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Like Father, Like Son — Tyranny in Syria, A Massacre in Hama

As the civil war in Syria drags on with no end in sight, the humanitarian toll of the conflict becomes increasingly dire. The brutal crackdown carried out by Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s tyrannical president, initially targeted pro-democracy demonstrators but has since taken a sectarian turn as conservative Islamic groups fight the secular regime that prohibited groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood from operating.

The war has reopened old wounds as the regime and the Syrian army, which are composed mainly of the religious minority of Alawite Muslims, fear that if al-Assad, who is also Alawite, is ousted, they will be persecuted. This conflict between the Alawites and the rest of Syria’s citizens has existed since the reign of Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria as president in a similarly brutal manner from 1971-2000. During the 1980’s, Hafez al-Assad faced increasing dissent and violence from the Muslim Brotherhood as they sought to retaliate for government campaigns against their members. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood attacked the security forces with car bombs and assassinations while the government struggled to root out these terrorists.

The campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalist Islamic groups culminated in February 1981, when security forces sealed the city of Hama, in northern Syria, for 27 days as tanks and Special Forces searched the city for insurgents. Civilians could not leave the city while tanks and planes bombarded sections of the city. The final death toll is estimated to be between 10,000 and 25,000 killed, with some estimates as high as 40,000 dead. The operation showed the world the way the Assads would deal with dissent, a precedent that — tragically – is still true today.

Haywood Rankin was a Political Officer at the Embassy in Damascus from 1984-1986, where he worked with the Alawi-controlled government of Hafez al-Assad. Norman Pratt worked as an Economic Officer in Damascus from 1963-1967, during which time he saw the first rumblings of Muslim Brotherhood dissent against the Assad regime. Talcott Seelye had many years of experience in dealing with Syria and Hafez al-Assad, first as the Director of the Arabian North Affairs desk from 1968-1972 and then as Ambassador to Syria from 1978-1981.

William Rugh served as the Deputy Chief of Mission in Damascus from 1981-1984, during which time the siege and destruction of Hama took place. Samuel Lewis served as the Ambassador to Israel for eight years, from 1977-1985. Edward Abington served in the Political Office in Damascus from 1979-1982, where he experienced the violence leading up to the siege, as well as its aftermath. Richard Undeland worked as a Political Affairs Officer at the Damascus embassy from 1979-1982.

Rankin, Seelye, Rugh, Abington, and Undeland were all interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy; Rankin beginning in July 1998, Seelye in September 1993, Rugh in March 1996, Abington in April 2000, and Undeland in July 1994. Pratt was interviewed by Dayton Mak beginning in November 1991, and Lewis was interviewed by Peter Jessup beginning August 1998.

Go here to read more about Hafez al-Assad and other Moments on the Middle East.


“There was a strong sense of ethnic unity and self-preservation”

Haywood Rankin, Political Officer, Damascus Embassy, 1984-1986

RANKIN: The country bumpkins from the mountains, the Alawi Mountains of the northwest…they are a minority. But they were a minority who even going back into the period of the French mandate had a presence in the armed forces far greater than their proportion of the population would have suggested. This was a way forward for the poor, illiterate mountaineers.

You could think of the Alawi Mountains as being the Appalachia of Syria. These “Appalachians” had seen the army as the natural way for them to get out of their mountains and to find work and a career. They are Ismaili. They are a type of Muslim which is different from the mainline Sunni Islam that had always dominated the country going back to the Turkish era. (Map: Stration)

The relationship between the Sunnis, particularly of Hama, and the Alawis had been masters toward servants and peasants. The Alawis had their own religion, effectively, and a strong sense of their own ethnicity. I think that has been the main secret to Assad’s holding power. Even though there have been tensions and competition within the Alawi community, they have known that the minute they lost power, there would be a bloodbath in which they would be the losers.

Despite all of the jostling within the Alawi community for power and the occasional rumors one would hear of coup plots against Hafez al-Assad, at the end of the day there was a strong sense of ethnic unity and self-preservation. They were very secretive. It was very difficult for me to get to the root of this. The Alawis were very strong in the military, very strong in the intelligence services and very hard to get at.

Norman Pratt, Economic Officer, Damascus Embassy, 1963-1967

PRATT: The Army started out as an underclass, particularly with the Alawites. This group lived up in the hills beyond Latakia and in the valley around Homs. They were poor peasants with little chance for advancement or education, except through military schools. As the minority, they found favor with the French Mandate authorities. They were encouraged to become non-coms [non-commissioned officers] and eventually go to officers’ candidate school at Homs. Thus, they emerged as a military caste devoted primarily to their own Alawite interests.

The Alawite are heterodox Muslims about whose beliefs we know little. Their dogma is considered secret. Their poverty as peasants showed up particularly because they were the tenant farmers for the wealthy, Sunni Moslems, and the conditions under which the Alawite lived were not good. There was a study done on rural hygiene back in the ’30s which described it vividly.

Thus when you get into situations like the one in the mid-’80s where you had the Sunni uprising in Hama against Alawite and the Baath Party, and the subsequent government bloody reprisals and suppression of the revolt, it is understandable that this is basically the working out of the Alawite antagonism against the Sunni landlord.

“The Alawites ruled by terror”

Talcott Seelye, Director, Arabian North Affairs, State Department 1968-1972

SEELYE: I had been in charge of what we call Arabian North Affairs in the Department which included Syria back in 1968-72, when Assad came to power, so I followed him very closely. However, I had never met him before. I think when one meets him you see an additional dimension to Assad.

If one hears about him from afar he comes across as a tough guy, shrewd, very adroit, who runs Syria with an armed fist. But when you meet him personally, as I did for the first time when I presented my credentials, you found a man very at ease, very laid back, very pleasant with a nice smile on his face, very responsive, with the appearance of having lots of time, a good sense of humor, a very attractive personality.

Just very low key and laid back, responsive and curious and bright. So that is what one learns by meeting him firsthand. I had the impression before I got there that there was a difference between him and Saddam. I had also followed Saddam Hussein closely because he came to power in Iraq about the same time, although at first he was the power behind the scenes. When Saddam came to power in Iraq I became aware of his ruthlessness. How he wiped out the intellectual elite of Baghdad and how bloody-minded and basically how brutal a person he was.

I had felt that Assad was much more calculating and much more discriminating when it came to the use of force and terror. And that was borne out when I was there. If the regime was challenged, Assad was ruthless.

William Rugh, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy Damascus, 1981-1984

RUGH: It seemed that he [Assad] was convinced that being a very strong, tough Arab nationalist was important to him and maintaining his power. He represented internally a minority group…. He had come up through the military. His hold on power depended partly on the control of the military and control of the Syrian Baath party. It was, to some extent, tenuous if you consider that he was representing a minority and that may have influenced his desire to preserve himself as a very tough Arab nationalist.

He was tough. He would talk about refusal to surrender, as he thought [Egypt’s Anwar] Sadat surrendered to the Israelis. But he was going to insist on no surrender. His control was fairly solid.

When I first arrived in 1981, there was some terrorist activity going on in Syria carried out by Islamic fundamentalists against the regime. During the first several months there were a few major car bomb explosions in Damascus and elsewhere. One of them was right behind the American school and caused a lot of damage to the Air Force headquarters as I recall. In the first months I was there, the Syrian government was able to put an end to that. They were able to arrest and eliminate the opposition. It was fairly stable.

The only exception being later when there was an uprising in Hama. It took a couple days for the Syrian army to put it down and they put it down very brutally, destroying a large section of Hama. The press said they destroyed the whole city, which of course wasn’t true. They did destroy a large section of it and it happened when I was there.

“The government decided that this was the last straw”

Samuel Lewis, Ambassador to Israel, 1977-1985

LEWIS: Towards the end of January, troubles erupted in Syria. Assad’s forces were attacked by Muslim fundamentalists in a number of cities. These were serious terrorist-guerrilla operations against the Syrian regime. The end result was that in a matter of a few weeks, Assad sent the Army into Homs, Hama and Aleppo. The Army shelled these towns and in Hama especially it leveled the town. In the process, according to the information we received, 20-25,000 people were killed by the Syrian Army–mostly, if not all, women and children–the families of the Muslims.

The Muslim Brotherhood was effectively squashed and their rebellion was over. The cities became ghost towns; they have never been rebuilt in the same way. It was an excellent illustration on how to extinguish a rebellion with cold-blooded brutality. Assad was in very bad health at the time and his regime was quite shaky, but he held on tenaciously.

SEELYE: [The siege of Hama] happened after I left, but it was building up while I was there because the Muslim Brotherhood was beginning to get up a head of steam while I was there. We could hear explosions right near the embassy resulting from an attack by some gang of the Muslim Brotherhood against some Baathist office or residence. We had reports that the Brotherhood was getting stronger, particularly up in the Hama, which has always been a bastion of Islamic conservatism. A couple of times even Soviet military advisers were attacked.

In Damascus members of the Mulchbarat (Security Service) which drove around in Land Rovers. Whenever you saw a Land Rover you knew it was the Mulchbarat, except that the Soviet advisers also drove Land Rovers. A total of 12 Soviet military advisers were killed in the course of time, either because the Brotherhood thought they were Mulchbarat or maybe because they knew they were Russians and felt that since the Russians were close to Assad they were legitimate targets.

I used to joke privately that here was the American Ambassador who is representing a country that was not enjoying good relations, and yet I didn’t feel really in danger. Although there was an incident once that indicated that this was not always the case. But here were the Russians who were close to Syria and got shot at and some were killed.

The Muslim Brotherhood movement was gaining strength and at first Assad tried to cut a deal with them. At the same time he threw a lot of them in jail, those he could get his hands on. But the situation still got worse.

Up in Aleppo at one point, while cadets in the Cadet Academy were in an auditorium, 90 were killed by machine guns fired through the windows. The Brotherhood was considered responsible and there was some evidence that Iraq was colluding with the organization.

In the fall of 1978, just after I got there, there was an effort to bring Iraq and Syria together and they met in Damascus, with the idea of unity. But it fell apart, it didn’t work out. As months went by tensions increased between the two countries. And the Syrians claimed to have evidence that the Iraqis were helping the Brotherhood, providing them with arms, and were behind some of these incidents like the cadet massacre. So things were building up.

At one point the Syrian government decided to teach the Brotherhood a lesson. There is a big prison up near Palmyra and a lot of the prisoners there were political prisoners, many who were members of the Brotherhood or suspected of being so. They were let out as if they were going to be freed, several hundred of them.

Then with helicopters and armored cars the Syrian police and military just mowed them down. One was aware of the bestiality in Assad, but it was not quite to the same degree as in the case of Saddam. Saddam did it every day. Assad did it only when he felt challenged. He felt challenged by this group and wanted to teach them a lesson.

Well, of course, that affair in Palmyra only incensed the Brotherhood even more. The uprising in Hama occurred after I left, in 1982. The Brotherhood in Hama rose up against the government and killed Assad’s officials in Hama. So the government decided that this was the last straw. It sent in elite troops who just wiped out half the city and killed 15,000-20,000 people — men, women and children. This was ruthless, but there hasn’t been a peep out of the Brotherhood ever since….That is Assad’s modus operandi. (At right, Hama Square)

RUGH: We heard about the Hama siege when it started. We tried to monitor it, but it was difficult because it was closed off by the Syrians. They didn’t allow our attachés or anybody to go up there and look at it. But we did get some people up there and looked at it while it was still going on. This was before the international press knew it was happening. There were lots of American and foreign journalists sitting in Beirut, but there weren’t any correspondents sitting in Damascus. The Syrians weren’t about to report it. So, it didn’t get into the international press until after it was just about over. But the embassy knew about it and was reporting on it.

What happened was that Hama is a very old city and the oldest parts of it have very narrow streets and it’s sort of a rabbit warren of little narrow alleys and houses piled on top of each other. The Islamic fundamentalists who were in revolt against the local government of Hama were able to resist being arrested by the local police and military because they holed up in these small houses and streets. That was a security problem for the Syrians because they couldn’t get them out of there. It was easier to be snipers in a window of a little old house than it was to arrest them, kill them. So the Army surrounded the city and they tried to root them out.

After a few days, they realized that they were failing to do so, so they began to bombard this particular residential section of the city which had the resisting Islamic fundamentalists in it. They pretty much leveled one section of town. It was a district of the city that they destroyed. It was all over. Then the press came in and discovered it and said that they had destroyed a whole town.

“A bomb blew up about 50 yards from my car”

Edward Abington, Political Officer, Embassy Damascus, 1979-1982

ABINGTON: Hafez El-Assad in consultation with the Alaoui [Alawite] military leaders – and the Alaoui were in all the key military positions, the intelligence units, the Special Forces, a group called the Defense Forces which was headed by Assad’s brother and was deployed in the Damascus area to defend the Alaoui regime – they decided that they had had enough of this uprising, of these assassinations.

One has to keep in mind that it was very much targeted against Alaouis. There were many Alaoui officials who were assassinated because they were Alaoui. There had been these brutal car bombings. The government decided that it was going to crush the situation once and for all. Assad’s brother, Rifaat El-Assad, deployed the Defense Forces equipped with T-72 tanks to Hama, closed off the area, went in and just leveled this area where the Muslim Brotherhood was holed up. It was a civilian area. Basically, they shelled it and then they brought in bulldozers and just bulldozed the whole thing. No one knows how many people were killed. I know that it’s become the common wisdom that 10,000 were killed. In fact, I don’t think anyone really knows.

But the Syrians sealed off the area. No one could get in or out for about a week until it was over. That really broke the back of the Muslim Brotherhood. There were assassinations, a few bombings, after that. In fact, once when I was going from where the embassy was to a meeting with some Australian colleagues in an area west of Beirut in a suburb called Mezzay, a bomb blew up about 50 yards from my car. It was incredibly frightening because it was a bomb on one of these three-wheel Suzuki vans.

The Syrian security people immediately came out and started stopping cars. There was a car in front of me, a white Peugeot. There were three people in it. They panicked and they just were yelled at by the security people to stop. They kept going. This must have been 10-15 yards from me. The security people just opened up with AK-47s and killed all three people in the car. And they turned around and started pointing their guns at me. I was in a little Volkswagen Rabbit and stopped, held my hands in the air, and kept shouting in Arabic that I was a diplomat. They came over and looked at me and told me to get out of there. I haven’t been frightened that much many times. You could see how this terrorism really had the regime on edge.

“The destruction was staggering”

Richard Undeland, Political Affairs Officer, Embassy Damascus, 1979-1982

UNDELAND: This bloody retaking of the city was the work of the President’s brother, Rifaat al Assad, and his Special Forces. A standard tactic was to level with artillery fire any building from which so much as a single shot came, taking no prisoners and killing all who were inside. I drove north to Aleppo – it was a previously planned trip – only a few days after the fighting ended, and on the way up was routed by security forces to the east of Hama on back roads, so I did not see anything of the city.

However, on the way back three or four days later, all traffic was directed through its center on the main road. The destruction was staggering. The large blue domed mosque you had had to make a little loop around in the middle of the city had been totally leveled and the adjacent cemetery laid waste. Where there had been the buildings of the old city, you now had a clear view through to the Orontes River. A historic, big water wheel, one of the noria, was gone. I had been to Hama several times before and had trouble believing what had happened, how much I had known that was just no longer there.