I set out in the morning to go about the time consuming process of obtaining the necessary permissions from the Syrian government to travel to a neighborhood in Damascus to do some reporting.  Katsia, located on the outskirts of Syria’s capital, had been under siege by Al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army until a month ago.  The government had reached a reconciliation with the rebels and the military retook control of the neighborhood.  What this really means is that they reconciled with the civilians living there, as the rebels simply withdrew to other positions.

The ministry of information was located about ten minutes away from my hotel by taxi.  The interior is mostly abandoned, as it is the former headquarters of the Baath Party newspaper.  As with every other building, hotel, or hole-in-the-wall street shop, portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are on the walls.  Stepping off the elevator at the eighth floor, the media office for foreign journalists was welcoming.

I really did like the people who worked in this office, having had previous dealings with them.  They were good to go, but had to work within the institutional framework in which they had been placed, or the national operating system as President Assad told me in a interview.  The ministry of information was also struggling with the sudden influx of Western journalists, who as you can imagine, are often difficult to accommodate.  This was billed as a type of new openness to Western journalism, as the government came to realize since they were allowing very few journalists into the country, that we all went and hung out with the Kurds, some with the FSA, and many others using dubious spokesmen and activists in rebel held territories as sources.

Panelists at the conference I attended in Damascus scolded and chastised the journalists in attendance, complaining of Western media lies about the Syrian government.  A young female Syrian journalist carried on at length about the lies of the “corporate” media.  We were told that we should come and see the other side of the war, and report the truth.

The media office granted my permission to travel to Katsia that day and do my story on the reconciliation process, a story that reflects well on the Syrian government.  However, since the neighborhood was still militarized, we also had to receive permission from the Ministry of Defense.  No problem, I thought.  With a translator and minder assigned to me from the media office, we jumped into another cab and headed to the nearby military base to talk to the officer in charge of civil-military relations.

Going through a checkpoint, we entered a large walled off military installation and walked down the street to visit the relevant office.  Proceeding upstairs, we walked into a office to meet the Syrian military officer we needed to see.  A desk sat at the end of the room flanked by couches, a computer workstation in the corner of the office.  The first thing I noticed was two gentlemen in Syrian military fatigues, but one of them looked quite out of place with his red hair and blue eyes.  The Syrian officer came from behind his desk and shook our hands.

After some requisite formalities, the Syrian officer asked us to sit down and began making small talk.  This is quite common in the region so I was happy to sit around talking about family, the weather, or politics for a bit.  As the conversation progressed, the two gentlemen sitting across from me on the opposite couch simply stared into me, unblinking.  The Syrian officer never introduced them.  Looking at the computer screen in the corner of the room, I noticed that it displayed a Russian news site with Cyrillic writing.  A streaming video was playing of Vladimir Putin talking.

My happy face
My happy face

The conversation with the Syrian military officer got increasingly surreal.  He told me that a lot of American journalists come to Syria and lie to him about their nationality, saying they are British or Danish.  I laughed and showed him my blue passport, assuring him that I would not lie to him.  He then gave me the mandatory speech about how the Western media tells lies about the Syrian government and how American foreign policy is wrong.