While clipping along one of the broad boulevards of Damascus recently, a Syrian lawyer said in a whisper (his normal tone for politics) that he is not particularly fond of President Hafez Assad.
But he hastened to add that the alternatives would be disastrous.
For this man and others like him, the activities of the opposition -- meaning the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood -- have been too violent and too close to home, and would result in even more repression if the brotherhood were ever to come to power. This lawyer was particularly angry at the brotherhood because a bomb its supporters planted in the house of an Army officer last year wrecked the lawyer's house also.
"Maybe some people don't like the government very much," the lawyer said as we drove through historically ancient, architecturally modern Damascus. "But I am Christian, and I could work in the government. This would not happen with the Muslim Brotherhood. I tell you, nobody is with these people."
According to western diplomats in Damascus, this lawyer's view (his anonymity must be preserved, since even slight criticism of the government could harm him) is typical of most syrians. Mr. assad has plenty of enemies among the 8.5 million Syrians. But after 11 years of consolidating his rule, he also has many friends: most of them simply enfranchised by the growing Baathist party structure, some bullied or bought.
The undesirable alternatives seems to be either a return to pre-Assad instability (some 10 coups in 25 years) or a stifling dose of fundamental Islam, courtesy of the Muslim Brotherhood.
A note about the Muslim brothers: The Syrian brotherhood is an outgrowth of the original Egyptian Muslim Brothers who sprang up in Ismailia in 1929. Oriented toward the Sunni sect of Islam -- the predominant faith in the Arab world -- the Muslim Brothers say they want to set up a fundamentalist state somewhere in the Arab world. Eventually, say brotherhood members, they want a united Islamic empire in the Arab world, like the Omayyad Empire, whose capital was Damascus in the seventh century.
Muslim brothers view other Muslim sects -- particularly Alawites, B'hais, and Druzes -- as heretical. Mr. Assad is an Alawite and a Baathist (an adherent of Arab socialism, a political philosophy that has attracted many Christians in the Middle East), and is oriented toward the Soviet Union. This makes his regime a target for the brotherhood on three counts.
The Syrian brothers are supported, diplomats say, by the Jordanian branch of the brotherhood, which is tolerated by King Hussein, though Jordanian officials firmly deny they encourage anti-Syrian activities. There is no evidence of Muslim Brotherhood base camps in either Jordan or Iraq, say these diplomats.
Until recently, however, conservative Arabs were believed to be channeling money through the Jordanian brothers to the Syrians. And despite recent moves toward Arab solidarity, the brotherhood is a continuing source of ill will between Syria and Jordan.
A Muslim Brotherhood takeover here is a remote possibility. But the odds could change if Mr. Assad were weakened in a war with Israel, or even a war at some stage with his rivals in jordan and Iraq. An increasing security commitment to Lebanon, drawing soldiers and resources away from Syria, also could have an effect.
But most Syria's highly Westernized merchants, professionals, and soldiers cringe at the tactics and aims of the brotherhood. This is especially true among Syria's Christians, who make up 10 to 13 percent of the population and are active in the upper echelons of the public and private sectors, and among Syria's Alawite Muslims, who make up 16 percent of the population and control the government and Army. (The majority Sunni Muslims, from whom the brotherhood is recruited, have only modest influence.)
Says a diplomat in Damascus: "Muslim brothers tend to be in their 20s and 30s , fanatical and suicidal, motivated by a hatred for what exists. People don't want the Muslim Brotherhood in power. It would be bad for trade. And their social lives -- Damascenes consider themselves very cosmopolitan -- would take a step backward. . . syrian don't want fundamental Islam. They never have."
But the brotherhood has been willing to fight the regime, and therefore it has supporters among the disaffected. In 1977 the brotherhood opened a campaign of bombings and assassinations that rocked the country, spilling over into innocent quarters and prompting brutal reprisals by government security forces.
In 1979 there was a massacre of 50 Army cadets at Aleppo and riots in Latakia after the killing of an Alawite and a Sunni religious leader. Last year the brothers forced a strike at Aleppo, which was severely crushed. The brotherhood has been blamed for the murders of some 12 to 15 Soviet advisers in the past year.
Last year, Mr. Assad granted amnesty to brotherhood members and sympathizers. About 1,200 turned themselves in, diplomats say. By debriefing these people, government intelligence became more attuned to the remaining insurgents, learning the location of safe houses and weapons caches. In the last half of 1980, security forces conducted a series of raids that, says one diplomat, "pretty well broke the back of the resistance."
But not entirely. Since the beginning of the year insurgency has been infrequent and small-scale by pre-1981 standards, but in April several Alawites were killed in villages near Hama. Security forces moved in, say analysts, and killed 300 people in reprisal.
Besides the crackdowns, two factors have contributed to the quieter domestic situation: Since 1980 it has been a capital offense to belong to the brotherhood; and the crisis with Israel over the past two months has caused Syrians to put aside differences in the face of a common external threat.
"It's remarkably quiet these days," says a diplomat. "More so than in the past two years."
One thing that acts as a steam vent in the dictatorship is that on a private level Syrians express their opinions without fear of being informed on. But once someone tries to become politically active, the government moves in. Young plainclotches guards under the command of Mr. Assad's brother, Rifaat, are seen carrying machine guns on almost all the street corners.
"The people are pretty powerless," an observer says.
In personal contact, Syrians are warm and friendly and seem to like Westerners. Though he has turned to Moscow for aid, Mr. Assad has left many doors open to the West. He has repeatedly welcomed US envoy Philip C. Habib to Damascus, even if he remained adamant on the issue of Syrian missiles in Lebanon.
Western goods are found in shop windows, and Western oil companies are back in Syria after 20 years to help expand the petroleum industry.
In the past two years, investment guarantees have been signed with the US, France, West Germany, and Switzerland to encourage private development. But despite a strong agricultural base, the economy is heavily dependent on foreign aid, Saudi Arabia being a prime contributor and therefore exerting low- keyed influence in damascus.
The Syrian lawyer who blows hot and cold about the regime sees the situation this way: "People think, maybe a war is good, maybe it is something different. They are not afraid."
But a Western analyst says most Syrians are indeed apprehensive about war with Israel, although they try not to let that effect day-to-day activities: "People are worried. They remember the 1973 war, the loss of life and territory , and the damage done to the economy. There's no enthusiasm for another go at Israel. They feel Israel is militarily superior. They see the Arab states rallying around Syria, but they are realistic enough to know that in the crunch Syria will fight a lone."