Exactly what is going in some parts of Syria cannot easily be reliably known to foreigners given the sporadic and unverified, often politically skewed reports, but it is clear that the areas visited are normal, at least on the surface.
While lunching this week with old and new friends in a house that was built in 1840 in the heart of Old Damascus and its Souks, near Hamman Al Bakra, and restored in the mid- 1990's to its original authenticity, one could not help recalling what history teaches about this special ancient place known for tolerance.
Located near the Jewish quarter of Damascus, we enjoyed a truly divine meal of Mukabbelat (seemingly endless plates of delicious Syrian oeuvres) near an old Synagogue, next to a 12th century Mosque and around the corner from a Byzantium Church. An old Jewish man taught us with his stories about the brotherliness that existed in this region before the 19th century Zionist colonial enterprise glopped itself onto Palestine and commenced modern history's most sustained criminal campaign of ethnic cleansing, now in its 7th decade.
Americans in Syria I spoke with, some tourists and a number of students studying Arabic are not alarmed by the "travel warnings' issued from the US Embassy advising them to leave. As in Lebanon Americans here learned long ago that Embassy warnings for them to leave or not visit, appeared more related to periodically punishing Lebanon and its economy for supporting the Hezbollah led resistance than concern for the safety of US citizens. More times than the State Department wants to admit, both Hezbollah and the Syrian government have not only protected US citizens but also US Embassies as they seek stability in both countries.
With respect to protecting and evacuating Americans from danger in the region, some bright student will, one of these days, write an MA quality thesis on the US State Department's own performance during the July 2006 war. The research will presumably detail how Americans citizens were left stranded-particularly-but not solely-in the Tyre region of South Lebanon. There is much available data on how those Americans most in need of departure assistance, while sheltering from American bombs and US artillery shells gifted to Israel, got short shrift form their government.
Embassy Beirut failed in 2006, even to publicly protest their bombardment as the huddled Yanks at Tyre port waited for a promised US destroyer to evacuate them. When an American craft finally approached the harbor, it hastily turned tail 180 degrees because the Israeli government ignored US entreaties to "let our people go." Memories are still clear and feelings still raw as American citizens recall panicked calls from Tyre to Embassy Beirut and the notorious American Citizen Services staffer "John" shouting at desperate Americans to " God damnit, stop tying up our phone lines" and to "make your own way to Beirut." "John" may not have known that the Israelis were targeting convoys of civilians who were desperately trying to do the latter.
Currently, some US citizens in Syria express cynicism about their Embassy issuing "warder travel advisories." While perhaps generally well meaning, pessimism persists about their real purpose which in the case of Syria are widely believed to be just another political sanction aimed at squeezing the Assad government to stop supporting the Resistance to Israel's occupation of Palestine. Both the US and Syrian governments know that these "travel advisories" deprive the Syrian economy of millions of dollars per day and much more during the current tourist season.
The American we met all agreed that beautiful Damascus this spring in a great place to be.
The US and its allies, despite good/bad cop statements from President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, appear to agree with Russia and China that the Assad regime should be pressured to make broad reforms and end corruption but that regimes change is unwarranted, illegal and extremely ill advised.
The Assad government appears to have weathered the current storm.
Many of the demands from outside of Syria for reforms are the same ones that are heard from Baath party officials, and Ministers of the Assad government and from Syrian citizens in many walks of life including students at the Law and Medical colleges in central Damascus.
Several high rankling Syrians, particularly in the offices that work in press, printing, publishing and distribution of government information cogently explained that President Assad himself is leading the fight within the regime for meaningful change and that a majority of the population supports him and want to help change Syria for the better.
Talking with a range of Syrian citizens, one senses a general willingness to believe their President and certain of his advisers and to allow the regime a little more time to make good on its promises.
Syrian Information Minister Adnan Mahmud declared on 5.13.11 that "the coming days will witness a comprehensive national dialogue in various Syrian provinces. The Syrian cabinet is currently preparing to execute a "comprehensive program of political, economic and social reform to serve the people's interest," he said in a press conference, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).
"In light of the situation that has erupted in some provinces due to armed groups' killing citizens, terrorizing residents and burning public and private property" army, police and security units have been sent to hunt down those carrying weapons."