Syria, Assad
Is the writing on the wall for Syrian President Bashar Assad? Photo by Reuters
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A few weeks ago, a party was held in a house that overlooks the "shouting hill" outside the Golan Heights town of Majdal Shams, where Druze from Syria communicate with friends and relatives who live across the border in Israeli-occupied territory by shouting across the valley. The members of the household had eagerly been looking forward to the occasion for a long time. T.'s relatives and friends had gathered to celebrate his return from Syria, after four years in which he studied engineering in one of the prestigious faculties of the University of Damascus. The many guests packed the house, which is located not far from where the Israeli army recently completed the restoration of the border fence and the adjacent earth rampart, built a new fence to protect soldiers from stone throwers - on the Israeli side as well - and placed "Beware of mines" signs on both sides of the fence.

The hill, which is on the Syrian side of the border, is deserted most of the time. Farewell parties used to be held on the terrace of the building on top of the hill for Syrian brides, before they left their family forever by crossing the border into Israel. For decades, words of longing, love, hope and good wishes resonated across the valley, but in the era of Skype and Facebook, the hill no longer plays a part in communications between members of the divided community.

Occasionally, members of a family from a Golan Heights village still come to the hill to view their cellular correspondent from afar, but otherwise the hill is abandoned and acts as a symbol, reminding the Golan Druze that Syria is still the homeland and that, until the future of the Golan is decided, their fate will remain shrouded in uncertainty.

T.'s mother served baklava and demitasses, his father uttered words of greeting. But the happiness was tinged with anxiety. Everyone was naturally curious to hear about T.'s life in Damascus, about his new friends and about his studies, but for most Golan Druze this was also a period of tension. They are concerned for the welfare of family members or friends whom they haven't seen for at least four decades, at a time when anti-government unrest is causing a sea change in Syria and people are risking their lives in the demonstrations. For many of those present, T.'s description of the situation was their first direct report about the uprising, and about the mood of the Syrian public as it really is, without the mediation or manipulation of government or opposition spokespersons. Like many of the 250 Druze from the Golan who had now returned home from university studies in Damascus, T. was an eyewitness to several turbulent demonstrations. Sounds of gunfire, images of the dead or dying people lying in pools of blood, the outpouring of emotions at funerals - all this affected their lives in the past few months.

Indeed, events across the border are of special importance to the Golan Druze. According to the Israeli Interior Ministry, only 7.6 percent of the 21,000 residents of the four Druze villages in the Golan Heights hold Israeli citizenship; most of the others are classified as permanent residents, the rest as temporary residents. The majority have powerful emotional bonds with Syria, and as members of a minority living in the diaspora, their feeling of a loss of control and their thirst for information are particularly great.

Suspicions on both sides

"The start was surprising," T. relates. "We watched the demonstrations in other countries on television. Of course, the Egyptian revolution got big media play in Syria, too. In a certain sense, you could say there was even a feeling of schadenfreude at what happened to Mubarak. The fall of his regime was a big spur to the demonstrators and gave them the feeling that a revolution was also possible in Syria."

Until three weeks ago, T. lived in the Salhiya neighborhood of Damascus, near the parliament building and close to 17th of April Square (the date of Syrian independence, in 1946 ). He was renting a two-room unit in a luxurious private building in one of the city's most prestigious neighborhoods for a little more than the equivalent of NIS 1,000. Every morning he took a bus to the university, a 20-minute ride. Sometimes he walked, taking an hour, at what he describes as a "moderate pace." On the way, he passed 29th of May Street, which traverses almost the whole city, and also a statue of Yusuf al-Azma, the army minister under King Faisal I of Iraq, who was killed in the battle for the city against the French in 1920.

Until the unrest started, T. used to spend his evenings in the restaurants and cafes of the Midan neighborhood, in the city center, or in one of the trendy clubs or discos in the Abu Rumana quarter. In recent weeks, he says, "Damascus has been under night curfew by choice. People prefer to stay at home after dark, especially in the neighborhoods that are identified with the opposition. Anyone who goes out is almost certain to encounter roadblocks manned by the security forces. If you can't convince them that it is 'necessary' for you to be out, they might get suspicious. And that's when the problems usually start."

Like T., the five other students from the Golan Heights who returned in July and were interviewed for this article requested that neither their names nor any details liable to identify them be revealed. Some of them have relatives in Syria, others plan to return after the summer break. All of them would rather avoid problems, both here and there. In recent years, a few Druze who were formerly students were arrested here on suspicion of spying for Syria or being in contact with a foreign agent. Several indictments resulted in prison terms. Just last year, a former student and two of his family members were arrested on suspicion of having been accomplices to a plan to kidnap a Syrian pilot who defected to Israel; they are now awaiting sentencing after their trial. In Syria, students from the Golan Heights have been suspected of spying for Israel and have been interrogated by the Palestine branch of the intelligence unit in the internal security service.

Thugs on campus

The arrangement whereby students from the Golan Heights attend Syrian universities began in 1976. In the first years, about 20 permits a year were issued. In 1982, in the wake of Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights and the application of Israeli citizenship on its residents, the arrangement ceased. It was renewed in 1989 and, according to the Interior Ministry, the number of students grew apace every year until it stabilized in 2005. The students cross the border at Kuneitra, under the watch of the International Red Cross. The Kuneitra crossing point opens twice a year for the transit of students and clerics, or in humanitarian cases. An average of about 800 people make the crossing every year. In the past three years - following pressure exerted by the Druze community - about 100 women a year have also received transit permits under the banner of clerics, even though the Druze religion forbids women from serving as clerics.

Like all Syrian citizens, the Druze residents of the Golan Heights are entitled to free academic studies in one of Syria's seven public universities. In many cases, they also receive funding for dorms, work permits, state health insurance and other benefits. They are exempt from entrance exams and from having to show an Israeli matriculation certificate - a situation which makes studies in Syrian particularly attractive for them. Almost all the Golan Druze enroll at the University of Damascus, the country's largest institution of higher learning and generally considered one of its best universities. They usually rent an apartment in the Bab Touma neighborhood, the city's old Christian Quarter, or in the Rukn al-Din neighborhood, where many foreign students live.

Quite a few of the Druze say they have formed good relations in particular with young people from the Alexandretta district, which was annexed to Turkey in 1939 and have a similar civil status in Syria. They are proud of their large university and its fine library, and claim it has a high academic level. Some of them note that President Bashar Assad is a graduate of the university, as are many members of the country's economic and political elite.

According to T., the fact that the University of Damascus is identified with the ruling elite explains why the sounds of the revolution are silent within its walls. "In most of the cities in the periphery, the students are leading the demonstrations," he says. "In Damascus, the impression is that the organizing is taking place primarily in the mosques, or in neighborhoods that are far from the center. The feeling is that in the university, the [ruling] Baath Party still enjoys a great deal of support from many of the students and lecturers. It's hard to speak in terms of percentages, especially in light of the fact that the number of demonstrations on the various campuses increased toward the end of the semester. In some cases, supporters of Assad 'dispersed' demonstrations long before the security forces arrived, sometimes with considerable violence. Beside that, many public and government buildings are located in the area of the university. The security forces are more openly present and in large numbers. Groups of demonstrators find it hard to organize in such areas. There were attempts, but they were very quickly suppressed."

H., who this year completed his second year of studies in the Faculty of Medicine, was a witness to one such attempt. "It was at the start of the second month of the demonstrations, in the middle of April," he recalls. "A group of students from Daraa organized a demonstration in the central garden of the Faculty of Law building. This is considered the faculty which has voiced the sharpest criticism of President Assad and Baath. The students from Daraa took up positions with placards near the faculty building, opposite a building that belongs to Sana (the Syrian news agency ). "Within a few minutes," he continues, "vehicles carrying members of the Shabiha [militias or gangs controlled by the Assad family] arrived. They weren't armed but they carried truncheons. Like most of those in the area, I moved away when the beatings began, but I saw how they suppressed the demonstration, with brutality that is hard to describe. The next day, a friend from the Faculty of Law told me three students had been killed by the blows. I personally did not see any bodies, but in the light of the brutal behavior of the Shabiha, it sounds very logical to me." The Syrian students describe the Shabiha as mercenary thugs who are close to the authorities. (The term apparently comes from their custom of driving in Mercedes 320 or 500 models, known as "devils" - shabiha in Arabic. )

Blood on the sidewalk

Some of the other students from the Golan also witnessed the incident near the Sana building and say that, to the best of their knowledge, one demonstrator was killed. T. describes another demonstration, held on a Friday in June, immediately after prayers. Hundreds of demonstrators, he says, surprisingly started to march from the Taqiyya Mosque toward the nearby National Museum. "It was the first time I had seen a demonstration in the center of the city and it was a very unusual event," he recalls. Armed security forces dispersed the demonstrators with gunfire, killing at least three of them.

Another student describes a shooting incident in which two passersby were hit, even though they were not taking part in the demonstration, which was held next to the Hamadiya market. "Dozens of people waved posters calling for unity, equality and freedom. Suddenly, a van with Shabiha men arrived out of nowhere, at an incredible speed. Shots were fired, and two young people who were standing across the road from the demonstration fell to the ground, wounded. I am a medical student and wanted to help, but an ambulance arrived relatively quickly and the two were taken to Shami Hospital. From personal sources, I know that one of them later died from his wounds." The students also describe other demonstrations and clashes with the security forces, in one case on the campus near the Faculty of Sciences building. "The bloodstains of those who were killed colored the sidewalks for three days after the incident," T. says.

In fact, in recent times the demonstrations and unrest became daily events in the Syrian capital, and toward the end of the academic year the routine of life changed drastically. In the students' estimation, the demonstrations will continue until the regime is changed. "Many people in Syria are in a situation in which they no longer have anything to lose," T. explains. "From the moment the security forces document them taking part in demonstrations, they know that the only way to avoid arrest or avoid disappearing is to keep on demonstrating and wait for change. Many of them know that they must not allow the course of events to be reversed. It could cost them their lives." Others argue that the scale of the demonstrations might decline if the government continues to introduce reforms, which have already begun to have an effect. "Only this month the lines in Syria were opened for direct phone calls abroad for the first time," they note.

In the wake of the instability in Syria, some of the students are having second thoughts about whether to continue their studies in Damascus. It's already known that a few of the young people do not plan to return this fall. Some of them have registered for studies in Israeli colleges. One of them, D., relates that the uncertainty of the situation and the constant worry of his family at home tipped the scales. "I lived like a king in Damascus," he says. "The standard of living is lower than in Israel. The same amount of money I spent for an evening out here lasted me for a whole week of good times there. I ate at the best restaurants in the city, hung out in clubs that wouldn't shame the places in the north of Israel and maybe even Tel Aviv, but I just couldn't stay there any longer. It is a dictatorship. There are no human rights, there is no freedom and no future for the average person. At Internet cafes, you have to punch in your ID number before going into Facebook or world news. You constantly feel that you are under the scrutinizing eye of the regime. For me personally, it was no longer appropriate."

'People do not follow slogans'

It is important to note that D.'s is not a lone voice. Dozens of young Druze from the Golan Heights are denouncing the Syrian regime with unprecedented ferocity. Some of them admit that the spirit of revolution that is arising from the demonstrations also stirred them to express their views more freely. They label Assad the "gang leader" (as do many in the Syrian opposition ), in the clear knowledge that the average citizen will not take to the streets to demonstrate against a dictator who is violating human rights but, as in Egypt, the moment he feels that the government is robbing him - and that a small group of people are getting rich at his expense - he will not be able to remain indifferent. "People do not follow slogans," T. says, "they follow when they feel hunger in the stomach."

At the same time, the unrest has not prompted the majority of the young Druze to change their minds about Israel. They still describe themselves as Syrian citizens and aspire to be united with their compatriots in a future peace agreement. In that context, they hope that in the future Syria will become more democratic, equal and liberal, and uphold human rights. Nor are they reluctant to say that they can learn from Israel about these issues.

On the other hand, they think Israel is a far more racist state than Syria. "My Syrian friends were stunned when I told them that I am called a Druze here and that there are Bedouin and Ashkenazim and Sephardim and other divisions which the Israeli society clings to so tenaciously," T. says. "In Syria, there are also ethnic groups and affiliations with groups based on descent, but that concept is far below the surface and has far less of an effect on everyday life." The students from the Golan Heights who returned from Syria say they did not take part in the demonstrations. Some of them were fearful of getting into trouble with the security forces or of being hurt. Others maintained that this is an internal Syrian affair and that as long as they are not permanent residents of Syria, they do not have the right to intervene on one side or the other.

The fact that some of them support the existing regime also has a historical reason: To date, the Druze minority in Syria was identified politically with the ruling Alawite minority. The widespread argument that is voiced by many of the Druze on the Golan Heights and in Syria is that, as an ethnic minority, they must back the government. That is the approach taken by the conservative elements of the community in the Golan Heights villages. The liberal voices, in contrast, call for dissociation from the Assad regime and support for the opposition.

In mid-March, about 120 academics from the Golan Heights signed a petition calling for reform in Syria. They gathered in the central square of Majdal Shams, holding placards bearing slogans of support demanding freedom for the Syrian people. At the same time, they ensured that none of the slogans denounced Assad or the regime. "We supported unity and equality. We did not want to convey a negative message," one of the organizers said this month. Within a short time, village residents who support the government arrived and engaged the demonstrators in a heated discussion which soon deteriorated into blows. The demonstration broke up. Some of the leading sheikhs in the Golan Heights announced that they would call for a boycott of the petition's signatories. The latter, for their part, sent the sheikhs a message to the effect that a boycott would have serious consequences. According to a rumor in Majdal Shams, some of them threatened that a boycott would lead to the disclosure of unpleasant details about the private lives of the leading sheikhs. In the meantime, the boycott was canceled and became instead a warning; amid all this, 94 residents of the Druze villages signed a petition which was sent to various media outlets in the Arab world, including Syria.

The demonstrations in Syria and the local protest have generated much emotion in the Golan Heights villages. Every evening, the young people who came from Syria for the summer break meet in the cafes of the main street in Majdal Shams and argue about "the situation." They look like typical young Israelis and speak fluent Hebrew, in some cases without any hint of an accent. The popular uprising in Syria and the aspirations for a new political agenda are energizing them, too. Some of then will return to Damascus to study after the summer holiday, or even earlier if the situation in Syria is decided one way or the other. One option no one can even imagine is that they will head back earlier because a peace treaty has been signed.

On the town in Damascus

Night life in Damascus is considered an attraction for the young students from the Golan Heights. Until the start of the demonstrations, dozens of modern clubs and discos operated in the city. Most of them sell alcohol openly, and feature local or foreign deejays. A great contribution to the processes of progress and Westernization is made by a few thousand European and American students - offspring of the Syrian diaspora, who number about 20 million around the world. According to the Druze students, a significant social group in Damascus is now living according to Western standards. Many of the young people sport the trendiest fashion labels and keep abreast of developments internationally by means of the Internet.