Residents to Answer Assad’s Call - Debate higher stakes in the Old City, where for centuries Sunnis, Shiites, Christians &, until recent decades, a sizable community of Jews lived & woed together in a vibrant symbol of Syrian coexistence. Residents of a wide range of sects & poitical beliefs share a desire to preserve its landmarks & diersity, even if they disagree on the methods.
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
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
Mr. Lotof and many other government supporters believe
the new militias prevent attacks, kidnappings and infiltration by rebel sleeper
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
They fear the example of Aleppo’s Old City in the
north, where centuries-old mosques and markets have been destroyed in the
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
“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
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
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