History Repeats Itself as Tragedy

The must-read secret Pentagon memo on Syria's 1982 massacre.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Cut the dates from this just-declassified Defense Intelligence Agency paper and it reads like an analysis of the current 18-month-old Syrian civil war, as if it could have gone to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta yesterday. But DIA analysts wrote this paper in April 1982, 30 years ago -- just after the horrific Hama massacre by then-Syrian leader Hafez Assad, who used jets and artillery to level the city and wipe out a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising.

The similarities are striking. The regime -- Assad the father then, and Assad the son now -- uses the same brutal tactics of repression. It rains indiscriminate violence from the air, from cannons, and from tanks on the urban centers of the uprising, regardless of civilian casualties. The opposition -- including the Muslim Brotherhood cadres described in this document -- pursues a strategy of violent rebellion that "would also force the Damascus government to become even more oppressive" and thus "cause greater alienation of the Assad government from the Sunni Muslim majority and within the Alawite community," from which even Syrian military might defect, thereby hastening the fall of the regime.

About the Hama massacre, the DIA analysts concluded:

Cut the dates from this just-declassified Defense Intelligence Agency paper and it reads like an analysis of the current 18-month-old Syrian civil war, as if it could have gone to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta yesterday. But DIA analysts wrote this paper in April 1982, 30 years ago — just after the horrific Hama massacre by then-Syrian leader Hafez Assad, who used jets and artillery to level the city and wipe out a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising.

The similarities are striking. The regime — Assad the father then, and Assad the son now — uses the same brutal tactics of repression. It rains indiscriminate violence from the air, from cannons, and from tanks on the urban centers of the uprising, regardless of civilian casualties. The opposition — including the Muslim Brotherhood cadres described in this document — pursues a strategy of violent rebellion that "would also force the Damascus government to become even more oppressive" and thus "cause greater alienation of the Assad government from the Sunni Muslim majority and within the Alawite community," from which even Syrian military might defect, thereby hastening the fall of the regime.

About the Hama massacre, the DIA analysts concluded:

The Muslim Brotherhood leadership was fully aware that they had the Assad regime in a ‘no win’ situation over Hama. If Assad had not acted forcefully against Hama, the rebellion might have spread to other cities which in turn might have led to a full-scale rebellion. Assad’s liberal use of artillery in breaking the resistance in Hama served notice to other cities that he has both the will and the means to retain power. By the same token, however, the government’s actions have appalled and sickened a wide spectrum of Syrian society. Nonetheless, Assad’s strategy continues to be based on the realization that most Syrians, regardless of their differences with the present government, do not want the Muslim Brotherhood in power, although they would undoubtedly prefer one dominated by Sunni Muslims [instead of Assad’s Alawite sect].

The one factual discrepancy in this DIA report, compared to what we know now, is the casualty count on Hama. The document says 2,000 dead, but independent observers (ranging from the British journalist Robert Fisk, who visited Hama, to the Syrian Human Rights Committee) determined after the fact that between 20,000 and 40,000 died at Hama — all killed in the month of February 1982, within just a few weeks.

The Syrian civil war currently raging has only now reached that level of casualties, nearly 30,000 total deaths over 18 months, according to the Centre for Documentation of Violations in Syria and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. August 2012 was the bloodiest month, with more than 5,000 deaths. Most of the Syrian dead are civilian; the total includes about 3,000 fighters on each side.

What has changed, obviously, is the geopolitical context: There is no longer a Soviet Union (one of the main concerns of this DIA document), Iraq has a very different government, this time Iran is supporting the Assad regime instead of inspiring the rebels, and the Muslim Brotherhood has actually come to power in Egypt.

But the long roots of the current civil war are clearly visible in this 30-year-old analysis, which includes as its last paragraph the prediction that the "covert war, therefore, is unlikely to stop, although there may be periodic lulls in the struggle." Reading this intelligence report makes one rephrase the famous saying about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. In Syria, the second time has been tragedy too.

<p> Tom Blanton is director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. </p>

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