How Syria's brutal past colors its future

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

The massacre in this city took place nearly two decades ago, but the fear it still engenders today tells much about the potency of minority rule in Syria, and the challenges faced by Syria's new President-designate Bashar al-Assad.

The "troubles" of 1982 brought to a head a conflict between Islamic insurgents of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Alawite sect, which with just 11 percent of the population has largely ruled Syria for three decades under the late President Hafez al-Assad.

Yesterday, a smooth transfer of power was in evidence as Mr. Bashar was elected chief of the ruling Baath Party. That crowns his recent elevation to chief of staff of military and security forces. But analysts say that as the mild-mannered Bashar looks to consolidate power in the future, he must keep in view the significance of Hama in the Syrian political mindset.

In the broad canon of political violence in the Middle East, the word "Hama" resonates like none other, and tells much about the raw exercise of power - and how to hang onto it.

Ever-conscious of the problem Hama might pose in the future, the late president directed that a Sunni sheikh read the funeral prayers at his burial. "Even in death, Assad's balancing hands were reaching out," said a Western diplomat.

But fear still lingers about the massacre in which some 10,000 are thought to have died as Alawite-commanded troops exacted a bloody revenge against Islamic insurgents of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Ohhh," shudders one man, when asked about those events in a tiny mosque. He wouldn't give his name, but was of the Sunni Muslim majority, who make up 70 percent of Syria's population.

"They killed so many people," says another survivor. Not far away, the medieval waterwheels for which Hama is famous creaked heavily with the weight of water-logged wood on iron spindles. "Every family lost someone."

As Bashar has collected the instruments of Syrian state power, analysts and diplomats say it is not yet clear whether he will be cunning and ruthless enough to keep them in the future.

Here the lessons of Hama weigh heavily - and will weigh on Bashar as he eyes his future. The Alawite are a Shiite Muslim sect - deemed heretical by some - that also draws on Christian and astrological traditions. When Assad took power in a 1970 coup, he brought Alawites to top positions, while also trying to strike a careful balance with Syria's other myriad groups.

"Don't use the word Alawite, it scares me," insists a Sunni taxi driver, upon entering Hama, indicating how sensitive the nature of the regime can be. At the Alawite village of Misyaf to the west, in the shadow of the Alawi Mountain range that has for centuries been the bastion of Alawites in Syria, a local Alawite councilman contends that there are no differences among Syrians.

"We are a mix, but we are all for our father [Assad]," says Dr. Maan Ali, a dentist. "There is a town of Christians nearby, and another of Sunnis, but there is no difference."

One aspect of change already underway in Syria may help Bashar, as he navigates the minefield of tribal and religious interests. "The initial Baath drive toward secularism has eased," notes a Syrian observer. "It has become more open to positive Muslim feelings. The sense is growing that says 'Let's accommodate.' "

Still, while Syrians mourned the death of their leader of 30 years last week, with black banners even in Hama wishing "Paradise immortal for the Master of the Nation," the grieving in this city was less sincere. When asked political questions, some men point to the mourning banners, and declare that they are "step by step" with Bashar. But they also speak often of the young leader's promise of change - and hope that means a change from the calculations that led to the Hama crackdown.

"The savagery was absolutely fantastic. There was no attempt to hold back," says a Syrian analyst who, like the others interviewed for this article, asked not to be named. "It was not only to inflict a punishment, but to inflict a lesson for generations to come."

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.

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

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