Casting Aside World Criticism, Syria Invades Town
By Nada Bakri
The New York Times
August 3, 2011
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Ignoring mounting condemnations, the Syrian military sent tanks, armored vehicles and snipers on Wednesday into the symbolic center of Hama, a rebellious city that has emerged as a linchpin of the nearly five-month uprising, in what appeared a decisive step by President Bashar al-Assad to crush opposition to his rule.
The military’s assault on Assi Square, the scene of some of the biggest demonstrations against Mr. Assad’s leadership, was an event that many activists and residents had thought impossible, evidence of the government’s determination to retake by force a city that suffered one of the most brutal crackdowns in Syrian history in 1982.
But the government, whose calculations continue to mystify its own people and run the risk of invigorating the uprising, seemed to view the momentum of demonstrations in Hama, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands last month, as a threat to its survival. The uprising in Hama reached a critical mass, and the energy has spread to Dayr az Zawr in eastern Syria, another of Syria’s five largest cities.
“The regime wants to finish with Hama as soon as possible,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University in Beirut.
Activists and residents in Hama said the city had been under nearly continuous gunfire since early Wednesday, with the tanks heading toward Assi Square before dawn. Amid scenes of confusion, they reported many dead and wounded, adding to the toll of more than 100 killed since Sunday, by activists’ count. They said some residents had tried to stop the advancing armored columns with barricades, many of them built of furniture, iron railings, rocks and cinder blocks, but those barriers stood little chance against the military’s might.
“The army is now stationed in Assi Square,” said a post on the Syrian Revolution Facebook page. “The heroic youths of Hama are confronting them.” But The Associated Press reported that heavy shelling was keeping most residents of Hama inside.
The government’s calculus — tentative efforts at reform made meaningless by a relentless escalation of violence — has plunged Syria into its deepest international isolation in decades. A crackdown that has killed more than 1,500 people, according to the United Nations, which citied human rights groups, has given more resilience and fervor to an uprising that, for weeks, had managed to mobilize only a few thousand people for protests.
That the assault came during Ramadan, a holy, usually festive month on the Muslim calendar when the observant fast from dawn to dusk, made the violence even more egregious in the view of the Syrian government’s critics. The government appeared to fear that the opposition would make good on its vows to escalate the uprising, taking advantage of crowds that assembled in mosques for nightly prayers.
“Hama is under the fire for three days in this holy month of Ramadan,” said an opposition leader in Damascus, the capital, who asked not to be named. “Syrians are still in shock, and they will wake up and protest against the Assad regime. No one can imagine that people there cannot find bread to eat, water to drink and electricity when it’s so hot.”
Mr. Assad’s assault on Hama came despite growing world criticism of his suppression of a movement that has so far remarkably defied his military and security forces. Activists have managed to get their message out despite the government’s efforts to bar most foreign journalists, often sending out grisly homemade videos of the crackdown’s victims.
The Hama assault was a catalyst for some action on Wednesday by the United Nations Security Council, where members agreed for the first time since the uprising started on a statement condemning the violence in Syria. The council’s statement placed the blame on Mr. Assad’s leadership while calling for restraint on both sides.
Though still stopping short of calling for Mr. Assad to step down, the United Nations and the West, led by the United States and European Union, have grown increasingly critical of Mr. Assad, who inherited power from his father, Hafez, in 2000. Turkey, once one of Syria’s closest allies, and Russia have also expressed anger over the crackdown.
“What’s going on in Hama today is an atrocity,” said Bulent Arinc, the deputy prime minister of Turkey, in some of the strongest comments yet. Those responsible, he said Wednesday, “can’t be our friend.”
“They are making a big mistake,” he added.
The assault on Hama coincided with the start of another captivating event in the Arab world — the televised trial of Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president whose fall from power and prosecution have resonated throughout the Middle East, serving as a reminder to Mr. Assad and other autocrats of the limits of uncontested power.
“Today, Egypt’s Mubarak is in the court for accusations that he was behind the killing of protesters, and tomorrow the officials of the Assad regime will face the same destiny,” the opposition leader in Damascus said. “The world won’t forget what’s happening.”
There was widespread speculation that the Syrian forces deliberately timed the invasion of Hama to coincide with the trial of Mr. Mubarak, which was being held in Cairo and covered live by most satellite news channels, some of which have given heavy coverage to the Syrian popular uprising that started in mid-March.
“It’s obvious that they used the Mubarak trial to distract the public from the attack,” said Rami Abdel-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reached by phone in London. “We might be witnessing another massacre in Hama.”
Omar Habbal, an activist with the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group involved in organizing and documenting protests, said that three tanks took positions in Assi Square, and that snipers were positioned on rooftops surrounding the square. Online posts and social networking sites said water, electricity and communication lines were cut in Hama and its surrounding villages and towns.
“They entered the city from all sides,” said Mr. Habbal, who was reached by phone in Hama, which is in central Syria. “We don’t know where the fire is coming from, but despite that, people in their neighborhoods are still shouting antiregime slogans.”
Mr. Habbal said that at least one resident was killed when a bomb hit his house.
Shaam, an online video site sympathetic to protesters, posted a video dated Aug. 3 that it said showed at least one tank attacking a neighborhood, which the narrator identified as Hayy al-Hader in Hama. In the video, heavy plumes of smoke could be seen rising into the sky. In other videos, smoke curled over the city, and bullets ricocheted off streets.
The Local Coordination Committees said in an e-mail that the shelling was concentrated in two neighborhoods where there had been large protests, Janoub al-Mala’ab and Manakh. The group said that security forces were firing at residents trying to flee the city, and that one building and several houses had collapsed from heavy shelling.
The Syrian Army has surrounded Hama since Sunday when it carried out a predawn attack on the city, which had largely been free of armed troops since June.
To its residents and other Syrians, Hama carries a special resonance. In 1982, under the orders of Mr. Assad’s father, the military attacked the city to crush an Islamist uprising there, killing at least 10,000 people, and perhaps many more.