Ghislain d’Andlau, Sheffield University, United Kingdom

The Syrian president visited Hama on Sunday. Located 220 km north of Damascus, Bashar al-Assad had never travelled so far from Damascus since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in March 2011.

The official media of the regime broadcast images showing Bashar al-Assad praying among the faithful at dawn in the Al-Nouri mosque in Hama and congratulating the faithful outside the building. The Syrian president was flanked by members of his cabinet. His presence, said the imam who celebrated the ceremony, shows that victory and peace are close.

Hama was one of the strongholds of opposition forces at the beginning of the Syrian uprise. In July 2011, an anti-regime event had pushed more than half a million people in the streets of Hama, making this city one of the main centres of the revolt. While it was the scene of major demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad, who had ordered the siege of the city, Robert Ford, the American ambassador stationed at that time in the country, had publicly visited the anti-regime supporters. A visit aimed at “making contact” with the opposition that had provoked the wrath of Damascus. Eric Chatterjee, Ambassador of France to Syria, also made a similar move.

Hama was, since 1982 a historical symbol of the bloody suppression of an Islamist uprising fostered by the Muslim Brotherhood against President Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar. The repression had made 20 000 casualties. A violent episode, led by Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of the president at the time. It had allowed the Assad family to tighten its grip on the country by stifling any inclination of protest … until 2011.

Controlling the province of Hama is of vital importance to the government because it allows it to isolate the neighbouring province of Idlib, mostly controlled by the rebels, from Damascus, further south, and Latakia, more to the west, both strongholds of the regime.

Last year, Bashar al-Assad had been praying in Homs, 160 km north of the capital. He has not yet visited Aleppo, the countries’ biggest city before the war, and completed the retaken in December.