/ 30 August 2013

Well-heeled escapees join the masses streaming into Lebanon

As Syria embarks on a peace plan
As Syria embarks on a peace plan

But, unusually, amid the hordes of people at passport control on the Lebanese side of the Masnaa crossing were queues of well-heeled Syrians – types not often on the move even well into this third year of war.

Well dressed and with front-of-the-line privileges, for them the crossing was far simpler than for the crowds standing behind.

"Some even use the military lane," said a Lebanese border guard, referring to the fast "no-questions" route open to VIPs from either side and to Hezbollah.

Rumours of an imminent air attack by Britain, the United States, France and even Turkey abound in the capital Damascus, those crossing the border said. So too is a sense that, this time, Syria's foes are not bluffing.

Among those leaving for Lebanon was Salah Abur Rahman, a business-person from Damascus who had lately done very little trade and feared that the rumble of an approaching attack was not about to change that.

"My family has been in Lebanon for a long time, but it's time for me to go as well," he said. "Whatever is coming is going to do a lot of damage, one way or another."

The Masnaa main crossing has remained open since Syria's troubles began in 2011 and has been one of the few remaining outlets for Damascenes seeking respite in Lebanon or beyond.

Much of the middle class of the Syrian capital has gradually left as the war has ground on. But now the elite are quitting. Several well-known businesspeople who crossed the border this week said they planned to ride out any air strikes in the Lebanese mountains.

Another man, who owned a financial service business and had worked closely with Rami Makhlouf, the first cousin of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, said he had given up on Damascus for now and would stay outside the country until the war had been resolved.

"They will bomb the airfields and the state buildings," he said. "They can bomb what they want. There isn't much left of the country, and that's the reality."

The relative safety of central Damascus has been a focus of the Syrian regime's attempt to project an air of normality. There, unlike the ravaged outskirts or empty market­places closer in, restaurants have stayed open and a café culture still exists. But even in this security bubble, where all key institutions of state reside, an attack is seen as inevitable.

"My uncle is a senior officer," said Abur Rahman. "He is one of the decision-makers, and this week the only decision he's making is where to take shelter from the American planes." – © Guardian News & Media 2013