Impressions of Syria (2005-02-28 to 2005-03-03)
I didn't think there was any danger. Bush's army is bogged down in one war of conquest, so he can't afford to try another. In fact, I didn't see any sign that people were concerned about the issue, aside from a news report on TV about protests in Lebanon.
It was quite obvious that Syria's ruler is, de facto, a monarch. Photos of the ruler, Bashar Assad, son of the previous ruler, are displayed everywhere. It felt like Morocco, where the ruler is explicitly called a "king", and dynastic succession is a principle rather than just a fact.
I don't recall whether the report about Lebanon was on an English-language channel or an Arabic-language channel, since I was just flipping through; therefore, I don't know whether Syrian mass media are more controlled than the likes of CNN and Fox News. My hosts told me that it is now possible to criticize government policy in Syria. Since I don't speak Arabic, I can't talk with most Syrians, so my visit told me nothing about how ordinary Syrians feel about their regime, or how often they publicly criticize it. In my talk, I made several comparisons between the freedom of free software and other freedoms, such as freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Maybe this will do a little to promote those freedoms too.
The first time I tried transferring email in Syria, we ran into a succession of problems. We couldn't get my machine to talk to the Ethernet in the office I was visiting, so as a backup plan, I phoned an ISP directly. (It turns out that the office itself had only a dialup connection, so this was really no loss.) Calling the ISP worked, but then I could not connect to fencepost with SSH. It turns out that both ISPs in Syria normally block SSH connections for all users. Fortunately my hosts were able to convince the ISP to unblock them for me, or I would have had to phone Europe to transfer mail.
People later told me inconsistent things about the situation; some suggested this was a political measure, while others said that certain expensive classes of service allow use of SSH. I mentioned during my talk that this prevents people from participating in world-wide free software development projects, and that it needed to change. One of my hosts said that his brother had already started a pressure campaign to convince the ISP to change. So I guess it is possible to raise at least some semi-political issues there.