascus. At the incident known to Arabs as “The Slaughter of Hama,” Hafez Assad ordered what is possibly still the most deadly killing spree in modern Middle Eastern history, a military attack on civilians that left an entire medium-sized Syrian city a wrecked, smoking hole. The bloodbath happened in circumstances disturbingly similar to today’s, as the country hums with revolutionary fervor — some of it Islamically tinged — and awaits a final showdown.

The story begins about a year and a half before the slaughter, when the long-standing fight between the Assads’ secular Baath party and the banned Islamic movements suddenly got personal. On June 26, 1980, at a diplomatic meeting in Damascus, Muslim Brotherhood members rolled grenades at Hafez Assad and raked gunfire in his direction — miraculously, only nicking him in the foot. Assad responded the next morning at 3 a.m. by ordering already-imprisoned Islamists murdered, one by one, while they stood defenseless in their prison cells. Some estimates put those retaliatory killings at over 1,000.

But the Islamists were undeterred. Assad’s Baath Party was secular but dominated by a sect of Shiite Islam known as Alawite, who constituted, then as now, just 10 percent of Syria’s population. The Muslim Brotherhood, by contrast, espoused a political brand of Sunni Islam, and the most radical among them viewed the Baathists not only as murderous bastards but as infidels to boot. The Muslim Brothers had especially deep roots in the city of Hama — an agricultural trading-post town best known for the gentle trickling of the Orontes River over a series of picturesque waterwheels.

The Orontes is known as the “Rebel River” in Arabic, and in that season, it lived up to its name. By late 1981, Hafez’s troops had begun furtive raids into Hama, intending to find, arrest and kill the leaders of the group. They often shot the young men they arrested, leaving their bodies on the street to be collected by the same trucks that picked up trash. But by February 1982, the Syrian military found that, inside the city, it had become the prey rather than the predator. The Muslim Brotherhood gave no quarter. During a raid on Feb. 3, the Brothers converged on government positions and gave word to lock down the city, purging the secular authorities and replacing them with the beginnings of an Islamic government, which they hoped would then expand like an inkblot across Syria.

The Brothers were not fools: They knew Assad would kill them all. But knowing that death was certain fortified them and convinced wafflers that it would be better to go down fighting. When Assad called in his forces, they initially tried to penetrate the streets of Hama with light-armored vehicles and machine guns. But by then the Muslim Brothers had mobilized in full, producing AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades out of attics, spider holes and closets, and using them to destroy government vehicles and kill their occupants.

Assad’s secret weapon was his brother Rifaat, the head of a paramilitary force called the Defense Companies — and a man born for the job. Although he later fell out of favor with his brother and was exiled to London, Rifaat Assad was at the time the most reliable guarantor of regime security, and he vowed to fight “a hundred wars, demolish a million strongholds,” to annihilate the Muslim Brotherhood. If the Brotherhood desired martyrdom, he would deliver it.

On the first day of fighting, Rifaat Assad’s forces seized the city, surrounding it and allowing more than half of its inhabitants to flee. Then, for the next three weeks, they shelled it indiscriminately, pounding its buildings — including over 40 mosques — into dust, before finally sifting through the rubble to find and execute survivors. In the days that followed, they left the bodies on the streets to rot a little, the better to stick in the memory of any survivors. Indiscriminate shelling doesn’t allow precise counting of the dead, so estimates range from 10,000 to 38,000, with Rifaat Assad himself copping to the higher number in a conversation recounted by Thomas L. Friedman.

The victory of the Assads was complete. After erasing Hama from the map, they proceeded to build it back up as a modern, secular city. To chase away the ghosts of the dead, the government scooped up the rubble and built apartment buildings in spots where the most killing had occurred. To put an extra thumb in the eyes of the conservative Muslims who led the revolt, they installed some of Syria’s first co-ed swimming pools and college dormitories, both anathema to the religiously orthodox. And they kept hunting down survivors — a process that has continued, on and off, for the last three decades.

Most importantly, Assad put fear into absolutely everyone. The second-biggest city, Aleppo, had had a nascent Islamist insurrection, but after Hama was crushed without pity, this Aleppo insurrection shriveled to nothing and didn’t regenerate until this month. (The precise role of Sunni Islamism in the current revolt is still unknown.) Bashar Assad, the son and successor, is an eye doctor—not a military man at heart like his father and uncle—and has, with his wife Asma, secured some flatteringpress coverage (Vogue pronounced Asmaa “very chic” almost exactly as the unrest and killing began).

Some doubted whether Bashar would respond to unrest the same vicious spirit as Hafez. But as the most recent violence in Syria has shown, medical school, a love of Phil Collins, and a fashionable wife make no difference when a dictator’s back is against a wall.


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