In Syria, There’s More to the Vlog Than Meets the Eye

Haid Haid

Image courtesy of Delil Souleiman / AFP

Earlier this year, Benjamin Rich, a British vlogger better known to his 3.6 million YouTube subscribers as Bald and Bankrupt, received a message on Instagram from a stranger who called himself Ayoub. The man’s message was simple: “Would you like a tour of Syria? I think you would enjoy it.”

Abso-bloodly-lutely,” Rich told him. In April, Bald and Bankrupt traveled via Lebanon to Syria, where he visited a soccer game in Damascus, a bombed-out hotel in Maaloula, and a barber shop in Aleppo. His video of that journey has since been viewed more than 3.2 million times.

Rich is not the only vlogger to receive such a random invitation in recent months. At least 10 other foreign travel vloggers have visited Syria since the beginning of 2022, including Simon WilsonJanet NewenhamGokhan Yildirim, and Thomas Brag, whose seven-day sojourn in July has been viewed nearly 2.6 million times.

To viewers, these videos are colorful and visually engaging journeys through one of the world’s most ancient civilizations. But they are also thinly veiled extensions of the Syrian regime’s global propaganda efforts, which explains why the hosts are welcomed into the country with open arms. In exchange for getting VIP treatment and exclusive access, the content creators are unwittingly doing the government’s bidding as de facto ambassadors, parroting a dubious narrative that Syria is once again open for visitors.

Before the war, Syria was one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Middle East. With countless archaeological treasures, an estimated 8.5 million foreign tourists visited the country in 2010, a 40 percent jump from the previous year.

Everything changed after the uprising in 2011. To hide its brutality from the outside world, the Syrian regime made it almost impossible for people to enter the country as tourists. The restrictive policy continued until President Bashar Al Assad regained control over most of the country in late 2018. Since then, the regime has gradually begun to allow adventure-seeking tourists and influencers to return.

Yet these trips, like many things in Syria, are not what they seem. Travelers are only allowed to visit under the government’s watchful eye. Foreigners must purchase a tour with a regime-approved travel agency and are accompanied by government-trusted minders who are often disguised as translators, drivers, or tour agents. Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate also vets visa applications to prevent journalists and activists from sneaking in.

Visitors who accept these conditions can be used by the regime to advance its objectives.

For starters, the government wants to convince the world that Syria is safe. But vloggers are only brought to areas where fighting has long stopped – such as Damascus and Aleppo. In turn, vloggers tell their audiences that Syria is safer than the mainstream media would have us believe. At the end of his video, Rich declares: “If you are worried about coming to Syria because you think it’s dangerous, then I wouldn’t worry about that. That’s not an issue at all.” Wilson makes a similar pronouncement.

Second, the Assad regime wants to use influencers to boost its flagging economy. This goal was recently highlighted by the deputy minister of tourism, Ghiath Al Farrah, who said that high-profile visitors “with large followings” are generating positive publicity for the country.

While Western vacationers are unlikely to flock to Syria anytime soon, influencers’ videos are affecting “dark tourism” – traveling to places associated with war, death, and destruction. In an interview with Insider, Newenham conceded that her visit to devastated cities like Aleppo and Homs was partially motivated by this urge.

Travel agencies are sprouting up to cater to this macabre interest. Even foreign-based agencies are getting in on the action. Rich used a Dubai-registered company, while Untamed Borders, based in London, helps “adventurous travelers to experience unusual and largely unvisited areas of the world.” A seven-day visit to Syria with Untamed started at $2,225.

For now, the regime doesn’t seem to mind promoting Syria as a destination for thrill-seekers and the combat curious – as long as it generates money and doesn’t spiral out of control.

Finally, and potentially most worrisome, celebrity content creators are being used to rewrite history by parroting the regime’s historical inaccuracies. By relying on pro-Assad tour agents, vloggers are eating up regime propaganda, perhaps without even knowing it. As Rich notes at one point during his trip, “Who’s a baddie and who’s a goodie in this conflict? I don’t know.”

And yet, during the 50-minute video, Rich frequently features his “guide” talking about the “terrorists” who killed civilians and destroyed the country. Commenting on non-regime-held areas in the northwest, the guide says without evidence: “The areas are controlled by Al Qaeda and other militant groups who share the same extremist ideology,” adding that Syria’s “No. 1 problem is foreign interference.”

“Foreign troops, do you hear him?” Rich responds. “Get out of Syria now.”

Foreigners are a frequent boogeyman for the Assad regime, even though it is Syrians themselves who are opposing Assad’s brutal rule in areas that the government doesn’t control. Unlike journalism, which seeks balance and objectivity, vloggers are only telling their audiences what Assad wants them to hear.

These videos do make for entertaining viewing, but this is precisely what they are: entertainment. Instead of presenting their travels as government-sponsored junkets, vloggers are misleading millions of viewers while helping to whitewash the atrocities of the Syrian dictator. This will only prolong the suffering of the people who live in his grip and ensure that the full story of Syria’s war remains untold.

Haid Haid is a senior consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.