Foreign reporters have generally been banned from Syria since anti-government protests began in March, forcing them to rely on citizen journalism and even sneak across the Turkish border to cover the Syrian refugee crisis. But today, as the country experiences yet another Friday of deadly clashes between security forces and protesters after prayers, a few Western journalists have touched down in Damascus after receiving 15-day visas. CNN's Hala Gorani, who arrived in the capital early this morning, tweeted that she was on a flight with six other people and found Syria's airport and her hotel deserted. Like their colleagues in Tripoli, the journalists are moving about under the strict supervision of Syrian government "minders."
The journalists paint a surreal picture of Damascus. On a trip to the old city, Gorani describes a small rally in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with demonstrators blaming the country's unrest on foreigners. Jeremy Thompson of Sky News (shown above) explains that, driving through the city, "there's no real sense of a country at war." He describes one scene at a mosque as "very peaceful" but adds that his regime escorts wouldn't take the journalists to other parts of the city where there were reports of anti-government protests, "for their own safety." CNN's Arwa Damon (one of the reporters who recently snuck across the Turkish border) observed that the scenes offered a "surreal contrast" with the "images of suffering" she'd seen from other parts of Syria. In this fascinating report entitled "A Tale of Two Syrias," Damon elaborates on her point as a loud speaker blares pro-regime music and vendors sell Assad t-shirts and party hats:
Why has the government changed its stance on foreign journalists? A Sky News official suggests to The Guardian,that the regime may have simply caved to the persistence of reporters in requesting access. But Sky News's Thompson offers another theory. "The very fact we are here," he muses, "suggests the government is worried that the "propaganda machine of the opposition" and "the videos they're putting out of the military repression is winning the hearts and minds at the moment" rather than its own message (in one of the regime's first talking points, an official asks Damon why the world is focused on 10,000 Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey when the U.S.-led Iraq War displaced millions). Syrian officials, in other words, may now subscribe to columnist George Hishmeh's point in Gulf News this week that giving "reporters an authenticated version of events" in Syria is better than briefing "suspecting reporters overseas." The regime also recently took America's ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, on a tour of the northwestern city of Jisr al-Shughour, where it claims "armed gangs" attacked security forces. As the AP noted, the State Department faced criticism for participating in such a "sanitized trip."
Yet even with the renewed access, scenes like this one--of protesters in Homs escaping gunfire today in the "other Syria"--remain out of the journalists' reach: