Countries in war can make surprising tourist destinations. This is one objective of the Syrian government. It wants to forge an incongruous association with the leisure of travel. Its borders admit carefully chosen foreigners in the pursuit of that aim.
It hopes the visitors will paint a picture of a country at liberty and peace, not at war – if they can overlook the destruction and depopulation of cities like Aleppo and Homs and the prominent posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that predominate even among the ruins.
Some foreigners are admitted on scarce tourist visas and conducted, for a significant fee, by government-approved fixers around Syria’s major cities, as well as historic sites that occupy a small but significant place in state propaganda.
Others, including those in the media and people with political and cultural connections, are toured by bus around the country. They are shown model classrooms, meet with figures associated with the regime and are placed before nominally independent bloggers and other visitors who give the state’s line on its conflict.
In April 2018, one such tour took shape. It was led, if not directed, by British Baroness Caroline Cox and included minor politicians, journalists and the British Anglican priest Giles Fraser. Its moments of absurdity were documented by a member of the tour, Gareth Browne, who wrote a series of dispatches for The National describing what Cox termed ‘the crazy club’.
Less critical comment has been elicited by the members of a tour presently in progress. This tour includes American writers and activists, some of whom are employed by Russian state-aligned media, and has broadly centred on attempts to demonstrate a Syria at peace and leisure under the Assad regime.
Participants include Max Blumenthal, son of Sidney Blumenthal, an associate of Bill and Hillary Clinton; Rania Khalek, an American-Lebanese producer for In the NOW, a Russian-funded website and social media presence; Ajamu Baraka, an activist who was the Green Party’s candidate for vice-president of the United States in 2016; and others in organised labour and ‘anti-war’ circles.
Social media posts by the group herald, in Khalek’s phrase, ‘breathtaking view[s]’ of locations such as Sednaya, which holds a notorious prison where thousands of people are alleged to have been killed by the state, and, per Blumenthal, the number of bars that have apparently opened in the old city of Damascus.
The regime’s opponents, when they are mentioned, are described as jihadists who sought and failed to tamp down the desire of Syrians to consume alcohol and cohabit without marriage.
Recent tours by French and British far-right figures struck similar notes. Thierry Mariani, a member of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party, tweeted about the French wine he was enjoying near Sednaya on a similar excursion in August. Nick Griffin, who was formerly leader of the British National Party, has made many trips to Syria in a similar vein.
These journeys coalesce around similar themes. One is the Syrian regime’s desire to associate itself with Western-style amusements, such as bars and nightlife, in contrast to the death and violence with which its forces are most commonly associated.
The aim of the tours is also to suggest that privation and poverty in Syria are the product of international sanctions. Sanctions are presented, by Blumenthal and others, as an undeclared war against Assad, with graver economic consequences for Syrians than a decade of real conflict.
Even without making these points explicitly, those who tour the country uncritically serve to cement these propagandist themes.
Syrian oppositionists and human rights activists are therefore motivated to rebut the claims of visitors like these but other questions emerge: What effect do these propaganda tours have? Do they directly influence the small-to-medium audiences of the media figures in question, or in generating dissension and argument as those on tour are mocked and criticised by established journalists and analysts? The latter risks spreading the propaganda in question further, amid a cloud of acrimony.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a co-founder, with David Nott, of Doctors Under Fire, noted the other side of the propaganda.
‘I was in Idlib only three weeks ago with David Nott … I saw the devastation for myself. We were there during the Maat market bombing. We saw many children casualties being brought to the hospital in a shocking state’, de Bretton-Gordon said.
‘It is shocking that any Westerners are supporting this tyrannical regime. The regime has no morals and no scruples.’
On debating those live-tweeting their Syrian journeys, de Bretton-Gordon said: ‘Some of these people appear reasonable. Others are well known for their extreme views. What we have seen with Russian propaganda post-Salisbury is that if you put out enough propaganda, people start believing it.
‘We are giving them a platform. The odd comment now and again – so people know these people are frauds. They need to be called out but a stand up spat with them is going to get nowhere. If no one calls them out, people will start to believe.’
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.