Somewhere, probably in hell, Hafez al-Assad is biting his fingernails, hoping that his son, Bashar, remembers his history lessons. Because this is not the first time that an Assad ruling Syria has faced mounting opposition protests, deadly attacks on government personnel and instillations, and army defections. A similar uprising occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s, under Assad senior's watch.
Hafez was opposed by the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Sunni group, that views the Alawite Islam practiced by Assad's tribe as heretical, while also resenting the regime's secular nature. After several years of increasingly deadly cyclical attacks and counterattacks, Hafez lost patience and decisively crushed the opposition: In February 1982 his troops massacred ten of thousands of Brotherhood fighters, supporters, and ordinary civilians, in the city of Hama – a main Brotherhood base.
Assad senior – whom the New York Times' Thomas Friedman memorably described as a man who looked as if he "had long ago been stripped of any illusions about human nature" – realized that unless he showed no mercy, the attacks would continue until he was toppled. He was obeying an old tribal adage that declared hesitation in battle to be a sign of weakness, not magnanimity. (Friedman labeled Hafez's outlook, "Hama Rules.")
And so Assad's troops didn't just massacre their opponents in Hama, they let the bodies lie on the ground for days so that the details of their brutality would spread throughout Syria, and beyond. After that the Brotherhood went silent and Assad ruled without any real challenge until he died in 2000 (from natural causes). He was content with being like the Roman Emperor Caligula, who reputedly declared: "oderint, dum metuant" ("let them hate [me], so long as they fear [me]").
As often happens, history is now repeating itself, this time with the son in place of the father. Assad junior has more than just his old man's lessons echoing in his head: many of his father's advisors now surround him. It's not a surprise, therefore, that the regime has shown no signs of backing down, and has demonstrated a willingness to kill unarmed protesters. The only question remaining is the full extent of Assad junior's potential for brutality.