Even in peacetime it used to be quite difficult to enter Syria. Once I found myself at the Lebanese-Syrian border, caught in a throng of men pushing and shoving to reach a booth in which sat a Syrian officer. I couldn’t face this and was about to abandon my journey when a small boy ran up, told me to put ten dollars into my passport and follow him. Stretching an arm behind him to the back of the booth, the officer extracted the dollar bill, stamped my passport and I was on my way.
These days it’s really dangerous. You have to find a fixer who knows the routes in, and he has to be trusted not to denounce or betray. Someone who has just been there has been describing to me how things are. Wasta is the Arabic word for getting what you want through connections and influence and dollar bills. Wasta has now turned into universal banditry. Everybody and anybody might be kidnapped held to ransom, and maybe killed even if money is paid over. In some places there is little or no food, and armed men break in to steal what there is. This is soon going to be worse because there won’t be much of a harvest this year. The contrast is grim between the parts of cities that have been flattened unrecognizably, and the parts that survive.
The number of the dead is now 165,000, a reliable figure. Of these, 2,000 have been killed by chemical weapons, the rest by conventional weaponry. The chemical weapons consist of sarin and chlorine, and their purpose is not so much to kill as to instil fear. Their use makes people feel that the Assad regime has no scruples, no limits.
A story is going the rounds that Syrians are delivering to Iraq sarin missiles originally engineered in Iraq and smuggled out at the time of the Second Gulf war. What Saddam Hussein sent out to be safe Bashar Assad is returning to be safe. So after all, President George W. Bush was in fact quite right to overthrow the double-dealing old warmonger.