x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Government and protesters both invoke Hama massacre of 1982

Assad regime openly compares present situation with that of the early 1980s, insisting that now, as then, Syria facesan armed Islamic insurgency, while opposition activists use massacre as reminder of regime brutality and casual sacrifice of blood.

DAMASCUS // Almost three decades after a militant revolt was smashed by the army in Hama, the central Syrian city has again become a focal point for an anti-government uprising.

The ghosts of 1982, dormant but never laid to rest, have surfaced once more this week, with armed forces moving against protesters, killing more than 20 people, as security units attempt to reassert control over the city.

On the outskirts, the army is on standby, residents say, fuelling alarm that the military will be used yet again to crush dissent and make Hama bow before Syria's authoritarian regime.

Tomorrow is likely to prove a crucial test, pitting the city's rebellious will against the need of authorities to restore an uncontested hold over a major urban centre with more than 700,000 residents, a place some activists had started to refer to as "liberated". Last Friday, at least 500,000 demonstrators peacefully took to the streets, calling for the overthrow of President Bashar Al Assad. It was the largest show of dissent seen in Syria for years.

Under the leadership of Hafez Al Assad, Bashar's father, the revolt in 1982 of Sunni militant groups in Hama, including the Muslim Brotherhood, was ruthlessly put down. At least 10,000 and perhaps as many as 40,000 people were killed and large portions of the city levelled in a scorched earth operation personally supervised by Hafez's younger brother.

The sheer breadth and brutality of the elder Assad's crackdown, and the trauma it inflicted, has not been forgotten in Syria, either by regime members or those now arrayed against them.

Long suppressed memories - the Hama massacre, along with Syria's sectarian mix are two of the country's most taboo subjects - have deliberately been dredged up.

The authorities have openly compared the present situation with that of the early 1980s, insisting that now, as then, the country faces destruction by an armed Islamic insurgency.

While the government's military assault of 1982 has been condemned by human rights groups as a crime against humanity, significant numbers of Syrians continue to view it as a necessary and just battle, with the regime doing what was required to fight Islamic terrorism.

The resurrection of that narrative has struck a chord, particularly within Syria's minority Christians and Alawites, who fear that if the ostensibly secular regime should fall this time, it would be replaced by an austere Islamic legal system, not by the modern equality-based democracy that opposition activists promise.

Just as the authorities have employed the symbolism of Hama, portrayed as a centre of Islamic extremism, so have opposition activists sought to use it as a reminder of regime brutality and casual sacrifice of civilian blood.

Recent protests have seen demonstrators chanting "Damn your soul, Hafez", while Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a friend turned critic of Mr Assad, has warned Syria not to perpetrate "another Hama".

In a further indication that the city's bloody past is closely linked to its present, there have been growing suggestions that security chiefs from the 1980s are to be brought back by the authorities, in the hope they will again succeed in demolishing regime opponents.

After Saturday's sacking of the provincial governor, Ahmad Khaled Abdul Aziz, for undisclosed reasons, there has been a persistent rumour that a leading Hama security officer from the 1980s will be named as his replacement.

The outgoing governor was considered a liberal and, according to one of his colleagues, had clashed with powerful security figures soon after being appointed by Mr Assad in February - before the uprising began - insisting that as the city's top civilian authority, they should answer to him, not the other way round.

As anti-government protests gained momentum, Mr Abdul Aziz had publicly defended the right of residents to march, on condition they did so peacefully.

According to one associate of the former governor, he had been tasked with defusing tensions after a bloody day of demonstrations on June 3, when more than 60 protesting civilians were killed by security forces, according to human-rights groups.

Abdul Aziz "told the political leadership that the security solution wasn't working and asked that he be allowed to handle the situation, and he was given a chance to do that", the associate said on condition of anonymity.

Security forces were pulled back and in their absence, protesters cooperated with the city's civil administration and Hama became a model of peaceful large-scale dissent in Syria.

That development exposed as false regime claims of a dangerous Islamic insurgency, activists say.

"Under Abdul Aziz, the protests were peaceful but they kept getting bigger and that is why he was sacked. The leadership saw Hama was slipping out of their hands," his associate said.

Ever since that dismissal, the spectre of 1982 has loomed ever larger.

"Sacking Abdul Aziz means the regime has decided to go with the security solution in Hama again, like it did before, " said one dissident. "It is back to the old ways, the mentality never really changed."

psands@thenational.ae