Opinion: Journey bloggers visiting Syria are normalizing the Assad regime

Syrians search the rubble of a destroyed building in Balyun, northwest Idlib province, on December 8, 2019, one day after a reported Russian air strike on a market in the village.

AAREF WATAD / AFP / Getty Images

Neil Hauer is a Canadian journalist and analyst who writes on Russia, Syria and the Caucasus in Yerevan, Armenia.

There are roughly two main groups of people talking about what a normal and stable place Syria is today. The first is the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus and his allies. For this camp, such a narrative is entirely to be expected and natural, if misleading and unconstructive. Mr al-Assad is keen to portray the conflict as over: he wants to accelerate its readmission into the international arena and ensure the funding and legitimacy of global institutions after he has largely “won” the civil war. Its partners have similar motivations, and Russia regularly trumpets about what a safe place Syria is today for refugees to return home to reduce engagement.

The second group is much less expected. This is the crush of western travel bloggers who have come to the country in the past few months. Equipped with a backpack, handheld video camera and a YouTube channel full of fundraising requests, the travel blogger’s approach and motivation is vastly different from that of the Syrian government – but the message and the result are the same.

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The average travel blogger’s trip to Syria looks something like this: fly to Damascus and head straight to the Old City. Stroll through some souks, take selfies with various vendors and passers-by (who are always smiling and not complaining) and discover that Damascus actually has bars – always explaining a key feature of “normality”. Then take a trip north and maybe stop in Homs or Krak des Chevaliers, depending on what off-screen government officials have allowed, before rushing into Aleppo. Make your way back to the city center, sticking to the largely intact western half of the city (you know, the one that wasn’t destroyed by four years of government air strikes). Perhaps provide a few secondary clues about the war – always in passive time, as if 90 percent of the destruction was caused by an act of God rather than the man whose government approved your tourist visa. Finally, ask others to visit this newly undiscovered gem and the title with a twist on “Syria – It’s Not What You Think!”.

Aleppos al-Saqatiyah Market, seen below on January 21, 2017 and above, after renovations, on July 27, 2019.

Hassan Ammar / The Associated Press

The most striking feature of these videos is that the event that has defined Syria for the past decade – the brutal civil war that killed more than half a million people and displaced more than half of the country’s population – has been sidelined gets occasionally in passing. The desire to avoid such a depressing topic is understandable. Most travel writing avoids politics, and the desire to show that Syria as a country and Syrians as a people are defined not only by war but by the richness of their history and culture is commendable.

But the war is not an old story. It is something that still occurs today and the consequences of which are felt by millions of Syrians every day. A few dozen kilometers west of the citadel of Aleppo, popular with travel bloggers, an indiscriminate bombing campaign against more than three million civilians is continuing in the province of Idlib. To the east of the citadel tens of thousands of civil houses lie abandoned and destroyed. Its residents are forcibly (and likely permanently) evicted by the Assad government, which it considers disloyal. The busy streets of Damascus are close to prisons such as the infamous Mezze prison, where thousands of prisoners were (and are) starved to death and executed, mostly just to demonstrate against the Assad regime. Bloggers praise the virtues of the Syrian restaurant scene, while the vast majority of the country’s remaining population depends on United Nations food aid to survive.

Ignoring or downplaying these “uncomfortable” realities – realities that are often fatal to actual Syrian residents – go hand in hand with the goals of the Assad government. Only by entering Syria have travel bloggers concluded a contract with the ruling regime in which only Damascus’ desired position may be expressed. The ubiquitous government officials who have told me they are allowed to accompany overseas travelers who have been granted a visa ensure bloggers are never able to interact with locals without an atmosphere of fear and compulsion, and that themselves a moment of hesitation in correctly answering a question could lead to imprisonment and torture. To portray Syria as a “normal” country under these circumstances is a deeply difficult and immoral choice.

As someone who regularly travels to another area – Chechnya – ruled by one of the world’s worst human rights abusers, I sometimes face the same questions asked by both others and myself: don’t help and normalize this Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime? There are some key differences. First, little or nothing of my money goes into direct funding of the hideous Chechen government – I stay with local friends, not the colorful state hotels, and spend money in local restaurants and markets. Second, my discussions of contemporary Chechnya, while noting the incredible warmth and hospitality of the people and the beauty of the country, always highlight the atrocities that the government regularly commits there. If Mr Kadyrov read any of my articles on Chechnya, he would probably be very dissatisfied. From what I’ve seen, the exact opposite would be true for Mr al-Assad, who is watching one of the YouTubers who have visited Syria in the past few months. If travel bloggers highlighted these realities of Syria, their reports about the country could appear in a different light. However, such reservations are not often found.

Before 2011, Syria was a truly great place to travel to with some of the most hospitable people in the world. Hopefully one day it can happen again, although under the current circumstances it looks like it will be many years or decades before something that is nearing normal can return to the country. But the current reality remains. Visiting Syria as a tourist in 2020 is deeply cynical and non-compassionate at best. At worst, it serves as an accessory for some of the worst war crimes and human rights abuses the world has seen in recent times.

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