Hello, I'm Anne Barnard, a New York Times reporter, here to answer your questions about my recent investigation of the Syrian government's sprawling system of torture prisons and my six years covering Syria and the Middle East as The Times's Beiru...
I've been based in the Middle East for 11 of the last 16 years, originally in Baghdad for the Boston Globe. I'm now on a one-year leave from The Times as the Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. I've reported from all around the Arab world, as well as from Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, and of course the United States.
I'm a native New Yorker now trying to get used to home again.
Link to story: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/11/world/middleeast/syria-torture-prisons.html
Thank you everyone, I have to hop off now, but thanks for your questions and I'll try to check in again later.
Russia and Iran both have leverage over Assad in different ways, but he is expert in playing them and others off one another. A person briefed at high levels in the security services told me that even if it could, Russia is not motivated to reform the security services and prison system for human rights reasons -- rather, the person said somewhat ominously, Russia would like to make them "more efficient."
Hasn’t most of the Middle East has torture prisons for as long as there is written history?
Unfortunately torture and political imprisonment have been among the forms of abuse of power through much of history, whether we're talking about the Spanish Inquisition or the Stalinist gulag. You are correct that from Ottoman times through Western colonialism to the upheavals of the 20th century, such abuses have existed in many Middle Eastern countries as well (although the problem is not unique to or inherent in the Middle East).
But even within a century rife with authoritarianism in the region. the current Syrian system stands out. Syria's prison system and tight lid on dissent were among the harshest in the region long before the uprising in 2011, and after the uprising the system vastly expanded, and played a pivotal role in crushing the civilian side of the revolt.
and played a pivotal role in crushing the civilian side of the revolt.
Could you expand on that? Any specific details would make for interesting stories.
Read the story linked at the top of the chat.
I've read your work and appreciate it, but I'm wondering about the big picture. Yes, Assad is awful. Yes, the prisons are appalling, but do you think this justifies what was done and what is currently being done in Syria? I am no fan of torture prisons, but it seems like trying to oust Assad -- just like trying to remove most dictators in the Middle East -- has been an absolute disaster. Would you rather keep the torture prisons and Assad's regime or deal with the power vacuum left assuming his defeat? I know these seem like loaded questions and I apologize for that, but I am interested in your perspective on what the best course of action for Syria is... or was really.
I second this question. Syria sounds a lot like Iraq under Suddam Hussein and we all know how ousting him turned out.
it's not my position as a reporter to give policy recommendations, but I can say from my reporting that you are hitting the nail of the dilemma on the head: The US lost credibility and moral standing in Iraq, as well as political will or public support to get deeply involved in Syria. Obama spoke loudly, calling for Assad's ouster, but carried a small stick. He backed off even symbolic enforcement of the red line he set. Support for rebels was "non-lethal" at first, then CIA backed some rebel groups, but ultimately US goal was not to oust Assad but to put enough pressure on him to go to the negotiating table. Even that effort later took a back seat to anti ISIS campaign. But the issue is much broader about how US views the region. It is not a binary choice between supporting (KSA) or tolerating (Syria) authoritarians who torture their people and toppling them with massive interventions that create power vacuums. Most people in the region I believe want support for the ordinary people who would like to build meaningful civil society, citizenship and better economies, and less support for the governments that hold them back.
Did you enjoy living in Beirut?
Which segment of society, in your view, provides the most support for the current Syrian government? Which movement/political tendency does the Syrian government view as its biggest threat? Is the network of torture used on any one type of dissident in particular? Would most of the regime’s civilian supporters consider these measures necessary?
- The Syrian government and more importantly the close ruling circle around Assad views anyone from any sect, political tendency or social class who challenges its hold on power or disagrees with it as the biggest threat. That's basically it.
- The torture network could be used on anyone but was specifically deployed at civilian opponents of the government. They knew they could beat armed militants through physical force and preferred to fight on that field.
- I believe even many civilian supporters of the regime would consider these measures over the top, but in practice many passively support them as people have in such situations in past historical examples.
So you've been to Iraq - why do you think Westerners were mostly ambivalent (at best) to the sprawling system of torture / murder / state-sponsored rape in Iraq, in the lead up to the invasion (and after when even more evidence came out)? How does that compare / contrast to the attitudes in the West now, regarding your discoveries in Syria?
I think most people don't pay much attention to the sufferings of people around the world, because they're busy with their own lives and because people in other countries, especially the Middle East, may have been presented to them as "other," as people so unlike them that they can't imagine their lives, or even as people who are used to violence. One of our jobs as journalist is to provide a fuller picture so that people can better understand each other. But I think that in the cases of both Iraq and Syria the first step is getting over that hump of unfamiliarity and distance. The second is to explain how these issues are really relevant to people around the world and have real-world consequences, like political instability and refugee crises.
thank you everyone, I have to hop off now, but thanks for your questions and I'll try to check in again later.
Are you targeted personally for trying to expose this sort of information, or do they work more to discredit you with their own [mis]information releases (such as vilifying white helmets)?
For sure there are many users/bots/trolls on Twitter and other platforms, some of the same ones who attack the White Helmets with fabrications and misinformation, who accuse me of supporting jihadists, making things up to support a CIA agenda, and all kinds of other nonsense. As for personal physical safety, I take precautions for myself, my staff and my family.
I was working on a presentation and needed to find some numbers on Syria’s economy. Understandably, there’s not much from the beginning of the war onward, but I was surprised that there were gaps starting in 2007. The World Bank Indicators doesn’t have any GDP numbers after 2007 for example. Why is there a lack of data on Syria’s economy? I’ve heard Assad doesn’t like to share the numbers
The best granular source on the Syrian economy as far as I know is @JihadYazigi 's @TheSyriaReport. It is a subscription service by Jihad, a Syrian economist now based in Paris. It's not the most transparent government in the world but there several good sources out there.
What was one of the biggest challenges coming back home?
I've come back several times after stints in Russia and the Middle East and always find it jarring how little the realities there are noticed in the US. This time I'm also dealing with my kids' adjustment to NYC, where they were born, after mostly growing up in Lebanon. But, it's great to be home.
Have you had any direct connections to IS fighters/terrorists?
If by connections you mean contact in order to interview them, then yes. My amazing team of colleagues, @hwaida_saad, @NYTBen, and many others, have spent years working to build contacts in person and online to people, including combatants, on all sides of this and other conflicts, so that we can bring the fullest pictures possible of their views, motivations and the information they can provide about what is happening.
How do you explain that the US President Barack Obama let the French President François Hollande down on attacking Al-Assad after chemical bombings in 2013 ?
Obama had campaigned on his record of opposing the war in Iraq. He was wary, understandably, of entering any conflict in the Middle East. When Russia proposed having Assad give up his CW, Obama jumped at the chance. This is a tiny thumbnail summary of the politics and logistics of what happened, you can read all the details in our past coverage. Ultimately the Syrian government read the deal as a green light to use all other weapons as long as they are not chemical. But occasional chlorine attacks continued - chlorine is not a bannned chemical but its use as a weapon is banned. Later it turned out they had not gotten rid of all the banned sarin toxin and it was used again in Khan Sheikhoun in 2017.
Is this the same war on terrorism that dates back to 9:11/2001?
Great question, wish I had time to address but I talked about this here:
Do you expect this story to have an impact within Syria, or was the general scope and nature of these prisons already known there?
it is known, but it matters to people to have their experience reported and reflected to the broader world, and exposure can always help even if sometime in the future, to address some of the injustices or at least keep them in the historical record.
In your article, you write:
In recent months, Syria’s government has tacitly acknowledged that hundreds of people have died in detention. Under pressure from Moscow, Damascus has confirmed the deaths of at least several hundred people in custody by issuing death certificates or listing them as dead in family registration files. The Syrian Network’s founder, Fadel Abdul Ghany, said the move sent citizens a clear message: “We won, we did this, and no one will punish us.”
This paragraph seems to suggest two motives for the official acknowledgement of the deaths of many in custody, namely, that it demonstrated their victory and strength, and that Moscow pressured them to do so. I'm wondering why Moscow would have pressured them to do so? And then on top of that, I'd also like to hear your thoughts on the current relationship between the U. S. and Russia insofar as Syria is concerned.
Moscow would pressure them to do so in order to say that the "detainee file" is, in one way or another, closed. But arrests are still happening and tens of thousands of people are still unaccounted for.
How is the everyday life of an average citizen affected by this system? Does it encourage insurgency to the locals or the opposite?
On one hand, before the uprising a Syrian who kept their head down and was very careful not to cross any political red lines could hope to never come in contact with this system. But even then there was no guarantee - a mixed-up name, a false report made by a jealous acquaintance, and you could be landed in interrogation or even imprisonment. After the uprising, the risk of being sucked into the system even when you engaged in no political activities became much greater. Checkpoints were set up all over the country and people from a town considered to be rebellious, or driving into Damascus on a day when a protest was expected, could find themselves detained. The threat of the violence of the prison system even in the background, though, bolsters many other day to day difficulties: Anyone with a connection to the security services, for instance, can demand bribes, with the unspoken threat that they can have you detained. These problems have all worsened of course with the current conflict. Millions of people have a relative who has been detained; 127,000 people are still missing inside and hundreds of thousands are believed to have passed through the jails since 2011.
Ever write any articles about Guantanamo Bay?
The NYT has written many articles on the violations there and the damage the system there has done to US civil liberties and international standing.
In your opinion are these camps better or worse than Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay?
I am not defending human rights violations in those places whatsoever. However the Syrian detention system is much, much, much bigger and (secondarily) is a case of a government directing such violence and abuse against its own people.
In Brooklyn, you mean? I did live in Lebanon for the past six years, and it is definitely not the world's most dangerous country. The most dangerous place that I have lived full time was in Baghdad from 2003-5. That was grueling and stressful not just because of the work of covering war but because of the constant stress of knowing we were not only subject to random violence but could be specifically targeted as journalists for kidnapping in those days, and that we were putting our Iraqi staff at risk as well. But it was also wonderful to be able to witness what was happening in Iraq first hand, hold the US government and others to account, and get to know the country, which I love.
How difficult is it to be in this particular position as a blonde female? Ever been threatened based on that demographic?
Seeing as torture is the norm in a lot of Islamic countries run under Shariah, how is this relevant at this time? Its like stating the sky is blue or water is wet. We get it, Shariah law &/or secular Arab dictatorships are scary, is there anything else to add that is new information?
This isn't about Islamic law; Syria is officially a secular state. Nor is it about Arab dictatorships writ large. The story in Syria is relevant because at this moment in time, the Assad government has used these massive violations of human rights to put down a movement for reform and democracy and has shown other leaders around the world, Arab or not, that such methods can be used with impunity. Russia is seeking to persuade the West to normalize relations with Damascus (as some Arab and other states are already doing) and finance billions of dollars of reconstruction even without reforms, arguing that this will convince 5 million refugees to go home -- but many won't if they fear being sucked into this prison system. Finally, it is relevant because of the hundreds of thousands of human beings who have been through it, the 128,000 still missing inside, and their millions of family members.
Worst story of torture you heard about?
It's impossible to choose. Read many examples in the story linked above. Some other things that stick with me: a prisoner locked up alone with a decaying corpse for so long that he hallucinated that it was talking to him. Detainees hung for hours by one arm from a hook in a meat truck as it traveled over bumpy roads. An interrogator pausing while torturing a prisoner to speak tenderly on a cellphone to a young child. A teenager dying slowly, racked by pain and infections, after guards doused his torso with fuel and set him alight. A lawyer forced to eat his own feces.
How many intelligence operatives do you have in your office? How many intelligence operatives are your primary sources/help you identify primary sources?
What are your qualifications and how'd you manage to land a job at New York times?
My bio from CFR https://www.cfr.org/expert/anne-e-barnard
Anne Barnard, a New York Times journalist, led coverage of the Syria war for six years, reporting from across the Middle East as Beirut bureau chief. Since 9/11, she has chronicled the human and strategic impact of U.S. war policies on frontline areas from Iraq to Syria and Gaza.
Barnard has worked from the Middle East intermittently since 2003, beginning as bureau chief for the Boston Globe in Baghdad, where she documented the American invasion and occupation of Iraq and its impact across the region.
A proficient Russian speaker, Barnard began her career in journalism twenty-five years ago, reporting on the tumult of post-Soviet Russia. She then covered local news for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Boston Globe. After 9/11, she was dispatched to New York, then to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and beyond. She joined the New York Times metro desk in 2007 and moved back to the Middle East in 2012.
Barnard has won several journalism prizes, including the Columbia Journalism School’s Meyer Berger Award, for a series on the impact of the 2010 earthquake on New York’s Haitian diaspora. She has been awarded a Pew Fellowship in International Journalism at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the Ochberg fellowship from the Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.
Your story mentions that the Syrian government finally issued death certificates for a few hundred people under pressure from Moscow. In the current situation, does Russia have the best leverage over Assad? Is there any agitation at all from that side to reign in this torture system?
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