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.
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.
Next, he inquired about the indigenous population of America. I assumed he was talking about the American Indians and asked through the translator. That was who he wanted to mention, then asked me for more information about them. Given limited time and speaking through a translator I made some rather simplistic statements about the difference between the plains Indians in the American West and those found where I grew up in the Northeast.
“Do they have their rights?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I answered. “They have the right to vote, are full American citizens, and they even have their own land.”
He continued on, undeterred.
“I want to ask you on behalf of all of the Syrian people, that you should give the Indians their rights.”
The next mandatory propaganda sermon he gave was about how America is allied with ISIS and helping them expand, while the real help against fighting ISIS comes from the Russians. This isn’t exactly true as the Russians have mostly targeted anti-Assad rebels, but not ISIS. This makes a certain amount of strategic sense as the Syrian government has many front lines with FSA rebels but not so many with ISIS, but it all makes for a good talking point.
I listened intently, the two Russians sitting across from me continuing to stare right through me when they were not occasionally talking to each other in Russian about something. As he finished, I spoke up and said that I wish America could reach a better agreement with Russia and Syria about fighting the Jihadists, as this would be best for the world. The Syrian officer nodded in agreement before telling me that my permission to visit Katsia would be granted.
Thanking the officer, I shook his hand to say good bye. On the way out, I made a point to shake hands with the two Russian military personnel. They seemed sheepish by this point and did not appear to speak much if any Arabic. I was happy to put this leg of the journey behind me and get on with some actual reporting from a recently liberated area of the city.
It took close to a hour to drive out to Katsia, mostly due to the military check points that are all over the city. Thankfully, we now had to right permissions to navigate our way out there. At the last checkpoint before Katsia, we stopped and the Ministry of Information assigned minder got out to talk to the checkpoint guards. After about half and hour of sitting around, I walked over to see what was going on.
As it turns out, today was a special day, and we could not access Katsia. Come back tomorrow, I was told. Of course I began asking questions. Why is today different? What’s going on? No answer. Why can’t we go inside when MOD gave us permission. Oh, the local sector commander said that today no media can go inside the neighborhood. Who is the sector commander? No answer. Where is he? No answer. Obviously this sector commander didn’t actually exist.
We called back to the MOD office and the officer we had spoken to had a “gosh darnit” moment. Suddenly, he remembered that we can’t go to Katsia today. Maybe we should come back tomorrow he suggested, something that he knew I couldn’t do because I told him I was leaving the next day. This was the old bait and switch. He told me yes to get me out of his office, had me drive all the way out there, and then changed his mind and said no. That, or a random checkpoint soldier had more power than the Ministry of Defense. Considering the haphazard manner in which the Syrian government does not appear to trust itself, there are serious questions as to who is really in charge of what.
I could speculate all day as to why I was denied access to Katsia after I was given all of the relevant permissions by the Syrian government. Maybe there were Iranian or Russian troops in Katsia that they didn’t want me to see. Maybe they were afraid that the civilians there would tell me about war crimes committed by the Syrian troops. Maybe after my meeting with the Ministry of Defense officer, the red haired, blue eyed Russian looked over at the Syrian officer, shook his head and said “nyet.” Or maybe they just said no because they could, because their paranoia about Western journalists is such that they will scold us on one hand but deny us access on the other.
The Syrian government did a lot of whining about Western journalists while I was in Damascus. They complained that we only talk about alleged war crimes committed by the Syrian regime, without any factual evidence. They bemoaned the Western corporate media (which I’ve never been a part of by the way) that promotes a bias and agenda. We were told that Western journalists never come to Syria and talk about the war crimes the rebels commit.
I set out to write a story about the Syrian government’s attempts of reconciliation with rebel held areas, but the government wouldn’t let me, so I wrote this one instead.