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How Syria's brutal past colors its future

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

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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.

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