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Ashes of Hama: A Key Insight Into the Current Conflict

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On 2 February articles will be written about the Hama massacre but few will really comprehend its impact on Syrian society. For several weeks in February 1982, Assad's forces crushed a revolt lead by a splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood. In twenty one days the regime killed an estimated 40, 000 lives. Raphaёl Lefèvre's Ashes of Hama tries to understand its significance and suggests that the current uprising must be viewed through the prism of this massacre. The young scholar also sheds important light on the elusive Syrian Brotherhood which is set to play a major role in Post-Assad Syria.

Reading Ashes of Hama helped me to contextualize my own experiences in Syria and indeed even here in Antakya not too far from the Syrian border. The Hama massacre created a sense of paranoia in the regime and this eventually rubs off on you too. You begin to trust less, you keep a select group of friends, you think twice about letting the cleaner into your room in the morning. You learn how to talk to taxi drivers. You keep your conversations generic; you understand the façade of politeness that verge on hypocrisy. You monitor yourself even amongst friends. And just when you thought that your low profile was working, you receive a phone call from the Syrian Mukhabarat asking you to come in for an 'interview'. They have been keeping tabs on you all this time and they want you to know it. They know the cafes you frequent, the topics you are studying and the fact that you missed a lecture on such and such day.

More importantly however, the author has managed to untangle the regime's propaganda that has fooled many an expert. He avoids lumping the Syrian Brotherhood with its Egyptian counterpart. He traces their origins to the anti-colonial movement of the 30s and 40s and suggests that the Syrian Brotherhood's message today is not unlike its original message. He argues that they "were committed to the principles of constitutionalism and political liberalism". However, by the end of the 60s the Syrian Brotherhood became increasingly radicalised, partly because of the ideological ferment caused by socialism and Arab nationalism and partly because of persecution. After Hafez Assad's coup the persecution increased. By the 70s the more radical amongst them had become a separate faction with very loose ties to the Brotherhood; it was they who decided to fight back. Their massacre of Alawite cadets in Aleppo in 1979 provoked massive retribution which culminated in the tragedy of Hama.

Lefèvre's account shows the Brotherhood to be like any other political party struggling with ideology, policy, the state and its own personalities. Hafez Assad capitalized on their divisions time and time again. Despite the Syrian Brotherhood disassociating themselves from the violent activities of its splinter group, Hama gave Assad a perfect excuse to declare his war on terror decades before Bush. He turned the Brotherhood into terrorists, played the sectarian card and further tied the Alawite community to his own destiny.

Whilst Ashes of Hama might treat the fortunes of the Brotherhood dispassionately, it is not unsympathetic to its suffering. When I spoke to the UK representative for the National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary Opposition, Walid Safour, about the massacre, he told me that "this was the point when the regime stoked up the rhetoric and created sectarianism to serve its own goals." It was only in the book that I discovered that Mr. Safour had endured tortures so severe that he had to have three operations. The Mukhabarat wanted him to confess to being a member of the Brotherhood. The level of repression, the executions, the way the Syrian regime attacked the Brotherhood made it immediately clear why a faction became radicalised and decided to fight the regime.

Lefèvre makes the startling connection that for many, the genesis of global Jihad did not lie in fighting the Russians in Afghanistan but rather in fighting the Ba'ath party. Defeat in Hama meant that these battle hardened fighters went on to Afghanistan, Iraq and many other places where their expertise were used. It is ironic that the repression meted out by the Ba'ath party played a part in the birth of organizations like Al-Qaeda. Ashes of Hama is an important contribution on the massacre's impact on the Syrian political landscape and on an organization set to play a crucial role in post-Assad Syria.