By Karl Reiner
In 1970, Gen. Hafiz al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, took power in Syria following a long period of political instability. Assad's secular Bath Party portrayed itself as an upholder of Arab nationalism willing to defend the nation and its minorities against foreign threats and Islamic fundamentalism. Remarkably, he was able to hold on to the presidency for 30 years and then transfer power to his son, Bashar.
Under Hafiz al-Assad, the Alawites got an opportunity to overcome their second-class status but not necessarily to become wealthy. Repression was always one of Assad's tools. In February 1982, he was faced with an armed Islamist uprising. The general/president decided to make an example of the city of Hama where the rebellion was based. Estimates put the death toll resulting from the devastating attack on the city at between 10,000 and 30,000.