Last November, around the same time the Irish travel vlogger Janet Newenham was filming videos of her strolls through Damascus and Aleppo, five members of a family, including three children, were killed in a Russian airstrike in northwest Syria. But none of Newenham’s 170,000 YouTube subscribers would have learned that from her upbeat dispatches — in her videos, Syria is not a country at war.
After a scorched-earth war — supported by Iranian forces, sectarian militias and the Russian air force — Bashar al-Assad’s regime has regained control of much of Syria, but more than half its population remains displaced, and the rest languish under the same suffocating terror that inspired them to rise up against the regime in 2011.
The regime’s victory, however, has come at a price. It is now an international pariah, strangled by sanctions, indebted to both Iran and Russia. It needs an economic lifeline, and it needs it fast. But it is hard to convince investors that the country is open to business when its image remains wedded to a brutal war.
After the fall of Aleppo six years ago, the regime tried to recruit international journalists to help rehabilitate its image. Assad’s father-in-law, Fawaz al-Akhras, paid many to visit Damascus and meet high officials, including Assad himself. The effort was a PR disaster. Most reporters wrote critically about their experience, and the regime learned a valuable lesson: As long as Syria is seen through a political lens, it will struggle to get favorable coverage.
Over the past few years, the regime has been earnestly recruiting YouTubers and influencers to help burnish the country’s image. The idea is ingenious since most travel influencers consider themselves apolitical, and their audiences are mainly interested in sights, sounds and flavors. The conventional tone of such videos is cheery, with little room for reminders of tragedy. To the extent that the videos acknowledge Syria’s destruction, it becomes part of the aesthetic, adding a hint of danger and pique to the adventure. On Instagram and TikTok, it’s not uncommon to see influencers posing in front of ruined neighborhoods. To them, it’s all part of the exotic Levantine experience, along with the country’s souks, bazaars, mosques, castles and restaurants. [Continue reading…]