By Stephen Talbot
FRONTLINE/World series editor
Stephen Talbot in Beirut, Lebanon.
April 12, 2005
We are racing toward the Syrian capital in an ancient and cavernous
bright-yellow Dodge cab, crossing the Lebanese coastal mountains
on winding roads, praying we won't have an accident. The Syrians
and Lebanese drive as if they know deep in their souls that
there is an afterlife. I am not convinced.
Kate Seelye is engaged in conversation, in Arabic, with our
Syrian cab driver, who complains that the political tensions
between Syria and Lebanon are cutting into his business. Cross-border
traffic is down.
Outside it is sunny, but there is snow on the ground. And the
Syrians are in retreat.
The Syrian army intervened in Lebanon's civil war in 1976.
They were given a green light to go in by Washington and Henry
Kissinger who hoped they would restore order in Beirut. At first,
they were welcomed by the Maronite Christians as protectors
who would defend them against radical Palestinians and Lebanese
Muslim militias. But 30 years later, the Christians and many
Muslims, especially the Sunnis and the Druze, want the Syrians
out. "Out, out, out," as the graffiti says on the walls of Beirut.
A convoy of Syrian military trucks departs Lebanon along the mountainous road between Beirut and Damascus. (photo: Haitham Massawi/AFP/Getty Images)
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has promised the Lebanese and
the UN that all of Syria's 15,000 troops will be withdrawn by
April 30. "It is like a dream, especially for my generation,"
Gebran Tueni, the editor of An-Nahar, Beirut's leading
Arabic newspaper, had told us. "We want it to be a reality."
The Syrian military withdrawal does really appear to be happening.
But leaving by April 30 will allow barely enough time for the
Lebanese to organize historic elections by a May 31 deadline.
It is a tense time in Beirut as these deadlines approach. People
are excited, but also wary. A series of car bombs in Christian
neighborhoods has put people on edge. Here in Damascus, people
are also frightened, feeling isolated and under pressure from
the world. "Are we next?" they ask, as we talk in the souk,
the ancient market. "Does Bush want regime change here, too?"
But even ardent nationalists here say they have accepted the
inevitability of Syria's military withdrawal. It even seems
to have improved the image of Bashar Assad, because he has made
a hard decision and is carrying it out.
Many Lebanese feared the Syrian soldiers in their midst. In
downtown Beirut, UN inspectors are touring basement jails in
fancy apartment buildings where Syrian soldiers are said to
have tortured Lebanese prisoners. The secrets are beginning
to be told.
A Syrian soldier on his way to the
Lebanese-Syrian border waves a poster of Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad. (photo: Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images)
But traveling toward Damascus, the retreating Syrian army does not look
fearsome. If the Syrians had withdrawn any time in the past on their own initiative, they might have gone home in triumph. But this is a humiliating departure, brought about by international pressure. The soldiers are young and subdued. Their equipment appears ancient and broken down. Syria has a large army, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union, troops have not received modern armaments. As we crossed the Bekaa Valley, we passed through three Syrian checkpoints; but they waved our taxi through -- no stopping, no inspection.
As we drove closer to the Syrian border, we passed trucks, jeeps,
armored personnel carriers, even civilian buses filled with Syrian
soldiers in their olive-green and black camouflage uniforms. Other
soldiers were simply walking out of Lebanon, rifles and AK-47s slung
casually across their shoulders.
Most of the Syrian army vehicles were moving slowly, coughing smoke as
they worked their way up the mountains and into Syria. We passed
several vehicles that had broken down along the side of the road. We
watched a group of soldiers pushing their green military truck. Another
truck had gone off the road into a deep ditch and shouting soldiers
were trying to dislodge it.
On the Lebanese side of the border we stopped to watch. Some Syrian
soldiers waved to us. Inside the immigration control office, we met a
group of blue-capped Japanese UN peacekeepers, stationed in the Golan
Heights along the Syrian-Israeli border. They said they were desperate
for sushi and sake, and our reporter Kate Seelye gave them a restaurant
recommendation in Beirut. They were delighted.
At the border, we were stopped and questioned about our video
equipment. We had all the necessary papers and were supposed
to be cleared immediately, according to our fixer in Damascus.
But there was some miscommunication. Maybe some suspicion. And
a great deal of bureaucratic inertia. We waited for hours. No
one at the border -- not the customs people or the army -- had
the authority to inspect our modest equipment package and allow
us to enter. That required someone from the intelligence services.
Night fell, and it was cold.
In Falougha, Lebanon, Syrian soldiers
head toward the eastern Bekaa Valley. Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad has promised that all 15,000 Syrian troops will
withdraw by April 30. (photo: Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images)
The young, blue-eyed, stocky customs agent, who spoke English with a
disconcertingly German accent (turns out he had German relatives), was
flushed and nervous at first. But as we waited, he grew friendly.
Everyone was friendly in fact, sharing scented tea and cigarettes. But
I still was apprehensive about the agent from Damascus, who was taking
his time getting here.
When he arrived, he was short, middle-aged, with a beaten down look and
bad teeth. Hardly the fearsome figure I expected. But he was painfully
slow in examining our cameras and microphones. I could not tell if he
was confused or stalling. Did he expect a bribe? Our Lebanese Armenian
cameraman, Vatche Boulghourjian, patiently answered all his questions,
endlessly checking and cross-checking serial numbers on our equipment
list. The inspector seemed particularly alarmed by our wireless
microphones. As the procedure dragged on, and the wind kicked up, and
the stray cats darted under our cab, I began to feel like I was in an
absurdist play -- a kind of "No Exit" existentialist nightmare that
might never end.
Mercifully it did. After the inspector painstakingly recorded
the last serial number on a document, his hands stiff with cold,
Kate disappeared with a group of border guards to photocopy
it and emerged 15 minutes later with a look of relief. We were
set. We shook hands all around. The inspector vanished into
the night. And we descended into Damascus.
Watch full coverage of Kate Seelye's reports on recent events in Lebanon and Syria in the May 17 broadcast of FRONTLINE/World. (Check local listings.)
For more history on the complex relationship between Lebanon and Syria, and the
role religion has played in political life, read two additional reports from correspondent
• Lebanon's History
of Occupation - In one form or another, Syria has exerted its influence over Lebanon
for nearly a century.
• Lebanon's Religious
Mix - Hariri's assassination has united some sects and divided others.
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