Syrian regime stands - despite violent shaking by Hama uprising

One of the capital's most popular souks, Hamadiyah, is sheltered by a bullet-ridden half-arc roof. The bullet holes are French-mandate leftovers. The holes allow rain to seep in spoiling trade, but they haven't brought the roof down.

Likewise, the revolt by the population of the northen city of Hama has wounded the credibility of Syrian President Hafez Assad's regime, but it has not inflicted mortal damage. And Mr. Assad and his 12-year-old minority Alawite government are here to stay for the time being.

The explosion of violence in Hama, say Western diplomats here, came after two months of mounting tension. Government forces had been conducting house-to-house searches for weapons and members of the outlawed fundamentalist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Information Minister Ahmed Iskander Ahmed.

Diplomats report that one such search patrol was attacked, sparking a repressive military crackdown. In turn, that sent the people into the streets Feb. 2 armed with stolen weapons, knives, and sticks to battle their own army.

Two weeks later that battle is still raging. But the specifics of who has done what to whom are impossible to pin down. Western journalists have been banned from even driving on the highways leading toward Hama.

The Syrian press has carried only brief renditions of Information Minister Iskander's official explanation of the trouble. The streets are rife with rumor as Syrians, starved for information, pass on third- and fourth-hand accounts which sound enormously exaggerated.

Whatever the facts, Western diplomats agree that this is the most serious internal problem Mr. Assad has encountered. ''It is big and bad,'' one diplomat said simply.

However, one point in Assad's favor is that the fighting has not spread. Secondly, Hama has a 200-year old tradition of rebellion.

The rich, mostly Sunni Muslims of Hama have been angry at the ruling Alawite Muslims since 1966. That was when the Alawites moved their poor peasants onto the al-Ghab plain, disposessing the Hamawis. In this sense, Hama is special and not necessarily a barometer of the rest of the country.

Why then has the government apparently reacted so violently to an insurgency in a city of 170,000 noted for rebellion, but not for successful rebellion?

It is because this time the pot has been stirred by the Muslim Brotherhood which has sworn to overthrow Assad. It aims at a Khomeini-like turnaround of life in Syria.

A few months ago, Minister of Information Iskander said the brotherhood's back had been broken - four to five years after it had begun attacking the government. However, a string of bombings in the capital and skirmishes in provincial cities such as Hama suggested otherwise. The last two weeks in Hama have tended to disprove this thesis definitively.

Mr. Assad's regime is known for using brutal methods against the Muslim Brotherhood. Therefore reports that the Army has used 130 mm. artillery against the Hamawis - as well as helicopters to strafe, if not perhaps fire rockets, at them - cannot be dismissed easily.

The threat of the brotherhood has meant security forces, uniformed and plain-clothed, abound here with ever watchful eyes and ears. And although this has caused resentment among Syrian citizens, there are no signs of large-scale defections to the brotherhood.

Syrians and diplomats say that fears of what the Muslim group would do with power are still greater than fears of Assad's government.

Also, Assad himself still enjoys personal popularity as a father-like figure. His brother, Rifat Assad, who heads the internal security forces, is blamed for the excesses, diplomats here say.

If the civilian casualties in Hama are as high as rumors suggest (3,000 on the civilian side killed and wounded) these diplomats wonder whether that will make people think again about who is to blame.

As for the economy, it could be worse and development projects are materializing. Syria is currently short of foreign currency, but the Arabs, notably Saudi Arabia, often help balance the books.

Moreover, Assad is not criticized for his foreign policy. Diplomats here are convinced the Syrians see him as the man to lead the country in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nonetheless, the government is nervous. Guards in front of government buildings and homes of officials have been increased. Entire roads leading to these places have been sealed off and buttressed by retaining walls to deter car bombs.

And Hama has not helped the government's jitters - even though there has never been any doubt about which side would win.


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