Why fewer ground reports are emerging from Syria

Foreign journalists are increasingly staying out of Syria, judging the risk of kidnapping to be too great. 

Malek Alshemali/Reuters
Civilians carrying bread and purchases are seen through a damaged bus at the Karaj al-Hajez crossing, a passageway separating Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr, which is under the rebels' control and Al-Masharqa neighborhood, an area controlled by the regime, July 31.

Among the journalists I know covering Syria, almost everyone is swearing off crossing the border and going inside the country. It’s not the threat of violence that’s stopping people, but the risk of kidnapping.

Working in Syria during the war has always been dangerous. Since March 2011, the conflict has claimed the lives of at least 24 journalists and 60 citizen journalists. But for those working inside, there were ways to limit exposure to violence and there was relative comfort in knowing that you could trust the people around you. In opposition-controlled areas, Syrians wanted the outside world to hear their story and many locals went to great lengths to protect and welcome foreign reporters.

Nearly two and a half years into the war, all of that has changed. In northern Syria, the country has fallen into economic ruin and hardcore jihadist groups, many with foreign ties, have proliferated. These two factors have created an environment ripe for kidnapping. Those desperate for cash are willing to abduct people for ransom or to sell them to extremist groups willing to pay for a foreign hostage.

Last Wednesday, armed men abducted Polish journalist Marcin Suder. According to media reports, militants took Mr. Suder from a media office in Idlib. An activist at the media center intervened in an attempt to stop the kidnappers, but he was beaten and hospitalized.

Even just several months ago, the abduction of a foreign reporter under these circumstances would have been unheard of, but kidnappings like Suder’s are rapidly undoing the idea that “safe houses” can exist in a place like Syria.

While some of the kidnappings appear to be conducted by criminal groups looking to make money, there are indications that groups with links to Al Qaeda or other extremist groups are now looking to kidnap people for potentially much more complex, political reasons. If this trend develops, it will drastically reduce the risk of foreigners surviving a kidnapping.

Already, Syrians throughout the north are suffering a rash of kidnappings. During my last visit there in late April and early May, I met one man who knew of eight people on his block who’d been kidnapped in recent months and he’d personally witnessed four of the abductions.

According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 15 foreign journalists have been kidnapped or gone missing inside Syria since the conflict began. 

That figure likely does not include a number of incidents, like one that happened to me last November. Several other reporters and I were driving through an area of Aleppo that was firmly under opposition control when a car cut us off, gunmen surrounded our car, took our driver, and brought us back to their base for several hours. Eventually, they released us, claiming to have rescued us from another kidnapping attempt. They would not tell us who they were, what rebel group they belonged to, or even if they were Syrians.

I’ve heard a number of stories about reporters who experienced brief abductions like mine, but who were released within several hours. The kidnappings now taking place appear to be of a much more serious and dangerous nature. With at least 1,200 different opposition factions, controlling the various groups, or simply understanding who is a legitimate rebel military group or a criminal group will become exceedingly difficult.

Even those who travel to northern Syria without experiencing any close calls, often leave saying they’re unwilling to return because they feel unsafe due to the massive number of foreign fighters and jihadists.

More than making it difficult, if not impossible for journalists to deliver on-the-ground reporting on one of the most brutal wars in decades, the cause of the problem is one that can only spell a dark and troubled future for Syria. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Why fewer ground reports are emerging from Syria
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today