ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images

Syria rolls out the red carpet for influencers and friendly foreigners, while local reporters face death and prison

An elaborate disinformation campaign to show that stability has returned to Syria might be prompting countries to forcibly thrust Syrian refugees back into an ongoing civil war

Fared al-Mahlool was sixteen when the Syrian revolution began. Within months of its beginning in March 2011, he was skipping school and work, chasing the eruptions of protest and violence nearest to him. 

He recalls a particular protest on the first Friday of October 2011, in Maarat al-Numan, a city in rural Idlib, his hometown. He joined swaths of protesters marching towards the city’s state buildings. Above them, Syrian military helicopters followed. The protesters, al-Mahlool insists, were peaceful. But right as they reached the row of state buildings, the helicopters above began to fire, obliterating the buildings in a cloud of smoke. 

The next morning, the Assad regime blamed the protesters for the destruction. Headlines, he said, in compliant newspapers declared that the protesters had lost control and burned the buildings down. “It was then I learned this is what I had to do,” he said. “I had to tell the truth.”

Fared al-Mahlool, one of the few independent journalists still left in Syria. Photo courtesy of Fared al-Mahlool.

Now a journalist and researcher, al-Mahlool lives and works in a country that is among the most dangerous in the world for reporters. The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that 711 journalists have been murdered since the revolution began in 2011. In 2022 alone, a spokesperson from Reporters Without Borders told me, at least one Syrian journalist has been murdered, ten have been imprisoned, and four taken hostage. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Syria is behind only Somalia as a country in which journalists are killed with impunity.

“Syria is a country at war,” the independent journalist Doja Daoud said. “So you’re not safe naturally. You don’t have your basic needs and you have to beg for them.” 

More than a decade of civil war has destroyed Syria’s media sector. Though the months following the civil war’s onset brought about a brief resurgence in journalism across the country — nearly 119 new publications emerged — that renaissance was short-lived. The Syrian regime quickly began to use oppressive tactics to silence those who challenged them: murdering, imprisoning, censoring and discrediting journalists they regarded as inconvenient. The only news outlets that survive within the country are closely tied to the government. Reporters Without Borders ranks Syria at 171 out of 180 countries in this year’s Press Freedom Index.

The only journalists who thrive in Syria today are those who serve as mouthpieces for the Syrian and Russian regimes. Many of these mouthpieces include American-based, far-left websites such as The Grayzone and MintPress News. Idrees Ahmed, an editor at global affairs magazine New Lines, says such friendly foreign media, even if obscure and dismissed by the mainstream, has “made the job of propaganda easier for [authoritarians].” 

In September for example, a Grayzone article claimed that the White Helmets, a civil defense group responsible for significant reporting on Syrian atrocities and the saving of hundreds of thousands of lives, corrupted the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) investigation into the 2018 Douma chemical attack. 

Among those who shared the article on Twitter was the Russian Embassy in Sweden. In a report by human rights organization The Syria Campaign, in the seven years since Russia’s intervention in Syria, the White Helmets have been targeted by more than 21,000 tweets designed to discredit them.  

Among the best known peddlers of disinformation about the White Helmets and the Syrian civil war is the US-born Canadian commentator and self-described “independent journalist” Eva Bartlett, who became prominent in 2016 after a video of her claiming, among other things, that the bombing of a hospital by Syrian forces that left 55 people dead was a piece of rebel disinformation. Bartlett, who writes for the Kremlin-funded Russia Today website, accused the White Helmets of transporting children to different sites as propaganda tools.

Despite the claims quickly being debunked, and despite the fact that Bartlett was not working “independently” — in the weeks leading up to that conference she went on a regime-chaperoned trip through Aleppo where she can be seen wearing an “I <3 Bashar” wristband — the video spread like wildfire, fueled mostly by the backing of various Russian-funded media. As recently as March 2022, it’s been viewed nearly ten million times across a variety of platforms. In the years since that incident, Bartlett has built a devoted audience through her outlandish pro-Assad claims.

She and a few other marginal Western journalists became Assad boosters, and by extension supporters of Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria, in exchange for a public profile and platform that they had never previously enjoyed. “These are people who are not exactly accustomed to this kind of attention,” Idrees Ahmed told me.

Bartlett currently resides in Russia and has over 124,000 followers on Twitter. The disinformation campaign in which she voluntarily participates has moved on from using foreign journalists to selectively “debunk” the Western mainstream media’s “narrative” about Syria to using foreign influencers to normalize the Assad regime. Since last year, the Syrian government has been giving visas to travelers to make videos that promote the country as essentially stable — a safe, effectively governed tourist destination. Bartlett, naturally, contributed to the effort with a column in RT last year arguing that a “war-torn country becoming a tourist destination is a good thing.”

This past summer, local tour operators reported an uptick in Western tourism and Syria’s Ministry of Tourism has already claimed the year as a grand success, announcing that the country received nearly 700,000 visitors during the first half of 2022, a figure that many analysts say is dubious.

Men ride bicycles past damaged buildings at the Yarmuk refugee camp in the southern suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus on November 2, 2022. Photo by LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images.

It’s proving to be an effective formula: make life impossible for independent journalists looking to report as truthfully as possible from Syria, and roll out the red carpet for foreigners to trot out the government line. “For the regime, it works,” Ahmed says sardonically, “and for Western governments, these types of things become useful.”

What he means is that Western governments can use the manufactured image of a stable Syria to force refugees to return. The Danish government, for instance, having accepted tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, has started to reassess and revoke the status of refugees on the grounds that Damascus and its environs are safe. And just weeks ago, Turkey, which has taken in millions of Syrian refugees, reportedly rounded up refugees, including unaccompanied minors, and forced them to return to Syria at gunpoint. It “now looks like Turkey is trying to make northern Syria a refugee dumping ground,” said a researcher at Human Rights Watch. 

In May, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he planned to resettle a million Syrian refugees in northern Syria. More recently he has suggested that relations with Syria could be normalized, a far cry from his statement, in December 2017, that Assad was “a terrorist who has carried out state terrorism.”

Doja Daoud, the independent journalist from Lebanon, told me that in Jordan, “many Syrian journalists face deportation risks and smear campaigns against them.” She says the Assad regime’s disinformation campaigns are having an effect primarily because “Syria is a blackout country for the media.” She despairs, she says, that “Syrian stories no longer matter in the eyes of the global public.” While influencers and regime-friendly journalists are welcomed into Syria, Daoud says, many of the reporters she knows who cover the war from Lebanon no longer have jobs because most international publications no longer devote space to the now prolonged conflict.  

If the result of a lack of serious coverage of Syria is that refugees are forced to return to a supposedly stable country, Daoud says, the consequences will be disastrous. Switching to Arabic, she told me, “we’re going to see massacres again. We’re going to see our friends disappear.”

For Syrian journalists like al-Mahlool, though, there’s no choice but to persevere. In 2019, his home was bombed by Syrian planes. He remembers dragging his aunt out of the debris, her body wrapped in bedsheets. 

“I’m still afraid my home will be bombed again,” he tells me. “But I must continue to share the truth of my people and the struggles we face.”

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