Syria's Assad tries to keep tight lid on Hama rebellion

''History has proved more or less that you can do what you like with Hama and the Damascus regime lives on.''

This is how one Western diplomat described the overall situation in Syria Feb. 11 in the wake of reports of insurrection in Hama, a city 120 miles north of the capital long known for its antigovernment protests.

But while the insurrection in Hama does not appear to have spread to other Syrian cities at this writing, Hama's historical relation with Damascus may not remain consistent since the fighting is ''very serious, and (President Hafez) Assad is very nervous,'' according to one diplomat.

Western sources say the Syrian Army and special security forces have been locked in intense battle with insurgent citizens of Syria's fifth largest city for nine days.

Syria's information minister told a group of foreign correspondents Feb. 11 that the government had sealed off Hama to search for stores of hidden weapons and to arrest ''criminal elements.'' But diplomats say fighting erupted after a security patrol was ambushed and the mullahs went into the minarets to call for a holy war against Assad.

According to these diplomats, who are basing their information on reports from travellers, contacts with Westerners evacuated from the city, and relatives of Hama residents, the city was sealed off by as many as 100 tanks and 6,000-8, 000 soldiers. The soldiers have barraged the city with shell and mortar fire. Some of those evacuated reported hand-to-hand street fighting using clubs and knives and said bodies were left lying in the streets. Diplomats estimated that as many as 1,000 people have been killed or wounded.

Unconfirmed reports said some members of the Syrian armed forces had defected to the rebels with their weapons. However, Western diplomats questioned this report, saying such a move would be suicidal.

Mr. Assad's nervousness about the current turmoil in Hama is not eased at this stage by his precarious position on these fronts:

* Syria's isolation in the Arab world. Mr. Assad's extensive ties to the Soviet Union and his support for Iran in its war against Iraq make him odd man out among conservative, anti-Iranian Arabs. He does receive millions of dollars in financial assistance from Saudi Arabia, but his reticence to support Saudi diplomacy (notably the eight-point Saudi peace plan) and his technique of browbeating the Saudis for aid are known to have irked Riyadh.

* Syria's costly military commitment in Lebanon. Since 1976 between 22,000 and 30,000 Syrian soldiers have been stationed in Lebanon as the Arab league's Arab Deterrent Force. The troops are highly unpopular with Lebanese and Palestinians, except for a narrow band of Syrian- and Soviet-oriented leftists. The Maronite Phalangists of northern Lebanon are especially keen to see the Syrians leave, even though they originally intervened to rescue the Phalange from defeat at the hands of the Palestinians. Syrian troops cost Mr. Assad some Lebanon disgruntled and carrying black-market weapons.

* Syria's ethnic division. Mr. Assad's religion is the Alawite sect of Islam. His ideology is Baathism, which is essentially non-denominational Arab socialism. As such he represents a very narrow segment of Syrian society, which is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim and capitalistic. Mr. Assad has been able to consolidate his presidency by making key political appointments to Christians and Sunnis. But he still relies on a brutal secret police network as well as fortified military posts throughout Damascus and other major cities.

Opponents of the Assad regime include: the underground Muslim Brotherhood; the Lebanese Phalange, whose radio station frequently broadcasts reports of bomb explosions and coup attempts in Syria; and at various times the mainstream al-Fatah branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which has been involved in a power struggle for some months with both Mr. Assad and the Syrian-supported Saiqa branch of the PLO for leadership of the organization.

On an inter-Arab level, Mr. Assad has enemies in Baghdad, which is home to a fiercely rival wing of the Baath Party and which accuses him of betraying the Arab world by supporting Iran. He also has enemies in Amman. King Hussein fought off a Syrian invasion force in 1970 and has capped a decade of alternately hot and cold relations with a year of strain and mutual recrimination.

Syria is considered Israel's No. 1 Arab enemy. Israeli military authorities frequently talk of the dangers posed by the Syrian-Soviet connection and see Syrian-backed Palestinian guerrilla groups as being the most hard line. But because it is in a greatly inferior military position, Syria actually is something of a good neighbor to Israel: The border along the Golan Heights has been peaceful since 1974 and no guerrilla penetrations of Israel are allowed through Syrian lines.

But diplomats here and elsewhere in the Arab world agree that it is the Muslim Brotherhood that would form the nucleus of any insurrection against Mr. Assad. The Brotherhood -- which is indirectly linked to the more well known Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt except in ideology, sees the Alawite faith as heresy. This is because Alawites elevate Muhammed's nephew, Ali Ben Abi Taleb, to the prophet's status.

Jordanian officials have been reticent to talk about the Syrian situation due to the delicate relations the two countries have. There apparently is some apprehension that Mr. Assad will follow past patterns of accusing Jordan of supporting Syrian insurgents, especially those of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed in Syria but legal in Jordan.

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