Buzz on the streets of Damascus

Some 200 Lebanese students studying at Damascus University stage a sit in on Wednesday to protest against U.N. resolution 1559 that declares its support for a free and fair presidential election in Lebanon and provides for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.  
Some 200 Lebanese students studying at Damascus University stage a sit in on Wednesday to protest against U.N. resolution 1559 that declares its support for a free and fair presidential election in Lebanon and provides for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.   Bassemtellawi / AP
/ Source: NBC News

With Beirut's azure coastline in the rear window of the taxi and the snow-capped top of Mount Lebanon in the windshield ahead, the road to Damascus looked good. 

Just four days after the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, our NBC News team was anxious to revisit the oldest continually inhabited city in the world  and get a sense of the mood in the last true Arab city in the Middle East.

Damascus has changed dramatically in the past five years. A new highway from the Lebanese border into the heart of the capital is lined with apartment blocks bristling with TV satellite dishes. 

Syrian President Bashar Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has expanded telecommunications to include cell phones and internet connections. Our NBC News team has visited Syria regularly since the 1970's, but it was the first time constant communication with our news desk in New York was possible.

The prevailing mood in Damascus was that the United States, along with most of the world, suspected Syria was behind Hariri's assassination in Beirut because, before his untimely demise, the popular and immensely wealthy politician was on the verge of asking Syria to disengage from Lebanon. 

Hariri was killed in a massive bomb blast. His million-dollar armored Mercedes was totally destroyed. Lebanese police said at least 700 pounds of explosive dug a 30-foot crater in the road. 

It was the kind of horror that made Beirut infamous in the 1980's when Syrian troops were all over Lebanon battling militias to stop the civil war.

To many in the West, blaming Damascus makes sense. Last year, the United States and France co-sponsored a U.N. resolution that called from Assad to evacuate troops from Lebanon. 

Assad’s late father former President Hafez Assad sent troops Lebanon in 1976, and although the war ended in 1990, they haven't gone home yet because they run the Lebanese army and its security services. 

At least a million Syrian civilians also work in Lebanon and it's a major source of resentment in the country because Lebanese need the jobs themselves and the economy has never really recovered from the civil war.

Syria blamed for harboring Iraqi fugitives
Syria also is accused of harboring fugitive Baathists from neighboring Iraq, some of whom are thought to besending cash over the border to fuel the insurgency against the U.S.-led coalition forces and the Iraqi interim government.

The Syrian government, despite being dominated by Baathists, has always been violently anti-Iraqi Baathist. Syria sent troops to fight alongside Americans in the first Gulf War to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and, over the years, both Iraq and Syria have mounted terror attacks against each other's capitals. 

But in the Middle East, money can make strange bedfellows, and if the stories about Iraqi fugitives making off with billions of dollars ahead of advancing Americans two years ago are even half-true, it's understandable that some of them may have bought sanctuary in Syria. 

Since Syria is still the only country in the world which does not require an entry visa for any Arab national, Damascus can always say it didn't know who the Iraqi refugees were when they arrived at the border.

In addition, relations between Syria and Iraq thawed slightly after the death of the former president Hafez Assad, so it's difficult to convince a suspicious America that Syria's intentions are perfectly honest.

Buzz despite renewed pressure from U.S.
Dr. Nidal Kabalan, the head of Channel Two, a government TV station, spoke to us about the renewed pressure from the United States, especially in the wake of the Hariri assassination.

Kabalan said that Syrians are not frightened by the prospect of confrontation with the United States and that they are as puzzled as anyone else about Hariri's death.

Hariri was practically a favorite son, according to Nidal. He explained that the former Lebanese prime minister owned a couple of mansions in Damascus, funded the construction of Syria's presidential palace on a hill overlooking the city, and had interests in several media companies here.

Later that night, we heard the similar comments in cafes and restaurants in different parts of the city.

Questions about future relations between Syria and Lebanon produced regretful sighs. Many said the Lebanese were ungrateful after asking for help in 1976 and now biting the hand that protected them. As for the possibility of tighter economic sanctions from the U.S. and France, perhaps even war? The response was, God willing, it won't come to that.

But there was definitely a buzz in the streets of Damascus.

The city streets are clean and crowded with well-lit shops selling clothes, shoes, and electrical goods. The famous Damascus souk is bursting with food. Luxury cars from the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon cruise the avenues ferrying Arab tourists between shops and restaurants.

A fabulous meal costs less than $10. Pirated CD's and DVD's go for $5. An Iraqi fugitive with last-minute access to Baghdad's Central Bank vault could find exile here one step short of paradise.

Iraqi refugees in Syria
There are half a million Iraqi refugees living in Syria and their numbers swelled during Ashoura, one of the holiest days on the Shiite calendar. We visited the Shia shrine of Sit Zeinab, just outside Damascus, where we ran into a procession of black-clad young men beating their chests in unison. 

We were invited into the two-room rented apartment of Harbi Saidi, 46, his wife Intisar, and son Maytham. A small color TV set sat on top of the refrigerator in the corner of the living room and a clean carpet covered the cement floor. We lounged on cushions while Intisar Saidi served us tea and oranges.

Saidi is from Baghdad and once worked as a forklift driver until U.N. sanctions, imposed on Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, ruined the Iraqi economy and plunged the country into poverty and fear generated by a regime trying to ensure its own survival. 

Forced to sell the family house at a loss and living from hand to mouth, he said the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the final straw for his family. He led his wife and son to Syria where they live on $200 per month sent from relatives in Lebanon. 

Saidi said has never heard of any high-ranking Iraqi Baathists in his new community, and he doubted any Iraqi insurgents would find much support from his fellow refugees in Syria because they are all just too poor to provide money or weapons.

We were told much of the same from Syria's minister of information Dr. Mehdi Dakhlallah in a formal interview the following evening. 

We transmitted our story from Syrian TV, gathered a few more shots for another report we will complete from the Iraqi side of the border sometime in the future, and packed to leave.

A week later Lebanon's government resigned, and Damascus is now saying it is redefining its Lebanon policy and will have its troops out of there within a few months.