Hama Complex

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One of the arguments for pulling out of Iraq is that its citizens are not capable of establishing anything remotely like a democracy. We flatter ourselves to believe that our 230 year old democratic experiment has any chance of getting off the ground in a region defined by clan, religious edict and ethnic rivalries that reach back into antiquity.

I will confess that I myself have nursed this opinion on and off, agog at the carnage in Iraq. Whether or not our boys and girls on the ground are the stewards of a fledgling democracy or are greasing the gears of Iraq’s next ethnic meat machine, it’s not obvious which will prevail.

I read somewhere that the Americans are too nice to run a place like Iraq. Our introspection gets us caught up in our moral lapses in places like Abu Ghraib, much less actually rule with an iron fist. No, I don’t think Abu Ghraib was a good thing, or necessary. I don’t particularly want our soldiers to become common thugs. There’s nothing to win when that happens.

But the point of our light-handedness — our niceness — remains.

Many readers here might be familiar with the massacre in Hama, Syria, in 1982. Here’s the background from Wikipedia:

At the time, the Middle East was in deep turmoil and Syria had been deeply involved in Lebanon’s Civil War since 1976 and the beginning of the 1982 Lebanon War. Problems also arose from Turkey, which mobilized troops on its borders with Syria primarily to deal with Kurdish rebels and accused Syria of supporting and training the PKK rebels within Turkey. The Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of this situation to start defying Hafez al-Assad’s rule. It undertook guerrilla activities in multiple cities within the country targeting officers, government officials and infrastructure. The anti-regime violence included the killings of eighty-three young military cadets at an artillery school in Aleppo in June 1979, and three car bomb attacks in Damascus between August and November 1980 that killed several hundred people. In July 1980, membership in the Muslim Brotherhood was made a capital offense punishable by death, with the ratification of Law No. 49. Throughout the early 1980s the Muslim Brotherhood staged a series of bomb attacks against the government and its officials, including a nearly successful attempt to assassinate president Hafiz al-Assad on June 26, 1980, during an official state reception for the president of Mali. When a machine gun salvo missed him, al-Assad ran to kick a hand grenade aside, and his bodyguard sacrificed himself to smother the explosion of another one. Surviving with only light injuries, al-Assad’s revenge was swift and merciless: only hours later many hundreds of imprisoned Islamists were murdered in a massacre carried out by his brother Rifaat al-Assad in Tadmor Prison.
Calls for vengeance grew within the brotherhood, and bomb attacks increased in frequency. Events culminated with a general insurrection in the conservative Sunni town of Hama in February 1982. Islamists and other opposition activists proclaimed Hama a “liberated city” and urged Syria to rise up against the “infidel”. Brotherhood fighters swept the city of Ba’thists, breaking into the homes of government employees and suspected supporters of the regime, killing about 50. The goal of the attack on Hama was to cease the rebellious activities of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. The assault began on February 2 with extensive shelling of the town of 350 000 inhabitants. Before the attack, the Syrian government called for the city’s surrender and warned that anyone remaining in the city would be considered as a rebel. Robert Fisk in his book Pity the Nation described how civilians were fleeing Hama while tanks and troops were moving towards the city’s outskirts to start the siege. He cites reports from fleeing civilians and soldiers of mass death and shortages of food and water.(Pity the Nation, pages 185-86)

According to Amnesty International, the Syrian military bombed the old streets of the city from the air to facilitate the introduction of military forces and tanks through the narrow streets, where homes were crushed by tanks during the first four days of fighting. They also claim that the Syrian military pumped poison gas into buildings where insurgents were said to be hiding.

The army was mobilized, and Hafez again sent Rifaat’s special forces and Mukhabarat agents to the city. After encountering fierce resistance, they used artillery to blast Hama into submission. After a two-week battle, the town was securely in government hands again. Then followed several weeks of torture and mass executions of suspected rebel sympathizers, killing many thousands, known as the Hama Massacre. Journalist Robert Fisk, who was in Hama shortly after the massacre, estimated at the time that 10,000 citizens were killed and later described the death count as as many as 20,000; (Pity the Nation, pages 186; [1]), but according to Thomas Friedman (From Beirut to Jerusalem, pages 76-105) Rifaat later boasted of killing 38,000 people. The Syrian Human Rights Committee estimates 30,000 to 40,000 were killed. Most of the old city was completely destroyed, including its palaces, mosques, ancient ruins and the famous Azzem Palace mansion. After the Hama uprising, the Islamist insurrection was broken, and the Brotherhood has since operated in exile. Government repression in Syria hardened considerably, as al-Assad had spent in Hama any goodwill he previously had left with the Sunni majority, and now was compelled to rely on pure force to stay in power.

Ever since Hama, for better and for worse, the al-Assad regime has kept Syria relatively quiet. Islamicists have been put in their place, working either underground or abroad.

I was struck by an article concerning ancient weapons found in the ruins of Hamoukar in Syria. The archeological dig is located near the Iraqi border. Clemens Reichel, the American co-director of the expedition, has seen explosions just over the border. He said:

“It’s somewhat surreal. We’re not living in a vacuum there. We know exactly what’s happening across the border,” Reichel said. “But working in Syria is like working in the eye of the storm. It’s very peaceful to work there. Practically no problems.”

‘No problems’ in Syria for the western archeologist. The spoils of Hama, perhaps?

I have wanted to believe — and would like to believe — that there is a ‘third way’ in the Arab Middle East. It’s glimmers can be seen in Lebanon, though intermittently, where modernity has not translated to autocracy or theocracy. The moment seems rare though, as we now look at Lebanon’s apparent slide into war. Can this region and these people secure themselves without invoking Hama?

Would the world be a better place had Hama not been obliterated? Would it have been better for the Muslim Brotherhood to get control over Syria in 1982? Or was it better that a relatively secular autocrat put down religious extremists? Which is preferable?

This question vexes me. I don’t like to ask it. I don’t think it gets asked enough. I think we want to believe that it’s a false choice allowing only two oppressive outcomes. We want to believe that people in that region yearn for freedom, and don’t want to choose between two blunt evils. It may be, however, that what we hope for is not what history delivers.

Eventually, some kind of parity and order will restore itself in Iraq. It might not happen until another Hama occurs. I doubt that we will be capable of enacting the wanton slaughter required to beat anarchy into submission. I’m sure I wouldn’t want us to. Not only would we betray the core purpose of our mission in Iraq, we would wind up putting down one side of an ancient war in favor of another. There’s no winning that war.

‘Hama II’ will likely happen in our absence. Or be perpetrated in our midst.

When we leave the region, people who have advocated that Iraq and Arabs are incapable of democracy will be vindicated. But I hope they don’t run victory laps in the streets. Because there’s an inevitable logic that follows. If Iraqis cannot find democracy because of their deep cultural, ethnic and religious bigotry, then there’s no argument that Muslims can live in secular Europe among French or English natives. Or in America, such as Dearborn Michigan. There would be no case for Palestinians taking part in a peace process, or having the capacity to run their own state on a democratic basis. There would be no case that Egyptians and North Africans could transcend tyranny.

‘Losing Iraq’ — meaning Iraq losing its chance to join the free world as a beacon to its Arab and Muslim brethren — does not bode well for Muslims across the globe. If it is clear they cannot be civilized — yes, civilized by our standards — then civilization will circle its wagons and exclude them, en masse. Somewhere down that road will come another Hama. And another. And another.

The New York Times published a telling story from our Surge Troops on the ground in Baghdad:

When the Iraqi units finally did show up, it was with the air of a class outing, cheering and laughing as the Americans blew locks off doors with shotguns. As the morning wore on and the troops came under fire from all directions, another apparent flaw in this strategy became clear as empty apartments became lairs for gunmen who flitted from window to window and killed at least one American soldier, with a shot to the head.
Whether the gunfire was coming from Sunni or Shiite insurgents or militia fighters or some of the Iraqi soldiers who had disappeared into the Gotham-like cityscape, no one could say.

“Who the hell is shooting at us?” shouted Sgt. First Class Marc Biletski, whose platoon was jammed into a small room off an alley that was being swept by a sniper’s bullets. “Who’s shooting at us? Do we know who they are?”

In the end, the answer to Sgt. Biletski’s question might come with an exasperated, apologetic shrug. “Who’s shooting at us? Do we know who they are?” Yes, we know who they are. They’re Muslims. Some are Sunni. Some are Shi’ite. Some are young. Some are old. Some are Arabs. Some are Persians. Some are in America. Some are in Iraq. Some are in Europe, and Africa and the Pacific. Some are moderate. Some are radical. It’s become impossible to pick out who’s who. They’re all shooting at us, and at each other.

Hama awaits. Who lights the fuse?