Traveling to Damascus gives you a view of Syria’s war turned inside out.
The international community talks of arming Syria’s rebels against President Bashar Assad, but in the capital many people still hope the rebels will lose.
That’s the thinking we found around a Muslim shrine in Damascus, a tribute to the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. She lived centuries ago, but a Damascus doctor we met speaks of her in the present tense.
“We love Sayida Zeinab,” he says. “We like Sayida Zeinab. We respect Sayida Zeinab.”
We wanted to visit, so the doctor offered to guide us there. We arranged to meet beside the highway leading toward the shrine. He leaned into our car window to talk, though like many people here he asked us not to use his name.
Sayida Zeinab is holy to all Muslims, though the Shiite sect maintains the shrine, which is in a Shiite neighborhood. The doctor says it’s surrounded by many guards, out of fear that Sunni extremist rebels will destroy it.
“They do not believe in shrines. The terrorists have Wahhabian ideas,” he says of the Wahabbis, followers of an especially austere brand of Islam.
Assad’s government has relentlessly said the rebels are foreign terrorists. There is no evidence that all the Sunni rebel groups oppose Shiites, though it is clear that some are extremist Sunnis. Fear of them has bound Shiites and other minority groups to Assad’s regime.
The shrine is in an area of heavy fighting, but the doctor says he’s never missed a day of work at a hospital nearby.
“I have been working in Sayida Zeinab for 25 years as a doctor,” he says.
He offered to lead us there. Our cars raced down a highway, the Damascus airport road, past bombed-out buildings on either side. And then we arrived at a series of military checkpoints.
We walked a busy street until we saw the shrine’s golden dome. We arrived in a courtyard with walls covered in elaborate blue tiles. Words echoing off those walls show which side of the battle lines the shrine is on.
The announcer is marking the deaths of three men killed in the war – martyrs, the speaker says, fighting for Assad’s government.
The guards of the shrine include men from Lebanon. They are allies of Assad, longtime veterans of the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. They believe Syria has become the scene of a proxy war between Shiite Iran and Sunni Arabs, including the rulers of Saudi Arabia.
The guardians also include local men, like a former sheep dealer who joined a volunteer defense force.
Let’s not hide behind one finger, he says, adding: We all know there’s a conspiracy against us. He says: There is nothing wrong with us pulling together with people who share our beliefs.
Beneath the shrine’s golden dome we entered a room of brilliant light. Every wall and the ceiling is covered with mirrored tiles. Pilgrims put their hands on Sayida Zeinab’s tomb.
One young mother, with a baby in her arms, paused to talk through a translator.
“Why do you support the government, the regime?” I asked.
“Because I saw by my own eyes, because I saw by my own eyes how the army saved us and the rebels want to kill us,” she said.
Nearby, a caretaker of the shrine said he also backs Assad.
He said Syrians are too “ignorant” to “import” “foreign” ideas like Western democracy.
When we left the shrine, we walked down the battle-scarred street behind it, and arrived in the local hospital. There we met again with the doctor who was our guide.
“Twenty percent of the people of all Syria, love the president too much. And 20 percent may hate the president too much. But the rest, which is 60, loves their country,” he said. “They do not want their country to be destroyed.”
The doctor says he does not love Assad too much. He even dares to say that others could do better. Yet he strongly disapproves of the rebels.
“I am with any revolution who change for the better, who changes for democracy. But I do not agree with any revolution who destroy the country,” he said.
In Syria’s elections, Assad has always been the only candidate: it’s a yes-no referendum on his rule. The challenge for Syria’s rebels is to finally present some plausible alternative – a new system of government in which terrified Syrians might believe.