August 6, 2011

Syria: The invasion of Hamah

Syrian T-55 tanks in downtown Hamah

It is a scene reminiscent of television footage of Iraqi tanks rolling into Kuwait City in August 1990. Unfortunately, the scenes captured in this amateur video broadcast on the Sham (Damascus) News Network are of Syrian tanks assaulting the Syrian city of Hamah.

Hamah is being invaded. It is being invaded by the Syrian army. As his father did to Hamah in 1982 in which over 25,000 residents were slaughtered, President Bashar al-Asad has unleashed the full range of military weaponry on the city's mostly unarmed citizens. This is not a police or internal security operation, this is a full-fledged military assault, complete with artillery, armor, helicopter gunships and mechanized infantry, and in some case, air strikes.

I am surprised that this is taking place in Hamah. The 1982 destruction of the city resulted in the phenomenon known throughout the region as the "Hamah Rules," the knowledge that the Syrian Ba'thist regime will use overwhelming military force against its own citizens to maintain itself in power. The people of Hamah knew full well the likely response from the regime if they dared to rise up again. Still, they chose to do just that.

Hamah - click for larger image I have been to Hamah numerous times - it was (and hopefully still is) a beautiful city. Its 17 huge water wheels (nawriyah - see above photo) on the 'Asi (Orontes) River that runs through the city produce a unique sound that defines Hamah. Ironically, the name of the river means "rebel" in Arabic. It was a pleasant place to stop when traveling from Damascus to northern Syria - much nicer than the industrial complex of Homs, another city that has suffered at the hands of the Asad regime.

I am also surprised at the conduct of the Syrian army. It is a conscript army, made of of ordinary Syrians. Although the senior ranks of the officer corps are dominated by members of the Asad's 'Alawi minority, the junior officers and enlisted are primarily Sunni Arabs.

The fact that the troops show no remorse in putting down the protests in Hamah leads me to believe that the units participating in the operation are drawn from the Republican Guard or other regime protection units, specifically the 4th Armored Division based near the palace in Damascus. These units are made up of vetted, loyal Ba'thists, officered by true believers, have the best equipment, and have everything to lose if the regime is overthrown.

I contrast what is happening in Syria and the muted world reaction to it with the reaction almost six months ago when a similar situation erupted in Libya. The world not only condemned the threats made by Libyan leader Mu'amar al-Qadhafi but convinced NATO (initially led by the United States) to intervene militarily. I submit we have much greater national interests at stake in Syria, yet there is nothing but rhetoric emanating from Washington and European capitals.

Meanwhile, the people of Hamah are on their own.