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Dispatches From a Small Planet: Lebanon/Syria, April 2005

FRONTLINE/World dispatches: Lebanon/Syria

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Border Town: Stopping the Insurgents

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April 12, 2005
Notes from the Road to Damascus

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Notes from the Road to Damascus
Stephen Talbot

FRONTLINE/World series editor Stephen Talbot in Beirut, Lebanon.
By Stephen Talbot
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.

Trucks leaving for Syria

A convoy of Syrian military trucks departs Lebanon along the mountainous road between Beirut and Damascus. (photo: Haitham Massawi/AFP/Getty Images)
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.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has promised the Lebanese and the UN that all of Syria's 15,000 troops will be withdrawn by April 30.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.

Man holding photo

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)
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.

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.

Truck crossing the border

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)
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.

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 Kate Seelye.
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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