“Syria in Fragments: Divided Minds, Divided Lives,” by an American in Syria

This is the best piece of writing on Syria since the uprising began. Read it.

Hello Dr. Landis,

Thanks for taking my call today, and sorry for interrupting your meal with your kids. I hope the hot dogs were good. …. I can tell you more about myself later, but I’d prefer that you not mention me or my name to anyone (hope I don’t sound too paranoid… feeling especially vulnerable these days). If you want to post this piece as a blog entry, please just post it as “From Damascus”.

I’m pasting below the text of what I’ve written. I don’t have the background in political analysis that seems to be the forte of many who post on your site. Instead, I focus on the face-to-face encounters that I have in Syria now, that is, the words and experiences coming from the Syrians I connect with. I have found these last few months that one can expend all his time and energy just trying to find out “what is really going on,” and at the end of the day there is so much conflicting information and perspective, not to mention a war of information and reports, that you can still wind up scratching your head in confusion, even if you’re right here in Syria. Because of this, I find it better to just offer a personal glimpse of interactions with people on the ground here.

Protest in Deraa as shown on Syrian TV

Themes in this article:

  • — the new phenomenon of Dera’an separateness
  • — the challenging experience of Shia minority in the Dera’a muhafiza
  • — effects of the suppression on the entire muhafiza, not just the city
  • — identity as geographical, not only tribal/sectarian
  • — new Damascene attitudes toward Dera’ans
  • — Christian passivity and approval for the suppression
  • — conservative trends in Sunni society vs. denial of Salafist presence
  • — Alawi movement from prior measured criticism of the regime to a new, fanatical patriotism
  • — reaction of Lebanese Shia, effect on large, extended family groups that span the Lebanon-Syria border
  • — Hizbullah’s rapidly declining popularity among opposition Syrians
  • — experience of opposition-oriented Syrian AUB students in Lebanon, threats

Syria in Fragments: Divided Minds, Divided Lives
By an American in Syria
for Syria Comment
May 29, 2011

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)

Comments (610)

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601. jad said:

“Change is a must there will be a price to pay which is blood there is no other way.”
Would you like to contribute by your own ‘Christian’ blood or by our Syrian blood, just wondering about your generosity of accepting to pay the price on other people’s blood, children and lives.

‘Amen’!? for what? for some generous ‘Christian’ donating our Syrian lives and blood so cheap?

What’s wrong with people not seeing how insulting and criminal it is to ‘donate’ other people’s blood and suffering for someone’s own wishes. If anybody wants to donate anything, donate it from what you have ownership on not from other people’s belonging.

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June 2nd, 2011, 7:54 pm


602. Bossalinie said:

As the author states, there are widely divided minds in Syria as the whole principle of freedom of speech is poorly exercised and has been poorly exercised throughout those 48 years due to the iron fist. Because of that, it could be possible that the majority IN SYRIA do not know how to communicate with each other and sudden downfall will result to freedom of ‘hate and destroy’. Freedom without practice is no freedom at all. An ideal situation would be for both sides (govt and opposition) to exercise a peaceful dialogue so they can at least present a sample of civilized approach in dealing with freedom of speech because all the people see right now are two sides where the communication is done via violence (thanks to the media supporting both sides), so the people are already painting a violent picture and have their aggressive point of views right on with a Reject-mode on whatever info might come out from the opposing sides. I spoke to people anti and pro government and I was accused by both as taking sides with the opposing sides simply because I tried to rationalize. The media is doing a very good job in propagating and dividing people internally just like they did with the Sunni/Shia conflicts after South Lebanon was freed and during the Iraq war. In such a case, it is also logical to understand why a lot of people would stay home and not protest as they believe they could be advertising chaos rather than freedom and democracy. The truth is we are caught between the rock and the hard place. I also cannot see how anyone can expect radical changes overnight when you have an entire regime that is corrupted and brutal to its roots. Even if the Jr. is good at heart and wants to make changes, it will take a lot of time to clean up 48 years of violent,corrupted mentality and even if he is to make an agressive decision, it is very likely that he will face a lot of resistance within the Baath party. It sounds and looks that Jr is the sole decision maker but in fact there a lot of players in the game that influence those decisions. Even if he made the decision to stop gunfire which I believed he did, it would not automatically stop. When you have almost 200,000 wild thugs in the streets who know nothing but the language of violence since the old days, it will take time for such a change to take into effect. We heard that investigations are made for the assault on any innocent civilians but I’m sure the anti-govt people are not buying this and any extra death is automatically blamed on the president. I doubt any members of opposition would give time as more blood always outrages people and kills any form of rationality (that’s simply human nature)

Can we please remember that there aren’t any noble approaches by the so called G8 or civilized countries to help other countries acheive so-called freedom and democracy. Most of the countries (if not all) in the arab region had their dictators/kings placed by the foreign powers. Its funny how the whole world (or the media makes the whole world) run wild when such freedom is being attacked in Syria but in Saudi Arabia, where someone could get hit and jailed for being found in the street walking instead of praying during prayer time is an acceptable issue. (at the moment, until someone in Saudi power pisses off the US)

As for the UN role, the UN already lost its value and essence since the Gaza destruction 2 years ago where no one was held accountable and where the vast majority of the victims were innocent civilians. Not to mention the illegal weapons and the violation of geneva conventions by Israel. Of course, no one was taken to trial from the Israeli side. All the blame was put on Hamas, and the most truthful voice that was said from the UN was that both sides should stop shooting (how pathetic). In a scenario where international intervention was most needed and where the clash was between two nations, no intervention was made while in Libya and Syria, suddenly UN Security council started sounding righteous and aggressive to the internal affairs of the countries. Moreover, it appears that a Syrian opposition is being formed outside of Syria which really knows nothing about the demands of the Syrian people IN SYRIA right now(besides the religous and dignity shouts on the Friday episodes) and in time, it could become acknowledged. Wo knows??

Iraq war killed millions and let over a 1,000,000 refugees come to Syria and they were welcomed into Syria. Definitely a more humane response than the US who was solely responsible for this whole mess. Those people, with the presence of Saddam the dictator, at least had a roof, a bed and a family and were stripped off from those humane necessities (so much for the freedom)…and didnt even get a god damn apology from the US administration. If any freedom was accomplished, it was the freedom to kill as we all know what Iraq is like now.

It is enough to see how the superpowers of the world react in contradiction and hypocrasy when looking at the situation on how Israel is treated and how others are treated when it comes to crimes against humanity. Such actions make me sick and distrusful of this whole world we live in. The HRW, UN and all such organizations are nothing but organized controlled puppets by parties with particular agendas who have no noble cause to humanity but want to carve this world for themselves.

I probably went off topic here but most of the points regarding Syria have been covered by well written/expressed thoughts of the commentators on this blog. The syrian conflict should be resolved internally and by the Syrian people in Syria as the use of client sates/organizations/parties is nothing but foreign control selling an illusion to the locals that they are exercising so called rights and freedoms.

This whole hateful conflict between Sunnis, Shiias, etc… was bought to the table in 2001 after Hezbollah freed the south of Lebanon. Before that, we never heard about such conflicts and the arab street was not aware of it. In time, the media started playing its mind war to create divisions in beliefs between people and creating conflicts so they can keep fighting with each other and play the blame game. The whole point of that is to prevent any sort of unity throughout the streets. After that, this conflict story was abused by the US to stay in Iraq on account of protecting the country where in fact it was protecting nobody except the holy oil fields.

Apparently, the media and the world will keep on pushing towards the downfall of the Syrian regime to accomplish a certain goal (security of Israel) and this goal will be accomplished by pushing Syria into chaos. Rami Makhloof’s statement was taken out of context as he said that the security of Israel will always be threatened wether there is stability or instability in Syria. Other than that, the minister of journalism in Syria stated that Rami reflects his own view and not the government’s view. He doesn’t even have a political role or status in the country so his claims shouldn’t be taken seriously in the first place.
If this regime should fall by violence and I do not see any other way it could fall, and even if a planned transition is to take place (which there isn’t – I still haven’t heard of one solid replacement plan but rather from individual preachers in random countries speaking of demands and ridiculously keep saying that the ‘Syrian people want etc….’.), then the whole country will be exposed to all kind of danger and the victims would be the Syrian people.

For those who say freedom and democracy do not come on a gold platter, can you please tell me what kind of platter is expected in Syria’s case because trust me, the killings of millions and destruction of the country is an unfair price. I’m sure we all agree this country is not Assad’s farm and that is why precisely why a downfall should not be on the account of the country

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June 3rd, 2011, 1:56 pm


603. Game On; The Opposition is Back | Syria said:

[…] needed to come up with a platform that is capable of pleasing moderate Alawites (if there are any; this piece suggests maybe not), Christians, and the urban business elite that have remained on the sidelines so far. That means […]

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June 4th, 2011, 1:20 am


604. Mawal95 said:

The Syrian government does not grant licenses for public street demonstrations on “national or religious holidays” — but it does on other days. Legally, the opposition can organize a public demonstration to be held on a non-Friday, announcing it some weeks in advance, and devoting a couple of weeks to advertising it. That happen in Egypt for the demonstrations there on 27 May 2011 when about one million people showed up (I’m told), mostly in Alexandria and Cairo.

The Syrian opposition is choosing to not take that line of action. I imagine that’s because they assess, as I do, that the turnout would be lousy for them if they tried it. Assuming they are correct in that assessment, it follows that the regime is not in trouble for the foreseeable future. Next, assuming that the regime is not in trouble for the foreseeable future, it follows that the anecdotal evidence of societal polarization reported by “an American in Syria” is of little or no consequence, is moot, is beside the point, and is unrepresentative, for the foreseeable future. Most Syrians are nationalistic and Syria is their nation. “An American in Syria” talks about “freshly gushing patriotism and the question of the real level of support still enjoyed by the Syrian regime”. The Assad regime has got a very strong grip on Syria’s spirit of nationalism. Today’s opposition factions have been unable to compete against it with one or more “watan” formulations of their own. And they can’t imitate the successful “watan” formulation of the regime. You might question the depth of support enjoyed by the regime on the abstract basis that people haven’t been offered a feasible alternative to it. But for every regime everywhere, as for every business, “the depth of your customer loyalty depends on the quality of your competition“. This regime has a high level of real customer loyalty for that reason.

Another thing about most Syrians is that they strongly believe that sectarianism is bad. That’s true of the anti-regime and the pro-regime, and the well-educated and (for the most part) the poorly educated. That’s very important, and it’s one more reason to be dubious about the perspective of “an American in Syria”.

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June 4th, 2011, 5:13 pm


605. Amuse-gueules: Syria « the human province said:

[…] Some interesting observations by an American observer in Syria […]

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June 7th, 2011, 5:47 am


606. Recommended articles: week 22 | Middle East Review said:

[…] stumbled upon this article about the divided Syrian society, written by “an American living in Damascus.” The […]

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June 7th, 2011, 12:21 pm


607. Syria in Fragments: Divided Minds, Divided Lives « The Passionate Attachment said:

[…] an American in Syria Syria Comment May 29, […]

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June 14th, 2011, 11:47 am


608. Transformation said:

Mentality in Islamic world disappoints me. Once, our ancestors were busy establishing civilisations in which literature, philosophy, astronomy, geography, medicine and later Islamic ethics and philosophy was discussed. It is this knowledge that guided Western societies improve. What happened to us? Why do we have to destroy each other in order to find harmony? Regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, and religion we lived serenely for centuries. We are sisters and brothers of the same faith. It is our Lord whom sent Zebur, Tevrat,Incil and Qur’an. Why do linguistic differences create conflict in accepting each other? ‘Allah’, ‘Ye Huva’, and ‘God’. Don’t these terminologies refer to the One that we all pray to?

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June 29th, 2011, 11:04 pm


609. Syria in Fragments: Divided Minds, Divided Lives | Take The Square said:

[…] source By an American in Syria […]

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July 8th, 2011, 7:50 pm




Just as a clarification, Aramaic is indeed the language spoken by some Christians in Syria. “Assyrian”, along with “Babylonian”, were dialects of Akkadian, a language which had died off completely by 300 AD.

Today, “Assyrian” refers to Christians who belong to the Assyrian Church of the East, OR, speakers of some of the eastern dialects of Aramaic, including to varying extents, Sureth and Urmi, which are analogous to “‘amiya” in Arabic, i.e., vernaculars.

Many “Syriac” Christians in Syria belong to the Syriac Orthodox Church or the Syrian Catholic Church. They identify themselves as “Suryani” (from whence ‘Syria’ may have derived its name). They speak a “central” dialect of Aramaic referred to as Turoyo (“language of the mountain”).

The Western Aramaic speakers in and around Ma’loula speak yet another dialect of Aramaic, which in this case is “western” Aramaic.

ALL Aramaic Christians, including Maronites and Chaldeans, use the “literary standard” in writing and liturgy, which is referred to properly as “Syriac”, and also know as “Kthobonoyo” or “Kthabanaya” – which corresponds to Arabic’s “Kitabi” or Modern Standard Arabic.

Thus, although the various Syriac-rite Christians may refer to themselves as Aramaic, Assyrian, Syriac, Chaldean, or Maronite, those that continue to speak the indigenous language speak some version of Aramaic (which has been lost as a vernacular among the Maronites). To this group we can add the Greek-rite Greek Orthodox Christians of Ma’loula. Aramaic is therefore the “macro-language” that encompasses these various dialects. Saying that modern “Assyrian” is not a dialect of Aramaic is like saying the “Egyptian” is not a dialect of Arabic. Aramaic, like Arabic, is highly dialectical and varies geographically.

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December 12th, 2011, 8:29 pm


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