by Helena Cobban
This piece is crossposted from the Just World News blog of JWE President Helena Cobban
If you rely only on the New York Times to understand events in Syria, you likely have the idea that the peaceable people of the Idlib province in the northwest of the country have for some years now been subjected to gratuitous attacks by the Syrian and Russian air forces that, for some unknown reason, seem to have illegally “targeted” hospitals and schools. On January 30, the latest addition to this genre appeared: the NYT’s editors devoted four full pages of the print edition to a detailed “investigation” into seven attacks suffered by hospitals or other protected places in Idlib between April and July 2019. They ascribed responsibility for five of these incidents to the Syrian or Russian militaries, one to an armed opposition group, and one to “either the Syrian military or the opposition.” (A multimedia version of this investigation was posted on the NYT website on December 31.)
There is plenty to criticize about the journalistic methods used by the NYT team, which consisted of no fewer than six by-lined staffers. More on that, below. But it’s also crucial to spell out what these and the numerous other NYT journalists assigned to Syria don’t tell us about Idlib– namely, that the residents of the enclave are held as hostages by the 20,000-30,000 well-armed fighters of the Al-Qaeda-linked group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and its allies who exercise tight control over all the enclave except for a small portion at the north controlled by Turkey. By repeatedly hiding this key fact about Idlib, the NYT (and most other US corporate media) fail to explain to their readers the wrenching nature of the dilemmas faced by Idlib’s residents and the humanitarian organizations that seek to serve them.
The ideology and actions of HTS are virtually the same as those of the ISIS fighters who earlier took root in northeastern Syria but whose last positions there got routed last year. (It was notable that the last redoubt of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed by the US military last year, was actually in northern Idlib—not far from the Turkish border.)
But you would not learn any of this from the NYT.
The fighters in the HTS-led alliance in Idlib are, like the ISIS fighters, hardcore Islamist extremists (takfiris—that is, people who actively engage in the suppression or extermination of all who don’t share their beliefs.) Moreover, like the ISIS fighters in their last days, the HTS fighters have nowhere else they can retreat to. Turkey, which borders Idlib, earlier provided considerable aid, including military aid, to HTS and many other groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Asad’s government. As part of that support, Turkey had facilitated the flow of takfiri true believers from all around the world into Idlib—just as it also did, further east, into the ISIS-held areas.
But having sent all those aid shipments and foreign fighters into Syria, Turkey does not now want HTS’s Syrian fighters or their many non-Syrian comrades-in-arms to retreat back into Turkey, which has numerous problems of its own. So HTS and its allies think (with some validity) that they need to stand where they are in Idlib and fight to the death there. And to consolidate their position on the ground there, they have certainly shown themselves willing and able to use any humanitarian aid that comes into the enclave as levers they can use to strengthen their hold on the local populace.
This poses, of course, massive moral (and legal) dilemmas for the international aid organizations that want to get sorely-needed aid into Idlib. To learn about this at all, you’ll have to go to arcane, small publications like New Humanitarian. Or, to learn more about the large squads of foreign fighters—and the children whom they’re rearing as young fighters– among the HTS and its affiliates, you could go to this 2018 piece in Long War Journal. But you will not read anything about such topics in the New York Times.
The dilemmas that aid organizations face in trying to deliver basic services to a needy population held under the sway of genocidally brutal fighting groups is one that some of them have faced to some degree in numerous earlier conflicts, such as Bosnia. But the strongest parallel with the situation in today’s Idlib is the “Interahamwe aid trap” that the aid organizations faced in the eastern Congolese province of Kivu back in 1994-96.
In August 1994, the broad governmental and grassroots “Interahamwe” networks that had masterminded the anti-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda retreated from the country when the “Rwandan Patriotic Front” overthrew the government in the capital, Kigali, and brought an end to the 100-day-long genocide. But the genocidaires of the Interahamwe did not flee alone. They took with them into the forests of Kivu some 850,000 Hutu civilians, many of whom were fearful of RPF vengeance. As these very needy refugees poured across the border into the remote forests of Kivu, the United Nations and numerous aid agencies tried to help them. But they soon discovered that the Interahamwe was hijacking all the aid flows and using the aid goods to strengthen their hold over the civilian refugee population.
That situation in eastern Congo was not resolved until 1996-7. At that point, the Rwandan army, now firmly under the control of the RPF, launched a large-scale– and very rights-abusing–campaign deep into Congo, forcing the Interahamwe to disband and bringing most of the Interahamwe’s former civilian hostages home to Rwanda. (The RPF’s military foray into Congo—then known as Zaire—also helped topple Zaire’s long-time dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.)
War is never either pretty or predictable.
The HTS’s domination of Idlib poses particular challenges for media organizations, as well as international aid groups. HTS’s hostility to independent news reporting and its long record of brutality towards Westerners or anyone else who might challenge or document the brutal nature of its rule makes the practice of objective journalism inside the enclave impossible. For some years now, no actual independent journalists, from Western or other news outlets, have been able to operate on the ground there. Therefore, all the “reporting” that the NYT or other international media produce about events in Idlib is datelined from Lebanon or Turkey— or, from nowhere all, in the case of the NYT’s January 30 report! This at-a-distance reporting is reliant for news “facts” about developments inside Idlib on unidentified (and unverifiable) sources inside Idlib who are contacted by Skype or Telegram, or on the spokespeople in Turkey or Lebanon of aid-providing organizations like the Syrian American Medical Society or the “White Helmets” that are very supportive indeed of HTS’s goals and agenda.
To be fully transparent, media organizations writing about conditions in Idlib should explain these limitations on their reporting to their readers. Few do. Indeed, as noted above, they frequently omit or minimize any mention of the presence of HTS or any other armed fighting groups within the enclave, leaving readers with the impression that the only violence Idlib’s people suffer is the gratuitous and vindictive violence visited upon them by the Syrian government and its allies.
In the NYT’s big January 30 report on Idlib, the only mention of HTS comes right at the end, when the writers note the presence in one of the seven areas they investigate of “A coalition of opposition groups… [that] included Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the dominant rebel group in the area, and the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front.” There is no mention there of HTS’s Al-Qaeda affiliation or the lengthy record of its brutality to those under its control. HTS is mentioned only in passing and presented to readers quite antiseptically, as just a “rebel group”—though the NYT team ended up concluding that it was more likely that the National Liberation Front, not HTS, that had shelled the hospital in question.
There are numerous other journalistic problems with the January 30 report. The seven facilities across Idlib whose bombings were investigated were chosen, the journalists wrote, because a special UN investigative team had looked at these particular bombings—but the UN had not yet released their report. “The Times,” they wrote, “obtained the list of attacks under examination from four officials briefed on the inquiry, and investigated those incidents in an attempt to determine culpability.” They gave no explanation to readers as to why these officials were granted anonymity, or even as to whether the officials were serving with the UN or with one or more national governments.
The reporters described their investigative methods as follows:
The Times relied on witness statements, forensic analysis of photos and videos, weapons identification, satellite imagery and cockpit recordings of Syrian and Russian pilots during bombing missions.
We correlated this information with thousands of flight logs recorded by Syrian ground observers, who listen in on radio transmissions, track the flight paths of warplanes and identify aircraft by sight and sound.
We are not given any information as the provenance of these materials, or where or how the reporters got hold of them. (The previous mention of four anonymous officials ascribed to them only the “list of attacks under examination”, not any of the evidence relating to the attacks.) And we are not told who those mysterious, also anonymous, “Syrian ground observers” were. Presumably, they were some of the HTS-controlled or HTS-dominated operatives who have been active in Idlib for several years–as described in accounts like Samar Yazbek’s book “Crossing”–tracking aircraft movements and also in many cases, as noted in the NYT, listening in on the pilots’ radio transmissions.
But why should the UN (or the NYT) trust the integrity of “records” produced by such politicized operatives? Did the NYT get original “cockpit recordings” from the Russian and Syrian planes, as they suggest—or were these recordings instead those made by the ground-based eavesdroppers of the communications that they had heard? We are not told. For what it’s worth, the quality of many of the audio clips presented as part of the online report’s multimedia package is extremely low, and the actual words virtually undecipherable.
Other lapses of journalistic practice in this lengthy (and very expensive) NYT “investigation” included the fact that the writers gave no evidence of having sought comments or reactions from representatives of the bodies that they accuse of responsibility for these seven incidents—except for the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front, which, they wrote, “did not respond to a request for comment.” The reporters apparently did not even bother to ask the Russian or Syrian governments for their comments.
That lavish four-page spread the NYT published on January 30 is only the latest in a series of huge, expensive, and usually very one-sided “investigations” the paper’s journalists have carried out into atrocities the Syrian government and its allies are accused of having committed during the country’s punishing, nine-year civil war. Numerous outside governments, including crucially our own, have stoked the flames of that war by providing weapons, training, and other help to fighting groups seeking to topple Pres. Bashar al-Assad’s government. But neither the NYT nor any other major US media outlet has ever devoted anything like the same resources to investigating atrocities carried out by HTS, its precursor organizations, or any other elements of Syria’s anti-government opposition, despite the plethora of accounts of those atrocities in other global media.
Regarding ISIS, which maintained a substantial (and extremely repressive) presence in northeastern Syria from 2013 until its near-final demise last year, the NYT and other Western media did provide some serious reporting of the numerous, genocidal atrocities it committed—but most of that reporting came after ISIS’s explosive eruption onto the world scene in the summer of 2014.
But the similarities between the former ISIS fighters and the current HTS or HTS-allied fighters are numerous. Both have carried out numerous genocidal attacks against members of minority religious groups and even adherents of their own Sunni Muslim faith whom they accuse of being insufficiently pious or insufficiently militant. An unknown portion of the fighters in both organizations are Syrians. But a large portion of both groups’ fighters have been the foreign militants who poured in great numbers into Syria in the years 2011-15, traveling from all round the world and entering Syria across its lengthy border with Turkey, with in many cases the active help of the Turkish authorities.
Until summer 2014, when ISIS burst onto the global scene with the swift and deadly gains it made across Syria and neighboring Iraq, Western governments mostly turned a blind eye to, or gave discreet encouragement to, the flow of foreign fighters into Syria. Western governments (and Turkey) hoped they could help the floundering opposition in Syria to topple the Assad government, which had long been the target of Western– and Israeli– ire and tight U.S. sanctions. And, as had happened 30 years earlier when Washington supported Osama Bin Laden’s anti-Soviet forays in Afghanistan, many of the foreign fighters entering Syria traveled under the guise of “humanitarian” activities, picking up their Saudi- or GCC-financed weaponry only after arriving in the country.
Other key similarities between the takfiri fighters in Idlib and the former ISIS fighters in northeast Syria include the fact that many of the foreign fighters in their ranks brought wives and children with them to Syria.
The existence and plight of these uprooted children pose sharp dilemmas for their “home” governments and the whole international community. In a couple of places inside Idlib, the foreign fighter/family presence includes hundreds of people from the Xinjiang area of Western China, organized as the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria (TIP). Read, for example, this intriguingly illustrated 2016 account of the TIP presence in Syria written by Long War Journal’s Caleb Weiss, or Weiss’s longer 2018 analysis of TIP’s actions and politics.
The latter article makes clear that Xinjiang/East Turkistan is not the only part of Central Asia from which numerous Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters had traveled to Syria. But this is a problem not only for “home” countries in Central Asia. In Idlib, as in northeastern Syria, the foreign fighter/family presence includes numerous fighters from Western countries, Arab countries, and all around the world.
These are complex, wrenching issues. But don’t expect to read about them in The New York Times. The paper is far too busy investing massive resources into projects that one-sidedly accuse the Syrian government of violations to devote any time or resources to trying to investigate the actual situation inside Idlib, the genocidal al-Qaeda affiliates that control it, or the intense dilemmas this situation poses for the United States and the rest of the world community.