Anti-government terrorists, aided by sectarian jealousy and resentment of official corruption, are pursuiing a relentless assassination campaign against the rule of President Hafez Assad and his followers from the tightly knit Alawite Moslem minority.
Unofficial estimates say two or three security police officers or prominent members of Assad's Alawite sect fall victim every week to bursts of submachine gun fire or grenades lobbed into passing automobiles. Two larger-scale clashes in the last 10 days have brought the number of victims since the violence escalated last April to around 200, diplomats here say.
Assad, who is nearing ninth anniversary of his accession to power in a bloodless military coup, appears to retain a firm grip on the 230,000-man armed forces, however, despite a few isolated clashes between Alawite troops and soldiers from Syria's Sunni Moslem majority. As long as the Army is not infected, qualified observers say, the terror campaign in its seventh month shows little chance of unseating Assad or spreading into more generalized violence as in neighboring Lebanon.
Assad's opposition to the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement and the Palestinisn autonomy talks flowing form is thus is expected to remain unaffected. His determination to confront Israeli jet fighters over Lebanon -- even at the cost of some of his Soviet-supplied MIGs -- also shows no signs of flagging because of the strife at home.
The continuing assassinations, nevertheless, demonstrate the resolve and organization of those out to drive Assad from power. In addition, they betray the extent of popular dissatisfaction with what many Syrians believe are abuses of official positions by his aides and functionaries.
Morever, the persistence of the attacks underscores the trouble faced by Syria's multitiered security police apparatus in trying to deal with a small number of hit-and-run assassins who seem to enjoy at least passive support from some of the population.
The failure to halt the killing is not for lack of manpower. Young men in civilian dress packing AK47 assault rifles patrol the sidewalks or sit in unmarked vehicles at major Damascus intersections as soon as the sun goes down.
Assad's Praetorian Guard, the Defense Brigades commanded by his brother, Rifaat, are reported to number more than 25,000. They are stationed at strategic points around the country and are equipped with the best weaponry Syria has, including ultramodern T72 tanks only recently delivered by the Soviet Union.
An incident last week on the edge of the ancient Damascus souks, or hole-in-the-wall market stalls, illustrates why even this often is not enough.
According to a witness, a lone assassin tossed a hand grenade into a passing Mercedes carrying security policemen, then stepped up with a submachine gun and shot those who survived the blast. As he escaped into the lybrinthine streets and other police officers raced up to intervene, gunmen who had been lurking on rooftops opened up.
The reported toll was nine including security police and a few bystanders caught in the exchange.
An indication that the terrorists have an ample supply of arms came Friday when, according to reliable reports in Damascus, a Sunni gang attacked a security police office in Aleppo. At least 15 persons were killed and two dozen were wounded in the ensuing gunfight, the reports aid.
Assad's government blamed the killing s on the Moslem Brotherhood, a loose grouping of extremist Moslem bands across Arab world. The government also made a number of arrest among the "Youths of Mohammed," a fanatical group centered in the northwestern city of Hamah with religion-based ideology similar to the Brotherhood's.
Independent observers here have little doubt that orthodox Moslem sentiment among Syria's formely dominant Sunnis plays a strong role in the anti-Assad violence. They wonder, however, whether the government really knows the full story of those mounting the assassinations or the real mix of their motives.
Part of the story arises from annoyance at the prominent roles allocated to Assad's fellow Alawites. Sunnis complain that the Alawites' key positions in the government and Army far outweight their proportion of the population, about 12 percent of Syria's 8 million people.
The annoyance is heightened because Alawites traditionally had been part of Syria's lower classes before Assad's time. The spectacle of seeing them in power is especially rankling to the 70 percent Sunni majority that used to dominate government and the economy. In addition, the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Islam's Shiite minority, is looked down on by orthodox Sunnis as heretical.
To these sources of opposition is added broad dissatisfaction reported here at official corruption, which has grown swiftly along with the economic liberalization promoted by Assad for the last four years. The president is regarded widely as untainted.ut charges of influence-peddling apply to the highest reaches of his administration and he is said to have been slow to realize the extent of resentment it has aroused.