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Hama massacre
Location Hama, Syria
Date February 2, 1982
Target Muslim Brotherhood
Attack type Scorched earth
Deaths 17,000 to 40,000

The Hama massacre (Template:Lang-ar) occurred in February 1982, when the Syrian army bombarded the town of Hama in order to quell a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood. An estimated 17,000 to 40,000 people were killed, including about 1,000 soldiers,[1] and large parts of the old city were destroyed. The attack has been described as possibly being "the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East".[2]


The Arab nationalist Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party of Syria and the conservative Muslim Brotherhood had clashed in Syria since 1940.[3] The two groups were opposed in important ways. The Ba'ath party was secular, nationalist and led by the minority Alawites, which conservative Sunni Muslims considered Apostates. The Muslim Brotherhood, like other Islamist groups, saw nationalism as unIslamic and religion as inseparable from politics and government. Most Ba'ath party members were from humble and obscure backgrounds and favored radical economic policies, while Sunni Muslims had dominated the souqs and landed power of Syria, and tended to see government intervention in the economy as a threat.[4] While not all Sunni notables believed in fundamentalism, those who did not often saw the Brotherhood as a useful tool against the Ba'ath.[5]

Hama in particular was a "stronghold of landed conservatism and of the Muslim Brothers," and "had long been a redoubtable opponent of the Ba'thist state."[3]

The first full-scale clash between the two occurred shortly after the 1963 coup in which the Ba'ath party first gained power in Syria. In April 1964 riots broke out in Hama where Muslim insurgents put up "roadblocks, stockpiled food and weapons, ransacked wine shops." After an Ismaili Ba'ath militia man was killed, riots intensified and rebels attacked "every vestige" of the Ba'th party in Hama. Tanks were brought in to crush the rebellion and 70 Muslim Brothers died, with many others wounded or captured, and still more disappearing underground.[3]

In 1979 the Brotherhood undertook guerrilla activities in multiple cities within the country targeting military officers, government officials, Christians, and infrastructure. The resulting government repression included abusive tactics, torture, mass arrests, and a number of massacres. Anti-regime violence included the killing of eighty-three mainly Alawite military cadets at an artillery school in Aleppo in June 1979, and three car bomb attacks in Damascus between August and November 1980 that killed several hundred people. In July 1980, membership in the Muslim Brotherhood was made a capital offense, with the ratification of Law No. 49. Throughout the first years of the 1980s the Muslim Brotherhood and various other Islamist factions staged hit-and-run and bomb attacks against the government and its officials, including a nearly successful attempt to assassinate president Hafez al-Assad on June 26, 1980, during an official state reception for the president of Mali. When a machine-gun salvo missed him, al-Assad allegedly ran to kick a hand grenade aside, and his bodyguard (who survived and was later promoted to a much higher position) smothered the explosion of another one. Surviving with only light injuries, al-Assad's revenge was swift and merciless: only hours later a large number of imprisoned Islamists (most reports ranged from several hundred to approximately 1000) were murdered in their cells in Tadmor Prison (near Palmyra), by units loyal to the president's brother Rifaat al-Assad.

Attack by insurgents

The events of the massacre began on 2 a.m. on 3 February 1982. An army unit searching the old city "stumbled on the hideout of the local guerilla commander, `Umar Jawwad," (aka Abu Bakr) and were ambushed. Other insurgent cells were allerted by radio and "roof-top snipers killed perhaps a score" of Syrian soldiers. Reinforcements were rushed to besiege Abu Bakr who then "gave the order for a general uprising" in Hama. Mosque loudspeakers used for the call to prayer called for jihad against the Ba'ath, and hundreds of Islamic insurgents rose attack the homes of government officials and Baath Party leaders, overrun police posts and ransack armouries. By daybreak of the morning of 3 February some 70 leading Ba'thists had been killed and the Islamist insurgents and other opposition activists proclaimed Hama a "liberated city", urging Syrians to rise up against the "infidel".[6]

Attack by government forces

According to author Patrick Seale, "every party worker, every paratrooper sent to Hama knew that this time Islamic militancy had to be torn out of the city, whatever the cost ..." [7]

The military was mobilized, and president Hafez al-Assad sent Rifaat's special forces (the Defense companies), elite army units and Mukhabarat agents to the city. Before the attack, the Syrian government called for the city's surrender and warned that anyone remaining in the city would be considered a rebel. Besieged by 12,000 troops, the fighting in Hama lasted for three weeks - the first week "in regaining control of the town," and the last two "in hunting down the insurgents."[7] Robert Fisk in his book Pity the Nation described how civilians were fleeing Hama while tanks and troops were moving towards the city's outskirts to start the siege. He cites reports of high numbers of deaths and shortages of food and water from fleeing civilians and from soldiers.[8]

According to Amnesty International, the Syrian military bombed the old city center from the air to facilitate the entry of infantry and tanks through the narrow streets; buildings were demolished by tanks during the first four days of fighting. Large parts of the old city were destroyed. There are also unsubstantiated reports of use of hydrogen cyanide by the government forces.[1] After encountering fierce resistance, Rifaat's forces ringed the city with artillery and shelled it for three weeks.

Afterwards, military and internal security personnel were dispatched to comb through the rubble for surviving Brothers and their sympathizers.[9] Torture and mass executions of suspected rebel sympathizers ensued, killing many thousands over several weeks.

Fatality estimates

Estimates of casualties vary from an estimated 7,000 to 35,000 people killed, including about 1,000 soldiers.[1] Robert Fisk, who was in Hama shortly after the massacre, estimated fatalities at 10,000.[10] The Independent estimates death toll as up to 20,000.[11] According to Thomas Friedman, he heard through friends that Rifaat had later boasted of killing 38,000 people.[12] Amnesty International initially estimated the death toll was between 10,000 and 25,000, the vast majority innocent civilians.[13]

Reports by the Syrian Human Rights Committee estimate "over 25,000"[14] or between 30,000 to 40,000 people were killed.[15][16] The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood also suggests a figure of approximately 40,000 victims.

Twenty years later, Syrian journalist Subhi Hadidi, wrote that "under the command of General 'Ali Haydar, besieged the city for 27 days, bombarding it with heavy artillery and tank [fire], before invading it and killing 30,000 or 40,000 of the city's citizens - in addition to the 15,000 missing who have not been found to this day, and the 100,000 expelled." [17]

After the massacre

After the Hama uprising, the Islamist insurrection was broken, and the Brotherhood has since operated in exile while other factions surrendered or slipped into hiding. Government attitudes in Syria hardened considerably during the uprising, and Assad would rely more on repressive than on political tactics for the remainder of his rule, although a partial re-liberalization began again in the 1990s.

After the massacre, the already evident disarray in the insurgents' ranks increased, and the rebel factions experienced acrimonious internal splits. Particularly damaging to their cause was the deterrent effect of the massacre, as well as the realization that no Sunni uprisings had occurred in the rest of the country in support of the Hama rebels. Most members of the rebel groups fled the country or remained in exile, mainly in Jordan and Iraq, while others would make their way to the US, the United Kingdom and Germany. The Islamist groups either made peace with the regime or melted away, while the Muslim Brotherhood—the largest such group—split into two factions, after giving up on armed struggle. One, more moderate and recognized by the international Muslim Brotherhood, eventually headquartered itself in the UK where it remains, while another for several years retained a military structure in Iraq, with backing from the government, before rejoining the London-based mainstream.

Western countries denounced the attack[citation needed] as a breach of human rights and a massacre, and the Hama massacre is often raised in indictment of the Assad regime's poor human rights record. Within Syria, mention of the massacre has been strictly suppressed, although the general contours of the events—and various partisan versions, on all sides—are well-known throughout the country. When the massacre is publicly referenced, it is only as the "events" or "incident" at Hama.

See also

Further reading


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "Hama". Retrieved 2009-11-14.
  2. Wright, Robin, Dreams and Shadows : the Future of the Middle East, Penguin Press, 2008, p.243-4
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Seale, Patrick, Asad, the Struggle for the Middle East, University of California Press, 1989, p.93
  4. Seale, Patrick, Asad, the Struggle for the Middle East, University of California Press, 1989, p.37, 93, 148, 171
  5. Seale, Patrick, Asad, the Struggle for the Middle East, University of California Press, 1989, p.335
  6. Seale, Patrick, Asad, the Struggle for the Middle East, University of California Press, 1989, p.332
  7. 7.0 7.1 Seale, Patrick, Asad, the Struggle for the Middle East, University of California Press, 1989, p.333
  8. Pity the Nation, pages 185-86
  9. (The Age of Sacred Terror by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, Random House, c2002, p.86
  10. Pity the Nation, pages 186
  11. "Robert Fisk: Conspiracy of silence in the Arab world". The Independent (London). February 10, 2007. Retrieved May 4, 2010.
  12. From Beirut to Jerusalem, pages 76-105
  13. Wright, Robin, Dreams and Shadows : the Future of the Middle East, Penguin Press, 2008, p.243-4
  14. Massacre of Hama (February 1982) Genocide and A crime against Humanity
  15. (arabic)
  16. The Massacre of Hama: Law Enforcement Requires Accountability, (Syrian Human Rights Committee, February 1, 2005
  17. MEMRI (January 2002). "Bashar Assad Teaches Visiting Members of U.S. Congress How to Fight Terrorism". Middle East Media Research Institute. Retrieved 2010-08-12.

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