Poster of President Bashar al Assad in Syrian street. Photo by Nicole See
Syria’s government is not usually hospitable to Western journalists, and officials in Damascus’ Ministry of Information seemed as surprised as my teammates, Nikki See, Tom Adair and I were that we’d received visas to enter.
Instead of hostility, however, we were greeted with apologies for the confusion. The exasperating delays notwithstanding, we did manage to get a decent snapshot of conditions in the country. Syria is among a handful of countries (North Korea and Myanmar are others) where just being allowed in is a coup.
Once in, though, there was a nagging sense of worry — about lacking time, about trying officials’ patience and, most critically, about imperiling the livelihoods or safety of people willing to share their concerns with us. There’s a keen sense of the lines one does not cross, we were told. Politically, this means any criticism of President Bashar al Assad and certain topics related to religion and ethnic groups, notably the country’s Kurdish minority, are off limits.
“I’m aware of where the red lines are and where they aren’t,” said journalist Yahya Alous, who spent two years in prison for straying into political topics that apparently went over those lines. Others told me that one of the biggest challenges is in knowing where those red lines are, and predicting when they might shift. Despite official pronouncements about media opening up, there’s widespread wariness and self-censorship on the part of journalists. Said one, “I’m afraid that every journalist will become his own ministry of information.”
All of this clouds the intelligence about if– and to what extent — Syria might erupt with the kind of street protests seen in so many Arab cities in recent weeks. Calls for uprising on social media outlets, many of them from outside the country, have so far not garnered more crowds of more than a couple hundred people, which are usually quickly dispersed by security men.
For me, the one big missed opportunity was to update the status of Iraqi refugees in Syria. Between the time lost waiting for the various bureaucratic approvals and what seemed like official reticence, we weren’t able to explore the subject in much depth or on camera. It is clearly an under-told story.
Eight years after the start of the war in Iraq, newcomers continue to flow in from Syria’s violence-plagued eastern neighbor. People we spoke with were quick to blame the U.S.-led invasion for the refugees’ plight, although how much of a burden they’ve placed on the Syrians themselves is an open question. Despite continuing U.S. sanctions on Syria (mainly for its alliance with Iran and militant allies Hamas and Hezbollah), more than $100 million in American aid is funneled through the U.N. to provide for the welfare of the displaced Iraqis. These refugees now make up almost one-tenth of Syria’s population of 22 million.
Their plight, and its origins in sectarian conflict, give many Syrians pause. In some critical ways, Syria resembles Iraq prior to 2003. Syria is 70 percent Sunni, 15 percent Shiite, Alawite and Druze and 10 percent Christian (of multiple traditions), and the regime has held it together by enforcing a rigid secularism. Some analysts feel the possibility that this country might descend into the kind of strife seen in its neighbors — both Iraq and Lebanon — may well be keeping a few Syrians from taking to the streets.