In February 1982, Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad decided to send a message to dissidents in the city of Hama. Protests against his regime were met with a full-scale military offensive that left 10,000-20,000 Syrians dead. From that moment on, it became a cliché to say that brutal autocrats like Assad played by the “Hama Rules,” a phrase that brought to mind heartless slaughter and made it clear anyone who dared to oppose him would face death.
Nearly three decades later, the first name of the man atop the Assad family clan may be different, but there’s little doubt his son Bashar and his minions are still playing by the same rules. There’s no telling exactly how many Syrians have been killed during the months of Arab Spring protests in that country, but the number–believed to be in the hundreds–continues to climb. Today, the focus is once again on Hama, where the Syrian army and security services have massed their forces. Reports say another 10 persons were shot dead there by the government. Whether this is the prelude to another 1982-style massacre is unclear, but it is apparent the residents of the city of 650,000 fear it may be so. Reports speak of barricades being erected in the streets to impede the army’s advance.
Throughout this crisis, the United States has either downplayed events in Syria or sought to ignore them. In his defense of the U.S. intervention in Libya, President Obama said his purpose was to stop one of the world’s worst dictators from slaughtering a lot of people. The same could be said of Syria, where the United States and its European allies have simply watched as a potentially far worse scenarios than the one prevented in Libya unfolds.
The United States cannot right every wrong in the world. But by playing favorites with Arab dictators — both of whom are major sources of support for international terrorism — Obama’s seeming acquiescence to Assad’s crimes has implicitly undermined the case for Libya.