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A Briefing on the ‘Butcher of Hama’ : ASAD The Sphinx of Damascus <i> by Moshe Ma’oz (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $19.95; 226 pp.; 1-555-84062-0) </i>

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Moshe Ma’oz, professor of modern history at Hebrew University in Israel, has written a survey of contemporary Syrian political and military affairs and foreign policy, together with a selective review of Syrian internal politics. The book offers a reconstruction of President Hafez Asad’s rule based on newspaper and other secondary accounts and on interviews with British and American officials who have negotiated with him.

Broad rather than deep, it is a briefing of the kind that might be offered to U.S. congressmen by harassed officials at the State Department. The approach is not without strengths. Thus, Ma’oz shows that Asad’s rule depends on the concentration of military force in the hands of the Alawites, a religious minority espousing an eclectic Shiite form of Islam. Under Asad, the Alawites, although they number only 12% of the population of Syria, comprise 60% of the officer corps and 50% of the senior officers. To a core of sectarian and family loyalists, Asad has added Sunnis (the dominant Arab Islamic group) drawn largely from the young and poor.

According to Ma’oz, Asad’s first six years in power, from 1970-1976, were good years. Undoing some of the self-defeating policies of his predecessors, he was able to achieve economic growth and domestic peace and to end Syria’s international isolation. The years since have been a time of war, internal rebellion and economic stagnation.

Asad responded to the war in the Gulf by siding with Iran. Although this led him to close the Iraqi oil pipeline through Syria, Asad recovered the lost revenues in oil from Iran. His stance alongside Khomeini also immunized him against--and lent him influence with--radical Shiite groups in Lebanon.

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Asad chose to retreat rather than confront the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and to strike back with guerrilla terrorism, both in Lebanon and Western Europe. Ultimately, the Israelis withdrew in defeat from Lebanon, unable to withstand the constant casualties and domestic strife the war had unleashed. Asad’s response to the civil war in Lebanon, under way since 1975, has been to maintain tens of thousands of troops in that tortured country and to attempt to become the dominant player in Lebanese affairs rather than to pacify the country.

At home, when Asad faced a wholesale rebellion by militant Muslims, his reaction was characteristically brutal. While his police summarily rounded up Muslim opponents, Asad sent his brother Rifat to besiege and, ultimately, to bombard the city of Hama in 1982, causing, reportedly, thousands of deaths.

Any one of these difficulties would preoccupy a government. In attempting to cope with them all, Asad suffered a heart attack in 1983. In the ensuing uncertainty, Rifat appears to have made a premature attempt to succeed his brother and nearly tipped Syria into chaos. Order--and Asad’s rule--were restored, but not before the world had glimpsed the shallowness of the regime’s roots. It will not survive Asad’s passing.

Ma’oz tells some of what has happened in Syria in the nearly 20 years since Asad seized power but offers little insight into why and how. Like the puppets in an Indonesian shadow play, his contestants for power and glory in Syria remain ghostly figures moved by vague pressures. Ma’oz repeatedly describes Asad as genuinely committed to achieving Arab unity and leading the struggle against Israel, but as acting in such a way as to strengthen himself inside Syria. This is undoubtedly true, but it does not add much to what one already knows intuitively about any successful political leader in a country such as Syria.

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The symbolism of the destruction of Hama is unmistakable. Is it possible for Syria (or Lebanon and Iraq) to reconcile its ethnic and religious differences, not to speak of the attraction many of its people feel toward secular government, without massacres or Khomeini-style repression? Skimming along the surface of Syrian life, Ma’oz ignores the broader implications of the Hama massacre and declines to use it as an avenue leading to deeper understanding of Syria and the Arab world. It becomes, instead, a mere epithet for Asad, the “Butcher of Hama.”

Ma’oz is a plodding writer, and this adds to his difficulties. His prose is stiff, repetitious, stuffy and crammed with cliches, such as Asad’s “nerves of steel.” The book comes alive only in one or two tightly written historical summaries and in some startling quotations. One of these stands out. In an interview, Salah al-Din al-Bitar, co-founder of the Ba’th (Resurrection) Party, which Asad has emptied of meaning, told the dictator: “Today Syria is dead. . . . Only political democracy . . . can allow Syria to regain its vitality. . . . The two real bases of the regime are dictatorship and confessionalism.” Two weeks later, Bitar was assassinated in Paris, presumably for telling the truth.


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