Youtubers visiting Syria: Sympathy with the regime or glimmer of hope for Syrians?
In a YouTube video, Andrawos Bassous has spoken about the end of the war’s traces in Damascus and the lift of the heavy burden off the chests of Syrians, showing the old neighborhoods of the city decorated with lights in celebration of the New Year. He said: “The wishes of the Syrians for this year are full of hope for a better tomorrow that carries security, peace, and the return of all the refugees. The Syrian people are eager to forget all that the war has left.”
The Swedish-Palestinian Youtuber’s sentimental verses describing Damascus were not the first. He described the beauty of the city’s alleys and the good qualities of its population in a previous visit. The video, entitled “The Other Face of Damascus” was posted on YouTube on 15 June, 2018.
Many other youtubers sought to divulge this “other face” of the city during their journeys in Damascus’s narrow alleyways and at its various restaurants, asking people about their situation and avoiding as much as possible the facets of the “first face” of this conflict. They tried to infer the message that politics are not involved in the content of videos they post on their YouTube channels.
Bassous’s two visits to Damascus were characterized by professionalism while presenting the city, as the video was rich with descriptions. The Youtuber met many Syrian artists who welcomed the admirer-tourist, despite all the adversities they had gone through. Thus, Bassous’s video, posted on 28 February 2019, starred the actor Milad Youssef in its first part and the head of the Syrian Actors Syndicate, Zuhair Ramadan, in the second part.
The 27-year-old Youtuber said that the reason behind his decision to come to Syria was to show the Syrians “courage” and resilience to continue to live in their country despite the hardships they faced. He thanked the president of the Syrian expatriate community in Norrkoping, Sweden, for his assistance in realizing the trip.
He also thanked the musician Saad al-Hussainy, who offered him the melodies of the song “Ya Yama la tebki” (Mother Don’t Cry), performed by Asim Sokar, and welcomed him in his studio in order to record the song. For his part, al-Hussainy expressed his gratitude to Bassous, talking about the Syrian people: “The ones who benefited from Syria failed its people, while we see people who never came here before trying to help”.
Tourism in the middle of rubble
Promoting the state of security in Syria and calling for the return of the refugees as well as welcoming the arrival of tourists and investors have been the main concern of the government of the regime and its Russian ally since the completion of the military campaign, which restored the areas of Ghouta, Daraa and al-Qalamoun from the grip of the opposition. However, the regime has been ignoring the great devastation of the infrastructure in Syria and the lack of services, in addition to losing control over Idlib and the areas of eastern Euphrates.
However, these challenges did not stop the young Youtuber, owner of “Travelling the Unknown” YouTube channel, from touring Damascus and Homs in 2018, displaying their beauty and the effects of destruction in both cities.
The Youtuber stated in his video, posted on 18 December, that “the global image of Syria and its people is now being distorted as a war-torn country full of extremists. However, I am here to show you another side of Syria, a beautiful side that is still preserved despite the war.”
Since the middle of 2016, the Ministry of Tourism of the Syrian regime has been publishing videos showing the beautiful nature and the ancient monuments throughout the various Syrian provinces in order to promote the image of security and stability in the country.
Although the regime’s promotional campaign had not met an immediate success, especially with the outbreak of the fierce battle of Aleppo during the last month of that year, the major European travel agency announced that the 20 seats for their first trip to Syria in April have been booked.
The French travel agency, Cilo, reported that the trip will cost only 3,000 Euros per traveler, and that the trip will be designated to the south of Damascus, Lattakia, Palmyra, and Qala’at al-Hosn, reported the Telegraph on 19 February.
The vice manager of the travel agency, Jean-Pierre Rispot, told Agence France-Presse that the flights are not meant to polish the reputation of the regime, considering that resuming touristic activities in Syria is “a way to return to normal life there.”
Nasib border crossing and the bitterness of the “fabulous” visit
The Nasib border crossing linking Syria and Jordan was reopened on 15 October, three years after it was closed due to military events. Thus, the Syrian regime called on Syrian refugees to return home and invited the Jordanians to visit Syria and carry on mutual trade exchanges.
The Jordanian Youtuber, Ahmed Abu Rob, posted three videos about his visit to Syria, which he described as a “fabulous” one. The first video, which was published on 31 October, 2018, covered the journey from Jordan to Damascus. In this video, the Youtuber described the ease of the trip and the absence of scenes of destruction. The second video portrayed the Youtuber’s amusing tour in al- Hamidiyah Souq and the areas of Bab Sharki and Rabwah, while the third video was dedicated to the presentation of the “negative side” he witnessed in the course of the trip.
After being shocked to see the wrecked buildings, the Jordanian Youtuber shot some scenes of the way back to the area that he described as “very scary”, stating: “such scene makes you wonder whether someone or some entire families actually died here.”
However, he did not deny the fact that he enjoyed his stay in Damascus, and advised the Jordanians to pay it a visit without taking children in order “to avoid being distracted from the beauty of the city.”
According to Abu Rob, the bitterness of the visit was not confined to the scenes of destruction. He explained in a fourth video published on February the 9th that despite the amusing adventure he had and the significant amount of popularity which his videos have gained, he is not intending to return to Syria.
Abu Rob has indicated that he suffered from a major attack by the Syrian public from both conflicting sides and that Syria TV, the opposition’s TV channel, has interfered in the content and distorted the meaning of the videos in a “bad way”. He noted that his intention was to capture the situation of Damascus and represent it to the Jordanian audience in a neutral way.
Solidarity visits or advertising outlets?
The videos posted by both Youtubers have generated contradictory views among Syrians, between those who considered it as a way to promote the regime’s narrative and disgrace the Syrian people’s grievances, ; and those who saw no harm in these videos and welcomed the fact that it presented a relief of the burden of war which the Syrians have endured throughout the years of conflict without leaving the country.
The last video to trigger controversy was that of Jordanian-Palestinian traveler, Qassem Hattu, who visited Damascus after 15 years. He wandered among the alleys of the city reporting news up there and repeatedly referring to the situation of the people.
“The highest salary for an employee in Syria is less than 100 dollars. People here are psychologically exhausted because of their situation,” said Hattu in a video posted on his YouTube channel “Ibn Hattuta Travels” on 21 February, 2019.
He stated that the main reason behind this trip is “to stand in solidarity with people,” for he believes that the conditions of war imposed a “prison” on the population and that seeing foreign newcomers makes them feel as if “they were still living in the same world people are living in outside Syria”.
However, this justification did not convince many Syrian observers, including young Ibrahim al-Zubaybi, who told Enab Baladi that such actions are mainly driven by the quest for risk that would bring a higher number of views.
Al-Zubaybi, Syrian civil society activist, criticized bloggers for reporting a very small side of the scene, wandering through the ancient alleys, and visiting restaurants and cafes, while at the same time some others are “meters away from the Shabia barriers, national defense… etc, where most of violations we know about take place.”
The Damascene young man highlighted the moral and psychological aspects raised by these passages, which affect the refugees “unable to return because of the moral stand they have taken against the regime or the occupier of Damascus.”
The young director Abdul Rahman al-Nahlawi, a Damascene living in Istanbul, responded to al-Zubaybi that despite the obvious fallacies of the youtuber, he will remain an amateur, not a politician, a thinker, or a researcher.
Through his Facebook account, al-Nahlawi, considered the situation of the citizens of Damascus to be similar to the people of Jerusalem, who are subjected to the Israeli occupation. Thus, we can invoke the permanent debate about the legitimacy and feasibility of the act of paying a visit under occupation or not, and enumerate the social and popular and even the symbolic delegations visiting Palestine to support its people, and list trade movements that can enhance their presence.
He called everyone to think rationally, stressing that “instead of criticizing others according to interests and political affiliations, wouldn’t it be best to think how to support our people living in Syria under occupation?”
In response to the financial benefits these visits are expected to bring to Syrian citizens, al-Zubaybi said “we are not ATM. I will not be waiting for someone to add insult to my injuries, in exchange for two extra Syrian pounds.”
“We are in a state of war, we cannot take things in a normal way, and we cannot compare the situation to Jerusalem, for every aspect and detail is different and nothing can be compared,” said al-Zubaybi in reference to the comparison with Jerusalem.
On 25 October, the Youtuber published a new video to respond to the criticism the previous one has received. He said he had made several mistakes in the first video, including the use of the term safety which he believes to be “relative”. He also believes that the visit was not wrong because it was meant to listen to the people frustrated by the war.
“The biggest mistake I have made is the belief that I can tackle a subject like the Syrian issue and separate the things that are impossible to separate. Separating politics from daily life is almost impossible, especially as regard to the Syrian issue.”
The most prominent Youtubers to report scenes from Syria
Andrawos Bassous, 27 years old, is a Swedish Palestinian, photographer and musician who plays several instruments. He published two videos of a journey in Syria through his YouTube channel “Andrawos Bassous”. The first was published on 15 June 2018, after he spent five days in Damascus, and the second on February 2019, after spending ten days during which he visited Damascus and Bloudan.
The channel, he started in 2011, has more than 119,000 subscribers and more than nine million viewers.
Qassem Hattu, a 24 year-old Jordanian Palestinian who traveled to more than 20 countries, published two videos via his YouTube Channel “Ibn Hattuta Travels” about his journey to Syria. The first was published on 21 February, 2019, after he visited Damascus and toured its markets. The second was published on 25 February, 2019 in response to the criticism the 1st video has received, through which he announced that he would not share another video clip was dedicated to display Syrian fast food.
He founded his channel in 2016 and it has more than 106,000 subscribers and over 7 million viewers.
Ahmed Abu Rob, a Jordanian, “loves adventure and taking pictures,” as he describes himself in his channel “Ahmed Aburob”, through which he published four videos about Syria. The first published on 31 October, 2018 and reported details about his trip from Jordan to Damascus. The second was published on 3 November and included some pictures of Abu Rob inside the city. The third was published on 6 November, in which he talked about the destruction he witnessed while he was back to Jordan. In the fourth video published on 9 February, he explained the reason why it would be impossible for him to return to Syria.
He started his channel in 2016. The channel has more than 14,000 subscribers and over 100,000 viewers.
“Travelling the unknown” is the name of the blog, whose owner did not provide any information about himself. This blog depicts details about visits he paid to the places “that most people would not want to go”. The videos and articles he published on the blog included trips to North Korea, Pakistan, West Chine, and the Middle East. The video tackling Damascus and Homs was published on 10 December, 2018.
His YouTube channel has nearly 2,000 subscribers and more than 100,000 viewers.