German far right, anti-refugee party visits Assad’s government to illustrate how “safe” Syria is
On March 5, Dr. Christian Blex, German Parliamentarian and Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany or AfD) deputy spokesman, announced that he and five other AfD members of parliament were making a private visit to Syria. During their visit, the AfD members of the German Bundestag visited at least three major cities in eastern Syria still contested by rebel forces. Blex had just returned from a February visit to Russian-occupied Crimea prior to leaving for Syria. The trip lasted four days and spanned from Damascus to Aleppo.
At the time of AfD’s visit, Eastern Ghouta faced some of the harshest days of a siege lasting since 2013, in which nearly 400,000 people were trapped in the rebel enclave. By the end of the AfD’s nearby visit, the death toll in Eastern Ghouta had risen to 957 civilian deaths since the regime assault ramped up in late February 2018, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Later on March 5, Blex posted a picture on Facebook, showing the view from his hotel in Damascus, Syria. Cross-referencing the surroundings with satellite imagery of Damascus, the vantage point of the photo was proven to be from the 5-star Dama Rose Hotel, a luxury hotel in central Damascus.
Less than three miles away, rebels and civilians alike lay besieged in East Ghouta as the joint Syrian-Russian air campaign raged on in the recent offensive against the rebel enclave. In his first post detailing his Syria visit, Blex described the AfD Syria delegation, which consisted of the following figures:
- Dr. Christian Blex, Member of State Parliament, AfD Parliamentary Group North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) State Parliament, Deputy Spokesman of AfD State Association NRW
- Udo Hemmelgarn, Member of the German Bundestag
- Frank Pasemann, Member of the German Bundestag, Member of AfD Federal Executive Board
- Jürgen Pohl, Member of the German Bundestag, Member of the AfD StateAssociation Board Thuringia
- Thomas Röckemann, Member of State Parliament, AfD Parliamentary GroupNRW State Parliament, AfD StateAssociation NRW spokesman
- Dr. Harald Weyel, Member of the German Bundestag
Two days following their arrival in Damascus, Blex posted an image to his Facebook page as the delegation enjoyed a breakfast in Damascus after a meeting with the regime of Bashar al-Assad the previous day. In the text accompanying the image, Blex questioned the legitimacy of Syrian refugees, and whether they were truly Syrian. The final assault on Eastern Ghouta was underway just miles from his location.
The trip went from south to north, and in about three days the delegation visited Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. These three cities have all been subject to intense air campaigns by the Syrian government throughout the civil war, which is now in its seventh year.
During their visit in Damascus, the delegation moved within 1.5 miles of the front lines in East Ghouta during a visit to an orthodox church, which had been damaged by rebel shelling.
The delegation then moved on to the city of Homs, and surveyed the ruins of the city, parts of which had been completely leveled during the Russian and Syrian air campaigns. Throughout Blex’s facebook posts, his message was clear: the rebels are extremists and Syria is safe for refugees to return to.
In the pursuit of pushing this narrative, Blex met with various relevant Syrian government officials. This list of officials includes Ali Haidar, leader of the Syrian social nationalist party and minister of state for national reconciliation affairs.
From Blex’s Facebook posts, the @DFRLab plotted the delegation’s movements on an interactive map.
After Homs, the delegation moved onto Aleppo on March 8, for a meeting with various religious and political leaders. This visit to Aleppo was not initially as widely publicized as Homs or Damascus. Only one of the delegation members, Thomas Röckemann, mentioned being in Aleppo during their visit. Blex waited until they had returned to Germany on March 10 to post about the AfD delegation’s trip to Aleppo. This is potentially because of the stigma attached to the city after the brutal siege and bombing campaign carried out by the assad regime and Russia before its eventual fall.
March 9 was the final day of the AfD delegation’s tour of Syria, which was spent briefly in Damascus before departure.
The Syrian regime has followed its usual doctrine of besiege, assault, evacuate as was exemplified in @DFRLab’s report Breaking Aleppo. Following the nearly 5-year long siege, under which some of the most egregious crimes of the war had been carried out (see: August 21st sarin attacks), a final assault unfolded during the AfD visit. Finally, after the enclave had been split into three under the overwhelming firepower of the regime, rebels were forced to evacuate.
Michael Sheldon is an editorial intern at the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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