"Hizbullah in the Eyes of Syrians during the War," by Hassan Hassan and Abdullah Taa`i - Syria Comment

“Hizbullah in the Eyes of Syrians during the War,” by Hassan Hassan and Abdullah Taa`i

Hizbullah in the Eyes of Syrians during the War
Hassan Hassan and Abdullah Taa’i
Written for Syria Comment
Sept. 6, 2006

No sooner had the flags in support of the Brazilian World Cup team begun to be taken down than did Hizbullah flags start going up in streets of Damascus. The colour did not change, I hasten to add. Every car had the yellow flag and the picture of Hassan Nasrullah. Smokers carried lighters with the photo of the ‘Leader of the Resistance’. Everybody was talking cheerfully about Sheikh Nasrullah. People in front of the TV often reiterated “Verily, the party of God is the victorious’’ (A Quranic verse). The Syrian people were acting and talking as if Hizbullah were the military wing of Syria.

Astonishingly enough, there was complete harmony between the Syrian government and the people when it came to their attitude towards the war. This harmony was not enforced by the Syrian media this time. The war seemed to unite the two which is something other means could not do for a long time. Even some liberal youth and critics of the government started to say: “Let the government do whatever it likes as long as it supports our national cause. We are willing to die of hunger rather than die with humiliation.” Cutting off electricity for a long period of time and using private establishments were most welcome on the Syrian people’s part.

You could find the influence of the war on every detail of the Syrian life: take the bus, go to hospitals, visit any public centre, talk to anybody in the street and you would be flabbergasted at how Hizbullah is idolized. The way the Syrian people were enthusiastic about the war was even more extreme than that of the government. I admit that I was taken aback by this. The vast majority of people believed that Israel would have invaded Lebanon even had Hizbullah not taken Israelis hostage or carried it its provocative cross border raid. All believed that Israel would lose is an article of faith and just a matter of time.

More astonishingly, people were fired up with the idea that Syria should get involved in the war and that they should follow the example of the Lebanese resistance in Syria, particularly in the Golan Heights. The Syrian people, however, had a gut feeling that nothing of that sort would happen, perhaps thanks to the long silence on the Syrian front.

Let us elaborate and talk about the Shi`i-Sunni relationship during the war, and maybe after. Perhaps because Hizbullah tends to address the whole Muslim community, the vast majority of Sunni Muslims wholeheartedly supported them. I hardly met a Sunni who didn’t support the party. Those Sunnis who were not supporting it were those who are strongly adherent, and usually fanatic, in their Sunni Islam. Shiites, on the other hand, seemed to be ecstatic with their new-found fame. The war feed their egos. They started to swagger with the idea of ‘I belong to this doctrine’.

As a whole, the Syrian people started to see Israel as a weaker version of its former self. Previously Israel seemed to have had an all-encompassing power that could challenge all external influence; it seems that Hizbullah has revealed a tender under belly. “In this mishmash of appeasement and retreat, Syrian people rapidly lost their fears and came to see Israel as a paper tiger”, as Dr. Daniel Pipes put it, and “weaker than a spider’s web.”, as Hassan Nasrallah put it.

During the war, it was the first time that a great number of people in Syria spoke in bad terms about Saudi Arabia and in good terms about Iran and the government. The position that Saudi Arabia adopted during the war surprised many Syrians. Many people now believe that the war was very revealing about Saudi Arabia’s and Egypt’s real position. The leading Sunni countries were against Hizbullah and practically pro-Israel, while Iran and Syria (Shi`i states) were with Hizbullah, the only surviving power that stands against ‘the USA-supported enemy’. This war, seemingly, has discredited Saudi Arabia quite a lot.

In reality, the only thing that has deprived Sunni Muslims of sleep is Iran. They want to be with Hizbullah but they are afraid that that would only make Iran stronger and stronger until it has the strength to devour them. They all believe that Iran has a certain agenda for Sunnis. They cite examples of Shi`itization of certain areas of Syria. Al-Jazira – the East and North East of Syria – has witnessed Iranian activities to convert Sunnis to Shiism. Those sorts of activities infuriate Sunnis.

During the World Cup, everyone in Syria was obsessed with his or her team and acted as if he or she were a footballer, but when the final match ended, people came back to their normal lives. Likewise, with the Lebanon War, every Syrian became obsessed with it, but when it ended, they returned to their normal lives. There are parts of Syria, however, that are still bearing the burden of the war. A distant and God-forsaken place, such as Abu Kamal, more vulnerable to the cynical abuse of power than other districts of Syria, cannot restrain the authorities from taxing its poor inhabitants. Every bus in Abu Kamal must pay 3 USD, every employee 2 USD, every family or extended family must pay 140 USD, in order to support ‘the resistance’ – that is not to mention those who must process government paperwork in a governmental centre; they must pay 2 USD to boot.

Why are other areas not asked to carry the burden of the resistance? Do high authorities know this? Being but a humble Syria, I am not the best to answer this question. While all the rest of Syria is coming back home, the poor people of Abu Kamal must foot the bill. Syrian Shi`is are taking pride in their Sheikh – and why not? But the people of Abu Kamal, who are Sunnis to the man, are the ones who pay the price. The question now, though, is: Is this money – which is estimated to be hundreds of thousands of dollars – going to go to the hands of Hizbullah …?

Written by Hassan Hassan and Abdullah Taa’i

Addendum by Joshua Landis

I just got off the phone with Druze friends, who have recently returned to Canada after having spent the summer in Suwayda’ in the Jabal Druze. I asked them about the war and how it was perceived in Suwayda’.

Ghada told me that it was quite extraordinary to be home during the war. “Every one was rooting for Hizbullah and the Lebanese,” she said. “We were so happy to see that there were some Arabs who were smart enough and technologically and strategically advanced enough to give the Israelis what they deserve and what they have been dishing out to us for so long.” But then she explained that every household in Suwayda’, including hers, had filled up with cousins and relatives from Lebanon, who had fled the Shouf. They were not happy. They supported Junblat and complained that they would lose their jobs and livings and that they would have to eat ka`ak and tea.

I asked her if the Druze were taxed as people were in Abu Kamal. She responded in some consternation, “Tax? I thought it was a donation. My family donated and everyone from our neighbourhood did as well. I don’t know if it was a tax. Maybe it was. I will have to ask my husband.”

She said that the one perplexing event was the mass demonstration organized by the state. Schools and work were stopped for a day and everyone was called out onto the streets for a large demonstration. The speakers were sounding with silly slogans and other things that no one believes in. “That was humiliating and disturbing,” she said. “The young people seemed to enjoy it and entered into the spirit of the occasion, but for the older people, who know better, it was just humiliating. Up to that point everyone had handled themselves with such dignity.” But she added, “that is the Syria I belong to.”

She ended by explaining how scary and sad it was too. She explained, “In the beginning many men in the reserves were called up for duty, when the government feared that the war might expand, but in the end they were sent home. The saddest part was during Kana, when we saw all the pictures and TV coverage of the children who were needlessly killed.” Ghada explained how she had been at neighbours with eight or nine other people watching and there was not a dry eye in the house. Everyone was weeping. It was so horrible. Those are the poor people who paid the price. I kept on trying to turn off the TV, but all the men wanted it on all day.”

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