- By Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
A group of men sift through a heap of rubble in the old town of Aleppo, Syria, to see the damage brought by the latest airstrike. As the men dig past the piles of blasted concrete, they unearth dead animals. In the background, a man frantically calls out and searches for his children, unaware they are dead and will soon be pulled out from under the debris. On the scene and in front of the camera is Rami Jarrah, a prominent Syrian citizen journalist. “Another Russian airstrike on Aleppo,” he says with a sense of sad familiarity.
Scenes like these have become all too common in Syria’s nearly five-year civil war but have reached a new level over the last three months as additional ground offensives and increased airstrikes ramped up what was an already devastating humanitarian crisis in the country. For Jarrah and his ragtag team at ANA Press — an open source news platform operating in Turkey and Syria — documenting the mounting civilian death toll has become a new phase in their ongoing mission. Their latest challenge has been to show the human impact of Russian airstrikes, which began on Sept. 30 as Moscow stepped onto the battlefield to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“There are fundamentalist groups in the area and everyone knows where they are. But they aren’t being hit. Instead, markets and mosques are targeted in central Aleppo,” Jarrah told Foreign Policy in an interview from his Aleppo apartment.
FP was not able to independently verify that the strikes attributed to Russian forces in Jarrah’s reports were in fact carried out by Moscow. Differentiating between Russian and Assad regime airstrikes is extremely difficult. The Syrian air force uses many of the same aircraft as the Russians, and experts say that unless the aircraft’s identification numbers and camouflage patterns can be seen, it’s next to impossible to offer conclusive proof.
“The intensity of an airstrike might be a clue. When the Russians hit targets, they hit them very hard. People on the ground who have been bombed for a long time might be able to pick up on that,” Jeffrey White, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former U.S. intelligence official, told FP.
Since it boldly launched its air campaign in Syria, Moscow has been accused by Western governments and aid organizations of targeting Syrian rebel cities like Aleppo to support the Assad regime and killing civilians in the process. Russia denies it is targeting civilians and insists its operations in Syria are aimed only at combating terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, Syria’s most prominent al Qaeda affiliate.
“Anyone that lives in Aleppo knows that these attacks over the last months are not the same ones that they have been witnessing for the last four years,” Jarrah said of the recent bombing.
Documenting the effects of what has become an international war in Syria is a far cry from how Jarrah first found himself behind a camera. When anti-regime protests began in 2011, Jarrah was a successful businessman with a comfortable life. But facing mounting pressure to either join pro-Assad rallies or quit his job, he chose the latter and found himself on the streets with pro-democracy protesters.
When Syrian government troops later responded to those protesters with force, killing nine, Jarrah was asked by the Local Coordination Committees — a network of anti-regime activists — to speak to foreign media. Raised in the United Kingdom and fluent in English, he accepted. That night he appeared on Al Jazeera and later went on CNN to give detailed accounts of the government crackdown at a time when nearly all foreign media were banned from Syria.
Unable to show his face or reveal his name due to fears of retribution, Jarrah called himself Alexander Page, the name of an artist he had looked up online just before the interview. The name stuck.
Under that pseudonym, Jarrah blogged and used Twitter and Facebook to tell stories of the revolution unfolding on the ground in Syria. But his activities came with tremendous risk: He told FP that he was arrested after recording a rally in Damascus on his iPhone, tortured for three days, and later released.
Even then, his identity as Alexander Page remained intact and Jarrah continued giving interviews to Western and Arab media. Eventually, his high-profile reporting made him a target of government security services and after receiving a tip from a friend with government connections that his cover was blown, he fled to Cairo with his wife and daughter in fall 2011.
With his identity revealed, Jarrah transitioned from activist to journalist, working with citizen journalists in Egypt until their coverage of the ouster of Mohamed Morsi and the new regime headed by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi put him in the authorities’ crosshairs. He once again fled, this time to southern Turkey, where he ran a radio station and eventually took his work to its current form with ANA Press and reporting from Syria.
“We used to support citizen journalists, then we became our own platform to tell the stories we thought mattered,” Jarrah said.
For Jarrah, the story of the moment is Russian airstrikes and their added civilian cost. Nearly five years of civil war have already taken their toll on Syria: More than 250,000 are dead, 13.5 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, 6.6 million internally have been forced from their homes, and millions more are refugees. The last months have only made the crisis worse. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 120,000 people have been displaced since early October “as a result of aerial bombardment, as well as ground offensives among the parties.”
In November, Physicians for Human Rights released a report documenting how the Assad regime has systematically targeted medical workers, with Aleppo being hit disproportionately as the government’s main target. According to the same report, Russian bombs have hit at least 10 medical facilities. A report from the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented 353 civilian deaths from Syrian government and Russian airstrikes carried out in the first half of December, with at least 70 deaths attributed directly to Russian aircraft.
“A core component of the Assad regime’s strategy is to depopulate areas that are sympathetic to the rebels,” Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told FP. “Whether it is Assad or Russian aircraft doing the bombing is essentially a distinction without a difference. They are working towards similar goals.”
Shortly after Russia’s Syria intervention, Assad troops with support from Iranian forces and Hezbollah militias launched a ground offensive to retake Aleppo and other rebel-held areas. However, the push has not gone as hoped for Damascus and its allies. According to Harmer, the failing offensive explains the rise in civilian attacks.
“If the Syrian army can’t win on the ground, they need to depopulate the city so they can take it,” Harmer said.
For Jarrah and his small crew at ANA Press, that means more rubble, more dead bodies, and more destruction from airstrikes.
“Syrians have lost faith in the world. They see me out there and they tell me that I’m wasting my time,” Jarrah said. “I’m not naive, but I believe in the principles of what I’m doing.”
Photo credit: Rami Jarrah