On Syrian-Sponsored Trip, Everyone Stays On Script

As the international community ratchets up criticism of Syria for its violent crackdown on anti-government protesters, the country is becoming more and more isolated. A recent Syrian government-sponsored tour was called Syria is fine. Minders monitored reporters every move.

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Syria is becoming more isolated. Even some of its friends criticize Syria's crackdown on protestors, which means the government is forced to rely more on allies, such as Russia and Iran. NPR's Kelly McEvers recently returned from a government-sponsored tour of Syria, which was mainly for reporters from countries that support the regime. And she sent us this report.

(Soundbite of chanting)

KELLY MCEVERS: It's midday prayer at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Right now, walking around the bazaar, the markets, the streets of Damascus, everyone tells us everything is fine. There's no reason for protesters. The economy is fine. We're actually on a tour that's called Syria is Fine.

But everything was not fine. Not in Syria, and not on the tour. First of all, every single move reporters made was controlled. Minders told reporters who to interview and when to interview them. That's how I met the patriarch of Syria's Orthodox Christian church. He did not stray from the script.

Unidentified Man: Believe me, we have no problem. Believe me.

MCEVERS: Most of the reporters didn't mind the fact that the message was controlled. Many of them came from countries where the state and the press are hard to separate anyway.

The Russians, most of whom come from an Orthodox Christian background, were particularly wowed by the patriarch. Russia has indicated it would block sanctions against Syria by the U.N. Security Council. Russia generally opposes international intervention and it sells a lot of arms to Syria.

Group: (Chanting in foreign language)

MCEVERS: The next day, our tour went off script, as Syrian activists staged a protest outside a building where we were meeting with officials. It was only a few French reporters and this American one who walked away from the group to document the protest. The message from the tour organizers was clear. You're either with the regime or against it.

Later that night, in the bar of the hotel lobby, the bizarre collection of regime supporters was on full view. Secular, vodka-swilling Russians with handlebar mustaches sat next to devout loyalists of the Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah who had bruised foreheads from touching the ground in prayer.

Instead of going out to interview average Syrians, reporters in the group mainly interviewed each other. The conclusion was often the same. The protest movement in Syria is actually a conspiracy by the West and Israel to bring down the regime.

That idea was taken a step further by Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Muqdad at a dinner he hosted for our group. He thanked the group for showing the world the real story. He said other media outlets are not to be trusted.

Mr. FAISAL MUQDAD (Deputy Foreign Minister, Syria): We are not killing innocent people. It is the government who has been targeted by extremist groups, by terrorist groups that are financed and supported by the United States of America and by Western Europe and by the most notorious elements in neighboring countries.

MCEVERS: On one hand, the regime and its supporters seemed confident, defiant even. But on the other, they seemed to be lashing out, the way other Arab regimes did just before they fell.

In recent days, analysts who follow Syria say even Iran and Hezbollah might be hedging their bets as international pressure grows. But until they sense the Syrian regime is in real trouble, analysts say Syria's band of allies is unlikely to unravel. And it's likely to keep telling the world that Syria is doing just fine.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut.

(Soundbite of music)

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