What Are Hama Rules?

Bashar al-Assad golan heights
Druze residents of the Golan Heights hold Syrian flags and portraits of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez al-Assad (C) during a rally in support the Damascus regime on February 14, 2010 in Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights. David Silverman/Getty Images

Hama is Syria's fourth largest city after Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs. It is located in the northwestern part of the country. In the early 1980s, it was a stronghold of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which was working to topple the minority, Alawite regime of then-Syrian President Hafez el Assad. In February 1982, Assad ordered his military to demolish the city. New York Times reporter Thomas Friedman called the tactic "Hama Rules."


Syrian President Hafez el Assad took power in a military coup on November 16, 1970, when he was the minister of defense. Assad was an Alawite, a splinter Islamic sect that makes up about 6 percent of the Syrian population, which is predominantly Sunni Muslim, with Shiites, Kurds and Christians forming other minorities.

Sunnis make up more than 70 percent of the population. As soon as Assad took over, the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood began to plan for his overthrow. By the late 1970s, a slow-simmer, but persistently violent guerilla war was being waged against Assad's regime as bombs went off outside Syrian government buildings or Soviet advisers or members of Assad's ruling Baath Party were shot in frequent attacks or taken hostage. Assad's regime responded with abductions and assassinations of its own.

Assad himself was the target of an assassination attempt on June 26, 1980, when Muslim Brotherhood threw two hand grenades at him and opened fire when Assad was hosting the Mali head of state. Assad survived with a foot injury: he'd kicked away one of the grenades.​

Within hours of the assassination attempt, Rifaat Assad, Hafez's brother, who controlled the state's "Defense Companies," sent 80 members of those forces to Palmyra Prison, where hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members were being held. According to Amnesty International, the soldiers "were divided into groups of 10 and, once inside the prison, were ordered to kill the prisoners in their cells and dormitories. Some 600 to 1,000 prisoners are reported to have been killed. ... After the massacre, the bodies were removed and buried in a large common grave outside the prison."

That was just a warm-up for what was to come later, as surprise searches of Muslim Brotherhood households became frequent, as did curbside executions in Hama, as well as torture. The Muslim Brotherhood stepped up its attacks, murdering dozens of innocent people.

"In February 1982," Friedman wrote in his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, "President Assad decided to end his Hama problem once and for all. With his sad eyes and ironic grin, Assad always looked to me like a man who had long ago been stripped of any illusions about human nature. Since fully taking power in 1970, he has managed to rule Syria longer than any man in the post-World War II era. He has done so by always playing by his own rules. His own rules, I discovered, were Hama Rules."

On Tuesday, Feb. 2, at 1 a.m., the assault on Hama, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold, began. It was a cold, drizzly night. The city turned into a scene of civil war as Muslim Brotherhood gunmen immediately responded to the attack. When close-quarter combat looked to disadvantage the Syrian forces of Rifaat Assad, he turned tanks loose on Hama, and over the next several weeks, large parts of the city were demolished and thousands executed or killed in the battles. "When I drove into Hama at the end of May," Friedman wrote, "I found three areas of the city that had been totally flattened--each the size of four football fields and covered with the yellowish tint of crushed concrete."

Some 20,000 people were killed at Assad's orders.

That is Hama Rules.