We are Raja Abdulrahim and Patrick Mcdonnell, Syria reporters for the LA Times (Patrick was on the government side and Raja was on the rebel side). Ask Us Anything!
Hi Reddit! Raja Abdulrahim, reporter, and Patrick Mcdonnell, Beirut bureau chief, here. We cover Syria and other parts of the Middle East for the Los Angeles Times. We recently got back from reporting trips to Syria. Patrick was reporting from the government side and Raja was reporting from the rebel side. You can find links to our work here. Proof:Proof for Patrick / Proof for Raja
Ask us anything!
UPDATE: Thanks for joining our AMA. We will try to pop back in and answer a few more questions when time permits. Feel free to reach us on Twitter Patrick / Raja Also continue reading our world coverage by clicking here.
Answer via Patrick: Wiser, probably not. But there is a broad consensus among people on both sides that a military victory by either side is extremely unlikely and a negotiated political settlement would be the best way to end the conflict. How to achieve such a settlement is the big question, however. Of late, both the United States and Moscow have revived the idea of peace talks in Geneva, possibly as soon as next month. We don't know what will happen, or whether those talks will take place, but it is a sign that there may be some momentum towards a political settlement, however fragile and fleeting that sentiment may seem right now.
Answer via Raja: I'm not sure. Being on the ground gives us a first-person look at how complicated the situation is and is increasingly becoming as it devolves from a conflict between two sides to a war with multiple sides and players. There is no simple solution to stop all of the killing with many armed groups. But many of those who are killed each day are killed by government weapons like tanks, warplanes and Scud missiles. The chemical weapons currently being dismantled account for a small percentage of the more than 100,000 killed in Syria, so getting rid of those is not expected to make a large impact on the daily death toll. When I was in Syria recently, a man told me his take on the "give a man a fish.." saying. He said, "Don't give us refugee camps, give us a no-fly zone so we can live in our homes." His opinion reflects that of many Syrians (in opposition areas).
Thoughts on Syria "expert" Elizabeth O'Bagy's analysis of the Syrian opposition?
What's your reaction to Sen. John McCain hiring her after her dismissal from the Institute for the Study of War?
Patrick: Personally, I don't feel qualified to answer this question, I don't know Ms. O'Bagy's work that well.
Raja and Patrick, do you think your different genders affect your reporting in Syria?
Raja: For the most part I don't think being a woman has negatively impacted my access in covering Syria and has had some benefits. You'll hear this a lot from female correspondents covering the Middle East that being a woman allows us to sit with women and families in more personal settings that would be difficult or impossible for men to do. This is of course needed when covering a war, because wars are about more than just armed men fighting on the frontlines. The Syrian conflict has created a huge humanitarian crisis and being able to access all parts of Syrian society enables me to better report on that.
Patrick: Probably, in subtle and maybe not so subtle ways that I can't articulate right now. I guess everything about us affects our reporting in some way. In every war zone that I've been to, I've run into extraordinarily courageous women journalists, usually found a lot closer to the front lines than I. Nothing but admiration from me.
Why are there no photos of the Syrian Army in action? We get a lot of FSA/rebel photos, but no Syrian army from Western press sources. Does the regime keep even sympathetic photographers away? (More my curiosity than anything else: I doubt anyone outside of Syria could identify a Syrian soldier if you asked them)
Patrick: This is an interesting question, and I hadn't noticed the lack of such images. The Syrian state news service almost daily publishes photos of its soldiers in action. It may be that there are fewer western photographers who get access to the government side, but that's just speculation on my part.
How much has time in Syria made you reassess your own quality of life?
Raja: Of course it makes me very appreciative of living in a stable and safe city. Seeing how quickly lives and livelihoods can be disrupted shows us how much we take for granted. For example, I live in Los Angeles and any Angeleno knows well the sound of helicopters ("ghetto birds") flying low throughout the day. I remember when I was in Damascus last year and heard the sound of a helicopter early in the morning. My first thought was "Ugh, ghetto bird" before I quickly remembered where I was and the deadly implication of a military helicopter flying above (opposition areas are regularly attacked with government military helicopters and warplanes).
Patrick: Very good question. It sounds a bit cliched, but yes one always appreciates more the comforts of home after leaving a battle zone, or any situation where life is more difficult and edgy. Certainly most of us have some degree of empathy for those who have no choice but to live in such dire and dangerous environments. That said, I think most journalists and others who work in conflict areas do find a certain attraction to the intensity and the human drama. I know some colleagues have had difficulties adjusting later on, to getting back to their regular lives.
Raja, how do you initiate/arrangements with the rebels to take you with them as a non hostile person?
I've been covering Syria for almost two years and first went into the country in early 2012. So I have built up a pretty good network of rebel/opposition contacts throughout the country. When I'm trying to get into a new part of the country that I haven't been in before, I rely on my contacts to put me in touch with rebels or opposition activists they trust. The process involves a lot of 'trust transferring' from one person to another.
Have you ever been in a situation where there's a break down of trust, ie putting you at risk?
Yes, there have been a few instances of losing trust in someone but luckily it never resulted in me being in huge danger. It was not because of malicious intentions, more often it was because of questionable judgement. Many of the rebels are civilians-turned-fighters and there have been times when I saw some of these young, armed men acting rashly in an attempt to prove something or just for the sake of bravado.
How many rebel/opposition groups are there in Syria, and how does that affect the war?
Raja: There are probably hundreds of rebel groups across Syria right now and new groups are constantly being formed. Disunity and splintering has been one of the biggest problems plaguing the rebels from the start. I've seen small militias break up even further into smaller groups over small disagreements. We're seeing some recent efforts to unify certain rebel groups, mostly under Islamist banners, but it's unclear whether this will be successful. Past efforts haven't really panned out for them. What this means for Syria is an increasingly fractured country, where certain rebels groups could try to carve out their own territory. Some areas have already become like little warlord fiefdoms. For the rebels this fracturing of their ranks and in-fighting means they are constantly distracted from fighting against the Syrian government. Here's an article explaining more on the different groups
What is the sentiment on the side of the government about the deluge of support from Iran? One would imagine the higher-ups are pleased with support of any kind, but do the soldiers on the ground feel that they're propping up a proxy war? Or are they even aware of Iran's support?
Patrick: From what I've seen on the ground, I would say that pro-government soldiers and militiamen are aware that Iran is a major supporter of the Syrian government and that many are appreciative. Likewise, they are aware that Washington supports the opposition and are angry about that. That said, Iran's aid, much of it economic, is not highly visible, at least to visiting reporters. Much on the ground in Syria is quite polarized. Each side tends to accuse the other of serving foreign interests. Every fighter whom I have spoken to, on whatever side or faction, views their fight as a righteous one. "We are fighting for our homeland," is a common refrain. Some view it as a battle for survival.
Is Syria doing a good job with destroying their chemical weapons?
Answer via Patrick: So far, both the international inspectors and U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry have complimented Syrian authorities for their cooperation in the destruction of the nation's chemical stockpiles. But the process has just begun--the first physical destruction of Syrian weapons materials took place yesterday [Sunday]--so there are likely greater challenges down the line. All agree it will be a complex and difficult endeavor, especially since a war is raging in Syria. More of our coverage of chemical weapons.
Should the U.S. stay out of Syria or do they truly need our assistance?
Answer via Patrick: This is a very contentious matter and it depends on one's viewpoint. There are those who say the United States should stay out of what is essentially an internal conflict. Others argue that the United States should be more involved than it is already. Remember that the United States is already assisting anti-government rebels, though Washington says the aid has mostly been "non lethal: in nature. So there is a broad divergence of views on this point. But there is general agreement that the United States and other nations could be doing a lot more to help Syrian refugees and otherwise ameliorate the humanitarian catastrophe brought on by the conflict.
Answer via Raja: It seems increasingly doubtful that the conflict will be resolved without involvement from the international community, including the US. The longer the war goes on the more it is destabilizing the entire region. And that's not in anyone's interest.
Have you run across any al-Qaeda members fighting with the rebels?
Raja: There are two Al Qaeda-linked groups that fight alongside (and occasionally against) the rebels. The Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
So... which side are the good guys?
Patrick: Very subjective! Depends on what side you're on.
At what point did Al-Qaeda begin aligning itself with rebels? Are there rebel groups that have not been influenced by terrorist groups?
Raja The Al Qaeda-linked groups began appearing in Syria mid-last year and were always working with the rebels in some way or another. But they have often made it clear that their goals do not always align completely with the rebels, especially in terms of vision for a post-Assad Syria or even sometimes in terms of tactics (the Al Qaeda groups use suicide bombings, which is rare among the more mainstream rebels).
The relationship between the rebels and one Al Qaeda-linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has become increasingly fraught. ISIS sometimes fights alongside the rebels and sometimes against them. I wrote about it recently here.
But even with the problems, many in the opposition have said they are so desperate to oust Assad that they will align themselves with anyone who will help.
Political/military partnerships aside, to what extent do you think those that want to overthrow Assad are driven by religious zeal/motivations? In other words, do you think that the majority of the opposition is "fundamentalist"?
Being motivated by religion does not necessarily make someone fundamentalist. In the Middle East, religion often plays a more central role in everyday life and can serve as a motivator for many things, without making a person an extremist. For some in the opposition, religion plays at least some role in their desire to overthrow Assad. The Assads and their ruling Baath party are staunch secularists who view certain religious groups as threats and thus target them. Some of these groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, consider it their overdue right to overthrow the regime and install some sort of religious government. But Syrian society has a long history of tolerant pluralism and a wide spectrum of religious observance (whether Muslim, Christian or other) and many fear that this conflict will disrupt that if a religious government takes control and begins regulating morality and religious practice.
Hey! I'm really interested in the Middle East, and I'm planning a trip in that area. Would you recommend going to Syria as a traveler? Are there safe parts, or the entire country is affected by the war? (I have a European passport, if that changes anything)
Patrick: Syria is a fascinating country and not long ago it was a tourist mecca. But, no, I wouldn't recommend going to Syria at the moment as a tourist, Euro-passport or not. A lot of dangers, a lot of eyes on foreigners.
Raja: Do not visit Syria right now. Other than that, safe travels.
What are your thoughts on the spillover effect into Lebanon and Jordan, especially since the government of Jordan is under a lot of stress with the large influx of refugees.
Raja: Syria's neighbors are under great strain because of the refugee influx. Jordan was already in bad economic shape and now with more than 100,000 Syrian refugees the Zaatari refugee camp is said to have become the country's fourth largest city. Turkey has had difficulty building camps fast enough to keep pace with the flow of refugees. There are now more than 2 million Syrian refugees and most of these have fled to neighboring countries. Besides the economic issue of trying to provide for the refugees (the UN refugee agency has raised less than half of its international appeal to provide for Syrians) the Syrian conflict has also at times disrupted tense sectarian relations between Sunnis and Shiites (in Lebanon) and Sunnis and Alawites (in Turkey). In Egypt, where Syrians where initially welcomed, state media and the military-backed government now blame them for playing a role in the country's current unrest.
Raja/Patrick, what are some of the tensest situations you've had to face? Afraid for your lives at any point?
Patrick: Covering conflict areas inevitably puts one in some dicey situations. We've all had some close calls. But I try to keep in mind that it's nothing like the daily threats faced by people who must live in battle zones. And I've always found people willing to help and give shelter, in Syria and in other conflict areas.
Raja: I've been quite lucky to avoid many really tense or scary situations. But last year I was caught by Jordanian soldiers as I was trying to illegally cross through the olive groves into southern Syria. Having a cocked Ak-47 pointed at me for a few seconds is probably one of the tensest situations I faced.
Do all Syrian Christians support Assad? Did any Syrian Christians originally join protests? How much does the Lebanese Christian "lobby" and Hezbollah's influence affect the actions of Syrian Christians?
Patrick: One cannot generalize about "all" Syrian Christians, just as one cannot generalize about any single group in Syria. Christians are generally said to represent about 10% of the population, though many have fled. There is no question that many Christians support the government in part because they fear a militant Islamic takeover of Syria and a backlash against the Christian minority. They are well aware of what happened in neighboring Iraq following the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein. Militants in Iraq bombed churches and targeted Christians, prompting much of the Christian population to flee, many to neighboring Syria. The Christians of Syria are fearful that such a turn of events could come to pass inside Syria as well. That is not to say, however, that they do not support reform of the current government. There is a profound disquiet among Christians and other minorities inside Syria. I don't have the sense that the fears of Syrian Christians have anything to do with the attitudes of Christians in neighboring Lebanon or the actions of Hezbollah, which is a Lebanese, mostly Shiite Muslim organization. More from our fellow LA Times world reporter Alex on Christians in Syria
Raja: No, government and rebel loyalties do not break down evenly along religious and sectarian lines. There were some Christians who joined the anti-government protests but not in any great number. But even those Christians who don't support Assad are increasingly wary, to say the least, of the Al Qaeda-linked groups.
How much support among the general population do the Islamists have compared to more secular groups like the Free Syrian Army? Among the rebel groups, who do the Syrian people identify with the most?
Raja: It's impossible to quantify support for one group or another. It's also not really accurate to try and categorize the rebels as Islamist or secular. Syria is a majority Muslim, Sunni country and many among the opposition and general population that I have met want Islam to have some role in a future government, but to varying degrees. The concept of being "secular" in the Middle East (where religion is a big part of daily life and the social fabric) often differs from the way Westerners view it. And Syrians, like any population, have a spectrum of beliefs and world views so it is difficult to make any generalizations.
Is there anything you feel may have been misunderstood about the situation? Do you feel the media, generally speaking, has portrayed the situation accurately? Anything you want to clear up?
Patrick: A preponderance of the coverage early on in the conflict probably focused on the opposition and its version of events. This was in part because it was difficult for foreign journalists to get visas to visit government-controlled areas. And the opposition was very savvy with social media and other means of getting their side of the story out. Once inside government-run zones, like Damascus and the Mediterranean coastal provinces of Tartous and Latakia, the complexity of the conflict becomes more apparent. Each side, it turns out, has ardent supporters among the Syrian population. Depicting this societal complexity as the war rages is a daunting challenge. Have we portrayed it accurately? I feel a bit too close to make a definitive judgment on that, and I'm not much of a media analyst. I know there are a lot of courageous, professional journalists trying hard to produce honest documentation about the situation inside Syria, sometimes at considerable risk. There are some inklings of truth and reality inside all of that coverage, at least I hope so!
Raja: Covering Syria has been incredibly difficult and at times frustrating since our access is very limited and there are obstacles to reporting on the ground. Even for reporters who go into Syria, they might only spend a total of a few weeks inside the country in an entire year. When we're not in country, our coverage is done from afar through opposition or government sources who have their own agenda. So it always feels as if our picture of Syria and the conflict is incomplete.
Thanks for answering all these questions Raja and Patrick. I'm covering Syrian Christians for a publication right now--which is why I'm so interested. Could you give more detail about the Iraqi Christians that moved to Syria? Up to this point, I feel like I've read much more about traditional Christian communities being pillaged (Maaloula) than about the story of these refugees. Also, what is the relationship between Christian Syrians and Iraqis? Do they both speak Aramaic?
Raja: The situation for the Iraqi Christians is not unlike that of the Iraqi Muslims, in that they fled an unstable and dangerous country only to have their host country devolve into open conflict. Their situation is also similar to Palestinians who have lived in camps in Syria for decades. Some Iraqis have returned back to Iraq while others may have fled to a third country, becoming refugees a second time.
Patrick: I'm a bit out of my league on this, but yes there are large numbers of Iraqi Christians still living in Syria. There are many in Jaramana, a Damascus suburb where I have spent some time. Much of the population in Jaramana is Christian and Druze. After their experience in Iraq, Iraqi Christian refugees living in Syria are of course deeply apprehensive about what is happening in Syria. Many still fear going back to Iraq and have re-made their lives in Syria. My understanding is that many Iraqi Christians come from sects that also exist in Syria, where there are a number of Christian groups. Some Christians in the region do speak Aramaic (said to be the language spoken by Jesus Christ), but my impression (largely anecdotal, an expert would know better!) is that Aramaic-speakers are a minority among the Christian population. And Arabic is the common language. ... I will say that the issue of Maaloula, a historic, mostly Christian town overrun by rebels last month, has resonated deeply with the Christian community in Syria. I was in Syria last month and talked to people about it. Many residents fled Maaloula and found refuge in Christian districts in Damascus. I know that many prayers have been said for the people of Maaloula in Christian churches in Syria and elsewhere.
Is Al Nusra Front made up of Syrians? I never really heard about this group prior to the civil/sectarian war.
Nusra Front has a mix of Syrians and foreign fighters. But many of those foreign fighters are now believed to have joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria group. Here is a good backgrounder from the Institute for the Study of War on the emergence of the two groups in Syria.
Patrick, what was the ethnic makeup of the government army units you ran into? Were they primarily Alawite? Or were other minorities involved?
Patrick: Government units that I've run into tend to be mixed. But there is always a heavy dose of minority troops, including Christians, especially in some of the pro-government local militias. Here's an article I wrote about them.
is the country divided in support for the government and rebels? Would it be possible to divide the country into two part as in other countries, giving a sovereign area to the rebels to control while retaining the rest for the current government?
Patrick: There are deep political fissures within Syria today, no question. But dividing the country geographically, as some outside experts have suggested, seems problematic to many Syrians. I have yet to meet a Syrian inside Syria who backs such an idea. For many it seems to go against a deep sense of nationalism. There are also practical obstacles to such a geographic breakup, as Syria is a very diverse nation composed of numerous sects and ethnic groups, often living in close proximity.
Raja: No, there is no simple division among Syrians. There are some who are staunch supporters of the rebels and others for the government and then there are many who are somewhere in between. Also the rebels are so divided that support for them varies. Some Syrians support the hardline or Islamist opposition fighters and others like the more mainstream Free Syrian Army. Some Syrians are against all sides who are fighting and feel they have all contributed to the destruction of Syria. Many who decry the regime's constant bombardments on civilian populations also fear what could happen if the rebels took control. "They've ruined the country," is a common refrain heard among civilians. EDIT: I answered part of this question but forgot the second part. Syria is not neatly geographically divided into opposition and government areas. In some parts of the country, rebels have carved out towns or large areas they control. In the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, much of the area is under opposition control but the government still maintains hold of one provincial capital and some key towns as well as military bases. Even in the western province of Lattakia, considered an Alawite stronghold for Assad, there are many Sunni parts that support the rebels. So partitioning Syria would not really be a solution.
What is the most frustrating thing you have to deal with on a daily basis?
Patrick: Getting access to battle zones and interviews with military commanders is always difficult, in this war and others. There are logistical obstacles and a certain amount of red tape involved. Plus safety issues. But I have found this to be a universal difficulty, no worse in Syria than anywhere else probably. I have found the government generally helpful, but the military has other priorities, like fighting a difficult war. Speaking to journalists or helping reporters get access may not be a top priority.
How did you become a war correspondent? Any advice for a journalist trying to get jobs out of the US?
Patrick: To me an advisable step is to learn some of the craft of journalism first in the U.S., then go overseas. Lots of would-be foreign correspondents running around who haven't really mastered basic reporting skills, journalistic techniques and ethics. Then again, a lot of very successful correspondents began by relocating to hot spots and starting to write and file stories, learning on the job as it were.
Raja: I began covering Middle East unrest when the revolution first broke out in Egypt, followed by a brief stint covering the Libyan uprising and now Syria. There isn't one single path for getting into international reporting and what works for one journalist may not work for another. Good luck.
as an intelligence analyst, i've been following the story closely because of possible deployments to the area. with the ongoing threat of chemical weapon attacks from either side, do you guys personally see a long-term military solution being enacted due to the radicalization on both sides of the ongoing civil war?
Patrick: I tend to side with those who say the solution must ultimately be political and some form of reconciliation, which will take a long time. The war in neighboring Lebanon lasted 15 years and sectarian relations in Lebanon remain strained in many instances.
Is the civil war mostly a shiite, suni thing?
Patrick: Too simplistic to look at it strictly this way, through a sectarian prism. But there are clear sectarian elements and playing up the sectarian aspects may benefit some parties.
What are some of the effects on Syria's neighbors?
I'm especially interested in Lebanon, which seems to be closely linked to Syria and I think is a fascinating country; but also Turkey and Iraq, in regards to their Kurdish populations.
Patrick: Lots of refugees, spillover violence, especially in Lebanon. Most everyone here (I'm writing from Beirut) is worried that the Syrian war could eventually consume Lebanon. Other neighbors, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, are also overwhelmed by refugees and concerned about violence crossing borders. The Syrian war has been heavily destabilizing for an already volatile region.
How smaller groups finance their purchases (weapons)?
Raja: In the beginning, we heard a lot of stories of people selling personal property or very often the gold jewelry of female relatives in order to buy weapons. As the conflict grew, so did the sources of funding. Syrian merchants have been known to finance rebel groups even as they outwardly display loyalty to the Assad government. Perhaps the biggest source of funding has been wealthy expatriate Syrians living in the Gulf and other Arab countries. The videos rebels post of their group's military operations against the government are meant to encourage donors to contribute.
Do you think that the war will end if Assad loses. Or will the rebels division be their downfall?
Unfortunately, no. The conflict has gone way beyond Assad and now has serious sectarian and ethnic dynamics to it. With the stepped-up involvement this year by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah and Iran, both allies of Assad, the sectarian aspect has become more deeply entrenched. Even if Assad leaves tomorrow, these two and the opposing mostly Sunni rebels will likely continue to fight as it becomes more of an ideological battle. There are also growing clashes between rebels and ethnic Kurds in the north. And of course this is in addition to the infighting in the rebel ranks, which would only grow if Assad was to fall. The rebels differ greatly in ideology and there are many different visions for what a future Syria should look like.
The Government weren't the ones who used chemical weapons, were they. It was the rebels, at the behest of the western war machine, right? Can either of you confirm/deny this without getting in trouble?
Patrick: The questioner appears to have his or her mind made up, which is fair enough. But as journalists covering this issue, we need to stick to the facts as known. There seems to be a consensus that sarin gas was used in the suburbs of Damascus last Aug. 21, and that there were many casualties. The United Nations report, based on on-site investigation, reaches those conclusions. But the U.N. inspectors did not assign blame. I have seen some circumstantial evidence but no definitive, irrefutable proof linking either side to the incident. I do wonder now if we will ever know with absolute certitude who did it and why.
Given the level of insight you have in the area, are you any wiser on what would be the best course of action to stop loads of people dying? or does nobody have a scooby doo?
View HistoryShare Link