x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Assault on Homs happening before the world's eyes

The 1982 assault on Hama bears many similarities to Bashar Al Assad's attack on Homs but this time the world is watching.

Damascus // While there are numerous similarities between the recent assault on Homs and the notorious massacre in Hama 30 years ago, there are also crucial differences.

In both cases, loyalist forces besieged rebellious urban areas for weeks, shelling populated neighbourhoods with artillery before moving in to crush remaining resistance.

For the president Hafez Al Assad, the month-long campaign against Hama in February 1982 broke the back of what had been an extended and violent challenge by Islamist militants to his leadership and the rule of his secular Baath party.

If the battle was largely one-sided, pitting lightly armed insurgents against well-equipped and well-trained soldiers, it was also decisive.

Between 10,000 and 40,000 people, mainly civilians, are estimated to have died in the Hama assault. It destroyed both Hama's historic old city and the largely Islamist opposition. For the remaining 18 years of his presidency and the remainder of his life, Hafez Al Assad would face no serious domestic opponent.

The lure of delivering a similarly conclusive blow appears to have informed the tactics of Bashar Al Assad in Homs, the son following closely the path mapped out by the father. Even the justification of fighting Islamist "terrorists" has remained the same.

Three decades have, however, brought many changes to derail those plans, not least modern communications. Hafez was able to smash his enemies away from the glare of publicity. Tightly controlled state media meant that even in other parts of Syria people had little idea of the violence taking place in Hama. Infamously, no one has produced a single photograph showing the victims of the attack.

Bashar has enjoyed no such secrecy. Despite state media still attempting to control information, residents of Homs have meticulously documented the devastation using digital cameras and broadcast the scenes worldwide using the internet and satellite television channels.

If the Hama massacre was almost a secret until after it had happened, Homs was played out blow by blow, sometimes over live transmission, in the international media. Fewer people were killed in Homs - there are no firm numbers, with human-rights groups saying there were hundreds of victims - but they died in front of a watching country and a watching world.

That put the Syrian regime under much greater pressure than was faced by the regime of 30 years ago.

The authorities in Damascus, with support from their allies in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran, have been able to weather the diplomatic storm but even Russian patience wore thin over the obstruction of aid agencies trying to reach the Homs neighbourhood of Baba Amr.

After a rare United Nations Security Council rebuke demanding access, Valerie Amos, the UN humanitarian aid chief, eventually entered the city briefly last week. She said Baba Amr was "completely destroyed", comments that will only add to pressure on the international community to take firm action.

More important has been the different domestic response. When Hama rebelled in the 1980s, it did so largely in isolation. It sparked no wider rebellion, there was no public show of solidarity by other Syrians, or outraged protests against the government's actions.

In contrast, Homs has not been alone. Demonstrations have taken place nationwide in support of the bombarded neighbourhoods, just as protesters in Homs and elsewhere took to the streets in support of Deraa in April, and of Deir Ezzor and, once again, Hama, as they suffered Ramadan assaults. A key motif of Syria's uprising has been the unity between otherwise distant rebelling cities and towns.

Hama in 1982 was a Sunni Muslim revolt, directed against the ruling Alawite minority for religious reasons. Despite sectarian undertones, today's uprising has been much broader, drawing support from across Syria's ethnic and sectarian groups. Activists stress they want to overthrow the regime not because it is dominated by Alawites, but because it is corrupt, violent, autocratic and allows them few civil rights.

Bashar Al Assad's military forces were able to overcome the poorly armed rebel fighters who had dug into Baba Amr, seizing what had been a key opposition stronghold.

However, the government has far from delivered a decisive blow. Government troops continue to fight in Homs, Deraa, Deir Ezzor, Idlib and rural Damascus, treading the same ground they are supposed to have already conquered.

Instead of terrifying the opposition into silence as it once did, regime violence is now having the opposite effect, galvanising activists' determination to topple it once and for all, whatever the cost.

Hama in 1982 was the final battle that brought a conclusive victory for the father, Hafez Al Assad. Despite the devastation of Homs in 2012, that goal continues to elude the son, and the struggle for Syria remains far from over.






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