Decades after the bloody Hama massacre, Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad has managed to cling to power, like his father, under the distracted gaze of world powers.
The Syrian war was a calamity from every point of view. From a brutal crackdown that sparked 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 who have been forced abroad.
It is no surprise that the Assad regime has clung to Damascus even as much of the remaining country is under foreign control or in flames. This month marks forty years since the February 1982 massacre in Hama, which stifled five years of opposition with shock and fear.
Decades later, in the 2011 crackdown, Bashar Assad followed the precedent his father Hafez set in Hama: to exploit a cunning foreign policy that made the regime indispensable to a number of foreign powers, as insurance against a Pharaonic-level domestic repression.
Assad’s cynical foreign policy has repeatedly belied pious protestations of international accountability and justice, and Syria – both the state and its people – has paid the price for the regime’s grip.
It was common in the early 2010s to hear comparisons between Libya, whose quixotic leader Muammar Gaddafi fell prey to a foreign-assisted uprising, and Syria. Such comparisons missed a key point: Gaddafi’s forty years of unpredictability had cost him international support, and although several countries, notably Russia, protested the haste with which his opposition received foreign support, none did. intervened on his behalf.
By contrast, the Assads have made themselves regionally indispensable not just in Moscow, with whom they have a long and close relationship, but even in Washington, whose love-hate relationship always slides toward preservation in a crisis.
Far from Libyan-style regime change, there were plenty of signs that the United States was abandoning attempts to overthrow Assad early on, for a multitude of reasons. This relationship with the United States was inherited from Hafez Assad, whose seizure of power in 1970 was the culmination of a decade of instability in Syrian politics, the latest in a dizzying array of coups. and mutinies.
The army that had come to dominate Syrian politics was itself riddled with factions. The Ba’ath party which was supposed to have given the ideological impetus to Assad’s faction had entered the opposition abroad. This has led many observers to characterize 1960s Damascus as a neo-Baath regime made up of competing officers, mostly from Syrian minorities.
As today, when his opposition to mostly extremist militants made Bashar a well-known personality in international spheres, Hafez in the 1970s exploited regional apprehensions with regard to Palestinian armed groups. Like his rivals in Amman and Cairo, Hafez viewed them as a destabilizing influence—one that could draw them into war with Israel or disrupt domestic politics—and therefore had to be kept subordinate to state interests.
He has thus particularly attempted to undermine the large Fatah faction, wielding rival groups as counterweights and constantly manipulating divisions within the Palestinian ranks. Despite Syria’s history of wars with Israel, Assad was viewed, relative to the Palestinians, as a necessary evil by Tel Aviv and its main backer, the United States. The same is true today with the Syrian opposition.
Assad’s usefulness as a force against Palestinian militants was most evident in Lebanon. Here, the massive presence of Palestinian militants and frequent and violent Israeli raids had exacerbated long-standing sociopolitical divisions. In the polarization that followed, most Palestinian groups were drawn into the orbit of the Lebanese opposition.
Assad intervened, supporting Maronite militiamen in the siege and massacre of Palestinian camps in 1976. Despite Assad’s affiliation with the Soviet bloc, this was approved by Washington which shared Damascus’ fear that Palestinian armed groups would upset the regional order.
Thus began thirty years of Syrian domination in Lebanon. It is no coincidence that it also sparked an insurgency among Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, which had long had ties to Palestinian groups.
Although the regime equated the revolt with the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood, it was a much more widespread phenomenon. The Muslim Brotherhood wielded only partial power in the exiled coalition of its leaders, while on the ground, autonomous commanders like Adnan Uqla led the fray. Once again, there is a parallel with the 2010s, when an opposition largely separated from its exiled spokespersons was accused of being a ruse of the Brotherhood.
The neo-Baath regime has always been eagerly supported by the Syrian Sunni majority; Hama had already experienced a brief revolt in the spring of 1964. Assad Sr. had attempted with some success to forge ties with Sunni economic elites and, in another policy inherited from his son, had used the threat of majority rule to assimilate his secular regime to security with Syrian minorities.
In fact, Syria’s Sunni majority has long co-existed with its minorities: whatever sectarianism exists is by no means exclusive or typical of Sunnis. But Assad – whose regime was dominated by a small network, particularly the disproportionately influential intelligence wing of the air force from which he hailed – was keen to present himself at home and abroad as a protector of the minorities as well as an offshoot of regional stability. This strategy has proven effective for Bashar today, even as virulent sectarian militias from other sects support his regime.
The Syrian war escalated in the early 1980s. Then, as in the 2010s, Aleppo is besieged; then, as now, the dictator’s family led the fray. Just as Maher Assad served as Bashar’s praetorian ram, Hafez relied on his brother Rifaat to crush the revolt with brute force.
Incredibly exhaustive slaughter accompanied the capture of Hama; at least 10,000 people – if not several times that number – were massacred in the modestly sized town. Shock and awe temporarily terrorized the rebels into surrender, but the scars reopened when the regime tried the same strategy in 2011.
The war of the 1980s, as in the 2010s, saw the Assad exploit their multi-power geopolitical utility, their opposition to regional militancy, and their effective blackmail of minority communities to carry out violence without restraint.
Again, their strategy saw most governments, overtly or covertly, trade this off as an acceptable price for a “predictable” regime in Damascus. Unlike the 1980s, however, today’s war shows few signs of abating.
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Source: World TRT