Covering the ground in Iraq and Syria: A reporter's journey

Covering the ground in Iraq and Syria: A reporter's journey
Book Review: Jonathan Spyer's book is a necessary assessment, and a testament to the author's willingness to risk capture, or worse, while covering the ground writes James Snell.
6 min read
05 Mar, 2018
Spyer chronicles the brute reality of violence in Iraq and Syria [AFP]
As the violence of the Syrian civil war increased, and as the Islamic State group (IS) crossed the Iraqi border, it was clear that the wars in these two countries would become the essential conflict of our times.

Very quickly, the military campaign against IS became the focus of world attention. And as that campaign reached its final stages in Iraq, many of the world's finest conflict journalists - complete with a fair few chancers and opportunists - hurried to Mesopotamia to witness the end of something.

This collective witnessed the grinding Mosul campaign which took back IS' self-declared Iraqi capital. The city was, for a short time, the centre of the world for news media. When the battle was won, and eventually, when Iraq's prime minister Haider al-Abadi declared IS defeated, many of those who had observed that campaign left the country.

Iraq's moment in the spotlight did not eclipse the war in Syria. It rumbled on in the background, with IS fought and pushed out of major urban centres, and civilian casualties growing in number as the civil war continued.

But the fact that Iraq's government never attempted to keep reporters out nor kill journalists (neither of which can be said about the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad) meant that the conflict in Syria was less covered by western press.

The journalists who ventured into Syria did so at real risk.

Some of their colleagues were killed - by the regime, by IS, by myriad groups. Jonathan Spyer, a British-Israeli journalist and analyst, begins his book, Days of the Fall, with the deaths of two such men.

It affords insight not only into the way wars like this are fought, but also into how those covering these conflicts feel

One of them, Abdullah al-Yassin, a Syrian rebel activist, was killed not by a particular armed faction but in "some dispute with semi-criminal elements in the city" of Aleppo. It is an ignominious end for a man portrayed as a "sort of poet-warrior".

Another journalist, Steven Sotloff, the man who maintained that description of Yassin, had been known to Spyer for longer. They had met in Herzliya, in Israel, years before. The acquaintance between Syper and Sotloff was not deep and Spyer does not make it more than it was. But he notes Sotloff's captivity at the hands of IS and marks Sotloff's death.

When Sotloff was rumoured to have been killed, shortly after the world was made aware of his being held by IS, Spyer was in a bar in Jerusalem with a friend. The friend broke the news. "'Sotloff's dead', he mouthed to me after taking a call while we were having dinner. We stayed and smoked and drank arak until late in the night."

Spyer chronicles the brute reality of violence.

Aleppo in later 2012 "was a close approximation of hell". During the battle for Kobani, fought by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and IS, Spyer reported from Tell Abyad. Because of the ferocity of the battle, the corpses of IS fighters were not collected, and lay, in "strange dark-coloured piles", where they had fallen between the two frontlines. 

Years later, driving down a highway between al-Hawl and Qamishli, Spyer and his companions came across a group of corpses. They belonged to IS fighters, "strewn in various parts across the flat, sandy ground". Spyer notes "one livid remaining face", belonging to a young man.

Of the rest of his body, half was in evidence. "The rest had been vaporised or was to be found among the black, roasted clumps spread around" - the men were "blown apart by the shocking and astonishing destructive power of a charge fired from a fighter aircraft".

This is not an attempt to convey colour through the inclusion of grotesque detail. Instead, it affords insight not only into the way wars like this are fought - from the air, with immense, overwhelming force - but also into how those covering these conflicts feel.

"We joked a little about the dead jihadi." But humour could not hide the unease of those present. "What we really felt", Spyer writes, "was a sense of dread, even of wonder".

While reporting on this conflict, Spyer was not, as he notes in his introduction, new to war. He had fought, in 2006, in Lebanon with the Israeli army. He reported on or otherwise observed wars in "Iraq, Turkey, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Ukraine". With that history, Spyer might be expected to shrug violence off, but he is open about his emotions.

Spyer is also open about his partiality.

Spyer's book is a useful immediate assessment of the two-headed conflict in Iraq and Syria

As a reporter he is free to look more fondly on some groups than others. But he must be careful when doing so.

And, as a reader, one must note the tone of voice in which this is communicated. Spyer admires the Kurdish achievement. For him, Rojava, despite its "democratic confederalism", with which he does not agree, is "an island of sanity".

In his estimation, it is "the most peaceful and least oppressive area of poor, blighted Syria". The pitying tone the end of that sentence takes is perhaps warranted, given the horrors much of the book describes. But it grates, just a little.

Spyer notes that in the formation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), nominally a multi-ethnic coalition of partner militias, the United States entered into de facto alliance with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

He records that the PKK is an internationally-designated terrorist group, and that this alliance of convenience caused the Americans trouble. But he maintains, against sizable evidence, that this trouble is "related less to the PKK's actual activities and more to the sensitivities of Turkey".

Read more: Book review: Gaza: An inquest into its martyrdom

This partiality colours most assessments of the YPG, SDF and related organisations. It can be detected in the portrayal of the smaller SDF militias. "Sanadid fighters [from the Shammar tribe] had a certain dash about them which the Kurds lacked", Spyer writes.

"They struck dramatic poses… wielding their strap-less Kalashnikovs like movie props". Kurdish fighters, Spyer notes, "were privately critical and also amused by the antics of the Sanadid, who they regarded as lacking in discipline and seriousness".

Spyer's book is a useful immediate assessment of the two-headed conflict in Iraq and Syria, but his writing on the Syrian war does not match the prose of others.

Janine di Giovanni's bookThe Morning They Came for Us, for example, is more impressionistic and self-consciously literary. But Spyer's work is a necessary assessment of a brutal conflict, and a testament to the author's willingness to risk capture or worse in the course of covering the ground.

James Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous international publications including The TelegraphProspectNational ReviewNOW NewsMiddle East Eye and History Today.

Follow him on Twitter: @James_P_Snell

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.