x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

History has a lesson for Assad: the Hama model leads to war

Syria's president Bashar Al Assad should consider two political dilemmas from the 1980s, one as a model, the other as a warning.

Hama in February 1982. The war machine of the Assads is destroying one of Syria's largest cities. First comes the attack from the air, swiftly followed by tanks and troops on the streets. The city is surrounded and repeatedly shelled, large areas are reduced to rubble, and many who survive the onslaught die from starvation or thirst. By the end of the three-week assault, tens of thousands are dead, a devastation that will serve for decades as a gruesome model of how repressive governments can defeat insurgencies.

The Hama model has remained a staple of political theory: the use of overwhelming force to crush any opposition. It is also the model that the new president, Bashar Al Assad, has used against the year-long insurgency that threatens to overthrow his regime.

Unsurprisingly, given the continuity of the military men surrounding the Syrian president, the strategy has barely changed: the younger Assad has tried to do in Homs what his father did in Hama. In many cases, the tactics - surrounding and besieging the city, using devastating force in civilian areas - are essentially identical.

Yet the world has changed. The communications revolution and increasing interconnectedness make that strategy less and less likely to succeed. Indeed, the presence of international observers on the ground in Syria today, and the bellicose stance of Syria's neighbours, show how difficult it is to apply the model.

Rather, if Assad the younger has time to study history, he would do well to consider two other political dilemmas of the 1980s: one as a model, the other as a warning.

The model in Poland was the long-running underground movement against communist rule sparked by the trade union Solidarity. Solidarity was the first labour union in a country dominated by the Soviets. What started as a way of getting better working conditions in the Gdansk shipyards escalated into a broad movement for social change.

From the shipyards in the north, the movement spread through factories and offices across the country, seriously threatening the rule of the communist regime. When, in 1981, several members of Solidarity were beaten and a four-hour "warning" strike was called in response, the country was utterly paralysed and the limits of the government's power exposed.

As with the Hama uprising - and occurring at about the same time - Poland's government attempted to crush the movement by instituting martial law, arresting its leaders and driving it underground. But Solidarity did not die; instead, it continued publishing newspapers and holding street demonstrations. A leader of the movement, Lech Walesa, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Solidarity, as one journalist later put it, was "illegal in plain sight".

By the end of the decade, with a new era of openness pushed by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, social unrest was gathering pace and Poland's government began secret discussions with Solidarity. These resulted in "Round Table" talks that ushered in a new era.

Despite all that has happened in this past year, despite all the blood spilt by the regime's troops, this is still an option. If Mr Al Assad began good-faith negotiations with the opposition and agreed on genuine reform, there would still be a window of political opportunity to end the crisis peacefully.

If he does not take that path, history offers an alternative example from the 1980s: the Lebanese civil war, which should serve as a warning. Mr Al Assad has declared that he is fighting for the safety of Syria, yet his obstinacy could destroy it.

Opposition to his rule started non-violently (and remains largely so), yet the scale of the military's repression of protesters gives prominence to the armed rebels of the Free Syrian Army. The logic of the conflict is becoming militarised; weapons are entering the country and rebels no longer talk about merely defending protesters, but of avenging deaths and bringing down the regime.

This will be familiar to anyone who recalls the conflicts of the Lebanese civil war. By the 1980s, that war was locked into the same cycle of retribution and revenge, unlike the low-intensity attacks that began the war in 1975. The generals around Mr Al Assad should recall that it was Syria that tried to implement a diplomatic solution - with some success in the 1970s - but that by the 1980s, all sides had entrenched positions from which there was no negotiation.

This is where Syria is headed, pushed by Mr Al Assad's insistence that protesters are nothing more than "terrorists". If Mr Al Assad knew his history, he would know that Poland's Round Table talks would not guarantee his rule. The communist government eventually agreed to elections and passed into history, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Poland survived.

By going to war with his own people, Mr Al Assad is taking Syria down Lebanon's road and a spiral of war from which that country has not yet recovered. The logic of Hama will lead to the war of Beirut.

The more that Mr Al Assad acts as if this is a fight to the finish, the more probable that outcome is. And if his regime goes down, it might take the country with it.



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai