Sunday, December 23, 2007


After my visit to Syria (see Blog) I made my way through the north end of Lebanon and down to Beirut. It didn't take long to figure out that everyone here seemed to be a bit nervous and the security was high.

In 1975, civil war broke out in Lebanon lasting until 1990, devastating the country's economy, and resulting in the massive loss of human life. During this time, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) used Lebanon to launch attacks against Israel. Lebanon was twice invaded and occupied by the Israel Defense Forces and the PLO was expelled. Israel remained in control of Southern Lebanon until 2000, when there was a general decision to withdraw due to continuous guerrilla attacks executed by Hezbollah militants. The UN determined that the withdrawal of Israeli troops beyond the blue line was in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 425, although a border region called the Shebaa Farms is still disputed.

On February 14, 2005, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a car bomb explosion near the Saint George Bay in Beirut. The Lebanese accused Syria of the attack due to its extensive military and intelligence presence in Lebanon. Syrian officials claimed that the assassination may have been executed by the American CIA or the Israeli Mossad in an attempt to destabilize the country. This incident triggered a series of demonstrations, known as Cedar Revolution, demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the establishment of an international commission to investigate the assassination of Rafik Hariri. The UN Security Council launched an investigation and published the findings in the Mehlis Report (see Wikipedia Article) on October 20, 2005. It found that high-ranking members of the Syrian and Lebanese governments were involved in the assassination.

Eventually, and under pressure from the international community, Syria began withdrawing its 15,000-strong army troops from Lebanon. The Hariri assassination marked the beginning of a series of assassination attempts that led to the loss of many prominent Lebanese figures. On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and that led to a conflict, known in Lebanon as July War, that lasted until a United Nations-brokered ceasefire went into effect on 14 August 2006.

In May of 2007 Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese Armed Forces began a series of attacks and bombings in and near Beirut. The Islamist Fatah al-Islam group is alleged to have links with al-Qaeda and Lebanese government officials also believe it has ties to Syrian intelligence. There have been more than a dozen mysterious assassinations of outspoken critics of the strong role that Syria plays inside Lebanon. To make things worse, a few weeks before I arrived there was a recent deadlock in the Presidential elections. The country was currently under military lockdown.

I spent much of my time in Lebanon going through checkpoints and border patrols but I did have a chance to visit some of the local attractions and get know to some locals. Many Lebanese are opposed to both of the Presidential candidates, saying that they were puppets of Syria and the United States.

For the most part Lebanon is very westernized and modern. Most people speak English and at times I forgot where I was. It's in a beautiful part of the Middle East running along the Mediterranean Coast filled with mountains and ski resorts.

After Lebanon I tried going back through the Syrian border and into Jordan but was denied entry and ended up taking a flight into Jordan (see Jordan Blog).

Monday, December 17, 2007


Syria was a bit hard to get into as an American but well worth it. My first point of entry was from the Turkish border (see Turkey Blog) where I spent many hours waiting for approval from Damascus. On my second attempt I was coming from Lebanon (next blog) and ended up spending the night (see pics below) waiting for approval. This proved to be an interesting experience because there was a 24 hour period where I was literally 'nowhere' and since I was ultimately denied entry into Syria I did not have an exit stamp. So there was a hassle going back through the Lebanon side. They asked where I had been for the last 24 hours and I didn't know what to tell them. Luckily I was traveling with a British guy who spoke Arabic and they gave me 48 hours to get a flight out and into Jordan.

Archaeologists have demonstrated that the civilization in Syria was one of the most ancient on earth (see Wikipedia Article) and can trace its roots to the fourth millennium BC. Many of the cities are the oldest in the world including Damascus and Aleppo which rank 3rd and 4th 'oldest continuously inhabited cities' (see Wikipedia Article). In the Roman period, the great city of Antioch was the capital of Syria (one of the largest cities in the world at the time) and one of the major centers of trade and industry in the ancient world. This, along with its vast wealth, made Syria, in its heyday, one of the most important of the Roman provinces.

In 1948, Syria was involved in the Arab-Israeli War, intervening on the side of the Palestinians and attempting to prevent the establishment of Israel. The Syrian army was pressed out of most of the Israel area, but fortified their strongholds on the Golan Heights and managed to keep their old borders and some additional territory until it was converted to demilitarized zones under UN supervision. But then it was gradually seized by Israel and the status of these territories have proved a stumbling-block for Syrian-Israeli negotiations. The international community and the United Nations see the Golan Heights as Syrian lands occupied and illegally annexed by Israel. In 1973, Syria tried to regain control of the Golan Heights in a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Despite initial Syrian advances and heavy Israeli losses, the Golan Heights remained in Israeli hands after a successful Israeli counter attack. Syria and Israel signed an armistice agreement in 1974, and a United Nations observer force was stationed there. Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, although the Syrian government continues to demand the return of this territory, possibly in the context of a peace treaty.

On October 5, 2003, Israel bombed a site near Damascus, charging it was a terrorist training facility for members of Islamic Jihad. Islamic Jihad said the camp was not in use; Syria said the attack was on a civilian area. The Israeli action was widely condemned. The German Chancellor said it "cannot be accepted" and the French Foreign Ministry said "The Israeli operation… constituted an unacceptable violation of international law and sovereignty rules." The Spanish UN Ambassador Inocencio Arias called it an attack of "extreme gravity" and "a clear violation of international law." However, the United States moved closer to imposing sanctions on Syria, following the adoption of the Syria Accountability Act by the House of Representatives International Relations committee and George W Bush has branded Syria and a 'rogue state' and criticized its support of Hezbollah (see Wikipedia Article) and turning a blind eye to movements of the Iraqi insurgents.

Here is a direct quote from the LP guide that I was using "Contrary to what the US State Dept may want the world to think, Syria is not populated by terrorists, zealots, etc and are in fact among the most friendly and hospitable people in the world…" After a few weeks in the country I could not agree more. Syrians are very helpful and always inviting you in for tea and snacks. Syria has a population of 20 million 90% of which are Muslim. Syrian food mostly consists of Southern Mediterranean, Greek, and Middle Eastern dishes. Some Syrian dishes also evolved from Turkish and French cooking.