Syria in Fragments: Divided Minds, Divided Lives

Source: Joshua Landis blog
By an American in Syria

About a week ago I sat with a good friend from the muhafiza (governorate or county) of Dera’a. The raw account of events in Dera’a that he presented to me bore striking contrast to the opinions of people outside that area, people of Damascus, confused people trying to weigh the injustices vs. necessity of the military action in Dera’a.

Details of our conversation that might have been news at the time I spoke with him are now known by most readers at this late date: electricity, water, mobile phone service, land line telephone service, all cut off; rooftop water tanks, common in this area, are shot by military personnel; anyone who moves in the streets is shot. Furthermore, people who have used their own generators to provide power to their homes are visited by the military and the generators are promptly confiscated.

This friend (let’s call him Adham) has a sister and brother who both live in the city of Dera’a with their families. For weeks, they have had no word from them. They don’t even know if they or their children are alive. Adham’s brother was working in Damascus when the occupation of Dera’a began. He was unable to return home to his family. He cannot communicate with or receive any news from his wife or children. He has traveled recently to the city, hoping that after these weeks he would finally be allowed to reunite with his family, but has been prevented from doing so by the military that is keeping the city sealed off.

News that does trickle out of Dera’a seems to be coming from people who have Jordanian cell phones that sometimes find coverage in the area. People are using their car batteries to charge their cell phones, among other devices.

Many Damascenes continue to look me in the eye and tell me that “There’s nothing happening in Syria! Everything is fine!” Consider that Adham’s village in the muhafiza of Dera’a is closer to Damascus than it is to the city of Dera’a, and yet his family is without cell phone service, or even land-line service. Phone service of all types has been cut off from the entire muhafiza. When he comes to work in Damascus, he and his family have no way of checking on each other. This treatment is having the effect of galvanizing oppositional sentiment in the muhafiza and the growing sense of Dera’an separateness.

*See Alex’s correction to this simplistic map of Syrian religions copied below

Adham is an atheist whose family is of Shia background. Being an atheist and coming from a Shia family, he is in no way sympathetic to Sunni Islamism. Therefore, it’s telling when he affirms that “there are no Salafiin in Dera’a. I can say for sure that any group of such people that exists is very, very small.”

Rather, he explains that the government’s siege has been effective in unifying the muhafiza of Dera’a against it. By treating the entire muhafiza as criminal, the sentiments of most of its inhabitants (not just those inside the city of Dera’a) have turned against the regime. It’s interesting that identity runs not only along religious, ethnic, and tribal lines, but also along geographical lines, in that the people of Dera’a—not only the city, but the entire muhafiza—are viewing themselves as a unit, separate from those who comprise the leadership of Syria. “I can say that 90% of people in the entire muhafiza are against the government,” Adham says. Rather than viewing the uprising as one of sectarian character, he explains that “my brother’s family in the city of Dera’a has Christian neighbors. There are many Christians in the city of Dera’a and in other villages who have joined in the protests.”

Dera’a is becoming a unit—I hesitate to say almost separate from Syria—not only in how people there are beginning to view themselves as separate from the state (an understandable effect after feeling attacked by the state), but in the way many other Syrians are reacting to Dera’ans. Adham tells me that in the hospital where he works in Damascus, he is experiencing a new, unmistakable resentment and coldness from his coworkers. “They say nothing, but I can see in their faces that they blame us for the current situation in Syria.” He says that he doesn’t feel safe responding to the opinions voiced by people in his workplace. He believes that people’s opinions are misled and mistaken, but if he defends “his own” Dera’ans, he fears reprisal.

“One Alawi girl who works in the hospital was very happy about the army entering the city. She said, ‘They must destroy the entire city and should kill everyone demonstrating.’” Her comments reflect the result of the government’s successful campaign to demonize the protesters; many people simply believe that there is an insidious cancer of extremism growing inside Syria, that threatens all life, security, and humane values, and that drastic measures are needed to thoroughly wipe it out.

In stark contrast to Adham’s understanding of the situation, I witnessed unreserved approval for the government crack down on a Thursday a week after the siege on Dera’a began. I visited some close Christian friends in Damascus who we can call Samer and Najwah. It was impossible not to broach the subject of the situation in Dera’a, knowing that the next day, Friday, would likely produce significant casualties. This household however, grimly viewed the army’s cordoning off and occupation of the city as necessity. I couldn’t help but begin to argue with them that even if there was a poisonous “Salafi” threat in the town, the siege and suppression would mean the suffering, trauma, and even killing of many innocent people as well. If some people from that area had indeed called for the establishment of an Islamic emirate (and it’s no surprise that some there would be oriented this way), I was just not convinced that the entire city, the many thousands protesting there, were all seeking such a goal.

For Najwah, however, the city of Dera’a has become a single entity containing one kind of people: bad. For her, the terrorist persuasion of the people in that community now justifies virtually any action against them. From her attitude, I felt that if the city was to be wiped off the map, she wouldn’t mind. I began to mention reports of the more grisly examples of violent killings there. “Good!” was her angry response.

I tried to think back and remember if I’d ever been in a country where serious atrocities were taking place and had looked in the eye of someone who rejoiced in them. I couldn’t, and I realized that I was witnessing the kind of passive approval for massacre that one reads about in history books, when individuals or groups become convinced of the evil of another and of the necessity of wiping them out. Najwah is not an evil woman, but the people of Dera’a have become completely vilified in her mind, and she fears them.

The son of Samer and Najwah is soon going to go and study in Europe. Samer has a Syrian friend there who will help their son get established when he arrives. A detail that Najwah seemed to have misplaced is that this man is from Dera’a! Samer told me, “He called me from Germany and asked me if I would try and obtain permission to give a generator to his family in Dera’a. So I called someone in the military and asked if I could take a generator to them. They told me ‘No, it is not allowed.’” After having heard the anti-Dera’a emotion in the house, I was surprised. “Wait, you called someone in the military and asked if you could help someone in Dera’a?” I asked. “I’m really impressed!”

“Hey man,” Samer responded, “I’m not without feeling.” Najwah entered the room and caught my last sentence about helping someone in Dera’a. She looked at her husband with a shocked expression and demanded an explanation which he rapidly unwound while I contemplated the fact that she wasn’t already aware of his attempt to intervene on behalf of this family. She seemed angry, so I asked her “What do you think about the fact that when your son goes to Europe, the man who will be helping your family is from Dera’a?” She looked bewildered and stuttered confusedly, “He is…not from Dera’a…he is in Europe…” Najwah didn’t want me to shatter the delicately constructed reality she was clinging to; dismantling it would mean surrendering to confusion and losing anything solid to hold on to, anything that makes sense. As I left, I told Samer, “I would never say that you are without feeling.”

I departed from this home and Damascus and set off to spend the weekend in an almost exclusively Sunni town where people are unabashedly expressing anti-regime sentiment. Upon arriving, I sat in the living room of a family no less close to me than Samer and Najwah. I was met by a barrage of emotion, words laced with livid rage toward the regime and those supporting its campaign in Dera’a. “What’s wrong with those Christians in Damascus?! Who are they?! Don’t they care about human rights?!” I tried to reason with this family, hoping to elicit some empathy regarding the fear that minorities often have, but to little avail. Interestingly, this is a liberal family, full of agnostics who regularly mock Islamist figures and thinking. Their commitment to the protesters, like Adham’s, is based on their belief in freedom, equity, and rights for people. They do not see a Salafist element in Syrian society or in the protests. Furthermore, they are unable to understand why the Christian community is so pro-regime at this time. Being of Sunni background has insulated them from the pressures felt by other groups.

I had a violent argument with one of the daughters in the family, who I’ll call Na’ima. “Have you ever thought of what it feels like to belong to a minority group in a region where ‘otherness’ is often not valued, and where historically, belonging to ‘the other’ often involved the threat of violence?” I reminded Na’ima of the origins of the Druze, when they fled the massacres of their native Egypt for the protection of the mountains of the Levant. I posited that Alawis operate with the same “never again” persecution complex that underpins Jewish Israeli injustices against Palestinian natives. I brought up the obvious example of Iraq and mentioned that the near annihilation of Christians there is still more than a “recent memory” for Syrian Christians who fear that the similar removal of their own dictator will leave them as vulnerable as were the Iraqi Christians after Saddam was vacated. And I even mentioned that life is looking troubled and uneasy for Christians in post-Mubarak Egypt, where there is supposedly less sectarianism than Syria and where Christians comprise a greater percentage of the total population.

(For some examples of this, these are links to articles sent to me by Egyptian Christian friends in Egypt:

Many of the Egyptian Christians I’m in touch with took part in the revolution and were very happy to see Mubarak go, but are now increasingly worried about their security and sectarian relations.)

Finally, I said to Na’ima,

“Don’t you remember about a year ago when I came to a wedding for someone in your family, here in your village? I was surprised to see an all-Muslim wedding with men and women dancing together. I told you that I knew that male-female dancing was common at Christian weddings, but that at all the Muslim weddings I’d ever attended, I had only ever seen men dancing together. You told me that in the past, this kind of dancing was very common in your village, but that through recent decades, rural culture has moved in an ever more conservative direction, and that now, the only weddings in your village in which one can see men and women dancing together are the weddings of your family. You told me a year ago that it was clear that fundamentalism was growing. No one used to wear the niqab, but now many women in your village are wearing it. In fact, you complained about these trends in society and expressed worry about future prospects of losing certain freedoms. If you, a liberal family of Sunni background, observe these trends and experience a certain amount of discomfort regarding them, can you not understand how much more troubling these times are to minorities, a time when Christians are rampantly killed next door in Iraq, and when Gulf-based sheikhs regularly disseminate hateful anti-Alawi rhetoric? Even if you’re right in asserting that the Syrian protest movement is secular and purely about securing rights, since you have noted the rise of fundamentalism in your own society and village, is it absurd to consider the possible emergence of so-called ‘Salafi’—in other words, violence-sanctioning—groups?”

But empathy was on short supply. In fact, the animosity I was hearing expressed toward Christians, even on the part of such non-religious Sunnis, was surprising, and almost resembled the kind of prejudice that the Syrian minority community is fearing. What surprised me most was the way that Na’ima referred to many Christians who are close friends of hers, both in Damascus and in her village. It was as though these people had become her enemies overnight, and I felt that my status as a foreigner only tenuously separated me from similar designation.

Back in Damascus, I wanted to visit one of my friends, an Alawi woman from Homs. I’ll call her Nisreen. Nisreen couldn’t represent a stronger antithesis to Na’ima. I’m finding that Alawi people who used to criticize the government six months ago now defend it at every turn. Whenever I call Nisreen, my ear is assaulted by a track she has selected to play (the waiting music before the recipient of the call answers), a clip of a speech of Hafez al-Assad about all the virtues and glory of the “watan.” Even most people who stand by Bashar acknowledge the uncontested brutality of Hafez, so it’s very strange that at a moment when statues of the father are falling around Syria, young, educated Alawis would display his words as an emblem of what they stand for today.

I sat with Nisreen at the restaurant table, anticipating that our views would differ, but also expecting that we would be able to understand each other and find some area of common agreement. It soon became apparent to me, however, that the chasm that separated our respective understandings of current events was too great to be bridged. Nisreen views the outside media as players in a malevolent scheme to destroy her country. She believes that they hate Syria.

There is a large billboard being displayed right now next to the Rotana café on Shariya Abu Roumaneh just above the Jesr Rais that is divided into two halves: the first half is dark, red, and blood splattered with a message saying “No to Fitna;” the second contains images of beauty and a mosque and church side by side with positive messages including “Yes to a Shared Life.” The item of interest here is that on the “Fitna” side there’s an image of the Al Jazeera logo inside a circle with a line through it.

Thanks to Casey Hogle for this photo

I would share some of Nisreen’s critical view of the media; Al Jazeera has disappointed me during the unrest in Syria with exaggerations, strong bias, unprofessional content, and just plain bad writing. But I’m also aware that despite their exaggeration of certain events (in favor of the protesters) there are a lot of abuses perpetrated by the government here that do not make it to the news. When I mention this to Nisreen, as well as the fact that the Syrian news that she digests is even less objective, she becomes hostile. In her view, the whole world is conspiring to destroy her revered nation state.

She begins by showing that there really aren’t many protests; it’s all a fictional campaign by outside media. Next, what people are calling protests are just mobs of vandals who have been paid to destroy property and create chaos. After that, any protests that are real are made up of violent people who want to create an Islamic state. Most of the deaths are Syrian security forces killed by terrorists while trying to peacefully protect neighborhoods from thugs. I tried to talk with Nisreen about the discontent experienced by many Syrians due to the mafia structure of the state’s economic system, decades of mukhabaraat brutality and antagonism, the lack of education and work opportunity, and in general, hunger. She shot each one of these down, offering strange explanations and justifications for every conceivable example I could provide of mistakes of the government. It was maddening to hear her defend 100% of the regime’s actions, values, and leadership, and after an hour of arguing, I wanted to pull my hair out.

What I learned from this encounter is that when pressure of the kind we’re facing now begins to build, people turn to their “imagined communities,” to the groups based around their smallest circle of identity. Most of the Alawi I know have entirely stopped criticizing the government and now stand fully behind the regime.

I am also learning that such conflicts can divide even the closest friends. Nisreen is one of my closer friends here, but as close as we have been, and as much faith as I put in the human commitment to friendship and the ability to reach across boundaries, I have experienced a rude awakening regarding the strain that times of conflict and conspiracy can create between people. On the one hand, only 5 minutes of conversation with Nisreen can now drive me almost insane as she presents the regime as an angelic victim of every manner of conspiracies and lies.

On the other hand, I become incensed at Na’ima’s inability to sympathize with the minorities and understand their fears. Her zealous anti-regime sentiments seem to drown out her ability to see the nuance of complexity in the situation or to listen to the variety of perspectives along the spectrum of opinion. Spending time with either Nisreen or Na’ima has become unpleasant, as I can’t bear to listen to their comments of judgment and lack of understanding for the other. When I open my mouth in defense of those they blame, I can almost feel a rift growing between us, because in their minds, so much is at stake. I am still somewhat neutral; this dynamic has greater effects on the relationships between Syrians.

Amidst the new voicing of patriotism and all this rhetoric about unity, Syrians are terribly divided. People like Nisreen are not trying to empathize with those who are protesting, to understand their difficulties and motivations, but instead cling to easy explanations that vilify them. And people like Na’ima are writing off the sectarian fears being experienced by many, without trying to understand their experience. These fears may or may not be justified, but they are certainly not absurd. The real tragedy that I observe is that different groups are not working to understand each other. This is the main problem of Syria today: Syrians do not understand each other. If only they could reach across the divide a little and consider the fears and concerns of the other side.

Even those who deny Islamist motivations for the protests can see that relations between groups can be strained, if not before now, then particularly during these politically volatile circumstances. Though Adham doesn’t believe that there is any Salafi element propelling the uprising in Dera’a, he acknowledges that an anti-Alawi sentiment is growing among the Sunni community, as would understandably be the case when the people watch an Alawi-controlled military roll tanks into their communities. “There are already 3 armies based near the city of Dera’a. But the government didn’t use them to attack the city. Why not? Because they contain many young men from around the country, including many young Sunni men, who wouldn’t want to attack the people.Instead they brought Maher’s special army all the way from Qatana. It is the special army that is loyal to him.” (Qatana is located a short distance west of Damascus.)

Adham doesn’t believe in God, so religion plays no role in his siding with the protesters of Dera’a. But because current events are fueling an increasing anti-Alawi attitude, complications have arisen for his family, which is Shia. Alawi beliefs do not closely resemble those of the Shia, and it is easy to see that Alawism is outside the fold of any commonly understood Islamic orthodoxy (though it’s sad that this matters so much to so many, and that belonging to such a sect means being a recipient of prejudice and bigotry). But among the poorly-educated Sunni majority of the muhafiza of Dera’a, many are not aware of the distinction between Shi’ism and Alawism, and do not draw lines between the Shia and the Alawi. The fact that Alawi are quickly becoming vilified for the people of Dera’a has placed Adham’s family in hot water recently, and the heads of the family are working overtime on local public relations and image management.

The complexities don’t stop there. While Dera’an Shia are trying to convince their neighbors that they are not Alawi, members of Adham’s family are experiencing another animosity on the international front. Adham has a cousin who lives in Belgium. He works there with Lebanese members of their same extended family. (It’s a large family group or clan that spans both sides of the Syrian-Lebanese border.) The Lebanese relative recently came to Adham’s cousin in Belgium and told him, “There’s no more business between you and me. We hate all you from Dera’a who are trying to ruin everything.” What is this Lebanese relative so upset about? Consider for a moment: The family is Shia. It makes sense that the Lebanese side, being Shia, would therefore be very supportive and loyal to Hizbullah. The protest movement in Syria is generally against the al-Assad government, which is the biggest sponsor of Hizbullah, its link to Iran, and without which Hizbullah would become near-powerless. Lebanese who love Hizbullah, therefore, are likely to view the Syrian protest movement as a direct attack, and this feeling is strong enough to divide families.

Another outcome of this situation is that Hizbullah has inadvertently been drying up its support among mainstream Syrian society. About a year ago I remember a young Sunni man telling me that he hated Hizbullah. “Because they are Shia?” I asked him. “Not at all,” he responded, “it’s because they are so close to our government here in Syria, and our government is so evil.” Hizbullah generally enjoys the affections of most Syrian people, but what I have come to realize is that loving Hizbullah is part of demonstrating one’s patriotism as a Syrian. Syrian national identity is intertwined with resistance to Zionism—the threat that justified the emergency laws all these years, right? And Hizbullah is the most thriving aspect of resistance that can be showcased today. So, supporting Hizbullah is less about a direct connection to Palestinian suffering and more about accepting the entire parcel of pre-packaged Syrian nationalist identity. Expressing affection for Nasrallah is just one of the many ingredients in the complicated recipe of proving that Syrian blood runs in one’s veins. This explains the tremendous irony that the most fervent support for Hizbullah that I have encountered comes from Christians, ever close to the regime these days.

All of this makes it understandable that revolutionary Syrians, desiring to cast off all the trappings of the cult-like Ba’ath system, would consequentially reject Hizbullah.

This becomes even easier when we add the fact that the majority of protesters are Sunni. Hence, some of the chants we heard early-on from Dera’an protesters: “No Iran, no Hizbullah, we want a Muslim ruler who fears God.” But Hizbullah has accelerated the expending of its popularity by coming out and denouncing the Syrian protest movement with verbal condemnation for the protesters. This was a move designed to demonstrate their allegiance to the Syrian regime, their primary support, but perhaps another layer to it is that Hizbullah doesn’t have anything to gain by seeing the growth or development of Sunni Islamism in the area—if the protests do in fact portend a new wave of Islamist energy.

My friend Samer is always liberal with the praise he sings for Nasrallah and Hizbullah. I confronted Samer recently, saying

“Don’t you find it at all ironic that you decry Islamism in Syria and support the regime’s campaign of suppression against the protesters because you believe them to be Islamists that will ultimately assault Christian communities with violence, while you simultaneously support an Islamist movement next door in Lebanon?”

He went on for a minute about Israel…

“But you must recognize that all Islamist movements on some level hold as a long term objective the establishment of an Islamic state, akin to the ‘Islamic emirate’ you were distressed to hear a few voices in Baniyas and Dera’a calling for. How do you as a Christian feel about a Hizbullah that in the future could become the major ruling power in Lebanon, displacing the only Christian-dominated Arab government?”

Samer replied simply,

“Look, I am Hizbullah’s number-one supporter as long as they oppose the injustices committed by Israel, but as soon as they try to take over Lebanon, I will be the first one against them.”

I described above a Lebanese reaction to Adham’s cousin working in Europe. The Lebanese response to the Syrian movement has further ramifications for Syrians living in Lebanon. Some Syrian students I know who study at the American University of Beirut explained to me how they are being threatened at the university. Discussions dealing with current events in the region have taken place in some of their classes, and some students have wanted to write papers expressing opinions and proposals for changes in Syria. Syrian students who side with the protesters have come under fire in Lebanon, by other Syrians as well as by some Lebanese. One student told me that a young Lebanese woman in his class who belongs to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (Hizb al-Suri al-Qawmi al-Ijtima’i—a party that operates in Syria and Lebanon that holds that Lebanon should not be an independent country, but part of Greater Syria) threatened him that if he submitted a paper critical of the current Syrian regime, she would write a report on him and turn it in to the Syrian embassy in Lebanon.

This Syrian embassy is known as a doorway for a resurgence of Syrian mukhabaraat activity in Lebanon that had previously diminished after Syria pulled out of Lebanon following Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005. Many of the vendors selling flowers and trinkets in strategic locations of Beirut are believed by many Lebanese and Syrians to be planted by the mukhabaraat, and many Syrians in Lebanon still look over their shoulders when speaking. It’s sad that opinion would be censored (self-censored or peer-censored) on an American university campus. Another Syrian student at AUB was recently arrested as he tried to reenter his country from Lebanon.

It is interesting to see, as with Adham’s cousin, how people caught in regional conflicts can carry their respective sides abroad, perpetuating tension, and on a more sinister level, as with the Syrian AUB students, how power structures can continue to meddle with lives removed from the motherland. Toward the beginning of the recent uprising in Libya, one might remember the news stories about Libyan students in the U.S. who were threatened that if they didn’t turn out for the pro-regime demonstrations in Washington, they would lose their scholarships. The Syrian mukhabaraat has an even longer arm. Syrian Americans in the U.S. are sometimes visited and informed that if they don’t make a show of support for President Assad, bad things will happen to their families back in Syria. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”: when a nation’s process of coercion-maintained corruption is so endemic from the top to the bottom of the system, even living on the other side of the world is sometimes not enough to allow one to escape the mafia-cult, not as long as one has something of value or someone vulnerable still within their reach.

This speaks to the ongoing controversy over the freshly gushing patriotism and the question of the real level of support still enjoyed by the Syrian regime. The lesson is: whether a mafia or cult, outpourings of support for the leader cannot be considered entirely authentic or credible, since, just as with affirmations of conviction in a religion that proscribes death for apostasy, “a ‘yes’ is never truly a ‘yes’ unless ‘no’ is truly an option.”

I recently happened to encounter a busload of French tourists, still traversing the landscape of ancient ruins, oblivious to the newborn, infant landscape of rapid social change, and the seriousness of danger and abuse arising from its afterbirth. “There doesn’t seem to be much happening here, everything looks safe,” seems to be the conclusion of a number of outsiders.

But Adham, after meeting with me in my home and unloading on me the tension and grief surrounding his family’s situation in Dera’a, became nervous when preparing to walk out the door. “There are a lot of mukhabaraat in the street near your house. Because you are a foreigner, I am afraid of being arrested and questioned about my visit to you, because you are probably under surveillance.”

Correction to Maps by Alex

Interesting post but the maps are a bit too far from reality. A few examples:

1) religion: Christians in Deir Ezzore?

No, they are found almost everywhere in Syria, both in cities and villages. They represent all segments of Syrian society. But not in Deir Ezzore as the map shows. On the other hand, the area between Damascus and Homs (and villages east and south of Homs such as Fayrouzeh, Sadad, Zaydal …), near Hama (such as city of Mehardeh), in Horan, mount Hermon, Hassake … Damascus, Latattakia …

2) Languages: Armenian is in Kassab, near lattakia, Aleppo, and north eastern Syria … not in Deir Ezzore as the map shows. The only thing Armenian in Deir Ezzore is the Armenian monument for the Armenian victims of the 1915 genocide …. 1.5 million of them.

Assyrian (not Aramaic) is near Hassakeh and Qamishli and Malkieh. There are also present in Sadad, Maaloula …etc. Then you have Ashouri in Wadi el-khabour (near Hassakeh)

3) Arabic dialects: Northern Mesopotamian Arabic (jezrawi) is only confined to Hassakeh, Qamishli, Derbasieh, amouda, and other towns in north eastern Syria. The countryside is bedouin Arab and they have their own dialect. More over, Aleppo and Edlib to the west has nothing to do with that dialect.

Iraqi Arabic is mainly in the cities along eastern part of the valley of the Euphrates … Abu Kamal … Deir Ezzore and vicinity … Raqqa (though it has bedouin too)