Covering the Syrian Catastrophe
The 22-month civil war is even worse than the headlines make it seem.
Journalists knew from the start that we were watching an opaque conflict: The restrictions on foreign correspondents made it nearly impossible to cover the conflict from the ground. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime regularly denies visas to reporters, and those who sneak into the country are at grave risk of being killed or captured. Almost two years later, these obstacles continue to confound our understanding of events — leaving us to draw conclusions from threads of information, largely ones that opposition activists and a scattered few reporters can provide.
As a result the Syria story we know is like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave — just shadows on the wall, just a fraction of reality.
I built Syria Deeply because I myself struggled to keep track of what was happening in this war, and I knew my audience was having the same problem. A year ago, Syria was in and out of the headlines, many days buried on page 3 of the newspaper, if anywhere at all. Readers and viewers saw it as a chronic issue and struggled to comprehend the different aspects of this complex conflict. This fueled a building frustration and story fatigue, motivating me to think of how we could systemically change the way we see this story.
The final push came while watching the siege of the city of Homs on television, mortar fire captured in real time by a Bambuser live stream. It reminded me of watching the scenes from the first Gulf War — Baghdad bombarded, live on CNN. But this time there were many mini-CNNs: Users were on the ground sending invaluable content, with precious little context or curation. People’s lives were at stake, and weighty geopolitical consequences rested on what was happening on the ground.
My team takes a different approach. Syria Deeply makes use of social media and places a growing emphasis on visualization — starting with data and video mapping, and visual backgrounders on key elements of the story. The Twitter feed on the site presents the up-to-the-second news and views of users we’ve found to be reliable over the 22-month conflict. But what has truly enhanced our view of the war is how, over the course of our efforts, we’ve become a magnet for those on the ground. Syrians send us their stories of daily life, activists invite us into their private Skype rooms, and contributors reach us after frequent trips in and around the country.
This has given us a more nuanced view of Syria’s war. It’s still not a full and complete picture — we’ll all have to keep striving for that. But the model has delivered insights that grant us a greater understanding of what’s going on.
For starters, it’s important to understand that this war looks very different from the power centers in Damascus. Wrapped up in its own narrative, the Assad regime still thinks and acts like it can win. Today’s bloody equilibrium means it will keep killing and shelling, asserting just enough control over just enough territory to stay in power. In a boost to its narrative, Assad’s allegation that the opposition is made up of foreign "terrorist gangs" has become a self-fulfilling prophecy — bolstered, ironically, by the U.S. terror stamp on the fundamentalist group Jabhat al-Nusra. Syria has become a honey pot for jihadis who consider the country’s religious minorities as little more than roadblocks on the path to creating an Islamic state.
The stories we have received from regular Syrians also show that many do not see this as a clear-cut conflict between good and evil. To many Syrians, rebels groups have earned themselves a reputation for bad behavior. Rogue brigades and assorted armed thugs have been looting, kidnapping, and extorting the local population. Syrians who fall prey can pay with their lives or their life savings. Those crimes may not reflect the Free Syrian Army as a whole, but they are enough to damage the rebels’ reputation.
"Support for the government increased after people saw what [the rebels] are doing, how the other side is committing inhuman atrocities," said a man in Damascus who sent us his testimonial. "It has been a boost to the government position…people supporting the regime because they think it will defend them."
An urban-rural divide also defines the Syrian conflict: Assad largely still has control over the cities, while outlying areas are fraying or fully in rebel hands. The notable exception is Aleppo, where rebels claim control of 75 percent of the city. Syria’s largest city has been the scene of brutal urban warfare as the rebels try to expand their control – as a result, much of its cultural heritage has been destroyed and its residents have been alienated from both the regime and the revolution. We’ve heard the voice of Syrians who complain that the rebels pushed in too soon, before they could secure the city. Meanwhile, some residents in the regime-held neighborhoods are clinging to Assad’s forces as their protectors.
The Syrian conflict appears in the press as one big war — but in reality, it is a multitude of smaller conflicts scattered across the country. Multiple pots are boiling over: Fighting rages from the alleyways to Aleppo to the suburbs of Damascus to the distant eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
Though it’s rarely covered, the northwestern governorate of Latakia, which was once a regime stronghold, has become a battleground state. Its sizable Sunni and Alawite communities are locked in a showdown: Rebel commanders have taken control of Jebel Akrad and Jebel Turkman, the northern areas bordering Turkey, and tell us they are moving toward a full-on siege of Latakia city. Their stated intent: to avoid any coherent Alawite state that could split off if Assad loses Damascus and the rest of the country.
In the north, meanwhile, there are the first stirrings of Free Syria — areas completely beyond the regime’s reach. In Idlib province, Assad forces pulled back to the provincial capital and left the countryside without any government beyond what the opposition can provide. Further north, Kurdish areas like Qamishli, Kobani, and Amuda are functionally autonomous.
Homs, meanwhile, is a city divided and under siege. In neighborhoods such as Khalidiya, Jouret al-Shayah and Baba Amr, Syrians face continued shelling and violent clashes. In the rest of the city, the Syrian Army enforces relative calm — but residents often live in extreme poverty, reporting shortages of the basics: heat, electricity, water and gas. One resident told us that the population of the district of al-Waer has jumped from 150,000 people to 450,000, as displaced crowds flee the fighting. By one Homsi’s estimate, in regime-held areas "around 40 percent of the people are still with the regime…60 percent are against, but they live in fear."
In Damascus, the regime is making a push to take back the rebel-held suburbs that form a semi-circle around the city’s perimeter. But meanwhile, fighting inside the city chips away at its control. "There are more checkpoints, more closed streets around the city. Damascus looks like an Army barrack," one resident told us.
All of this has pushed human suffering beyond what’s bearable. Parents have to ration their children to a few precious pieces of bread. Heating and power have failed in much of the country during this cold winter. Syrians’ life savings are threadbare, and banks have periodically stopped handing out pensions and salaries.
Syria’s humanitarian decline is not only heartbreaking — it risks contributing to the deterioration of law and order throughout the country.
"My fear is that we will move from a crisis to overthrow the regime to a new crisis, extending civil war and chaos," said Michel Kilo, a famed Syrian dissident who answered our questions over Skype.
"Syria is destroyed … much of the people are homeless, hungry, or displaced, and this atmosphere will encourage chaos," he said.
This chaos is tearing apart Syria’s social fabric. We’ve written about how Syria’s young women face forced marriage for the sake of the bride price, their families desperate to live off their dowry. Funerals, a solemn but sacred tradition in Aleppo, have devolved into a stock dumping of bodies, devoid of religious ritual. Profiteering has left citizens disgusted and distrustful of each other as they witness price gauging of food and basic necessities – the haves ripping off the have-nots.
For Syria’s kids, it’s leaving scars that can last a generation. Violence is breeding nightmares. Schools are overflowing with refugees, leaving few open to actually teach in overcrowded classrooms. In refugee camps, as NPR’s Deborah Amos explored, the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder are made manifest in children’s drawings.
Among adults, Syrians have been enveloped by a hardened fatalism that we journalists used to only among the survivors of Lebanon’s civil war.
"Whether we’re bombed or killed, it doesn’t change anything because we’re hopeless. [Syrians] say, ‘If I’m going to die, let me die in my home,’" said one resident of the embattled neighborhoods of Damascus. "There is something broken inside the people."
Amidst the suffering, international actors like the United States have been practically irrelevant. From the ground, if you’re not helping rebel groups win the war or delivering aid people can see, you’re not present. And on those markers of influence, the United States has been missing in action: While Washington debated arming the rebels, the rebels armed themselves. While the West considered removing Assad by force, Russia and Iran gave him a sufficient lifeline to stay in power. And while Washington worked to formulate its policy, conditions devolved to the point where it can no longer be effective.
Syrians see the past two years as a failure of global leadership — a case of total inaction on the part of the United States. People waiting on bread lines and suffering in Aleppo’s cold ask us if America’s leaders even know what’s happening to them. They can’t believe they would let it go on.
"No American flags were burnt, but Syrians today are more skeptical of Americans than they were in the year past," wrote Yassin Al Haj Saleh, an opposition voice in Damascus who keeps in touch with us by email.
"Washington failed to mobilize the international position in favor of changing the Syrian regime. That could have been the meeting point of the Syrian interest and the enlightened American interest," he wrote.
That is, at the end of the day, the grim message I’ve taken away from watching this war: We have lost Syria — we’ve lost the good faith of its people and lost the opportunity to stem its decline. Everyone, everywhere we’ve reached has said the same thing: Stop the bleeding. This message speaks to wounds we cannot see and stories we can hardly fathom. But they will shape the Middle East for generations to come.