Hama has long been a hotbed of anti-Ba’athist activity. Shortly after the Ba’athists seized power in Syria in 1963, Islamic groups in Hama rose against the new secular regime. That rebellion was crushed as was another in 1982. Tens of thousands were killed in the Hama Massacre and parts of the city were flattened. There were echoes in July when 136 people were killed in Hama in the “Ramadan Massacre”. Syrian forces attacked demonstrators using tanks, artillery, and snipers. Hama and Homs were the earliest city to join this year’s Arab Spring but the two biggest cities Damascus and Aleppo (home to half the country’s population) have been quiet. New reports from Al Jazeera say north-east Damascus is the focus of a major government offensive. As one protester puts it, the regime is feeling time is against it after strong international reaction against the crackdown. The security forces want to end anti-Assad protests within weeks.Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect which has ties to Shia Islam. Alawites are 12 percent of Syria’s 22 million people but hold a vastly outsized portion of high-ranking positions in the government and the military. Sunnis consider them heretics. When the French ruled in the early 20th century, they granted the Alawites their own state. In 1936 the French rejected calls from Sulayman Al Assad against union with Syria. Since then, the Assad family has built its power in the Alawite political movement in Syria. When Hafez Al Assad seized power in 1970, the Alawite community lined up behind him. Hafez authorised the 1982 Hama massacre. Bashar al Assad absorbed the lessons well after becoming president in June 2000 on his father’s death.
Bashar was an accidental president. When his father died, it only took hours for the Syrian parliament to vote to amend the country’s constitution to allow al-Assad to become president lowering the age of eligibility of the president from 40 to 34. Elder brother Basil was originally groomed as Hafez’s successor, and was chief of security. Bashar studied medicine in Britain, receiving a degree in ophthalmology, and headed the Syrian Computer Society. But in 1994 Basil was driving his Mercedes to the airport at high speed during a fog. He slammed into a roundabout and died instantly. Bashar rushed home from London to rejoin the army.
The army remains Bashar’s greatest ally and most of the top brass are Alawite. Assad’s brother Maher controls key military units packed with Alawite soldiers. One security expert told Reuters the regime had been careful about placing Alawite loyalists in all key positions. Sunni officers have risen to high ranks but have very little power to command troops.
If pressure is to be brought to bear, it must come from outside. The US added to its sanctions on Syria on 10 August to blacklist telco Syriatel and the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank. They add to existing sanctions including freezing assets and bans on business dealings, personal sanctions on Assad, as well as Syria’s vice president, prime minister, interior and defence ministers, the head of military intelligence and director of the political security branch. As the Economist puts it, the savagery of the regime’s response has convinced protesters the movement has to continue or face revenge of unimaginable proportions.