How Syria's brutal past colors its future
Yesterday in a sign of smooth transition of power, Bashar al-Assad got a key post.
The massacre in this city took place nearly two decades ago, but the fear it still engenders today tells much about the potency of minority rule in Syria, and the challenges faced by Syria's new President-designate Bashar al-Assad.Skip to next paragraph
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The "troubles" of 1982 brought to a head a conflict between Islamic insurgents of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Alawite sect, which with just 11 percent of the population has largely ruled Syria for three decades under the late President Hafez al-Assad.
Yesterday, a smooth transfer of power was in evidence as Mr. Bashar was elected chief of the ruling Baath Party. That crowns his recent elevation to chief of staff of military and security forces. But analysts say that as the mild-mannered Bashar looks to consolidate power in the future, he must keep in view the significance of Hama in the Syrian political mindset.
In the broad canon of political violence in the Middle East, the word "Hama" resonates like none other, and tells much about the raw exercise of power - and how to hang onto it.
Ever-conscious of the problem Hama might pose in the future, the late president directed that a Sunni sheikh read the funeral prayers at his burial. "Even in death, Assad's balancing hands were reaching out," said a Western diplomat.
But fear still lingers about the massacre in which some 10,000 are thought to have died as Alawite-commanded troops exacted a bloody revenge against Islamic insurgents of the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Ohhh," shudders one man, when asked about those events in a tiny mosque. He wouldn't give his name, but was of the Sunni Muslim majority, who make up 70 percent of Syria's population.
"They killed so many people," says another survivor. Not far away, the medieval waterwheels for which Hama is famous creaked heavily with the weight of water-logged wood on iron spindles. "Every family lost someone."
As Bashar has collected the instruments of Syrian state power, analysts and diplomats say it is not yet clear whether he will be cunning and ruthless enough to keep them in the future.
Here the lessons of Hama weigh heavily - and will weigh on Bashar as he eyes his future. The Alawite are a Shiite Muslim sect - deemed heretical by some - that also draws on Christian and astrological traditions. When Assad took power in a 1970 coup, he brought Alawites to top positions, while also trying to strike a careful balance with Syria's other myriad groups.
"Don't use the word Alawite, it scares me," insists a Sunni taxi driver, upon entering Hama, indicating how sensitive the nature of the regime can be. At the Alawite village of Misyaf to the west, in the shadow of the Alawi Mountain range that has for centuries been the bastion of Alawites in Syria, a local Alawite councilman contends that there are no differences among Syrians.
"We are a mix, but we are all for our father [Assad]," says Dr. Maan Ali, a dentist. "There is a town of Christians nearby, and another of Sunnis, but there is no difference."
One aspect of change already underway in Syria may help Bashar, as he navigates the minefield of tribal and religious interests. "The initial Baath drive toward secularism has eased," notes a Syrian observer. "It has become more open to positive Muslim feelings. The sense is growing that says 'Let's accommodate.' "
Still, while Syrians mourned the death of their leader of 30 years last week, with black banners even in Hama wishing "Paradise immortal for the Master of the Nation," the grieving in this city was less sincere. When asked political questions, some men point to the mourning banners, and declare that they are "step by step" with Bashar. But they also speak often of the young leader's promise of change - and hope that means a change from the calculations that led to the Hama crackdown.
"The savagery was absolutely fantastic. There was no attempt to hold back," says a Syrian analyst who, like the others interviewed for this article, asked not to be named. "It was not only to inflict a punishment, but to inflict a lesson for generations to come."