Producer Steve McCarthy traveled throughout the Middle East for NBC's Lisa Myers documentary, Trail of Terror: Jihad in Iraq. Witness this fascinating look into a world rarely seen and barely understood in the West. Here is Part 2 of 3: Inside Syria
The name Syria conjures up a dark, sinister place. Syria is still technically at war with Israel. Syria was recently were forced to leave Lebanon after being accused of assassinating former Prime Minister Rafik Harari and Syria is believed to be the main transit point for foreign fighters going to Iraq.
But Damascus was a surprise. It reminded me of a Latin American capital – post colonial, a bit tattered. Our hotel, the Cham Palace was grand and the people, almost every one of them, were friendly and warm.
Driving around the city a man ran up to our car saying something – our driver said he was trying to rent us an apartment. Our driver simply pointed to the car in front of us – with it’s security service license plate – and the man slinked away.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was how western Damascus is. There were modern stores with Visa and Mastercard signs on the windows, a Colors of Benetton, hip restaurants, etc.
Our first interview the evening we arrived in our hotel was with Dr. Samir Al-Taki, a medical doctor (cardiovascular surgeon) who was also a foreign affairs expert with something called the “Center for Strategic Study” in Damascus. He said he was not a member of the ruling Baath Party. Two of his four sons are actually studying medicine in the United States.
I asked Dr. Taki about Syria not only tolerating the flow of fighters to Iraq – but actually encouraging it. He said “I think that helping is not accurate, but there is a situation in Syria….Every Arab citizen can enter Syria without having a Visa…so entering Syria for any Sudanese, for any Moroccan, for any Saudi – he doesn’t need anything – he get on the plane and you get here.” He then went on to say that “the Syrian population is very much frustrated – there is a huge and immense feeling of resentment…of humiliation…because of the way the American troops had acted….”
Dr. Taki then went on to talk about the difficulties of securing such a large border and how tribes span the border. He then talked about what I suspect he really came here to tell me about – Saudi Arabia.
Dr. Taki and others I met in Damascus told me that 20 or 30 years ago Damascus was a very secular place. Woman wore mini skirts, for instance – something you do not see now. He said that Christians and Jews who lived there all got along. He said the Islam we used to have in Syria “has been killed by the petrol dollar, by the mujadist version of Islam spreading, Saudi Arabia supported by the needs of the Americans to fight communism.” Dr. Taki claimed there are 72,000 families currently being supported be Saudi Islamic charities. This, he said, is changing the country.
The following day I was taken to Fayez Sayegh, editor in chief of the state run newspaper, Al-Thawrah. His office was in a huge, Soviet era sprawling office complex. We set up in his spacious lounge off his even more spacious office while he smoked and chatted with our local producer, Thabet Salem.
The interviewed started off on the wrong foot. I asked him if he was speaking on behalf of the Syrian government. He said no he wasn’t. I then gave our interpreter a hard time because he told me he would speak on behalf of the government. There was some yelling in Arabic, more cigarettes lit and then we tried to start the interview again.
I asked Mr. Sayegh about Syria allowing and encouraging foreign fighters to go through the country on the way to Iraq. He began a long winded historical lesson of the region which I cut off mid way through to say he wasn’t answering my question. More yelling and smoking followed.
We finally got into a good discussion in which he pointed out that Syria didn’t have anything to do with training or helping these people “because they would be ticking bombs in front of our faces.”
I then asked him about how Syria has supported terrorist organizations in the past – that some organizations had offices in storefronts in downtown Damascus. He claimed these were political organizations. Then I mentioned Pan Am 103 which blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland. (I had actually gone to Libya and interview Mommar Ghadiffi on this subject in the late 90s. A Syrian backed Palestinian terror group has been suspected as supporting the Libyans who placed the bomb on the plane.)
More yelling and smoking. I seemed to have touched a nerve. He didn’t want to talk about Pan Am 103.
We eventually settled into a good rythym and Sayegh made an important point that Syria needs technical help to control their border and that the U.S. should provide their military with night vision goggles, among other things. He then asked how come Iraqis and Americans couldn’t secure their side of the border?
We said goodbye with smiles and handshakes.
We then spent the afternoon shooting video around town with our guide -interpreter and his driver. The interpreter’s name was Barel Al Sheikh and he spoke English as if he was in a Merhcant Ivory movie. He was a serious young man, constantly fingering worry beads, who was trying very hard to give us what we needed while at the same time restricting some of our movements and videotaping.
We began to joke with him about getting into trouble, maybe being shot. Towards the end of the afternoon he loosened up a bit and when I asked to shoot this certain building with armed soldiers in front of it he said – “No, if you shoot that they will shoot me!” and he laughed, sort of.