I’m a correspondent for The Independent based in Beirut, Lebanon. I have covered the Syrian civil war for the last eight years for The Independent, Global Post, Public Radio International, and others. Much of that work has been focused on Isis, and its spread beyond Syria and Iraq. I have reported on the the impact of conflict on civilians — both the victims of Isis and those caught up in the battle to defeat it — as well as the refugee crisis sparked by the Syrian war.

Proof 1: https://twitter.com/Independent/status/1116692167198691328

Proof 2: https://twitter.com/_RichardHall/status/1116707452626591744

The last days of the Isis caliphate loom as jihadis face defeat in Syria https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-syria-defeat-islamic-state-end-caliphate-sdf-kurds-a8757991.html (February 2019)

Thousands flee last Isis territory with tales of horror https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syria-isis-civilians-iraq-middle-east-terror-caliphate-islamic-state-starvation-a8752361.html (January 2019)

Raqqa after Isis: Mass grave reveals horror of city’s final battle (November 2018) https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/raqqa-isis-mass-grave-us-coalition-death-panorama-park-a8632026.html

Stories of survival from those who survived Isis (January 2017) https://www.pri.org/categories/iraq-interrupted

Kurdish women line up to take on the Islamic State (December 2014) https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/12/24/globalpost-kurdish-women-islamic-state/20853391/

The rebels divide: Is this the new front in Syria's civil war? (September 2013) https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-rebels-divide-is-this-the-new-front-in-syrias-civil-war-8827244.html

[Edit to add in two proof tweets with AMA picture from verified accounts]

Comments: 875 • Responses: 26  • Date: 

freespiners589 karma

What do you think needs to be done to prevent another reboot of "Islamic extremist insurgency" in the region?

theindependentonline832 karma

Great first question! The insurgency has already restarted. Thousands of Isis fighters have gone underground and formed sleeper cells across Iraq and Syria in preparation for the caliphate’s defeat, and they are already carrying out attacks. In parts of Iraq, Isis fighters are moving freely in towns and villages at night, and there has been an uptick in bomb attacks in Syria since the caliphate’s fall. It’s important to note that the defeat of the Isis caliphate was just that — it lost its territory, but not its vast resources and its ability to operate. Isis was an insurgency for longer than it was a “state”.

In Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces was able to defeat Isis in large part due to the support of the US military. But Donald Trump has signalled that the US doesn’t want to stay there forever. The SDF is worried that they may struggle to maintain security in the recently recaptured areas of the country — areas that have been utterly destroyed by the war.

You may have seen interviews with people leaving Isis areas in the caliphate’s final days. It’s clear that the ideology has not been completely defeated. The large number of civilian casualties caused by the fight to defeat Isis didn’t help that.

More generally, stopping Isis in the long term requires removing the conditions that allowed it to rise in the first place. Isis was able to capitalise on legitimate grievances of the local population in both Syria in Iraq — everything from a weak state to rampant sectarianism, poverty, environmental change, you name it. It requires a huge international effort to give people in these devastated areas a chance to live a normal life.

bush-168 karma

  1. The media very rarely speaks about Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), so what is it like to live under their rule in comparison to living under ISIS? Are they as extreme and violent as ISIS? I noticed women living under HTS do not have to wear burkas or cover their faces.

  2. Do you think ISIS might regain territory again and revive their physical caliphate?

theindependentonline245 karma

You’re right about that. There has been far less coverage of HTS, largely because they have deliberately tried to avoid the spotlight. The group is a descendant of Al Qaeda, and I’m sure you’re all familiar with their beliefs. In recent years it has dissociated itself from Al Qaeda, but the core beliefs remain the same. It has played a much smarter game than Isis in trying to achieve its goals. It has undoubtedly committed war crimes, but while Isis was broadcasting its gruesome atrocities to the world, HTS tried to keep a lower profile, and made itself invaluable to other rebel groups who might not share its beliefs. Eventually, it came to dominate those groups and now rules over most of Idlib province. Despite its cleverness, HTS is an authoritarian group that a vast number of Syrians oppose. We recently wrote a story about a HTS crackdown that you can read here: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-syria-hayat-tahrir-al-sham-idlib-middle-east-a8850511.html

LichLordTerminus140 karma

What is the deal with the White Helmets? I have heard conflicting reports that they are either guardian angels saving people from rubble or dissidents backed by terrorist groups who serve as a front to fund extremism.

theindependentonline256 karma

This question comes up a lot, so I’m glad someone asked. The White Helmets have been the target of a coordinated propaganda campaign amplified by the Russian and Syrian governments, and pursued relentlessly by conspiracy theorists. I really don’t blame you for being uncertain, given the effort that has been put into this campaign. The theories surrounding them are so muddled that it’s worth going through them: One is that the White Helmets are funded by the British and US governments to fake atrocities in order to create the conditions to enact regime change (ie. remove Assad from power). The group did receive funding from both, but there was already enough evidence of war crimes before the White Helmets came along, from a myriad of independent sources. The US and UK undoubtedly wanted Assad to go, and funded rebel groups to try to make that happen, but why on earth would they need to manufacture crimes that the world had already seen? Another is that the White Helmets were a kind of conduit for funding extremist groups in Syria. The reality is that the US was funding rebel groups in Syria to counter the rising threats of these groups. When these efforts failed and weapons began ending up in the hands of extremists, the US got pulled back on that funding. The other is that a lot of White Helmets were actually extremists themselves, and were working with those groups. Is it possible that some White Helmets were former fighters? Of course. Could some of them have exaggerated or manipulated scenes? Yes. This is an organisation of over 4,000 volunteers afterall. But to suggest the organisation is part of some grand conspiracy is absurd. These theories have been fuelled by grainy photographs of unknown figures in white helmets standing alongside fighters, poorly sourced reports from bloggers who gave up any impartiality a long time ago, and a constant drip, drip of propaganda from Russian state news outlets. Why? The answer is pretty simple. While rescuing people from the rubble of buildings bombed by Russian and Syrian jets, they would also film the carnage. Their footage of these atrocities was extremely damaging to both, and countered the government narrative that this was a war against terrorists.
I’ve maintained contact with a number of White Helmet volunteers over the years, and the vast majority are normal people who just wanted to do something to help. (Sorry for the ramble!) You can read more about all this here: https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/syria-s-white-helmets-all-we-care-about-is-saving-lives-1.756229

bigtk105 karma

What will be the fate of the Kurds? will there be an Independent state of Kurdistan?

What will be the fate of the other factions within the Syrian Democratic Forces?

theindependentonline129 karma

That’s what many people want, but I think an independent state is unlikely any time soon. The Syrian government has repeatedly stated that it will not stop until it regains control of the entire country, and it has a powerful ally in Russia to help it do so. The Syrian Kurds know they can’t rely on the US to be there forever, and so they have to reach an agreement with Assad. They are pushing for some kind of autonomy in the areas they control (which is close to a third of the country), but so far the talks haven’t gone very far. SDF commanders are far more concerned about what Turkey will do right now.

sirextreme96 karma

What's your motivation to continue doing this dangerous job?

theindependentonline196 karma

I wouldn't really consider myself a conflict journalist, so the danger is minimal. I can walk away from a dangerous situation any time I want. This question might be better put to a Syrian or Iraqi journalist who reports on their home country. They are at far greater risk.

captmomo71 karma

What's food like in Beirut? How long does it take for you to research a story?

theindependentonline114 karma

I could do an entire AMA on my love for Lebanese food. Let’s just say it’s hard not to put on weight here.

It depends on the story really. I’ve spent months on some, a day on others. I hope people can tell the difference!

captmomo26 karma

I could do an entire AMA on my love for Lebanese food.

Do a story on it!

ShaquilleMobile49 karma

Guys there are a million blogs about Leb food. If you want to hear from a white guy who went to Beirut just look up Anthony Bourdain or something lol let this man focus on politics.

theindependentonline46 karma

Trueee. I'm more of an admirer than an expert. This is a great Lebanese blog though: http://www.nogarlicnoonions.com/

henrya164 karma

What do you think will happen with Shamima Begum and other UK citizens who joined the so called Caliphate?

theindependentonline124 karma

That’s what we’ve all been trying to figure out! It’s really uncertain. The British government has made it very clear that they do not want these people to come back to the UK. That has left the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is holding all of these people, in a bit of a bind. They make the point that these people were radicalised in the UK, came to Syria to join a group that carried out heinous crimes, and now they have to pick up the mess.

There has been a suggestion that international courts would be set up in Syria to try and imprison all of the foreign Isis members / supporters, but that’s incredibly unlikely because because it would require UN approval and Russia, a veto-wielding member, would block it on behalf of the Syrian government.

There is talk now of sending them to Iraq to face trial. But that would mean sending them to a country which has the death penalty, which could present significant legal challenges. That seems like the most likely option right now.

theindependentonline61 karma

My answers are getting shorter and less coherent by the minute, so I think I'll call it a day there. Thank you everyone for the insightful and engaging questions. It was a genuine pleasure. I'll try to answer more tomorrow. Goodbye!

ygulmez8940 karma

Seeing the cultural differences between middle east and western society, do you think the epic refugee crisis and backlash was predictable? Also the poor, for many reasons, integration of those refugees?

theindependentonline119 karma

The refugee crisis was inevitable because of the sheer level of destruction and killing in Syria, but I think the international community failed Syrians in their response. Instead of recognising the scale of the crisis and doing all it could to help people find safety, many European countries reacted with fear.

As for the question of integration, it’s a fault of the media that negative stories about refugees and migrants are amplified. Millions of people — who wanted nothing more than to find safety — have gone on to make great contributions to the communities in which they ended up. The countries that have made real efforts to welcome refugees have been rewarded for it.

aguycalledadam29 karma

What's the one thing that hasn't been reported that you would like more people to understand?

theindependentonline109 karma

One thing I’d like more people to realise is how clueless the people who decide our foreign policy really are. Most countries have a layer of highly skilled and knowledgeable diplomats and advisors, but the decisions are made very high up, by people with a very limited understanding of this part of the world in particular. The implications are often huge.

odhinnplays26 karma

Who are the current freedom fighters that will be the next bad guys?

theindependentonline46 karma

This is such a good question. If you believe the old phrase "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter", then all of them?

smeat26 karma

In a previous answer you said "it lost its territory, but not its vast resources and its ability to operate."

Can you elaborate on what resources you're referring to, and how are these resources getting delivered to the conflict zones?

theindependentonline46 karma

I think I may have mentioned this in a previous answer, but Isis made hundreds of millions of dollars when it held territory, through the oil fields it captured and taxation of people living under the caliphate. No one knows where that money went! It could still potentially have millions of dollars. That money can buy influence, support, weapons, bombs etc.

Ninjoe4222 karma

News sometimes talks about Isis 'strongholds' being taken. What does that mean? Where do the fighters end up going when a power center falls? Do some just wait for the next organized movement and hide until it appears?

theindependentonline24 karma

Yes exactly. Tens of thousands are currently being held in detention by the Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria — most of them captured in the final months of the campaign. But many others managed to escape and go underground before that happened, and are no operating sleeper cells, carrying out attacks.

benzdw118 karma

Who do you think funded them?

theindependentonline48 karma

Isis has a long history of funding from private donors and supporters, many of whom live in the Gulf. But they started making the big bucks when they took over towns and cities across Iraq and Syria. The vast majority of Isis's wealth came from the oil fields they captured, taxation and extortion of citizens living in the caliphate (roughly 10 million people at its height) and looting banks. They had their own sources of income.

throwawayzoneparking13 karma

To what extent and in what ways was the "Caliphate" truly any kind of a functioning polity with organs of state performing government functions beyond conducting military operations and persecuting opponents?

3DogsInATrenchcoat13 karma

How long do you think it will take them to reform, and where?

theindependentonline5 karma

Hopefully answered your Q in the comment at the top of the page.

NeedzRehab9 karma

Is the US leaving the theater a good thing in your opinion? Do you believe they have been there long enough, or do you support continued intervention?

theindependentonline30 karma

My opinion is irrelevant. What I can say is that America's allies in the fight against Isis, and top US military leaders, have argued that a continued US presence in northern Syria is essential to stopping the resurgence of Isis. The questions that then arise are: how long will that take? What does a total defeat of Isis look like? No one knows the answer to those questions.

anasshm8 karma

Don't you think the US intervention/invasion of the middle east was one of the key factors in creating ISIS, even the US is backing the rebels instead of their loved and legally elected president? every country that the US intervene in turns into a shit hole, Just like Libya was the richest country in all Africa and after the US killed Qadafi now they are back to one of the poorest and trading slaves, can't you guys mind your fucking business, and call it as it is American Terrorism, not Islamic terrorism.

theindependentonline22 karma

Yes to your first question. The invasion of Iraq gave birth to what later became known as Isis. It created the chaos that allowed it to flourish, and most books you read about Isis will start with that. The rest of your comment is a lot more complicated.

Bywater123458 karma

Do you think the creation of the Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve was a turning point in the fight against Da'esh?

What do you think the future is for the Coalition now that Da'esh has been declared defeated, especially given the political climate in both Syria and Iraq?

theindependentonline17 karma

Without a doubt. But the tactics the coalition used — the reliance on massive airpower in tightly packed cities — killed a very high number of civilians. Isis also used civilians as human shields to make those casualties higher.

Juwell8 karma

Do you think that (your) reporting on terrorism may affect (potential) Islamists (i.e. people in the UK that are being radicalized)?

theindependentonline17 karma

I hope at least some of the reporting we've done over the past few years punctured the myth of Isis propaganda that many people were exposed to. In the early days, the caliphate was marketed as a kind of paradise — the only place where Muslims could live under "real" Islamic law. The reality turned out to be quite different.

rdrum6 karma

Have you spoke to any isis folk? What impression did you get from them?

theindependentonline18 karma

I managed to speak to a couple of alleged Isis members, who were captured by the SDF fleeing Baghouz. The problem is that many of them claimed they had nothing to do with Isis. Another said he left the group a long time ago (which is what you might expect after they are captured). It's very hard to prove exactly what these people did while they were living in the caliphate. Here are two interviews I did in Syria recently: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-ireland-irish-syria-alexandr-bekmirzaev-caliphate-islam-fighting-a8772151.html

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-syria-fighter-germany-lucas-glass-islamic-state-assad-islam-a8769911.html

CFCChampions1 karma

What does Brexit mean ?

theindependentonline2 karma

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