Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Series on Syria: Angry Arab Interviews Rania Abouzeid of Time

Rania Abouzeid is a correspondent for Time magazine.  She has been reporting on Syria and wrote many articles on Syria.  I am not in full agreement with her writings on Syria and wrote so here but what distinguishes her writings is that she--as she indicates below--avoided relying on Skype interviews with "activists" and was on the ground and her reporting had a first-hand quality that was lacking in much of the mainstream Western media.  Rania's reporting also had an original quality--in my opinion--in that it was not political in the sense that she did not mind if her writings happened to be harmful to the political and propaganda interests of the regime and of the armed groups alike.  That I also found lacking in much of the Western mainstream media coverage.  As I said before, I will not comment on the interviews but only post the answers as they are, but will interview myself at the end of the series. 

Here we go:
  1. What in particular is Western media getting wrong about Syria?

I don’t like generalizations. You can speak of certain outlets, individual reporters, a wave of stories at a particular time, but I don’t like the idea of lumping a whole bunch of different people into one group for the ease of classification. I reject it in my reporting, and I reject it as posited in this question. I am part of the Western media but don’t share this hive brain you seem to think we all have.

Syria is an extremely difficult and dangerous story to report. Journalists have been killed, kidnapped, and threatened trying to tell the story. That of course, doesn’t excuse getting anything wrong, it simply places the task in context.

Some reporters have looked for alternatives to entering the country to get the information. I understand this but think it comes with many pitfalls, especially relying on Skype interviews with activists a reporter has not met or doesn’t know. You need to be able to verify sources, to know that a person is in the town or city s/he claims to be in, and that s/he is a reliable source while also bearing in mind that at the end of the day, an activist has an agenda - s/he is not a neutral observer.

  1. You wrote early about Islamist armed groups in Syria when the Western press still peddled the story that the armed groups are all secular and that they are all led by Suhayr Al-Atasi and that they receive no aid from anyone except Syrian “businessmen”. Did you receive reactions that questioned your reporting at the time? And how did you react to them?

My reporting is often questioned, as you put it, by both sides - although it’s rarely a question, it’s always an angry accusation. I was blacklisted by the regime’s mukhabarat very early on and branded a spy and a weapons smuggler if you can believe that (but not a journalist) after my reports from inside Hama, Rastan and Homs a few months into the uprising. It means that it’s simply too risky for me to explore the views of regime loyalists, lest I be detained during the course of my reporting. I regret that this part of the story is closed to me.

I have also been criticized by Assad’s opponents for stories about rebel infighting, for the stories you mentioned about Islamists, for criminality in rebel-held areas and other things that are deemed “against the revolution.” I have been threatened by some people and often accused of being a spy. It makes it even riskier to operate in some parts of Syria, because all it takes is one angry person with a grudge and a gun to put you in real danger. It’s a peril of the job.

By the way, I never heard the claim that Suheir al-Atassi was leading the armed opposition, and I don’t think it’s fair. As you know, she has a history of resisting the regime, and in February 2011 participated in candlelit vigils in Damascus that were dispersed by force. She was beaten up and harassed. She remained inside Syria, at great personal risk, and was a key organizer of a network of civil activists that worked underground in the days when the regime was going house to house looking for dissenters.

  1. You have seen the armed groups up close, what kind of republic would they establish if they get a chance?

There’s a spectrum of views. As I have often reported, the Free Syrian Army has never been an organized military force with any form of top-down command and control, it’s just a loose franchise outfit, a name tag. There are also many groups outside the FSA umbrella, like Jabhat al-Nusra and a few other Islamist groups.

Still, an Islamist is not an Islamist is not an Islamist - there are a variety of views within that general categorization. Many armed groups want an Islamic state but there are different versions of what that might look like. To some, it means a state akin to Turkey’s system of governance, to others, it is closer to a more strict Salafi interpretation of Sharia. Some groups want a civil democratic state while others say they want a civil state that has an “Islamic flavor,” so it varies.

Also remember that the numerous armed groups are only one element of the opposition. Although it is now the time of the guys with the guns, they are still in many ways beholden to the broader communities they are based in. In my travels I have often heard conservative Islamists say that they do not want to “lose the street” in the way that Iraqi extremists, for example, alienated the populations they claimed to be protecting by forcing their conservative social mores on them, an act which in part helped give rise to the Sahwat. I have witnessed and reported examples of pushback against conservative Islamists trying to impose their views on some populations. I’m often told that people who are standing against Bashar al-Assad will not accept a new autocratic leader or system.

  1. How do you account for the resilience of the regime (do you note how the Western media still insist that the regime is only standing because all the soldiers are `Alawites)?

The regime has support - both inside Syria and internationally. Russia, China, Iran and Hizballah are powerful allies that have been assisting the regime through a variety of means, including providing weapons and ammunition, fighting men and military advisors, and political cover.

There are also obviously Syrians who support the regime either because they believe in its Baathist secular ideology, benefit from its patronage or don’t have confidence in Assad’s opponents and fear what may come next. They should not be discounted.

It’s true that Alawites occupy a significant chunk of the upper echelons of the military because the Assads built a formidable clan-based Alawite sub-structure within the security and armed forces. It’s also true that there are many Sunni soldiers still fighting for the regime, as well as men from other sects. The armed forces remain with the regime. Despite the steady flow of defections, we have not seen the large-scale defection of an entire unit for example.

Just a point about sectarianism, recall that when the Syrian uprising kicked off more than two years ago, it was a popular protest against a regime, not a Sunni fight against the country’s Alawite leader. It’s too simplistic to describe this war in purely sectarian terms - as Sunnis vs. Alawites etc.

Having said that, there is a growing sectarian component to the fighting, especially after mass killings like Houla, and most recently Banyas and Bayda. War is dehumanizing, and civil wars tend to magnify differences between people who were once neighbors, by highlighting markers like sect, social class, tribal affiliation, rural vs. urban, town vs. town, as a means to confirm the “otherness” of the enemy. It is ugly, and terribly sad.

  1. Do you think in hindsight that Western media did their best to cover up crimes of the armed groups?

  1. Do you feel propaganda pressure in your reporting in the sense that Western reporting on Syria has to fit with the Western government’s frame of reference?

Absolutely not, and if I did, I would find another way to pay my bills - very quickly! Those who know me know that I don’t exactly like being told what to do, and even less what to think or write. It has never happened to me before, but I can only speak for myself.

  1. Do you think that Western governments (and media) will get to regret the carte blanche that they extended to the armed groups and even opposition?

Once again, the use of “Western governments and media” is too broad in my opinion. Did some outlets and reporters cheerlead for the rebels? Yes. Will they regret it? I don’t know, that depends on them.

As for Western governments, based on conferences I attend and people I talk to, there has long been widespread frustration with the political infighting that has plagued the Syrian opposition from the get-go, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into regret for supporting them.

As for support - verbal or otherwise - to the armed groups, let’s be honest, it wasn’t - and isn’t - carte blanche by any means. I reported early on about Gulf-led efforts (with US and Turkish backing) to funnel weapons and ammunition to select armed groups through regional military councils, but the supplies were not huge and were never consistent. The weapons tap, so to speak, was not free flowing.

Will Arab and Western governments regret offering such support to some armed elements, especially given the steady rise in groups with more of an Islamist outlook?

I can’t see how policymakers could not foresee that people who are shot at are going to try and shoot back, and when those people die in huge numbers, day in, day out, they are going to plead for support - in the form of weapons, pressure on the regime, something. If they don’t get it (and get it in meaningful quantities) they may turn to the one source of support they feel they have in abundance - their faith, and as the killing continues and the desperation increases, religiosity can become radicalized.

  1. What is the most likely scenario that you see for Syria in the next year or years?

I truly, sincerely hope I’m wrong but I see a protracted, savage war. The fall of the regime will not be the end. There has long been talk of a “revolution after the revolution,” of infighting within rebel ranks, between warlords vying for power, territory, riches; between groups with ideological, sectarian or ethnic differences; of revenge killings; general lawlessness; a country that is a proxy battleground for the region’s many players. Some of these elements are already present. Inshallah, I am wrong. The Syrian people deserve better, much better."