“These trips, they make you feel important. And I think that’s why some people go on them.”
Last month journalist Gareth Browne spent a week in Syria as part of a British parliamentary, religious, and media delegation invited by the Assad regime to promote its lines on the 7-year conflict.
Browne speaks with Al-Jumhuriya English about what he witnessed in Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo, including the state of the country and the regime’s courting of Western visitors who can spread its message:
First of all, if you could just briefly introduce and explain the delegation; who it was organized by; who it was led by; who paid for it; who else, if you’re able to say, was in attendance.
As you’ve indicated, it was quite an interesting delegation. It was led by Baroness Caroline Cox, who is a member of the British House of Lords. There was another member of the British House of Lords, Lord Hugh Dykes….And then Rev. Andrew Ashdown, who is a British Anglican priest, was also a key organizer of the trip.
So those three individuals, I would say, were kind of the leaders of the delegation. I think we had a few last-minute dropouts, but there were about 19, including myself, that went. We had the parliamentarians, we had the clergy, there were some academics, there was a handful of journalists; and a few others who were, I guess, concerned citizens, you could almost say.
So it was quite a diverse group, it wasn’t all clergy, it wasn’t all parliamentarians, and with that there was also quite a strong diversity of opinion. This certainly, although we went in at the invitation of the regime, there were some people on the trip who were certainly not pro-regime….
Just to put listeners and readers in the picture who may not be familiar with Baroness Cox, she’s been several times, I believe, to Syria in the past. She’s met President Assad. She’s repeatedly come under fire for this, understandably, and has always very adamantly defended the idea. I think it’s fair to say at this point she is a relatively open sympathizer of the regime, for political and perhaps religious reasons as well. I believe you mentioned an Ashdown, he’s also been in the past, is that correct?
Yeah, they have. Andrew Ashdown, I think he’s been about 10 times to Syria since 2014.
I’m not exactly sure, but he goes there regularly. He was there, he told us, during the final stages of the Battle for Aleppo.
That’s right, yeah.
As an observer with the Syrian army. So, you know, he’s a regular visitor to Syria, within regime-held Syria, at least.
OK. So it began in Damascus. You were there just hours after Saturday’s strikes occurred, is that correct?
Yeah, we crossed from Beirut to Damascus, literally, I think it must have been about five hours after those strikes [US-UK-France missile attacks on April 14, responding to Assad regime’s chemical attacks on Douma a week earlier]….So it was obviously a really topical time. So we started off, we had a couple of days in Damascus, various meetings, then we headed north, we went to Homs, then up to Aleppo, and then we returned to Damascus on the final day.
And so on that morning, did you detect any anxiety in the mood and behavior of the people showing you around? Given that the strikes had just gone off?
Yeah, I mean, it was interesting. There was a lot of anxiety my end. I was kind of expecting the trip to be cancelled at any moment. And even now, I’m still surprised it went ahead, given the timing; such a sensitive issue and a sensitive time. But you know the organizers were adamant, they kind of said it’s far more important that the trip goes ahead now.
Once we got into Damascus, obviously I got the chance to speak to some Syrians. Now, I must caveat almost everything I say in this interview with: we had mukhabarat [regime security service] minders with us at almost all times throughout the trip. So that’s a very heavy, very significant caveat there.
That said, I still was able to have conversations with people. And there was, I detected…a strange sense of optimism or confidence. There was this feeling that, Oh, you know, these strikes could have been a lot worse, the Americans really haven’t done much damage to us. That was from both citizens, speaking to people in the Old City of Damascus, but also on the Monday, so barely 48 hours after the strike, chatting to Syrian parliamentarians. We met with about 20 MPs, and the Speaker of the Syrian Parliament. One of them said, “We had two victories – first, we captured Douma, and then we survived the US airstrikes.” So that kind of, I think, encapsulates it quite nicely….
More generally, this was obviously your first experience in regime-controlled Syria. How did you find the atmosphere in general? How would you describe it for a listener or reader who’s never had the experience…?
Well I’d never visited Syria at all before this week. So it was kind of a very peculiar time to make my first visit. It’s really hard to talk about this without drifting into very dogged clichés, but in Damascus, for example, life was very normal. In the Old City in Damascus, you really wouldn’t have known anything was going on there, at least the first couple of days.
Normal from a war perspective, you mean, but it doesn’t have the same feel as Paris, surely? You are aware you’re in a police state, are you not?
Yeah, you are in a police state. There’s posters of Bashar al-Assad everywhere, or Hafez al-Assad. You are reminded of the regime on every street corner. There’s no denying that. But at the same time there is this weird kind of air of normality.
And, you know, the regime play on that, so in the Old City, there are lots of bars which are open. Even now, they’re open till 2 am. And there’s young Syrians going there, and the women are wearing short skirts, and they’re getting very drunk, and it’s this kind of cosmopolitan atmosphere. That does exist, and the regime plays that up massively, to say, This is going on, so there are no problems in Syria….
Now, you know from an outsider’s perspective that simply isn’t the case. That masks a very, very grim reality for a huge number of Syrians. And you’ve got to remember that almost everything I saw on this trip was what the regime wanted me to see. But that existed, and I couldn’t deny it existed.
But I think outside of Damascus, it became a very different story. So, Homs, I found Homs very, almost depressing, I want to say. Because you and I, we know Homs as the kind of cradle of the revolution, that’s where it all began, and it’s now, what, nearly four years, since Homs has been fully recaptured by government forces? And whole swathes of that city are empty, particularly the kind of opposition neighborhoods, which tend to be Sunni neighborhoods. They’re just completely flattened. Kind of similar to what I saw in Mosul [in Iraq]; they’re just piles of rubble. And even when you go to the Christian areas, you know, we’re constantly fed this narrative that Bashar is the defender of Christians, and any opposition will just chop the heads off Christians and destroy all the churches.
Even in the Christian neighborhoods in Homs, there’s a real emptiness. I remember we were walking through and it was the middle of a weekday, and all the shops were shuttered. Even the Christians who are allegedly safe under the regime, all of them have fled and they haven’t come back.
And it was really sad to see that. In Homs, you can see where opposition slogans had been painted on the walls. And they’ve literally been whitewashed off….
You went thereafter to Aleppo, and if I understood your article from there correctly, you spent your time exclusively in the western sector of the city, as opposed to the eastern half that was the target of the regime’s barrel bombs and air bombardment and so on. Was that because the regime simply prevented you from going to the east?
Yeah, I mean we had quite a strict itinerary. Any deviations from that itinerary had to be requested, and go through the church; ultimately the church was the organization that was hosting us.
So they were determining where you’d go on any particular day?
Browne: Yeah, pretty much. There were the odd moments when some people in the group were able to go off for a couple of hours and wander round the park or meet with someone that they knew inside Syria, like Syrian friends. That did happen on a couple of occasions, but overwhelmingly, our itinerary, where we could go, what we could see, was controlled.
And so how did the encounter at the Parliament, the one described by [Giles] Fraser in his article, how did that unfold?
That was on the Monday, if I’m not mistaken. We took the bus, we arrived at the People’s Assembly in Damascus, and we were kind of welcomed in. There were uniformed guards who saluted us as we walked in through the main doors, where there was a press podium with Syrian flags, and it was flawlessly kept, marble floors. Very well presented. Then we went up the stairs, and as we went up the stairs, there was a lot of Syrian state media. There must have been at least a dozen photographers, cameramen, journalists.
And at the door of the meeting room stood the speaker of the parliament. And there was about maybe three or four MPs. The deputy speaker of the parliament stood next to him. So the delegation was kind of expected to shake hands with these people, one by one, and this was all going to be caught on camera, and it was almost like a state visit or something.
So I kind of hung back, I felt quite uncomfortable, I really didn’t want to be used as a propaganda tool by the regime, so I was really keen to stay out of videos and pictures. You know, it was almost impossible to do absolutely, but I think I did quite a good job of staying out of most of the state media. As we walked in, I shook hands very begrudgingly with the Speaker of the Parliament and kind of avoided the other MPs.
We went into the meeting room, we sat down in this large room with the Speaker in one corner and just the MPs kind of all around the edge. I think we were in the Parliament for two hours, maybe three hours. And everyone in that room got to speak at some point. All of the MPs spoke. We were kind of free to ask questions as and when [we wanted], so I kind of plucked up the courage and that’s when I asked about chemical weapons, and a couple of follow-up questions. I was trying to establish, you know in the wake of Douma, there were kind of two narratives coming out of the regime. One was there was a chemical weapons attack in Douma that was carried out by rebels. And the other was that it was completely staged, and those gut-wrenching videos we saw were fake. So I kind of tried to pin them down, and say, which of these is it? It can’t be both….
Was this also the same room where you met [Grand] Mufti [Ahmad Badr ed-Din] Hassoun, or was that a different occasion?
No, that was actually at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Where he’s based. And it was a very similar sort of meeting.
Because this guy, I mean this really fascinates me. You must have known this was a guy who had personally signed off the execution warrants for thousands of political prisoners, had threatened to send suicide bombers to Europe, and was, or is still, just a thoroughly abominable character. What is it like to see such a person face to face? Do you get that kind of Hannah Arendt “banality of evil” [impression]? What is it like breathing the same air as such a man?
The banality of evil point probably comes quite close to describing how it felt. It’s nerve-wracking. I’m not going to lie, I was really nervous in some of those meetings. You never quite know how a kind of hostile or assertive questioning is going to go down, particularly in a place like that. His history of authorizing executions didn’t come up in the meeting at all. And that’s partly my fault, I didn’t ask that question. I didn’t feel comfortable asking the question at the time. Which, in hindsight, I wish I had done….
It’s really interesting, because someone like the Grand Mufti is portrayed as a faith leader. Faith leaders in the UK and even in the US are kind of seen as independent actors. They represent their church, or their constituency, or their mosque, whoever. And I think what you have to remind yourself is actually, no, this Grand Mufti is an integral part of the regime. He is absolutely complicit in everything going on here.
And I think that was forgotten at times. That meeting was justified as, oh, we’re meeting with religious figures, because it’s a religious delegation. He might be a religious figure, but he’s also an integral part of the regime, and I do think that was forgotten.
Yeah, I think it’s very clear when you read some of the articles coming out, not by yourself, but by other members of the delegation, that your point is exactly right. There was a good piece in the New Statesman the other day that said, someone had said, Yeah, the guy may have signed off on these tens of thousands of [execution orders], but at the same time, he’s a “theological moderate”. As though, Column A, Column B, type of thing. I take it there was quite a lot of that? You haven’t spoken about the conduct of the other members of the delegation. Did you detect any sympathy from various circles?
Yeah, I did….What you have to remember is, these trips, they make you feel important. And I think that’s why some people go on them. They make you feel like you’re a Minister, or a Prime Minister, or something like that. They lay out the red carpet for you, and the hospitality, they really don’t hold back. And you can get lost in that easily. You can be sitting there, being praised, and being thanked, and people are listening to you make speeches. And you feel so important, you feel actually kind of valuable, that you forget about the context of the situation.
And, like you said, there’s the State media paparazzi following you around.
Browne: Yeah, exactly. It’s like you’re a celebrity. It seemed like everyone had heard of the British delegation that was in town. I think that’s part of why these trips can sometimes be effective for the regime, because they lure in; even people who might not have been explicitly pro-Assad can be lured in by this kind of hospitality and this sense of importance. It’s a really, really powerful aspect of the foreign trips that the regime organizes.
And I’m sure it applies to journalists as well.
Yeah, absolutely. You just have to be aware of it, and I tried to be conscious. There were times when I felt uncomfortable, you know, I’m being plied with hospitality here, and, I think as long as you’re aware of it, you can manage it, and you can keep at a respectable distance; hang back, not be in the photos. You don’t have to go and shake these guys’ hands. You don’t have to pose for photos with them. That’s perfectly possible….
Do you think any information was conveyed by the delegates to [regime] officials of a political or diplomatic nature? Was this in any sense a kind of informal or Track II diplomacy [delegation] sent to communicate any kind of message from Downing Street or the Foreign Office, or was it entirely independent and just a private initiative?
It sometimes had that appearance. From a London or Westminster [perspective], I don’t think there was any kind of Track II diplomacy intended there. But I do think some of the organizers bestowed upon themselves the role of diplomat. Caroline Cox continually made reference to some speeches she’d made in the House of Lords about the UK Government funding the White Helmets, who she considers terrorists. Throughout the trip, they were repeatedly referred to as terrorists. And she kept saying, you know, I intend to keep asking these difficult questions of the Government.
And I think some of the clergy also felt that maybe the church — some of them even said this to me — that the church can have a role as a back channel. The kind of standard diplomacy has failed, now the church can stand in and in some form be the line between the UK and the Assad regime.
I’m no longer worried about Syria, in that case. If the church is handling it, we can all go home then.
Absolutely. And you know sometimes even if that isn’t the case, I think perception is really important. And there was definitely, at times, it was portrayed, the meetings were almost portrayed like they were a State meeting or something.
You mentioned Cox presenting a set of Buckingham Palace crockery to the mukhabarat at one point. That was a highlight.
Yeah, well, it just stuck in my mind. It just seemed like such a ridiculous thing to be happening. And it kind of showed the naivety of the whole situation, I think, from her end. Because if you de-contextualize that, she’s just giving a thank-you gift to the people who have been our security for the trip. If you completely de-contextualize it. But then, as soon as you add in the context, it’s obviously a completely ridiculous situation. It really shouldn’t have happened.
And, just to be clear, would this have been provided by Buckingham Palace for the purpose, or has she just gone by herself….
No, I’m almost certain, yeah, she bought them out of her own pocket.
And on that note, do we know if any British taxpayer money was spent on the trip, or was it purely a private —
No, it was purely a private thing.
OK. I can’t not mention the fact that on your final evening, you told me at the time that you discovered [veteran British journalist] Robert Fisk sitting opposite you.
Yeah. We were in our Damascus hotel, and this gentleman had been sitting opposite me for about twenty minutes, and I whispered to [someone], and then it kind of hit me, I think that’s Robert Fisk, actually. So I kind of spoke to one of the other people on our delegation to check I wasn’t going mad, and he was like No, no, you’re right. The other person struck up a conversation. We had a chat with him. It wasn’t particularly extensive, maybe twenty minutes.
It was just funny timing, because that very day, I believe, he had been getting a lot of flak online for his reporting from Douma, where he had failed to find any witnesses of the attack, whereas I think AP had been there the same day and they had. But I’m guessing none of that was brought up.
No, it wasn’t. So yeah, this was a few days after that Douma article came out, which obviously the pro-Assadists on the trip absolutely hailed as the gospel account of the Douma attack. He’d based it all on speaking to one doctor who wasn’t even there at the time. Hadn’t spoken to any survivors. And obviously whilst I was chatting to him that was constantly in my mind, but, you know I have to say he was quite cordial, and polite, and humble, and he took an interest in me, and it was a kind of, it was a two-way chat. I would have liked to have pressed him, [but] it was a very short exchange. But it would have been interesting to press him on that Douma article, definitely.
It’s interesting [also] because he said he was leaving Beirut and then coming back to Damascus in a few days, so you kind of learn a lot from that, if someone can come and go from Damascus as they please — particularly a journalist — there’s a reason for that. And it’s because they’re trusted by the regime. And I think that says a lot.
And at the extreme end of that, you mentioned to me earlier that Vanessa Beeley had been brought out at some point to speak to you, is that correct?
Yeah, that was earlier on in the trip, the organizers invited her to our hotel. They seemed to think she was a fantastic journalist. A lot of the people on the trip didn’t know who she was, and I did, so I actually didn’t go to that, because I didn’t want to engage with her. I just felt it was a waste of time, to be honest. And I spent the evening wandering around Damascus Old City, which was far more interesting….
Again, just to put listeners in the picture who may not be familiar with her, she is a formerly obscure blogger, essentially, who has now become a favorite on Russian state media, Syrian state media, and this kind of alt-left/alt-right blogosphere of conspiracy theories about, as Gareth mentioned, the White Helmets, and every chemical attack is a false flag, and —
It’s gone even further, if you look on her Twitter, she’s suggested that al-Qaeda wasn’t behind the 9/11 attacks, and the Charlie Hebdo massacre was staged.
Interesting, so they weren’t behind 9/11, but they were behind the attack in Douma the other day.
Yep, exactly. And, you know, there’s an interesting point here, which I touched upon in my final article. This was speaking to Robin Yassin-Kassab, who’s a fantastic writer —
And a Jumhuriya contributor, I should say.
There you go, absolutely. And he kind of said as much as he loathes someone like Vanessa Beeley; I’m paraphrasing here; as much as he loathes someone like Vanessa Beeley, she’s not irrelevant. She plays an important role. She is a bridge; she gets conspiracy theories into the mainstream media. She is how something goes from being rumor or complete conspiracy to ending up in The Independent or The Guardian. And that’s not something that can be ignored, that is really, really significant in the last few years, I think….
Definitely, and what’s fascinating to me is that she seems to have been just hanging around in Damascus while you happened to be in town. And I know you’re not the first, because I’ve seen other European Parliamentary delegations, usually far-right or far-left, from places like Poland, or Spain, or wherever, she always crops up in their Twitter pictures and so on. You almost wonder, how much of her time is she spending in Damascus, and is she just, sort of, I really don’t know how it works, it’s such a mysterious, murky world, but fascinating how she always manages to be there at the right time, as it were.
Now, in closing, at least from my end, and you have touched on this a lot already, but there’s obviously always heated debate and controversy; political as well as moral, I would say; about the mere decision by journalists to go to Syria on these delegations and junkets, where they are, in effect, guests of a regime that has committed unspeakable atrocities; guests of a dictator who is the leading mass-murderer of the twenty-first century. You obviously grappled with this dilemma before going. Do you feel now, looking back, that it was worth it? And would you go again?
Yeah, I do think it was worth it. And I would go again. I don’t think I’m likely to be invited on any of these trips any time soon, but if the opportunity were there, I would go again. I think it’s different going as a journalist, to some of the other people on the group….
Syria is one of, if not the, defining news story of our time. The level of human suffering there just makes it a kind of unavoidable issue that, as a journalist, you’re going to have to grapple with, even if you don’t really write about the Middle East or Syria. And, you know, there is no replacement for time on the ground. For actually speaking to Syrians, spending time in the country, there is no better insight, even in terms of insights into how the regime works. How its propaganda manifests itself on the streets of Damascus. And I think this trip allowed me to learn and write about those quite significantly. Maybe shed some light, I don’t know, I guess that’s for other people to judge from my work.
Going as a journalist, I don’t think you’re endorsing — I mean, obviously, it depends on what you write. But as a journalist per se, traveling to somewhere like Assad-held Syria, it’s not an endorsement of the regime. And so I think it’s a perfectly acceptable thing to do. If you’re going to be true to your own journalistic integrity, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t go on a trip like this. I’ve had opportunities to question some of the highest levels of the Syrian government: government ministers, the Grand Mufti. And those opportunities are very rare, and I think they still have some value….
Yeah, I mean obviously different journalists have different opinions on this. I definitely would commend you for stating in your articles that the mukhabarat were within earshot essentially the whole time you were there, and I think it’s outrageous that a lot of journalists don’t put that detail in, and give you the impression that this guy on the street singing Assad’s praises is just doing it spontaneously. I think that’s such an elementary and crucial detail that, to me, colors the whole value of what he’s saying.
Yeah, definitely. I’m in no doubt that there are Syrians, for whatever reason, who do support Assad. Some people find that incomprehensible, but there are some people who I spoke to on the streets who I’m sure sincerely believed the praise they were kind of heaping on Assad. But I think it’s my responsibility as a journalist — actually, I should let the reader make that decision. Are we going to take this on face value? Is it genuine, or is it just being said because the mukhabarat are there? By putting that line in…and saying, Look, the secret police were listening in, the reader knows that. And the reader can make the decision. They don’t have to take my word for it. It’s such a small thing to do, and I think it makes a big difference. It’s just part of being honest and open with the reader, which I think is the most important thing when you’re operating in these sorts of environments.
Oh, absolutely, to me it’s essentially a gun pointed to the man’s head when he’s being interviewed. That’s really not much of an exaggeration. But I’m just curious to press you a bit further on that, because I can see the argument for going once, because, as you say, you get a feel for the mood, you get to experience and breathe the air, and smell the smells, and everything. But given how much it’s controlled, as you said; smothered night and day more or less, by the mukhabarat, by the regime, you’re being herded around; what’s the added value really in going twice? Fine, in five years’ time, things will be very different, but to go again next weekend, for example?
Well, I mean the answer to that is Syria is a massive country. There are millions of people there and there are millions of different stories, millions of different themes. And there are so many different challenges, so the more time you have to work, the more of those you can explore. When I was covering Mosul in Iraq, I was there for ten months, in one city. And here I was in the country for less than a week. I do think more time would have allowed me to kind of shed more light on the regime, and, who knows, I’m sure there are people inside regime-held Syria who would be critical of the regime, and whose stories it is worth listening to. Even though the mukhabarat are there, I’ve no doubt there are brave people [who would speak] freely, and you have to find these people first. It takes time to find these people.
Yeah, I’d wanted to ask earlier in fact, were there ever any moments, whether it was at the bar at two in the morning, or just at noon getting a man’oushe on the street or something; were there ever moments when someone broke character, as it were, and told you something, whispered in your ear, something that didn’t toe the line? Or was it just that well-controlled?
There’s two points on that. There were times when people, if you want, broke the line, but they did it by accident. And it was never a direct criticism of the government. So, for example, I quoted a young woman in the article I wrote in Homs. I’d heard a lot about the demographic engineering in Homs. Essentially these empty neighborhoods, the city was kind of being repopulated with regime loyalists, and a lot of Alawites were kind of being moved to the outer peripheries of the city.
And just speaking to this girl, who was certainly pro-regime, she said, Yeah, I’ve got Alawite friends who have moved here, and they’re living on the outskirts of the city, and they commute into the city center for work, because they don’t want to live in the city. And so you get something like that, and that confirms, or helps to confirm, things you heard from other sources outside the country who can speak freely. So there she wasn’t making a direct criticism of the government, but she was confirming something just through telling an anecdote.
Being more revealing than she realized, perhaps.
Exactly. So you can get value through things like that….This is a second-hand anecdote, but someone else on the trip at a public event had someone kind of almost whisper in their ear, saying, “No one knows what happened in Douma. We don’t have journalists in this country.” So you get glimmers of the reality like that. And obviously the more time you spend, the more of those glimmers you get. And they are, I think, as a journalist, some of the most valuable things you can take out of a trip like that. When someone is brave enough to speak out of turn, intentionally, there’s no substitute for that. And one line whispered like that at a public event in Aleppo, or in Homs, or wherever, can be worth a thousand-word interview with someone speaking freely overseas. Just because of the context of it. So I think there’s a lot of value in those two things.
Well, that’s it in terms of my questions. Was there anything else you wanted to add?
Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the most pertinent questions I’ve come back from the trip with is regarding the church, and the role of the church, in Syria. And maybe this is something that perhaps your readers or your listeners will know more about.
From the visit it became apparent to me that the church had become an extremely powerful institution. I don’t know how powerful it was before the war, but now it seems to have become extremely powerful. That was how we got in; we were essentially vouched for by the church. So our visas were essentially done through the church. That’s why myself and some of the other people who would never have got visas under any other circumstances managed to get in. So that shows you the church can get the people into Syria that they want to get in. Which I think is fascinating when you think how much control the regime have over so many aspects, actually this is somewhere where the church has a bit of leverage.
And I’m sure it extends, the church has so much money, it’s rebuilt so many churches in Homs. The Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate has rebuilt seven churches in Homs, and these churches are beautiful buildings, expensively refurbished. Rebuilt while in whole swathes of the city there just isn’t money to rebuild, to even turn the sewers on, to build toilets, rebuild apartment blocks. But the church has the money. And I wonder how that’s going to impact on Syria in the future. You have an institution that’s become very powerful, become a lot closer to the regime, and it’s spending money building churches when whole Muslim neighborhoods are completely leveled.
What does that do for future community or inter-community relations? I think the regime has absolutely annihilated these kind of inter-minority and inter-community relations within Syria.