Shades of Hama and Grozny in Homs and Idlib

A family escapes from fierce fighting in Idlib, north Syria, Saturday, March 10, 2012. Photo: Freedom House, under a Creative Commons Licence

By Henry Boyd, Research Analyst for The Military Balance

Some ten days after Syrian troops entered the Baba Amr neighbourhood of Homs, at the end of a month-long assault on the district, government tanks have begun bombarding the northern town of Idlib. The onslaught on Homs by the regime of Bashar al-Assad – which has provoked widespread humanitarian concerns – had eerie parallels with that launched during the reign of Bashar’s father, Hafez, in Hama 30 years ago. Both operations took place in February, both lasted for 27 days, and both involved the use of an arsenal of heavy armour and artillery to brutalise the local population into submission.

Even the types of weapon employed have strong similarities. In Homs, a wide variety of heavy military equipment appears to have been employed – from T-72 and T-55 main battle tanks to BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers, ZSU-23 anti-aircraft guns and heavy 240mm mortars. The aforementioned equipment, plus BMP-1 armoured infantry fighting vehicles and D-30 howitzers all came from the state factories of the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. The forces attacking Hama 30 years ago would have been entirely familiar with this hardware.

Syria’s approach to urban combat – both in 1982 and now – also appears to owe much to Soviet, and later Russian, tactics. The heavy artillery bombardments of both Hama and Homs are strongly reminiscent of the Russian army’s assault on Grozny in 1999, even down to the deployment of 240mm mortars. The reported Syrian use of electronic tracking to target the media centre in Homs seems remarkably similar to Russian techniques in Chechnya – albeit that the technology involved has advanced enormously in the past decade.

In 2012, Syrian troops seem to have been deployed in a similar manner as in 1982. Then, operations in Hama were overseen by Rifaat al-Assad, Hafez’s brother, who could call upon the locally based 47th Armoured Brigade, with reinforcements from the Special Forces, the 21st Mechanised Brigade (drawn from the Damascus-based 3rd Armoured Division) and Rifaat’s own Saraya al-Difaa’ (Defence Companies).

This arrangement – where a local formation is backed by Damascus-based units, all overseen by state intelligence agents – is echoed in recent Syrian army operations. In last year’s operations around Deraa, for example, the locally based 5th Armoured Division was supplemented by a brigade of the 4th Division under the command of Bashar’s brother Maher al-Assad. In Homs, the 18th Armoured Division was reinforced by Special Forces units and again by elements of the 4th Division under Maher’s de facto command.

Of course, there are differences between the past and present; today’s protests appear more widespread, and both sides have access to new technology – from the camera phones used by protesters to upload video to the Internet to a UAV apparently filmed over Homs.

Nonetheless, there is a cautionary tale for anyone who considers the demise of Bashar al-Assad’s government inevitable. Notwithstanding defections, popular discontent and international condemnation, the brutal regime of Hafez al-Assad survived long after the Hama massacre. Bashar’s imitation of his father’s military tactics in Homs – and now Idlib – suggests he believes that he can achieve the same thing now.

He may yet be proved correct, especially since Russia and China vetoed the last draft United Nations resolution condemning the Syrian government’s actions, and calling on him to step aside. Even if today’s meetings at the United Nations – including between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – bring the international unanimity in condemnation of the Syrian regime, there is one other threat that history suggests Bashar could face.

In 1984, two years after leading the operation in Hama, Rifaat attempted a coup d’état against his brother, Hafez. The Saraya al-Difaa’ forces Rifaat used in that attempt were subsequently reorganised into the 4th Division – which now answers to another al-Assad, Maher, who is once again in charge of putting down a revolt against his older brother.


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