In the last days, as pro-Gaddafi forces increasingly encircle the rebels in the east, one name that has started to be quietly murmured in the Middle East is Hama. Could Benghazi be another Hama?
In a region replete with tragedies, the February 1982 massacre in the Syrian city of Hama stands out as one of the most brutal crackdowns by an Arab government in modern memory. In response to an uprising by the Muslim brotherhood, the Syrian army encircled, bombed and then laid siege to the city over the course of three weeks. Entire sections of the city were leveled and casualty estimates ranged from 7,000 to 35,000.
Reporter and author Robert Fisk provided a personal account of this in his 1990 book Pity the Nation. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman subsequently coined the phrase “Hama Rules”, meaning that in the Middle East the only rule is there are no rules.
Watching the situation enfold in Libya this week, the similarities with Hama are now there. The rebels are concentrated in Benghazi, a similarly large secondary city. It is increasingly evolving into an army-against-urban population conflict. And nobody believes that Gaddafi will hold back in any way. Everyone believes he is capable of it.
The question of whether Benghazi will become the next Hama will likely be answered in the next week. The key event to watch for will be whether or not the rebels fall back to within Benghazi’s urban population.
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