What makes Syria a unique country to travel to?
In light of the escalating violence and volatility of the current security situation in Syria, the Department of State has issued a Travel Warning advising U.S. citizens against travel to Syria and strongly recommending that U.S. citizens remaining in Syria depart immediately. Those who choose to remain in Syria or to visit despite this advice should be aware that the U.S. Embassy in Damascus suspended operations in February 2012 and therefore cannot provide protection or routine consular services to U.S. citizens in Syria. The Government of the Czech Republic, acting through its Embassy in Damascus, serves as Protecting Power for U.S. interests in Syria. The range of consular services the Czech Republic provides to U.S. citizens is extremely limited, and those services may require significantly more processing time than at U.S. embassies or consulates outside of Syria.
The Syrian Arab Republic is ruled by an authoritarian regime dominated by the Socialist Ba'ath Party. The Ba'ath party espouses a largely secular ideology; however, Islamic traditions and beliefs provide a religious foundation for the country's customs and practices. While the 1963 Emergency Law, which authorized the government to conduct preventive arrests and override constitutional and penal code provisions against arbitrary arrest and detention, was rescinded on April 19, 2011, the practice of arbitrary arrest and detention has not abated.
The Syrian government conducts intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Syrian citizens and foreign visitors. U.S. citizens visiting Syria should be aware that any encounter with a Syrian citizen could be subject to scrutiny by the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) or other security services. Sustained interactions with average Syrians – especially if deemed to be of a political nature – may subject that Syrian to harassment and/or detention, and other forms of repressive actions by state security elements. Furthermore, loitering or photographing of facilities or buildings or behavior deemed suspicious may result in U.S. citizens being arrested or detained by security services. Since 1979, the United States has designated Syria a State Sponsor of Terrorism due to its support for organizations such as Hizballah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The combination of terrorist organizations, a porous border with Iraq and long-standing border issues with all of its neighbors (Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Israel) have made Syria a destabilizing factor in the region and a potential target for reprisal. Tourist facilities are available and vary in quality depending on price and location. Many establishments will only accept cash.
The rate of crime in major Syrian cities is difficult to determine due to the continued fighting throughout the country. The current unrest and significant deterioration of the Syrian economy have led to a perceived increase in criminal activity. You should apply the same personal security awareness practices overseas as you do in U.S. cities.
Women in Syria, particularly those dressed in a style perceived as Western, have reported harassment, stalking, and unwelcome advances of a sexual nature. Many of these incidents have involved taxi drivers. Incidents typically entail verbal sexual harassment, staring, and/or touching. Women should take precautions including dressing conservatively (especially in the Old City), not traveling alone, and avoiding travel to unfamiliar areas at night. Women should not generally sit in the front seat of a taxi. Unnecessary conversation with the taxi driver may be perceived as an invitation for closer personal relations. Both men and women should always carry a cell phone, if possible.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal in the United States, if you purchase them you may also be breaking local law.
While you are traveling in Syria, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different from our own.
For example, under the Narcotics Act, article 39, Syria imposes the death penalty for drug trafficking or cultivation. Women who are arrested under suspicion of immoral behavior (e.g. being alone in a room with a man who is not the woman’s husband, or being in a residence where drugs or alcohol are being consumed) may be subjected to a virginity test. In addition, the Syrian government monitors the activities of all groups, including religious groups, anddiscourages proselytizing, which it deems a threat to relations among religious groups. In some places you may be taken in for questioningif you don’t have your passport with you. In some places, it is illegal to take pictures of certain buildings. In some places, driving under the influence could land you immediately in jail. These criminal penalties will vary from country to country. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States, and you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States. If you break local laws in Syria, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution. It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not wherever you go.
While some countries will automatically notify the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate if a U.S. citizen is detained or arrested in a foreign country, that might not always be the case. To ensure that the United States is aware of your circumstances, request that the police and prison officials notify the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate as soon as you are arrested or detained overseas.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Basic medical care and medicines are available in Syria’s principal cities, but not necessarily in outlying areas. Serious illnesses and emergencies may require evacuation to a Western medical facility.
Safety and Security
The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens against travel to Syria and strongly recommends that U.S. citizens remaining in Syria depart immediately. The Syrian regime has used deadly force to quell anti-government protests and is engaged in a full-scale civil war with the armed Syrian opposition. Syrian opposition groups have utilized car bombs, improvised explosive device/indirect-fire attacks, sniper fire, and kidnappings throughout the country. Foreign combatants – including Iranian regime elements, Hizballah fighters, Islamic extremists, and al Qaida-linked elements – are participating in hostilities. Military operations have involved the use of ballistic missiles, aerial attacks, and heavy artillery against civilian centers. Attacks from these various groups could happen with little or no warning, no part of Syria should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for unpredictable and hostile acts, including kidnappings, sniper assaults, terrorist attacks, large and small-scale bombings, as well as arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture.
The United States intelligence community assesses with high confidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times over the past year. The continuing violence, deteriorating security situation, and Syria’s chemical and biological weapons program creates a particularly volatile situation. The security situation throughout the country is very likely to remain volatile and unpredictable for the foreseeable future, with some areas, especially in the contested population centers, experiencing substantially increased levels of violence. The conflict has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths with many thousands wounded, 1.6 million refugees and over four million internally displaced persons.
Thereis an ongoing and increased risk of kidnapping of U.S. citizens and Westerners in general throughout the country. In August 2012, a U.S. citizenjournalist was kidnapped near Damascus and in November 2012, another U.S. citizenjournalist was kidnapped in Idlib Governorate; the status of these U.S. citizens is unknown at thistime. In early April 2013, an Italian journalist was kidnapped, and in late April 2013, two Orthodox Christian Bishops were abducted in the northern city of Aleppo. It is unknown if regime forces or opposition elements conducted these kidnappings. Most recently, on June 7, two French journalists were taken in Aleppo. Since the start of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime in March 2011, at least 24 foreigners, primarily journalists, have been reportedly kidnapped or killed in the fighting
A porous border with Iraq and long-standing border issues with Iraq,Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Israel, have contributed to a complex security environment in Syria, which has been compounded by the protracted violent conflict and an influx of foreign fighters. There have been multiple reports of Syrian shelling of neighboring countries’ border areas throughout 2012 and 2013, most significantly in Lebanon, Turkey, and the Golan Heights. On October 3, 2012, Syrian military forces fired artillery shells that hit the town of Akcakale on the Turkish side of the Turkish-Syrian border, killing five people and wounding a number of others. Turkey responded with retaliatory artillery fire and cross-border incidents have continued sporadically since that time. Likely linked to the regime offensive in al Qusayr, indirect fire has crossed into Lebanon on several occasions, illustrating the continued potential for spillover of Syria’s conflict throughout the region.
Syria has been a State Sponsor of Terrorism since 1979 and has given political support to a variety of terrorist groups affecting the stability of the region. The Al-Nusrah Front has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist acts in Syria since December 2011, including four bombings in Aleppo on October 3, 2012 that killed more than 50 people and a October 9, 2012 suicide bomb attack on a Syrian Air Force Intelligence compound in a Damascus suburb that killed and wounded at least 100, including civilians.
Terrorists often do not distinguish between U.S. government personnel and private U.S. citizens. Terrorists may target areas frequented by Westerners, such as tourist sites, hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and other frequently visited areas. U.S. citizens are urged to maintain a high level of vigilance and be aware of their surroundings. It is especially important for travelers to be unpredictable in their movements by varying times and routes and maintaining a low profile.
While most Syrians appear genuinely friendly towards foreigners, underlying tensions can lead to a quick escalation in the potential for violence. Elements within both the regime, as well as opposition groups, maintain anti-American or anti-Western sentiment, which may intensify following significant events in the region, particularly those related to U.S.-Syria relations, international intervention in the ongoing conflict, Israeli-Palestinian issues, the status of Jerusalem, and clashes in Lebanon.
U.S. citizens traveling through the area should remain aware that pre-existing tensions and instabilities continue to exist and U.S. interests and citizens might be targeted. On July 11, 2011, the U.S. Embassy and other embassies in Damascus were violently attacked by people participating in a pro-government demonstration. Similarly, in October 2011, the U.S. Ambassador’s convoy was attacked in a Damascus suburb while he met with an opposition figure. Both indicidents caused significant property damage.
Security personnel frequently place foreign visitors under surveillance. Hotel rooms, internet connections, telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched. Taking photographs of anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest may result in questioning, detention and/or confiscation of the images. Additionally, U.S. citizens should be aware that conversations on the topics of politics, religion and other social issues could lead to arrest. It is also illegal in Syria to possess specific-use electronic devices including GPS, short-wave or handheld radio equipment, or similar devices.
U.S. citizens should increase their vigilance if they travel to the border area with Iraq or Israel, the Golan Heights, or the Al-Jazira region. Movements in these areas are subject to Syrian security surveillance and could lead to questioning or detention.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in Syria, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Syria is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.
Driving in Syria may be hazardous and requires great caution. Although drivers generally follow traffic signs and signals, they often maneuver aggressively and show little regard for vehicles traveling near them. Lane markings are usually ignored. Vehicles within Syrian traffic circles must give way to entering traffic, unlike in the United States. At night, it is very hard to see pedestrians, who often walk into traffic with little warning. Outside major cities it is common to find pedestrians, animals and vehicles without lights on the roads at night. Pedestrians must also exercise caution. Parked cars, deteriorating pavement, and guard posts obstruct sidewalks, often forcing pedestrians to walk in the street. Vehicles often do not stop for pedestrians, and regularly run red lights or “jump” the green light well before it changes.
Because of the ongoing conflict, there has been an increase in the potential that visitors will encounter hostile activity or harassment at both official and unofficial security checkpoints on roadways throughout the country.