The dilemma of Syrians living on the Golan Heights
Three evenings a week, Syrian dissidents gather in Majdal Shams to organize their contribution to the revolution against Bashar al-Assad. Regular attendees include Facebook activists, graffiti-writers, former political prisoners, and venerable intellectuals. Some evenings, the group spends hours debating the news, brainstorming protest slogans, and strategizing for its weekly demonstrations.
Such meetings have become commonplace in much of Syria, but are unprecedented in Majdal Shams. Israel has governed this bustling town since it occupied Syria’s Golan Heights region in 1967. The population lives comfortably in Israeli society, and many residents work in Israeli companies or attend Israeli universities. Most, however, have refused Israel’s offer of citizenship and advocate for the territory’s return to Syrian jurisdiction. They face an uphill battle: the Golan Heights has been fully integrated into Israel for more than 30 years, and the government exerts considerable pressure on the population to assimilate into the Jewish State. For decades, local secular intellectuals and religious scholars have allied in resistance to Israeli rule, the community’s primary political movement.
Growth of a Movement
The anti-Assad movement in Majdal Shams began to coalesce in the weeks after popular uprisings overthrew longstanding dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia. As demonstrations dragged on in Libya and on the Arabian peninsula, a group of politically-aware residents staged a small rally in Majdal Shams to express solidarity with the protestors. The event empowered activists to create a private Facebook group to organize further events in support of the Arab uprisings.
Days later, anti-regime protests erupted in the Syrian city of Dar’a, fewer than 40 kilometers from the Golan Heights. Administrators of the new Facebook group organized meetings to discuss a local response to the protests. The group composed a manifesto in support of the new uprising that declared, in part, “everyone who attacks our people, the Syrians, is an enemy.” More than a hundred local residents signed the document, and a few dozen attended a follow-up anti-Assad rally in downtown Majdal Shams.
The manifesto and the rally were groundbreaking. Signatory ‘Amar Ibrahim said that, in the past, a small council of unelected religious leaders had composed political manifestos that claimed to represent the opinions of the general population. Now, a group of private citizens had organized and declared their own independent beliefs. Ibrahim said, “it was new for us… it was not usual for people in the Golan to stand… against Assad.”
Shahadhi Nasrallah, one of the lead anti-regime organizers in Majdal Shams, said that he and other activists were deeply moved when thousands of Syrians commented on Facebook photographs of the anti-Assad demonstration. The posts marveled that Syrians who faced foreign military occupation also opposed Bashar al-Assad. Nasrallah said that regime opponents in the Golan Heights realized that they could have a “huge influence” on their compatriots across the ceasefire line.
The group ceased meeting during the spring and summer of 2011 due to disagreements over the next stage of the campaign. During these months, individual members forged links with anti-regime activists throughout Syria. A pair of local intellectuals, Wahib Ayub and Salman ‘Amasha, attended an international conference of the Syrian revolutionary opposition in Antalya, Turkey. According to Ayub, the two established relationships with activists based inside Syria and put them in contact with organizers in the Golan Heights.
Ayub joined a global coalition of secular Syrian dissidents and attended further opposition conferences in Cairo and Paris. Others in Majdal Shams formed a Facebook page titled “Coordinating the Syrian Revolution in the Occupied Syrian Golan” to publish news about the protests in Syria and solidarity messages from the Golan Heights (it now has more than 3,000 followers). Some began to work virtually with activists on the ground in Syria by editing video footage and images of the uprising and publicizing them online.
The activists resumed meeting in the winter of 2011. The group organized a second anti-Assad rally in Majdal Shams that drew approximately 150 demonstrators, according to Nasrallah. They purchased a set of revolutionary Syrian flags and planted one on the mountainside above Majdal Shams. And a committee of five young activists began spraypainting anti-regime slogans along the town’s main streets.
In early summer, as the situation in Syria descended into a bloody civil war, the organizers stepped up their activities. They began to hold tri-weekly meetings and weekly demonstrations on Friday evenings in Majdal Shams. They studied YouTube footage of protests in Dar’a and other cities to learn local chants and slogans. Their rallies grew steadily, from a few dozen attendees in early June to a peak of more than 150 in late July.
Anti-regime activists in the Golan Heights face militant opposition from their neighbors, many of whom oppose the uprising against Bashar al-Assad. Support for Assad remains strong in Majdal Shams, even as the civilian death toll in Syria rises. (Some residents said that the death toll was exaggerated; others said that the crackdown was a necessary price for long-term security.)
Many of the Syrians in the Golan Heights genuinely support the current Syrian regime. Most of the population adheres to the Druze religion (a minority faith that grew out of Shi’a Islam in the 11th century). Many are grateful to Bashar al-Assad for promoting a secular national identity for Syrians and maintaining stability in a region devastated by sectarian strife.
Some receive tangible benefits from the Assad government. Every month, the regime issues salaries to the dozens of Golan Heights residents who were employed by the state before 1967. Since the 1970s, thousands of local students have received full-tuition scholarships to attend the public University of Damascus, with many earning lucrative and respected degrees in medicine or dentistry.
Other residents publically endorse the regime for pragmatic reasons. Some fear that their relatives living in Assad-controlled territory could suffer reprisals if they endorse the uprising. Others worry that, if the Golan Heights returns to Syrian rule, the regime could punish the population for disloyalty.
Perhaps most important, many residents feel that organized opposition to Assad hampers the continuing struggle against Israeli rule. Disagreements over the uprising in Syria divide anti-occupation activists, weakening the movement. And criticism of Assad puts regime opponents in an uncomfortable alignment with the Israeli state, which loudly criticizes human rights violations in Syria.
The anti-Assad activists in Majdal Shams realized the extent of local opposition to their activities in early summer 2011. In response to Wahib Ayub’s and Salman ‘Amasha’s highly publicized participation in the Antalya conference of the Syrian opposition, the influential Druze religious council in the Golan Heights declared uncompromising support for Bashar al-Assad. The group called on local residents to refrain from all social or business contact with Ayub, ‘Amasha, and any other individual who supported the “conspiracy” against the Assad regime.
Many of the activists dismissed the boycott call. When a local news website published the council’s manifesto, a number of residents posted comments declaring support for Ayub and ‘Amasha and their willingness to endure social and economic ostracism for their political beliefs. Nasrallah said that the boycott was “not a big deal for me, I think they have the right to do whatever they want.” But, according to Ibrahim, many individuals who had signed the activists’ original anti-Assad manifesto removed their names from the document to escape the community boycott.
A few months later, the religious council rescinded the boycott. Local opposition to anti-Assad activism continued along other channels. Regime supporters painted over the revolutionary graffiti in Majdal Shams. Some attended anti-regime rallies and verbally harassed the protestors.
On a few occasions, local opposition to anti-Assad activism has become violent. In winter 2011, a crowd of more than 100 regime supporters—some armed with sticks—forced anti-Assad demonstrators out of the main square in Majdal Shams. A few weeks ago, a group of regime supporters blocked an intersection in downtown Majdal Shams to prevent activists from leaving their weekly demonstration. At the resultant hour-long standoff, crowds of regime supporters and opponents yelled slogans and flung eggs and other makeshift projectiles. Only the intervention of volunteer peacekeepers (who stood between the two sides) prevented a street battle.
Several anti-regime activists said that they face even greater threats. They repeatedly referred to their local opponents as “shabiha”—the paid thugs who disrupted anti-regime protests in Egypt and other countries. Nasrallah said, “there are shabiha here in Majdal Shams that could… fight with me or kill me.” Other organizers said that a vocal regime opponent who was struck by a speeding car while crossing a busy street was deliberately targeted for his political beliefs.
Resisting Dictatorship/ Resisting Occupation
Anti-Assad activists in Majdal Shams universally said that they opposed Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights. Unlike their pro-regime neighbors, they believed that their nascent movement would ultimately strengthen the community’s ongoing struggle against Israeli rule.
Several organizers cited their Syrian identity as a primary motivation for their activism. Nasrallah said, “we are Syrians and we are against Assad… it’s very logical.” One of the most popular chants at Majdal Shams’s anti-regime rallies has been “the Syrian People is United.” The slogan declared both that Syrians were united in opposition to Bashar al-Assad, and that residents of the Golan Heights remained a part of the Syrian people.
A number of activists said that Bashar al-Assad hampered the movement to end Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights. Ayub and others said that the regime and Israel had made a secret pact exchanging Israeli rule of the Golan for peaceful relations between the two countries. At several rallies, activists referenced this theory by chanting that Assad had “sold the Golan.”
Still, organizers said that the Israeli government exploited the local anti-Assad movement to pressure residents to sever ties with Syria. Since the late 1990s, the state has employed a former member of the community named Mandi Safadi to encourage residents to accept Israeli citizenship. Nasrallah said that Safadi “tried hard” to join the team of anti-Assad organizers in Majdal Shams, possibly in the hope that the activists’ criticism of Assad’s dictatorship would dampen local enthusiasm for a return to Syrian rule.
So far, Safadi’s efforts have not succeeded: anti-regime activists in the Golan Heights remain staunchly opposed to Israel’s occupation. ‘Amar Ibrahim said, “no one can say that living here under the Israeli control is better than living there… in spite of being there under a dictatorship, you’re still living in your own country, your own language, your own flag… living here in Israel with the democracy law does not replace living in your own country.”
The growth of the anti-Assad movement in the Golan Heights may permanently change the community’s anti-occupation organizing. For decades, Druze religious leaders and secular intellectuals allied in opposition to Israel rule. Today, disagreements over the Syrian uprising divide the two groups. Many of the leading intellectuals in Majdal Shams have endorsed the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, while most religious leaders continue to support the regime.
Members of the revolutionary movement in Majdal Shams face a dilemma. Should they threaten their community’s political unity by battling Assad, or should their opposition to Israel’s occupation overrule their desire to shape a new future for Syria? Surely, the Syrians in the Golan Heights cannot truly attain their national-political rights if they ignore Bashar al-Assad’s attacks on political freedom in Syria.