This article is relevant as of September 2013 and will be updated as and when situations develop.
UPDATE: OCT 2013 Just over two months after submitting the visa application, and I am still waiting. I visited the embassy and was told that I have not been put on either the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ list; so no decision has been made. I asked if the embassy could contact Damascus and ask for an update or progress report. I was told the embassy is not allowed to do that…
When I drove out of Syria across the border to Turkey in the summer of 2012, I had some suspicion that I would not find it as easy to get back in, as I had done during my previous four visits to the country. My concerns have proved to be well-founded, sadly.
On returning to the UK in 2012, I immediately contacted the Syrian Embassy in London for another visa. I didn’t know until the call was answered that it was literally the last day that they would be accepting visa applications. I was not in London and would not get there in time. I had noted from the sounds of the call, the acoustics of a room whose contents were now all in boxes.
What followed was a year of me trying to get back into Syria. In the EU, the options were limited: As with the UK, many Syrian embassies were closed. Spain, France, Belgium and Hungary all require residency in the respective countries or a visa will not be issued. After much research, wild-goose chases and dead-ends, it became obvious that my only option was to travel to Lebanon and apply at the Syrian embassy in Beirut.
When I first applied for a Syrian visa in 2008, the process was finalised in a few days. It required the completion of a straightforward form, two photos of my ugly face, six months remaining and two blank pages on my passport, and a letter or business card from my company to say that I still had a job when I returned to the UK.
When the conflict began in 2011, it was still relatively easy to obtain a Syrian visa; this was true even if you were a journalist, dispelling the lie of the British media that no foreign journalist was allowed into the country.
Although it was an option for me, I have never applied for a ‘media visa’. I always apply as a tourist. A media visa lasts for 10 days and carries with it restricted travel. A tourist visa lasts for months and grants travel throughout the entire country.
2012 applications brought addition requirements. As well as the usual items for application, one had to have a Syrian ‘sponsor’ in the country. Their full details had to be submitted with the application along with an additional form giving full details of where the visitor would be staying.
Before the visa is granted, the sponsor is required to give a character reference of the applicant to the Syrian authorities. The role of the sponsor is not to pay for or to spy on the visitor, but to provide the character reference and be responsible for the safety of the visitor whilst in Syria. Without doubt, a sponsor is an essential requirement; not just from the authorities’ point of view. A sponsor will advise the visitor of dangerous areas and update them on situation developments. However, I can testify that even at the height of the crisis in 2012, I was able to freely travel the country as a tourist without informing or seeking permission from my sponsor.
In 2013, all of the above requirements are still in place for tourists.
If you go to Beirut for a visa, you should note that the Syrian embassy has moved from its vulnerable position on a shopping street in Hamra district to a 15 minute taxi journey from the city centre to Baabda. You can get there for around 4,000 Lebanese pounds if you ask for a ‘double service’. Sometimes taxi-drivers will charge you more because the embassy is slightly outside the centre of Baabda; either argue it or give them an extra 1,000. If you take the journey as a ‘taxi’ rather than a ‘service’ you will be charged a full taxi fare of around 15,00-20,00 Lebanese Pounds, so make sure its clear how you are travelling to the embassy before you get in the taxi.
The new embassy is back away from the road. In the taxi, the only indication you will see that you have arrived is a small group of handsome, sexy soldiers stationed outside. The new Syrian embassy is in the process of being built, so they may have signage and flags and more obvious indicators at a later date. When I first went there, I had to navigate my semi-bare sandaled feet around potholes, generator cables and rubble. At my last visit some four weeks later, in mid-Sept 2013, the entrance was almost completed.
Inside the building, the rooms are bare. You get the feeling that they are still re-organising things and unpacking. I noticed there are no pictures of President Assad on the walls, which I found surprising.
You should be aware before you make the application that the wait for a decision is now weeks into months. During one of my visits to the embassy, I spoke with a German humanitarian aid worker who was delighted to learn she had been accepted; her wait was just over a month. Her previous application in the spring resulted in a three-month wait. Four weeks in, my application is still being processed. My sponsor has not yet been contacted. In 2012, my sponsor was contacted almost immediately.
If money is a concern for you, keep in mind the long wait and remember: Beirut is an expensive city; don’t be fooled just because its in the middle of a Middle East country. Beirut is, in part, a very European city with all the costs that go with a European capital.
You will be greeted at the building entrance by two mafia-looking guys in smart suits. You require your passport and have your bag searched each time to get into the building. On my first three visits, a man in a suit phoned through to the building before I was let in. On my fourth visit, the guys recognised me. If you need to communicate in English, don’t worry. There are a few officials working there who speak English very well.
At no time did I feel under suspicion or threatened – quite the opposite, in fact. They were polite, courteous and welcoming. When I came out of the embassy, one of the mafia-styled doormen asked me what I thought of the war and the Americans and what the British government would do next. I told him that I thought the west was wrong in its approach to Syria. They are helping in the destruction of a great country. I didn’t say it because I thought it would get me my visa, I want my visa because I know what I said is true – and I want to do what I can to get the truth exposed.