On November 29, 1981, I was sitting in my office at the U.S. embassy in Damascus when I heard a loud explosion not too far away. I had arrived and taken up my duties as deputy chief of the U.S. mission only a few weeks earlier. A car bomb had been detonated in front of the Syrian Air Force headquarters close to the residential neighborhood of Mazza, where our embassy was located. The explosion had destroyed much of the façade and all of the windows of the building. It had torn down the first and third words of the Baath party slogan, “unity, freedom, socialism,” that had been on the top of the building (I thought that was an ironic accident). It had also thrown debris and some body parts into the playground of the American Community School across the street, forcing it to close while the place was cleaned up. We estimated later that more than 60 people had been killed in the attack. The parents and teachers connected with the school were shocked that it had come so close to us.
This attack was not directed at Americans but was part of a series of skirmishes that had been taking place over the past five years between Islamic extremists, especially Muslim Brotherhood partisans, and the Syrian government. President Hafez al-Assad had tried to suppress the opposition, but he had been unable to stop random terrorist attacks on government targets.
Then, nine weeks later, a major battle between government forces and Islamists broke out 100 miles north of Damascus in Syria’s fourth-largest city, Hama, which harbored Islamic extremists. On February 2, 1982, Syrian police and army entered the old part of the city to arrest Muslim Brotherhood leaders, but in the narrow streets and alleyways they came under sniper fire from insurgents. Our military attaché, who had information from his sources about the fighting as soon as it started, kept us informed as it continued. It was his responsibility to keep track of the Syrian military, and he was constantly on the road, following convoys and identifying units. There were no reports in the Syrian media about fighting in Hama, but soon after it started, our attaché was able to monitor it by careful observation at a discreet distance and from his local contacts.
From his reports, we knew that the insurgents were dug in, but the Syrian army, the defense companies under the president’s brother Rifaat, and the air force were escalating the assault from all sides. The fighting went on for 27 days, finally stopping on February 28. Not a word about it appeared in Syrian media, but everyone in Damascus seemed to know that something big was happening in Hama. Our military attaché was able to get into the city by a circuitous route to assess the situation. He found at the end of the fighting that three relatively small areas in the oldest part of the city had been badly damaged; buildings, including mosques, had been flattened. He estimated that a few thousand lives had been lost, perhaps as many as 10,000, as these were very crowded areas.
Our CIA station chief reported that according to his contacts, the government had discovered during the fighting that the insurgents had been using weapons clearly identifiable as having come from neighboring Iraq. Sources later told him that President Assad was so incensed at Iraqi complicity in the insurgency that this helped persuade him to become more openly hostile to the regime of Saddam Hussain, later shutting down the border as well as a pipeline that crossed Syrian territory. We reported in detail to Washington on the fighting and the implications related to Iraq.
The Syrian media never did fully cover the event and was silent on Iraq’s apparent involvement. The international media did not report at all on the fighting during February, while it was going on. There were no foreign correspondents in Syria, and word did not leak out. A month after the fighting ended, the New York Times ran a story about it on March 26, datelined Beirut. The Times bureau chief in Beirut, Tom Friedman, finally decided at the end of May to come to Damascus to look into the story. I briefed him at the embassy, and then he went to Hama to look for himself.
Friedman was surprised by what he saw. Eight years later, when he published his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, which received a National Book Award, he devoted an entire chapter to the Hama massacre. He called it “Hama Rules,” to describe what he thought had happened. He said the regime had “destroyed one of its largest cities,” and “large parts of the city were demolished.” He said, “The whole town looked as if a tornado had swept back and forth over it for a week.” For years after the incident, in Times columns and interviews, he repeatedly used the term “Hama rules” to refer to the 1982 event, saying Assad had “destroyed the city” as a lesson to the Syrian people.
On September 21, 2001, just a few days after 9/11, the New York Times published an op-ed by Friedman in which he recalled the 1982 incident. The story had grown: “President Assad identified the rebellion as emanating from Syria’s fourth-largest city, Hama, and he literally leveled it, pounding the fundamentalist neighborhoods with artillery for days. Once the guns fell silent, he plowed up the rubble and bulldozed it flat, into vast parking lots.” Friedman concluded, “I tell this story not to suggest this should be America’s approach. We can’t go around leveling cities. We need to be much more focused, selective and smart in uprooting the terrorists.”
Actually, the whole town had not been destroyed. I drove through it in March 1982, a few weeks after the fighting, and most of the city seemed perfectly normal, just as it had been before the fighting. Multi-storey buildings in commercial and residential districts were untouched. I visited the main square, a favorite tourist spot, and saw that the famous giant wooden water wheels (“nurias”), 90 feet high and dating from the thirteenth century, were still sitting intact at the edge of the Orantes River that runs through Hama; some of them were turning. I did see a part of the old city where two-storey buildings facing narrow lanes had been demolished and the area, no larger than a football field, leveled flat. But standing there I could see areas all around us where the residential buildings were still intact. I visited Hama again in 2005, and it showed almost no sign at all of the March 1982 events. The damaged area I had seen then had been completely rebuilt; the rest of the city looked perfectly intact, much of it old and obviously predating 1982.
When reports appeared in the Western newspapers, magazines and books by Friedman and others saying the city had been destroyed, I was amazed. The hyperbole by journalists was striking. We thought their estimate of casualties was higher than it should be (Robert Fisk in his book “Pity the Nation” said 20,000), but even accepting his numbers, for a city of 180,000, that was only ten percent of the population. Hama had not been “literally leveled,” as Friedman claimed.