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Syria's Pivotal Role: An Inside Look At The Middle Eastern Nation's Struggles From 'National Geographic' (PHOTOS)

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As Syria gears up for what activists claim will be the largest protests so far, it's worth taking a look back at National Geographic writer Don Belt's inside look at Syria.

While Syria recently lifted 48 years of emergency rule, two years ago, when Belt explored the often misunderstood nation, no one could have imagined that protests would eventually shake the foundations of power.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

Syria is an ancient place, shaped by thousands of years of trade and human migration. But if every nation is a photograph, a thousand shades of gray, then Syria, for all its antiquity, is actually a picture developing slowly before our eyes. It's the kind of place where you can sit in a crowded Damascus café listening to a 75-year-old storyteller in a fez conjure up the Crusades and the Ottoman Empire as if they were childhood memories, waving his sword around so wildly that the audience dives for cover--then stroll next door to the magnificent Omayyad Mosque, circa A.D. 715, and join street kids playing soccer on its doorstep, oblivious to the crowds of Iranian pilgrims pouring in for evening prayers or the families wandering by with ice cream. It's also a place where you can dine out with friends at a trendy café, and then, while waiting for a night bus, hear blood-chilling screams coming from a second-floor window of the Bab Touma police station. In the street, Syrians cast each other knowing glances, but no one says a word. Someone might be listening.

The Assad regime hasn't stayed in power for nearly 40 years by playing nice. It has survived a tough neighborhood--bordered by Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey--by a combination of guile and cozying up to more powerful countries, first the Soviet Union and now Iran. In a state of war with Israel since 1948, Syria provides material support to the Islamist groups of Hezbollah and Hamas; it's also determined to reclaim the Golan Heights, a Syrian plateau captured by Israel in 1967. Relations with the United States, rarely good, turned particularly dire after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, when George W. Bush, citing Syria's opposition to the war and support for Iraqi insurgents, threatened regime change in Damascus and demonized Syria's young president as a Middle Eastern prince of darkness.

Read Don Belt's full article in the November 2009 back issue of National Geographic here.

View Ed Kashi's amazing full gallery here.

View a selection of the the amazing photos below. Photos and captions are courtesy of National Geographic: