The Problem with Syria

Syria is a personal as well as a political conflict

syriaIn 2007 I spent a memorable and crazy week in Damascus setting up a blogging project with Syrian journalists and civil society activists.

Running a project in Syria at that time was not easy. Meetings with civil society actors had to be relatively clandestine. I had met some of them a few months earlier outside the country at a think tank event, which was supposedly very hush hush. The cloak and dagger nature of the meeting; the mistrust by US analysts of the information Syrian civil society activists were sharing felt like a return to the Cold War.

 This caution was not misplaced. Syrians civil society lived a twilight life. State employee by day, and activist by night. Arbitrary arrests, prison sentences, and suddenly dropped charges. It was a cat and mouse existence. In peacetime then it seemed like a game that perpetuated the adversarial politics of both sides.

 Officially Syria had both a civil society sector and a new independent media. The reality however was that the civil society groups were set up by the Assad family, and represented no-one. The media was independent but it did not report news, and the stations were easily controlled because they were owned by families with Assad family connections.

 In parallel there existed an unofficial civil society grassroots movement that ostensibly functioned on little money campaigning for local issues. We met with one such group from Aleppo.

 Once in Damascus it was strange to find that the people organizing these unofficial groups were well connected with ministry staff. We hesitated when it was suggested we go and meet the Deputy Minister of Information. We were on tourist visas, our translator was an activist, we were planning to run a media project funded by the US State Department in a country with no free press.

 But once there everyone knew everyone else. Multiple-interest hat wearing seemed to be de rigeur. One section head ran his own media training centre. It seemed to be a private venture, and he was happy to channel US government funding through his own books, despite his role as a key propagandist for an anti-Western government.

 The media centre itself was fascinating. Staffed with five young public relations professionals. I was the third foreigner to have graced it doors after a Lebanese Hezbollah leader and George Galloway, whose images were displayed around the room. The story had changed. This was an “independent” PR organization for the regime.

 Doors had opened. And they opened primarily because few people spoke English and Russian was the preferred language of choice. My ability to speak Russian suddenly transcended politics. Therefore the Ministry invited us to dinner in the delightful old town.

What was extraordinary about the meal was we were gatecrashing a dinner between the Syrian Ministry of Information and the President Putin’s press corps.

 The  complication was the press corps had been in Damascus a week, to clinch an interview prior to his official state visit to Moscow the following week. It was clear the Ministry of Information had been unable to arrange this. I had been briefed that Syrian ministries had no sway over the actions of the President and his family, but it was fascinating to see this at close hand. The Russians were furious. They were alarmed that two British tourists (1 Russian-speaking) were also at the table. Moreover these ‘journalists” were based in the Kremiln – they were like no other Russian journalist I had met before. Impatient and lacking curiosity, they could not believe they had been unable to clinch an interview.

 Desperately the Syrian ministry officials brought out the vodka. Toasts were fast and furious. “Death to Israel” being a popular Syrian option. Oddly the BBC’s Brian Hanrahan walked through the restaurant during one set of such toasts. This was embarrassing. Primarily because we had met him and chatted for 20 minutes earlier that day souvenir hunting in the souk, and explained we were on holiday. So three hours later there we were with the Ministry of Information’s head of international department  – who he must have known - making loud toasts in Russian.

 Then we saw the other side. We organized a meeting with a disgraced MP. Disgraced because he had been close to the president and then spoken out against him. The meeting was to take place in the hotel lobby. Five minutes before our agreed time the atmosphere changed. Men in black suits emerged at every doorway. Guests disappeared. The hotel manager appeared and took my colleague to one side, calling him by his name and repeated parts of conversations that had been held in his hotel room only.

 This was Syrian life. One night dining with the state propagandists – the next under very public state security scrutiny.

Two years ago I met a Syrian radio station manager who was a friend of my contacts there. I mentioned my impression of the games that you needed to play as a Syrian. She agreed, but said that the conflict (still in its early stages) had forced families to make a choice. The games had gone. Brothers, parents and partners had split over the conflict. Families who had coexisted on political multi-tasking were being rendered apart.

 Whoever deals with the aftermath of the Syrian conflict is going to have to deal with the fact that individuals will be traumatised on a political, ethnic and religious level -  but even more so on a personal level. 






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