Why did they bomb the lighthouse?
Students at Damascus University no longer wear the colours of their favourite football teams. The flags of Brazil or Italy, draped round shoulders or hanging from satchels, have been replaced by the yellow flag of Hizbullah and the tricolour of the Syrian Arab Republic. Young men have dug out combat trousers from their military service days and, in the trendier parts of town, girls wear tight tops the colour of army fatigues. The minibuses that shuttle commuters around Damascus reverberate to patriotic Lebanese chants. It seems a long time since almost everyone in the city’s restaurants, coffee shops and barbers – the three places where men (rarely women) gather to exchange news – was watching the World Cup and cheering for their adopted teams; now, every television is tuned to al-Jazeera or, in the Shia districts, to the Hizbullah station al-Manar, which despite repeated bombing of its transmitters is still managing to broadcast. When it’s reported that the Lebanese resistance – as Hizbullah is known here – has inflicted losses on the Israelis, there are loud expressions of satisfaction. The excitement quickly fades, though: soon the Syrians may need more than just cosmetic defiance.
On 28 June, Israeli fighter jets flew over President Bashar al-Assad’s palace near the coastal town of Latakia. According to the state-run media, the jets reached the border and were chased away by anti-aircraft fire, but no one I spoke to believed this. Their purpose was to warn Assad not to protect the Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, who lives in Damascus, and who was accused of having plotted the capture of an Israeli corporal in Gaza three days earlier. (Mossad agents poisoned Mashal while he was living in Jordan in 1997. He survived only after two of the agents were arrested, and then exchanged for the antidote by King Hussein.) During a class at Damascus University, where I have been studying Arabic for the past two months, our teacher told us that the flyover was normal Israeli practice, and that in 2003 targets were bombed on Syrian soil. ‘But there is no problem,’ she said. ‘Welcome to Syria’ – her usual way of moving us on from sensitive political topics.
I had been planning to go to Beirut on the evening of 14 July. Instead, I visited Damascus’s most famous peak. Jebel Qassioun rises to five thousand feet; from its northwestern point you look over the entire city. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have stood here and vowed not to enter Damascus, since ‘paradise is saved for the afterlife.’ One of the people I went with, M., had studied theology in Iran for five years and now lived in Damascus in order to practise his Arabic. The next day he would return to his wife and young son in Pakistan. At the summit, we looked down at the clearly lit highways dotted with fluorescent green minarets, which seemed to vibrate as they switched on and off at high speed. It was easy to imagine the city being bombed. ‘That’s Israel over there,’ M. said, pointing to a town across the desert. We stared south. ‘I’m just joking. Israel is over the Golan Heights – you can’t see it from here. But when foreigners come, everyone tells them that’s Israel.’
We found an empty restaurant and sat in a window booth. M. started talking about the Syrian government. ‘Bashar is only there because of his father,’ he said, lowering his voice as a waiter approached. ‘Hafez got power because he didn’t like the union between Egypt and Syria.’ The United Arab Republic was created in 1958. Many in the Syrian military felt that Nasser’s Egypt dominated the alliance, and the countries separated in 1961. Two years later the Baath party staged a coup in Syria. After a complex power struggle, Hafez become dictator in 1971. ‘He was a secular Baathist, like Saddam,’ M. said. ‘But because of his background he had to be more careful.’