Parliamentarians with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) are traveling around Syria in an unusual trip this week in hopes of boosting the party's efforts to send back half a million Syrian refugees currently living in Germany.
On Tuesday, members of the AfD posed for pictures with allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad and snapped pictures of women walking on the streets of Damascus, posting about their trip on social media.
The seven-man team is comprised of four Bundestag MPs as well as state parliamentarians from the populous, western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). Other than Damascus, the group plans on visiting Homs and Aleppo during their trip — all areas which are mostly controlled by the Assad government.
Questioning Syria's security status
Helmut Seifen, the deputy leader of the AfD's parliamentary party in the NRW state parliament, told DW the AfD politicians taking part in the trip hope to determine "whether there is war everywhere, or if there are safe areas as well."
He emphasized that it was a "private" trip organized by the group's de-facto leader Christian Blex, an AfD state parliamentarian from NRW. Seifen denied that the trip has a direct connection to the AfD's refugee repatriation proposal, but added that the AfD expected to receive a report after the group returns on Friday.
He noted that MPs would likely only travel to "safe" areas.
Read more: What foreign powers want from the Syrian war
In a statement posted on Blex's Facebook page, the group said the goal of the trip is to gauge "the humanitarian situation and reconstruction work" as well as to form a "rational assessment of the situation in Syria with regard to the ongoing discussion about its classification as a safe country of origin, which also concerns the decision to suspend deportation for rejected asylum-seekers."
The statement added that German media couldn't be trusted in its coverage of the conflict.
Blex was one of several AfD politicians who traveled to the Russia-annexed Crimea last month to speak out against Western sanctions. The group traveled through Moscow, a move seen as illegal by the Ukrainian government. The trip was criticized by both Kyiv and Berlin.
Talks with Assad ally
On Monday, the group held a two hour-long meeting with Syrian Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, who reportedly urged Syrian refugees to return home. Blex also implored German Chancellor Angela Merkel to invite the mufti for a visit.
In 2011, Hassoun threatened to send suicide bombers to Europe and the US in the event of Western intervention in the Syrian conflict. He is a close ally of Assad's government.
In a video posted online, AfD Münster spokesman Thomas Röckemann said Hassoun had also criticized DITIB, an organization backed by the Turkish government that funds mosques in Germany. He reportedly warned about Turkey's influence in religious institutions abroad.
Turkey launched an incursion into the northern Syrian territory of Afrin in January, seeking to kick out the US-backed Syrian Kurdish militia and backing rebels fighting Assad.
Tight jeans and 'lively traffic'
The AfD group did not elaborate on the parameters it's using to judge the security and humanitarian situation during its trip, but voiced surprise at the level of normalcy in the government-controlled capital.
"We have lived through the harshness of war in Germany before and we are still aware of the suffering it brings. We were surprised when we saw people going about their normal lives in Damascus," Blex told reporters, according to the state-owned, pro-Syrian government news website Tishreen.
Blex was also impressed by the amount of afternoon traffic bustling through the Syrian capital, as well as a pair of women wearing jeans on the street.
"Blue jeans instead of a black veil! Women sit in bars. Barely imaginable in Mecca — also sadly not in Berlin-Neukölln," Blex wrote on Twitter, adding that the German government "supports 'rebels' who want to force women into burqas."
Some Syrians have responded wryly to the AfD politicians' assessment of the situation in their country, where areas like eastern Ghouta are under daily bombardment and have been described by UN chief Antonio Guterres as "hell on Earth."
"That's it guys, our demand to wear tight jeans has been granted and that means all our problems have been solved… let's return home! Let the chips fall as they may," Syrian journalist Yaacob Kaddoury, who is now based in Europe, wrote on Facebook.
Condemnation, confusion back home
Several German Green party MPs, as well as members of Merkel's conservative party have expressed outrage over the parliamentarians' trip in Syria.
Michael Brand, the human rights spokesman of the CDU/CSU's bloc in parliament, said the AfD trip was "simply disgusting."
Green party lawmaker Konstantin von Notz wrote on Twitter that the AfD politicians were acting like "Assad fan boys."
The Greens' foreign policy spokesman Omid Nouripour criticized the Afd politicians in a tweet as "being courted in palaces in Damascus while their 'hosts' throw bombs on children less than 15 kilometers away." Seifen said the group informed the German Foreign Office of its travel plans, but a ministry spokesperson said the office had not been informed. A travel warning for Syria remains in place for all Germans.
German government officials last visited Syria in February 2011, just weeks before the conflict erupted. The German embassy in Damascus closed several months later. In a call with US President Donald Trump last Friday, Merkel said the Assad government must be held accountable for its use of chemical weapons and attacks against civilians in eastern Ghouta.
The Syrian regime has been accused war crimes, human rights violations, and using chemical weapons by a United Nations inquiry into Syria. Assad denies the allegations.
Additional reporting by Wesley Dockery.
This article was updated on March 7, 2018.