Decades after the bloody Hama massacre, Syrian regime head Bashar al Assad has managed to cling to power, like his father, under the averted gaze of world powers.
The Syrian war has been a calamity by any measure. From a brutal crackdown that provoked an insurgency to the entry of two world powers, two regional powers, and thousands of international fighters, the conflict has uprooted two-thirds of Syria’s population, about half of those forced abroad.
It’s no surprise that the Assad regime has clung on at Damascus even as much of the remaining country is either foreign-controlled or aflame. This month marks forty years since the February 1982 massacre at Hama, which snuffed out five years of opposition through shock and awe.
Decades later, in the crackdown of 2011, Bashar Assad followed the precedent that his father Hafez had set at Hama: exploiting a cunning foreign policy that made the regime indispensable to any number of foreign powers, as insurance for pharaonic-level domestic repression.
The Assads’ cynical foreign policy has repeatedly given the lie to pious protestations of international accountability and justice, and Syria – both the state and its population – has paid the price for the regime’s hold.
It was common in the early 2010s to hear comparisons between Libya, whose quixotic leader Muammar Gaddafi fell prey to a foreign-assisted revolt, and Syria. Such comparisons missed a key point: Gaddafi’s forty years of unpredictability had cost him international support, and though several countries, notably Russia, protested the haste with which his opposition received foreign support, none would step in on his behalf.
In contrast, the Assads made themselves regionally indispensable not only to Moscow, with whom they have had a long and close relationship but even to Washington, whose love-hate relationship always slides to preservation in a crunch.
Far from a Libya-style regime change, many signs pointed to the United States abandoning attempts to remove Assad early on, due to a multitude of reasons. This relationship with the United States was inherited from Hafez Assad, whose seizure of power in 1970 was the climax of a decade of instability in Syrian politics, the last among a dizzying number of coups and mutinies.
The military that had come to dominate Syrian politics had been itself riddled with factions. The Baath party that supposedly provided the ideological impetus to Assad’s faction had gone into opposition abroad. This led many observers to call 1960s Damascus a neo-Baath regime comprised of competing officers, mainly from Syria’s minorities.
As in the present day, when his opposition to mainly purportedly extremist militants makes Bashar a known quantity in international spheres, during the 1970s Hafez exploited regional apprehensions about Palestinian armed groups. Like his rivals in Amman and Cairo, Hafez saw them as a destabilising influence – that could drag them into war with Israel, or disrupt internal politics – and thus had to be kept subordinate to state interests.
He thus particularly tried to undermine the significant Fatah faction, wielding rival groups as a counterweight and constantly manipulating divisions in the Palestinian ranks. Despite Syria’s history of wars with Israel, Assad was seen, in comparison to the Palestinians, as a necessary evil by Tel Aviv and its major backer, the United States. The same holds today with the Syrian opposition.
Assad’s usefulness as a force against the Palestinian militants was most apparent in Lebanon. Here, the large Palestinian militant presence and frequent, heavy-handed Israeli raids had exacerbated longstanding sociopolitical division. In the ensuing polarisation, most Palestinian groups were drawn into the Lebanese opposition’s orbit.
Assad intervened, backing Maronite militiamen in the siege and slaughter of the Palestinian camps in 1976. Despite Assad’s affiliation with the Soviet bloc, this was approved by Washington who shared Damascus’ concern that Palestinian armed groups would upset the regional order.
Thus began thirty years of Syrian rule in Lebanon. Not coincidentally, it also provoked insurgency among Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, who had long harboured links with Palestinian groups.
Although the regime equated the revolt with the banned Muslim Brotherhood, it was a far more widespread phenomenon. The Muslim Brotherhood only exercised partial power in the exiled coalition of its leaders, while on the ground, autonomous commanders such as Adnan Uqla led the fray. Once more, there is a parallel with the 2010s, where an opposition largely divorced from its exiled spokespeople was accused of being a Brotherhood ruse.
The neo-Baath regime had always been suffered impatiently by Syria’s Sunni majority; Hama had already seen a brief revolt in spring 1964. Assad senior had tried with some success to forge ties with Sunni economic elites and, in another policy inherited by his son, had used the threat of majoritarian dominance to equate his secularist regime to security with Syria’s minorities.
In fact, Syria's Sunni majority had long coexisted with its minorities: what sectarianism exists was by no means exclusive to or typical of Sunnis. But Assad – whose regime was dominated by a small network, especially the disproportionately influential intelligence wing of the air force from which he hailed – was keen to paint himself at home and abroad as a protector of minorities as well as a scion of regional stability. This strategy has proven effective today for Bashar, even as virulently sectarian militias of other sects back his regime.
The Syrian war escalated in the early 1980s. Then, as in the 2010s, Aleppo came under siege; then, as now, the dictator’s family led the fray. Much as Maher Assad has served as Bashar’s praetorian battering ram, so Hafez relied on his brother Rifaat to crush the revolt with brute force.
An incredibly exhaustive slaughter accompanied the capture of Hama; at least 10,000 people – if not several times that number – were butchered in the modestly sized city. The shock and awe temporarily terrorised the rebels into surrender, but the scars would reopen when the regime tried the same strategy in 2011.
The 1980s war, as in the 2010s, saw the Assads exploit their geopolitical usefulness to several powers, their opposition to regional militancy, and their effective blackmail of minoritarian communities to wage violence without restraint.
Again, their strategy has seen most governments, overtly or otherwise, trade this off as an acceptable price for a “predictable” regime in Damascus. Unlike the 1980s, however, today’s war shows little sign of abating.
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