A Look Back At Syria’s Assad Father 80’s Crackdown

All Things Considered 

Melissa Block talks to Christian Science Monitor editor John Yemma about the 1982 crackdown by the Syrian military in the town of Hama. Yemma, who was the Middle East bureau chief for the Monitor at the time, gives his thoughts on how modern-day crackdowns in Syria compare to the one in 1982 that left at least 33,000 dead.

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The Turkish prime minister has said of the brutal crackdown in Syria: We do not want to see another Hama massacre. He was referring to what happened in the Syrian city of Hama back in 1982 when then-president Hafez al-Assad crushed an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood. The fighting went on for weeks. Estimates of those killed range from 10 to 25,000 or even higher. The regime leveled entire swaths of the city.

John Yemma was Middle East bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor back in 1982. John Yemma, welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN YEMMA (Middle East Bureau Chief, Christian Science Monitor): Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Why don’t we start by talking about what led up to that crackdown? The Muslim Brotherhood in Hama had for years launched guerilla attacks against the regime, had attempted an assassination on President Assad back in 1980. What was the spark for this full-scale assault in February of 1982?

Mr. YEMMA: Well, Hama itself was a hotbed of the Muslim Brotherhood. And, yes, the Syrian regime under Hafez al-Assad had been really sorely pressed by the Sunni population and the city was getting out of control of the Syrian government. And so, the Syrian government essentially surrounded the city with tanks and artillery and pounded it mercilessly.

BLOCK: What was the story that began to emerge as accounts started filtering up from the closed city of Hama back in 1982 of just what happened there?

Mr. YEMMA: Well, we began to hear from Syrians who were traveling to Lebanon and traveling to Jordan that something quite awful had happened in Hama. People were telling us that there had been a major crackdown, that it wasn’t just that the military had gone in and shut things down, but that there had been a massacre. They were using the word massacre.

They were – you could actually see the fear in people’s eyes when they talked about this, so it was clear that a wave of fear had gone through society based on what had happened there.

BLOCK: And the details that started to come forward included hand-to-hand street fighting, tanks leveling whole parts of the city. Many civilians, not just Muslim Brotherhood members, but many civilians, women and children, who were killed indiscriminately by the regime.

Mr. YEMMA: One diplomat told me that it was like a Medieval siege warfare. It was one of these object lessons that a dictatorial regime might try to affect on its people, which was, here’s an overwhelming show of force, you better not rise up against us because something like this will happen elsewhere and you can’t do anything about it.

You know, the two journalists who really did the most work on this, Robert Fisk, the British journalist, and Tom Friedman of The New York Times, both indicate that the Syrian government essentially just plowed under the part of the old city of Hama that was destroyed. We don’t know whether there are bodies under there or whether they exhumed them and put them into a mass grave. We can probably presume they had a mass grave. But that’s never been found either because there’s been continuity in that regime, right?

I mean, it’s Hafez al-Assad and then it’s Bashar al-Assad. So it’s the father handing off to the son and it’s not like they’re going to have human rights investigations under the son.

BLOCK: There was a term coined back in 1982 by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times – Hama rules, which means basically no rules at all.

Mr. YEMMA: Yeah.

BLOCK: The regime can do what it wants with complete impunity. Do you think those Hama rules apply now in Syria?

Mr. YEMMA: I don’t think they do. I think that Bashar al-Assad, the son, is tempted and is being probably counseled by his father’s old counselors, that he needs to show excessive and brutal force to take control. I think it’s different now. I think that there’s more information leaks out via social media, via camera phones, via all kinds of ways that we’ve been able to see what’s happening in, say, the southern city of Daraa and elsewhere in Syria. And so it won’t happen completely in the dark if this kind of major brutality occurs.

Now, that is not to say that brutality isn’t occurring because, you know, 700 or 800 people seemed to have been killed already, although there is no official way of knowing. This is now in an escalation cycle.

The Assad government will attempt to use force, but not overwhelming Hama rules force. And that will lead to further anger on the part of the populous, which will cause them to rise up again.

And so it’s hard to see a way out short of the Assad government figuring out how to create some kind of a reform process that brings people into the government and they seem to have rejected that.

BLOCK: I’m been talking with John Yemma. He’s now the editor of the Christian Science Monitor. Back in 1982, at the time of the Hama massacre, he was the paper’s Middle East bureau chief. John Yemma, thanks so much.

Mr. YEMMA: Thank you, Melissa


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