April 24, 2005

Goodbye, Syria

Posted by Michael J. Totten

Yesterday I took a much-needed day off (my first since I got here) and cruised over Mount Lebanon to the Bekaa Valley to look at the Roman ruins at Baalbeck. As my tour bus approached the city our guide pointed out a small garrison of Syrian troops off to the right. Soldiers huddled around tents in the rain below a gigantic portrait of their goon-in-chief Bashar Assad. "Don't take pictures of them," she said. "It will cause trouble."

I decided to take some pictures anyway. To hell with them. What were they going to do? Shoot down a tourist bus as their final act in the country?

I raised my camera to the window. The soldiers looked like miserable dogs that had been kicked in the ribs with steel-toed boots. The popular uprising in Lebanon had totally thrashed and demoralized them. Every one of them stared into the windows of the bus as we drove past. Many saw my camera and stared at me personally. I decided then that I would follow the tour lady's advice and not take a picture. There was no way I was going to sneak in a photo without them knowing it. So I pointed my camera down and lowered it into my lap.

I did feel slightly intimidated. As individuals many of these men may be exemplary human beings. But the Syrian military is a monstrous thing that should probably not be messed with by anyone who isn't very well-armed.

That's the extent of my personal contact with the Syrian Baath regime. It sure isn't much. It's practically nothing at all - and thank Heaven for that. But it's just enough that I read the following article with a wee bit more satisfaction than I would have otherwise.
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Syrian troops burned documents and dismantled military posts in their final hours in Lebanon Sunday, before deploying toward the border and effectively ending 29 years of military presence in the country.

A few score Syrian troops will remain in Lebanon for a farewell ceremony Tuesday that the Lebanese Army plans to hold in a town close to the Syrian border.

In Damascus, the Syrian capital, a government official said: "Within the next few hours, all the troops will be out of Lebanon."

"What will be left are those who will take part in the official farewell" on Tuesday, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In the border town of Anjar, home of Syria's chief of military intelligence in Lebanon, Syrian officials appeared to be going about their business as usual Sunday.

But at the Deir el-Ahmar base, Syria's last major garrison in the Bekaa Valley, 15 tanks rolled on to flatbed trucks, ready for the drive home, witnesses told The Associated Press. Soldiers burned papers, knocked down walls and loaded ammunition on to trucks.

Syrian troops had already vacated at least 10 positions in the northern part of the Bekaa Valley on Saturday. Dozens of trucks carrying hundreds of soldiers and at least 150 armored vehicles, towing artillery pieces and rocket launchers, crossed the border into Syria, witnesses said.

"Tomorrow everything will be over," a Lebanese military officer said Saturday.
Buh bye.

(PS - Don't forget to read my own Lebanon coverage over at Spirit of America's Lebanon blog.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at April 24, 2005 03:00 PM

Will you visit Iran any time soon?

Posted by: zaneirani at April 24, 2005 08:03 PM

You should have taken the pic without the flash?
Easy for me to say though.

1) They're even 'supposedly' pulling out of the Bekka Valley too? I thought most of Lebanon but were going to remain in the Bekka Valley? (I'm sure they've got tons of plain clothed agebts all over the Bekka and Beirut anyway)
2) What was your impression of the Bekka Valley? There is a lot suspected to be there? Terror training centers, terrorists from the world over, Iraqi Wmd's, Hezballah 'militarists' etc...


Oh and can you send Joumanna my best?

Posted by: Mike at April 24, 2005 11:20 PM

Thank you, I have thoroughly your posts from Lebanon.

Posted by: Joe Davis at April 24, 2005 11:22 PM


They really are pulling out of the Bekaa. The city of Baalbeck (it's a modern Shi'ite city, as well as a ruins site) has now been retaken by the Lebanese Army. I only saw the one little outpost.

I am absolutely certain there are plainclothes agents all over the country. But after a free election and with the military ousted, they will no longer be able to intimidate people as they once did. The people here are really quite defiant.

The Syrian spooks could still plant bombs, but they will not be able to give orders to the Lebanese government once their puppet regime is beaten at the polls. Many of their old puppets have already switched sides partly because they can, and partly so they will get re-elected.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 24, 2005 11:32 PM


All I can add is a heartfelt "huzzah." The Lebanese people rose up and told the Syrian occupiers to go home, and they're going home. Huzzah. Keep us updated, Mike.

Posted by: Rafique Tucker at April 25, 2005 02:22 AM

Every one of them stared into the windows of the bus as we drove past. Many saw my camera and stared at me personally.--MJT

Thanks for this post.I think you captured the 'feel' of being under the control of forces such as Baathist Syria.

Armed guys are,almost by definition,somewhat intimidating,but what makes the ' goons of the Assad regime,and others like it, so powerful is not what they will do.It's what they can do .

You are correct in saying:" What were they going to do? Shoot down a tourist bus as their final act in the country?"But if you were Lebanese,you would have to always have it in the back of your mind,that tomorrow, or next week,or next month,or next year,maybe,perhaps,possibly,someone might decide to make an example of YOU.

Who or what, after all,would stop them? Candidly,who would YOU be?
Your post makes it easy to see how pervasive fear can maintain these regimes almost indefinately.

Posted by: dougf at April 25, 2005 05:36 AM

The Syrian pullout is excellent news. And, yes, taking out Saadam, despite all of the problems it has caused, indeed may have contributed to the withdrawal -- focusing the mind of Assad in particular. So let's congratulate Bush. And Chirac and Annan, for supporting Bush in the effort to get Syria out. And Assad, for not being a fool. And most of all the Lebanese people.

Lebanon will need now to show that it can govern itself. It would be helpful if progress was made on Israel leaving the West Bank, so that the Palestinian refugees who make up 10% of the population of Lebanon could return to their own country.

Posted by: markus rose at April 25, 2005 07:23 AM

Offpost: An interesting site about the little-known religion of Mandaeism, most of whose adherants live in southern Iraq. They are very concerned about possible Shiite oppression in post-Saadam Iraq.

Posted by: markus at April 25, 2005 09:24 AM

But after a free election and with the military ousted, they will no longer be able to intimidate people as they once did. The people here are really quite defiant.
1) I still look at the full Syrian withdrawal with a scant eye. Too quick, neat etc... what gives? Something must.. this is Assad's son, even if he is no Hafez poker player....

2)Do you really expect a 'free and fair election' or better how much of one can be reasonably expected?

3)Furthermore, I've read (Tony at Across the Bay & Jonathan Head Heeb) quite a bit about the districting or gerrmandering (if you will) problem of Lebanon which minimizes/splits/diminishes the voting impact of urban centers like Beirut as a voting bloc. And this assumably is where most of the moderate secularists are? But again, I thought there were in the 70's & 80's a large Maronite community in the South? Are they all gone now in SAmerica and the US?

Of course, any decent election in Lebanon will be great for the Middle East and the world.... defanging Hezballah, is another story.


Posted by: Mike at April 25, 2005 09:50 AM

Tony's latest post "Good Riddance" he mentions the Lebanese prisoners in Syria, which have not been previously mentioned?


Posted by: Mike at April 25, 2005 10:04 AM


the refugees in Lebanon don't want to return to their country, they want to return to Israel.

Posted by: spaniard at April 25, 2005 11:48 AM

Spaniard --
"the refugees in Lebanon don't want to return to their country, they want to return to Israel."

You would, too, if you were Palestinian, and had spent your life in refugee camps, first in the west bank, then in jordan, then in lebanon.

On the other hand, you might also be finally willing to face reality, as other dispossessed groups have had to do, and take the next best alternative to your wishes.

Posted by: markus rose at April 25, 2005 12:07 PM

Hey, how did spam make it past the security code?

Posted by: double-plus-ungood at April 25, 2005 12:24 PM


unfortunately the palestinian leadership has for decades been unwilling to educate their people about the hard realities on the ground.

On the contrary, they believe they can use the refugee's unrealistic expectations to create a war of attrition, and for their own personal advantage and enrichment. The result is never-ending war because they think they can outlast the soft decadent westernized jews.

But they won't outlast the jews. They are an ancient people, and they have outlasted all their enemies, and they'll outlast the Arabs. Sooner the refugees are made to understand that, the sooner they can move on with their lives.

Posted by: spaniard at April 25, 2005 01:59 PM

You should get a camera phone, so you can take pictures a little less conspicuously.

Posted by: CP at April 25, 2005 02:03 PM

spaniard --
i agree with you vis-a-vis the refugees. Might in the end does make right.

Posted by: markus rose at April 25, 2005 02:59 PM

It's worth noting that the Arab countries don't exactly give the Palestinians refugees that good of an alternative choice. They stick them in those refugee camps with little hope of getting out.

The Israeli citizen Palestinians who stayed during and after the wars have a far better life than the refugees. It seems like that should mean something.

Posted by: John Thacker at April 25, 2005 04:16 PM

I'd be interested to know what you think of the elections in Saudi Arabia, where so much of the winning element was 'golden list', and so much of the campaign was conducted by private email. My understanding is that the winning candidates were of a religious though not terrifically reactionary character.

Posted by: Ruth at April 25, 2005 05:49 PM


I wouldn't say might makes right. But I would say, as in the case of Israel, that it doesn't always make wrong.

Posted by: spaniard at April 25, 2005 08:06 PM

Michael, I can't say when I've enjoyed a series as much as your Lebanon posts. What a brave and courages peoples. Their new cross/crescent symbol may end up being a new icon for peace in the middle east. Now, if someone somewhere had the guts to add the Star of David to the other side of the cross......

Posted by: GM Roper at April 26, 2005 03:39 AM

Good riddance. :)

I remember the bad old days when I used to photograph guards at checkpoints into Soviet East Europe.

I used a telephoto lens. ;)

Posted by: geraldObrien at April 26, 2005 06:09 PM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Pajamas Media BlogRoll Member


"I'm flattered such an excellent writer links to my stuff"
Johann Hari
Author of God Save the Queen?

Andrew Sullivan
Author of Virtually Normal

"Brisk, bracing, sharp and thoughtful"
James Lileks
Author of The Gallery of Regrettable Food

"A hard-headed liberal who thinks and writes superbly"
Roger L. Simon
Author of Director's Cut

"Lively, vivid, and smart"
James Howard Kunstler
Author of The Geography of Nowhere

Contact Me

Send email to michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com

News Feeds


Link to Michael J. Totten with the logo button


Tip Jar


Terror and Liberalism
Paul Berman, The American Prospect

The Men Who Would Be Orwell
Ron Rosenbaum, The New York Observer

Looking the World in the Eye
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

In the Eigth Circle of Thieves
E.L. Doctorow, The Nation

Against Rationalization
Christopher Hitchens, The Nation

The Wall
Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic

Jihad Versus McWorld
Benjamin Barber, The Atlantic Monthly

The Sunshine Warrior
Bill Keller, The New York Times Magazine

Power and Weakness
Robert Kagan, Policy Review

The Coming Anarchy
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

England Your England
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn