Lattakia, Syria -Thursday, Oct. 29
The army of the Syrian Arab Republic often appears as the bad guy in Western media narratives.
They were the brutish soldiers who oppressed Lebanon throughout their 29-year-stay in that country. They're the jihadi-friendly outfit that looks the other way as suicide bombers to be cross Syria on their way to Iraq. Israelis still shudder at the mention of 1973, when the combined forces of Syria and Egypt staged a surprise attack one October morning.
Up close, they hardly live up to their nefarious reputation. Poorly paid and badly equipped, they're most often seen walking along the side of the road in their fading camouflage gear, trying to thumb rides.
Today, I met Abdo, a 29-year-old tour guide in Lattakia who recently finished his three-year stint as a conscript. He said he earned 300 Syrian pounds per month (about $6) while stationed near the Lebanese border. "I live with my mother, but I still need 5,000 or 6,000 pounds a month," he said. Which is why Syrian soldiers are notoriously corrupt. They live on bribes.
My first encounter with the feared Syrian army on this trip was a trio of soldiers manning a checkpoint near the Turkish border. Ostensibly, they were there to examine travellers' documents, but taking shelter from the rain in a roadside shack, they were much more interested in bumming cigarettes.
"Are those good to smoke?" a somewhat portly middle-aged soldier said, spotting a pack of Dunhill cigarettes lying in the front seat of my longtime friend Raed's car.
Raed, a Jordanian and a skilled negotiator of Middle Eastern checkpoints, flipped him the whole pack. We didn't want to be held up and scutinized. (More on that later.)
Seeing our apparent generosity, two other soldiers surged forward, leaving their Kalashnikov rifles leaning against their chairs. "Hey, there are three of us," one says. Raed handed over a second pack.
The first soldier asked Raed where "the foreigner," me, was from. "Canada," Raed said.
The soldier raised his eyebrows. "He looks like one of us," he offered with a shrug before waving us on. His curiosity had been bought off by the Dunhills.
It was easy to imagine the notorious foreign fighters of Iraq sliding through the same checkpoint with even more ease.
The U.S. brazenly bombed eastern Syria this week, claiming Damacus wasn't doing enough to clamp down on the flow of jihadis into Iraq. The truth is that even if Bashar Assad's regime were to make helping the U.S. priority No. 1 (something that's unlikely given the angry, if orchestrated, demonstrations at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus today) this underfunded, unmotivated force simply doesn't look nearly up to the task.