Syria's strong man flexes muscles against foes at home and abroad

By , The Christian Science Monitor

The murder of a prominent Syrian dissident in Paris July 21 follows pledges by the embattled Damascus regime to get tough with its opponents -- both "internally and externally."

Whether Syrian officials were actually tied in with the killing of former Prime Minister Salah Bitar, who had become an important critic-in-exile of the present leadership, remained to be seen. The man who reportedly drew a pistol on the co-founder of Syria's ruling Baath Socialist Party got away and, at this writing, had not been caught.

But the murder, for most Arab analysts in Beirut, Lebanon, was a reflection of the growing intensity -- and violence -- of the battle between the regime of Syrian President Hafez Assad, a vocal opponent of US policy in the Middle East, and rebels bent on unseating him.

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The analysts hastened to add tht Mr. Assad, in power for the past decade, has proven one of the great political survivors in a turbulent Arab world. But, one commentator remarked, "It is safe to say he has never faced such serious challenges."

The escalating get-tough policy against anti-Assad circles seems an indication of the seriousness with which the regime itself has come to view the unrest.

Syrian officials have blamed what has escalated into almost daily incidents of violence on the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood organization. The brotherhood, like most of Syria's population, subscribes to the mainstream Sunni brand of Islam.

President Assad and his top lieutenants hail from the minority Alawite sect.

Diplomatic reports from Syria indicate that assorted human-rights advocates and professionals are also increasingly sympathetic to the antigovernment unrest.

Striking back earlier in July, the pliant Syrian parliament endorsed a call from President Assad to impose the death penalty for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood. an amnesty was offered for any of the militants who turned themselves in, and Syria's state-controlled news media said July 20 that four had done so.

Syrian media also said field courts had been set up to try brotherhood members.

Yet the clearest indication of the regime's stepped-up campaign against rebel circles came in an aritcle appearing July 1 in the Damascus newspaper Tichrin under the name of Col. Rifaat Assad, the President's brother and chief of the country's special military forces.

Colonel Assad made it clear the time had come for Syrians to stand either with the regime or against it.

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