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Syrian Government Invites Western Journalists To Damascus


In Syria, a group of Western journalists and analysts have been given a rare invitation to visit the capital, Damascus. Officials say they want the world to see their side of the conflict and not simply focus on hardhead rebel areas. NPR's Peter Kenyon was one of those invited, and he's in the capital city now. And Peter, first of all, you're getting a glimpse of Damascus. What are you seeing?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, the first thing to say is I've seen some of Damascus, not the working-class neighborhoods, not - certainly not the pro-opposition suburbs. You work in Damascus. You work with restrictions if you're a journalist, and that hasn't changed. I do have hopes of seeing more, but what I've seen so far suggests a city trying to carry on with life despite the conflict.

And we have to say that's possible here because unlike in a place like eastern Aleppo, here there's dependable electricity. There's water, health care. People still go to jobs - a lot of tension just underneath the surface, though, many checkpoints, a lot of military and police on the street. So it is carrying on but tense.

CORNISH: What you think is behind this invitation from Syria's government now?

KENYON: What we just discussed as part of it. Many Syrians I've met clearly expected the Westerners to be shocked that Damascus isn't one big mass of flaming rubble. And one reason they thought we'd be surprised is they haven't let very many Western journalists into the city in recent years. I don't think I've been here since 2008 approximately.

But the second reason I think is that officials wanted us to hear their side of the conflict face to face. And despite all of these investigations, international commissions looking into the government's actions, Syrian officials tend to ignore that and blame Western media coverage for all their problems.

A popular example is the emotional pictures of children - Aylan Kurdi, the dead boy on the beach in Turkey, or Omran, the boy in the ambulance. Why don't we see pro-government areas and the dead children there? Of course we're seeing that now as it happens in Western Aleppo. The U.N.'s condemning rebel attacks there as a possible war crime.

CORNISH: But to go back to what you said, I mean the government has come under constant criticism for indiscriminate attacks on civilians, besieging towns and of course torture in its prisons. What are they saying to that? What's their response?

KENYON: Well, there's a real disconnect there. It really highlights just how differently the Syrian and Western views of the conflict shape up. A couple of examples - opposition activists, Western analysts talk about the government sieges, the forced displacement of fighters and sometimes civilians in opposition areas.

The government and its supporters in Syria talk about local reconciliations that will allow civilians to get their lives back. And there's no effort here in Syria to distinguish among the various rebel factions. They're all either hardened jihadi extremists or they're foot soldiers, willing or unwilling.

CORNISH: And finally, Peter, what do they see as coming next in this war?

KENYON: Based on a conversation with Foreign Minister Walid Muallem who invited the Western visitors in for a chat, it doesn't sound like the Syrian army is in any mood to wait for efforts to move extremists out of Eastern Aleppo and try and resolve the situation and get humanitarian aid in. He just said flatly, we're going to take the city; this is our battle. The government has said similar things before, but this certainly wasn't any softening of the tone. So we'll just have to see what it translates into on the ground.

CORNISH: NPR's Peter Kenyon speaking to us from Damascus - Peter, thank you.

KENYON: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.