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Syria's door is open to Lebanese refugees

NBC News Jim Maceda reports from Damascus on the how Syrians are welcoming the Lebanese people displaced by the conflict and the difficult diplomatic dance Syria is engaged in with the United States.
Travelers block the road, at the Masnaa border, between Lebanon and Syria, on the outskirts of the Bekaa Valley, east of Beirut on Monday.
Travelers block the road, at the Masnaa border, between Lebanon and Syria, on the outskirts of the Bekaa Valley, east of Beirut on Monday.Lee Keath / AP
/ Source: NBC News

DAMASCUS, Syria — Thousands of people, mostly Lebanese, have fled to Syria to escape the Israel bombardment over the past week. NBC News correspondent Jim Maceda reports from Damascus on the how the Syrians are welcoming the Lebanese people while the government wages a complicated diplomatic war.

What is the situation with people fleeing Lebanon and heading to Syria? We went to one of the main border crossings about 25 miles west of Damascusand over the course of a few hours, we saw a steady stream of Lebanese cars, trucks, pick-up trucks fleeing the fighting.

We were told when we were there that it was actually lighter, in terms of the flow of people, than it had been in previous days. Still officials were saying that over the last 24 hours at least 40,000 people had come across, and over the last week at least 100,000 people had come through that one border crossing — which is between east Lebanon and west Syria — so that’s not including any of the northern border crossings.

Though there is no official figure, based on that math, the figures are a lot higher for Lebanese coming into Syria than we’d thought. We had been told that it was about 110,000 to 120,000 people, and it’s probably at least two or three times that.

It is quite interesting what is happening at the borders. The Syrians have basically opened the borders. There are no longer any manned police stations, or customs stations, or people checking baggage — none of the elements you would expect to see at a major border crossing.

People walk across or drive across the border, and are met by dozens of Syrian volunteers and buses on the other side. The Syrian volunteers are handing out pieces of paper with telephone numbers of Syrian families that could accommodate these Lebanese refugees or displaced people.

So, you don’t really see groups of makeshift tents or people in living out of cars because they are being accepted and absorbed by the local population.

That said, on Wednesday we did see the first reports and pictures of these makeshift refugee centers. Not in the streets, but at some schools here in Damascus and one basketball court was turned into a refugee center. So, there is a steady flow of people and the numbers of people are increasing, not decreasing.

In fact, there are even some Lebanese-Americans coming to Syria. We started speaking to one young veiled woman at the border who it turned out was from Dearborn, Mich.

She had come to visit some Lebanese relatives in the eastern Lebanon on July 9 and the bombing started a few days later. Her extended family’s house had been hit by shrapnel and the doors were blasted off. So, they packed up their car and drove to Syria. She wasn’t sure who they would stay with, but hopefully a family in Damascus, and then she will eventually return to the U.S.

So – there is an international touch to it, but it was almost exclusively Shiites from the eastern part of Lebanon who were coming across the border.

How is Syria dealing with President Bush’s comments that Damascus is at the root of this conflict because of its support of Hezbollah?
Syrian President Bashar Assad has been very vocal about his desire — his immediate desire — for a cease-fire. He and his cabinet members are traveling to other countries, or meeting with foreign diplomats here, trying to push for an immediate cease-fire.

That said, if you read the newspapers in Syria, everyone is extremely anti-Israel, and pro-Hezbollah.

Hezbollah in this country is considered to be the official Lebanese national resistance. In fact, that is what it is called. It’s never just called “Hezbollah,” it’s called the “national resistance” in common parlance.

Syria publicly supports Hezbollah and has done so since its inception in the early 1980s.

In the streets of Damascus and elsewhere you see thousands of vehicles with the dual photo of Syrian President Bashar Assad on one side and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, on the other side smiling. The photo is plastered on the back windshield of cars all over the country, so that right there is sending out a certain symbolism.

Syria has always said that it provides, and will continue to provide, moral and political support to Hezbollah.

But, U.S. officials, Western officials, and President Bush have suggested that Syria is behind the military wing of Hezbollah. The suggestion is that it provides arms, as well as a transit point for tons of weapons coming from Iran and going straight into southern Lebanon.

Assad and the government of Syria all categorically deny these claims.

So, yes, there is support for Hezbollah, but the government rejects outright any suggestion by the U.S. that Syria is behind the military wing of Hezbollah. They blame this recent wave of violence, as they have done in the past, entirely on Israel.

There is some talk that maybe the best move by the U.S. could be the flip side of the anti-Syria rhetoric to become friendly with Syria, which is mainly Sunni, thus cutting off Hezbollah, which is mainly Shiite, from Iran, which is also mainly Shiite. Would that make sense and could that ever happen?
Yes, you can not have any overall peace in the Middle East without dealing with Syria, and Syria knows that.

In fact, Syria is grasping at the opportunity to become a regional leader again. After the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Lebanon and all of the implications of possible Syrian intelligence agents involvement, Syria really took a step backward on the world stage.

This conflict right now is a great opportunity for Syria to step up to the plate again, and flex its diplomatic and political muscles. Because at the end of the day — how many countries have an leverage over Hezbollah? You can count them on two fingers — Iran and Syria.

For innumerable reasons, there is no possibility that the U.S. will deal with Iran right now. However, Syria as a powerful, a mostly Sunni, yet secular country, presents another option.

There is an opportunity here, and a kind of mutual reaching out could be possible and beneficial to both sides.

I don’t think we’ll see that though, unless the Bush administration sees some positive movement coming from the Syrian government. If not cracking down on Hezbollah entirely, the international community would like to see some sign that at least Syria is no longer providing the kind of encouragement, logistical help, and political support that Hezbollah has been getting.

So, Assad is in an interesting position. He knows he has a couple of cards up his sleeve diplomatically that could get Syria back on the map.

What is the mood on streets there?
So far, in terms of the mood, you don’t see any preparations for war. One gets the impression that Syrians believe the Israeli government when it says that it has no intention of escalating things into a Middle East conflict by attacking Syria or Iran.

Still when you talk to Syrians on the street, they are afraid. They believe that if there is an escalation, they will be the next victims.

Many Syrians are convinced that the Israeli government is doing the U.S. government’s bidding and that there is this attempt now to sweep across the Mideast and create another Iraq here.

They fear that the unstated goal is to have a U.S.-controlled Middle East all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. That is their main worry and when they see bombs and artillery with Hebrew written on them flying into neighboring Lebanon, that’s the fear of people here. 

That said, right now, you don’t see any sort of military preparation in downtown Damascus.

I think that’s because for now, Syrians want to believe that it is not in Israel’s interest or in Syria’s interest to fight each other.

It really is business as usual. Shops are open, people are going to the shops, restaurants, buying DVDs, and everything is booming in Damascus. People are very friendly, but there is worry and fear when you talk to them.