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Syria's Civil War: The View From A Damascus Shrine

May 29, 2013
Originally published on May 29, 2013 10:47 am

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 spoke of her in the present tense.

"We love Sayida Zeinab," he said. "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 said 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 said of the Wahhabi, 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 of 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 said he has never missed a day of work at a hospital nearby.

"I have been working in Sayida Zeinab for 25 years as a doctor," he said.

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 showed which side of the battle lines the shrine is on.

The announcer was marking the deaths of three men killed in the war — martyrs, the speaker said, 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 said, adding: We all know there's a conspiracy against us. He said: 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 was 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 said he does not love Assad too much. He even dared 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.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

I'm Renee Montagne in Washington.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, reporting this week from Damascus, Syria.

Traveling to this city gives you a view of Syria's war turned inside out. The international community talks of arming Syrian rebels against President Bashar al-Assad. Here in Damascus, many people still hope the rebels will lose.

That is the thinking we found around a Muslim shrine here in Damascus. It's a shrine to the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Though she lived centuries ago, we met a Damascus doctor who speaks of her in the present tense.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We love Seyda Zeinab, we like Seyda Zeinab, we respect Seyda Zeinab, and we visit her.

INSKEEP: We wanted to visit, so the doctor offered to guide us. He told us to meet him beside a highway that leads toward the shrine. He leaned into our car window to talk, though like many people here, he asked us not to use his name.

Seyda Zeinab is holy to all Muslims, though the Shia sect maintains her shrine in a Shia neighborhood. The doctor says it is surrounded by many guards, out of fear that Sunni extremist rebels will destroy it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: They do not believe in shrines. The terrorists have had Wahhabian ideas.

INSKEEP: Wahabbis are followers of an especially austere brand of Islam. There is no evidence that all the Sunni rebel groups oppose Shias, though it is clear that some are extremists, and Assad's government has relentlessly said the rebels are foreign terrorists.

Fear of those rebels has bound Shias and other minority groups to Assad's regime. The shrine is in an area of heavy fighting, but the doctor says he has never missed a day of work at a hospital nearby.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I have been working in Seyda Zainab for 25 years as a doctor.

INSKEEP: Which is why he was comfortable leading us there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So we are ready and we are going.

INSKEEP: Lead the way.

Our cars race down a highway, the Damascus airport road, past bombed-out buildings on either side.

The good doctor sticks a finger out the window of the car to indicate we're going to turn right.

And then we arrived at a series of military checkpoints. We walked a busy street until we saw the shrine's golden dome.

(SOUNDBITE OF P.A. SYSTEM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: 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 civil war - martyrs, the speaker says, fighting for Assad's government. Rebels cannot be called martyrs.

The guards of this shrine include men from Lebanon. They are allies of Assad, longtime veterans of the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah. They believe Syria has become the scene of a proxy war between Shia Iran and Sunni nations including Saudi Arabia.

The guardians also include local men, like a former sheep dealer who joined a volunteer defense force.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Let's not hide behind one finger, he says. We all know there's a conspiracy against us. There is nothing wrong with us pulling together with people who share our beliefs.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD PRAYING)

INSKEEP: Beneath the shrine's golden dome, we entered a room of brilliant light. Every wall and the ceiling are covered with mirrored tiles. Pilgrims put their hands on Seyda 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?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through translator) I saw by my own eyes how the government army saved us and how the others - the rebels - have been killing our people in our neighborhoods.

INSKEEP: Nearby, a caretaker of the shrine said he also backs Assad. He said Syrians are too ignorant- his word - to import foreign ideas like Western democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

INSKEEP: When we left the shrine, we walked down the battle-scarred street behind it and arrived in a local hospital. There we met again with the doctor who was our guide.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Twenty - 20 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, love their country. They do not want their country to be destroyed.

INSKEEP: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I am with any revolution which changes for better, which changes for the democracy. But I do not agree with any revolution who will destroy the country.

INSKEEP: In Syria's elections, President 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.

MONTAGNE: MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep is reporting all this week from Syria's capital, Damascus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.