Enlisting Damascus Residents to Answer Assad's Call

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DAMASCUS, Syria -- Rafiq Lotof strode through the Syrian capital's Old City, past his father's shoe shop, past cubbyhole bars and antique shops, through streets that in normal times would buzz late into the evening with tourists and wealthy Damascus families. But on this recent night, the shops were shuttered, and Mr. Lotof's errand was a wartime one.

At the entrance to a Shiite Muslim quarter, Mr. Lotof inspected a new checkpoint guarded by a baby-faced 18-year-old clutching a rifle nearly his height. Fresh from training in Iran, the teenager belonged to one of the growing neighborhood militias that Mr. Lotof is arming and organizing on behalf of the Syrian government -- part of a nationwide effort to enlist more citizens in the fight against the rebels challenging President Bashar al-Assad.

After volunteering to defend a Shiite shrine south of Damascus, the young man, Hussein Beydoun, said he was flown with 500 other Syrian Shiites to Iran, where Revolutionary Guards trained them to use rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Proudly looking on, his mentor, Mr. Lotof, said the heavier weapons might come into play if rebels ever tried to breach the Old City's walls.

"If they come," Mr. Lotof said, "they might do anything."

Mr. Lotof, a son of the Old City, has returned after years in America for what he sees as a mission to defend its ancient streets, relatively unscathed by two years of war. This area of Damascus, inhabited since at least the third millennium B.C., is for many Syrians the heart of the country.

Mr. Lotof and many other government supporters believe the new militias prevent attacks, kidnappings and infiltration by rebel sleeper cells.

But some residents fear the militias are bringing the war inside the Old City's bubble of relative security, creating a military target where there was none, projecting a new threat to those who dissent and empowering gunmen who, some say, have harassed merchants and residents.

"Once you give a man a gun, you will never get it back," said an Old City merchant who supports the uprising and, like many people interviewed, declined to be identified for his safety.

Across Syria, the militias have been one of the chief controversies of a war that has killed more than 100,000 people. Early in the uprising against Mr. Assad, pro-government gangs known as shabiha attacked demonstrators. As the protest movement became an armed conflict, pro-government militias expanded, fighting alongside security forces, and were accused of massacring civilians and of intimidating even government supporters.

Over the past year, the government has sought to formalize the militias under a structure called the National Defense Forces. Mr. Lotof and several government officials said they were now being armed and registered under the direct control of Mr. Assad's presidential office. The goal, Mr. Lotof said, is to curb abuses and tap Syrians who are unwilling to serve in faraway provinces but who want to defend their own neighborhoods.

Some militias sprang up spontaneously to defend neighborhoods, he said. "Some of them started to do bad things," he said. "So they are being organized."

Mr. Lotof and others close to the government confirmed what the rebels and American officials have long said: Mr. Assad's allies Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah are providing training and logistical support for the militias.

For critics, the support of those Shiite entities has bolstered a view that the militias are sectarian, pitting members of the president's Alawite sect -- an offshoot of Shiism -- as well as members of Syria's much smaller Shiite minority against the mostly Sunni uprising.

Mr. Lotof, however, said that groups from different sects had signed up to defend against rebels they view as sectarian extremists and criminals. Indeed, several Sunnis whom Mr. Lotof had helped release from jail said they had recanted pro-opposition views that had landed them there, formed a militia with Mr. Lotof's help, and were now armed and patrolling a Sunni enclave of the Old City.

Nowhere does that debate carry higher stakes than in the Old City, where for centuries Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and, until recent decades, a sizable community of Jews lived and worked together in a vibrant symbol of Syrian coexistence. Residents of a wide range of sects and political beliefs share a desire to preserve its landmarks and diversity, even if they disagree on the methods.

They fear the example of Aleppo's Old City in the north, where centuries-old mosques and markets have been destroyed in the fighting.

They fear the bombings that have targeted parts of downtown Damascus, just blocks away, and the shells that have occasionally hit the Old City.

And they fear a growing wave of kidnappings that have ensnared residents on trips outside the enclave; Christians and Shiites believe they are particular targets.

Mr. Lotof, 42, a Shiite Syrian-American, said he left behind his businesses in New Jersey -- a Domino's Pizza franchise and an Arabic-language newspaper -- to take on a striking combination of roles here. He not only hands out weapons, he also runs the Old City's government-sponsored reconciliation committee, billed as a venue for citizens to bring problems directly to municipal officials and to smooth community relations.

In that role, he and residents said, he has helped ransom dozens of kidnapped Shiites and brokered deals to release Sunnis jailed on charges of supporting the uprising.

But skeptical residents say that the committee seems to be more about consolidating support for the government and that government critics have not been invited.

At a recent committee meeting in the Ottoman palace that serves as the Old City's administrative offices, many committee members appeared to be militia members, and the main topic was security.

One militia leader complained that one of his men had been beaten by security officers, accused of insulting the president and dragged away.

"I'm protecting my community and my neighborhood," he said. "Security people come in and beat my guys. Why?"

Sitting under a portrait of Mr. Assad, Mr. Lotof said he would check on the case -- maybe the gunman was guilty, he said -- and promised better coordination with the government.

Another afternoon, a half-dozen Shiite and Christian residents of the Old City packed Mr. Lotof's office to request weapons for new militias.

Unlike militias in contested areas, those in the Old City appear to have played a little military role so far beyond staffing checkpoints and reporting into their walkie-talkies on the movements of strangers. But their presence responds, and contributes, to a new atmosphere of wariness.

On Mr. Lotof's nighttime tour, five bodyguards flanked him, eyeing the minarets and balconies above the narrow streets. The silence was broken only by the click of their heels and the occasional crack of outgoing mortar shells followed by a heavy thud as they landed in rebel neighborhoods.

Along the Old City's most storied thoroughfare, mentioned in the Bible as "the street called Straight," they came to a tiny park. Once frequented by whispering couples, it was now occupied by middle-aged Christian businessmen with rifles.

"We are peaceful people," said Toufiq Isra, 40, a contractor whose dress shirt seemed out of place in his sandbag shelter. "We reject carrying weapons, but we don't have any options."

In an apartment draped with philodendrons in the nearby Shiite quarter, Bassem Wehbe described why the militia was needed. A Sunni gang had kidnapped him from his nearby grocery store, he said, taunted him with sectarian slogans and chopped off his finger with an ax. His finger still bandaged, he played a video of the act that the captors had sent to his family.

He said he tried to reason with his captors -- who he believed were Syrians influenced by televised sermons of radical clerics in Saudi Arabia -- telling them of the Sunni-Shiite mixed marriages and business dealings common in the Old City.

"They said, 'No, this period is over,' " Mr. Wehbe said. "Is it possible we were in this country?"

A few days later, Christians packed the Street Called Straight, carrying the coffin of a man killed by kidnappers to a nearby church.

Watching was one of the militiamen from the park, who had said earlier that he joined only to protect the neighborhood. Now, he said he would happily deploy to fight rebels in the suburbs.

"The best way to defend," said another militiaman, "is to attack."

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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