Intensified shelling on the town of Jibata al-khashab made it virtually impossible to get out to the relative safety of neighbouring villages, and I had to find a place to spend the night. While not far away the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were making bonfires from similar images, at the heart of the guesthouse where FSA members dropped me off, hung a portrait of Bashar al-Assad decked out in military fatigues.
Not far away the FSA are making bonfires from similar images...
Although such an image may not be out of the ordinary in areas of Syria under the control of the regime, in this town it looked out of place. Jibata al-Khashab, located on the Syrian border with the occupied Golan, has been under the control of FSA battalions for the past two months. During this time the town has been subjected to a suffocating siege by Syrian regime forces that surround it on all sides, able to prevent much needed food and fuel supplies from coming in – and amplifying the suffering of its residents.
So I am confused: the very idea of being in the home of a family supporting the regime has got me worried. What is the FSA doing dealing with supporters of the regime? However, my doubts are rapidly dispelled by the hospitality I receive at the hands of the guesthouse owners. Majida, my host, smiles when I ask her about the impact of her pro-regime position on her relations with people who seek refuge in her home. She tells me, "Our homes have always been open to strangers and all those who need our help, this is our upbringing and our traditions and even though our political opinions are not in agreement at all with the opposition, at the end of the day we are all Syrians".
Despite most of her family supporting the regime, Majida and her family have not abandoned their commitment to provincial Syrian traditions and have continued hosting whoever knocks on the door no matter what their political affiliation. The village guest house, in which the portrait of Bashar al-Assad hangs, has welcomed numerous Syrian dissidents fleeing from the oppression of the regime and some wounded FSA fighters. About their relationship with the FSA battalions she tells me: "Even though most members of the FSA in this town come from other parts of Syria – as God is my witness – they have shown only respect and high ethics in their dealings with us. A few spats have broken out, caused by some unruly elements in the town because of long-standing family disagreements. But the FSA stepped in and helped to resolve them".
Abu Diaa, the field commander of the Mu'awiyah bin Abi Sufyan battalion in the al-Furqan brigade of the FSA echoes this concern about community relations in Jibata al-Khashab: "The inhabitants have long lived here as one family and have been able to build a special relationship despite sectarian diversity in the region. We are guests in this town and there will come a time when we have to move on to somewhere else, so we do not want to leave disputes between the people of the region and ruin the civil peace. Even though we captured a number of people who were collaborating with the security and regime forces, we have released them in order to protect the social fabric".
Inhabitants of the Syrian rural areas enjoy a self-sufficiency which is based on the cooperation between residents of its towns and villages in every aspect of their work and everyday life. Sharing lifestyles and dividing work establishes a common culture and a network of close familial relations which characterize rural communities in general. The cohesion of the structure of the rural community has been affected by the tense political situation in different ways and to varying degrees. But interestingly, this structure has strengthened as a cohesive force in areas controlled by the FSA, while it has disintegrated in some other areas that are still under the authority of the regime.
Syrian security forces have followed a policy of arming civilian supporters of the regime, allowing them to form the so-called 'local people's committees'. These committees are granted broad powers in their areas of operation: for example, putting up roadblocks to search people and cars. They have even been granted license to loot houses and act as shabiha. This has created a rift and armed clashes in rural communities between the sons of one district or one village, ending with the deaths of several young men.
While opponents of the regime and activists are chased down by regime forces and subjected to arbitrary arrest and liquidation in areas under regime control, by contrast, regime supporters in areas controlled by the FSA can express their opinions freely. We can even find them sitting in the village guest house sharing jokes and drinking tea in one of the most beautiful scenes of the revolution that I have seen.
In the simple rural community of the town of Jibata al-Khashab - where life is based on agriculture and breeding livestock - residents in cooperation with local battalions of the FSA have managed to find a modus vivendi which allows them to maintain national cohesion and attain a high degree of acceptance of political differences. This gives us a shining example of life after the fall of the regime, if authorities in the future deal realistically with the diversity of Syrian society and respect its differences.
A thousand thanks to Tahir Zaman for translating this article