Bashar al-Assad’s regime has pulled off a grotesque PR coup by corralling a number of prominent American journalists from outlets like The New York Times, National Public Radio, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker to participate in a conference designed to legitimize the rule of Syria’s genocidal head of state. The conference held Sunday and Monday in Damascus, was organized by the British Syrian Society, a “foundation” chaired by Assad’s father-in-law, the London-based physician Fawaz Ahkras. The larger purpose of the conference appears to be raising money for the regime and its war effort, in part by relieving sanctions against major regime figures.
Many of the participants (here is a partial list of attendees) are British journalists, like Christina Lamb of The Sunday Times, and other UK figures drawn from Akhras’ London contacts. Indeed, the conference is meant to have something of a British ambiance, which is why it’s being conducted according to “Chatham House rules”—a phrase that misleadingly (and hilariously) suggests that the British foreign office is convening the panels. It seems unlikely that the Syrian intelligence officers speaking at the event, like Col. Samer, know Chatham House Rules from Hama Rules, nor do they care. The point is to legitimize the regime’s message with a vague atmosphere of Western ideas and methods—which is why having Western journalists in the audience, and even on panels, is important to the regime. Attending a conference that features at least four Syrian regime officials who are currently sanctioned for their role in Assad’s war crimes, are, among others, the New York Times’ Beirut correspondent Anne Barnard, NPR’s Alison Meuse, and Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker.
The stated purpose of the Damascus conference is to “facilitate a better understanding of a very complicated crisis.” And presumably journalists in attendance have rationalized their participation to their editors along those exact lines: Since we’re covering the other side of a war, they’re no doubt explaining, it’s a good thing to hear the Assad regime’s side of the story. And since we can’t get into Damascus safely otherwise, it’s fine if we go under the protection of the regime. How else could we get in there?
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