BEIRUT -- After five years of war, Syria has become a byword for the sort of vicious assault on civilian life unseen in the 21st century. But in a rare press trip to the capital, Damascus, this week, visitors tasted a different reality.
In town at the invitation of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, Western reporters, politicians and analysts — some temporarily struck from the government’s blacklist — found a city where guns had fallen silent and bars were abuzz.
The centerpiece of their short visit was a workshop, finishing Monday, to understand the "ramifications of the war in Syria.” Born out of peaceful protests in 2011, that war has claimed the lives of almost half a million people — most at the hands of pro-government forces.
For the tour group, the promise of engagement turned into the crest of a PR wave that has been swelling for weeks. According to participants, the message was as clear as it was confident: Damascus is open for business and the government is ready to come in from the cold, engaging with the West on its own turf and terms.
“There is always a plan, opportunities are never missed, and there are no accidents,” Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat, once wrote of the Damascus government’s playbook.
Successive drafts of the workshop agenda listed leading journalists as panel chairs or speakers — responsibilities the individuals swiftly denied — suggesting that a range of viewpoints would be aired. Some were even treated to a fireside chat by Assad, immaculately dressed and promising to "talk about everything."
For this week at least, Damascus has become a showroom for the kind of security conditions that its government wants to prove it can establish nationwide, even as fighting rages in the north. With rebel holdouts around the capital shelled and starved into submission, reporters found restaurants filled with Halloween revelers, and government officials spoke with the confidence of men on a winning side.
Assad told reporters that the social fabric of Syria was "much better than before," according to the New York Times, while foreign minister Walid al-Moualem challenged the West to “rethink” its policies toward the war.
Their comments built on last month’s carefully staged interview with the president's wife, Asma al-Assad, a first since the war began, in which she stressed her family’s commitment to staying the course. “I’ve been here since the beginning and I never thought of being anywhere else at all,” she told the Russian state-run television channel, Russia 24.
Questions this week about the government’s human rights record — which includes the use of chemical weapons and forcible starvation — met with incredulity. In an interview with Channel Four News, Moualem insisted that the death toll in the government-run western part of Aleppo city was “one hundred times higher” than that in the rebel-held east, an assertion backed by neither monitoring groups nor the reporting of independent media.
Assad also gave short shrift to claims that the Syrian army has killed civilians. “Let’s suppose that these allegations are correct and this president has killed his own people, and the free world and the West are helping the Syrian people,” he said. “After five years and a half, who supported me? How can I be a president and my people don’t support me?”
Analysts say that while Assad still enjoys significant support across government-held areas — now home to most of Syria’s remaining civilians — his government’s longevity is mostly attributable to the military and financial support of Iran and Russia.
Huge challenges remain: Syria’s social fabric lies in tatters, shredded by fear, death and mistrust; the economy is kept alive by the loans and tenders of Iran and Russia. And while pro-Assad forces hold the upper hand militarily, there are few signs that they can yet deal a decisive blow to Syria’s rebellion.
But as reporters got up to leave Monday evening, the New Yorker reported, Assad reinforced his message one more time. “If you’re the captain of the ship, when you have a storm, you don’t jump in the water,” he told them. “You lead it to shore."