Syrian siege

Observations - Middle East terrorism

"Nothing is more dangerous to Islam than distorting its meaning and concepts while posing as a Muslim . . . They are killing in the name of Islam. They are assassinating in the name of Islam. They are butchering children, women and old people in the name of Islam. They are wiping out entire families in the name of Islam . . . "

These are not the words of George Bush or Tony Blair, nor even of Ariel Sharon decrying the suicide bombers from the West Bank. No, this was Syria's hardline, anti-western and anti-Israeli president Hafez al-Assad 20 years ago, justifying his use of brute military force to shatter the Muslim Brotherhood, headquartered in the city of Hama.

Even today, tourists visiting the famous and much-restored late-Roman waterwheels, along the banks of the River Orontes flowing through Hama, cannot help but notice the stark contrast between grim new concrete buildings and the older houses and mosques, some still half in ruins, others pock-marked by bullets.

Unlike the cacophonous disputes about what happened in Jenin on the West Bank after the Israeli army's onslaught last month, there is silence about the bitter struggle in Hama 20 years ago.

When the damage to old buildings is mentioned, the obligatory guide asks: "Have you heard about the events here?" The answer - "Yes, but not very much. What really happened?" - does not produce an immediate response. Only later, away from prying ears, will he reveal how, more than two years before the uprising began on 2 February 1982, the Sunni ultra-orthodox Muslim Brotherhood waged a campaign of assassination and bombings against the Assad regime, which was - is - based on the Shia Alawite minority making up only 13 per cent of the population.

Syrian armed forces fought a ferocious battle house by house in Hama for three weeks in 1982. Like the Israelis in Jenin, they faced suicidal resistance. Afterwards, the regime claimed to have captured in the ruins 15,000 machine-guns, bomb- making and sophisticated communications equipment, as well as large amounts of hard currency, proof of a terrorist conspiracy. It refused to give casualty figures, but at least 5,000 people were killed.

Modern Hama was supposed to symbolise the defeat of Islamic fanaticism. The Muslim Brothers particularly targeted women in trousers. Assad's biographer, Patrick Seale, argued that "the pounding of the town . . . was designed to banish such puritanism once and for all". But today in Hama, women wear complete head-to-toe-and-finger black covering: by comparison, the Afghan burqa seems brazen. Muslim fundamentalism has not only survived, it dominates street life.

All over town, posters carry the sayings of the new Syrian president, Dr Bashar al-Assad, proclaiming his support for the current intifada against Israel. Does this hyper-insistence on support for the anti-Zionist struggle betray the regime's insecurity about the legacy of its own ferocious "war on terrorism"? Directing local Muslim resentment against Israel may be just another example of one man's terrorist methods working as another man's legitimate instruments of liberation struggle, when it suits those in power.

Mark Almond's Uprising! is reissued this month by Mitchell Beazley