Late one night, the streets of Damascus were unusually calm when without any notice or a single sound, all the windows and doors of the house were flung open. For a fleeting moment, I thought I was in the midst of the Hollywood horror film I was watching – half expecting a ghoulish figure to suddenly appear at the door. I was jolted out of this fantasy when two seconds later a huge explosion shattered the glass in the window next to me, and I watched myself fly across the room from my sofa and hurled onto the floor as the whole building shook to its foundations.
The capital's night sky lit-up, shining bright as if a sleep-walking sun had been roused from its sleep. Three explosions in quick succession were enough to make breathing heavy and difficult as the air filled with the stench of dynamite. Frightened residents of the neighbourhood scattered out onto the streets. Rumours quickly started circulating that chemical weapons had been used – the fear and panic was tangible. For half an hour or so, the wails of people screaming and ambulance sirens rang in my ears.
We couldn't know what had really happened until the morning when news broke that Israel had attacked Mount Qasyoun whose south face houses much of Damascus' population (it is also where the romantically inclined used to go to capture the panoramic vistas of the city ) and the countryside district of Jimraya.
On Sunday morning 5/5/2013: The streets of Damascus were almost empty of people and transportation – the day before a national holiday celebrating martyrs’ day! Roads leading in and out of the capital were closed to traffic and Syrians waited to see what the official response would be to this most recent violation of national sovereignty by Israel. As to be expected, a disappointing and humiliating response came by way of the Minister of Information who announced that the regime considered the strikes to be a “threat”, “a declaration of war” which “next time” would “not pass without a response”!! There were no official statements issued by the Israelis, but intelligence leaks confirmed that the strike had targeted a convoy of “high grade” weapons destined for al-Assad's ally in Lebanon – Hezbollah.
Whatever the reality of what happened that night, there are two points on which everyone is agreed. First, what took place was a hostile act and violation of Syrian national sovereignty. Second, around two hundred Syrian soldiers may have been killed and scores wounded – a fact which the Syrian authorities have not admitted –maybe - for fear of reaction on the street, downplaying the casualties to 42 deaths.
Sunday afternoon and the fall-out to the night's event become clearer. Everyone seemingly has different views on the regime's reaction or lack of one. Heba, a state employee and an ardent supporter of Bashar al-Assad believed it was sufficient that Israel had sought to strengthen its border defences in the occupied Golan Heights. This, she read as being a sign that Israel was “frightened” of a Syrian response and that “if the government wanted to respond” it would be capable of delivering a painful blow. In contrast, other erstwhile regime loyalists have taken a stand against the government position - they view the lack of a response by the government as wasting a valuable opportunity to restore national dignity.
Reactions such as these may have been expected from regime supporters. However, what is interesting to note and surprising to some extent are the expressions of joy and support by some opposition activists and armed faction at the Israeli strikes. Qasim, a fighter from one of the FSA brigades in the Damascus countryside not only could not hide his happiness at the strikes but also wished to see a repetition in the near future: “We have had to face armed soldiers and bombardments which have killed our children. It's only natural that I support the Israeli attack. I only hope that they come back soon so that we might tip the balance of power on the ground in our favour and bring down this regime". When I asked him whether he thought the strikes were a breach of national sovereignty, he told me: “We have long passed the point where we talk about defending the homeland. Now we are defending ourselves against daily atrocities and massacres". Such opinions are not limited only to fighters on the ground but is also reflected in the waves of analysis and comments left on message boards of social networking sites by non-armed opposition activists, both at home and abroad.
Here, I would like to take the opportunity to compare recent reactions with the events of 22 June 2012 when Syrian armed forces shot down two Turkish fighter jets as they attempted to violate Syrian air-space. At the time I wrote an article for openDemocracy which referred to the almost unanimous condemnation of the violation of national sovereignty across the political spectrum inside Syria. For many, such an act was considered hostile and a red line.
It has been less than a year since that incident and we find that the notion of a 'Syrian' national sentiment has been decimated. A year of living through a war which has transitioned to an unprecedented level of killing and massacres in this country has seen to a fracturing and fractioning of Syrian identity.
Last November I had spoken to Muhammad al-Khatib, a commander of al-Furqan brigades which operates in rural Damascus. Al-Khatib at the time had told me that preserving national sovereignty was a key priority of the many different militias fighting against the al-Assad regime. Following this apparent shift in opinion from the street and the opposition on the principle of national sovereignty and foreign intervention, I re-opened my discussion with him:
“As is the case for many battalion commanders, national sovereignty continues to be one of my basic priorities. Only now, the difference is clear in our abilities to control the desire on the part of our fighters to avenge the lives of their brothers and friends who have been killed in battle or have been detained by the regime's security apparatus. They are disappointed, feel abandoned and are looking for any opportunity to bring an end to this conflict – to bring down the regime, even if this means that Israel violates national sovereignty. This has been a long war and we have lost much”.
It may be the right of every Syrian to wish to see the conflict end at any price, but the use of foreign forces or military air-strikes cannot be the best way to go about it. In fact, such a solution will only serve to take the conflict to another level.
Moreover, the war will not come to an end through foreign military intervention, because the conflict is not only a military one but also an ideological and class battle. This war can only come to an end through an understanding of the different currents in Syria and a political will to put aside arms.
This may seem a distant goal - virtually impossible given the current state of affairs, but abandoning the principle of an integral Syria underpinned by national sovereignty may spell the beginning of the end. The end of the idea of Syria and the beginning of a systematic dismantling of what it means to be Syrian.
Thousands thanks to Tahir Zaman for translating this article