During a meeting at the Dama Rose hotel in Damascus the other morning this observer was being briefed by ‘Abu Modar” a reputedly battle honed field commander of the “Death Brigade” which is based in the northern Syria Eskanderoun region north of Latakia. Abu Modar explained that he personally had chosen the rather peculiar name for his brigade “Death” to symbolize his militia’s willingness to die for their cause which is protecting Syria. 'Before each battle or each mission I ask my God to let me die defending Syria', he explained:
If we are involved with a joint operation with Hezbollah, who are much admired because of their honesty and trustworthiness, I lead my men to the front line and ahead of Hezbollah troops out of respect for them and because we Syrians believe that as their grateful hosts we have this duty.
As the gentleman was explaining the history of his militia, one of thousands reportedly operating in Syria these troubled days, which included his predecessors fighting with the PLO in Beirut during the summer of 1982, his phone rang. He advised this observer that his "contact" called to tell him that certain intelligence sources had received information overnight that an individual had been observed in the vicinity of Zeinab’s shrine placing a parcel of explosives into a vehicle presumably with the intention to detonate it near her resting place. This riveted my attention, partly because by chance this observer was scheduled to join an army escort the next day and visit the historic site located about 40 minutes south of Damascus.
Nearly two months ago, the government regained control of the site but there are still some snipers around I was advised by friends. Abu Modars specific mission was to take some of his commandos and kick in the door of the suspect’s house sometime during the night and arrest him and turn him over to someone for interrogation. His mission struck me as simple enough and he was matter of fact in outlining his plan.
We do this sort of mission often. This is part of our expertise and we do it whenever we are asked by Resistance friends and Syrian authorities. It spares the army for their normal work on battlefields and our unit is specialized and from long experience we have acquired certain useful skills.
I demurred when Abu Modar invited me to join him, explaining that I was a bit out of shape and did not want to get in the way of his men’s work or in any way mess up their operation. But he insisted saying that I could stay in his jeep and just observe the mission and he doubted that I would be in any serious danger. I was tempted to accept his invitation and agreed to his proposal to meet after lunch to finalize our plans for that nights outing. I called a trusted and knowledgeable Syrian friend who knows a lot about these matters and she seemed exasperated with me that I would even consider tagging along with the Death Brigade: 'Absolutely not Franklin! Khalas! (finish!) You are visiting Seyeda Zeinab bokra with the army and you are not going with anyone else!.
Frankly, I was a bit relieved but my mentor and friend’s unequivocal counsel, and my new pals from the “Death” militia, who knows her, understood. My interpreter said that Abu Modor laughed and claimed a badge of honor when he was recently shown U-tube videos about his macho George Patton style exploits in Qusayr and villages around Qalamoun and rebel claims that he and his brigade were 'the number one pro-regime murderers in Syria.' It should be noted that Abu Modor’s unit, “Death” is part of the, not well known in the West, Popular Front for the Liberation of Iskanderun (PFLI) which is currently fighting rebels north of Latakia in the mountains bordering Turkey and whose forces have also periodically been among units that have spent time guarding the resting place of Zeinab.
References to the geographical place name, “Seyeda Zeinab”, normally a 40 minute drive south from Damascus using the airport road, can be confusing for an untutored foreigner. The reason is that “Seyeda Zeinab” refers both to a group of five small cities, in the Governate of Damascus including, Al Zeyabeya, Hujayr, Husseiniya, Akraba and Babila, and at the same time Sayeda Zeinab refers to the sacred burial place and shrine for Zeinab bint Ali, the daughter of the first Shia Imam, Ali, and his first wife Fatima and the sister of Hussein and Abass of Karbala as well as the granddaughter of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). Her shrine and pilgrimage destination is located in the small town of Seyeda Zeinab but given its fame, the name also refers to a wider area. As a holy shrine and place of prayer and scholarship, one imagines this place to be in the category of perhaps Qoms in Iran and Najaf in Iraq. All three attract thousands of pilgrims, and touorists and since the area surrounding Seyeda Zeinab was liberated and essentially pacified by the Syria army recently and is being protected by its soldiers, visitors are again arriving daily from countries including Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, India, Pakistan and Lebanon, among others.
The Mayor of Seyeda Zeinab, this observer’s gracious host, is Mohammad Barakat, a Sunni engineer from Homs seemingly in his early 50’s. His staff is of mixed religious backgrounds, and as with most Syrian citizens I have met over the past three years, were essentially blind and uninterested in sectarian differences before the current crisis. All the Mayors staff members are working long hours receiving numerous requests for post liberation help which they try their best to accommodate with their limited available resources. During a three hour discussion with Mayor Barakat, perhaps a couple of dozen times an aid would appear to secure his signature or mayoral stamp on citizen petitions that might range from an urgent request for food stuffs, problems with housing or seeking employment with a municipal project now getting started.
In his bee hive of an office, Mayor Barakat used a pointer to highlight locations on a large wall map hanging next to his desk, illustrating area repair and construction projects being readied. Mr. Barakat enthusiastically proclaimed:
2014 is the year we intend to start and finish area restoration work and we take pride in the prospect that what we achieve here in Seyeda Zeinab can be a model for restoration work all over Syria that hopefully can begin soon.
The mayor and three staff members accompanied this observer on an informative and inspiring tour of the Mosque and Shrine of Saeyda Zeinab. The shrine, our hosts informed us, is an example of Shia architecture and the dome is made of pure gold. The grave of Zeinab is enclosed within a raised crypt like structure, centered directly beneath the massive golden dome. The doors of the shrine are apparently also made of pure gold with mirror works on the roof and walls. The minarets and the entrance gate of the holy shrine are covered with Iranian Moarrahg tile designed by the most famous Iranian traditional tile work and architect named Ali Panjehpour. My colleague from the Mayor’s office allowed me to finger one and explained that each 4 x 4 inch, of which there were hundreds of thousands in the complex, cost more than $ 100 USD. There is also a large mosque adjoining the shrine which this observer was advised can accommodate more than 1,300 people and a further 150 in the attached courtyards. The two tall minarets, one of which was damaged by a rebel mortar, dominate the architecture and the large souk on the other side of a newly built security wall.
In the cavernous nave of the Seyeda Zeinab and just next to the beautifully inlaid elevated crypt holding her remains, approximately 50 men were performing mid-day Salat al Duhr prayers. Some were in camouflage uniforms and appeared to be on military leave or from the security units guarding the inside and perimeter of Zeinab’s Shrine.
This observer did not want to awkwardly press his hosts for details about who are who among the armed men guarding Seyeda Zeinab. Some Western media sources have speculated that Shia fighters from Iraq and Lebanon came to Syria to protect Sayeda Zeinab following the desecration in Iraq of the tomb of Hajar Bin Aday. Several sites on the Internet, published reports claiming that a takfiri group exhumed the tomb of Bin Aday, who was one of the most prominent Muslim leaders at the time of the Prophet Muhammad and loyal to Imam Ali bin Abi Talib. His remains were reportedly taken to an unknown location. This observer infers that Hezbollah is currently a prominent presence guarding Seyeda Zeinab and my Syrian companion noted Lebanese accents in the guard station at the entrance.
At the entrance to the women’s area, several women were praying and others appeared to be part of the shrine’s Women’s Auxiliary or Guild as they directed visitors while graciously assisting and providing female visitors with black chadors upon entering this sanctuary. One charming middle age woman who appeared to be Iranian, was smiling knowingly at me and with a twinkle in her eyes, jokingly offered this visiting American a chador as “a gift and souvenir from our Holy Shrine and from our community to take back to your country in appreciation of you not bombing us…yet!” And she laughed at her own joke, as all who heard it did, including the Mayor and some nearby soldiers and teen-aged visiting students.
Update on the capture of the bad person sought by Abu Modar
Well, did Abu Modar and his “Death Brigade” get their man?
They did indeed, and it was the night before this observer’s arrival at Seyeda Zeinab. Abu Modar detailed to this observer and a few of this militia guys the evenings events as we made plans to leave the next morning for the Iskandroun region and an interview the PFLI President, Ali Kyali. But not by kicking in the alleged bad guys door American SWAT TEAM, style. Rather the suspect was stealthily followed and during the early morning of 2/25/14 he was apprehended at one of the Syrian army checkpoints that surround the village of Seyeda Zeinab.
Such incidents make plain that Seyeda Zeinab is still of target of some jihadist types given its great importance to Syria and the region and among Muslims globally. But across sectarian divides here, where there are growing signs of the great majority of the exhausted populations being ready to a degree, to forgive and forget at least some of the events of the past nearly 36 months.
Visiting Seyada Zeinab, these observers, second visit, is a wonderful, solemn, exhilarating and inspiring ecumenical experience. It is highly recommended to all tourists planning to come to the Syrian Arab Republic as improving security conditions begin to allow for the return of international visitors.
May the Sainted Martyr, Zeinab bint Ali, whose life was devoted to charity and to nursing others, and who is a model for all humanity of Resistance and defiance against oppression and all forms of injustice, forever rest in peace.
- Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).