CAIRO — There has never been a more important, or a more difficult time to report on Syria.
Today, the international media has less access to Syria than at any time during more than three years of revolt followed by civil war and chaos. Rebel-held Syria is impossibly risky territory for foreign journalists. The recent murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by Islamic State insurgents was an outgrowth of a grim reality: Journalists, both Syrian and foreign, are dying in order to tell the story of Syria’s agony.
Separately the Syrian state is moving to restrict access to what used to be the only other way into the country: a visa issued by the Assad regime in Damascus. On August 25, government security agents prevented Wall Street Journal reporter Sam Dagher from entering the country, although he had spent more than a year in Syria as a government-accredited journalist, reporting from Damascus and other areas. His press credential, issued by the Syrian National Media Council, had been renewed earlier in the year.
Dagher’s ban underscored an impossible dilemma. The international media has scarce and dwindling access to the country that remains the world’s deadliest ongoing civil war and the source of its largest refugee crisis. Insurgent-controlled areas are the site of what veteran war reporter David Rhode has labeled “the scene of the single largest wave of kidnappings in modern journalism.” And the Assad regime appears to be clamping down on the alternate route into the country. With little ability to send reporters inside Syria, how can outside news organizations responsibly cover it?
The shifting threats and alliances can explain, in part, the regime’s decision to restrict media access, including its reversal on Dagher’s press credential. “As ever, it [the regime] is toying with its political opponents,” says Stephen Starr, an Irish journalist who lived in Syria for five years and has written for major papers ranging from the Irish Times to the Washington Post. “For the New York Times it sees Washington, for the Daily Telegraph, Downing Street,” said Starr. “The ‘ban’ is probably tied to the proposed American military targeting of jihadists in the north, which Damascus views as illegal and threatening.”
Foreign journalists are not banned from Syria completely. BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen traveled to government-controlled Damascus as recently as last week, visiting the Syrian government soldiers on the front lines, interviewing civilians displaced by the war, and filing reports based on what he saw. Those government soldiers were, he said, “Convinced they’re saving Syria from Islamist terrorists.” Bowen’s observations underscored the dilemmas facing both the Assad regime and the Western governments embarking on a campaign against the so-called Islamic State: The Syrian state is seeking to insinuate itself as a possible ally in the fight against the extremists, even as it decreases the access of western journalists.
There are others, too: Agence France-Presse maintains a presence in Damascus. The Los Angeles Times’ Raja Abdulrahim filed striking reports from rebel-controlled Aleppo this summer, emblematic of the reporting that earned her and colleague Patrick McDonnell a Pulitzer nomination. Matthieu Aikins, a magazine journalist and Nation Institute fellow best known for his reporting in Afghanistan, also recently published a notable portrait of first responders under regime bombardment in Aleppo.
But save for the handful of reporters still making short, unauthorized, dangerous trips to Syria, news organizations are left with few options. A fierce band of journalists dedicated to reporting on Syria now rings the country, filing dispatches from Lebanon and Turkey, phoning sources inside. Tweets, Facebook posts, and online video clips from ordinary people, citizen journalists, and activists provide another dim window into the catastrophe. But even the best-sourced reporters now listening in on Syria from the outside recognize that the phone lines and fragments posted on social media are only a partial solution.
“There is no substitute for being on the ground, for seeing, living, understanding a story at its core, and relaying that back with the context that it requires,” said Rania Abuzied, a reporter who has covered Syria extensively for Time and The New Yorker. “YouTube snippets are just that: brief moments captured on film. What was happening before and after? What is the context and what happens after the camera is switched off?”
For Starr, phoning sources “helps with writing feature stories on specific issues, but when a breaking event takes place and we need to know what’s happening immediately, we’re at a huge loss.”