Under Syrian Shells

As I write these lines, Syrian forces are shelling the village outside Aleppo where I am staying. Earlier this day, fighter jets bombed the hamlet, forcing people to take shelter with their crying children in stairwells and cellars while the earth shook. Outside, piles of wreckage where houses once stood lay covered in dust and villagers ran through the streets, shouting for help for the wounded.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad claims it is carrying out surgical strikes to root out “terrorists.” In reality, its indiscriminate bombing is killing defenseless civilians either too proud or too poor to leave their homes. All have become targets.

Last month, an 11-year-old boy named Mahmoud was killed here by shelling as he fled a mosque under fire. “He did not know what this war was about,” his father told me, recalling how the child would switch television channels from war news to the cartoon antics of Tom and Jerry.

As the regime has ratcheted up its war machine, from shooting protesters to shelling and now bombing rebel areas, many Syrians have demonstrated stoic calm. I asked one middle-aged man whether risking his life was worth whatever marginal benefits staying in the village could offer. “What do you mean marginal benefits?” he asked. “I am defending my home.”

People in these villages have a deep attachment to the soil they till. But as the danger increases, so too has their sense of abandonment by a world that has done little more than censure the Syrian government and freeze its leaders’ assets. Hopes that the international community will save them from their nightmare grow dimmer by the day, while foreign jihadists exploit their misfortunes to establish a presence in the country.

The daily airstrikes and nightly shelling have become routine here. Families gather in cellars, and disperse only when the guns and the whistling shrieks of falling bombs fall silent. Veiled women press their knuckles to their cheeks while teenagers flip through pictures on cellular phones. “Only God can stop the bombing and He chooses not to,” a man tells me after the din of jets engines has faded.

The air strikes reflect no strategy or design. Bombs often fall on empty farmland or desolate streets. This is not by mistake. The regime is trying to intimidate residents into submission by demonstrating overwhelming force. But 18 months into the civil war, most people here remain unwilling to surrender.

Resistance takes many forms. In places were the government has disappeared, village elders create local councils to ensure that services still function. Businessmen raise money to buy wheat and milk. Intrepid civilians cross into government-controlled areas to purchase precious medicine and gasoline.

It is the Syrians’ about-face toward America and its allies that has been most striking to me. Syrians have never been a people who trust Westerners. The ideology of the ruling Baath party — inculcated from elementary school on — teaches that European colonialists carved out parts of Syria to create a Jewish state in Palestine and a Christian one in Lebanon. Arab unity — and not friendship with the West — has always been the force that would restore Syria to its rightful place among nations.

Many Syrians still believe all Westerners here are spies — especially Americans, given Washington’s strong support of their country’s arch enemy, Israel. Syria under the Assads has had no other regional foe and has fought three wars against Israel.

But with an Arab world too weak and splintered to intervene, the anti-Western ideology is starting to crack. At every house and rebel barracks, locals beseech Americans like me for U.S. intervention. “Calling Bashar a butcher don’t save us from his bombs,” an English teacher told me.

Many people I spoke with said they thought that Syria’s lack of oil made it an unattractive candidate for international intervention. Others said they were puzzled and frustrated by the legal minutiae of debates on Syria at the United Nations Security Council. During a communal dinner at a villager’s house, a businessman cited NATO’s 1998 intervention in Kosovo and America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and said, “You don’t need the U.N. and the world’s permission to attack when you don’t want it.”

As the international community dithers, many Syrians are prepared to accept aid from whoever offers it — even from Israel. Iran and Hezbollah support the regime; that makes these enemies of Israel also enemies of the rebels. Many Syrians believe Israel is not hamstrung by the same military inhibitions that prevent Washington from intervening.

In any case, other outside forces are providing aid. Every day dozens of jihadists from countries such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia and even Britain trickle across the border. They bring with them an extremist interpretation of Islam that is out of step with the more tolerant version that has long prevailed in Syria, and many people here worry that their secular revolution will turn into a jihad to establish an Islamic emirate.

But as Assad intensifies the violence and hopes for international intervention fade, people’s resistance to foreign fighters is gradually subsiding. And every day that it does, the tentacles of radical Islam spread.

“We don’t want Al Qaeda,” said one of the villagers. “We told fighters with a religious bent not to bring their ideology here. But we fear that as the world turns its back on us more will be drawn to the organization.”

Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation.

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