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How Syria's brutal past colors its future

Yesterday in a sign of smooth transition of power, Bashar al-Assad got a key post.

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The Muslim Brotherhood were destroyed in Syria as a result, and have never since mounted a protest. Still, in 1989, Syrian security officers discovered and destroyed an arms cache linked to Islamic extremists.

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Syria has been vilified in the West for the atrocities at Hama. But many Syrians - including a Sunni merchant class that has thrived under Alawite rule - also note that the result has been years of stability.

That lesson has spread far beyond Syria's borders, and served as a benchmark for other regimes that felt threatened by Islamic extremists who were often inspired - as they were in Syria - by Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. Egyptians beset with fundamentalist attacks in the 1990s, for example, spoke of the "Hama solution."

"Hama is the case study in the Arab world of how the state can prevail over threats to its survival ... and respond brutally," says Edward Djerejian, a former US ambassador to Syria, who is now director of the Baker Institute at Rice University.

"It's something that all these regimes take very seriously," he says, noting that there was a "prelude" of antiregime violence leading up to Hama. That prelude was violent, too. Hama had been a conservative bastion of Sunni Muslims renowned for rejecting outside control.

One warning that may require critical understanding by Bashar today - especially after he spearheaded a recent anticorruption drive that removed several senior Alawites from the inner circle - was written by Assad's British biographer Patrick Seale. "Behind the Hama massacre lies the aggressiveness of the Alawite community, now in the saddle flaunting its power, but fearful for survival in the midst of a large Sunni Muslim majority it had done much to antagonize," he wrote in 1982.

The regime has never sought to hide the act of destroying much of Syria's fourth-largest city, however, to drive the lesson home. Assad's brother, Rifaat, who commandeered the attack is reported to have once chided someone who suggested that 7,000 people died at Hama, by boasting that 38,000 had died.

Though Syria's example may be the most clear cut, Damascus is not alone. In Iraq in 1988, Saddam Hussein launched a chemical attack against the Kurdish town of Halabja, in northern Iraq, gassing hundreds if not thousands of people.

In Somalia, also in 1988, then-President Siad Barre tried to rid himself of a troublesome anti-regime rebellion by leveling the northern city of Hargeisa at a cost in lives estimated to be between 5,000 and 50,000.

"All the regimes would have done the same if they could," says a Syrian analyst. "There was some jealousy that Assad could do it so efficiently, and quickly and radically - other regimes were envious of his success.

"People go on about how brutal the regime was, but there was no support for that kind of fundamentalist terrorism," he adds. "The fact that they were assassinating people just because they were Alawite [the ruling family's minority, Shiite Muslim sect] - there was revulsion about it. Now after Afghanistan and Algeria, people say: 'It's good they didn't win.' It's seen in a different light."

Evidence still abounds. Residents are quick to point out that the gleaming Apamee Cham Palace hotel - part of a government chain - is built directly on top of the ruins and graves of one neighborhood.

The hotel's swimming pool is dug into the ground, and caters to 40 or so children learning to swim. Guests drinking coffee are offered fragrant jasmine petals.

"Did you stay at that hotel?" asked a Westerner once posted to Syria. "It is a such an eerie feeling, isn't it?"

Across the river today, a sign near the waterwheels invites tourists to a Turkish bath, and refers to Syria as the "Cradle of Civilization."

"I lost my brother. Since 1982, I don't know where he is," says the first man, slapping his hands in a gesture of finality as two teardrops rolled down his cheek. "There is no more Muslim Brotherhood in Syria."

That message got through. "We don't do politics here anymore," he says. "We just do religion."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society