Although 42 Years Have Passed Since the Syrian Regime’s Monstrous Onslaught on Hama City in 1982, Rifaat Assad is Still a Free Man Protected by Bashar Assad
On Wednesday, August 16, 2023, the Federal Criminal Court of Switzerland (FCC) and the Federal Office of Justice (FOJ) issued an international arrest warrant for Rifaat Assad in connection to his involvement in the grotesque war crimes committed in Hama city in February 1982. At the time, Rifaat Assad was Syria’s Vice-President under his brother, the then-President of the Syrian regime, Hafez Assad, and headed the now-dissolved ‘Saraya al-Difaa’ (Defense Companies).
In December 2013, Trial International filed a criminal denunciation before the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (OAG). The organization, which spearheaded an extensive criminal investigation, was the primary group behind building the case and keeping it alive. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has worked with Trial International by providing data and details on the Hama Massacre of February 1982, in addition to supplying contact information for many eyewitnesses. SNHR’s Executive Director, Fadel Abdul Ghany, also held many meetings with the lead investigator in the case to discuss it.
Born in 1937 in Qerdaha city in rural Latakia governorate, Rifaat Ali Suleiman Assad was one of the primary figures involved in ordering, leading and perpetrating the countless crimes of murder, torture, enforced disappearance, pillaging, and destruction that took place in February and March 1982 in Hama city. In addition to holding the position of Vice President of the Syrian Arab Republic on Matters of National Security, he was also a member of the Regional Command of the Baath Party and head of the Defense Companies, the paramilitary force that was primarily responsible for the Hama Massacre, until 1984, when he was exiled from Syria under the terms of an agreement with his brother Hafez Assad in exchange for a payment of millions of dollars. In October 2021, he returned to Syria under the protection of Bashar Assad, who is, naturally, unlikely, to extradite him to the FCC since Bashar Assad himself is involved in the Hama Massacre of 1982 due to his failures to launch any subsequent investigation into the events of that period, to reveal the fate of thousands of forcibly disappeared persons, or to compensate their families. Instead, Bashar Assad followed his father’s footsteps in inflicting carnage, forcibly disappearing victims, and pillaging their properties.
The Syrian regime launched an offensive on Hama city that lasted for nearly a month. The offensive began with a siege in late January of that year. Then at approximately 20:15 on Tuesday, February 2, 1982, a Syrian regime force of roughly 20,000 soldiers led by Rifaat Assad bombed Hama city. The regime gradually expanded its bombardment, targeting multiple neighborhoods indiscriminately, using artillery and machine guns. The bombardment was followed by a multi-pronged raid on the city that saw indiscriminate field executions and murders, in addition to dozens of crimes of pillaging and sexual assault. The offensive also saw armed clashes between Syrian regime forces and Muslim Brotherhood members in the city. The Syrian regime used its air force and tanks that entered the city and bombed houses, making no attempt to distinguish between civilians and fighters. Furthermore, Syrian regime forces arrested hundreds of locals without bringing any charges against them, with some of those arrested being executed by shooting at close range in the streets.
According to SNHR’s estimates, the Syrian regime’s 1982 offensive on Hama city led by Rifaat Assad claimed the lives of roughly 40,000 citizens, with roughly 17,000 people still missing to this day. This does not include the number of those killed among the Muslim Brotherhood armed forces and Syrian regime forces during the offensive. The attack also destroyed many of the city’s neighborhoods, including historical ones. Neighborhoods such as al-Kilaniya, al-Asida, al-Shamaiya, al-Zanbaqi, and Bin al-Herien were destroyed almost completely, while around 80 percent of other neighbourhoods such as al-Baroudiya, al-Bashouriya, al-Hamidiya, al-Amiriya, and al-Manakh was wiped out, with between 25 and 50 percent of a number of other city neighbourhoods razed.
SNHR has gathered data on approximately 3,762 of the people forcibly disappeared in the Hama massacre of 1982. We are absolutely certain, however, that those figures represent only a small proportion of the actual number of the forcibly disappeared persons who were declared missing following the massacre, who we estimate to number approximately 17,000. Similarly, we have only managed to obtain data on 7,984 of the civilians who were killed in the massacre, with the real figure known to be far higher. While here are significant indicators suggesting that the overwhelming majority of those classified as forcibly disappeared were killed by Syrian regime forces, the regime has never officially admitted that or any wrongdoing to this day. In fact, the Syrian regime never launched any investigation into the infamous events of 1982, and has deliberately forcibly disappeared Syrian citizens to further intensify the terror and trauma suffered by the city’s residents as a result of that massacre which have haunted them for decades now. All of this only further incriminates Bashar Assad as the continuation of his father’s barbaric dynastic rule, with his regime still relying on many of the senior figures from his father’s rule.
SNHR welcomes the FCC’s decision as a positive step on the path of accountability. We must stress that, despite the passage of decades since those infamous events, we will never forget the atrocities, historic or contemporary, committed by this dictatorial criminal regime or stop seeking justice for the victims, even 42 years since the massacre or however long it takes. Syria is still under the savage rule of the same dictatorial family that committed this fathomlessly harrowing massacre, which remains the largest and most horrific single massacre in Syria’s modern history. It is also imperative to remember that the failure to punish the Syrian regime for the Hama Massacre of 1982 has emboldened the Assad regime to spread similarly barbaric terror and oppression across all of Syria for the past decade and for many years to come so long as it remains in power. The fact that all of those involved in the Hama massacre continue to enjoy impunity has emboldened Bashar Assad to follow the same tactics against the popular uprising that began in March 2011 with the same certainty that he will also have impunity.
On this occasion, SNHR must express our immense gratitude to the victims and eyewitnesses who have participated in supplying evidence and who continue to believe in the importance of this work despite the passage of over four decades since Rifaat Assad committed his crimes. We believe that this warrant is yet another mark of shame against the regime that serves to further expose it. It is also a positive step, no matter how small, on the path to obtaining justice for the victims and reparation for the survivors, since at least one of those who stole or devastated their lives and caused them and their families unimaginable suffering is now officially, however belatedly, an internationally wanted criminal, even if this should have happened years earlier.