It’s hard not to have a specific image in mind when thinking of Syria. For over ten years, our TV screens were rammed with what seemed like nightly footage of bitter fighting between an increasingly complicated cast of clandestine rebel groups, complete destruction and streams of traumatised people fleeing its borders. It was — it is — a miserable and seemingly-unending war.
However, Syria is a deeply nuanced country with over 3,000 years of rich history. Home to some of the oldest civilisations in the world, Syria (and the surrounding region) lays claim to the first musical note as well as many of ancient Mesopotamia’s most-prized artifacts. Pre-2010, it was among the most visited countries in the Middle East — welcoming around ten million visitors per year. It’s a huge simplification to boil Syria down to little over a decade of increasingly international conflict.
But, more importantly, we’ll try to answer one of the understandably most asked questions about travel to Syria. Is Syria safe for travellers?
Is Syria safe?
As the government has reclaimed control over most of the country, the fighting has, mercifully, ground to a halt since 2018. The country is, once again, opening its borders and welcoming small trickles of security-cleared tourists in. Tours are accompanied by approved guides and there is a tight network of intelligence that means that in the case of renewed attacks, tours can be rerouted quickly. Let’s go into this in a little more detail
The Syrian government
Syria is still under an authoritarian regime. Ruled by president Bashar Hafez al-Assad, like other authoritarian regimes including China and Russia, dissenting voices are not encouraged and liable to harsh punishment.
Tourists are currently only able to visit Syria with a security clearance (arranged by a Syria tour operator such as Rocky Road Travel) and must be accompanied by a local guide. These guides are highly scrutinized by the regime and are therefore trusted to look after foreign guests. By virtue of this, the chances of a tourist accidentally running into trouble are extremely low. The actors of the state such as police officers and military leave tourists alone as all of the necessary paperwork will have been cleared weeks in advance and they will be “supervised” by a trusted guide. Checkpoints are many, but relaxed and increasingly quick. As we have been bringing in groups with no issue for a while now, the soldiers get to know us, our guides and our drivers and will occasionally come onto the bus to say hello or to even share fruit and tea with us! Other times, they simply wave us on to continue with the tour in peace.
Tourists are not looked at as suspicious, either by officials or the public. You would have to go well out of your way behind your guide’s back to get the attention of the police, and even then, it’s more likely your guide would be punished than you. Of course, this is an extra reason to keep a low profile.
The situation on the ground
The Syrian civil war is still not over. However, as Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told NPR, “much of the hot fighting in Syria has subsided”, although of course, that doesn’t mean life is completely back to normal, as now comes the long and painstaking task of rebuilding the country. But, in the bombarded cities of Homs and Aleppo for example, normality is gradually resuming. While devastation is easy to find, reconstruction projects are in motion throughout the country, much of it focussing on rebuilding the ancient cities with their original materials.
It surprises many to know that several parts of the country, including the ancient capital of Damascus, were thankfully never badly destroyed. Founded in the 3rd millennium B.C Damascus is the oldest capital in the world. This is not to say that the effects of the war were not felt everywhere. But, certainly in Damascus, when you’re in a rooftop restaurant watching people of all ages and denominations hurrying through packed souks, laughing and talking away, it is actually easy for the uninitiated eye to forget about the last ten years.
Today, the fighting is either completely dormant or cooling off in most of Syria and a tentative and yet hopeful peace has come to many parts of the country. Government forces have gained control of practically all of western Syria, including some of the most popular destinations: Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Krak de Chevaliers, as well as the Mediterranean coast and the remnants of the ancient city of Palmyra (largely destroyed by ISIS militants in 2014).
Those areas which find themselves outside of government control still see some fighting. Parts of northern Syria, including the Idlib region, see intermittent violence as complicated proxy battles are fought between Turkish, Russian, Kurdish and Syrian groups. Of course, all registered tour guides are acutely aware of this and are best positioned with intelligence to react spontaneously if fighting spreads, moves or intensifies.
Is Syria safe for…
Syria is officially a secular country. It is not uncommon to find groups of women in fitted jeans drinking in bars, laughing about their boyfriends or looking for dates just as you would anywhere in the west. Women have, largely, the same freedoms as men. Attacks against women are very rare and women are able to wear practically whatever they want. Syria is among the safest countries in the Middle East for women, but, obviously, it’s advised you stick with your group or local guide when out and about as harassment can happen anywhere.
Although technically illegal, arrests of LGBTQI+ people are relatively rare and there are even burgeoning rights movements in Syria. LGBTQI+ tourists are allowed to share a room with a partner, however public displays of affection are discouraged. Your guide will be used to and accepting of foreigners from all backgrounds and orientations and will be there to support you should you need it.
People with disabilities?
Syria is an accepting country of people with disabilities. People are very kind and patient on the whole, although you might expect some curious stares, particularly in the more rural areas. Pharmacies and hospitals in the major cities are functional, although it should be noted that medical infrastructure is (understandably) lacking. Persons with disabilities should notify their tour operator when booking so that necessary accommodations can be made if required.
Crime in Syria
Due to the violence and economic toll of the war, petty crime such as begging and pick pocketing is not unheard of. It’s always wise to keep your valuables somewhere safe when walking around on foot.
It would be remiss to exclude official government advice. Most governments advise against all travel to Syria.
But, if you speak with locals, scholars, business owners as well as international organisations on the ground, everyone you will speak to will vouch that Syria is safe — or, at least, the places tours are taken to — are safe, and have been for some time.
However, ultimately it is up to you to make the decision.