Skip to main content

The onslaught lasted 27 days, and when the Syrian military finally finished levelling the neighbourhood, at least 10,000 people had been killed by bullets, bombs and the collapse of buildings.

The suppression of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 was decried by human-rights groups as an enormous atrocity. But the events of that February almost 20 years ago are recalled with fondness in the small town of Hama, where a fundamentalist Islamic movement lived and died.

"We are lucky we have a wise government -- otherwise [the Muslim Brotherhood]would have destroyed everything," said Abdul Kareem Qashush, a 75-year-old resident of Hama. "It was good for the government to stop it."

Likewise, there is little sympathy for contemporary Muslim extremists such as Osama bin Laden.

The suspected terrorist leader is seen here as an "outsider" trying to impose himself on the Afghan people, much as the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, tried to foist itself on Syria.

"The Muslim Brotherhood -- they weren't from Syria," said Basem Issa, 32, a bartender at the Apamee Cham Palace Hotel. "They were against the nature of Syria. They're not cultured. They're not civilized."

The luxury hotel was built on the site where Muslim Brotherhood members were executed. Wealthy Syrians and tourists swim in the pool and walk on the hotel's manicured grounds, seemingly unaware of what once lay underneath.

There are no plaques remembering the dead and no witnesses who want to talk about the executions.

Instead, visitors to Hama are greeted with a 10-metre-high statue of Hafez Assad, the Syrian dictator who ordered the destruction of the Muslim Brotherhood, fearing its members would kill him the way Islamic extremists had assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat four months earlier.

Since Mr. Assad died of cancer in June of last year, his son and handpicked successor, Bashar, has shown flexibility toward opposition groups. A "Damascus spring" has allowed the publication of the first independent newspaper in three decades. Hundreds of dissidents, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were released from prison. The Brotherhood said it intends to be a peaceful party, as in neighbouring Jordan.

But the Damascus spring may have its limitations. Even as Syria has applied to join the World Trade Organization, Mr. Assad over the past three months has ordered a series of arrests of well-known intellectuals, artists and politicians. The flow of Muslim Brotherhood members out of Syrian prisons and returning from exile has slowed.

"Syria isn't an open society," said Judith Kipper, co-director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "[Extremists]still exist -- they're just more careful and more underground."

According to Western officials, Syria continues to support terrorism, if not the kind practised by Mr. bin Laden. Still at war with Israel, it helps fund the Lebanon-based Hezbollah -- and occupies Lebanon with 20,000 troops. Syria, which remains on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist nations, still plays host to a variety of Palestinian guerrilla groups.

How long Hama will continue to serve as an example to dissidents in Syria and in countries such as Egypt and Jordan is open to question.

"It's certainly a technique that works for a while," Ms. Kipper said, "but it won't work in the long haul."

"Hama rules," according to Ms. Kipper and other analysts, need to be replaced with economic reforms, especially in countries such as Syria where the majority of the population is under 25.

"Unless you start producing decent educations and jobs [in these countries] the tendency toward radical identification with the mosque is going to exist," she said.

Faisal Killane, 29, who runs an import-export business across from the Apamee Cham Palace Hotel, would just as soon forget the massacre. His family owned property destroyed when the military stormed in. It included a historic guest house once used for ambassadors that was taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood.

"We are the new generation -- we have our own things," Mr. Killane said. "We don't cry for the old house. We just build a new one."

Interact with The Globe