United Against the U.S., Israel

Times Staff Writer

One of the hottest-selling items in Mustafa Hahel’s shop here off Baghdad Street is a poster showing the leaders of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah side by side, smiling pleasantly and surrounded by roses and daffodils. Portraits of the founder of Hamas are on sale just down the road.

“This is one country, Syria and Lebanon, and as for Iran, how can the average person be anything but grateful to Iran for supporting the resistance?” said Hahel, whose business lies outside one of the most famous shrines in Shiite Islam, the mosque of Sayeda Zainab.

If there is a crossroads for the Middle East’s axis of fundamentalist Shiites, hard-line Sunnis and Arab nationalists, it must be in this dusty, gridlocked suburb of Damascus. Angrily dispossessed people have landed in succession from the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Iran and southern Lebanon, whose residents have been arriving dazed and tearful by the car- and busload for days.

There is broad opposition to the U.S. and Israel across the Middle East. But the resistance heroes, radical clerics and rogue heads of state dear to the residents of Sayeda Zainab include the late Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian leader Bashar Assad. They are the figureheads of an increasingly powerful alliance aimed at countering U.S. and Israeli policy.


“We are different in every single scope in this community,” said Wasef Mahmoud, a 31-year-old Palestinian whose family left northern Israel after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948. “But we have one thing in common: Israel is against us, and we are against Israel.”

They are against the United States too. At a religious school housing Lebanon refugees, an American’s brief query Wednesday was met with angry shouts and a plea from the proprietor to leave as quickly as possible to avoid trouble.

“Death to America!” three men shouted, rushing at the door before being pulled back. “We hate you!”

Many Lebanese, who pressed Syria to withdraw from their country last year, would disagree with Hahel’s characterization of Lebanon and Syria as one country. But it was Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 that first sent Shiite Lebanese fleeing toward the ornate mosaic and silver-spangled shrine here dedicated to the prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter. Many of them subsequently returned home.

Palestinians had already set up a small refugee town here, as had Syrians who fled the Golan Heights when Israel captured it in 1967. Iranians ousted from Iraq by Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war flooded in when Iran wouldn’t take them back. A wave of Iraqi refugees arrived after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. And now the Lebanese are coming again.

Syria’s secular regime, governing a nation of mainly Sunni Muslims, forged a friendship with Shiite Iran years ago based on their mutual antagonism toward Hussein. Hezbollah and Hamas come from entirely separate schools of Islamic theology, but the two found common cause in their hatred of Israel.

Now all four are united in a program whose ultimate goal is ejecting Israel from at least the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Lebanon, undermining pro-Western Arab governments.

Analysts here say a key factor in solidifying the partnership was the current war in Iraq, which not only raised fears among pro-Western Sunni Arab leaders that Shiites were gaining power, but also provided a successful model for long-running guerrilla warfare against the U.S.

“The insurgency in Iraq was able up to this moment to stand against the United States Army. And this has taught a lesson to the others. It has changed the whole equation in the Middle East,” said Nabil Samman, head of the Center for Research and Documentation, a Damascus think tank.

“We’re not talking about open war with the United States. We’re not adventurists. We know very well our limitations,” said Mohammed Habash, an independent member of parliament and director of the Islamic Studies Center in the Syrian capital.

“But we believe there are more tools than this kind of war in the Middle East,” he said. “It’s not a secret to tell you that there are a lot in Syria who have a desire to work in the sphere of resistance, to fight.”

A previously unheard-of group calling itself the National Popular Coalition for the Liberation of the Golan Heights issued a statement last week “calling to open the door for volunteers in the resistance movement to defend our land.”

“We have no doubt now that resistance is the only way to get back our Arab rights,” it said.

Analysts say the Iraq war also played a part in pushing Syria closer to Iran. Moderate Arab governments became worried about the rising influence of Shiite Islam after the Iraqi elections, at the same time that they were becoming alarmed about Iran’s nuclear program.

“The Arab countries, with Iran having its nuclear plans, sort of tried to make Syria choose between Iran and them,” said Georges Jabbour, a legislator from the ruling Baath Party and an advisor to the late Syrian President Hafez Assad, father of the current head of state.

“But Syria was aware of the importance of the Iranian role in the region even before the Islamic Revolution” of 1979, he said. The elder Assad, he said, “was a strategist, he was a military man. He looked at the map and saw that Iran had a very big place on the map.”

Some Syrians say they’ve been waiting decades for the kinds of apocalyptic pronouncements Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, has made against Israel.

“Ahmadinejad is a good man, because he wants to get rid of Israel,” said Hahel, at the poster shop. “For Muslims, there is a promise that the state of Israel will not survive. If not now, then 100 years from now. This is God’s promise to the Muslims.”

The Iranians have helped restore the shrine here in Sayeda Zainab and are handing out alms to Lebanese who arrive.

A few blocks away, the Persian on the street signs gives way to Arabic. Vendors selling fat tomatoes and lamb stuffed with parsley have Iraqi accents. But the words are the same.

“The Americans want to make it a Crusaders-Muslim war, and if it keeps going like this, they will get one,” said Abu Jaffar, an unemployed Iraqi musician who gathers daily with other displaced Iraqis, including several former soldiers in Hussein’s army, to drink lemon-lime sodas on Baghdad Street.

“With what’s going on in Lebanon, I can tell you that all the Arabs are supporters of Hezbollah,” he said. “Because they are Muslims.”