Propaganda trip

Syria is safe, AfD politicians touring the war-torn country claim

Smoke rises from the besieged Eastern Ghouta in Damascus
If a far-right politician says it’s safe to go there, then it must be true. Source: Reuters

In recent weeks, the world has been watching while another tragic chapter in Syria’s civil war unfolded. The Syrian government launched air strikes against the besieged rebel-held Ghouta region, indiscriminately bombing civilians who have little to eat and nowhere to go.

But a group of far-right politicians from Germany has set out to show that upon closer inspection, the situation in the country ravaged by seven years of conflict is not really that bad, after all.

An all-male delegation of lawmakers from the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, arrived in Syria on Monday. They intend to bolster their claims that Syria should be classified as a safe country of origin so that asylum seekers can be deported more easily.

Not too surprisingly, the initiative has sparked outrage in Germany. Rolf Mützenich, a Social Democrat, called the trip an attempt to “improve” the image of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, adding that Damascus has tried in the past to engage with European right-wing parties. Michael Brand, a lawmaker from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right CDU, called the move “simply disgusting” and said the far-right politicians were meeting with “a band of criminals” that use bombs and poison gas against civilians. Government officials, too, condemned the move on Wednesday.

On social media, AfD politician Christian Blex shares views of the Syrian capital bathed in gentle sunlight under a cloudless blue sky.

Six AfD politicians have joined the controversial trip — four lawmakers from the Bundestag and two from the state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia. Claiming they cannot trust media reports available in Germany, they are touring the country on a fact-finding mission of their own.

And the lawmakers are making sure everyone knows. One of them, Christian Blex, is profusely documenting the tour on social media. “We arrived in Damascus,” the NRW state lawmaker posted on Facebook on Monday. “Entering the country was unproblematic. You hardly see any military. But there is advertising for mobile phones and televisions. Normal everyday life.”

Spring has come early in Damascus. On social media, Mr. Blex shares views of the Syrian capital bathed in gentle sunlight under a cloudless blue sky. He also photographs passers-by minding their own business, with falsely candid comments that quickly betray his true intentions. “Even the ‘moderate rebels’ would punish this outfit by stoning or something,” the politician muses next to a picture of two young Syrian women wearing stylish jeans, sunglasses, and no headscarves.

Not too surprisingly for an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim politician, Mr. Blex seems to obsess about headscarves. He favorably compares the scenes in Damascus with the streets of Neukölln, an immigrant neighborhood in Berlin which, judging by his comments, he probably knows only from hearsay.

CRIMEA RUSSIA FEBRUARY 7 2018 Christian Blex front and Hugh Bronson members of a parliamenta
Mr. Blex is used to trips backed by Moscow: He visited Russian-annexed Crimea last month. Source: Imago.

But Mr. Blex’s social media posts are a hit. Party sympathizers are enthusiastically commenting about the initiative and about how the trip is going to debunk what they call lies from mainstream media.

Syrian asylum seekers in Germany, however, are less impressed. “Of course there are safer areas in Damascus,” said Yahya Alaous, a former journalist from Damascus who lives in Berlin. “But there are dozens of places, very close, where bombs are exploding all the time.” Mr. Alaous, who has written columns for Handelsblatt Global, says the politicians should visit bombed-out cities like Aleppo or Homs instead. “Or why don’t they go to the Yarmouk refugee camp, which is still under IS control?”

Most unpalatable in his opinion, however, is the lawmakers’ meeting with the grand mufti of Damascus, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun. The religious leader, a staunch supporter of President Assad, notoriously threatened Europe with suicide bombings if the West intervened in Syria at the beginning of the war. “This is state terrorism,” Mr. Alaous says.

Like many other far-right parties across Europe, the AfD has shown time and again that it supports Vladimir Putin. And the Russian head of state is a key ally of the embattled Syrian president.

Jala Trabelsi (not her real name), who left Damascus in 2013 and settled in Potsdam, welcomes the idea of German politicians coming to Syria and talking with leaders — but not just with members or supporters of the government. “Anyway, the agenda of this party is pretty clear and they have zero credibility,” she told Handelsblatt Global.

Nearly half a million Syrians have come to Germany since the beginning of the war seven years ago, with the majority arriving during the refugee crisis of 2015. However, fighting is continuing in many areas, and millions are displaced within their own country in what the United Nations has called the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Last November, the AfD proposed deporting the Syrian refugees because, they alleged, the war was nearly over. Furthermore, the far-right party is trying to prevent them from bringing relatives from Syria to Germany.

“Actually, I want to go back home. Most of us do,” Mr. Alaous says. But even in the relatively safer areas of the country, there would be no safety for him and for thousands of opponents who fled Mr. Assad’s dictatorial regime. “They would round us up and throw us in jail.”

Jen-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To reach the author:

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