Monday, July 04, 2011

Hama, Syria: three decades later

The 30th anniversary of the so-called 1982 Hama massacre is approaching. It is unlikely, luckily, that the conditions for a repetition of history are present today, despite the high levels of violence currently experienced in Syria.

The city of Hama has recently turned into one of the main centres of opposition against President Bashar al-Assad. Despite having a significant Alawite population, the majority of Hama’s population, just as in Syria in general, are Sunni Muslims. Reports from the city, admittedly difficult to confirm, claim that tens of thousands of people are gathering in the streets and squares of the city, demonstrating against the regime.

The authorities have used carrots (removing the city’s governor on July 2nd), but mostly sticks (violent crackdown on protests) in attempting to stop the protests in the city. Although the removal of the governor is surely an additional indicator of the increasingly strong pressure against al-Assad, it will hardly appease the angry population. The use of violence, including tanks, may have more ambiguous effects.

On the one hand, it may effectively kill and silence those protesting, discouraging further protest. This proved successful for the current president's father, Hafez al-Assad, who in February 1982 killed thousands of anti-regime Sunni Muslims led by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (the exact amount of people killed is disputed, lying somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000).

On the other hand, although clearly demonstrating a willingness to kill his own people, the al-Assad of 2011 does not seem willing to reach the genocidal levels his father did in 1982. The world is different today. Everybody's eyes are directed at the Arab world, and sanctions are already being implemented against the Syrian regime. Also, no Arab leader will want to end up in the cornered position colonel Gaddafi currently finds himself in. This most likely incentivates al-Assad to increased moderation.

It remains to be seen what will happen in Syria, but in the long run, the Syrian revolt seems hard to both appease and quash.

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