The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

56 hours with the Russian army in Syria

PALMYRA, Syria — Last weekend, I received a call from the Russian Foreign Ministry offering a spot on a three-day press tour with the Russian army to Syria, exact dates and destinations TBD. There was also a special warning for American journalists coming aboard. Write negatively about us, an official said, and “this will be your first and last trip."

Russia's military is crafting a new, media-friendly (or at least media-tolerant) image. Novelties include televised briefings, a blood-pumping medley of events called the International Military Games, and a chain of clothing stores that carry patriotic leather jackets and children's T-shirts. But the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra's rendition of Prokofiev and Bach at an ancient amphitheater recently retaken from the Islamic State militant group was by far the ministry's most ambitious press stunt to date. It was a sublime experiment in propaganda, marrying Russia's cultural heritage to its martial ambitions.

And, probably for that reason, Russia threw open the doors this time, taking print journalists from The Washington Post and the New York Times, along with the usual TV teams from CNN and BBC.  Late Tuesday evening, more than 100 international journalists, as well as Russian reporters, packed into a Defense Ministry Ilyushin-62 jet for the flight from Moscow to Hmeimim air base in Syria, traversing the Caspian Sea, Iraq and Iran. Our passports were taken from us en route. We landed in Syria just after daybreak. A cool breeze blew in off the Mediterranean, just a mile and a half to the west.

For the rest of the trip, we would report from inside a bubble, shuttled by tour bus to each destination without prior warning and expected to report quickly, then get back on the bus. With no point of reference besides our Russian hosts, all we can do is remember that whatever we are seeing is what the Russian military wants us to see.

Our first destination was the air base itself, secretly renovated by the Russian military before Russian warplanes suddenly appeared in Syria in September. Military personnel were standing in formation when we arrived, rehearsing for the Monday parade celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. The timing of the rehearsal was just a coincidence, a ministry press aide told me, a theme that would repeat itself as we encountered scenes throughout our trip that seemed staged.

The base itself was no-frills but clean and impressive. Russian personnel were ready (by chance, our minders say again) at each of the stations we would visit: a volleyball court/workout area, a tent for psychological support and another for discussing political news, a model barracks, and a mess hall for soldiers.

The visits are designed mainly for television, and we're shuffled quickly from tent to tent for the cameras to get their shots and move on. Asked about life on the base, several soldiers referred a reporter to an officer, who said the service members serve three-month shifts and have ample time to relax, with concerts on the weekends.

On the tarmac, we can see about one dozen fixed-wing aircraft, including Su-24 and Su-34 bombers, as well as Russian Su-35 jet fighters. The Russian base is still humming with activity, with as many as 20 sorties a day, despite a declaration of victory by President Vladimir Putin and a drawdown order published in March.

They are flying combat missions in areas controlled by the Islamic State, Igor Konashenkov, a Russian military spokesman, tells us. About 10 planes take off during our time on the base, most once we've arranged ourselves along the runway. Some of the Su-24 bombers, the workhorses of Russia's eight-month-old intervention, drop their heavy bombs before landing, while others return to base still carrying their payloads.

We ask Konashenkov about an Aleppo hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders that was reportedly hit by an airstrike last month, killing at least 55. Konashenkov produces a satellite photo from October that he says proves that the hospital was never bombed, and he suggests that news reports of deaths there have been fabrications. Asked to estimate collateral damage and civilian deaths from Russian strikes overall, Konashenkov dodges, saying that Russian strikes have not harmed civilians. The back-and-forth carries on for about a quarter of an hour before the news conference breaks up.

Video captured on CCTV appears to show the impact of an airstrike on a hospital in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo April 27. (Video: Reuters)

"How much more can you guys film this? Get on the bus!" one of the minders from the Defense Ministry press service yells, and we're off, traveling along the Syrian countryside and highways toward a village north of the city of Hama, where the Russian military wants to show us a reconciliation ceremony after the defeat of Jabhat al-Nusra there. When we arrive, hundreds of villagers are on the streets, bearing Syrian flags and portraits of Bashar al-Assad. We find out the name of the village, Kaukab, only when we arrive.

Residents give different estimates of when the town was recaptured, ranging from 1½ to five months earlier. Children receive packages of humanitarian aid from Russian troops. Inside a tent, men with their faces covered by red-and-white checked keffiyehs are surrendering their weapons to government troops. It is a spectacle that we are not prepared for, although similar ceremonies have been a fixture on previous press tours.

One government soldier named Firas tells me that he is a Christian from Homs and that his wife and parents were beheaded by Islamist fighters. "I am alone," he says. "Now I will never stop fighting." Then, he adds, with a wicked smile: "Welcome to Syria." Another man claims to be Kaukab's former police chief, who has been in hiding for five years. He thanks the Russians for supporting the Syrian army and says he wants his job back.

We spend two hours in Kaukab and then are back on the bus. It takes us more than four hours to drive along the winding coastal roads to our hotel in Latakia, in the northwest corner of Syria. It's a five-star hotel with an enchanting view of the crystal-blue waters of the Mediterranean. Sitting here, it is easy to forget that the country is at war.

We sleep for a few hours, leaving the next day at 7 a.m. for Palmyra. There are rumors of a concert at Palmyra's amphitheater, and that a famous cellist named Sergei Roldugin (who owns overseas bank accounts that have served as a conduit for hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the Panama Papers leaks), who is Putin's friend, will be there.

But with no Internet and little cell service, we spend most of the seven-hour drive looking at the passing towns for signs of life and marveling at the security measures for our trip. Access roads and intersections for dozens of miles have been closed off for our convoy, which includes Humvees and armored personnel carriers. Overhead, at least four helicopters, Mi-24s and advanced Ka-52s, are circling our convoy.

All this, it seems, is in preparation for this evening's concert, although officials won't confirm any details. In Palmyra, we're quickly led through the ruins, the damage to which Russian officials say they are still evaluating. Russia's ambassador to UNESCO upbraids the West for its hesitance to work with the Assad government to restore the ruins.

We can still hear outgoing fire from artillery nearby (we're told the front is about 10 miles from here). A Russian military base, ostensibly to support a de-mining effort, has sprouted here in the last month, with rows of tents, antiaircraft systems and armored vehicles. We are forbidden to take pictures of it.

In Palmyra's ancient amphitheater, the Russian and Syrian elite are ready. Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky is in his seat. So are Syrian youth activists, including members of an outdoors club tied to the Interior Ministry, who said attracting international support to restore the city is one of their goals.

The concert would be broadcast into every Russian home on national television. But to reach Western households, the Kremlin needed us. The famous conductor Valery Gergiev was there. So was Roldugin. He told the New York Times that he had left his Stradivarius cello at home, citing "the heat and the dust."

It was all over in one hour. And after some official statements, we were back on the bus for the seven-hour drive through the desert and along the coast to our hotel in Latakia. The following afternoon, we flew back to Moscow on a plane that lifted off 56 hours after we touched down in Syria.