Since January 2011, Syria has been gripped by a political crisis. Travel here is strongly discouraged by the US, UK and Canadian travel advisories. Thousands of people have been killed by armed insurgent groups, government security forces and the military. The developing military insurgency in Syria that is opposed to the Assad regime has carried out several high profile attacks on government targets. Stay away from government buildings, demonstrations and military forces as much as possible.
In 2006 the renewed conflict between Israel and Lebanon prompted large demonstrations throughout the Middle East. Travelers should avoid all large gatherings as they may turn violent. Late in 2006 gunmen attacked the US Embassy in Damascus. Occasionally foreign travelers have been targeted by political groups, especially in the south of the country.
There are no hostile feelings toward Americans or Westerners in general although Americans tend to be subjected to more scrutiny by the authorities than other nationalities. You could, however, find yourself in trouble if you engage in open criticism of and against the Syrian government or the president. Your best bet is to avoid political conversations altogether just to avoid any possible problems. If you do engage in political discussions with Syrians, be aware that they might face intense questioning by the secret police mukhabarat if you are overheard. As a general rule, always assume that you are being watched by plainclothes policemen. You will notice that not many uniformed policemen can be seen in the streets, but this is because the police have a wide network of plainclothes officers and informants.
Women traveling alone may find that they draw a little too much attention from Syrian men. However, this is generally limited to stares or feeble attempts at making conversation. If it goes beyond that the best approach is to remain polite but be clear that approaches are unwelcome. Be loud and involve bystanders as they will often be very chivalrous and helpful.
Slightly inconvenient for some is the attention of children begging for money, pens, or snacks around some tourist sites usually those outside of Damascus. Compared to many third world countries beggars are rare in much of Syria. The child beggars are more embarrassing than intimidating, but if you are being hassled consistently, say "lah" "no" in Arabic forcefully and the children will scamper.
Since beggary is common in some parts of Syria, particularly outside of tourist attractions, mosques, and churches, it has been known that beggars occasionally demand money and may follow you around until you give. Some have even been known to "attack" some tourists just for money and food. It is advised to wear appropriate Arab clothing and try to blend yourself in. It also better to keep your money in your front pockets and safe with you. Many scams by beggars have also led many foreign tourists to lose quite a bit of money; be aware of these scams.
Health Care in Syria is well below Western Standards, and basic medication is not always available.
Local pharmacies are well stocked with treatments for most common ailments such as stomach bugs and traveller's diarrhea. Pharmacists often speak a little bit of English. You can ask your hotel to call a doctor if necessary and a visit to your hotel room will cost about 700-1000 SP as of November 2007.
The best treatment of all, of course, is to stay healthy in the first place. When eating, pick restaurants that are busy.
If you have a treatment, take it with you. Don't expect to find all medicines in Syria. If you have to buy something from a pharmacy, ask for a "foreign" EU or US brand. You will have to pay a premium for that, but at least you will increase the chances to have an actual medicine. Some products come from uncertain origin and are ineffective, according to certain local pharmacists.
If you are of European ancestry most Syrians assume that you are a practicing Christian. Most Syrians will also be puzzled by a suggestion that you are an atheist, due to the strong influence religion has in Syrian social and cultural life. However, a considerable percentage of the Syrians are not practicing Christians or Muslims themselves and do not hide their lack of religious affiliation as Syria is officially a staunchly secular country. The coastal areas are much more progressive when dealing with religion and the same applies to areas of Damascus most frequented by Western tourists such as Bab Touma, the Christian Quarter. The further you travel east, the more conservative people are. In order to avoid any protracted philosophical discussions, it is best to avoid identifying as an atheist or non practicing Christian.
Syrians has easy and cheap internet access. Internet is very common around the cities at internet cafes. Facebook and YouTube have recently been unblocked but there are still some websites blocked such as certain news sites. The cafes are very friendly but in order to avoid being price gouged it is best to ask a local how much the internet costs per an hour before agreeing to sit down. It is usually 50 S.P per hour 1$ US, but can be anywhere up to 100 S.P per hour 2$ US. It is best to avoid political debates regarding the Syrian government, or reading Israeli newspapers or websites online.
Prices for high-speed access are quite varied. As of November 2007, Aleppo's Concord internet cafe was charging a hefty 100 S.P an hour, while in Hama the going rate seemed to be 75 S.P for an hour and in Damascus the price dropped to around 50 S.P an hour less if you pay for several hours in advance. Power net in Latakia was charging only 20 S.P a couple of years ago.
Male and female visitors can generally wear whatever attire they would normally wear in their home countries. Contrary to what some Westerners may believe, it is possible for women to wear T-shirts and it is not necessary to wear long-sleeved tops unless visiting a religious site. Head covers are recommended when visiting Muslim religious sites. Dress as you would normally dress in the West to visit Christian religious sites, avoid wearing shorts at churches. Many local women dress in Western attire, especially in Christian neighborhoods. Shorts are common for men and women alike. Be mindful of your environment, outside of areas frequented by tourists it is wise to dress in more modest apparel.Women who wish to attract less attention should wear shirts that reach the elbow, and have no revealing cleavage. Regular t-shirts and jeans are completely acceptable attire throughout all of Damascus.
Arabic is the official language. It is always a good idea to know some words "hello", "thank you" etc.. A surprising number of people speak at least very rudimentary English. It would however be worth your while to learn basic numbers in Arabic in order to negotiate taxi fares. Personnel working with foreign tourists like tourist hotels, restaurants, tour guides, etc., generally can communicate reasonably well in English.
Due to the general lack of ability by the public at large to communicate in English beyond basic phrases, Syria is a great place to force yourself to learn Arabic through immersion, should you wish to improve your Arabic skill.
learn arabic in syria