For months now, on an almost weekly basis, Syrians wake up to the news of Israeli air strikes targeting the Assad regime or Iranian positions within Syria. The strikes have provided rich pickings for the regime’s media, which portrays them as bolsters to terrorist factions and the opposition. Hearing news of such strikes has become part of normal Syrian daily routine.
If we asked a group of Syrians today about their opinion of these successive Israeli attacks inside Syrian territory, they would likely say that they have merged with the arsenal of other aerial bombardments over Syria. The Assad regime, Russia, Israel and the USA have all bombed Syria from above. Daily life has been filled with death every day. Some Syrians might celebrate the Israeli raids because they target the Assad regime that is responsible for most of the 400,000plus deaths in Syria since the conflict began in 2011.
Yet, if we had asked the same group the same question 20 years ago, the response would have been quite different. It would have been anger-filled, demanding vengeance on an enemy that violated their country’s sovereignty. That was clear after the Israeli raids on Ein al-Sahib in 2003, at which time the anger on the streets of Syria was clear for all to see.
What has caused this change in response? Syrians’ relationship with their homeland is formed at an early stage in life and stems from the emergence of a home based on patriotism. But the Ba’ath Party regime, which has controlled Syria since the 1960s, sought from the beginning of its rule to link the concept of patriotism with the so-called “axis of resistance.”
That refers to an anti-Western and anti-Israeli alliance which includes Iran, Syria and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. From the Ba’ath point of view, to be a true Syrian national, one must be a believer in the party and its doctrines.
Above all, one has to believe that its leaders, Bashar Assad and before him, Hafez Assad, are the saviors who will undoubtedly regain the Golan Heights for Syrians after it was captured by Israel in 1967. Think otherwise and one would be considered a traitor and a conspirator to the homeland and the leader.
TO DRIVE this concept home, the regime began to control Syrians’ minds from the earliest age. The curriculums in Syrian schools were the best way to brainwash young people, filling their heads with the love of the Ba’ath Party and the hatred of anyone outside it.
In addition, young Syrians were taught a blind hatred for one enemy of all Syrians: Jews. A lack of a real explanation or understanding of Judaism or the Jewish people created generations of students filled with hatred of Jews. Few in Syria ever understood the difference between the terms Jew, Israeli and Zionist.
The term “Jew” was an umbrella term that meant only one thing: the enemy. I was among the sons of this generation. At home, we grew up being taught to love our country, the Golan and Palestine. After entering elementary school, we gained a blind hatred toward any Jew, no matter his ideas or political leanings.
This didactic approach continued until university, and then into military institutions during compulsory service. During conscription, training officers would tell us things such as, “You have to be strong to be able to liberate the Golan from the Jews.”
The Syrian Golan has always carried symbolic value for all Syrians, and there is no doubt that the population overall wishes to see this land as free territory in the hands of Syrians. But the question remains: “How and who will free it and for whom?”
I remember very well one of the enthusiastic chants we were forced to repeat during exercises in compulsory military service: “We will liberate the Golan, only for you, Assad.” I always pondered over those words. I was not daring enough to share my thoughts with any of my colleagues, even those close to me.
But the question rolled over and over in my mind: “Should we liberate the Golan for Assad, or must we regain it because it is Syrian land? Why should the homeland always be represented by one person? And more importantly, what have that person and his father done to liberate the Golan in the past more than 40 years?”
It might just have been that our destiny as Syrians under the Assad family’s rule is to accept the vision of a free Golan, and to build an image of the Jewish “enemy” without ever thinking about why. But now, although Assad looks set to retain control over Syria, those of us outside the country have come to finally question the Ba’ath Party doctrines.
We ask, “As Syrians, who is really our enemy?” AFTER LEAVING Syria for Lebanon in 2013, and then moving to Italy in 2016, I have taught Arabic to non-native speakers. I have taught a number of Jewish students, either online via Skype, or in person.
I have become good friends with many of them. Getting to know them broke the ideas of the Jewish “enemy” that all my life had been forced upon me. Instead, I have known Jews as activists, and advocates for the rights of Palestinians and Arabs.
Others were against their own government, and against all kinds of extremism and discrimination. I have known them as supporters of the Syrian revolution. Many of them participated in demonstrations in several European cities against war criminals in Syria.
I knew some of them who had received Syrian refugees in their homes, and helped them build new lives in Europe. The question surfaced again in my mind: Are these really our enemies? How many Syrians have been killed by Jews since the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948? How many Syrians have been killed by the Syrian regime since 2011?
More than 500,000 people have been killed in the Syrian war since it began seven years ago, and about 85% of the dead were civilians killed by the forces of the Syrian government and its allies. The Jews are not my enemies.
My enemies are war criminals and murderers, whether Jews or Muslims, Israeli or Syrians. My enemies are those who occupy my country, and my whole country today is occupied by Russians, Iranians and Israelis alike. Those are my enemies.
My enemies are not entire populations. My enemies are individual leaders and child-killers. That is my conviction and it is undoubtedly the conviction of tens of thousands of Syrians today.
Without a doubt, some people – Syrian or otherwise – who read this will consider me a traitor. I will be accused of betrayal and of seeking normalization. I will be accused of betraying the blood of our martyrs who fell in the wars between Syria and Israel in the Golan, Palestine and Lebanon. But I will remain convinced of my words. I am Syrian and I am proud to be Syrian.
I am also proud to say that all murderers are my enemies, whatever their nationality.
The author is a freelance writer with a keen interest in Middle East current affairs, particularly the ongoing crisis in Syria.
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