The Hamah Massacre - February 1982

22 December, 2009
Quiades Ismael

On 2 February 1982, the Presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic ordered regular army units and special forces to besiege Hamah, the country’s fourth city, and bombard it. The aim of the assault was to respond to a revolt led by the Muslim Brotherhood movement based in Syria. For twenty days, fighting pitted troops from the contingent against the armed wing of the Muslim Brothers, but also the civilian population. Air strikes and mortar fire caused the death of several thousand civilians. Hamah was to be the scene of numerous exactions, including torture, summary executions and privations of every kind, committed against the local population by the regime’s praetorian guard.

By virtue of its scale, its violence, its organisation and the goals pursued, this military intervention constitutes a massacre.


A. Context

The massacre in Hamah, a city with a population of some 250,000 at the time, was the culmination of a violent conflict between the Syrian authorities and the Islamist opposition, whose first stirrings date back to the mid-1970s but whose roots are older. Although focused on the domestic Syrian political scene, this confrontation was part of the wave of unrest that struck the Middle East in the same period.

Since the country’s independence in 1947, the political elite had found it difficult to construct a regime on the basis of the new territorial boundaries while accommodating the genuine desire for unification of the all the Arab ‘fatherlands’. An uninterrupted series of coup d’états attests to the disagreements that could arise in a traditional, multi-faith society – a Sunni majority, Shiites, Christians, Alawis, Druze, Ismailis – and the failure of the main political forces to unite populations over and above their customary clientele. Muffled struggles opposed various nationalist currents until the seizure of power by the leaders of the Ba’ath Party in 1963. This party, which claimed to be socialist, altered the political situation in as much as the structures in place since independence had been liberal in inspiration. It ended up governing the country throughout the 1960s, notwithstanding bitter internal struggles over preserving the ideological line of the historical founders. These struggles ended in the accession to power of the general and former Defence Minister, Hafez al-Assad, in November 1970, following a coup d’état.

Weary of persistent political instability, the commercial bourgeoisie of every religious observance, as well as the overwhelming majority of the peasantry, gave their support to the new President, who aimed to be a progressive and unifying force. However, the consensus within the elite did not take long to crumble when it emerged that a majority of the key posts in the state apparatus had fallen to the Alawite religious minority, from which Hafez al-Assad came. This was clearly visible in the army and intelligence services (Van Dam, 1996). The first challenges emerged with the action of the Muslim Brothers during the 1973 riots, following the attempt to promulgate a new Constitution.

The formation of the ‘Brothers’ in Syria probably occurred in Aleppo in 1935. At the instigation of religious leaders, some of its members took part in riots against the Ba’ath Party in 1964 in Hamah, a city with a reputation as a bastion of Sunni traditionalism. This revolt was a response to the launching by the new regime of a vast campaign of nationalization and marginalization of the old landowning elites (Heydemann, 1999: 174).

Under the spur of Issam al-Attar, the Muslim Brotherhood carried on organising, to the point that during the popular unrest of 1973 it emerged as the sole force capable of resisting the Ba’ath’s monopoly on Syrian political life, although it did not offer a real alternative at an ideological level. It has been estimated that after 1975 the Muslim Brothers had 5-7,000 active militants (Dekmejian, 1985: 118; Abd-allah, 1983). It is likely that after 1979 numbers increased, despite the repression. The movement rallied numerous supporters, for at this stage the confrontation between the organization and the government became polarised and more intense.

While Issam al-Attar manoeuvred from his exile in West Germany, small groups based around religious figures repeatedly proposed their collaboration in terrorist operations, but without necessarily giving him their allegiance. In this respect, the attack at Aleppo’s artillery school was one of the most striking developments. On 16 June 1979 a Sunni officer who was a member of the Ba’ath Party had accomplices open fire on cadets in a class room, executing 83 of them, all Alawite. This massacre caused unprecedented anguish among the population and the ruling elite.

A wave of repression followed and 1979 was a black year in the now open conflict between the leaders of Syria’s principal political institutions (Presidency, army, Ba’ath Party, government) and the Muslim Brothers. Following bomb attacks on government installations – official buildings, military airports, divisions of internal security – riots erupted in Aleppo, a city traditionally hostile to the central government in Damascus, in September of the same year.

In this fevered atmosphere, the authorities proceeded to arrest several thousand people, whose links with the Muslim Brothers were not always proven. But the troubles did not come to an end. On 26 June 1980, while receiving the President of Mali on an official visit, Hafez al-Assad escaped an assassination attempt by a member of presidential guard. The riposte was immediate: the ‘Defence Brigades’, praetorian guard of the regime, executed around 500 prisoners in the prison of Palmyra. The reason given was that the latter belonged, or were suspected of belonging, to the organisation of the Syrian ‘Brothers’. Testimony from repentant soldiers who took part in the operation reports double the official figure. On 7 July 1980 the President had law 49 adopted by parliament, punishing membership of a fundamentalist organisation by death.

At the same time, demonstrations multiplied in the north of the country and frequent clashes were reported between members of the ‘Brotherhood’ and Special Forces. The catastrophic economic situation was not conducive to a restoration of calm. At the beginning of December 1980, the regime was counting its backers.

Knowing that the army was infiltrated by the radical Syrian formation, Hafez al-Assad secured the suspension of 400 Sunni officers (Seurat, 1989: 68). The aim of the manoeuvre was to keep control of the repressive apparatus, veritable guarantee of his preservation at the head of the state. Between 1979 and 1981, there are estimated to have been 300 political assassinations targeting victims in the ranks of the regime – military personnel, Ba’athist leaders, Alawi figures – or Muslim Brothers. Tracts clandestinely circulated by the latter maintained that acts of violence were intended to break ‘the tyranny of a minority in power that governs by oppression’.

Added to the troubles that periodically marred the domestic scene was the instability of the regional situation, with the civil war in Lebanon, the war against Israel and the Palestinian question. We may add that this climate was itself dependent on the general context of the Cold War, in which Syria opted to ally with the Soviet Union. While observers maintain that from the late 1970s, the regime was not seriously threatened by the action of the Muslim Brothers, the situation changed from 1981. A particularly brutal war began, which sometimes projected the image of a political leadership at bay.

The unfolding of the fighting in Hamah

During the night of 2-3 February 1982, a group of 150-200 armed men moved into Hamah under the command of Umar Jawad, local head of the organization of the ‘Brothers’, better known by the name of ‘Abu Bakr’. The watchword was to attack the main political officials affiliated to the government, including cadres of the Ba’ath Party, senior administrators and military heads. Exactions were committed by members of the commando and reference has been made to a dozen Ba’ath cadres assassinated in their homes with their wives and children. In addition, the liquidation of clerics who had publicly condemned the crimes of the Tali ‘a al-muqatila (‘fighting vanguard’), the armed wing of the Muslim Brothers in Syria, was reported. In all, 90 people were killed. The high command of the Muslim Brotherhood declared in a communiqué that Hamah was regarded as a ‘liberated city’ and urged the population to rise up against the ‘infidels’.

With the publication of this communiqué, Hafez al-Assad in the first instance mobilised Special Forces and units of the army, including the 47th tank brigade, in order to restore control over the city. All communications between Hamah and the outside world were cut. The action of helicopters was coordinated with that of artillery (tanks and mortars), air forces and bulldozers to carry out what now resembled an offensive.

The fighting on the first four days was particularly violent and the artillery bombardment resulted in the destruction of the city’s historic centre, so as to facilitate the action of ground units. The Muslim Brothers made it known via their press office that they had killed 1,436 soldiers and wounded a further 2,000 during the initial attacks.

The bulk of the troops of the contingent were stationed seven kilometres from the city centre and imposed a total blockade. Special commandos belonging to the intelligence services, in particular the ‘Defence Brigades’ (Sirayat al-difa’ ) commanded by Rif’at al-Assad, the youngest brother of President Hafez al-Assad, proceeded to massive arrests of Hamah civilians, accused of cooperating with the Muslim Brothers. In most instances, these arrests were accompanied by torture, even execution. From 4-6 February, it is estimated that around 2,000 people died as a result of the bombardments or were killed, in particular in the municipal football stadium.

The orders given to the soldiers, but especially the Special Forces, were very specific. Whole families, clearly identified, were executed, usually by bullets. It seems that after the initial days of bombardment priority was given to targeted assassinations and the hunt for potential insurgents. Next came the assembly of those rounded up, who were led to improvised detention centres: a cotton factory, schools, but also the local offices of State Security and Military Intelligence. There the detainees were subject to poor treatment, including being deprived of water and food for several days, as well as terrible torture in some cases. A large percentage of businesses were sacked or damaged by the government forces and particular attention was paid to pharmacies. Their pillage had the effect of delaying, even preventing, adequate care for the wounded.

On 15 February, the Defence Minister, Mustafa Tlass, declared that the rebellion had been brought under control, but that Hamah would remain under siege by the army until further notice. This official announcement did not prevent residents of the al-Hader district, a sector placed under the control of the ‘Defence Brigades’, being exterminated in a single day – 19 February (Amnesty International, 1983). Thereafter the bombardments declined in intensity. However, that did not prevent the total destruction of at least four of the city’s streets, including ‘al-Zanbaqi’, as well as the partial destruction of several others. In addition, nothing remained of the city’s main mosques and churches except ruins. It was a question of striking the symbol, the rallying and mobilising point of the Islamist fighters, but also the refuge of many civilians.

Amnesty International’s report refers to the use of cyanide gas in an area of the city suspected of being occupied by insurgents. In so far as it has not been confirmed by other sources, this information cannot altogether be relied upon.

The clashes continued until the end of February, with an overwhelming advantage for the armed forces. The latter continued to carry out massacres of civilians and to prevent the city being supplied with food. In total, the state of siege lasted 27 days. After February, a return to normality gradually occurred, but with the maintenance of a strong security presence and a very limited return of inhabitants who had fallen victim to the round-ups.


B. Main Instigators

The participation of the security forces in the siege and massacre of the inhabitants of Hamah involved the existence of a chain of command. The latter was already identifiable at the time, since Mustafa Tlass, to take but one example, had expressed himself in the national media on the subject of the offensive that was underway. In general, such dramatic orders, with such serious consequences, could only be given by senior officials of the Syrian state. In the first place, we find the President of the Republic, Hafez al-Assad. The latter necessarily gave his approval to the commitment of troops, as well as to the use of heavy military hardware to pound the city. Moreover, the main heads of the intelligence services, who played a key role in the perpetuation of the massacre, were – as they are still are today – under the authority of the head of state. Similarly, Mustafa Tlass, known to have been very close to President Assad (which earned him his maintenance in the post of Defence Minister for 32 years), if he did not give his agreement for an offensive on this scale, at least coordinated the action of the army units with the main officers of the Intelligence and Special Forces. It is worth noting that, during the previous riots in Hamah in 1964, Tlass had headed the ad hoc tribunals charged with judging the insurgents. It was therefore not the first time he had conducted repression on behalf of the regime and, in particular, in Hamah.

Rifa’t al-Assad figures high on the list, if not at the top, in the execution of the operations, because he led the famous ‘Defence Brigades’.

The principal heads of the Special Forces, of the local branches of Political Security, Internal Security – itself a sub-division of General Security – Military Intelligence, and two army divisions also played an active role in the events in Hamah.

At the time of the clashes, it was Ali Haidar, an Alawite offier, who commanded the Special Forces. What is regarded as certain is that they were composed of around ten independent elite regiments devoted to counter-terrorism, as well as to secret operations abroad or on the borders with Lebanon, Turkey and Israel. These units were particularly well-equipped in heavy arms and included a division of parachutists. Hafez al-Assad largely depended on Ali Haidar to put down the revolt and, more generally, to defeat the threat presented by the Muslim Brothers throughout the country.

Some commentators mention the name of Abdul Halim Khaddam, the former Vice-President of the Republic, as a possible actor in the events. They stress that the assassination attempts of which he was the target – at least four between 1976 and 1986 – were certainly undertaken by the Syrian radical movement and that Hamah offered a chance for him to take his revenge. It has been proved, on the one hand, that the responsibility of the Muslim Brothers in two of these attempts can be excluded and, on the other hand, that Khaddam never held a position in the armed forces or controlled any intelligence services. These two objections give rise to doubt about any executive role that Khaddam might have played in carrying out the massacre. Besides, we possess no evidence of his involvement.

As regards operational planning, it is very difficult to be detailed and definitive. It is certain that President Assad could not have planned the response to the revolt of the Muslim Brothers in detail. He acted in his capacity as commander and therefore took responsibility for the consequences of the offensive. The siege of Hamah was an almost immediate response to the start of an insurrection that the Muslim Brothers hoped would spread and affect the whole country. As a result, the development of military operations could not be subject to detailed planning. It seems that the ferocity with which the security forces engaged in combat was due to a blank cheque provided by Hafez al-Assad and to the impetus of Rifa’t al-Assad, known for his promotion of political violence and ideological extremism. The main danger for the instigators of the armed counter-offensive lay in the fact that the soldiers committed might refuse, or hesitate, to fight when confronted with an enemy made up of compatriots. To protect against this, it was important for the military officials to mobilise units that were homogenous from a religious point of view, so as to encourage esprit de corps and ensure the success of the operations.


C. Victims

The Hamah massacre is no exception to the general rule when it comes to establish an inventory of the destruction and assessing the number of victims.

The variation in the figures given by different sources is very considerable. While Robert Fisk refers to 20,000 dead, the British weekly The Economist gave a figure of 30,000 and the Syrian Human Rights Committee estimates that between 30,000 and 40,000 people died.

The press office of the Muslim Brotherhood reported that the regime’s armed forces lost 3,412 men while a further 5,000 were wounded, in the fighting that occurred between 2 and 22 February (Batatu, 1999: 274). On the other hand, it has not supplied precise figures for the total number of dead.

The French researcher Michel Seurat based himself on Amnesty International’s inquiry of November 1983 to assess the scale of the catastrophe – that is, between 10,000 and 25,000 dead depending on sources. It is likely that if we take all the figures, we can establishing that at least 20,000 people were victims of repression by the security forces out of a total population of 250,000, or nearly ten per cent.

The overwhelming majority of the dead were male Sunnis, the dominant religion of the city. Given the current state of the data, it is almost impossible to specify which age groups were most affected. Women and children were not particularly spared, above all in the case of assassination of members of the same family. The Christian population of Hamah was a very small minority, but numbered many victims in the bombardments. It would seem that it was severely affected given its small numbers. In any event, the main inquiries into the events observe that the mere fact of being an inhabitant of Hamah was sufficient condition for being targeted by the repression (Droz-Vincent, 2004: 269).

It was not only the bombardment by the army that caused the disappearance of around ten per cent of the city’s population, but also the siege imposed on it. As we have already highlighted, Hamah was completely cut off from the rest of the country and urgent food supplies could not operate. Logically, it was the most fragile individuals who succumbed to this treatment first – in other words, the elderly, children and sick people.

Very harsh conditions of detention, including torture and brutality, being crammed together and rationing, even starvation, helped swell the number of victims. Not to mention the fact that a very considerable proportion of those who were imprisoned never returned and that the Syrian government has never been able to supply the slightest information concerning them.

During the siege, the Syrian security forces used a classical instrument in such circumstances: terror. The mutilated bodies of civilians were thrown into the streets uncared for, in full view of everyone and under the vigilant guard of soldiers, preventing their burial. Witnesses have reported that when leading them to a detention centre, soldiers made them pass through alleys strewn with corpses. Although not systematic, rape was frequent, and the execution of women who put up fierce resistance has been reported. Summary executions of several members of the same family were often carried out in full view of children, when the latter were not sacrificed as well. Following the bombardments and mass murder, the soldiers engaged in pillage and mutilated numerous inhabitants in order to steal the jewels they were wearing. These practices helped fuel the climate of terror.

Given that the city had always been the stronghold of opposition to the established regime, and that the Ba’ath Party’s hostility to it was intense, the security apparatus was deployed on a commensurate scale. The repression was accompanied by a campaign to track down the enemy within (Lobmeyer, 1995). But it is highly significant that the authorities tried to erase all trace of the massacre as quickly as possible.

The destruction of part of the city inevitably led families to seek shelter elsewhere, because their homes had not escaped the bombardment. Other families preferred to leave the city, but for different reasons and essentially out of fear of reprisals, especially if they continued to be suspected of collusion with the Islamist opposition. In this respect, the vast campaign of ‘abductions’ of individuals linked to Hamah, probably conducted by the security forces, encouraged the departure of numerous inhabitants.

Finally, the reconstruction of Hamah began very shortly after the siege. Completely devastated by the fighting, the city centre had been restored less than a year later (Hottinger, 1983). Large roads were created to serve new districts on the periphery with new facilities: schools, commercial centres, sports facilities, but also a hospital and new buildings to house peasant associations. Highly symbolic was the reconstruction of two major mosques and the church of Hamah, which had been reduced to rubble.


D. Witnesses

According to the sources, it seems that the only foreign journalist present in the city’s vicinity at the time of the events was the Briton Robert Fisk. He managed to be there for a few days and related the attack in his book Pity the Poor Nation .

The journalist Arnold Hottinger also stayed there and in a very brief article attests to the state of mind of the inhabitants a year after the events. He refers to the wall of silence that descended on the city and the obvious omnipresence of intelligence agents. He also stresses the considerable efforts made by the Syrian political leaders to erase the scars of the armed offensive.

Next there is the information supplied by the press office of the Muslim Brotherhood and by the organisation’s militants. Most of it concerns the losses by government forces during the offensive and some fragmentary information on an engagement with around 500 men of the ‘Defence Brigades’ during the night of 2 February 1982 (Batatu, 1999: 269).

Aside from a few photographs, there is no known filmed document that might offer an account of the clashes. On the initiative of Amnesty International some facts have been able to be reconstructed on the basis of evidence from inhabitants. Unfortunately, we do not possess any personal declaration from senior civilian and military officials who took part in the events.


E. Memory of the Event

It must be remembered that the fighting in Hamah occurred in a climate of revolt. Already known for being highly opaque, the Syrian regime immured itself to cope with the destabilisation and, today still, ensures that no one in Syria challenges the status of the massacre as an ‘incident’. It will therefore be readily understood that the Syrian press has up to now never been able to account for this tragic episode in the country’s history.

Overall, the brutality of the repression was experienced as a veritable trauma by Hamah’s population and has left an enduring psychological mark. Given the unequal balance of forces, and the determination of those who hold power to sacrifice a percentage of inhabitants in order to preserve political order, there has been little temptation to speak out. Furthermore, law 49 punishing membership of the movement of the Muslim Brotherhood with death is still in force; not to mention the fact that any act pertaining to the ‘dissemination of false news’ is also subject to charges before the courts. In such a context, minor initiatives rapidly assume a subversive character.

It must also be emphasised that after February 1982 a very large number of people subject to repression were imprisoned, officially in order to place them at the disposal of justice and the authorities. A fair number of them, including the grand Mufti of Hamah, a religious authority, have never reappeared (Syrian Human Rights Committee, 2005). This type of procedure was obviously intended to organise the disappearance of the maximum number of people likely to relay their testimony beyond the private sphere – something that was a cause of concern to the authorities. It was imperative that the example of Hamah be a deterrent, that it symbolize violence and fear, but that evidence damning to the regime could not be collected in significant quantity.

Finally, the repression at Hamah is a taboo that Syria’s rulers aim to maintain unwaveringly. In fact, more than twenty years later the activity of the successors in government posts derives from the same institutional and political framework. This indicates that the bases of the government have not changed substantially since the massacre, but above all that those who are now at the head of the state already occupied various positions of responsibility at the time, particularly the officers of the armed forces. A summary sociology of the power elite shows that religious affiliation is still important, which has the effect of fuelling the social antagonisms of yesteryear. To place the Hamah massacre in the public domain would be to stir up social tensions that are already visible and remind people that the Muslim Brothers represented the most destabilising opposition to the regime.

For all these reasons, no ‘labour of memory’ has been able to be initiated in Syria, although some observers mentioned the possibility of it with the accession to power of Bashar al-Assad. By opting for liberalisation, albeit limited, the political leadership could benefit from more pluralism. Consequently, it is conceivable that a fraction of the elite is favourable to history or the public authorities judging ‘the event’, as happened in Morocco under the new reign of Mohamed VI.

In conclusion, in Syria, the ‘labour of memory’ concerning Hamah is posed more in terms of extending political pluralism than in terms of a generational renewal of the elite.


F. Interpretation of the Facts

What echo did the drama of Hamah have among the ten million Syrians of the time and how should this event be located in the country’s history?

Unfortunately, the first question is difficult to raise while this particular regime lasts.

To answer the second question, Fouad Ajami offers us some interpretative leads: ‘the tactics and passions of the true believers in the Brotherhood may have been somewhat extreme, but they served as a vehicle for the resentments of the Sunni majority […] The cadets were no longer the symbol of national security in a sacred fight with Israel but the beneficiaries of a regime of privilege and corruption. The Brotherhood eluded the regime’s determination to crush it because it fed off the sympathies of the majority of the population’ (Ajami, 1992: 215).

From the authorities’ standpoint, the objectives were clear. It was a question of putting down the uprising by whatever means it took, and ‘eradicating’ the Islamist opposition. By demonstrating that the government was ready for anything, including the massacre of its own population, to ensure its bsurvival, it established a balance of forces completely unfavourable to the opposition. For the political scientist Hanna Batatu, the massacre was intended to serve as a repellent to ‘all of Syria’s other cities and to Syrians of all political tendencies’ (Batatu, 1999: 274).

After Hamah, the main leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood still in Syria joined the exiles in Germany, who had fled the first wave of repression in 1977. Where possible, the escaped leaders of the Tali’a al-muqatila (the ‘fighting vanguard’), in particular Adnan Oqla, took refuge in Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.

Despite everything, a ‘national alliance for the liberation of Syria’ was constructed some time later, combining the organisation of the Syrian Brothers and some secular parties, such as the Arab Socialist Movement, in a common front against the regime. The authorities reacted by entering into secret, differentiated negotiations. Ali Duba, head of Military Intelligence, was charged with this task. He proceeded with skill in neutralising the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, already prey to defections. The negotiations with the political wing were more difficult and no general agreement was arrived at. From this process there resulted, several years later, the shattering of the ‘alliance’ and the division of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood into several currents, such as the historical branch of Issam al-Attar, of Ali Bayanuni, or of Adnan Sa’deddine, which diverged as regards the course of action to adopt towards the Syrian government.

For the sociologist Michel Seurat, the Hamah clashes must be located in a more profound problematic than that of the legitimacy and contestation of a regime. He regards the violence as ‘the driving force of the social system’ (Seurat, 1989: 39). Indeed, how otherwise to explain ‘the ferocity with which Special Units of the regime pounded Hamah’? The author develops his argument around the fact that the Alawis, who in a sense constituted the minority in power at the time (something that is still in a way valid today), were formerly, and for a long time, exploited and humiliated. They have always been regarded as belonging to a deviant, sectarian branch of orthodox Islam and, as a result, persecuted by the Sunnis. Hamah was an expression of their bitterness and resentment of the notables of that city, who contributed to their degradation. Even if social relations had developed in their general aspect since the seizure of power by the Ba’ath in 1963, Alawite senior officials remained convinced that ‘the least concession on their part would reduce them to their former condition of «wretched of the earth»’ (Seurat, 1989: 41). Seurat regards the ‘brutal exercise’ of power as the condition of regeneration of community solidarity. In sum, he suggests that the ‘esprit de corps’ of this religious minority in Syria tends to be strengthened when the individuals who compose it take part, in a unitary and sometimes violent fashion, in social conflicts. We find the premises of this idea in the historian Ibn Khaldun, for whom tribal and clan wars are a way of consolidating the cohesion of a group with a view to political domination. This specific violence is arguably as indicative of ‘the organization of the social system’ as of the will of the Syrian leaders to employ terror.

Bold as it is, this interpretation takes account of socio-political developments since the seizure of power by Hafez al-Assad in 1970 and is based on rigorous field work. Consequently, it is inappropriate to ignore it. In the manner we have briefly described, the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s witnessed a real exacerbation of extremism in the country, bringing social tensions – between different communities – and state coercion to levels not seen since independence. The question that remains posed, and which Michel Seurat has tried to find an answer to, is the following: why did the Syrian government respond to the armed revolt of the Muslim Brothers in such a disproportionate and pitiless fashion, exterminating thousands of civilians?

An answer is possible on condition that we understand the perception which the leaders of the time had of the Islamist opposition and compare it with the threat that it objectively represented in a country which is more than 70 per cent Sunni. It was not so much the ideological confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood that the political leadership feared, but more its mobilising potential, sustained by the idea that fourteen centuries attested in the region to the ‘imprescriptible right of Sunni Islam’ to take control of affairs (Seurat, 1989: 60). For the main leaders, the idea of being overthrown would have meant not only their relegation to the antechamber of political life, but above all the real risk of being the object of popular persecution and the possibility that the newcomers would conduct a brutal purge of the state apparatus.

But as we have already signalled, the threat of the regime falling was at the time rather small. Two reasons prompt us to think so: the state of stabilisation of the institutions established in 1973 and the relative political incapacity of the Muslim Brotherhood. During the troubles, party and government officials first of all tried to mobilise the population in support of the regime. This was done through the relays at the disposal of the government – i.e. popular organizations like trade unions and associations. Then they initiated negotiations with clerics known to be close to the radical current of opinion. For their part, the ‘Brothers’ underestimated the difficulty of organizing a multi-sectoral mobilisation and suffered from the poverty of their political project.

Be that as it may, events took on an altogether different shape after the failed assassination attempt on Hafez al-Assad on 26 June 1980. The determination of the Muslim Brothers to subvert the Syrian security and Ba’athist order was no longer in doubt. What is more, it demonstrated their propensity to infiltrate the armed forces. Henceforth the regime relied on its repressive institutions and there followed round-ups in the regions of the North (Aleppo, Hamah), which were regarded as permeable to the propaganda of the Muslim Brotherhood. Added to this was the setting up of Alawite militias, the bloody reprisal operations of the Special Forces for attacks on officials, and the strengthening of penal laws. From 1981 onwards, it seems that any possibility of stemming the cycle of violence had manifestly disappeared. Moreover, analysts who deal with the evolution of the Syrian regime then revised their judgement and became notoriously pessimistic about the chances of the system escaping a shock in the short term. It is likely that in these circumstances the most radical fringes of the government, mainly concentrated in the security apparatus, decisively influenced the decision-making process. Thus, primacy was given to the solutions they proposed for resolving the conflict. It seems that on the ground they had complete freedom to assess the situation and act in consequence, in order to destroy the opposition and ‘defend the gains of the revolution’, the use of terror being one of the means of achieving this. This endemic violence probably made Hamah the paroxysmal point of an antinomy between the action of the political leadership and the social dynamic.

The totality of non-government organizations and observers at the time characterised the events at Hamah as a ‘massacre’. In conclusion, no one will contest the organised character of the process of destruction by Syria’s rulers of combatants and, above all, civilians, as well as their goods, in order to achieve particular objectives. Today, the issue of judging the main protagonists in this drama, in the ranks of government, remains hypothetical, even inconceivable. In fact, the first of them, Hafez al-Assad, died in June 2000.


G. Bibliography

No book takes the Hamah massacre as its main theme. Information relevant to the event is to be found only in numerous sections and sub-sections of books on wider themes – in particular, the Islamist opposition and conflicts in the contemporary Middle East, political and social life in Syria, or new ideologies in the Arab world. Only a few articles take the event as their main subject, such as Arnold Hottinger’s, but also Thomas L. Friedman’s.

Two main reports from non-governmental organizations are available – that of Amnesty International and that of the Syrian Human Rights Committee. Testimony about the events can also be read in the publications of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Hadhir).


Reports and Communiqués

Amnesty International, 1983, Syria: An Amnesty International Briefing , London.

Amnesty International, 1983, Report from Amnesty International to the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic .

Report of the Syrian Human Rights Committee, 2005:

Communiqué of the Islamic revolution in Syria and its success, 1980, ‘Bayan al-thawrat al islamiyah fi suriya wa najahuda ‘, Damascus: Command of the Islamic Revolution in Syria.



ABD-ALLAH, F. Umar, 1983, The Islamic Struggle in Syria , Berkeley: Mizan Press.

AJAMI, Fouad, 1992, The Arab Predicament: Arab Political Thought and Practice since 1967 , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

BATATU, Hanna, 1999, Syria’s Peasants, the Descendants of its Lesser Rural Notables and their Politics , Princeton: Princeton University Press.

CARRE, Olivier and MICHAUD, Gérard (eds), 1983, Les Frères musulmans: Egypt et Syrie, 1928-1982 , : Gallimard.

Droz-Vincent, Philippe, 2004, Moyen-Orient: pouvoirs autoritaires, sociétés bloqués , : Presses Universitaires de France (The Middle East: Authoritarian Governments and Blocked Societies ).

DEKMEJIAN, R. Hrair, 1985, Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World , Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

FISK, Robert, 2001, Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War , New York: Oxford University Press (3rd edition).

HEYDEMANN, Steven, 1999, Authoritarianism in Syria: Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946-1970 , Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

KAMINSKI, Catherine and KRUK, Simon (eds), 1987, La Syrie: politiques et stratégies de 1966 à nos jours , : Presses Universitaires de France (Syria: Policies and Strategies from 1966 to the Present ).

LOBMEYER, Hans Günter, 1995, Opposition und Widerstand in Syrien , Hamburg: Deutsches Orient-Institut (Opposition and Resistance in Syria ).

MITCHELL, P. Richard, 1993, The Society of the Muslim Brothers , New York: Oxford University Press.

SEALE, Patrick, 1998,Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East , London: I.B. Tauris.

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Cite this item

Quiades Ismael, The Hamah Massacre - February 1982, Mass Violence & Résistance, [online], published on: 22 December, 2009, accessed 17/05/2021,, ISSN 1961-9898
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