In 1982, the Syrian military repressed an Islamic uprising in the city of Hamat, killing tens of thousands of residents. Last week, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad told a visiting delegation of U.S. legislators that the U.S. could benefit from Syria's experience in fighting terrorism. Among the members of the American delegation were Senator Richard Durbin (IL), House members David Price (NC), Jim Davis (FL), Adam Schiff (CA), and former representative Wayne Owens (UT). Also present at the meeting were Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Al-Shar' and U.S. Ambassador to Damascus Theodore Kattouf. Following are excerpts from a response to Assad's statements written by Paris based Syrian journalist Subhi Hadidi:
The Syrian and Arabic press reported that Assad told the delegation that "the U.S. can benefit from the experience of countries that have successfully fought terrorism, primarily Syria." To prove his point, Assad pointed out "the clashes between the [Syrian] regime and the Muslim Brotherhood between 1982 and 1986, after the Islamic organization perpetrated assassinations and bombings against intellectuals and politicians throughout the country."
The article falsely claimed that Senator Durbin said, "Syria has a rich experience in fighting terrorism, and it is possible to benefit from it… The analysis we heard on Syria's history, experience, and handling of [the terrorism] that struck at it is a useful lesson for us and for many countries in the world." Senator Durbin's press office has stated that these statements were never made.
Responding at length to the reported exchange between Bashar Assad and the American delegation was Syrian journalist Subhi Hadidi, currently living in Paris, who writes for the London Arabic-language daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi.
In an article titled "The Hamat Massacre and the Syrian 'Experience' in Fighting Terrorism," Hadidi wrote:
"February 2nd will mark the 20th anniversary of the massacre that victimized the city of Hamat. Select [Syrian Army] units... under the command of General 'Ali Haydar, besieged the city for 27 days, bombarding it with heavy artillery and tank [fire], before invading it and killing 30,000 or 40,000 of the city's citizens – in addition to the 15,000 missing who have not been found to this day, and the 100,000 expelled."
"Logic would dictate that the Syrian regime, primarily the 'young' government of President Bashar Al-Assad, would try as hard as they can to bury this accursed memory, and refrain from talking about it. [It would have been expected] of them to try to turn over a new page and eradicate the traces [of the massacre]. After all, this was one of the bloodiest and most violent incidents of the 'Corrective Movement' (the term used by Hafez Assad to describe his Ba'athist coup on March 1970). But what really happened?"
"The Hamat massacre – a genuine, premeditated cold-blooded massacre, [is] not an experience in the fight against terrorism... The late president Hafez Al-Assad gave complete 'Carte Blanche,' and open approval, to the use of all weapons and all means of repression, deterrence, and punishment – even if it meant destroying entire neighborhoods (for example, Al-Baroudi, Al-Kilani, Al-Hamidiya, and Al-Khadr neighborhoods), including mosques and churches."
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"...[Even] Patrick Seale, who authored a highly sympathetic biography of Hafez Al-Assad and was a close friend of the regime – at least until not long ago… said that presenting the battle of Hamat as 'the last chapter in a long and open conflict can account for the terrible barbarity of the punitive measures imposed on the city…'"
"Even if I do not completely agree with Seale's conclusions… his speaking openly about the barbarity of the Syrian punitive measures imposed on the city [of Hamat] indicates the crucial importance the regime attached to this battle/massacre. Hamat was the cruelest and most extreme lesson for the entire Syrian street, Islamic and secular alike… and for the unions and intellectual groups. Hamat was the model, the lesson, and the rule for future handling of any opposition [in Syria], whether armed or peaceful."
"More importantly, and tragically, people such as Patrick Seale claim… that the battle of Hamat was decided in favor of modernism and enlightenment against fundamentalism and 'Puritanism.' Seale acknowledged that 'innumerable mosques, churches, and archeological sites were destroyed and looted, among them the 18th century Qasr Al-'Azm museum. Within a month of fighting, about a third of the historic heart of the city [of Hamat] was destroyed.'"
"But Hamat was not the only massacre… To repress armed Islamic opposition, the [Ba'ath] regime focused on repressing the spirit of opposition in the entire Syrian street, from Aleppo through Jisr Al-Shaghrour, Deir Al-Zour, Latakia, to the infamous massacre of Tudmor. [The use of violence] was part of an overall framework; this was no mere military repression, destruction of cities, and minor massacres in prisons, neighborhoods, and streets… Following is a brief review:"
"At the ruling Ba'ath party's seventh national convention in December 1979, Rif'at Al-Assad, a member of the national leadership and commander of the Ba'ath regime's 'Defense Units,' said that anyone not standing on the side of the [Ba'ath coup] stood in enemy ranks – that is, the Muslim Brotherhood. He called for a national campaign of 'cleansing,' demanding that opposition members be sent to labor and re-education camps in the Syrian desert."
"Rif'at Al-Assad's [remarks] preceded the popular protest movement that developed among the opposition parties... and the doctors', dentists', engineers', pharmacists' and lawyers' unions, all of which declared a one-day strike (March 31, 1980) to protest against the Syrian regime's lack of freedoms, the cruelty of its repression apparatus, and its violation of human rights."
"The regime's immediate response was to disband these unions and arrest their most prominent leaders. A few months later, the regime launched a wide-scale offensive against some opposition parties, first and foremost the Syrian Communist Party and between March and May of 1980, the regime perpetrated a series of massacres, one after the other, among them as cases in point those at Jisr Al- Shaghrour (200 killed), Souq Al-Ahad (42 killed), the Hananu neighborhood (83 killed), and Aleppo and Tudmor (700 killed) and Hamat's Al-Bustan neighborhood (200 killed, on this occasion by shooting!)"
"During that period [the regime] passed Law No. 49, which imposed the death penalty for any member of the Muslim Brotherhood – even retroactively! There was a series of assassinations, which were not unconnected to the regime… and among them were: Lebanese journalist Salim Al-Louzi, Palestinian military commander Sa'ad Sayel, one of the founders of the Ba'ath party, Salah Al-Din Al-Bitar and Ms. Banan Al-Tantawi, the wife of Muslim Brotherhood leader 'Issam Al-'Attar…"
"The Syrian 'recipe' for fighting terrorism was based, therefore, on state counter-terrorism, in larger and more violent measures. This violence was the bloodiest of all personal terrorism. It was based on assassinations, on openly and directly repressing all opposition protest… on militarizing the state at all echelons, and on eliminating politics by means of persecution, arrests and firings…"
"How can the U.S. benefit from the 'Syrian experience?' Should the Pentagon have crushed Kandahar and Kabul as the Syrian 'Defense Units' and the Syrian 'Special Units' did to the city of Hamat? Or perhaps the Pentagon should have issued American orders sentencing to death (retroactively) anyone who belonged to the Taliban or Al-Qaida? Should the American military commander have climbed atop a tank, ridden to the heart of Kabul, and announced via megaphone that he was prepared to kill 1,000 people a day, as the Syrian military commander did in Aleppo in 1980? Isn't the fact that this massacre serves as an example of Syria's 'experience' in fighting terrorism an insult to the memory of the Hamat massacre martyrs – 90 percent of whom were civilians, as members of the Syrian regime have themselves acknowledged?"
"The Syrian president's statement – one of many botched statements that have [been] issued from his mouth since he came to power – expresses the level of political rhetoric, and the crisis [affecting] the regime in other areas as well, such as economic, social, and legislative."
"It is amazing that Assad gives this example to a delegation from a country that still has Syria on its list of states supporting terrorism – a delegation that came to Damascus to demand that the regime stop sponsoring 'terrorist' organizations, and on the same day that former U.S. secretary of state Alexander Haig urged the White House to direct the next blow of its counter-terrorism offensive against Syria, not Iraq!"
"The 20th anniversary of the Hamat massacre was worthy of an entirely different position, [worthy] of a sort of national reconciliation and healing..."