The Syria Assad would like us to see

Rebels still hold much of the northwest of Syria, where many of the internally displaced live in camps, and the regime and Russia bombs the area regularly.
Representative Image
Representative Image

At first the image didn’t make much sense: tanks bunched together, red flags flying and a line of soldiers in Yemeni-style red berets. The scene was set in the shadows of bombed-out apartment buildings that, confusingly, didn’t look much like Yemen. The scene was fake, a photo of the set of “Home Operation,” a film produced by Jackie Chan and inspired by a Chinese mission to evacuate Chinese and foreign nationals from Yemen in 2015. The apartment buildings were real, but not in Yemen. Filming started last month in Hajar al-Aswad, a southern suburb of Damascus, Syria, that used to be home to thousands of people.

In the photo Hajar al-Aswad looks like an old ruin from an old conflict, repurposed as background for the heroics of Chinese film stars. But when the Syrian revolution began, in 2011, Hajar al-Aswad was an opposition stronghold. It was captured by the Islamic State around 2015 and then retaken in 2018 by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The bombardment almost completely levelled it. Now it is the longed-for neighborhood of the inhabitants who were forced to abandon it.

Filming a Chinese blockbuster in an area destroyed by al-Assad is a cinematic looting that, we can assume, benefits the man who bombed it in the first place — who can film in the suburbs of Damascus without the permission of the regime? al-Assad would like to paint a picture of a post-conflict Syria and even hopes the world will buy it. The trouble is, it’s not the real one.

Rebels still hold much of the northwest of Syria, where many of the internally displaced live in camps, and the regime and Russia bombs the area regularly. The regime is also still battling an insurgency in Dara’a, the southern city where the anti-government uprising began in 2011. Elsewhere in the country life is far from normal. The U.N. estimates that over 300,000 civilians have been killed in Syria since 2011, around 1.5 percent of the population and most likely an underestimate. al-Assad’s scorched-earth policy has driven millions from their homes; most are internally displaced but many have fled abroad. The country’s infrastructure and economy are destroyed, and the price of basic foods is estimated to have risen by 800 percent since 2011. This is Syria in 2022, but you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. “Home Operation” is just the latest iteration of the regime’s campaign to get the world to see the country in a different light.

As the setting for Ahmad Ghossein’s 2019 film “All This Victory,” for example, about the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war in Lebanon. Some scenes for “All This Victory” were filmed in Zabadani, a city in south-west Syria that was besieged and occupied by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia allied with al-Assad. The dark irony of depicting Hezbollah resisting Israeli aggression on these sites was apparently lost on some — the film scooped three awards, including best film, at Venice Critics’ Week, an offshoot of the Venice Film Festival.

The regime’s other attempts at image overhaul have been a little scrappier: It has relied on travel video bloggers, or vloggers, and influencers to portray a safe, sanitized Syria and to discuss the war in — at best — ambiguous terms. Consider the Japanese vlogger who visited Saidnaya, a city north of Damascus, in 2019 and toured its famous monastery but failed to mention its famous prison, a regime facility that Amnesty International has called a “human slaughterhouse” and that is still in operation even now.

Instead, it seems as though al-Assad is to be allowed to keep trying to make the world believe that the war in Syria is over and that his regime is its legitimate government. If he succeeds, the message to authoritarians elsewhere couldn’t be clearer: The world might not forgive, but wait long enough, the world will forget.

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