The Syrian city of Hama symbolized for the past three decades the degree of brutality Arab autocrats were willing to employ to hold on to power.
Almost 30 years after Syrian air force planes bombed the city while tanks pulverized its center in a successful bid to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, Hama has returned to the forefront of the struggle for greater political freedom and economic opportunity. At least 10,000 people were killed in the ferocious assault in 1982.
It also raises questions about the United Nations-endorsed no-fly zone in Libya and NATO’s effort to bomb Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi into submission, if not kill him.
The significance of the rise of Hama goes beyond its symbolism and the fact that Friday’s mass demonstrations in the city were the largest yet in four months of anti-government protests that so far seem to have only produced a stalemate with resilient protesters refusing to be intimidated and security force brutality merely reinforcing their resolve.
If anything, the brutal 1982 crackdown in Hama makes the city the perfect venue for a potential breaking of the stalemate. Hama’s resurgence demonstrates that resilience empowers protesters to confront security forces on their own steam rather than on the back of foreign intervention even if the full meaning of the Assad regime’s change of tactics in the city remains unclear.
Mr. Assad fired on Saturday, a day after the massive protest, the governor of Hama, Ahmed Abdul-Aziz, in what many Syrians see as an ominous move that made Mr. Abdul Aziz the Syrian president’s scapegoat. Many Syrians believe that Mr. Abdul Aziz’s firing is the prelude to a brutal crackdown.
Whatever the case maybe, last month’s withdrawal of troops from Hama has allowed the city to take a leading role in the protests. As a result, the ranks of the weekly protests swelled; protesters once braced for bullets, arrests and possible death have adopted an almost celebratory mood as they pressure the regime uninhibited to dismantle the police state and eradicate corruption and nepotism.
Whatever the government’s motives are for surrendering Hama to the protesters -- a signal that Mr. Assad realizes that his crackdown has backfired or an indication that security forces are over stretched and over taxed and need a rest before resuming their crackdown -- it constitutes at least a tactical victory for his detractors. Moreover, Mr. Assad must have understood the symbolism involved in choosing Hama as the venue for his move even as he maintained his crackdown elsewhere in the country.
The withdrawal from Hama, whether temporary or not, enables Mr. Assad at least for now to argue that his regime tolerates peaceful dissent. He has yet to demonstrate the veracity of assertions by Syrian officials that the withdrawal from heralds the initiation of the reforms demanded by the protesters.
To be sure, Hama could also represent nothing more than the exception to the rule: A reluctance by the regime to crackdown in a city that symbolizes the regime’s brutality or simply a temporary respite.
But even if that were the case, by withdrawing from Hama the regime has granted the protesters a space of their own. Cracking down on it becomes more difficult and would be ever bloodier with every day that goes by. Moreover, while Hama is the most important city from which security forces have withdrawn, it is not the only one. Security forces have also moved out of some towns along the borders with Turkey and Iraq.
Irrespective of whether the withdrawals signal a newly found willingness by the regime to engage with the protesters or a pause in advance of renewed violence, it demonstrates that peaceful demonstrators willing to confront overwhelming force can stand their ground.
By having so far stood their ground in Syria without the support of direct foreign intervention, the protesters have preserved the genuineness and pureness of the wave of anti-government demonstrations sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
That is likely to have been compromised in Libya where rebel advances are achieved on the back of NATO air strikes. The no-fly zone was imposed to protect civilians from an expected onslaught by Mr. Qaddafi’s forces. The number of dead in the fighting between the rebels and Qaddafi loyalists may well rival the number that would have been killed had the no-fly zone not halted an imminent Qaddafi attack on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
If the rebels succeed in coming to power in Libya, they risk becoming unstable, unpopular rulers much like Afghan President Hamid Karzai who owes his position to foreign forces. The rebels may well have been better off achieving their goals with no strings attached much like their Syrian counterparts are trying to do.
The coming days and weeks will tell whether Hama constitutes a milestone in the Syrian campaign for greater freedom and opportunity and becomes an inspirations for millions across the Arab world or whether protesters’ resolve will be put to one of their toughest, if not their toughest test.
It would be a test that Syrians in recent months have proven they are up for even if the price could be atrocious. In 1982, dissent was brutally squashed. History is unlikely to repeat itself in Hama this time round.