Once a thriving tourist hub, Syria has been plagued by a decade of war. In 2022, some adventurous travellers are visiting the country again. But is Syria safe?
I was fortunate to travel to Syria in the spring of 2022 (and survive). It was one of the most eye-opening, rewarding, and fascinating travel experiences to date.
But was Syria safe? Yes, and no. Syria is an active warzone with risks and problems; the contrast is stark.
For example, a beat-up Toyota bakery van stopped in Aleppo to give me free pastries, as foreigners are rarely seen there. For a moment, it was easy to forget where I was.
Twenty minutes later, whilst exploring Aleppo Fortress, I saw two Turkish airstrikes hit Kurdish positions on the horizon.
Local children playing in the ancient ruins didn’t even flinch. In fact, they didn’t even glance at the plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. It was just another day in Aleppo.
In this complete guide, I will lay out the crucial pieces of advice learned from my travel to Syria, from the cheapest way to visit the country to avoiding unexploded ordnance.
If you’re even remotely considering travelling to this fascinating country, then you can’t afford to miss this article.
Now, let’s begin!
Go Direct To Local Syrian Tour Operators
Unless you’re visiting the country in another capacity, most photographers and conflict-focused travellers will need to visit the country through a local tour company.
This is non-negotiable. Do not even think about navigating this country solo; it won’t end well.
A small number of local tour operators, mostly headquartered in Damascus, have begun to resume tours to the country.
However, their tours are now being resold by Western tour companies at an extortionate price.
You’re getting the same service but booking through a nicer-looking website and paying a fortune for the privilege.
The local tour company will pre-arrange your visa permission for you. It can take a lot longer for U.S. citizens to approve, so apply well in advance if you’re from The States.
Don’t Explore Abandoned Buildings Without Permission
The decade-long civil war that plagued Syria has left the country in ruins, particularly in places like Homs and Aleppo, which are prominent features on any country tour.
Here, you’ll find entire swathes of what were once thriving cities now left in sobering war-torn ruins.
For some, the temptation to enter these buildings and see the impact of war up close is tempting. But trust me, don’t do it unless you’ve been given strict permission to do so.
From human remains to unexploded ordnance, cleaning these recent battlegrounds of urban warfare is a mammoth task and one the Syrian government is failing to achieve.
There’s also the fact that every one of these buildings is structurally unsafe and could collapse at any time. Observe them from outside, at a distance, unless told otherwise.
Be Open To The Locals, But Use Common Sense
I must point out that the local people I met in Syria were some of the kindest, warmest and most hospitable I’d ever met on my travels.
Despite the horrors of the Syrian Civil War, the locals in the places I visited pulled out all the stops to make foreign visitors feel as welcome as possible.
When walking down the street in Syria, you will undoubtedly be approached by various locals (especially children) keen to know where you’re from and what you’re doing here.
After all, tourists are a very rare sight in the country these days. However, it pays to be discreet and utilize common sense here.
Amongst the many good Syrians are some not-so-good people. The conflict here led to a proliferation of ISIS, al-Qaeda and their affiliates.
Sleeper cells and sympathizers are adept at blending in with crowds and appearing as friendly faces.
Stay alert, and never reveal information that can be tactically useful to an assailant, such as your hotel, itinerary, departure date, etc.
Get Used To Guns And Firecrackers
One of the most prolific and, in my opinion, extremely inappropriate pastimes for local children in Syria is to play with realistic-looking toy guns and firecrackers/bangers.
This is something you really need to get used to. It’s also hard to differentiate from a distance and can be quite unnerving in a warzone.
However, in major cities like Damascus and Aleppo, firearms will only be in the hands of soldiers and militias.
In government controlled-areas, the guns being carried by kids are nothing more than toys.
But the firecrackers they throw can make your hairs stand on end. I imagine they do nothing positive for the countless people mentally affected by the horrors of the Civil War.
Get a Local Sim Card in Damascus
Syria is a heavily sanctioned state. Don’t expect your Western sim card to work here. Thankfully, a sim card can be bought cheaply in Damascus and other major cities.
Having readily available internet here is vital. You can easily lose your local escort in the packed markets and narrow streets of Damascus, Aleppo, and other cities. Stay connected.
Prepare in Advance For Power Cuts
Compared to neighbouring Lebanon, where power outages define modern life, I found Syria to be much less affected by power cuts. However, they do still happen regularly.
So, pack accordingly and prepare in advance. Make sure you bring a reliable power bank that is pre-charged.
Having a dead battery in your camera, phone, or other electronics is not ideal. Plus, when it comes to charging your kit in Syria, there’s another point to be aware of.
Don’t Leave Your Electronics Plugged In Overnight
On more than a few occasions in Syria, I woke up in the middle of the night to an alarming tone screaming from my phone, telling me to unplug it from the power socket immediately.
Two words: power surge! Luckily, my phone had a built-in defence against this, but not all electronics do.
So, beware when charging your electronics, as this could easily fry a camera or a laptop and render it unusable.
Be Prepared For Military Checkpoints
This is an active warzone. As a result, there are military checkpoints everywhere. Be ready for them.
A road trip that takes seemingly an hour can often take two to three because of constant stops, document checks, and related traffic.
Overall, the soldiers manning these checkpoints are friendly to foreigners and committed to getting you on your way as fast as possible.
But, as standard conflict zone advice, don’t take photos anywhere near a military checkpoint.
Be Aware of The Situation With Local Currency in Syria & Pack Accordingly
The situation with the Syrian Pound is insane. It’s a collapsed currency amid hyperinflation. If you ever wanted to glimpse how it was in 1920s Germany, this is it.
Syrian currency comes in fat bricks of cash, and the value can fluctuate daily. One thing that surprises many people travelling to Syria is figuring out how to carry it.
This is particularly annoying if you’re visiting in the warmer months. So, I highly recommend investing in a reliable, secure, and theft-proof bag to keep your money in.
Personally, I carried the low-profile Grey Ghost Gear Wanderer Messenger Bag, and it came in immensely useful to carry Syrian money, a camera, and more with quick access.
Don’t Change Money On The Lebanese Border
I legally entered Syria via the border with Lebanon. Now, Lebanon has become a hub for refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, with many of them concentrated on the border.
My driver suggested I exchange my USD for Syrian Pounds at a small exchange on the border. However, it was one of the biggest mistakes I could make.
Surrounding the exchange was a small army of Syrian refugees who were the definition of despair and desperately seeking some charity from those changing money inside.
The crowd was made up of children, women, and old men. Their clothes were literal rags; some showed signs of having contracted scabies and were desperate.
Exchanging $200 resulted in bricks of Syrian cash that I had to carry with both arms and then negotiate my way through the crowd of refugees.
If anyone deserved charity, it was these people. However, to give to one would create a stampede. The feeling of selfishness and helplessness was downright awful.
In Damascus, the scene was entirely different. The exchange bureau was like any other. So, take my advice, change your currency in Damascus or another big city in Syria.
Don’t Rock The Boat, And Don’t Criticize Russia, Iran, or The Assad Regime
And last but certainly not least is the politically-sensitive advice to follow when in the country.
Your trip through Syria will, naturally, stick to government-controlled territory, and there is no way you’ll forget it.
The face of Bashar al-Assad can be seen on practically every surface you can stick a poster or banner too.
In the West, you may be accustomed to the numerous nefarious things associated with Bashar and his family, but you’re far from home here.
For many Syrians living in the government-controlled territories of Syria, Bashar al-Assad and his allies of Russia and Iran are a coalition of heroes who fought to save their nation.
To criticise the regime when inside Syria is not a good idea. It’s also not your place to do so.
The locals here faced the horrific ISIS onslaught face to face, and their opinion was formed accordingly.
If a Western foreigner begins a debate based on what they’ve seen on their local news channel, it won’t be received well.
So, is Syria Safe or Not?
Is Syria safe? Travelling to Syria can be a safe and rewarding experience, but only if you follow the crucial advice outlined in this guide.
The vast majority of Syrian people will endeavour to make you feel as welcome as possible; the food is mouth-watering, and the level of human history to absorb here is immense.
I have zero regrets about visiting Syria in 2022, but it’s a destination that is reserved for switched-on and experienced travellers. This is no place for amateurs.
Related Travel Articles
- Are Hotels Safe? A Security Advisor’s Guide To Hotel Safety
- Inside The Huge Kalashnikov Museum: Worth The Trip?
- SOFEX 2022: Ten Epic Highlights From Drones To C130s
Use common sense, prepare well in advance, and keep your political debates to yourself until you’re out of the country.