THIS CITY USED to be so bounteous and verdant that, according to tradition, when the prophet Muhammad looked down upon it from the heights of Mt. Qassioun, he refused to come into Damascus, for one could enter paradise only once. Now one of the world's oldest cities is ripe with yellow Hezbollah flags. Posters of Hezbollah's General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah are hanging even along the narrow alleyways of the Christian Quarter in the Old City, but then again, supporting the Shiite terrorists in south Lebanon costs the Syrian people about as much as it costs their government—so far, absolutely nothing.
On the way to Damascus from Beirut, my Syrian driver Ali had several pictures of Nasrallah taped to the inside of the car. Ali is a Shiite, but he's not part of the Lebanese community that is paying a steep price for the conflict its leadership touched off when Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers and killed eight more two weeks ago. Ali's most pressing concern here in Syria is not Lebanon or even Israel, but Sunni extremists, whom he fears and despises for their regional campaign against Shiites. Like many Shiites, Ali celebrated when Zarqawi, the Sunni leader of the al Qaeda insurgency in Iraq, was killed.
It is true that Nasrallah, a Shiite hero, is responsible for a sum total of death and destruction rapidly approaching what Zarqawi, the Shiite nemesis, inflicted on this Middle Eastern minority. But that is not a calculation most ordinary Shiites are ever likely to make. Shiites are supposed to suffer, and some of the greatest figures in their history, like Ali and Hussein, led disastrous military campaigns; Hussein's martyrdom at the battle of Karbala is still celebrated today during the Ashura festival. Why some members of Israel's leadership apparently believe that the Shiites will eventually turn on Nasrallah for his miscal culated campaign is a mystery almost as great as the occlusion of the twelfth imam.
On one level, my driver Ali's affection for Hezbollah is sectarian—it is the organization that has let Shiites across the Middle East hold their heads high, higher even than Sunnis, since Hezbollah has been willing to fight Israel at the drop of a hat. And yet, on another level, people like Ali, including Syrian Christians and other Arabs throughout the Middle East, love Nasrallah for more purely political reasons. That is, anyone who stands up to Israel or the West is a "resistance" fighter. One of the more interesting, and telling, features of Arab politics is that figures like Nasrallah and Zarqawi, divided by sectarian enmity, are both still regarded as heroic "resistance" figures—so long as they are fighting Israel or the West.
I'm sitting in a Damascus restaurant with Dalia, a 25-year-old television producer who loves the resistance—all resistance. "If you think that the U.S. or anyone can offer the Syrian government a deal to abandon its support for Nasrallah and Khaled Meshal, you are crazy, because all Syrians support the resistance. They are fighting Israel." Dalia seems surprised or embarrassed when I point out that at least two-thirds of Lebanon do not like the resistance at all right now and are furious with Nasrallah for bringing destruction to their country. Why, I ask her, are Syrians cheering on a fight that so many Lebanese never wanted? She changes the subject. "Today I went to the camps where Lebanese refugees are arriving, and I was proud that even wealthy Syrians have been going down to help." In other words, Lebanese suffering is an opportunity for Syrian munificence.
In the year and a half since the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from their country, the Lebanese political class and ordinary citizens alike have pointedly ignored their country's problems, including corruption and likely complicity in Syria's plot to kill Hariri. They lay blame for everything at the feet of their next-door neighbors. There are many Lebanese who hate not just Bashar Assad's regime, but ordinary Syrians as well.
And here in Damascus on a Thursday night, where young Syrians are packed together in their expensive cars, flying their yellow Hezbollah flags, blasting resistance music, and shouting martial slogans to other passersby who shout back in loud agreement, it is clear that the regime and the people are in perfect sync. Bashar Assad, along with the Islamic Republic of Iran, is one of Hezbollah's masters, and now all of Lebanon is dancing to the tune of "resistance" that the Syrian people require of their neighbors. Let all of Lebanon bleed if it must, someone else is taking on the Jews and we here, proud to live in one of the oldest cities in the world, are safe and happy, as if it were a Syrian national holiday.
But why exactly are Arabs so enamored of resistance? The word in Arabic is muqawama, and as in English the idea indicates reaction, and thus suggests an original grievance that inspired resistance. In the 20th century the Ottoman Empire, then the West, and later Israel, was the Arab world's first cause and prime mover. There was resistance long before Nasrallah and Hamas and all the earlier Palestinian groups, and even before Nasser; in fact, at least as far back as 1928, when Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood, there was resistance.
And it is not just fighting. Resistance is the touchstone of Arab political discourse with the outside world. (There is no political discourse among Arabs themselves, because it is too dangerous.) Of course, resistance is extremist discourse, and it is insatiable; it is a struggle against something that seems to threaten life itself, and so the only solution is to obliterate the other. Hence, it is very difficult to imagine what comes after resistance. Maybe there is peace when there is no one left who has to be accommodated.
Dalia told me that she had recently met Meshal—the Hamas leader who hides from Israel in Damascus—and she was impressed but saw no way that he could implement his plan to get rid of Israel. Dalia is 100 percent with the program, but prefers Nasrallah, because he seems more pragmatic. It is strange to look in the eyes of an attractive young woman and find her intense with the same bitter calculations that motivate the Meshals and Nasrallahs.
"The Roman empire did not last forever," Dalia said. "There is no reason to believe that Israel will. It should have never existed to begin with, and all Arabs believe that it will be wiped out."
I pointed out that eliminationism is a very risky gambit. If your politics are geared toward destroying another, then it is possible they will eliminate you first. The Syrian people are so giddy with resistance and so removed from the rest of the world, never mind the war in Lebanon, that they do not seem to recognize the possible consequences of the awful pact that their resistance-minded government has signed them up for. If Hezbollah is fighting for Syria and Iran, why are they so sure they won't end up themselves fighting for Hezbollah—or for Iran? In Syria at least it seems resistance is something the other guy does for you.
This article appeared in The Weekly Standard on July 31, 2006.