Israeli border village backs Syria's Bashar al-Assad

Something strange has happened in the Golan Heights village of Ghajar: residents who hold Israeli identification vehemently support the leader of a nation that Israel is still at war with. And they feel Bashar al-Assad's chances of survival as Syrian leader are improving.

Golan Heights villagers identify with Syria's embattled president, who's gaining strength

Jamal Silwan lives in Ghajar, a village whose residents largely say they are Israeli while their loyalties lie with Syria. The war in Syria is never far from their minds: 'We hope this will end and there will be peace so everyone can live together – Jews, Muslims and Christians,' Silwan says. (Derek Stoffel/CBC News)

There is a picturesque valley that runs alongside Ghajar in the Gholan Heights, where a small but fast-moving river provides a soothing soundtrack that for a while makes you forget this is one of the most tense international borders in the Middle East.

The village, where the the locals have a tradition of painting their homes in various pastel colours, sits on the junction where three regional rivals converge: Israel, Lebanon and Syria. 

"This is a Syrian village," one of the town’s elderly residents, Syed Silwan, told me. Like everyone in Ghajar, Silwan is Alawite, a Shia Muslim minority centred in Syria. But, like almost everyone else, Silwan holds Israeli identification.

Ghajar sits at the junction of Lebanon, Syria and Israel, with the border running right through its main square. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

This village of 2,500 has a complicated history. When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, the United Nations decided that the international border ran right through Ghajar's main square. Lebanon claims part of the territory, but the residents here feel no allegiance to the government in Beirut. All of those I spoke to on a recent visit say they are Israeli, while their loyalties lie with Syria.

Especially to Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, who is also Alawite. 

Bashar al-Assad's odds of survival growing

So, in Ghajar, something strange has happened: Israeli citizens vehemently support the leader of a nation that Israel is still at war with.

"[Assad] is the most capable leader for Syria. He is strong," Silwan said, as he fingered a set of orange prayer beads.  "God willing, he will survive."

Inside Syria, on both sides of the war that has raged for more than two and a half years, there is a growing acceptance of the reality that Assad's chances of survival are improving.

The United States, Canada and European powers have long called for the Syrian president to step down, to end the conflict, which is estimated to have killed more than 100,000 people and displaced some six million.

But Assad and his regime have turned the tide of nearly two years of advances by rebel forces. Syria's military has retaken key towns, including this week Hejeira, a suburb south of the capital Damascus. Hejeira had been held by the opposition for more than a year.

Syria's main opposition alliance, the National Council, recently softened its position, agreeing to participate in peace talks even while Assad is still in power, something it had steadfastly refused until just a few days ago.

In Ghajar, resident Amin Moussa sees Assad's position strengthening. "He is doing well. He is still in power and these days he is the stronger force."

There aren't many businesses in Ghajar. There's one restaurant, where the specialty is falafel. A lone postman delivers the mail. There’s a mobile phone shop, of course, as staying in touch with the outside world is critical.

'We ask God to finish this war'

Moussa runs the phone shop. His brother studied medicine in Damascus, before returning to practice in Israel. Amin says he considered leaving Ghajar, but choose to stay: this is home, he says.

The Moussas have many relatives still living in Syria. "The war there has made it harder to reach our relatives on the phone," Moussa said while sipping coffee. "Watching this all on TV, it's very, very bad there."

United Nations peacekeepers patrol the frontier between Lebanon, Israel and Syria here. White watch towers rise over the metal fences erected by Israel.

The villagers say the fighting inside Syria is too far away to hear the bombs and mortars exploding. But they know all too well that the war there is dangerous, and shows no sign of ending.

"We ask God to finish this war. Children, old people are dying," said Jamal Silwan, who was born in Ghajar 72 years ago. "We hope this will end and there will be peace so everyone can live together – Jews, Muslims and Christians."

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

CBC News Middle East correspondent

Derek Stoffel, CBC's World News Editor, is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.


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