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Both Mahmoud and the General talked about Israel while being careful to distinguish between Jews and the Israeli state, a state they regard as a form of Western neo-colonialism. It’s a view that many Arabs espouse.
Most of the Syrians I encountered spoke about the injustices faced by their Palestinian brothers and expressed frustration about the geopolitics of Israel and Iran. In their view, the Iran-Israel face-off limits the West’s ability to intervene in Syria on their behalf. Interestingly, however, I found some consensus among the rebels that Israel is the country that will intervene militarily to their benefit when — or if —Assad moves or uses his cache of chemical weapons against the opposition.
“Of course we’re most worried about this,,” Mahmoud said, referring to the possibility that the government could deploy chemical weapons. His leg trembled as he spoke. “After seeing how [Assad] has targeted hospitals and schools, and what the shabiha [pro-Assad militias] have done in the villages, we’re not being paranoid.”
“Israel is and should be concerned about the chemical weapons getting into the wrong hands,” the General added. “So if [Assad] moves on us with them, Israel will get involved.”
Israel came into play in other ways when the Syrian rebels analyzed their situation. Khaled, a car salesman-turned-FSA-gunrunner after Assad shelled his garage, vented about the steady flow of foreign fighters and the growing influence of Muslim fundamentalists known as Salafists within the FSA ranks. A secular Syrian from the Aleppine countryside, Khaled spoke of religious fighters from Afghanistan, Chechnya and the Gulf, and even a handful from the West infiltrating the opposition’s struggle. He explained that they come with much needed funds for the opposition but espouse aims and values different from the majority of FSA fighters.
“We’re fighting against a psychotic dictator who forbids democracy and now wants to kill us all,” Khaled explained. “The foreign fighters. They’re using our struggle to get closer to Jerusalem.”
Of course, aside from such snippets of commentary, Israel and the Jewish community of Aleppo’s past are far from the minds of most Syrians these days. They are busy discussing Assad’s savagery, the FSA’s latest gains, their discontent with President Obama and their hopes and fears for Free Syria.
“We all know that the Jews are our not-very-distant brothers, but sometimes that’s who you get along with the least, the group you’re most similar with,” the General reflected, exhaling a hit from his shisha. “History is repeating itself now in Aleppo, this time with the Alawis [Muslims] attacking us. I guess it gets uglier the closer you are to your enemy.”
Contact Anna Therese Day at firstname.lastname@example.org