Brutal suppression of Hama revolt sends shockwaves through Syria

The devastated city of Hama is being shown to Syrians as an ''object lesson'' for those contemplating rebellion against the government of Hafez Assad.

Diplomats in Damascus report that the destruction of the historic old section of the city, which dates back to Roman times, has been almost total. Estimates of the number killed in the three-week uprising and Army counterattack range from a conservative 5,000 to 13,000.

''It was like somebody's idea of medieval warfare,'' a diplomat says of Hama. ''The Syrian Army surrounded the city with armor and artillery and poured shells in every time a sniper started shooting. When they got the city under control, the Army opened it up to pillage by the soldiers for two days, then clamped the lid on. That surely sent a message to the Syrian middle classes.''

So powerful was the Syrian Army's response to the uprising that even normally complacent Damascenes seem to have been chilled: ''It was very bad,'' a shop owner said, shaking his head and looking away. He refused to volunteer any more controversial remark.

Mr. Assad's supression of the uprising - in which more than 400 government troops are believed to have been killed - may have bought time for his regime. It certainly kept the rebellion from spreading to other anti-Assad hotbeds such as Aleppo and Latakia in northern Syria. But Mr. Assad's hold on the country is still maintained almost exclusively by force.

Together with his brother, Riffat Assad, and other family members and coreligionists of the Alawite sect of Islam, President Assad rules by controlling the military. The officers' corps and security services are made up almost exclusively of Alawites, a group that represents only 2 percent of the Syrian population.

Although force perpetuates the Alawite hold on the country, the more force applied in situations such as Hama, the greater becomes public resentment in the long run.

Diplomats in Damascus believe the events at Hama showed that (1) antigovernment forces are not able to launch a coordinated rebellion in several locations at once, (2) support for rebels, generally under the leadership of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood of Syria, is thin, and (3) a massive application of firepower does seem able to quash rebellion in Syria.

Although Syria and the Soviet Union are close and there are Russian advisers serving with the armed forces, diplomats hesitate to suggest a Soviet hand in the supression of Hama.

The Hama uprising, which diplomats say was the most serious challenge to Mr. Assad's dictatorship in 12 years, began Feb. 2, when government soldiers discovered a large arms cache in the city and tried to make arrests. The arms included shoulder-held antiaircraft missiles and other sophisticated weapons. Rather than risk the discovery of other arms caches, insurgents apparently rushed into action a plan to attack leaders of the ruling Baath Party in Hama. At that point the government responded with full force.

Syrian officials continue along those lines, complaining that the Hama incident was distorted through the combined efforts of the US government and the Western news media. They accuse the US of ''meddling with Syria's internal affairs.'' The government has charged that the United States and Israel have been smuggling arms to the Muslim Brotherhood.

There seems to be a growing conviction among officials that neighboring Iraq, with which Syria has a longstanding ideological and strategic feud, has been trying to exploit the Hama events and may even have been channeling weapons to rebels.

Prior to the Hama uprising, Syria appeared to be coming out of isolation in the Arab world. Iraq is generally allied with the conservative Arab nations: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and even Egypt. In late March Syria surprised diplomats by signing an important new economic cooperation agreement with Iran, allowing Syria to sever economic (meaning oil) links with Iraq.

The net effect of the Hama episode seems to be a more inward-looking Syrian regime -- and a frightened and perhaps embittered populace.

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