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 The flags of Brazil or Italy, draped round shoulders or hanging from satchels, have been replaced by the yellow flag of Hizbullah and the tricolour of the Syrian Arab Republic.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.’

Assad was born into the Alawi faith, an esoteric Shia sect whose followers live mainly in the mountain ranges of Latakia. The Alawites believe that Imam Ali, venerated by Shias as Muhammad’s true successor, was an incarnation of Allah. They have been persecuted in Syria since they emerged in the 11th century: Saladin considered them a threat to his rule and murdered thousands; in the centuries that followed they were excluded from influential jobs and subjected to the same tax that was paid by non-Muslims. When Hafez came to power he secularised the constitution but was forced to concede that the president must be Muslim. It wasn’t until 1974, a year after Syria failed to regain the Golan Heights from Israel, that the Alawites were declared genuine Muslims by Sheikh Musa al-Sadr, the Iranian founder of the Lebanese Shia resistance group Amal. They make up 12 per cent of Syria’s population but dominate the current political and military elite.

We paused as platters of fruit were laid before us. ‘Three-quarters of the people here are Sunnis,’ I said. ‘What do they think of the Alawite government?’ M. removed a pip from his mouth before replying. ‘Some don’t like it, but Hafez was ruthless. In the early 1980s the Muslim Brotherhood put car bombs in Damascus – they even tried to assassinate Hafez like they did with Anwar Sadat; he only saved his life by catching a grenade and throwing it away. Then he sent the army into Sunni areas and murdered thousands. Shot them, gassed them – men, women and children, all.’ This was the 1982 Hama massacre, in which between 20,000 and 38,000 people were killed. Since then there have been few significant challenges to the Assads’ rule. Bashar now gestures at religious unity – when he is filmed praying he folds his hands like a Sunni rather than keeping them by his sides like a Shia – but there are 25 different intelligence agencies in Damascus which monitor dissidents. Sunni mosques are allowed to open for only ten minutes before prayers and ten minutes afterwards; every lecture is monitored and those wishing to preach require an official stamp. Yet in the city’s Shia shrines anyone can pick up a megaphone and start reciting. ‘It makes things easier for me,’ M. said, ‘so I quite like the government.’

When our bill for the meal arrived it was much more than we expected: £30 for four people. It turned out that nobody had ordered the fruit, which in any case we had barely touched. The group looked to M. to pick a fight with the manager. He went into the back room and five minutes later emerged with an itemised bill for £10. ‘I have a friend in the intelligence services,’ he told us outside the restaurant. ‘I know him because he’s Shia and he comes to me for religious advice. He’s a famous man and so when I showed that I had his number on my mobile the manager was very scared. He said he wouldn’t charge us anything, but I said we just wanted a fair bill.’ Before we went home I asked him what he thought would happen in Lebanon. ‘It will be just the same as usual: the Israelis will take out some anger, and then after a couple of weeks they’ll swap prisoners.’ And what about Syria? ‘Bashar al-Assad knows a war with Israel would destroy him. He’ll do anything to prevent one.’

A week later I went to noon prayers at a Shia shrine in the Old City: I had been told the lecture would be in uncomplicated Arabic. The Sayyida Ruqayya mosque, which is visited by half a million Iranian pilgrims every year, has an elegant courtyard with pointed arches in the Persian style; inside, the walls are inlaid with thousands of small mirrors and light blue tiles. It immediately became clear why the preacher’s Arabic was simple: he and almost all his audience were Iranian. He compared the plight of the Lebanese and the Palestinians to that of Ruqayya, the martyred daughter of the seventh-century Imam Hussein to whom the mosque was dedicated, and whom Shias regard as an exemplar of innocent suffering. Israeli bombs had murdered girls just like her, he said. A mention of Hassan Nasrallah roused the congregation to chant: ‘Labayka ya Nasrallah!’ (‘We serve you Nasrallah!’) The phrase appears on many car window stickers; the formulation is the same as that used by Shias to pledge their loyalty to Hussein.

After prayers I went to see a Syrian doctor, R., who works in a military hospital in east Damascus and wants to practise his English; his ambition is to become an ear, nose and throat specialist in Britain. ‘Do you know that the Israeli soldiers were taken on Syrian land?’ R. asked me. ‘The Shebaa Farms are part of the Golan Heights: occupied Syrian land.’ The Lebanese government and Hizbullah, however, claim that the territory, which is nine miles long and two miles wide, is part of Lebanon, and that the Israelis should have withdrawn from it when they withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. I asked R. if his government wanted the land back. ‘Of course, we want everything back, including the Golan. But we are weak and Israel is strong. Hizbullah can use this ground better than us.’

What did R. think of Iran and its relationship with Syria? ‘I admire it because it stands up to the USA; and Syria also, because it stands up for Palestinians.’ I said that Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt didn’t like Iran’s growing influence in the region. ‘This is because they are friends with America and they are cowards. I am Sunni, I am Arab. Together we can defeat Israel.’ So is Hizbullah supported by Iran and Syria? ‘In truth, it is Iran. They provide them with the rockets and the weapons. Hizbullah has rockets that can even reach Tel Aviv. They are called zilzaal, which means “earthquake”. If Iran lets them, they could completely destroy Tel Aviv. All these come from Iran through Syria.’

Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected Iranian president, the alliance between Iran and Syria has strengthened considerably. In the last two years, Bank Saderat of Iran and the Commercial Bank of Syria have agreed to create a jointly owned bank; 16 Iranian industrial and mining projects worth $1 billion are underway in Syria; Iran already supplies Syria with cheap oil, and there is a proposed pipeline that would run from Iran, through Shia-dominated Iraq, to Syria; in November 2005 a self-defence pact was signed which allows Iran to store weapons, sensitive equipment and hazardous material on Syrian soil; Iran’s ambassador in Beirut promised to counter an Israeli attack on Syria with ‘full power’. The links are theological, too. When I first arrived, a family friend showed me a new Iranian mosque under construction in a Damascus suburb. A gravestone bearing the name of one of the daughters of Imam Ali had apparently been found during work on a block of flats. The name alone was enough to prompt the Iranian government to build another large mausoleum in Syria.

‘Why do you think Syria is a retarded country?’ R. asked me. I said that in English we usually say countries like Syria are ‘developing’. ‘In Arabic we use the same word for retarded countries and retarded people: mutakhallif. You will hear it on the news all the time.’ I said it sounded a bit extreme. ‘But we know what we are,’ he said, smiling. I suggested that colonialism might have affected the country’s development. ‘Really, I don’t think so. We need to have a free press and judicial reform. We need to be democratiya – do you have that word in English? The leaders of all Arab countries are not good enough because we cannot challenge them.’ What about Bashar al-Assad? R. paused. ‘He is young still. Maybe he will get stronger with experience.’

Under Bashar, who came to power in 2000, there was at first some democratic relaxation: he closed Mezzeh prison, where the regime’s opponents had been tortured; private newspapers were allowed to publish; and Syria finally got mobile phone networks and internet service providers. Within a couple of years, though, the private newspapers were closed and talk of elections ceased. There may be less surveillance than there was under Hafez, but when a friend of mine phoned someone in Israel via the internet, she got a knock on her door from the secret service the next day. Yet Bashar inspires an affection people never felt for his brother Basil, who had been groomed as Hafez’s successor but died in 1994. In the murals depicting Basil, he has a full beard with large military-style sunglasses; Bashar is often shown smiling, sometimes posing informally with his wife – a Sunni born in England – and their children.

The next time I walked across the university campus, hundreds of Lebanese refugees were sitting in the cafeteria watching the news. Officials were attempting to match the most vulnerable with Syrian families who had volunteered to take them in. More than 200,000 refugees have arrived in Syria, and plenty more are still coming. The first were the Syrians working as cheap labour in Lebanon who have returned to their families. Those who could afford to also left quickly, booking up the hotels and pushing up the rents in Damascus. A four-bedroom flat now goes for $200 a day. Those who haven’t found anyone to put them up stay on the campus, or in clinics and schools around the city. On the steps of the language centre, I found F., a Palestinian media student who has lived in Damascus for ten years. Her face was hidden by her long dark hair and thick sunglasses, which she never removed during our conversations. ‘Did you watch the BBC news today?’ she said. ‘They interviewed two men, one Israeli and one Lebanese who doesn’t like Hizbullah. Where is the balance? On al-Jazeera you get both sides, but in the Western media only one. Just like with the assassination of Rafik Hariri last year. The US says it was Syria, but the bomb used is also used by Mossad. After the assassination, Syria is forced to leave and now Israel attacks. It’s no coincidence.’ I’m not sure about the logic of F.’s theory. Around the same time, a number of anti-Syrian journalists in Lebanon were maimed or killed in bomb attacks: May Chidiac, a presenter with the Christian-run LBC, lost an arm and a leg and has only recently returned to work; two other journalists, Gibran Tueni and Samir Kassir, died in separate attacks. The final UN report into Hariri’s murder has not yet been published.

F. believed that Hizbullah had captured the Israeli soldiers for two reasons. ‘One, because Iran wants to show its power. If they can supply the Lebanese resistance with such powerful weapons, they are saying to Israel and the US: imagine what we have in Iran. Second, because they knew Israel was planning an attack and they wanted to surprise them. Israel has planned this because it doesn’t want peace. It gets 30 per cent of its water from the Golan Heights and 20 per cent from the West Bank. Why should it make peace?’ Then what was Hizbullah achieving? ‘You mean practically? It is creating tuwaazin ruab, a balance of terror.’ F. said that when even a few rockets hit Haifa, it created the same level of fear the Lebanese felt when their villages were subjected to heavy aerial bombardment. It didn’t matter that ten times as many Lebanese as Israelis have been killed: powerful societies are more shocked by death than weak ones. ‘Hizbullah know this balance. When they capture two Israeli soldiers they will get hundreds of Arab prisoners in return.’

Back on the campus, the refugees were sitting around on plastic chairs to watch a replay of Hassan Nasrallah’s latest broadcast. Nasrallah was calm, but looked tired; he spoke with a slight lisp, promising deeper attacks into Israel if it didn’t agree to a ceasefire and prisoner exchange. When the speech ended I talked to a middle-aged man who seemed cheered by what he had heard. He told me he came from a prominent family in south Lebanon. His wife and children were now in Syria but he would be returning home that evening to collect his mother and sisters. It would be an expensive journey: the cost of a taxi from Damascus to Beirut has leaped from £5 to £50 per person. ‘We have faith in Sayyid Nasrallah,’ he said. ‘With him we will fight and fight and fight.’ A young Lebanese-American man wandered up. He looked shaken. ‘I thought I was living in a safe area, but the fucking Israelis bombed the lighthouse. It was 200 metres from my house. Why did they bomb the lighthouse? I don’t know if taking the soldiers was right or wrong. You can argue either way. But what the fucking Israelis are doing is murder.’

Later, F. asked me to help her correct a letter she had written in English to the BBC. There was some complaint about bias, but it was mainly self-recriminating: ‘Arabs must do more than just demonstrate. We must pressure governments to defend us. We cannot stay humiliated.’ I asked her why she thought Assad hadn’t made a public statement. ‘What will he say? If he criticises Hizbullah, he will lose support in Syria; if he praises Hizbullah, the Israelis and Americans will make it an excuse to attack him.’ In Syria, some things are best left unspoken. When Condoleezza Rice said on 22 July that America’s relationship with Syria was not as bad as reported, it made people suspect diplomatic manoeuvring behind the scenes. (The Syrians currently hold Muhammad Zamar, a member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the suspected leader of an al-Qaida cell in Hamburg, whose transfer to Damascus was facilitated by the United States. Information provided during his interrogation has apparently thwarted an al-Qaida attack.) But now, after the attack on the Qana bomb shelter, Syria has repeated its threat that if Israel occupies Lebanon it will intervene militarily. Syria’s army is 215,000 strong, compared with Israel’s 187,000. It has plenty of artillery, but this is static and vulnerable to air-strikes. The hospitals in Damascus are preparing for an attack and, on 1 August, Assad ordered his generals to move to a higher state of readiness. This is probably just posturing in advance of negotiations, but the president may be frustrated with his father’s advisers and it’s possible he will do something reckless. Bashar and his people know, however, that Syria has avoided both foreign invasion and civil war through its cautious dictatorship.

I had another question for F. ‘I understand why the Syrians supported Brazil in the World Cup, but why does everyone here love Italy?’ She smiled. ‘The girls like the handsome players of course. But Arabs remember that when Italy won the World Cup in 1982, they said their victory was for Yasir Arafat.’

3 August

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences