Syria is a little bit creepy on the inside. While the internal security situation is such that foreign visitors have nothing to fear upon entering the country, the mysterious workings of the regime and the oddly simplistic people make for an entirely peculiar Syrian travel experience.
Those folks with American travel documents entering on land from Lebanon can expect to wait somewhere between four and twelve hours to gain entry. The local border authorities are required to fax the visa application to the Foreign Ministry in Damascus, and the process is elongated by the politically-driven desire to make Americans wait for the bureaucratic process to unfold as slowly as possible.
On the whole, Syria is a mismanaged nation, whose infrastructure and economy would be better served by a more enlightened regime. However, at the same time, the internal security situation is relatively stable for the region. Therefore, the dominance of the Ba’athist Party makes for a rather safe society, albeit a nation that is much ill-served by a regressive, totalitarian government.
Moreover, from what most people who are familiar with Syria claim, the nation is a largely closed society, and the vast majority of Syrians are undereducated. A lack of books keeps the populace simple and in check. Because the people are easily controlled, the patriotic sentiments of the masses allow the society to push forward through the ages. Without the drastic and draconian brainwashing techniques employed by the ruling class, the Syrian society would disintegrate. This is not to say that the citizens would never be better served by a more open, liberal, tolerant, and Western-oriented regime. However, it is apparent that the social controls that exist in Syria are effective and do indeed prevent the society from becoming like failed national enterprises such Iraq and Lebanon, with all due respect to people whose loyalties lie with those nation-states.
Generally, the Syrians appear to be effortlessly kind people. Although their living situation is decidedly 3rd World and although most Syrians cannot speak English, the Syrians gladly befriend Western visitors and take a significant interest in showing them around. To their credit, most Syrians opt not to base their opinion of Americans on propaganda spewed at them by their government-controlled media. The problem between Syria and the U.S. is clearly based on friction between the governments and is a function of international political alliances and the balance of power, rather than true animosities between Syrian and American people.
Due to the persistent Iranian influence on Syrian international diplomacy, global orientation, and cultural disposition, the giant Shiite Persian mammoth is omnipresent in Damascus, especially in the form of Shiite pilgrims. One hears only Farsi and very little Arabic in perhaps the most architecturally esteemed center of worship in the Muslim world, the Ummayad Mosque. Iranian visitors no doubt outnumber American visitors by some power of 10.
The tug-of-war between Iran and the United States has left Syria diplomatically bombarded by contrasting interest groups. So far, the Iranians have managed to keep their lap dog faithful. At almost 20 million heads (and growing rapidly), Syria is becoming a force to be reckoned with, even if it does not make decisions of its own accord. Though the Syrian leader was previously an ophthalmologist who was practicing in Britain before his father died, the parliament reduced the minimum presidential age by six years to accommodate the younger Assad’s ascent to the authoritarian post. At the helm of the Axis of Evil associate state, Assad nonetheless does not want to shepherd his quasi-pariah state into full international isolation.
Traditionally, the Alawite minority (at around 11% of the population) was propped up by the French colonial overlords. They still form the core of the political ruling class of the nation. In addition, Christian Syrians, who comprise about 10% of the population, form the core of the country’s merchant caste. There are still several Christian villages in Syria where the inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. 1 in 10 Syrian citizens is a Kurd. Armenians, Druze, Palestinians, Bedouins, and most recently, Iraqis, are also major ethnic groups present in Syria.
The elder Assad massacred upwards of 10,000 Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers in 1982 in an effort to keep Islamists at bay. The regime’s pan-Arabism, once having led the Ba’athist government into a bi-national Arabist state with Egypt, has been put into question by a rivalry with Saudi Arabia and an alliance with the Shiite giant. Syria’s identification as an Arab society is perhaps not that thorough, given the region’s mixed ancient history of Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Aramaean, Hebrew, and Canaanite influence, just to name a few of the peoples who have lived within the contemporary borders of Syria. As far as its Lebanese neighbors are concerned, the relationship has become a bit hairy. Though its intelligence workers have essentially departed, there are herds of Syrian workers in Lebanon who function as temporary workers.
The future of Syria's position in the region depends upon its willingness to reform and to refrain from allowing Iran to dictate its every move. In all likelihood, it will regain much of the Golan Heights in the near future. Many folks in Syria mention suggestions here and there of how to foster a lasting peace with the southwestern enemy. Luckily, a war is no longer in store for this summer. However, a serious conflict is more than likely to occur prior to the end of the American president's term of office. Syria could suffer gravely if it plays the ignorant antagonist in this international chess match. Long live Assyria.