Syria: Wish You Were Here?

By Robert Young Pelton

SyriaShootersDirty wars attract a wide variety of odd types: Volunteers, journos, freedom fighters, NGOs, businessmen and even tourists. The traditional concept of war as one group of soldiers battling another until the other side surrenders or is vanquished is long outdated, as are many of the traditional roles associated with such a conflict. Among traditional wars have been the so-called neutrals—journalists, aid workers, NGOs and supposedly civilians protected in battle by The Hague or after capture by the Geneva Conventions. Today’s wars make few distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, warfighter and peacemaker, observer or participant. Researchers will find few clearly delineated targets. The traditional barriers and lines that define players on the battlefield have also blurred.

In the case of journalism, the lines are thoroughly muddled. The roles and positions of citizen journalists, official embeds, propagandists, counter propagandists, hackers, hoaxers, unilaterals and credentialed media are no longer discrete. The NGO and humanitarian world finds itself powerless and targeted, with even the UN scrambling for cover, its workers being kidnapped by the dozen.  There is currently no better place than Syria to delve into these rapidly shifting roles of communication.

A New Day

The Arab Spring looked like it might bypass Syria and strongman Bashar al-Assad. Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, emerged from the minority Alawite, a Shi’ite sect, and used force and a massive police presence to govern a Sunni nation. Ophthalmologist Bashar, who never prepared to rule Syria, was selected to lead the country after his brother was killed in his Ferrari driving to the Damascus airport.   Bashar was considered a somewhat secular and progressive ruler until the Arab Spring arrived on March 15, 2011 with massive public demonstrations.

Surprisingly, Bashar took his father’s playbook from the ’80s when Sunnis rose up in Hama, and later crushed resistance with force. But the same strategy that worked 20 years ago didn’t work in an era of cell phones, Twitter and Internet. Syrians began to fight back, creating impromptu militias but gaining support from conservative Sunni backers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The violence dealt out against the Syrian people and the outcries to bring in the media began to attract traditional journalists from well-known publications.


A year ago in March, veteran war reporter Marie Colvin broadcast live from a makeshift media center in Homs that had been pummeled earlier when CNN reported from the same building. Colvin was killed by direct shelling. There was no confusion about who she was, where she was or what she was doing. Her death, along with the ruthlessness of Assad’s regime, sent shockwaves through the media.

In 2012, according to the International Federation of Journalists, 35 journalists were killed in Syria. It is the most dangerous country in the world to report from. By comparison, 24 journalists were killed in Afghanistan since 1992. In 2013 alone at least five journalists have been killed, including Al Jazeera reporter Mohamed Al-Massalmeh, who was shot as he ran across a road, and French magazine publisher Yves Debay who was killed while Free Syrian Army soldiers fought to reclaim a hospital. It is clear that journalists are targets.  Some, like James Foley, Austin Tice, Richard Engel, Temoris Grecko and Balint Szlanko have been kidnapped, almost all in the vicinity of border crossings, the most dangerous of which seems to be the Bab al-Hawa crossing west of Aleppo. In each of these kidnappings, there were neither requests for ransoms nor word of the detainees’ conditions.

After Libya, the conflict in Syria is the second major “unembedded” war. A war in which both experienced and neophyte journalists need only money and gumption to get to the fighting. There is no guarantee of safety or money, and it is a war that shows little mercy. There has been little reward for the risk the media has taken, few international diplomacy gains for the rebels, and even less victory for the government.

Despite the grim statistics, hundreds of journalists, volunteers, fighters, stringers, tourists, aid workers, and even the UN has descended on Syria with little effect on the violence that has killed more than 70,000 and displaced 2.3 million so far.

Dangerous tried to sort out what’s making Syria so deadly and yet so attractive to the press corps.


“The way I’ve described Syria to others is dark and hopeless, and there is a sense of futility,” says Jane, a broadcast journalist who went to Syria on assignment and who we’ve given an alias to protect her identity. “Very dreary… based on the dead people I saw lying in the streets, the blasé attitudes towards the bodies, the numbers of injuries, the destroyed buildings, the poverty, lacking infrastructure…”

Much like the recent conflict in Libya that resulted in the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi, there are no Western forces present in Syria with which journalists can embed or shield themselves. Assad’s regime has allowed a handful of reporters with government troops, but permissions to join the regime’s ranks are becoming fewer as out-going reports are less agreeable to the government.

Those who have accompanied the Syrian government—largely to show the brutality of the rebels—have been attacked as propagandists. Robert Fisk was shown armless children and brutalized prisoners and then derided for his efforts. The Syrian government continues to enact propagandist censorship on the media under its influence. One Syrian government reporter even interviewed children next to their recently killed mother.  For the media that the government cannot influence, it has resorted to kidnapping, arresting and killing reporters. Reporters Without Borders called Syria “a Bermuda triangle for journalists.”

The Free Syrian Army welcomes the media, but for the most part journalists describe FSA as a disorganized bunch of poorly trained, poorly disciplined and poorly armed young men. The stories tend to ignore the random violence, sectarian division and fundamentalist ideology in the rebel factions, even that they’ve kidnapped journalists.  A lot of the coverage locksteps to the meme of Libyans throwing off the yoke of dictatorship with tacit Western support. Except this is Syria, and many of the groups are foreign jihadis, fundamentalists bent on Sunni domination and fighting for causes unrelated to national liberation.

Syria resembles that of Libya only to the untrained onlooker.

“Libyans had tons of help and aid and protective parties interested in having a hand in the future, thereby lending a hand in ousting Gadhafi,” says Jane, whose next stop is Mali. “Libya was easy to navigate and cover… It didn’t have the same sordid twist that Syria’s got.”

Without Western combatants, gaining access to war is once again easier for a journalist—whether that journalist is aspiring on a shoestring or a seasoned professional on an expense account.  But venturing to the front is also more dangerous without Western soldiers. There is no MEDEVAC, there may not be anyone trained to apply a tourniquet.  Worse, as is the case in Syria, there are those who use the well-known methods of entry, like the Bab al-Hawa crossing, as a buffet table from which to kidnap journalists. And the Syrian government is fine with that. The regime has detained, assaulted and expelled journalists and disabled the mobile-phone network.

In August, President Bashar al-Assad signed a media law veiled in claims of protecting the freedom of expression, but which is open-ended enough to allow for the arrest of journalists and the censorship of published material. But probably the biggest danger is that the Syrian government has shown a proclivity to simply killing Western journalists.

“The feeling inside [Syria] was like the proverbial fish in a barrel,” says Jane. “Fear of getting hit by air, mortar or sniper… Nowhere is safe. I hated covering Syria.”


The ultimate put-down to a neophyte visitor to the battlefield is  “war tourist.” That is, someone who appears to be in the midst of misery and violence simply for personal aggrandizement and curiosity.  Ignoring, or perhaps capitalizing on, this term is Toshifumi Fujimoto, a self-proclaimed war tourist from Japan. The story he told curious media in Syria was that he grew bored with his truck-driving job in Japan, bought a ticket to Turkey, and crossed into Syria. From there he posted frontline dispatches to Facebook. He claimed to have no fear of the conflict, credits luck for keeping him alive but warns others that they face certain death if they travel to Syria. To some journalists he tells a story of sadness and wanting to die, to others he points to his dispatches as being a witness. He has a growing cadre of admirers on Facebook who see his personal journey and roughhewn coverage as accessible and honest.

Fujimoto wore Japanese military fatigues and carried two cameras and a video camera around his neck. He tagged along with other journos but with no helmet and no body armor. He said the prospect of death never bothered him because he is part samurai, part kamikaze.  His publicity seemed to feed the media’s need to make their quest more legitimate. In January he was featured in the AFP, the Guardian, The New York Times and many other outlets. Fujimoto’s explanation for being in harm’s way as being: “It fascinates me, and I enjoy it,” which isn’t too far off why professional journalists journey to Syria. Except the journalists make money from their reports of the Syrians’ strife and suffering and mask it under the noble goal of “bearing witness” or “telling the story”, though many admit privately that war is something that gives them more than just a job, it can be an obsession.

In a nod to his AFP interviewer but with no statistics to support it, Fujimoto said, “It’s more dangerous in Syria to be a journalist than a tourist.”

Whether Fujimoto was firing a rifle or a camera, Syrian soldiers weren’t likely to make the distinction. Although he was not filing for a media outlet, his Facebook page quickly swelled to over 3,200 followers, and his posted photos were regarded with respect, essentially turning him into an information outlet. He has now returned to Japan where his presentations on his frontline experience have created another following. He’s reporting—through facts and images—the nature of the conflict and what he saw there.

And in much the same way that Fujimoto now has something to offer, a cadre of budding journalists are making the trip to Syria for the same reason. Some are looking to fast track their career via war reporting. Others are moved by the humanitarian crisis they feel needs coverage. Despite the plethora of disturbing photos and videos, and the high price paid by journalists to capture those images, the West appears to be unmoved, begging the question: Is Syria the place to make your bones?

Apparently, many think so. Journalist “Jane” asked that we change her name. She says the new generation has turned out in Syria, and is easy to spot. Jane is an icon amongst journalists known for both her reporting and bravery in the three decades she has spent covering conflict. She is shocked by the general lack of preparation.

“Their lack of gear in general, protective gear from flak [vest] to helmet, basics like torch or head lamp,” she says. “They’re lacking hostile-environment training, no first aid training, no medical type gear or kit, [and have] a knee-jerk desire to hit the frontlines without backgrounding the situation or the people involved in getting there.”
We talked to one of the newbies who hopes that Syria will project him into the mainstream.


Tom Daams, 28, a photographer from the Netherlands, heard of the Syrian conflict last August and decided to cover what seemed to be under-reported by journalists. He’d covered riots in Athens and Berlin, but most of his portfolio consisted of portraits of people or their pets.

“The people of Aleppo were pleading to the world to help them,” he emailed from Aleppo. “They just could not understand why the world wasn’t helping them. And I also couldn’t understand why the world was doing nothing. Why does the world turn its back against humanity?”

So he packed a backpack and “filled it with morphine-like painkillers” leftover from a bout with a hernia. He grabbed his camera, 350 Euros and booked a ticket to Turkey. He spent three days in Turkey mustering the courage to cross into Syria—after all, he’d never been to a war zone.

On the third day he took a bus to Kilis, Turkey, which is on the Syrian border, and hired a taxi to take him to the fighting. He had no idea what to expect. His only frame of reference was articles he’d read about other journalists crossing. In the taxi, a quick wave of his passport was all it took to enter Syria.

He was in. He had no money, no contacts, no idea where to go or what to do. But he did have a backpack full of painkillers. At Zarzur Hospital in Aleppo he told the doctors he had medicine to donate. Not surprisingly, they welcomed him. The security guard found him a bed to sleep in. The hospital even had Internet access.

While staying at the hospital, he made friends with a rebel sniper.

“Everyday he woke me up, and I jumped on the back of his motorcycle to head to the front lines. I spent 10 days with this sniper, making friends all over Aleppo.”

After ten days, Daams decided he was ready to leave. He’d feared for his life, been shot at by snipers, even had a flat tire in Assad territory while in a car with eight rebels. But now that he wanted to leave, he didn’t know how. He asked the hospital security guard how he might return to Turkey, and the guard set him up with two fighters from Libya. He decided to illegally cross into Turkey with the Libyans. He admits that this was not a wise decision.

Daams was detained at Oğuzeli International Airport in Gaziantep, Turkey for being in the country illegally. He had no entry stamp on his passport. He was banned from Turkey for three years.

That was in September last year. When Daams returned to the Netherlands, he sold his work from Syria for just over $9,000 USD, which was enough to finance another trip. Unable to enter Turkey, he tried to cross into Syria from Lebanon. It didn’t work. He then tried from Jordan, and that didn’t work either. After trying for two months to get back into Syria, he finally called a Dutch friend with high-level government connections, asking for his ban to be lifted. It worked.

“I now am the second person in Turkish history whose ban has been lifted in such a case,” he claims. When he returned to Aleppo, he says the friends he had made on his first trip had been killed.

Luckily Daams knew of a fellow Dutchman, 21-year-old Wijbe Abma, who was also in Aleppo. Daams asked Abma for a place to sleep.

“Wijbe saved my ass.”


Wijbe Abma is barely old enough to get a job but already has a one-man relief program called Don’t Forget Syria. After finishing a university exchange program in South Korea, Abma was traveling home to the Netherlands when he met a Syrian refugee in Turkey in October. Abma decided to help. He turned to Kickstarter for funding to buy blankets to be handed out to Syrian refugees. His efforts on the Internet have generated tens of thousands of dollars and delivered more than 1,000 blankets. In addition to working the long hours of an NGO, he’s also become a makeshift fixer for journalists, Daams included. When I spoke with Abma he was in Kilis, Turkey—which has become a bottleneck for people entering Syria from the north—about to take a group of Spanish journalists to Syrian refugee camps in Turkey.

“It’s a very easy place for journalists to come and go,” Abma said over Skype. “At any given time there are half a dozen to maybe two dozen journalists here. Many are staying at this hotel. It is one of the cheapest, and there is Internet.”

As is often the case, journalists have congregated where they are safe, where they can file their stories or upload photos, and where they can get a drink after a long day at the front. For about $200 USD, they hire a taxi to take them to Aleppo or refugee camps or other hot spots in Syria. In months past, many journalists reported from Syria during daylight hours and then returned to the safety of Turkey at night. But that is changing.

As the front has moved through Aleppo, media offices sprung up. Journalists could now stay in the city with less fear of government soldiers kicking down the door or shelling the building. Though Daams spent ten days in Aleppo last September, he may not have fully comprehended his vulnerability. The same could be said for the war tourist Fujimoto. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is not safety.

“Most journalists stick to the Free Army region, the liberated region,” Abma said. “It is safer there, in a way. But at the same time it is a region without government, without law. So anything might happen.”

Anything in this case often means getting kidnapped. NBC’s Richard Engel spent five days in captivity. Mexican journalist Temoris Grecko was held with two other journalists for five days. Former US Marine Austin Tice has been missing for more than 200 days. US freelancer James Foley has been missing since November 22.

While Abma is by nature a person prone to help others—refugees, Daams, the Spanish journalists—he recognizes that the war has attracted scores of inexperienced journalists who are in many ways unprepared for the job. Money, contacts, plans and backup plans are necessary. Though it is a war zone and “never fully safe,” as he says, a lack of planning and preparation make it far more dangerous.

Broadcast journalist “Jane” went to Syria on assignment. Being no rookie, and part of an organization, the preparations for her coverage were extensive. And so were the expenses.

“As for expenses, thousands of dollars,” she says. “Tens of thousands for drivers, tippers, hotels, travel, fixers, translators, gear…”

Some insist that regardless of Western and UN inaction or even public disinterest, the story needs to be told. Many journalists like Marie Colvin, have insisted that dramatic images or gripping firsthand stories motivate readers and embarrass governments to move from inaction into action. This oft-stated high-minded motivation drives many new and veteran reporters to share violence, risk their lives and sometimes die with complete strangers in conflicts that have nothing to do with them.

But that cliché of a journalist risking their life to impact society, make a difference, tell the story or document history may have also vanished with the new shape of war.

Nir Rosen is an Arabic-speaking American journalist of Kurdish descent who began a reporting career in Iraq in 2003. His work, often critical of Western policy and often reported from inside insurgent groups for long periods at a time, is highly respected, even by his critics. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, and the Washington Post. Even to Rosen, the notion that a journalist can make a difference in a conflict is unfounded.

“Journalists who think they can help are naive or think too highly of themselves,” he says.  He challenges the idea that journalists help or make a difference by risking their lives.

“They are usually harmless parasites who do not harm their hosts. But just like in any conflict, Syria is an opportunity for new journalists to get started. No different from Iraq or Afghanistan where I got started and where I did absolutely nothing to help or make any difference at all in my capacity as a journalist.”

The curious thing is that young activists, like Abma, don’t really need the media to tell their story. Instead, they can use social media to directly seek funds, which then translate into benefit, all the while communicating information. Much to the discomfort of the established media. Abma wrote an article for Foreign Policy magazine, which is read by policymakers worldwide, beltway pundits and of course the media. Suddenly the idea that a person requires bona fide, sage experience and peer approval before publication in august journals has dissolved as social media chooses immediacy and relevancy over sagacity and longevity. The traditional barriers that kept neophytes out of the mainstream discussion have vaporized.


The latest and most contentious example of this changing stereotype may be 33-year old Matt VanDyke. When Dangerous reached him by phone he was upset. Mostly at journalists who classify him as freedom fighter posing as a journalist and NGOs who see his boundary-blurring role as a lethal threat.

“I am not there to observe. I am there to fight,” he says.  But he was talking about Libya, and not about his new venture in Syria, where he insists in the reverse that he was not fighting but making a “propaganda film.” Unfortunately when he invited donors to “join the Arab Spring,” he and his Libyan musician/fighter friend ended up getting kicked off Kickstarter. But not before 60 donors pledged $15,134 of the modest $19,500 budget to fund his idea. Kickstarter does not support high-risk activities or charities, and none of the donors were charged for their contributions.  His credibility as a fighter had short-circuited his new career as a propagandist.

There are some journalists and NGOs also upset at VanDyke. Mostly for the cavalier and vague way they insist he shifts between a journalist, like writing analyses for the Huffington Post and calling himself an embed on his website, and a freedom fighter.  Being on YouTube yelling takbirs while shooting an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the back of a Toyota Hilux in Libya is what he wants to be known for. His published pieces do not make him a journalist, even though a number of media and human rights organizations campaigned for his release from a Libyan jail thinking he was a journalist. According to one journalist, he told his mother that he was in Libya as journalist. According to VanDyke, he never told his mother this, and was thrown in prison as a captured fighter. The confusion over him being a journalist is probably what saved his life. (SEE OUR STORY ON VAN DYKE)

He has been called “reckless and irresponsible” by the execu Committee To Protect Journalists, described as “mentally unstable” by a human rights group executive, and generally pummeled by the working press for putting them at risk.  This does not stop the media from interviewing VanDyke who seem to gain pleasure, as in the case of Fujimoto, in exploiting his media-friendly controversy. It’s a symbiotic do-loop of entertainment, news, information and propaganda.

The general consensus of the working media is that anyone who picks up a gun is a combatant. And anyone who claims to be a journalist should not carry a weapon. A non-combatant in the field or if captured, should be protected, regardless of their stance of country of origin, even though the vast majority of coverage comes from and is favorable to the rebels. VanDyke says he’s never crossed the line and feels he might be the only journalist-fighter-filmmaker-propagandist who knows where those lines are. In the age of polymaths and multitasking, VanDyke doesn’t care what they call him, he just wants his critics to be accurate.

VanDyke, Fujimoto, and Abma now have more in common than uncommon. Each considers his contribution tangible support for the cause, and each has published media on the conflict. With the protection and clear definitions of journalists gone, dirty wars allow for a mixing of roles that defy clean-cut categorization. An aid worker or freedom fighter will never replace the eyes and mind of an experienced reporter, like Marie Colvin, but in the rapidly changing Age of Information, and in a place like Syria, no position is safe.


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