On 2 February 1982, the Presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic ordered regular army units and special forces to besiege Hamah, the country’s fourth city, and bombard it. The aim of the assault was to respond to a revolt led by the Muslim Brotherhood movement based in Syria. For twenty days, fighting pitted troops from the contingent against the armed wing of the Muslim Brothers, but also the civilian population. Air strikes and mortar fire caused the death of several thousand civilians. Hamah was to be the scene of numerous exactions, including torture, summary executions and privations of every kind, committed against the local population by the regime’s praetorian guard.
By virtue of its scale, its violence, its organisation and the goals pursued, this military intervention constitutes a massacre.
The massacre in Hamah, a city with a population of some 250,000 at the time, was the culmination of a violent conflict between the Syrian authorities and the Islamist opposition, whose first stirrings date back to the mid-1970s but whose roots are older. Although focused on the domestic Syrian political scene, this confrontation was part of the wave of unrest that struck the Middle East in the same period.
Since the country’s independence in 1947, the political elite had found it difficult to construct a regime on the basis of the new territorial boundaries while accommodating the genuine desire for unification of the all the Arab ‘fatherlands’. An uninterrupted series of coup d’états attests to the disagreements that could arise in a traditional, multi-faith society – a Sunni majority, Shiites, Christians, Alawis, Druze, Ismailis – and the failure of the main political forces to unite populations over and above their customary clientele. Muffled struggles opposed various nationalist currents until the seizure of power by the leaders of the Ba’ath Party in 1963. This party, which claimed to be socialist, altered the political situation in as much as the structures in place since independence had been liberal in inspiration. It ended up governing the country throughout the 1960s, notwithstanding bitter internal struggles over preserving the ideological line of the historical founders. These struggles ended in the accession to power of the general and former Defence Minister, Hafez al-Assad, in November 1970, following a coup d’état.
Weary of persistent political instability, the commercial bourgeoisie of every religious observance, as well as the overwhelming majority of the peasantry, gave their support to the new President, who aimed to be a progressive and unifying force. However, the consensus within the elite did not take long to crumble when it emerged that a majority of the key posts in the state apparatus had fallen to the Alawite religious minority, from which Hafez al-Assad came. This was clearly visible in the army and intelligence services (Van Dam, 1996). The first challenges emerged with the action of the Muslim Brothers during the 1973 riots, following the attempt to promulgate a new Constitution.
The formation of the ‘Brothers’ in Syria probably occurred in Aleppo in 1935. At the instigation of religious leaders, some of its members took part in riots against the Ba’ath Party in 1964 in Hamah, a city with a reputation as a bastion of Sunni traditionalism. This revolt was a response to the launching by the new regime of a vast campaign of nationalization and marginalization of the old landowning elites (Heydemann, 1999: 174).