Besieged city of Hama has long been in Syrian regime’s sights


Raed Habbal was not a particularly devout Muslim, a relative recalls. The 19-year-old college student and scion of a socialist family in the city of Hama even occasionally took a swig of alcohol with friends, the relative says.

But during the 1982 uprising in Hama, the young man was snatched up by security forces aiming to crush what they called an armed Islamist revolt. By the time the government crackdown ended, then-Syrian leader Hafez Assad’s forces had flattened swaths of Hama, the country’s fourth-largest city, and killed tens of thousands of civilians.

Nearly 30 years later, Habbal’s whereabouts remain a mystery. But Syrians rising up against an entrenched authoritarian government now run by the late Assad’s son, Bashar, have begun to reevaluate the events before, during and after the Hama-centered revolt, especially now that the government has launched new attacks on the city.


Seeking to connect the current protest movement to previous civil disobedience, opposition forces are intent on making it clear that the struggle in 1982 that preceded the mass slaughter was far more broad-based than a revolt staged by Islamist extremists eager to establish a religious state.

Such a narrative, they say, has been pushed over the years by the Assad dynasty and accepted as reality by a generation of foreign journalists, who have also reported on the cruelty of the wide-scale violence inflicted by the Assads’ Baath Party government in Hama.

“From the minute the Baath Party rose to power they have drowned history in lies, in an ocean of lies,” said Sofouh Tarazi, a Syrian poet and scholar from Hama who lives in the U.S.

Shining a new light on the past has been a key component of this year’s wave of uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. Protesters in the streets of Syria as well as in Yemen and on the battlefields of Libya have struggled not only to wrest control of their future from autocratic rulers, but to take back a history whitewashed for decades.

“The educational system is written by the regime,” said Ahed Hindi, a Syrian activist and historian now in Washington. “They always taught us that the Baath era has been the best, and that we continue to make our place in history. It’s not based on fact but on illusion.”

Syrian authorities squelched serious discussion of 1982. There is no mention in textbooks of the Hama uprising and the subsequent crackdown. Instead, every day before classes begin, students swear an oath of allegiance to the regime and its fight against “imperialism, Zionism and their criminal tools the Muslim Brotherhood.”


It was the fundamentalist Brotherhood that the Baath Party long blamed for instigating the violence in Hama. Many news reports, spurred by writers such as Patrick Seale, who chronicled Syria under the Assads, have long argued that the initial clashes were between Sunni Muslim fundamentalists and a secular state headed by the Alawite Assad family and its forces; Alawites are a small Shiite Muslim sect.

The armed wing of the Brotherhood was active at the time, launching a 1979 attack on a military academy in Aleppo.

“That the rest of Syria did not rally up with Hama was partly due to the savagery of the regime at the time but partly because the Islamist and sectarian trends in the movement alienated many in Syria,” said Asad AbuKhalil, a professor of political science at Cal State Stanislaus and author of a popular blog, the Angry Arab.

But largely unmentioned was the city’s long tradition of activism against the state.

“What happened in 1982 was an attack on the residents of Hama, without exception,” Mohammad Shaqfa, exiled leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, said in an email interview. “Some Baath Party followers were also killed. Mosques and churches were destroyed.”

In discussions now percolating among Syrians in Hama, many are coming to the conclusion that then, as now, there were few armed Islamists involved. They cite long-dormant witness accounts and the fact that many of those later locked up in prison were secular political activists rather than religious zealots.

“Many people killed in 1982 were not Islamists,” said Hindi, the historian. “Many were from leftist parties. According to many accounts, those who were armed did not exceed 100.”


Then, as now, massive antigovernment protests — largely leaderless — erupted in Idlib, Aleppo and Homs as well as Hama, they say. Security forces responded violently, and tightly controlled state media papered over the conflict as an armed Islamist uprising thwarted by a heroic regime.

“The first big power was the Brotherhood, they had even an armed wing, but there were a lot of people who were not from the Brotherhood, including Christians, communists, socialists, liberals,” said Samer, a computer specialist from Hama who spoke on condition that his last name not be used. “They wanted the same thing then that we want now: the downfall of the regime and the downfall of the Baath.”

Citizens of Hama first rose up in 1963, immediately after the Baath Party took control of the country and established an emergency law that curtailed civil liberties. Protests erupted again in 1973, when Hafez Assad pushed through a new constitution that bolstered the role of the president and his party, and removed Islam as the official state religion.

In 1982, Syrian authorities first said they wanted to negotiate with two Hama activists. Their bodies were discovered days later.

Once the troops entered the city, many activists say, 95% of those killed were innocent.

Hama residents are for the first time daring to speak out.

“People who were never religious in their lives were taken to the streets and shot,” said civil engineer Omar Habbal, a cousin of the slain 19-year-old and a third-generation socialist. “Most of Hama citizens are center-left, socialists. Hama is one of the least sectarian places.”

These days, protesters across Syria are attempting to recast the symbols of the past. In city centers they have ripped down statues of Hafez Assad. They have unfurled a decades-old green, white and black “flag of independence” that predates the pan-Arab nationalist flag now being used, provocatively challenging the country’s post-World War II history.


But nowhere is that effort more important than in Hama, residents say.

“We need freedom, and we want to be treated like human beings,” Habbal said. “We need a democratic country where our people can freely elect a good parliament and not have it chosen by the secret police.”

Special correspondent Roula Hajjar contributed to this report.