A savage murder has brought to the surface longconcealed tensions in Syrian society, troubling the Baathist leadership here and tarnishing an image of stability carefully crafted by President Hafez Assad.
Assad, who after nearly nine years in power has become that most durable ruler of independent Syria, appears to be in no immediate danger of losing his strong grip on power diplomats here say, confirming the assertions of Syrian authorities.
Assad's prudent firmness against Israel
Assad's prudent firmness against and Syria's military might, which together have made him a leader of the Arab front aligned against Egyptian peacemaking, are though unlikely to be weakened in the near future by his troubles at home. Indeed, the Baathist government shows no signs of being distracted from its virulent opposition to the peace negotiations going on in Epypt and Israel.
Nevertheless, the spectre of political and sectarian dissidence is once again haunting Damascus, a city that has seen more than its share of intrigue and coups, particularly since independence in 1946.
Only the bassarah, or Arab fortune-teller could say with certainly what the agitation here might lead to over the next months and years and how it could effect Syria's key role in the hardline Arab camp. She, of course, is not saying, caution being one of the syrians' overriding qualities.
Diplomats, who also are paid to predict the future, say the outcome rests on the regime's ability to resolve a volatile mix of economic, political and sectarian dissatisfactions and on keeping them out of the armed forces, the source of most power in Syria.
There is little doubt that Assad's government is upset about the brutal slaying June 16 of about 60 artillery school cadets in Aleppo and that the authorities are determined to do something about the dissent that provoked it.
They blame the killings on a terrorist cell from the Moslem Brotherhood a secretive radical Islamic society with largely independent groupings in a number of Arab countries. The Brotherhood has been officially outlawed in Syria for a number of years but was tolerated by the Baathist leadership as a genuine, although hostile, expression of Moslem fundamentalism.
That tolerance has ended, declared Information Minister Ahmed Iskander in an interview. He said:
"We have decided to liquidate this organization and to put an end to its membership commiting such terrorist acts. It is no longer just an expression of internal political opinion, but has become an agent of external political powers ranged against Syria.
"There is a difference between being a devout Moslem and being a fanatic and belonging to this group," he added. "This organization is a political group lurking behind Islam."
More than 100 Syrians have been arrested since the killing some on suspicion of playing a role in it and others simply for alleged links to the Brotherhood. Within days after the slaughter was announced, 15 persons were executed in Damascus for earlier crimes that authorities said were linked to previously unannounced antigovernment assassinations and agitation.
The display of firmness seemed logical as a demonstration that government authority had not been shaken, particularly in a country and a region where authoritarian ways are a long, widely accepted tradition.
At the same time, Assad abruptly called off a visit to Moscow, where he has been seeking more and better arms, in an apparent indication of concern. But by this week he was off for a visit to the new rulers of Algeria seemingly assured that the home front could wait.
Some diplomats here feel that despite the killings Assad's government does not fully realize the extend of resentment toward it, particularly, they say, that stemming from a feeling of sectarian discrimination among Syria's estimated 65 percent Sunni Moslem majority.
The ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party and the government, they content, are dominated by Assad's Alouite Moslem minority, estimated to number about 12 percent of Syria's 7.5 million inhabitants. The rest of the population is made up of Druze Moslems, Greek Orthodox Christians and several small minorities including about 3,000 Jews.
Traditionally, the Sunni majority had discriminated against Alouites. French mandate rulers between the two world wars used them in local security forces against the majority.
Partly as a result, Alouites grew to see the military as a path of advancement. Many became recruits, cadets and, finally officers. One of these was Hafez Assad, who rose to be air force chief and defense minister before taking power in a bloodless coup in November 1970.
One of the Sunnis' complaints, the diplomats say, is that Alouites have since then got more than their share of important government and partly posts and of the new prosperity inaugurated by Assad's economic liberalization. The Moslem Brotherhood's opposition reflects and amplifies these sentiments, they say.
These diplomatic observers say most of the victims at Aleppo were Alouite and that the assassins' ringleader, Capt. Ibrahim Youssef, was a Sunni apparently disgruntled at having been passed over for promotion. Youssef is reported in hiding somewhere in Turkey.
But whatever Youssef's motives, the government marshals strong arguments against those who point to sectarian strife as the reason for the antigovernment agitation, which until recently used to be blamed routinely on Iraq. Only two of Assad's 32 ministers are Alouite, its spokeman say, and only five of 36 regional and pan-Arab Baath Party command members.
Morever, they affirm, Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas is Sunni, as is chief of staff Hikmet Shehabi. Even Subhi Haddad, chief of the air force so dear to Assad, is a Sunni, they point out.
Moreover, Syria has never known the kind of sectarian killings that have so soured the blood of its Lebanese neighbors since Druze and Maronite Christians were slaughtering each other across the Lebanese mountains in the 19th century.
The more thoughtful observers here depict the killings as the work of estermists oworked up perhaps by Islam's fundamentalist surge demonstrated in Iran or even manipulated from outside. But at the same time, they say, there is dissatisfaction -- based on offended values among former ruling class members, on ultradevout Moslems upsets at Syria's swift modernization, on display of wealth and power by government and party officials and simply on the Syrian tendency to oppose those in power.
Whatever the proper mix, residents of Damascus report wide resentment at the growing number of Mercedes cars and fancy apartments obtained by those in power. The impression of corruption, true or false, also is shared broadly among educated Syrians, they say.