It was inevitable that the caravan of Arab freedom would make its appearance in Syria. It was there, three decades ago, that official terror hatched a monstrous state—and where practically everything Arabs would come to see in their politics in future decades was foreshadowed.
Hama was one of the principal cities of the Syrian plains. With a history of tumult and disputation, this Muslim Sunni stronghold rose against the military rule of Hafez Assad in 1982. The regime was at stake, and the drab, merciless ruler at its helm fought back and threw everything he had into the fight.
A good deal of the center of the inner city was demolished, no quarter was given. There are estimates that 20,000 people were killed.
After Hama, Hafez Assad would rule uncontested for two more decades. Prior to his ascendancy, 14 rulers came and went in a quarter-century. Many perished in prison or exile or fell to assassins. Not so with that man of stealth. He died in 2000, and in a most astonishing twist, he bequeathed power to his son Bashar, a young man not yet 35 years of age and an ophthalmologist at that.
By then Syrians had fled into the privacy of their homes, eager to escape the ruler's whip and gaze. Rule became a matter of the barracks, the ruling caste hunkered down, and the once-feisty republic become a dynastic possession. Assad senior had come from crushing rural poverty, but the House of Assad became a huge financial and criminal enterprise.
Fouad Ajami is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. To continue reading his column in The Wall Street Journal, on Syria and the house of Assad, click here.