In the mountain village of Majdal Shams, rickety wagons bring in today’s crop from the apple orchards and life moves to a rhythm of strained calm.
Forty miles from Damascus, within earshot of the bloody battles raging just over the ceasefire line, the deeply rooted harmony of the Druze in the Israeli-held Golan Heights is splintering.
At the outset of the civil war last year, Golani Druze displayed wide support for the secular, ruling Baath party, which vows to return the Golan Heights to Syria proper but, now, fierce debates prove that the anti-Assad current here is gaining momentum.
Dissident organiser Salman Fakher-Aldeen says clashes between the two groups have recently turned violent. Members of his group have been subject to escalating threats by pro-Assad thugs. “Syria today is ruled by the pig capitalism of the USA and of Israel that does its bidding”, he says.
Though dozens of young Druze have sought Israeli citizenship in recent months, Salman denounces collaboration with Israel. Charged with militant activity against Israel, he “studied” for five years in a central Israeli prison.
Pro or anti-Assad, each side is quick to blame Israel
“We prepare ourselves for a return to Syria, and in the meantime we fight against Israeli occupation,” he declares.
“I don’t have illusions. After Assad falls, there will be chaos, maybe for 10 or 20 years. But we Druze will not fight to move from one dictator to the next… We will wait until the Free Syrian Army beats the external forces.”
The Druze, adherents of a secretive offshoot of Shia Islam, constitute a minority group in the mountainous regions of Israel, Syria and Lebanon.
When Israel offered citizenship to the 20,000 Golani Druze in 1981, many residents refused, worried that association with a Syrian enemy would spur retribution upon return to their homeland.
Nasib Safadi, like most local Druze, carries an Israeli-issued identity card with the “nationality” section crossed out. “We want to go back to Syria — not to the regime, but to the state, to normal life and family,” he says.
His brother Mendi was one of the few young Golani Druze to accept Israeli citizenship and today works as a ministerial bureau chief. He argues that most Druze live a better life in Israel.
“For Druze, it doesn’t matter who is the leader; what is important is to preserve the community,” he says. “A major part of the Golani revolutionaries are students who saw the norms and lack of freedom in Syria, and know that Israel is the door to the West.”
But there are many who view the Assad clan as invincible.
Gandi Kahaloni, owner of the “Pharmacy of the People” in downtown Majdal Shams, sits at his counter dividing his attention between a Syrian government news broadcast and two Facebook pages. He scrolls to the profile picture of the latest “traitor”, a Syrian actress who allegedly spoke out against Assad, and across whose chest has been drawn a bright blue, Jewish star. He then, shaking his head in sorrow, shows me a “good Syrian,” gunned down this week by “the terrorists.”
Gandi studied medicine at Damascus University on a full scholarship from the Syrian government. He insists: “Everything was clean in Syria until the terrorists came in from all the countries, with drugs and criminals.
“If they [the resistance] wanted democracy, would they burn schools and hospitals, would they kill children?”