For months now I’ve been very lucky to have read the reporting from inside Syria put out by Nir Rosen for the online English-language version of Al Jazeera.
And then yesterday Foreign Policy published his highly informed essay on Islamism and the Syrian revolutionaries, a corrective to the less nuanced utterances by some of our government leaders.
Nir has been back from a very dangerous Syria for a few weeks now and I thought that we should grab him for a Q&A before he heads off to new assignments in the Middle East and North Africa.
As it turned out, I cornered him for a chat while he was going to pick up his kid from school.
Many of our friends know that I’ve sparred with Nir over the past few years on a range of topics, mostly about Iraqi history, so they’re going to enjoy reading this. But they also know that there are few reporters I respect as much as I do Nir.
To make it simple I’ll just say that I think people should devour everything he writes, including the pugnacious Aftermath, one of the best books written in 2010 about the Middle East.
How much do I trust Nir? He and I had talked about reporting together from Diyala in December, but I ended up going alone.
That probably was a good thing for the rest of the world because the audience of Al Jazeera benefitted from his daring and smart journalism.
Carl Prine: Hello, Nir!
Nir Rosen: Hello.
Carl Prine: Welcome home. I was hoping that you could tell readers what Syria is like now. Paint a picture for them about daily life in Syria.
Nir Rosen: It’s complex and it depends on where you are.
In much of the country, if you just arrived today you might get the misleading idea that things are normal. There’s not a constant war happening everywhere. But certainly in about half the country you have a very active insurgency.
Syria is unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, countries more Americans might be familiar with when they’re watching the news. Syria was much more modernized and developed. It had very good Internet access. Over the last few years, there had been an explosion of wealth amongst the elites, so there were a lot of trendy stores and restaurants. Expensive vehicles can be seen in many parts of the country. So it would not look unfamiliar to westerners as opposed to an Iraq after so many years of war and sanctions.
However, over the last 12 months Syria has rapidly been reduced to a less and less developed state.
Carl Prine: And that’s because of the unrest in the wake of the uprising?
Nir Rosen: Yes, in part. There’s the unrest but there also are the sanctions.
There are shortages of diesel fuel. There are electrical shortages. There’s now a lack of tourism, which was one of the main sources of revenue for the country. A lot of economic activity has come to a standstill.
Now, much of the country has the feeling of being occupied. Not by a foreign power, it’s more of an internal occupation.
Carl Prine: By the Baathist regime?
Nir Rosen: By Syrian security forces and the army.
There are checkpoints. Areas of towns are closed off. Soldiers or security men are patrolling, stopping people and checking IDs, checking their cars, raiding their homes. It’s stuff that reminds me of being in Iraq or Afghanistan or Palestine, places that have been occupied by a foreign power.
And to many Syrians – at least those who support the opposition – they really do feel like they’re occupied because they feel like, ‘These guys have nothing to do with me. They speak in a different dialect. They don’t represent me. They’re the enemy.’
And, of course, for the occupying forces – the security forces who are trying to put down the uprising – they also view the population in revolt as alien and hostile, potentially radical.
Carl Prine: That kind of sounds like Diyala, to me. As you know, I just came out of Diyala and that’s how the Sunni Arabs who live in Diyala often look at the Iraqi security forces. The Iraqis on patrol there often speak a different dialect, many from the far south of Iraq. Even after so many years of war, that internal occupation is not something that they’re used to.
Nir Rosen: Yeah. That sense of occupation, of being occupied, doesn’t have to come from a foreign power. It comes from people who are viewed as outsiders to the community, people who are now telling you what to do.
Many Syrians over the past 12 months have told me that they have these feelings. That’s created new divisions in Syrian society. But it’s also created new ideas of unity and solidarity between parts of the country that previously hadn’t known each other very well at all and were very different, often because of class or it was an urban-rural divide.
But because they now support the uprising, they’ve grown quite close to each other. So now you can be from the southern city of Daraa and people from the mountains in Idlib will be cheering you even though you’ve never seen each other, you live across the country from each other and come from different classes and lead very different lifestyles.
Or you could be an urban Damascene and the kid you went to high school with you no longer speak to because he’s in the uprising and you’re opposed to it.
Carl Prine: That’s something I’ve noticed in stories I’ve read, how Damascus or Aleppo often appear so distant from the war. But is that changing? Are those stories accurate?
Nir Rosen: That’s not really true anymore.
First, let’s talk about Damascus. It’s a massive, sprawling urban center. It’s a mass of concrete. The city has a great deal of wealth so it might appear superficially to you, if you just arrived there, that there’s a lot of business activity.
But if you were there over a year, you would realize how much smaller it is.
Carl Prine: But I think it’s fair to say that the war hasn’t come to Damascus in the same way that it’s come to Homs and other places like that.
Nir Rosen: Well, let’s talk about the suburbs.
In America, when people talk about the suburbs they think in terms of a more rural area, a dog and a house and all that.
Syria is like in Europe. Think of Paris. The suburbs there and in the Middle East can be vast urban slums.
Carl Prine: Exactly.
Nir Rosen: They’re denser and dirtier than the rest of the city. In Damascus, most of the population lives in what we, technically, would call ‘suburbs.’ And the war definitely has come to them there. There are constant gun battles and demonstrations, and shooting of demonstrators and shooting of security forces by insurgents.
These areas are surrounded by security forces. You have to sneak in or out of them. The war certainly is affecting the perimeter of Damascus where much of the population actually lives. But if you’re an upper class Damascene, only in the last couple of months have you started to feel that something is different. And in the last month, there have been shoot outs even in the upper class areas of Damascus.
Many of their employees and servants can’t come in to work. They can’t get to the home or the factory. They’re going to be confronted with more and more demonstrations and an increased security presence.
But of course it’s not like Homs. The regime has been very careful in both Damascus and Aleppo, the two main cities, not to have the same military presence. They’re trying to create the illusion that it’s business as usual and no one should pay attention to what’s happening in the rest of the country.
Carl Prine: I was talking to a person I know. This person talks often to people in the groups we often shorthand as ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq.’ What Al Qaeda is telling her is that there’s an active link between the Iraqi side and a Syrian side, that there’s movement of people across the border, and that there’s some Turkish intrigue involved in this.
Does that sound crazy to you? Because it sounded plausible to me.
Nir Rosen: Well, when I went to Syria in July that was the hypothesis I wanted to test.
It would’ve been consistent with my work that appeared in my book, all about what happened in Lebanon and Iraq and that kind of sectarianism. Syria just seemed like the next, inevitable place where it would happen.
Carl Prine: We saw that diffusion of foreign fighters in Lebanon. They were people who had learned the hard lessons of combat in Iraq and they entered Lebanon. We also saw in Libya a return of fighters there and some of them were at the forefront of the anti-Qadaffi militias.
Are you saying that you didn’t see that in Syria? Or that it’s more complex than that?
Nir Rosen: I’m skeptical of anyone who says that she speaks to Al Qaeda in Iraq. But I also would be skeptical of any claims someone who says he’s in Al Qaeda in Iraq is making.
Even if they belonged to the organization, they would try to inflate their own importance because it’s an organization that’s largely dead and now isn’t very significant.
Carl Prine: Well, it’s used as much as a brand name as anything else, for a lot of different groups. Let’s take one of them, a group like the 1920 Brigade. As you know, they had an active headquarters in Syria during the Iraqi insurgency. And at the same time, they had their cadre, who could be very popular within Iraq’s Sunni Arab community, inside Iraq.
Those are the people I’m looking at because we still have many tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees still in Syria. They don’t feel that it’s safe to go back.
Nir Rosen: The Iraqis who fled to Syria for the most part have not returned, despite the uprising. That’s because they tend to be in areas where it really hasn’t hit them too hard yet – in Damascus and Aleppo particularly.
They stay because life for them is better there than it could possibly be anywhere else in Iraq. They have access to schools for their kids. They’re not being blown up by militias. They have clean water. By any standard, their lives are still better in Syria than in Iraq, unless you happened to have lived in Homs.
In that case, you might feel as if you were living back in Fallujah in 2004.
But to get back to your question, I’ve been struck by how little sign there was of foreign fighters, of Al Qaeda, in a place I was expecting that to happen. We just haven’t seen any evidence of it except for the three suicide attacks.
Now, I have seen Syrians who went to Iraq in 2003. But we have to make a real distinction between these guys and those who fought there in 2004 or 2005.
In 2003, you have many Arab volunteers flocking to Syria. They weren’t inspired by any Islamist ideology but rather something more like Arab nationalism.
Carl Prine: Yeah.
Nir Rosen: They came in February or March and they stayed for usually about a month. Once they realized that it was actually dangerous, they all went back home.
Carl Prine: Unlike the majnoon Saudis who arrived later. They didn’t mind blowing themselves up.
Nir Rosen: The Zarqawi thing didn’t really begin until — well, let’s say 2004 – so anyone who was arriving in Iraq in 2004 was scarier than anyone who came in 2003. I’ve met quite a few Syrians, not in a leadership position maybe, but definitely involved in fighting or demonstrating who went for a couple or three or four weeks in 2003 during the American invasion.
They thought they were being told by Saddam to sit around bases in the middle of nowhere, not doing anything, or they were being attacked by the new-born Shia militias, and they went back home as soon as they could.
The Salafi ideology just hasn’t been as important in Syria. That’s partly because the regime was so good at killing or imprisoning them – or encouraging them to go to Iraq and blow themselves up. That was a pretty efficient tactic that they had.
Carl Prine: Yeah, the Assad regime used them very cynically. But I also thought that this Syrian policy, well, the regime was riding on the back of the tiger with that. That it eventually would backfire on them.
Nir Rosen: They say that often themselves.
They stopped encouraging that phenomenon in 2006 when these same Islamists began to target the regime. They’ve had quite a few clashes inside Syria over the past few years that didn’t get very well publicized.
And when I’ve talked to Syrian security officials, they’d often admit that – ‘We sent these guys against you guys and now they’ve come back to bite us in the ass.’
They actually do believe that they’re fighting an Al Qaeda-type of phenomenon. But having spent so much time with the guys who are fighting or demonstrating, I’ve been struck by the fact that they’re Muslim and devout but they’re not bound by any ideology. They’re mostly not fighting for Islam or for an Islamic state but it just provides them with a discourse to illuminate the fighting.
Carl Prine: It’s the grammar of their war. It gives them some ready myths, a handy narrative.
Nir Rosen: We do that, too. We reach for our myths and heroes when we’re fighting wars. They reach for their heroes of the early Islamic battles. They’re easy inspirations for the guys today.
Carl Prine: It’s important to the narrative. They must borrow from stories that everyone would know. They just put them into a new context.
I’m glad that you just mentioned what wasn’t being reported. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about your stories is that you’ve kept the celebrity out of them. You probably missed a lot of this because you were in Syria, but so much of the reporting Americans have received about Syria is tied to the deaths of western reporters there.
While tragic, I think that this is missing the point. The point of our coverage of Syria should be finding out what’s motivating people to fight and what the government is doing to stop that.
You’ve stayed on that track. You didn’t get involved in the other types of reporting. Have you been concerned about some of the reporting you’ve seen there?
Nir Rosen: I’ve only been a journalist for nine years, so I’m not some kind of old timer. But in my nine years, this is the worst conflict I’ve seen for reporters, maybe with the exception of Sri Lanka, which we know even less about.
Carl Prine: It’s before your time, but I could tell you one that was worse. Sierra Leone. At the end of it, I was the only western reporter there.
Nir Rosen: Yeah, but we’ve come to expect that no one cares about Africa. As opposed to the Middle East, at least.
Carl Prine: You’re talking about the dangers to reporters, but I want to talk about the kind of reporting being done.
We’ll talk about him later, but we should say that Tony Shadid was one of the great reporters of any generation. He was an absolutely brilliant reporter, but I began to grow concerned that discussions of his death and those of other reporters had begun to replace the very brave reporting on Syria that they were doing.
That concerns me.
Nir Rosen: More than his death, perhaps, there was the coverage of the two reporters who were killed by shelling.
The coverage of that seemed a little egocentric to me, the coverage on the journalists. And there were the repeated claims that the regime had targeted these reporters deliberately. And that they were murdered.
This is absurd.
Carl Prine: It was suggested that the regime was tracking their cell or satellite phones.
Nir Rosen: I don’t think that’s something the regime would do anyway, but you have to understand what was going down in Homs and how limited the regime’s capabilities were there.
They were randomly shelling parts of Homs. I knew a guy. A week ago, a shell killed his wife. It landed next to him as well and he lost a leg and an eye. He wasn’t targeted. He happened to be a very senior leader of the revolution in Homs but he just had bad luck.
I can tell you countless examples like that.
The journalists who died were in a neighborhood that was being shelled day after day. They had terribly bad luck and were killed, but I don’t believe it was deliberate. I also don’t believe that it deserved as much attention. And I can tell you from speaking to people in Homs shortly thereafter, one leader of the revolution there told me that the media care more about the deaths of a few westerners than they do tens of thousands of Syrians.
They haven’t missed the difference in emphasis.
Additionally, about a month earlier a French journalist was killed by opposition shelling. Initially, of course, everyone blamed the regime. But I know for a fact that it was done by the opposition. Once it became clear to many in the media that it was done by the opposition, very little attention was given to the guy as opposed to the journalists who were killed by the regime, which is also a little hypocritical.
But, anyway, to go back to the larger problems with coverage, part of the problem isn’t with the media. Access to Syria is very difficult. So, obviously, you have to be a little insane to sneak into there. That’s led to a reliance on activists on Youtube as opposed to empirical research conducted firsthand.
Carl Prine: Is that solely because of the danger of it? Or are there other reasons?
Nir Rosen: The danger obviously is a factor. But, in general, people are lazy. It’s uncomfortable and not fun, maybe, for people to endure the conditions that they must endure to do the type of research that’s necessary there.
And, of course, it’s scary. But if you’re going to do that job then you have to do it right. Relying on Youtube videos is not sufficient. Relying on activists is not sufficient. You might sympathize with the activists because they’re trying to overthrow an authoritarian regime, but they’re activists and they have an agenda and their agenda isn’t always to portray the truth. Their agenda is to overthrow the regime and to take advantage of the international media to garner more support, which they’re more and more efficient at doing.
But people are taking a lot of their reporting at face value, even reporting the most exaggerate claims about genocide and, in the early days, about shellings that weren’t happening, massacres that never happened.
That’s the thing. The regime is brutal enough and is killing a lot of people. You don’t need to invent stories.
Carl Prine: That’s something else I’d like to talk about. How much of this is like 1982? I mean, when we think about the Hama massacre of 1982, there was massive shelling of the city. And there was a lot of reporting at the time that was all over the place.
I think Fisk had it at 20,000 dead and other people had it at tens of thousands more.
Nir Rosen: It goes between 10,000 and 30,000 for Hama.
But I’d like to get back to the reporting. Some reporters have tended to romanticize the uprising. But that’s a natural tendency. They’ve also managed to fetishize this notion of a peaceful uprising.
In some of the work I’ve been doing, well, it became clear to me in April and May of 2011 that you had armed operations conducted by the opposition. By May and June, you had armed groups clashing with the regime and liberating parts of villages and neighborhoods.
In general, you could say that demonstrations have been the core of the uprising. Because the regime was claiming that these were armed gangs, the media would dismiss those claims. But in reality, there were armed groups that were fighting on behalf of the uprising.
There is a sectarian problem that the revolution is going to have to contend with. The Alawites are going to be punished when this is all over. So there’s been a tendency to romanticize these guys a little too much and to accept at face value their own depictions of themselves.
But let’s go back to 1982. I think that there are a lot of differences. If we wanted to talk specifically about the shelling of the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, then it would look pretty familiar, although the numbers of dead are much lower.
And the neighborhood wasn’t totally destroyed, although it was very badly damaged. But the regime has been at war with Baba Amr since at least the summer. When I got there in July, I could hear clashes happening all night long. There were exchanges of fire in Baba Amr.
The regime lost many of their security forces in Baba Amr as well. So it wasn’t exactly one-sided at first. In fact, the reason why the regime had to resort to shelling is because they weren’t able to introduce ground troops into Baba Amr because insurgents have such strong control over the area.
They had planted IEDs and, basically, had liberated it from the regime. That’s actually a sign of regime weakness, that it took so long to take control of one neighborhood of Homs. The opposition in Homs remains quite strong — in other parts of Homs as well as other parts of the country.
In 1982, it was primarily a Muslim Brotherhood uprising.
Carl Prine: Exactly.
Nir Rosen: Today, there’s no ideology or party which controls the uprising. It’s much more of an non-ideological uprising.
Carl Prine: Although it’s sectarian. You can’t say that “Alawites will be punished” and then say that it’s not sectarian.
Nir Rosen: Yeah, but that’s not associated with being in the Muslim Brotherhood. That doesn’t mean that you’re Salafi or a communist. That’s just being, well…
Carl Prine: That’s being a Sunni Arab in Syria.
Nir Rosen: Exactly. It’s just like in Iraq when the Iraqis were denying that they were sectarian in 2003 and 2004. People in the Middle East are sectarian to greater or lesser extents, but that comes out in times of crisis.
Just like people in the U.S. who often are racist. That didn’t express itself often until we saw the election of President Obama. We see it in Europe, too.
I think that sectarianism, like racism, could exist in everybody but it won’t come out until times of crisis. Over the past 10 years in the Middle East, there’s been a Sunni revival. I discuss this in my book. There’s been a surge in Sunni identity as a response to the rise of Hizb’Allah, to the rise of the Shiites in Iraq, to an empowered Iran, to an insecure Saudi Arabia.
So I wouldn’t say that all of the uprising is sectarian, but I would say that there’s a sectarian problem in Syria. Part of it isn’t always because of Sunni sectarianism. The regime also is using sectarianism. The regime empowered Alawites at the expense of everyone else. The regime encouraged sectarian fears. With the Sunnis, the regime played one group against another. And then we have the regional phenomenon, since 2003, of the upswing in Sunni identity and the hatred of Shiites and the concomitant hatred of Alawites.
Carl Prine: I think that we need to tell readers that within the region’s Shiite communities, they have strong questions of whether they could fold the Alawites into their religion.
Nir Rosen: The Alawites aren’t Shiites and they probably, technically, wouldn’t be considered Muslims. It’s a heterodox religion. It’s a sect that incorporates elements of shamanism and reincarnation and most Alawites don’t even know what their religion is, really.
Carl Prine: And it’s a very closed society as well. Even though the Alawites run the government, as a sect it’s been closed, often secretive.
Nir Rosen: Especially the clerical elite within the sect.
In Syria, Alawites actually are the ones who want to hang out with the most because you feel most at home with them, to a certain extent. They tend to be the most liberal and secular. If you’re sitting with them, the women will be in the room with you and the men will be just as likely to go to the kitchen to get the food as the women might be. Women will shake your hands.
It’s less of a segregated kind of an environment and they drink alcohol, of course. Superficially, they appear much more liberal. Unfortunately, when you look at the internal politics there’s almost a fascist trend. It reminds me almost of the Serbs in Bosnia in the mid-1990s.
Carl Prine: You’ve probably been hearing the rising calls within the United States for intervention in Syria. What do you think about that? Would intervention be helpful? Are you worried about second– or third-order consequences? What do you believe?
Nir Rosen: Well, I think it’s inevitable that there will be covert foreign assistance to the revolution in Syria. The U.S. government has been opposed to the regime in Syria for decades. Up until the latest Bush administration, there was a hope that they could overthrow the regime for its support of Hizb’Allah, for its support of Iran
Carl Prine: The Assad regimes became strong Iranian allies.
Nir Rosen: Yeah, so this is perceived by the American and Saudi governments to be an opportune time to weaken Iranian influence in the region. And they will, of course. This is an opportunity that they won’t miss.
I don’t believe that they’ve started to arm the insurgents yet. That’s based on my own contacts with the insurgents and my knowledge of how they get their weapons. It would take a certain assistance – well, I want to be careful on how I say this.
The insurgency believes that if they receive certain kinds of weapons, they wouldn’t even need air strikes. They would be able to fully liberate large parts of Syria.
Carl Prine: You mean, like anti-tank missiles.
Nir Rosen: Exactly. They want TOWs or missiles like the kinds Hizb’Allah used against Israeli tanks in 2006. They want sniper rifles.
Carl Prine: Night vision goggles.
Nir Rosen: Yeah. And I agree with them. I think that if they had these weapons they would clearly be able to deny the regime access to half the country. The revolution would spread like ink blots from there.
Carl Prine: Well, that wouldn’t be hard. Sunni Arabs comprise at least 75 percent of Syria. To me, this is in some ways similar to the Shiite revolution we both watched in Iraq. At a certain point, we have to be on the same side as history. Most people in Syria are Sunni.
But Syria is a little different in that there’s a strong Pan-Arab tradition there. Now, I and other people would say that the Alawites hijacked it. But in Syria you still have a large Alawite and Christian population.
Nir Rosen: The regime and the Christians themselves have done a good job of inflating their numbers. There might be only a million Christians left. They’ve been fleeing in droves lately. But that’s been going on throughout the Middle East.
Carl Prine: We’ve seen the same trend in Lebanon as well. There’s been a steady exodus of Christians out of Lebanon.
Nir Rosen: But we have to be careful. Syria is more complicated than ‘Sunni versus Alawites.’ You have Sunnis who are close to the regime. You have Alawites who are opposed to the regime. Historically, Syrian Alawites have played important roles in opposition to the regimes.
And I know Sunnis who are implicated in some of the worst abuses by the security forces loyal to the regime. Many of the demonstrators in support of the regime have been Sunni. So while you could say, generally, that most of the opposition has been Sunni and most supporters might belong to the minorities, this has not yet become ‘Sunni versus Alawite.’
Carl Prine: I think part of the problem is that if the government is hated, and people come to identify the government with the hierarchy in the military and intelligence services, who most often are Alawites from a certain region of Syria.
Nir Rosen: Yes. Alawites dominate the regime.
Carl Prine: There might be a lot of Sunni Arabs who are in low-level positions in the bureaucracy or who are in the army, but they’re not the people with real power in Syria.
Nir Rosen: No. In fact, if you have a Sunni minister he’ll almost always have an Alawite deputy who is the guy really in charge. One example of that is state security. It’s run by a Sunni, but his deputy is an Alawite who has the real power base.
That’s been true and it’s becoming more and more true. And 1982 was really the beginning of that because the regime realized that it could only fully trust people of a certain background.
Carl Prine: What we see in Baathist Syria we saw in Baathist Iraq. Toward the end, the Sunni Arabs from the clans around Tikrit were heavily represented in the security positions. You could make the claim that there were more Shiites in the Baath Party itself, but not in the important security positions.
Nir Rosen: There definitely were more Shiites in the Baath Party. Even today, we see that Maliki’s clan and people from his hometown are really well over-represented at the top of the ladder. That’s not unusual in authoritarian governments.
Carl Prine: So, give me some sense of the future. How much time does Bashar al-Assad have left? Can he ride this out?
Nir Rosen: No, he can’t ride it out.
I think it’s inevitable that the regime will collapse. But I don’t think that the collapse will be one that resembles the other Arab Spring uprisings, even Yemen.
I think you’re going to have a long, drawn out civil war. This is barring direct military intervention which takes out the regime and which I think is highly unlikely.
As a result, I think that you’ll see covert support for the insurgency. They’ll gradually carve out autonomous zones. Then you’ll have militias fighting each other and that could last for years.
Carl Prine: So, more like Lebanon than Iraq or Libya?
Nir Rosen: Yeah. The Sunni Arab majority is quite large, so their ultimate victory is pretty much guaranteed. They’ll also have the support of powerful countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., France and Jordan.
So their victory is kind of inevitable but this is a regime that won’t go softly into the night. They’re going to have militias eventually fighting on their behalf. Likewise, I think that opposition militias will end up fighting each other. There are different Sunni militias.
I think you’ll see a lot of chaos. And whatever idealism and romance the uprising originally had will be slowly taken over by the angry guys with guns, the Islamists.
The regime might remain in control of parts of Damascus. I think that much of Latakia also will remain in regime hands.
Carl Prine: Well, Nir, that’s thoroughly depressing.
Nir Rosen: You’re watching a country collapse, basically. The infrastructure will quit working. I’ve never seen this before — the gradual erosion of a thoroughly modern state.
Carl Prine: I think that’s something that we need to talk about. Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, whatever you want to say about those countries, they’re not important Arab nations. Egypt is. And Syria is. Syria is one of the great Arab nations. This is a very big deal in the Middle East and I’m not sure that most American readers understand that.
Nir Rosen: I’m not sure that anyone fully understands it.
Historically, Syria was important for Arab nationalism, but Arab nationalism has ceased to be as important as it once was.
In part, we can blame Saddam and Bashar Assad and the Assad regime for this. I first noticed this trend when I was in Iraq. Iraqi Shias tended to associate Arab nationalism and anti-imperialism there and in Palestine with Saddam. Therefore, the causes became discredited.
That’s one reason why Iraqi Shias supported the American invasion, even if they wouldn’t acknowledge that today.
There’s a more extreme example of that trend happening in Syria. Syrians who might’ve been pro-Hizb’Allah in 2006, diehard Palestinian supporters, people who even volunteered to go fight in Iraq in support of jihad against the Americans in Iraq a few years ago, now they’ve grown disillusioned with any ideology.
They associate resistance, anti-imperialism and all that stuff with Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Now it just comes down to self-interest. ‘Now, we’ll take help even from Israel’ – you’ll hear people saying things like that.
It once would’ve been unimaginable to hear a Syrian saying that. The Syrians who fought, or who supported fighting the Americans in Iraq, will now say that they would like to get American help for their struggle against this regime.
This might be the nail on the coffin of Arab nationalism.
Carl Prine: Let’s talk more about the wider ramifications. What happens if this regime falls? What does this mean for the March 14 alliance in Lebanon? What does it mean for Hizb’Allah? What does it mean for HAMAS? What does it mean for some of those local communities that you’ve covered?
Nir Rosen: A lot of this depends on the nature of the collapse of the regime, and that’s not clear now.
It’s quite conceivable that if this is a long, drawn out thing, it will spread into Lebanon and parts of Iraq as well.
HAMAS, from the beginning, sympathized with the uprising. They sympathized for a number of reasons. Palestinians in Syria live much like other Syrians. They inter-marry. They experience the same sorts of challenges caused by corruption and nepotism, so they have many of the same grievances.
Although they also have a debt of gratitude to the regime because they gave them relatively equal rights with the Syrians.
Carl Prine: Unlike, we should say, the history of their treatment in Lebanon.
Nir Rosen: Yes.
HAMAS also, in the end, is Sunni and a Muslim Brotherhood movement. So they have an additional reason to sympathize with the uprising because the general Muslim Brotherhood is international and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood very much supports the uprising, too.
HAMAS, even by the summer, had moved most of its people outside of Syria. Now, they might publicly be very reluctant to condemn the regime because the regime backed them during a time when nobody else did. They supported them.
But they tried, from the beginning of the uprising, to tell the regime about the urgency for reform and to offer them advice on what they should do to reform. They offered to serve as intermediaries, which the regime quite arrogantly refused.
In terms of Hizb’Allah, obviously when this regime collapses Hizb’Allah is poised to lose its main land resupply route.
Carl Prine: Yeah.
Nir Rosen: But that’s not something that’s going to happen by surprise. They’ve been planning for years for the day that they might lose Syria. They first started planning when Hafez al-Assad was in talks with the Israelis. Bashar al-Assad also was in talks with the Israelis. And it also seemed possible at one time that the Americans would be overthrowing the Syrians during the Bush administration.
Hizb’Allah is a shrewd movement. They know that alliances are temporary and are based on interests. So they’ve been planning for this as well. They’ll be able to maintain their store of weapons with help from Iran and also with help from Maliki in Iraq and arms smuggling mafias abroad.
They’ve also been building up a store of arms that will serve them well. But they’re still going to lose this strategic hinterland that they’ve relied on in the past.
I don’t see a soft landing — like the Americans like to say – or a clean break for Syria. I see a prolonged civil war that will inevitably lead to Sunni radicalization, to massacres on both sides, to population flights.
Lebanon is practically a failed state as it is and it’s already divided between supporters and opponents of the regime in Syria and much of that is along Sunni-Shia lines. And the Sunnis of Lebanon have been desperate to get help to combat Hizb’Allah militarily.
I described one failed attempt in 2008.
Likewise, the Syrians have the cards that they can play. When it comes to Turkey, they can support Kurdish rebels in Turkey.
Carl Prine: So far, the Kurds in Syria have been kind of sitting this thing out, haven’t they?
Nir Rosen: The Kurdish community is divided.
They do have demonstrations there regularly. But they’re divided in this sense – ‘Do we want to support a Turkey-backed uprising, which will not be in our interest anyway?’
The PKK, which is kind of a Syrian ally, has come out very clearly in favor of the regime. And the PKK is very influential in Kurdish and Syrian politics.
Carl Prine: And also in Iraq.
Although the powers in Kurdistan don’t like to talk about it, but there’s a divide on this issue between them and their own constituents. It’s interesting getting around Irbil and Kirkuk and seeing ‘PKK’ graffiti on the walls.
In Kirkuk, that’s one way to tell that you’ve left a Sunni Arab or Shia Arab neighborhood and entered into a Kurdish one. ‘PKK’ marks where the Kurdish neighborhood begins and the Arab neighborhood ends.
Organically in Kurdish Iraq there’s a lot of support for the PKK even if the elites don’t like to talk about it.
Nir Rosen: Yeah, that’s true.
But you also have many Kurds who live in Damascus. They take part in demonstrations there. Many Kurds take part in demonstrations in the Kurdish parts of Syria. The regime also has been clever. They’re desperately trying to maintain the identity of the revolution, to create the illusion that it’s a Sunni, Islamist, sectarian revolution.
Therefore, they’re doing their best to prevent minority communities from joining, whether it’s Druze or Ismailis or Christians or Alawites or Kurds. So they haven’t been as brutal in suppressing demonstrations in these areas.
They’ll be less likely to open fire on a Kurdish demonstration or a Druze demonstration.
Carl Prine: That’s really interesting to me. So they’re tailoring violence in such a way as to create the very narrative that they want to project. They’ll use much more violence against a Sunni Arab demonstration than they ever would a Sunni Kurdish event. And the regime’s violence begats more reprisal violence from the Sunni Arabs, especially the Islamist cells, which then helps the regime craft the narrative that it’s a Sunni Arab and Islamist revolt. But the reality might be very different.
Nir Rosen: Yeah. They won’t use that level of violence in Aleppo against demonstrations there because they’re very keen not to create martyrs in Aleppo because that would lead to the revolution growing stronger in Aleppo.
Carl Prine: They’ve also been holding out many of their regular army troops.
In Homs, the regime used hand-picked security forces because they don’t want to bring the army into this.
Nir Rosen: The army is unreliable.
And they face the same problems pre-COIN that Americans faced in Iraq or Afghanistan. Or what the Israelis face in the Occupied Territories. A conventional army is not trained for policing a population. I’ve actually heard Syrian officers complain about this – ‘We weren’t trained for this. We weren’t trained to be policemen and check trucks at checkpoints and deal with civilians.’
They’re dealing with the same frustrations any conventional army deals with when they’re facing a guerrilla movement. In addition to those challenges, most of the soldiers are Sunnis.
Carl Prine: Yeah.
Nir Rosen: They come from the same areas that are rising up. Those are their brothers or cousins or whatever and they’re demonstrating. So they know that the regime’s narrative is bull. So this is the challenge – the regime can’t hold an area just with their security forces. It needs the army to back the security forces.
But the more you use the army, the more that they fraternize with local communities, the more the local population gives them food, gives them their cell phones to use, the more they persuade them to defect.
The more you use the army the more you break the army. The more you use the army the more defections you have. The more you treat Sunni officers and soldiers as suspect the more they feel like they’re being persecuted. So we’re slowly seeing the army crumble along sectarian lines.
Carl Prine: It’s begun.
I thought it would be nice to close with a little bit about Tony.
You were a friend of his. You knew him very well. We’ve talked privately about this, my fear that our nation is going to be much less informed about the Middle East because he was a unique voice amongst reporters. He learned Arabic as an adult. He had a great deal of empathy for the people he covered, especially the common people he encountered.
How do we replace someone like that?
Nir Rosen: I was talking to my wife about that yesterday. I was devastated by his death. Personally.
I mean, it’s because he really was a gentle and generous and warm guy. And his death came at such an odd time in his life because 2011 was the year of Anthony Shadid. He dominated coverage of the Arab Spring. He finally completed the building of his house in Lebanon. His memoirs came out.
And then he died from the most random thing in the most dangerous place to cover. It’s hard to fathom.
He also was the dominant voice for explaining the Arab world to Americans in the mainstream press. He had the credibility to do things that almost no one else can do. At the Washington Post and New York Times …
Carl Prine: And before that the Boston Globe.
Nir Rosen: Yeah. The coverage in mainstream papers tends to look at the Middle East through American eyes. You’ll see reporters looking to American, often white, experts for quotes. So everything comes down to an American point of view.
Anthony had the clout to look at things from the Arab point of view, even if it was hostile to the U.S., and explain it in a non-vitriolic way. That’s something I have trouble doing myself.
Carl Prine: Yeah, to put it mildly. (starts laughing)
Nir Rosen: Yeah. (laughs)
Carl Prine: Although, to be fair to you, in the Jazeera stories I didn’t hear that part of you. You played it straight.
Nir Rosen: In my book, Aftermath, I also labored to …
Carl Prine: Oh, come on. Nir. Come on.
Nir Rosen: But I did! I tried to humanize and sympathize with the American soldiers!
Carl Prine: That’s true. I think that you have a unique ability to understand how young Americans in Iraq felt, even if you rejected some of it. And, when it came to the politics behind the war, to loudly reject it.
Nir Rosen: One of the most moving moments in my book, for me personally, was when an American sergeant – who had grown very close to an Awakening guy – was devastated by the guy’s murder.
Carl Prine: Yeah. That’s right.
Nir Rosen: While I don’t think that the sergeant should have been there in the first place, my opinion about that never came out in that story.
Carl Prine: True.
Nir Rosen: Anthony’s existence meant that other Arab-American journalists, and even other journalists, could say, ‘Look. Someone else is doing this.’ He allowed other journalists to do journalism better.
It was just because he existed.
They could see someone writing these very poetic, very moving stories, using all these Arabic names and referring to Arab culture and music. They would say, ‘If Anthony Shadid can do this why can’t we?’
He’s the only journalist who has ever made me cry. I can remember one story in particular, one about a family who lost a son in a bombing in Baghdad and he accompanies them to Najaf. It’s a heart-wrenching story.
Or the one about a father who had to kill his own son in Iraq to prevent tribal vengeance. He could really take us into the Arab world and make it about the people he was writing about, not about us as westerners, and put that into the mainstream press like no one else can do.
And, of course, the fact that he spoke Arabic meant that he could pick up stuff that most people can’t pick up. The writing on the wall, literally. It’s not the stuff from the guy you’re talking to. It’s what is being said by the guys around him.
If you’re relying on a translator, he’s only going to tell you what is being said directly to you by the guy you’re talking to, not what’s being said by the crowd around you.
Anthony also had this deep love for Arab music. In Baghdad, he was studying the oud.
Carl Prine: I didn’t know that!
Nir Rosen: Yeah. He found the last Iraqi oud instructor and maker and he was taking private classes with him.
He had a deep appreciation for the people and culture, all that he was writing about. Which you should have anyway, whether you’re writing about the Chinese or the Guatemalans. That’s not a function of the Arab world.
It’s how you should be as a good journalist.
Carl Prine: Yeah. There are a lot of good journalists like Shadid. I guess my problem was that I didn’t find many in the Middle East.
Nir Rosen: No. Coverage of the Middle East is so redolent with undertones of American imperialism – justifying American wars, American interventions. Of course, Israel is always there in one way or another.
Only Anthony Shadid had the clout to write about Hizb’Allah and the south Lebanese who supported them without having to constantly refer to Hizb’Allah as ‘terrorists’ and the people who support them as ‘terrorists.’
His existence made it easier for people like Hannah Allam of McClatchy and Leila Fadel of the Washington Post to also exist.
Carl Prine: Nancy Youssef.
Nir Rosen: They can exist without being treated as a Fifth Column or something like that.
Carl Prine: I do consider you a suspect Fifth Column sympathizer, however.
Nir Rosen: (laughs)
Carl Prine: And you want me to suspect you!
Thank you very much, Nir Rosen! Be safe.