The Fog of Civil War
What's really going on in Syria is too complicated to fit in a headline.
PAPHOS, Cyprus – In Jdaydieh Artouz, a town 11 miles southwest of Damascus that is home to a mix of Sunnis, Christians, and Alawites, protests have been taking place almost daily for well over a year. Yet the security forces, centered at a police station a few hundred yards up the street from where the protesters regularly gather, have largely ignored them. One wet, cold January night while out to pick up some sharwama sandwiches, I watched cars with Bashar al-Assad’s face emblazoned across the rear window pass within inches of the indomitable demonstrators. Neither side appeared perturbed. With the exception of isolated incidents in which several protesters were killed, the town remained peaceful throughout the uprising — that is until Thursday, July 19, when rebel fighters fired RPGs at the police station, killing five officers.
Living in this town for the first 11 months of the uprising, I tried, and failed, to get articles published questioning why the regime tolerated protests or allowed free assembly in some areas, but not others. These incidents didn’t fit the narrative that all protests were being violently quashed. The majority, of course, were — and often brutally — but the full picture was unnervingly complex.
Yet because anti-regime activists succeeded where I did not, the story of Jdaydieh Artouz has been distorted, almost beyond recognition. Hundreds of videos uploaded to YouTube present the outside world with the idea that the town was in open rebellion, that it was united in its opposition to the Syrian government.
But ask the Christian, Shiite, and Druze families whom I lived among in Jdaydieh if they support the revolution, and the vast majority will answer, in private, that they do not. Today, Christians fear that their churches will be tightly controlled by what would likely be a conservative Sunni government, should the rebellion succeed. They wonder if women will be told how to dress.
In Jdaydieh, as in many other towns and villages around Syria, beer, vodka, and spirits can be bought on street-corner kiosks day or night; Christians can openly mark their religious feasts by marching up and down central city streets. They value the liberties associated with — and, in their words, "allowed by" — Assad’s rule. Broadly, they are not part of this revolt.
But it is not only minorities who fear change. The new middle class of Syrians who hold banking jobs, drive $15,000 cars, and are raising young families feels threatened by the revolt. Many in this group of nouveau riche clearly fear losing the privileges they have gained and enjoyed during Assad’s reign. Peace and prosperity, for them, is a Syria before March 2011.
The difficulties of reporting in Syria — particularly in the areas outside Damascus — are obvious. Many noted reporters paid the ultimate price. (Following an assignment last February to an area in eastern Damascus that had seen clashes between rebels and the Syrian army, I chose to leave the country. I had reported the shocking scenes I witnessed there and was growing paranoid that I might suffer the consequences of my trip.)
While living in Syria, I never risked traveling to Homs or Daraa, two of the cities hit hardest by Assad’s forces, for fear of being deported — the fate of many other journalists covering the conflict. As a result, much of Syria remained a black hole for me. I could hear the sound of shells landing in the farmlands around my apartment, but their dull thud carried with them little information about what was happening outside the city.
Even in the microcosm of Damascus, it was not easy to get a bead on what was going on: People’s perspectives inevitably warped their understanding of events. I regularly entered towns around the capital, guarded by government checkpoints, where Sunnis protested and minority groups cowered in fear. My contacts in these towns, all from minority groups, spoke of quietly taking whiskey and food to the security forces manning the regime’s checkpoints; they passed on intelligence information; they fully supported the government.
The truth gets muddled when media outlets are forced to resort to YouTube videos to tell the world what’s happening inside Syria. Though often authentic, such video clips are extremely difficult to verify. Most damningly, though, they lack the nuance afforded by context — something that can only be achieved by reporters on the ground. Yet it is activists’ videos appearing on television stations around the world that have shaped our thinking and opinions on Syria. The conflict becomes black and white when viewed through such a lens: Assad’s regime is wrong and the rebels are right. The truth, of course, is more complicated than that.
Another significant challenge faced by reporters in Syria is that either they must take the official route — seeking a visa from the Syrian government and resigning themselves to a choreographed charade that makes the regime out to be a victim of bloodthirsty terrorists — or they must cross illegally from Turkey or Lebanon with the aid of rebel forces.
Contrary to reports, the Syrian government is allowing foreign journalists to enter the country. Teams from Fox News and Britain’s ITV television were recently granted 10-day visas to cover Syria from the capital. Many of these journalists are reporting from the bedsides of wounded regime soldiers and have remarked that Syria is, in fact, a divided country and that significant support does exist for the regime. But the limitations on official reporting are manifold. Government minders place restrictions on travel and contact with locals, making it difficult to report anything that does not fit the regime’s narrative.
Embedding with the rebels, who are equally eager to present themselves as victims rather than aggressors, invites similar hurdles in accessing the truth. But the rebels are a complicated bunch. Elizabeth Palmer, a journalist with CBS, recently managed to escape her government minders and go in search of fighters in the Free Syrian Army. When she found them, however, she was promptly told that she would be executed for having Syrian government stamps in her passport. Others covering events in the countryside have reported insurgents to have been a menace.
Because of obstacles to reporting on Syria from the inside, we hear little of what Aleppo’s large Armenian community thinks. We don’t fully understand why Syria’s Ismailis are the only minority to actively support the revolt. Latakia, on the northwest coast, is home to the highest Alawite population of any city in Syria — but we don’t know where they see themselves in a future Syria. Few journalists have attempted to speak to civilians in remote parts of the country. And articles that explore small-town idiosyncrasies are all too rare.
Today, the regime is openly espousing sectarianism (for example, it has supplied weapons to Alawites living in the Mezzah 86 area of Damascus), but so too are Sunni civilians who back the revolt. Alawite civilians in Syria are being murdered for no other reason than their religion. In one case, a female Alawite schoolteacher was singled out on a social media website and later killed. (Her death was celebrated on Facebook hate pages that were later taken down.) One Syrian working in the international press told me that Sunnis and Alawites can no longer live together, that some Alawites should be pushed back to the mountains of western Syria.
In the midst of recent fighting in Damascus, activists asked for God to elevate the city to the status given to Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. I wonder what Syria’s Druzes and Christians think of this. I also wonder what Sunnis think of the Christians who quietly root for the regime to wipe out the protesters.
But there is an even deeper division opening up in Syria that has been overlooked because of the difficulties of reporting the conflict. It is the division between the activists and rebels who are hammering away at the Assad regime and those who simply want a quiet life — regardless of who is in government. The complexity of the situation was perhaps best summed up by a 28-year-old dentist I spoke to in Damascus last January: "We hate the regime, but we want peace," he said more than once. "The regime is better than civil war."
The complicated nature of the Syrian conflict, coupled with the obstacles faced by reporters, has favored a simplistic portrayal of events. But the reality is that many Syrians back neither the regime nor the revolt. They are Syria’s silent majority, and they will likely pay a heavy price for the uprising that has been billed as a showdown between good and evil. The Assad regime instigated this revolt — it chose guns over dialogue — but its legacy of divisiveness has since taken on a life of its own. Too often now, it is Syrians killing Syrians, but reading the news you might never know.