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

FRONTLINE/World dispatches: Lebanon/Syria

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April 26, 2005
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April 12, 2005
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Dispatch 3

April 26, 2005

FRONTLINE/World reporter Kate Seelye and series editor Stephen Talbot continue their series of reports from the Middle East, where they have been filming for the next broadcast of FRONTLINE/World in May.

This week, Kate Seelye reports on tensions at the Syrian-Iraqi border, and finds out what the Syrian government, under intense pressure from Washington, is doing to clamp down on insurgents crossing into Iraq to fight.

Border Town
Kate Seelye

FRONTLINE/World reporter Kate Seelye.
by Kate Seelye

We left Damascus before dawn, headed for the Abu Kamal border crossing into Iraq. It's a grueling six-hour journey across a monotonous landscape, broken up only by the spectacular Roman ruins of Palmyra. I'd crossed the same stretch of desert just two months earlier to report a story for public radio in America. The 650-mile stretch of no-man's land that separates Syria from Iraq has been a major source of tension between Washington and Damascus.

During the early months of the war in Iraq, hundreds, possibly thousands, of Arab fighters were bussed across the Syrian border into Iraq courtesy of Saddam Hussein's government. Officials from the U.S. and Iraq have routinely accused Syria of not taking enough measures to prevent insurgents from crossing over its border to fight.

But in the past six months, Syria has begun to reinforce a lengthy sand berm separating the two countries and adding patrol posts every few kilometers.

In further signs of cooperation, last February, Damascus handed over a high-ranking relative of Saddam Hussein's, found, the government claims, hiding in a town in northern Syria. Butheina Shaaban, a government minister in Damascus, told us Syria was doing its best to seal its frontier with Iraq, but that no border is impenetrable.

A couple of hours outside of Damascus, we pulled off the highway to photograph the turnoff sign to Baghdad. Within moments, and out of nowhere, intelligence officers arrived ordering us to stop filming and to follow them. It took the best efforts of our experienced Syrian fixer -- who had all the permits in order -- to put us back on the road.

Palmyra, one of the Roman Empire's most important eastern caravan cities, is an oasis in the Syrian desert, and Steve couldn't resist stopping to take a look. Walking among the ancient city's high colonnades, monumental gateways and temples, I tried to convince him to take a camel ride. But the sight of the animal's drivers drinking beer before breakfast persuaded him it might not be such a good idea.

When we finally reached Al Hiri around midday, we found a dusty Syrian border town resembling thousands of other third world border towns -- although this one's proximity to Iraq gave it an uneasy edge. Winding our way through the narrow back streets, we looked for the home of one of the town's tribal leaders, Sheikh Ratha Baruth Dulaimi.

Kate and Sheikh Ratha Baruth Dulaimi

Sheikh Ratha Baruth Dulaimi, a tribal leader in the border town of Al Hiri, talks with Kate Seelye.
We found Dulaimi in his front yard, dressed in faded army fatigues, and showing off a red, white, and blue plastic sheeting he'd fashioned on his front gate to resemble a U.S. flag. Dulaimi laughed that he put it there to stop U.S. military planes from dropping a bomb on him.

A warm and jovial presence, Dulaimi gave Steve a big bear hug and a kiss, and led me by his large, rough hand to a seat under a blossoming rose bush. Dulaimi reportedly fought as an insurgent in Iraq but he made it clear to Steve and I that we and any other visiting American journalists were welcome in his home. A curious crowd gathered, listening to Dulaimi, who sat across from me wearing Ray Bans and a large embroidered robe, while I asked him in Arabic about the mood here. Were Syrians still crossing into Iraq to fight? Were the townspeople concerned about an American army base on their doorstep? How tense was it in this border town?

But as we discovered many times over in our six days in Syria, decades of totalitarian rule have trained a fearful nation to say a lot, while revealing little. Dulaimi's expansive and evasive manner was no exception.

Yes, he had been in Baghdad. He even described being bombed there. But was he an insurgent? If he was, he wasn't telling us. The men in the crowd were more forthcoming, explaining with great passion that as Muslims it was their duty to wage jihad against invaders.

All I could get from Dulaimi for certain, besides a rose and an invitation to be his third wife, was news that he'd received a directive from Damascus urging him to stop fighters from going into Iraq. "We were told to prevent crossings over the border. Anyone who does cross takes full responsibility for his actions and therefore goes to destruction. Assad is the boss," he told us, "and whatever he says, we agree."

Jeep driving near the border

On Syria's main road to Iraq, a sign marks the turnoff to Baghdad.
This directive appeared to be another sign that the Syrian government -- under tremendous pressure from Washington -- is trying to cooperate with U.S. demands.

By late afternoon, we left the affable Dulaimi and hurried on to the Abu Kamal border crossing. Closed by the Americans since their Fallujah offensive last fall, the crossing is now a dead zone -- stripped of the usual noise and bustle of border traffic. Across the Iraqi side, a few hundred yards from the Syrian Customs office, we saw a large American military base wrapped in barbed wire, an American flag flying overhead.

Before we could start filming, we were ushered into the customs area to go through the same frustrating drill we had encountered the last time we tried to film. No, the customs officer informed us, he had not received a fax from the Ministry of the Interior allowing us to film the border post or surrounding area. So, we would not be shooting the border or talking to border officials without the fax in hand.

Our fixer -- Syrian journalist George Baghdadi -- began patiently explaining that the Ministry of Information had reassured us many times that we could film here.

The officer tried to call Damascus, but it was a Saturday and no one with any authority could be found. Between cups of bitter Arabic coffee, I pleaded with the border officer to let us film. We've come all the way from the United States to see this border, I implored. We want to show the world what Syria is doing here. We would hate to leave with a bad impression of Syria.

As we sat waiting, uncertain of an answer, events took a surreal turn. The Syrians gathered around a small TV set to watch the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles.

After this oddly reassuring scene, the customs officer finally softened his stance. He told us we could film the sand berm along the border, but we couldn't do interviews. And we could film the U.S. base, but only at the risk of being shot. American military officials, he told us, had warned the Syrians that unless the base was informed in advance of visiting camera crews, they might open fire.

Camp Gannon

Camp Gannon, a U.S. base at the Syria/Iraq border.
With the sun sinking fast, we took our chances, pinned to the wall of the customs building, nervously grabbing shots of Camp Gannon. Then we hopped in our car and trailed the Syrians along a dusty track to get a closer look at the sand wall the Syrians had constructed under U.S. pressure.

I strolled along the berm, which was three or four feet high, and noticed that in the last two months, the Americans had been busy adding an even higher berm several hundred feet away -- an extra defense against insurgents and gun smugglers operating in this no-man's land.

Back at the crossing, we snatched a few more minutes of filming before sunset, a prime time for attacks. In the fading light, we could sense a growing nervousness among the Syrian border guards. It was time for our crew to leave and begin the long drive through the night back to Damascus. Two days later, we read that three U.S. marines had been wounded at the base in Al Qaim in a three-car suicide bombing just outside Camp Gannon -- confirming how dangerous the Syrian-Iraqi border remains.

Kate Seelye is an award-winning Middle East correspondent for National Public Radio, with a background in film and television production. Ms. Seelye received a Fulbright grant to research her documentary feature, "At Home in the Garden of Eden." Watch a preview of her film.

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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