Macron in Algeria: “An excellent and successful visit” towards reconciliation

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LONDON: Struggling with a bankrupt economy, devastated infrastructure and worthless currency, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime is on a desperate mission to mend relations with its neighbors and hasten its return to the Arab League.

Although global political rehabilitation remains a bridge too far, the Assad government has made some progress in rebuilding its ties with Arab states, as evidenced by the reopening of some embassies in Damascus and the return of Syrian ambassadors. in some Arab capitals.

As active conflict wanes across large swaths of Syria – remaining rebel factions are confined to isolated resisters in the far south and northwest – the regime has increasingly turned to tourism in an attempt to whitewash his well-documented crimes against humanity.

In recent months, Western travel bloggers and YouTubers have flocked to regime-controlled areas of Syria in record numbers in search of images and testimonials they say offer a candid, agenda-free look at the pariah dictatorship. .

This type of content, which includes videos that have in some cases racked up more than 2.5 million views, is often presented as a perspective on “Syria that the media won’t show”, as Benjamin Rich, a British vlogger who goes by the YouTube username “Bald and Bankrupt” put it in a recent upload.

Benjamin Rich (“Bald and Bankrupt”) filming destroyed buildings in Homs. (Provided)

But observers and human rights experts fear this rise in ‘war tourism’ is projecting a sanitized version of reality that serves the regime’s disinformation campaign that Syria is now safe for refugees to come back and resume a normal life.

“Travel bloggers are perhaps the best publicity the Syrian government has had in over a decade,” Simon Bayley, senior Syria analyst at the Center for Operations Analysis and Research, told Arab News.

“They only tell stories the government would tell, cover up the crimes of the state, and overlook realities the government would consider best ignored. There can be no accountability, only more denial, control and marginalization of the millions of Syrians who have lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods as a result of the regime’s actions.

In several videos, the bloggers seem to want to emphasize the sense of safety and normalcy in Syria, for example by emphasizing how “perfectly safe” they feel, as YouTube user “Backpacker Ben” put it in one of his videos. “We were walking around, drinking beers in the street, talking to people,” he said.

‘Backpacker Ben’ films a destroyed rebel stronghold in Maaloula, in the Damascus countryside. (Provided)

But the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, a human rights organization based in Washington, DC, warned that content uploaded by travel bloggers creates a false impression of stability and security.

“Syria is clearly not safe for the return of refugees,” Mohammed Al-Abdallah, the center’s executive director, told Arab News. “But, if you watch these videos, you see a safe, stable and, in some ways, prosperous Syria.”

The videos also seem to suggest that the conflict in the country is largely over and life is returning to normal.

“Syrians returning to Syria do not have the same experiences and often face intense suspicion and persecution from the Syrian government,” Al-Abdallah said.

According to human rights monitors, including the European Asylum Support Office, the Syrian regime continues to arrest, detain, interrogate, torture and kill returnees, although many of them obtained security clearances and a status settlement before returning to Syria.

“For millions of Syrians, returning to Syria is not an option,” Laila Kiki, executive director of rights watchdog group The Syria Campaign, told Arab News.

“Several human rights reports indicate that those who do so have been arrested, subjected to enforced disappearances, tortured or even killed.”

“Backpacker Ben” told Arab News that he had no political agenda and was unaware of the situation facing returning refugees. He said that since he posted his videos, displaced Syrians have sent him messages expressing their “confusion” at seeing, of all people, a tourist visiting their war-torn homeland.

INNUMBERS

100,000+ Estimated number of people missing or missing.

50% Proportion of pre-war population displaced.

90% Share of remaining population currently living in poverty.

Source: United Nations Human Rights Office

Many travel bloggers call themselves apolitical and know little about the Syrian conflict. Some, however, try to explain the scenes of destruction they encounter and film during their travels. Many critics suspect they are merely repeating and amplifying talking points passed on to them by regime-licensed tour guides.

For example, videos uploaded by Rich (“Bald and Bankrupt”) show bombed buildings in Aleppo, Homs and Maaloula. Tellingly, he attributes the damage to “militants” with no mention of the Assad regime, whose war tactics are widely blamed for much of the destruction of Syria’s urban infrastructure.

Thomas Brag (“Yes Theory”) in the abandoned neighborhoods of Homs. (Provided)

When travel bloggers are shown around Damascus, many of them venture to the nearby town of Sednaya to visit a renowned monastery of the Greek Orthodox Church. What these bloggers often overlook is the fact that one of Syria’s most notorious prisons, where thousands of regime opponents were tortured to death, is also in Sednaya.

Bloggers’ tours are usually arranged through Syrian travel agencies that claim to be independent. However, experts say these agencies, like all other businesses in the country, must obtain the approval of the Assad regime to operate.

Jaabar Citadel, the ancient lakeside fortress once used by jihadists to launch attacks, is slowly regaining its status as a top cultural destination. (AFP)

“For a country in which it is virtually impossible to establish a voluntary charitable initiative without considerable – often totally prohibitive – interference from the central state, it is unlikely that a Syrian travel agency could have obtained the licenses, authorizations and required access without some form of state intervention,” Bayley said.

These travel agencies are carefully vetted by state security services, he said, and are likely to be well aware of the consequences for their business if their visits result in bad publicity for the regime.

“Ben routard” said he was accompanied throughout his visit to Syria by a “repairman” who guided him through the country. He admitted to feeling “slightly constrained” as a result. These guides seem to be staying in the same hotels as their tour groups.

A family visits the ruins of the citadel of Jaabar in Syria’s Raqqa province on June 3, 2022. The ancient lakeside fortress attracts visitors from across war-torn Syria. (AFP)

Hesham Nasri, marketing director of Syrian travel agency Golden Team, told Arab News that tour operators usually take care of the whole process for foreign customers, from obtaining visas to creating itineraries. .

He said the agency asks government authorities for all required security clearances on behalf of clients wishing to visit Syria, as well as permits that allow tourists and their guides to travel through the country.

Although Nasri said there are no conditions attached to the security clearance process, Syrian immigration authorities have been known to reject visa applications from some nationalities, including US citizens.

What gullible travel bloggers fail to tell is the danger that awaits visitors to much of war-torn Syria. (AFP file)

Monitors say that by facilitating such organized tours for often uninformed and gullible travel bloggers, the regime is able to peddle its propaganda in cyberspace and circumvent the professional rigor of conventional journalism.

“Going forward, I hope those with an online presence are aware of the consequences of their actions in such a politically sensitive place,” Bayley said.

“Regardless of what is known about the conflict, it is abundantly clear that a war is still going on and that the wounds of this conflict are still very open for many millions of people.”

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