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Talking Policy: Rania Abouzeid on the Syrian Crisis

The Arab Spring spread to Syria in 2011 in the form of anti-government protests, paving the way for a brutal civil war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and left millions without a home. Six years later, the conflict is still raging. World Policy Journal spoke with Rania Abouzeid, a Beirut-based journalist and a New America fellow, about reporting from Syria and what lies ahead for the war-torn country.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Many foreign fighters have left their countries in part because they felt alienated. It’s rare to hear about the perspectives of these fighters. What was it like to hear their stories?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Foreign fighters came to Syria for a number of reasons. Some came for religious reasons, to fight a jihad and because the Quran says the al-Sham of Syria is blessed land. Some came because they were simply sick of seeing Muslims die and wanted to try to defend their co-religionists. Some came because they were looking for adventure or for meaning in their lives. Some were petty criminals trying to escape trouble back home. So they had a number of different reasons and tended to join different groups. They mainly joined the Islamist movements rather than the Free Syrian Army, though some Free Syrian Army units had foreign fighters, as did some non-Free Syrian Army units that weren’t hardcore Islamists in the same way as al-Qaida or the Islamic State, but instead were independent groups of Chechens and other Central Asians. And after the declaration of the Caliphate, some came because they answered the call to come to this territory that the Islamic State claimed to have “liberated” from infidel forces.

WPJ: What was the appeal of their newfound cause?

RA: The appeal was as varied as the reasons for coming. We can’t forget the appeal of power, the appeal of feeling like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself. There is a feeling of power that comes with being a guy with a gun or a woman who is part of a movement. This appealed to some of the foreign recruits.

WPJ: In your book, No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria, which comes out next March, you discuss the various groups vying for power in Syria: extremists, rebel groups, civilians, regime forces, regional powers, and Western powers. Can you describe how you selected the stories you decided to include, and what it was like to weave such a complicated narrative to give a full picture of the Syrian conflict?

RA: I tell a sliver of the Syrian story because I was sick of seeing Syrians referred to as numbers, as if they weren’t people. This is a tragedy that even Hollywood couldn’t have scripted. Some of the things that have happened to regular people, just like you and me—some have lived through extraordinary circumstances and others were hardcore, true believers in jihad who saw an opportunity to exploit the revolution to further their own goals. In writing this book, I didn’t want to focus on the events themselves. I wanted to focus on individuals within the context of those events. I wanted to show, over six years, what happened to a group of people. One of the hardest tasks was choosing whose stories to tell. Over the years, I’ve come to know many Syrians so well that I could profile them. And I chose people whose paths either intersected in some way, whether or not they knew it, or who were in pivotal places at pivotal moments.

The book has two streams. One is deeply personal and close to the ground, where you follow people like a movie and see what happens to them. The other is investigative, where you see the backroom dealings that armed and betrayed the uprising, how the Islamists managed to set themselves up in this country, and what happened to them. My hope is that, in telling these stories, I have contributed a piece of the puzzle to try and make the Syrian story a little bit more accessible and understandable—to try and untangle some of the complexity of the story. I’m hoping that there will be something for everyone in it, from someone who is somewhat familiar with what’s happening in Syria to someone who has been following it closely. But I make no claim to try and tell the whole story of Syria because I think you need an encyclopedia to do that, and not just one book.

WPJ: There is conflict happening in both Syria and Iraq. What made you focus on events happening in Syria over what was happening in Iraq?

RA: I covered Iraq for a number of years for TIME Magazine. It remains a story that is very close to my heart. I covered the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and in early February of 2011, when events in Libya were kicking off and eastern parts of the country had fallen, I remember thinking that I wanted to see what was happening in Damascus. Damascus was a capital I knew well. I live in Beirut, Lebanon, and it was just an hour-and-a-half drive away. It’s one of the most spectacular cities in the world. I started reporting on what was happening back in February 2011 and I knew what was happening in Syria would not stay in Syria. And given the fact that Syria is such a pivotal state in the Middle East, whatever happened here, whatever side prevailed, would change things beyond its borders. So that’s why I focused on Syria.

WPJ: You talk about how growing up, you would frequently travel back to Beirut to visit family, even during the civil war. Your takeaway was that in war, there was life in Beirut. Is that a message that you see also applying to Syria? And how does a journalist cover daily life amid so much tragedy and violence?

RA: I do think that; I’m always looking for life in the destruction. Life continues and is often more vibrant and more energetic, simply because the cheapness of death increases the value of life in some way. You feel it more. It’s more intense. Like I said, this is a lesson I learned in childhood, and it is one that permeates all of my work, as does the fact that I like to focus on real people. Because I think that when you do that, it doesn’t matter how complicated a story is. If you bring it down to the level of a person—that this happened to somebody, or somebody did this, that somebody saw this, or somebody is affected by this in x way—then it becomes easier to understand. That’s my approach to journalism. It’s a privilege and an honor to be entrusted with people’s stories and I never for a minute forget that. You have to imagine yourself being the person on the other end of that notepad and pen, being asked the questions. Sometimes, I’ve talked to people in the worst circumstances, having the worst day of their lives. You know you always have to be cognizant of the fact that you’re talking to a real person, not just a contact, not just a source, not just somebody you can quote for five minutes and walk away from. This is a real person, with real needs and real emotions. You have to treat them as such while never dropping your skepticism, no matter how emotional the story. Then, you can hopefully contribute something to the bigger picture, which is how I view my role. I’m just another journalist contributing a piece of the jigsaw and together, collectively, we all help unravel complex conflicts or issues.

WPJ: What do you see as the most likely possible outcomes in Syria?

RA: There are many levels. The first and biggest is obviously the geostrategic level. The direct Russian intervention in the war in late 2015 changed the course in favor of [President Bashar] Assad and his army. The various rebel forces have engaged in destructive infighting from the get-go. For all intents and purposes, militarily Assad has won. There remain pockets that are outside his control, including big pockets like the east of the country, which is dominated by the Islamic State, though it is rapidly losing territory. And the province of Idlib is the main rebel-held tract of real estate at the moment.

That’s the political level. What’s more interesting to me is coming down to the community level. How do neighbors who turned against each other suddenly become neighbors again? How do people who were displaced from home return? Do they return? Or is this a permanent schism in the Syrian psyche? In a region like ours, where you come from is not merely an address; it is so much a part of your identity. In Arabic, we say, what is your origin, meaning, where are you from? And that is an indicator of who you are. Half of Syria’s population of 23 million now has been displaced, either internally or externally. How do you put a country like that back together again, if at all? These are the questions I hope to continue to explore as I follow the Syrian crisis and the broader Middle East. That’s what interests me, and I’m also from the region. I’m not just covering a story and moving on—not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I am personally interested in this, not just professionally. 

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Interview conducted by Anusha Prasad]

[Photo courtesy of New America]

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