The Road from Damascus

REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes

This annual procession in the village of Saydnaya, not far from the Syrian capital, Damascus, usually celebrates Christ’s resurrection.


But tonight, Orthodox Christian children are marching in protest at Israeli attacks in neighbouring Lebanon. Even in this largely Christian community there’s great sympathy for Hezbollah.

GREEK ORTHODOX BISHOP, (Translation): “I say that now in Lebanon… Lebanon today is finished. It’s on the ground. Ruined. A scorched land. Anybody who’s treated unfairly will join the resistance.

Last year the international community forced Syria to withdraw its armed forces from Lebanon, But now Mohammed Habash, an independent member of parliament, says most Syrians support a return to Lebanon.

MOHAMMED HABASH: Our people will agree with the government to send the army to Lebanon, but not to attack Hezbollah, but to make harmony, to make match with Hezbollah, and to attack Israel – this is the idea of everyone here in the Middle East.

MOHAMMED HABASH, SERMON (Translation): “This, my brothers, is the hour of jihad God has prescribed for the faithful. You are being called upon. Some of you will flee, some will be killed and some will go forward until God accomplishes what He has ordained.”

Habash is also the Imam of this mosque in central Damascus. He says his call for jihad is not irresponsible.

MOHAMMED HABASH: 1,000 Friday ceremony speeches, cannot create more jihadis, unlike what Israel did. Israel created more jihadis now than any mosque in the Islamic world.

Just a few hours after Friday prayers, Syrians heard news that would further inflame anti-Israeli feeling. An Israeli air raid in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley had killed at least 33 farm workers and 26 were Syrian. Israel said its air force hit buildings that Hezbollah was using to store weapons. Footage of the scene showed the dead bodies lying in an orchard, with baskets and fruit strewn all around.

The next day I travelled to the city of Homs – just across the border from where the attack took place in Lebanon. Inside the hospital, through my translator Nawarah, doctors described the carnage.

DOCTOR (Translation): Among them are six women workers, very few bodies were identified, the rest of the casualties are just torn bodies.

Survivors of the bombing told me they were loading apples and peaches onto a truck when the attack happened. Most of those who were killed were eating lunch inside a nearby farm building.

NAWARAH, TRANSLATOR: They bombarded two times, and the time separating the bombarding is two minutes, 10 minutes.

REPORTER: Could the Israelis have made an honest mistake, do you think? Or not?

NAWARAH, TRANSLATOR: He’s saying that it’s not done by mistake, they know we are workers, they know we are civilians and they did it on purpose – I think they planned it a day earlier, I mean they know there’s nothing around – we are mere workers.

According to another survivor – the farm’s petrol tanker was also targeted, leaving many with horrible burn injuries.

NAWARAH, TRANSLATOR: They hit exactly the oil tanker – they wanted it to explode, and he’s showing him the injuries he suffered.

At the hospital, we found the Greek Catholic Archbishop of Homs, Isidor Bathikha, visiting the wounded – all of whom were Muslim.

ISIDOR BATHIKHA, ARCHBISHOP OF HOMS: After what is happened now between Israel and Hezbollah – I saw that all our people, Christian or Muslim, all with Hezbollah – there is more sympathy for Hezbollah.

In another hospital, I find two more Syrian victims of the war in Lebanon. These young boys, aged 5 and 10, were the only survivors of another Israeli air strike in the Bekaa Valley a week ago. The rest of their family was wiped out in the bombing.

NAWARAH, TRANSLATOR: They were staying in tents there, they were hit when the Israelis were bombarding that area. He’s saying nine people were living there but the only two survivors were the two kids we’ve seen here.

Doctors here say they’ve been receiving a steady flow of Syrian victims from across the border.

NAWARAH, TRANSLATOR: And actually, we are used to the Israeli crimes – assaulting our citizens, including senior citizens, our hospital, taking into consideration it’s nearby the border. We’re always ready to receive these cases.

The war is on Syria’s doorstep and the government says it’s ready for any escalation of the conflict. State television constantly broadcasts footage demonstrating Syria’s military readiness for war. President Bashar Assad has placed the army on high alert and sent extra troops to its border with Israel on the Golan Heights. Israel occupied the Golan Heights after it was attacked by Syria during the Six Day War of 1967.

100,000 people fled the fighting – but tens of thousands of Syrians were left behind – splitting families and spreading deep resentment.

MEDHAT SALEH, GOLAN LIBERATION COMMITTEE (Translation): From here we can see the occupied village of Majdal Shams, which is my village.

From his house on a hilltop, just a few hundred metres from the Israeli border, Medhat Saleh feels like he’s under siege.

MEDHAT SALEH (Translation): And here you can see the Israeli observation post. This observation post monitors our every movement.

Syria won’t recognise Israel’s right to exist unless the Golan Heights are returned. But, at the moment, Israel is under no pressure to make any concessions. Meanwhile Saleh, who spent 12 years in an Israeli prison for attacking military patrols, wants to take matters into his own hands.

The Chairman of the People’s Committee for the Liberation of the Golan, he says it’s time to take a leaf out of Hezbollah’s book and set up an armed militia to attack Israel.

MEDHAT SALEH (Translation): There has been popular demand for the liberation of the Golan Heights. The Syrian people are willing to sacrifice and carry out resistance operations against the occupation.

It’s more than likely the Syrian regime has authorised Saleh’s fighting words. But Parliamentarian Mohamed Habash warns that the desire to strike back at Israel runs deep.

MOHAMED HABASH: Our people are ready to make something through this kind of front and this is the time to help our people in Lebanon by this way.

Despite all the rhetoric, Syria knows it is unlikely to win a war with Israel, but it wants to send a message to the world – there can be no settlement in Lebanon without Syria.