Observations from Jeff Klein in Aleppo and Damascus

Peace Advocate July 2022

by Jeff Klein

From Aleppo:

Contrary to what many of you believe, Aleppo was not “destroyed” by the Syrian government and the Russians. A substantial portion of the city was occupied after 2012 by armed opposition forces, mostly from coming from outside. There was never an uprising against the Syrian government in Aleppo. Until the liberation of the eastern part of Aleppo by the Syrian government and its Russian ally in late 2015, a million inhabitants of the modern city of Aleppo were in fact under siege. Frequent rocket and mortar attacks on civilian neighborhoods from the opposition militants were a daily occurrence, with many Aleppans killed or wounded on a regular basis. Food, water and electricity were in short supply and the population suffered years of hardship.

Much of the eastern part of the city – and especially the historic neighborhoods and markets, along with the important Umayyad mosque — were severely damaged or destroyed in the battles to retake the city. Rebuilding and restoration are underway, but there is still a huge task ahead for reconstruction. Meanwhile, normal life goes on here today – or at least as normal as life can be with combat still continuing not far from the city limits. Much of the north and northeast of the country remains under control by Al Qaeda-led armed groups together with Turkish and US troops and their local allies, now effectively mercenaries in service of foreign powers.

Still, there is noticeably less tension now in and around Aleppo since my last visit in 2018, especially since the government liberation of the direct highway between Damascus and Aleppo in 2020. However, armed militants still control territory only a few miles west of the road and there are still numerous military checkpoints on the way from Damascus, though some of these are now open and not always manned by Syrian troops.

We had a touching experience at the last military checkpoint before Aleppo. The soldiers got very excited to learn that an American was visiting. They insisted that my friend Abdurrazzak and I join them behind the guard shack for some mate’/yerba buena, an herbal drink from South America popularized here by returning Syrian immigrants and sipped through metal straws. Our table is shown below (Syrian soldiers are not allowed to be photographed).

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They also shared shisha (water pipe) and the last of their “BBQ” lunch as they called it.

It was very emotional. When the soldiers finally allowed us on our way, they kissed us warmly on the cheeks, as is customary here. “Welcome, welcome” they told us when we left — the only English word that every Syrian knows. The kindness of ordinary people here, despite all they have suffered, can break your heart.

And this warmth toward a visiting American is particularly notable when the two soldiers – both typically named Ali – identified themselves as Alawites from Tartus. For various historical reasons, Alawites make up a disproportional number of Syrian government fighters and have suffered horrendous casualties in this war. They are fighting not only for the Syrian government by also literally for the survival of their community, which the US-supported jihadists have pledged to exterminate. This is a threat that was realized with horrific massacres in Alawite towns that came under opposition control at various points during the war. There is no Alawite family in Syria which has not lost more than one martyr.

From Damascus:

I arrived in Damascus, Syria on Monday after two weeks in Palestine and one week in Lebanon. I am working on a couple of articles concerning what I did and learned there but the press of travel and meeting many people have made it difficult to find the time and energy, beyond what I wrote earlier about the fascist Flag Day march in Jerusalem, which you can read here in a revised version with more photos.

Meanwhile, perhaps these “travel notes” may be of some interest.

The economies of Lebanon and Syria have been shattered by more than ten years of war and foreign intervention, along with cruel and comprehensive US sanctions Syria in particular has suffered the depredations of fanatical Islamic jihadists, local and international, mostly funded and armed by the US and its allies Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Israel supplied and armed the jihadist fighters near its border with Syria in Golan, which they have occupied since 1967 and now effectively annexed – and it regularly bombs Syria with impunity lately including the destruction of the Damascus airport.

The war has affected Syria most directly, but also Lebanon, for which Syria was a major trading partner. (For background on the war against Syria, you can view a number of talks I have given here, here and here, or this article among many others)

The result, in part, has been drastic inflation and the catastrophic devaluation of the local currencies. The picture below shows a giant wad of Syrian Pounds on the left and 1,600,00 Lebanese Pounds on the right. The Lebanese Pound was for many years pegged at 1,500 to the dollar but now trades “on the street” for around 30,000 to the dollar; there were 50 Syrian pounds to the dollar when I first visited in 2010, but now a dollar exchanges about 4,000SP. The biggest Lebanese paper denomination is now 100,000 while in Syria only 1,000 and 2,000 notes are widely in circulation, so people carry around thick, unwieldy stacks of bills. The money in the photo is worth about $70. By comparison, the old Syrian 500-pound note with the portrait of Zenobia, the heroic queen of Palmyra, shown below the stacks of current money, is now an almost worthless souvenir of past times.

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In both countries, tourism — an important source of income — is way down from Covid and regional violence. The US State Department strongly advises US citizens not to visit Lebanon, and for all I know travel to Syria may be outright forbidden to US citizens because of the sanctions regime. (I am anxious to know what my reception will be when I return to the US!)

Syria was once self-sufficient in oil and gas, as well as wheat, but now the US and its Kurdish allies, along with Turkey, are occupying the part of the country where the oil and gas resources and the Syrian breadbasket are located. The “democratic” Kurds are exporting Syrian oil to Turkey and Iraq under US protection. Drought and climate change have also drastically reduced grain production. This has affected food and fuel availability, as well as electricity for millions of people in Syria, but also Lebanon.

Crossing the border from Lebanon can be a harrowing experience for those unaccustomed to the rigors of travel in the Middle East. (Israel/Palestine is no picnic either!) For me, this was my fourth time at this passage, so, though stressful, at least I knew what to expect. There are separate and distant exit and entry points at each of which one – especially an American – is intently questioned. The Lebanese security window asks for details of where you have been and carefully checks all the pages of your passport for entry and exit stamps. As at the entry to Lebanon, any sign of passage through Israel is disqualifying and potentially big trouble. Lebanon and Israel are still technically, and not infrequently practically, at war. Fortunately, the Israelis issue a visa on a separate slip of paper and do not generally stamp your passport – unless they deny you entry, which happens frequently to pro-Palestinian activists or Arab-Americans. I carry a second passport just in case.

Once through the Lebanese security check you proceed to the actual exit checkpoint, where your documents are examined again. Then you drive through about 10 kilometers of arid and desolate no-mans land until you arrive at the Syrian border post. Here the questioning is even more intense. Most foreigners have to have obtained some visa approval in advance, thoug this is now nearly impossible for most Americans, given that our country has been effectively at war with Syria for years and American troops are illegally occupying a good swath of their country. I had the help of a Syrian American friend with some contacts in the government to secure my visa.

Nevertheless, the border security officials were highly skeptical as practically no Americans are passing this way now. My visa was actually on file in their computer, as it turned out, though, this did not stop a long litany of probing questions about my background, family, job and purpose in visiting Syria. The final question was “Have you ever visited Israel or occupied Palestine?” A yes answer is instant grounds for denial of entry, so the response has to be “no”, whether true or not. Sadly, the Syrian authorities, like the Lebanese, make no distinction between people who visit in solidarity with the Palestinians or are supporters of the “Zionist entity”, as it is know around here.

Once through lines at several passport checks, most foreigners are required to pay an entrance fee, which is graduated according to the country of origin and its friendly or unfriendly relationship with Syria. For Americans the fee is $160 cash. After paying the fee and getting a receipt from the cashier window, on returns to the security check and you finally get a stamp on your passport. But this isn’t the end.

You proceed to a customs checkpoint, where the taxi driver has to pop the trunk and your bags are checked. This step is lubricated by the driver handing over a 4,000SP along with your passport, a practice that is repeated in carefully calibrated amounts at varying succeeding checkpoints in the entry process. Finally, you arrive at the actual and apparently final passport check (and informal payment) and you are on your way to Damascus.

But there’s more. Between the official border and the Damascus city limits are many other military checkpoints – I lost count –and each one involves a pleasant greeting and the handing over of 1,000 or 2,000SP; one of them required the payment of two packs of Marlboro cigarettes, which were conveniently available for purchase at a shop just before the checkpoint. You could regard all these payments as petty corruption, but in reality they constitute something between a tip, a voluntary tax and a donation. Syrian public employees and soldiers earn practically nothing in inflated Syrian pounds. In the end it’s not much money in US terms, but the process can be quite mystifying and disturbing for the uninitiated.

Fortunately, the taxi drivers on this route are well experienced and know the drill. The result of all these hurdles is that a trip from Beirut to Damascus that should take 60-90 minutes ends up as about 4 hours.

In Damascus, I am staying in a small but relatively luxurious hotel in the part of the Old City which was once “The Christian Quarter”. Like many hotels in this area, it is a renovated former traditional Damascene mansion built around a beautiful central courtyard with a fountain. Many of these old Ottoman era houses were abandoned in the 20th century as wealthy families moved to the modern part of the city or emigrated abroad. The hotel is called, fittingly, Beit Zaman, loosely meaning House of the Old Days. The area, called Bab Touma (Thomas!) is lively until late at night with many bars and upscale restaurants filled with better-off Syrians, including some Syrian Americans who have returned to visit with their families.

On the way to the hotel, not far from the border, we passed a gas station where at least a hundred cars were lined up and waiting in a queue to buy fuel. This is not uncommon in the country where most of its petroleum resources are under foreign occupation. Because of this – and the US sanctions – Syria is dependent on imported oil from Russia and Iran. Some of the latter have been interdicted by US allies in the Persian Gulf or on the high seas, so delivery has been intermittent. Gas is recently more available in Lebanon after a serious supply crisis a few months ago, but there also, cars line up to refill their tanks in the expectation that the already astronomical gas prices will increase by the next day, as they invariably do.

In both countries, the unreliable supply of fuel, along with government incapacity and corruption in Lebanon or war damage to infrastructure in the case of Syria, has rendered the supply of electricity unreliable and sporadic. Usually, power is available for only a few hours a day on a rotating basis from region to region and electricity cuts are sudden and complete. My hotel, like many others here and in Beirut, has its own diesel generator, which you can hear kick in with a rumble when the central electric power flickers. I imagine that hotels have some priority in securing fuel, given that they help to earn valuable and scarce foreign currency.

Elsewhere in both Syria and Lebanon, those with the means cope with the electricity shortage with home generators, batteries, or subscriptions to the numerous neighborhood low-power private electric networks. The rest, especially the poor, suffer in darkness.

The Old City of Damascus is dotted by many mosques, both Shi’a and Sunni, side-by-side with churches of every Christian denomination (there are said to be 13 different ones in Syria). It is this precious diversity and tolerance that is under attack by the US and its allies, especially Israel and Turkey. Today, when I visited a Greek Orthodox orphanage with my Syrian friend Abdurrazzak, “Mama” Souad, who has run the charity for 60 years, said that Syria is “Umm Kbiire” — The Big Mother of us all. This reality is truly something precious and worth saving. It is not just the Syrian government that the US is claiming hypocritically to oppose, but it is also working to strangle the Syrian people as a whole.

Yesterday, I visited the great 7th century Umayyad Sunni Mosque with its shrines to John the Baptist and Hussein the son of Ali, who is revered as a founder of Shi’s Islam. I watched families relaxing inside the magnificent prayer hall with their small children, along with pilgrims from many countries. And it was particularly touching to watch soldiers in uniform praying before the beautiful mihrab. Next to the mosque is the burial place of Salahiddin al Ayoubi, the great conqueror of Kurdish origin who defeated the Crusaders in the 12th century and allowed Jews, Muslims and non-Catholic Christians to return to the Holy City. Poignantly, next to Saladin is the tomb of Sayid Ramadan al Boty, a Kurdish Imam who was assassinated during the current war by US-supported Sunni fanatics.

I can say unreservedly that I love Syria and its people. Syrians are hard-working and invariably kind and welcoming – even to a visiting American from an enemy country. It is with sorrow and shame that I recognize the efforts of my own government to destroy everything that is good here. Certainly, the Syrians deserve a better government than the one they have, but it is a lie that the US is promoting democracy in Syria. Instead, the attacks and siege by the US and its allies are, if anything, hindering the reforms that are sorely needed. As Abdurrazzak says, “You can’t argue about what color to paint the walls when your house is burning.”

Last night I was visited in my hotel by Talal, the uncle of a Boston friend and his daughter Mayda. Talal, who barely survives himself, worked tirelessly to distribute food to the needy in the poor neighborhoods of Damascus, a project for which I helped to raise some money among friends and acquaintances in the US. (Some of you may have contributed and you can read about this effort here.)

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Talal is a saintly man, semi-retired and an amateur poet. He wrote me a message the night before his visit, which he translated for me from the original Arabic. It reads in part:

I am happy to thank you personally

About the help you provided two years ago: for the poor, for widowed women and orphaned children in Syria…

Every home has a deep pain

From this cursed war

In wounded Syria

Welcome to Damascus

There is still hope, love

Life is still fine

He says it will take a generation for Syria to rebuild, even if and when the war ends. But he is filled with optimism for the future.

The Syrian people are amazingly resilient in the face of hardship. As Abdurrazzak says: “We have suffered, but we are still standing, and we will continue to stand.”

Here I quote from my favorite Arabic saying, which translates as:

“From your lips to the Gate of Heaven!”

—Jeff Klein is a member of the Mass. Peace Action Board of Directors and of Dorchester People for Peace. He writes and lectures frequently on the Middle East, where he has traveled widely over the years.   A version of this article was presented at our July 11 webinar, “Observations from Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, a report back by Jeff Klein