By Anne Barnard
April 8, 2014
This cinder-block town near Damascus, once a hub of prayer and commerce open to the world, seems like a tightly guarded military zone.
Inside the revered shrine here, under ceilings sparkling with mirrored tiles, men and women still pray, pressing their faces to the tomb they believe holds the remains of Zeinab, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. But the streets outside, once impassable with pilgrims and shoppers, are now sparsely trafficked. Gone are the chattering picnickers who packed the shrine’s blue-tiled courtyard, now crisscrossed by armed men in unmarked fatigues.
Some, amid a sense that immediate danger has passed, display a jaunty good mood. In the courtyard recently, a man in digital-print desert camouflage like that of the United States Marines strode up to a visitor and put out his hand.
“I’m from Hezbollah,” he said.
The unofficial introduction — from a member of a reflexively discreet organization — reflected a new openness in Syria about the government’s foreign backers, as fighters with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite paramilitary group and political party, grow more assured that they are helping to beat back insurgents.
As Syria convulsed in conflict, the thought that the shrine could be destroyed alarmed the faithful. Zainab, who lost her brothers and sons in battle and came to Damascus as a prisoner, has long been honoured, particularly by Shiites, as a symbol of sacrifice and steadfastness.
Religious fervour helped galvanize tens of thousands of Shiite fighters to flock from Iraq, Lebanon and across Syria, in theory to defend the shrine, in practice to fight alongside Syrian forces on many fronts. And it drove some Sunni extremists in the insurgency, who regard Shiites as infidels, to declare the shrine a target.
It has survived, but at a price.
It is presided over, in part, by foreign fighters whose role deeply divides Syrians — some effusively grateful, others enraged. And Zainab’s story of mourning and displacement resonates anew with daily life here. Insurgent mortars have killed civilians nearby, including children. Government bombardments have shattered insurgent-held neighbourhoods, followed by bulldozers levelling damaged buildings to eliminate snipers’ nests.
At the shrine, a shell chipped the minaret, and last month another clattered into the courtyard during prayers. That it did not explode is regarded as a miracle; one woman said she had seen it come to rest rolled in a prayer rug.
Hezbollah has long said that protecting the shrine was a major rationale for sending fighters to Syria, a move that upended regional alliances, deepened Lebanon’s political and sectarian divisions and turned crucial battles in the Syrian government’s favour.
Hezbollah and Syrian officials long played down the party’s role, saying the Syrian Army led the fight. But with recent victories, their calculus appears to be shifting. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, recently declared that the Syrian government was safe from collapse and that his group’s only mistake was entering the battle “late.”
Some in Syria are newly eager to catalogue, as a show of strength, the added muscle from abroad, and not just from Hezbollah.
A Syrian who coordinates between government forces and Hezbollah around the shrine said that Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards are not simply advising Damascus, but fighting near the northern city of Aleppo. Hezbollah and Iran, he said, have trained more than 100,000 Syrians, in Syria, Lebanon and Tehran, to form the National Defense Forces militias. On Tuesday, Iran delivered 30,000 tons of food supplies to Syria, The Associated Press reported.
“The game is changed,” the coordinator said, asking not to be identified for his safety. He confirmed much of what Western officials assert about the government’s foreign support, calling it a trump card that Damascus saved for the right moment.
“It is no longer a secret,” he added. “It is on the table.”
The government could not have advanced on the Lebanese border and east of Damascus without Hezbollah’s expert fighters, he said. But the bulk of Shiite volunteers, he added, are Iraqi Shiites, lightly trained in Iraq and sent to front lines in Damascus suburbs like Qaboun and Jobar because “we need numbers.”
But now, after new training as the Abu Fadl al-Abbas brigades, the Iraqis are “able to do something, not just coming to be killed,” the coordinator said.
While President Bashar al-Assad and many security leaders belong to the Alawite sect, related to Shiism, they consider themselves secularists allied with Iran and Hezbollah for strategic and political, not religious, reasons. Syrian Shiites are a tiny minority. Yet now, some government fighters embrace Shiite iconography. Shoulder patches show Mr. Assad in Hezbollah’s green and yellow colours, sometimes alongside Mr. Nasrallah.
Before the war, the town of Sayeda Zainab was mostly Sunni. Residents, some of whom have fled, mingled easily with Iranian Shiite pilgrims, who brought brisk business. Refugees from conflict, first Palestinians and then Iraqis, found a haven here.
But now, an aid worker said, Iraqis have faced sectarian pressure to fight; insurgents recruit Sunnis, and pro-government fighters dragoon Shiites. And one Iraqi Sunni, the worker said, fled after being confronted by the same Shiite Iraqi militiaman whose threats had driven him from Baghdad.
One recent afternoon, a Syrian Shiite fighter was buried in a cemetery beside the shrine. Hezbollah and Syrian flags fluttered from scores of new graves, some adorned with red teddy bears or snapshots of the dead with the gold dome.
Loyalties here can cross sectarian lines. As weeping women leaned on tombstones, two others, Lamia Abdelrahman Shahdeh and Fatima Abbas Mohammed, visited the graves of their sons, a Sunni and a Shiite who they said had died together fighting insurgents.
Mourners welcomed reporters. They thanked Iran and the volunteers from Hezbollah and Iraq, who are buried free of charge. A government militiaman, a friend of the Syrian fighter, said all were united to “defend the land.” He also factored in Shiite theology, citing an end-times prophecy that a great battle in Damascus heralds the coming of the Mahdi, a saviour like figure. “The Mahdi is coming,” he said, to nods. “There will be lakes of blood.”
The government now controls the long-contested road from Damascus to Sayeda Zainab and the airport. Near the shrine, life is trickling back. But a once-festive destination is now sombre. Many here came from the Shiite villages of Nubol and Zahra, fleeing insurgent attack. Their stories mirror those under government attack: children’s body parts picked from rubble, relatives kidnapped, sons killed fighting.
Osama fled from Nubol, riding a truck to Turkey and flying to Damascus. Still, she fears locals and nearby insurgents who she says will kill her family for being Shiite and pro-government.
“I don’t trust those dogs,” she whispered. “These days you don’t trust anyone.”
In the shade of the shrine, women from Nubol said that their prayers, once wishing for more children, now focus on kidnapped relatives or sons in the army. Before, they said, the courtyard was a place to barbecue, sleep and take pictures.
“Now it’s not allowed,” one said. “Most of the women are crying, but their souls are relieved when they come.”
Hwaida Saad and Sergey Ponomarev contributed reporting.