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Syrians in Israeli-Occupied Golan Remain Divided on Assad

While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad enjoys considerable support from Golan Syrians under Israeli occupation, many are speaking up against his rule.
Smoke rises after shells exploded in the Syrian village of Al Rafeed, close to the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria, as seen from the Israeli occupied Golan Heights May 7, 2013. Israel played down weekend air strikes close to Damascus reported to have killed dozens of Syrian soldiers, saying they were not aimed at influencing its neighbour's civil war but only at stopping Iranian missiles reaching Lebanese Hezbollah militants. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY) - RTXZDAV

MAJDAL SHAMS, Israel — Israeli military installments line the hillsides of the occupied Golan Heights, the site of several minor flare-ups between Israel and Syria in recent weeks, mostly unintentional stray shelling that has flown into the Israeli side.

The rising tensions highlight the growing rift among some 23,000 Syrian Druze, toiling under an Israeli occupation since 1967, who are finding themselves divided on the enduring violence in Syria. Though traditionally loyal to Damascus, there are a growing number of voices speaking out against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, more than 80,000 people have been killed, according to the UN. Rights groups have denounced both regime forces and rebels for excessive human rights violations.

Understandably, the images of bloodshed saturating the media have provoked strong feelings in the Golan Druze, provoking angry dissent in some and causing others to rally behind the regime. 

“We are part of Arab and Syrian civilization, and we dream of liberation and returning to Syria,” Nazm Khater, a 64-year-old teacher and apple farmer, told Al-Monitor. Along with many others, he has affirmed his support for the regime, while acknowledging that anti-regime protesters have a right to make legitimate demands.

“Opposition is healthy, but not in an armed way. Why is the Syrian opposition demanding intervention from European states and al-Qaeda?” he demanded as he sat and sipped tea on his porch, not reacting to the booming echoes of shelling from the Syrian side of the demilitarized zone.

The relationship of Druze to the Syrian regime has always been tricky. Many fear that the loss of the Assad regime will translate into repression under Sunni Islamist rule.

“They are part of the coalition of minorities which was the base of the regime since its early beginnings: Alawites, Druze and Christians all play a role in the regime structure,” Professor Eyal Zisser, Middle East scholar and dean of humanities at Tel Aviv University, told Al-Monitor.

Regime supporters are also angered by Western involvement. The European Union lifted its arms embargo on Syria after fierce lobbying by Britain and France, despite most EU states opposing the change in policy. US Secretary of State John Kerry, though calling for international efforts toward a peaceful solution, has also explicitly endorsed the Syrian opposition.

“The West is killing Salafists in Mali and supporting them in Syria — that’s called hypocrisy,” said Khater.

Others claim that Israel is implicitly supporting the opposition, therefore making it a priority to defend the regime. They point to Syrian state media claims — dismissed by Israeli officials — that an Israeli jeep was destroyed by the regime in Syrian territory.

“We’ve seen their jeeps on TV, and Israel established a field hospital near the border for the opposition,” Khater stated.

The internal stability that Assad’s regime provided before the conflict’s outbreak has led to the popular deduction that his autocratic form of governance is the cost of security. Understandably, the largest divide is on the perception of which government — that of Assad or a future one — can return the Golan Heights to Syria.

Following the Israeli occupation during the June 1967 war, Israel has established 33 settlements across the Golan Heights, and the population of Jewish Israeli settlers is now upward of 20,000. These developments were made possible by the destruction of over 40 Syrian villages and forced displacement of 130,000 indigenous Syrians. As of 2010, “Due to growing families, this figure now stands at 433,000 displaced Golan natives,” estimates Al-Marsad Center for Arab Rights’ Breaking Down the Fence.

“We are divided on Syria, but we have a full consensus on the Israeli occupation: We’re all against it,” said Khater. “But the liberation of the Golan is not the responsibility of Bashar al-Assad by himself; it’s the responsibility of all Syrian people.”

Others disagree, arguing Damascus effectively traded the Golan Heights for a silent peace with Israel.

“I believe that both Assad and his father carried the responsibility of liberating the Golan Heights. Over 45 years of ruling Syria, and they have no idea of liberating us from the Israelis,” commented Salmen Fakher Al-Deen, an Al-Marsad researcher, in an interview with Al-Monitor.

Although there have never been diplomatic relations or a peace agreement between Israel and Syria, the Golan demilitarized zone has historically been one of the most stable Israeli-controlled borders.

“This policy of mutual security with Israel belonged to both Assads,” said Fakher Al-Deen. “And we were the cost … It’s a nightmare in Syria, but whatever government comes next must mean the liberation of the Golan.”

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah spoke of exactly that in a recent speech. The charismatic cleric justified the Lebanese Shia organization’s presence in Syria and threatened to launch “a popular uprising in the Golan” and “open a new front” against Israel.

Hezbollah’s ties to the Syrian and Iranian regimes, crucial to its access to new weapons and diplomatic and political support, have led to thousands of Lebanese fighters pouring into the conflict on the side of Assad’s forces.

Yet this break from strictly anti-Israel activities has proven to be a major point of contention in the Golan.

“Our support from Hezbollah is very natural,” said Khater. “Hezbollah helps us, and Syria helps them. We are not Israeli. We have to preserve our identity and protect our lands.”

On the other hand, many take issue with Hezbollah’s involvement, arguing that the organization has a right to defend itself against Israel but not to become entangled in the Syrian conflict.

This intervention, coupled with his pledge to help spark popular uprising in the Golan Heights, resulted in many Golan Druze distancing themselves from the otherwise immensely popular Lebanese leader.

“It’s not real, it’s only hot air. This is just an advertisement — he’s just trying to justify his intervention in Syria, but he shot himself in the foot,” Fakher Al-Deen proclaimed as he stood near the fence demarcating the buffer zone, the site where stray shells recently landed from Syria.

“They are a group of professional killers. Hezbollah is a Shia force in Syria, and it’s not its duty. [Nasrallah] has no right to be fighting in Syria as the leader of a Lebanese party.”

It’s impossible not to notice the growing expressions of anti-Assad politics in Majdal Shams. Throughout the streets and narrow corridors of the village, graffiti blankets the stone walls. While much of it supports Assad, there are also anti-regime slogans. “Stop killing innocent Syrians!” is tagged on the side of a falafel stand. Houses throughout the village fly Syrian flags from the balconies, and around half of them are Free Syrian Army flags rather than the regime's.

As the community struggles to deal with these internal political shifts, some clashes have broken out.

“Assad supporters have tried to use violence,” lamented Fakher Al-Deen, pulling deeply on a cigarette and shaking his head in disapproval. “But violence does not work here. This is a very small place.”

Although anti-regime protests began with attendance in the tens, they are now bringing out over a hundred people each week.

“We support a left-wing democratic opposition in Syria,” Fakher Al-Deen concluded. “I’m very optimistic for the future.”

But as the violence in Syria continues to unfold, it leaves a unique stamp on communities across the region. Indications suggest that the bloodshed will persist — and in all likelihood, spread.

Patrick O. Strickland is a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in Al Jazeera English, Al Akhbar English, Middle East Monitor, GlobalPost and Truthout. He is a regular contributor for the Socialist Worker and Palestine Monitor. On Twitter: @P_Strickland_

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