SAYYIDA ZAYNAB, Syria — This southern Damascus suburb is awash with death. Every day brings news of a fresh martyr. No sooner do I exit the taxi than news comes from the mosque loudspeaker of another one: a young man from Fua, hundreds of miles away in the northern province of Idlib, who had been living here before he was killed in the fighting outside Damascus.
The historic mosque that gives the neighborhood its name houses, according to Shiite lore, the grave of the Prophet’s granddaughter, Zaynab. At its entrance, dozens of fighters are standing at attention, holding aloft a coffin. The coffin was initially draped in the Syrian flag, but when it entered the mosque, the flags were changed and replaced by Hezbollah’s distinctive green and yellow.
Fua, a Shiite village, has been surrounded by Sunni Islamists for years now. The rebels accuse the town’s inhabitants not only of allying themselves with the Syrian government but of harboring Hezbollah. But to many of Fua’s residents, the Lebanese group represents not a dangerous invading force, but a vital source of military training and inspiration in their current plight.
Permission to visit Sayyida Zaynab is now effectively controlled by local officials working with Hezbollah rather than the Syrian regime. My trip came on the say-so of a local official called Sheikh Ayman. I met him and Louay Hussain — a balding, intense man with the demeanor of an enthusiastic press flack – in the sheikh’s first-floor office, over a breakfast of sweetmeats.
The martyred fighter from Fua was in the Syrian Army, according to Hussain, and he was killed in Ghouta — the equally impoverished, largely rebel-held agricultural belt outside Damascus — by the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. “Nusra,” he complained, “break the truce every day.” He may have been in the army, Hussain went to, but “his loyalty was to Hezbollah, and the Shiites.” Then, correcting himself, he added that a “Shiite’s loyalty is to Syria and their beliefs.”
Sheikh Ayman — squat, hirsute, unsmiling — hails from Zahraa, another embattled Shiite village in Aleppo province. He shares Hussain’s pessimism about the faltering cessation of hostilities, which the United States and Russia have tried to keep in place. It’s impossible to deal with the armed Syrian rebels, he tells me, and impossible to really police a cease-fire. “There are lots of different groups; we can’t talk to them all,” he said.
But who does he represent? “I am not from Hezbollah officially, but I have the faith of Hezbollah,” he said.
The sheikh works mainly in providing services, and in dealing with the families of martyrs. Hezbollah, he says, excels at this work: The Lebanese organization “is very well-organized and is now in every place in Syria, in a legal way. It is organized like a state; it is not just a party. There is an organization for martyrs, one for children, another for families.”
Hezbollah entered Syria’s war in 2012, and its military prowess played a decisive role in turning the tide of the conflict at the time. It look a lead role in recapturing the town of al-Qusayr, along the Lebanese border, in the summer of 2013.
But as the fighting has progressed, it’s clear that Hezbollah’s importance goes beyond the front line. It is playing a crucial mentoring role among paramilitary pro-government forces across the length and breadth of the country.
The guerrilla specialists
At least in Sayyida Zaynab, its organizational model is helping to provide services that President Bashar al-Assad’s overstretched state may not be able to. And perhaps most importantly, it is inspiring a new generation of decentralized, autonomous militias forged in its image.
As Syrians retreat to sect, ethnicity, and tribe, Hezbollah’s services as specialists in irregular warfare are in massive demand. This isn’t only true for Syria’s tiny Shiite minority: Many other religious groups have been threatened — but also emboldened — by the crisis. Faced with the rising tide of a vicious Islamism within the insurgency, they are organizing themselves in Hezbollah-like “self-defense forces.” From the Druze in Swaida to the Syriac Christians in rural Homs to the Alawi-led “Syrian resistance” formations in the coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartous, they see themselves as engaged in a life-or-death struggle for their beliefs, and they exist in a fractious, paramilitary relationship to the Syrian state.
Whereas some minorities were previously discriminated against and suspected of disloyalty by the Syrian security state, now the tables have turned and they’re flaunting their status. Faced with the rising tide of an Islamist insurgency, minorities know that they’re no longer the enemy, and that Syria’s security state needs all the friends it can get. “It’s become like a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card,” quipped one Druze woman I met in Damascus.
To supporters of Hezbollah’s cause, the organization is helping these locals by providing them with the training and logistical expertise to defend themselves from jihadists hellbent on destroying the state.
“Hezbollah doesn’t only want to defend a mosque for Shiites,” said Sheikh Ayman, “but to defend Sednaya [a Christian city outside Damascus] for Christians, to protect Lebanon via its border with Qalamoun.”
Hezbollah fighters are also in Aleppo, I point out. “Aleppo is a difficult, dangerous area.” Then there’s the Golan region, bordering Israel, where Hezbollah has been called upon “to fight Nusra, which is being backed by Israel.” Faced with a range of possible enemies along its border with Syria, rumors abound here that Israel is helping some Islamist rebels group by treating their wounded.
Sheikh Ayman and Hussain were happy to admit that Hezbollah had entered Syria in large numbers, and that there had been many martyrs, but both maintained that the party’s role was primarily one of training and advising, rather than fighting on the front lines.
“There are only leaders from Lebanon here,” said Sheikh Ayman. “They help Syrians fight, in ‘self-defense’ and ‘resistance’ groups. Most of the fighters are Syrian.”
They have a point. Just as the Syrian Army too readily paints all of its enemies as “foreign terrorists,” Syria’s rebels too easily conflate Lebanese Hezbollah with local militias who’ve received training and inspiration from the group. A Syrian journalist who was present at the heavy fighting around the city of Palmyra, which was recently liberated from the Islamic State, told me that the Hezbollah presence was limited to a relatively small numbers of advisors — they were vastly outnumbered by Shiite Hazara fighters imported from Afghanistan, whose messianic fervor makes them ideal cannon-fodder.
A magnet for hatred
Hussain and I leave Sheikh Ayman’s office to take a walk toward the shrine, where I talked to many Shiites from northern Syria. My companion points out a few fighters from Iraq. But almost everyone was sporting Hezbollah’s distinctive dappled, dark-green uniform rather than the khakis preferred by the Syrian Army.
Even by Damascus standards, the area — thick with half-finished high-rises and burnt-out buildings — reeks of sewage and poverty. It has swollen with refugees as a result of the conflict, its population doubling to 150,000 people over the course of the war. The overwhelming majority are Shiites who’ve fled sectarian strife elsewhere in Syria to find refuge here — the natural home for their tiny minority. For the same reason, the area has become a magnet for the Shiite hatred of the Islamic State. Since the beginning of the year, Sayyida Zaynab has been rocked by two huge Islamic State suicide attacks, which have killed hundreds and wounded hundreds more.
An ambulance raced past, bearing another wounded fighter, and almost knocked us down. A chorus of schoolboys dressed like Boy Scouts and carrying tiny trumpets busily rehearsed for the funeral of the martyr from Fua. At a central thoroughfare, we pass the site of the Islamic State’s attack in February, which killed around 100 people. While one bomb was aimed at a van full of fighters, the second went off in the middle of the market across the road. At one of the market stalls, a 10-year-old boy sits entirely still, his legs piled like dead wood; the bomb left him entirely paralyzed along one side of his body. Three weeks after I leave, April 25, an Islamic State car bomb attack will kill around 15 people and leave many more wounded.
At the gate to the historic mosque, security is intense. International pilgrims and fighters mill around in green scarves, but the guards aren’t taking any chances; phones are removed, bodies are meticulously searched. The mosque, built in the richly decorative Iranian style and topped by a gold dome, has remained largely unscathed by the conflict. The interior shimmers with crystal glass. “When you feel uncomfortable,” said Hussain, “you come here to pray.”
Young fighters wearing military regalia, some of them from Iraq and farther afield, queue to touch the shrine, or hold their palms out in silent prayer, asking Zaynab to intercede for them. Some are tearful, others prostrate themselves on the ground. Outside, palms outstretched, young men are reading posters of Quranic text and quietly mouthing words of prayer.
Locals with pitchforks
In Salamiyah, a small town in the heart of the central Hama province and the ancestral home of the Ismaili Muslim community, the same kind of martyrdom posters crowd the main street, and the talk of “resistance” is indistinguishable from the rhetoric at the shrine near Damascus.
There were demonstrations against the Syrian regime here at the beginning of the uprising in 2011, but nowadays, there’s no such public griping. The town is surrounded by fighters from the Islamic State and Nusra, who see the Ismailis as heretics. Just as in Sayyida Zaynab , the population of Salamiyah has almost doubled since the outbreak of the conflict, as Ismailis flee discrimination elsewhere and return to what seems like a natural fief.
In the town, a minder from the local Hama government introduced me to two old men who were members of a pan-Syrian movement called the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which — along with the ruling Baath Party and the paramilitary National Defense Forces — are supplying thousands of local volunteers to help the Syrian Army fight the Nusra Front and Islamic State.
Pointing to a tiny ornamental scythe on the wall of a coffee bar, one explained that if things became desperate, they would use even that to fight against the Islamists. “They say we are to be killed,” he said. “We will do anything.”
While I saw no evidence of Hezbollah involvement, it’s very likely that these “locals with pitchforks” are benefiting from Hezbollah expertise in asymmetrical warfare — or that they will be soon. In Lebanon at least, Hezbollah and the SSNP have been working closely for some time.
This is the sort of conflict that Hezbollah, which rose to prominence fighting an unconventional war against the Israeli army in south Lebanon, was built to fight. When, back at the municipal office in Sayyida Zaynab, I’d asked Sheikh Ayman if Hezbollah were better fighters than the Syrian Army, his answer was diplomatic. “They have more experience of this kind of guerrilla war.”
After the war in Syria is over, Sheikh Ayman maintained, the thousands of local volunteers organized in its image would go back to their jobs and families, and Hezbollah would return to Lebanon. “We have other issues to deal with there,” he said.
When I asked him about whether Hezbollah’s much-discussed role in the Syrian regime’s defense of Quneitra and the Golan might open up a second front against Israel, he smiled and replied, “Anything is possible.”
In the short term, the answer was pure bravado. Hezbollah’s Syrian allies have their work cut out to stay alive, never mind attacking Israel — but it was also worth thinking about the day after.
While Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria has cost it soldiers and international reputation among those who bemoan its decision to throw in with the Syrian regime, the group has made new friends and developed new military concepts. If it emerges from this conflict victorious, it might eventually use its new authority to revive the flagging Syrian Army or whatever takes its place.
On the streets of Sayyida Zaynab, there’s no denying Hezbollah’s popularity. While driving out of the neighborhood, our taxi driver waves to several truckloads of gung-ho fighters zooming past us in the other direction.
“Jaish al-Hur,” he quips: the Free Syrian Army. It’s Syrian gallows humor. The Free Syrian Army is his enemy, and its fighters aren’t anywhere near here.
Like almost everyone else I met in Sayyida Zaynab, he turns out to be from one of the Shiite enclaves in northern Syria. Back there, he’d been carrying a weapon as well as driving taxis In his hometown of Zahraa, he told me, he’d fought the Free Syrian Army, then the Nusra Front and radical Islamists. “But the people of Zahraa were strong, and killed them all.”
Could he imagine trusting local Sunnis from the neighboring villages again? “There is no trust, but no fear.”
Who was he fighting for? “Hezbollah.”