Letter to a friend:
“My Road to Damascus”


My friend,

Syria is now at the first page of the News magazines! A different story than Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt! I have entertained relationships, done business, cut deals, and negotiate contracts in each of these countries. My “road to Damascus” has been by far the most difficult!!

Everywhere I have met very good people, knowledgeable, dedicated, friendly and very often highly educated, very sophisticated, showing a high level of culture; but limited, constrained, completely impeached, blocked by the system in which they were living.

When I joined Submarcom in 1977, the company was trying to recover the last payments (30%) of a project Alexandria-Beyrouth-Damascus recently installed. The land segment Beyrouth-Damascus was a microwave system. Few days after the system acceptance, one of the microwave poles had been blown up. Visiting the Lebanese PTT, it was decided to pay a joined visit to Damascus. This short trip by car (80 km) ended up into a very long journey. Our car had to go through several barrages of various types of fighters! What did strike me the most in Syria was the large regional map on the wall behind the desk of the PTT minister: neither Lebanon, neither Israel was represented, but only the Great Syria. Syria was not accepting the existence of these two countries. We have never been paid!

This did not discourage us to bid for and win in 1978 the contract for the implementation of Syria (Tartus) - Greece (Crete) cable.The leader of the team with whom we negotiated the T’s and C’s was a very nice and capable fellow from the transmission department, but we slowly found out that he was closely monitored by a couple of representatives from the “political level”; it was à la soviet union ! After several weeks, we finally managed to initial the various pages of the document. What I saw as the end of a long process, was in fact the beginning of another long and underground battle! I came back to Damascus every month of a full year in hope to speed up the process. This, at least, gives me the opportunity to visit some interesting spot such as Palmyra in the desert!

The formal execution of the contract was pending upon the signature of the State President Assad! Our local agent explained to us that each time our file was close to be signed by Assad “somebody” working in favor of our competitor, was putting the file down the pile of paper! One evening he brought me to a private house at midnight for an informal meeting. I spent an hour, listening the music of the Arabic language. I will learn later on that it was the prime minister’ house!

The green light was finally obtained, and the contract signature planned in Athens at the minister’s level. It was supposed to be a 12 O’clock formal ceremony, followed by a 1pm lunch in an old Greek club

That day, the Syrian delegation showed up late, around 1.30. My Syrian counterpart requested a short review meeting while the ministers were waiting next door .In reality the Syrians were there with a list of35 “small changes” requested by the “political commission”!! I was very embarrassed but so was the Syrian team which I could pickup through their body language! It was finally manageable!

The lunch took place from 3 to 5 pm! I discover at that moment not only the Greek and Syrian ministers but also the French PTT minister who had decided to extend its visit in Athens to put a bit of pressure on this process!

A year later I was invited to join the Syrian PTT team, traveling in convoy from Damascus to Tartus through Homs for the system opening ceremony. I do remember our entry in Tartous, surrounded by local guards running and shouting alongside our cars, their Kalashnikov hanging dangerously in their hands! At the end of the formal banquet all these guesses, exclusively civil servants and military, were smoking big Cuban cigars, “coming from Moscow”!

The Damascene conversion led Paul of Tarsus to cease persecuting people. Let’s dream that the young president Assad got suddenly a similar illumination “on the road to Damascus”

Jean Devos
Submarcom consulting
AQEST Senior Advisor

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