For Foreign Journalists, A Rare Invitation To Damascus : Parallels Foreign reporters' access to Syria is severely restricted, but this week, a group of Western journalists has been invited to hear the Assad regime's point of view. NPR's Peter Kenyon is among them.
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For Foreign Journalists, A Rare Invitation To Damascus

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For Foreign Journalists, A Rare Invitation To Damascus

For Foreign Journalists, A Rare Invitation To Damascus

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We've been hearing for months about the siege of the rebel-controlled eastern side of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city. People there are dying daily, bombarded by Syrian and Russian planes. Now, rebels have been trying to break the siege with fierce attacks on government-controlled western Aleppo, attacks quickly condemned by the U.N. for their high number of civilian casualties. In the midst of all the carnage in Aleppo, Syria's government has granted visas to a group of Western journalists to visit the capital, Damascus. Among them, NPR's Peter Kenyon. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Now, you have been in Damascus before, but how long has that been?

KENYON: Well, it's been several years. I want to say around 2008. Certainly it was a few years before this uprising in 2011.

MONTAGNE: So how dramatically has the capital changed over this last almost six years of conflict?

KENYON: There's definitely a different edge here. But I think the first thing I have to say is it's still functioning, which is such a huge contrast with what we've been able to see in videos and getting from reports from residents in Aleppo and places like that. Aleppo is a humanitarian crisis, full-blown. The latest rebel offensive has the U.N. condemning civilian casualties on the government-held side.

Here in Damascus, people have food. They've got electricity. The water works. But as I said, there's a bit of an edge. There's many, many military and police checkpoints around the city. And this isn't just cars getting waved through by police. Each one is inspected, trunk searched, kind of like in Baghdad during the conflict there.

MONTAGNE: Some Western journalists have been blacklisted by Syria for years, Peter. Why do you think you've got this invitation now?

KENYON: Well, I think the government wants to get its side of the story out and realizes it has been not doing a great job of that. Officials have been pushing hard on their own narrative that Syria's in a battle against Jihadi terrorism, allies of the rebels in the West and here in the region are backing that terrorism. And there's also been a lot of criticism of the Western media and how it's covered the conflict.

And it was pointed out that maybe if more reporters from the West got in to see what was going on, a fuller picture might come out. Some of the officials said, yeah, that could be right. But the other side is they want to talk about what might happen next. I talked with a man named Elia Samman (ph). He's with the Syrian Ministry of National Reconciliation.

And he told me about this program where they're taking fighters and sometimes civilians out of certain areas. Often after a siege, they either lay down their weapons, if they're fighters, or they move to the north and keep fighting. And as Samman said, it's worked in some areas, but Aleppo, with its large number of foreign fighters and other problems is posing a terrific challenge. Here's what he said.

ELIA SAMMAN: It's very difficult now because Aleppo has huge number of foreigners. The armed groups in Aleppo mostly today is radical jihadi groups, so they would continue fighting till the last penny is still coming to them. So the main issue here is the money supplies. As long as they're receiving money from Saudi Arabia, from Qatar, from wherever, I don't think we have very good chances.

KENYON: Now these reconciliations, we have to say, are a source of dread for many Syrians in opposition areas. But the government is determined to continue with them. They don't seem to have any other plan. But the prospects for Aleppo, as we just heard, seem pretty grim unless there's some new international peace effort.

MONTAGNE: Just briefly, it's interesting that Syria has a Ministry of National Reconciliation. The minister's job sounds like it might be tough.

KENYON: Very tough. And really, it hasn't started yet. This is kind of a piecemeal local reconciliation. You can only have national reconciliation after the shooting stops, and then they need a constitution and elections. But when that might happen is anybody's guess.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Peter Kenyon speaking to us from Damascus, the capital of Syria. Thanks very much.

KENYON: Thanks, Renee.

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