DAMASCUS, Syria – The U.S. Embassy in the Syrian capital has been empty for more than four years now, but try taking a photo of the hulking building surrounded by high walls topped with razor wire.
“No photo, no photo,” screamed an alarmed taxi driver as a journalist tried to point a camera at the forbidding compound. Syrian soldiers at a sandbagged checkpoint on the sidewalk stared suspiciously at the vehicle.
The U.S. government and the regime of Syria’s President Bashar Assad remain bitter rivals in the civil war that has devastated large parts of that country since 2011. But they appear to have at least one thing in common — an aversion to anyone expressing interest in the long-abandoned diplomatic compound.
Washington shuttered the post in February 2012, pulling out its remaining diplomats and Ambassador Robert Ford, a vocal critic of Assad’s regime.
The embassy, located on a major traffic circle in an upscale neighborhood, is now the U.S. “interest section” of the embassy of the Czech Republic, a NATO ally and one of the few Western nations still maintaining diplomatic ties with Syria.
A reporter’s effort to take a few photos of the walled compound for a story on the state of U.S.-Syrian relations started at the Syrian Ministry of Information.
Foreign journalists in Damascus must obtain permission to take any photos and must be accompanied by an Information Ministry official while doing so. But for some unexplained reason, a special permission is required to take photos of the embassy. This never materialized during a weeklong stay in Damascus.
The next step was to contact the Czech mission as the “protecting power” to allow the reporter to photograph the building. A diplomat who answered the phone immediately declined, pointing to possible “security threats.” Asked how a visit to an empty building could amount to a security threat, the clearly upset official replied curtly that the Czechs were “just trying to keep a low profile.”
Meanwhile, a parallel effort to contact the U.S. embassies in Amman and Beirut, the two diplomatic posts nearest to Damascus, brought replies that they had nothing to do with the shuttered mission and a suggestion to contact the State Department on the issue.
When the reporter did so, an official at State who responded to the request for assistance said a visit to the compound could not be arranged, but offered to email some recent pictures of the facility, which have yet to arrive.
But, if you want to see what the embassy looks like now, a quick Google image search will bring up a photo of someone taking a photo of the facility.