A week ago, I received a call from the Russian Foreign Ministry offering a spot on a three-day press tour with the Russian army to Syria, exact dates and destinations to be determined.
There was also a special warning for American journalists coming aboard: Write poorly about us, an official said, and “this will be your first and last trip.”
Russia’s military is crafting a new, media-friendly (or at least media-tolerant) image. Novelties include televised briefings, a blood-pumping medley of events called the International Military Games, and a chain of clothing stores that carry patriotic leather jackets and children’s T-shirts.
But the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra’s rendition of Prokofiev and Bach at an ancient amphitheater recently retaken from the Islamic State was by far the ministry’s most ambitious press stunt ever. It was a sublime experiment in propaganda, marrying Russia’s cultural heritage to its martial ambitions.
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And, likely for that reason, they threw open the doors this time, taking print journalists from The Washington Post and The New York Times, along with the usual TV teams from CNN and BBC. Last Tuesday evening, more than 100 international journalists, as well as Russian reporters, packed into a Ministry of Defense Ilyushin-62 jet for the flight from Moscow to Hmeymim Airbase in Syria, traversing the Caspian Sea, Iraq and Iran.
Our passports were taken from us en route. We landed in Syria just after daybreak. A cool breeze blew in off the Mediterranean, barely a mile to the west.
For the rest of the trip, we would report from inside a bubble, shuttled by tour bus to each destination without prior warning and expected to report quickly, then get back on the bus.
With no point of reference besides our Russian hosts, all we can do is remember that whatever we are seeing is what the Russian military wants us to see.
Our first destination was the airbase itself, secretly renovated by the Russian military before Russian warplanes suddenly appeared in Syria in September. Military personnel were standing in formation when we arrived, rehearsing for an upcoming parade celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.
The timing of the rehearsal was just a coincidence, a ministry press aide told me, a theme that would repeat itself as we encountered scenes that seemed staged throughout our trip.
The base itself was no-frills, but clean and impressive. Russian personnel were ready (once again by chance, our minders say) at each of the stations we would visit: a volleyball court/workout area, a tent for psychological support and another for discussing political news, a model barracks, and a mess hall for soldiers.
The visits are designed mainly for television, and we’re shuffled quickly from tent to tent for the cameras to get their shots and move on. Asked about life on the base, several soldiers referred a reporter to an officer, who said that the servicemen serve three-month shifts and have ample time to relax, with concerts on the weekends.
On the tarmac we can see about one dozen fixed-wing aircraft, including Su-24 and Su-34 bombers, as well as Russian Su-35 jet fighters. The Russian base is still humming with activity, with as many as 20 sorties a day, despite a declaration of victory by President Vladimir Putin and a drawdown order published in March.
They are flying combat missions in areas controlled by the Islamic State group, the Russian military spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, tells us. About 10 planes take off during our time on the base, most once we’ve arranged ourselves along the runway.
Some of the Su-24 bombers, the workhorses of Russia’s 8-month-old intervention, drop their heavy bombs before landing, while others return to base still carrying their payloads.
We ask Konashenkov about an Aleppo hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders that was reportedly hit by an airstrike last month, killing at least 55. Konashenkov produces a satellite photo from last October that he says proves the hospital was never bombed at all, and he suggests that news reports of deaths there have been fabrications.
Asked to estimate collateral damage and civilian deaths from Russian strikes overall, Konashenkov dodges, saying that Russian strikes have not harmed civilians. The back-and-forth carries on for about a quarter of an hour before the press conference breaks up.
“How much more can you guys film this? Get on the bus!” one of the minders from the Ministry of Defense press service yells, and we’re off, traveling along the Syrian countryside and highways toward a village north of the city of Hama, where the Russian military wants to show us a reconciliation ceremony following the defeat of the Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra there.
When we arrive, there are hundreds of villagers on the streets, bearing Syrian flags and portraits of Syrian leader Bashar Assad. We only find out the name of the village, Kaukab, when we arrive.
Residents give different accounts about when the town was recaptured, ranging from 1 1/2 to five months earlier.
Children receive packages of humanitarian aid from Russian troops. Inside a tent, men with their faces covered by red-and-white checked keffiyehs are surrendering their weapons to government troops. It is a spectacle that we are not prepared for, although similar ceremonies have been a fixture on previous press tours.
One government soldier named Firas tells me he is a Christian from Homs, and that his wife and parents were beheaded by Islamists.
“I am alone,” he says. “Now I will never stop fighting.” Then, he adds, with a wicked smile: “Welcome to Syria.”
Another man claims to be Kaukab’s former police chief, who has been in hiding for five years. He thanks the Russians for supporting the Syrian army and says he wants his job back.
We spend two hours in Kaukab and then are back on the bus. It takes us more than four hours to drive along the winding coastal roads to our hotel in the northwest corner of Syria in Latakia; it’s a five-star hotel with an enchanting view of the crystal-blue waters of the Mediterranean. Sitting here, it is easy to forget the country is at war.
We sleep for a few hours, leaving the next day at 7 a.m. for Palmyra. There are rumors of a concert at Palmyra’s amphitheater, and that Putin’s friend, a famous cellist named Sergei Roldugin, will be there.
But with no Internet and little cell service, we spend most of the seven-hour drive looking into the passing towns for signs of life and marveling at the security measures for our trip. Access roads and intersections for dozens of miles have been closed off for our convoy, which includes Humvees and armored personnel carriers.
Overhead, at least four helicopters, Mi-24s and advanced Ka-52s, are circling our convoy.
All this, it seems, is prepared for the evening’s concert, although officials won’t confirm any details.
In Palmyra, we’re quickly led through the ruins, the damage to which Russian officials say they’re still evaluating. Russia’s ambassador to UNESCO upbraids the West for its hesitance to work with the Assad government to restore the ruins.
We can still hear outgoing fire from artillery nearby (we’re told the front is about 10 miles from here). A Russian military base, ostensibly to support a demining effort, has sprouted here in the last month, with rows of tents, anti-aircraft systems and armored vehicles. We are forbidden to take pictures of it.
In Palmyra’s ancient amphitheater, the Russian and Syrian elite are ready. Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky is in his seat. So are Syrian youth activists, including members of an outdoors club tied to the Interior Ministry, who said attracting international support to restore the city is one of their goals.
The concert would be broadcast into Russian homes on national state television. But to reach Western households, the Kremlin needed us. The famous conductor Valery Gergiev was there. So was Roldugin. He told The New York Times that he had left his Stradivarius cello at home, citing “the heat and the dust.”
It was all over in one hour. And after some official statements, we were back on the bus for a seven-hour drive through the desert and along the coast to our hotel in Latakia.
The following afternoon, we flew back to Moscow on a plane that lifted off 56 hours after we touched down in Syria.