Dr Paul Vallet: Welcome to the Geneva Centre for Security Policy podcast. I'm your host, Dr Paul Vallet, Associate Fellow with the GCSP’s Global Fellowship Initiative. For the next 11 weeks, I'll be talking with subject matter experts, explaining issues regarding peace, security and international cooperation. Thank you for tuning in! This week marks the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the uprising in Syria against the regime of Bashar Al Assad, in what was Syria’s part of what was then called the Arab Spring. The results of that spring have been varied in countries across the Middle East North Africa region. In Syria, Libya and Yemen, a civil war emerged from these initial uprisings in 2011, which, despite the varying levels of foreign involvement, have not died down. In terms of casualties and displaced people, Syria’s perhaps among the most complex one that is most edged on international conscience, especially when seeing from Europe. But how is it that the war is being perceived on the outside? How can the story be told when it has been so dangerous for journalists to cover it? To get an idea today, we're talking with Kenneth R. Rosen, who has recently joined to become a digital fellow for the GCSP Global Fellowship Initiative. Kenneth R. Rosen is an award-winning foreign news correspondent, who reports especially from the Middle East for numerous publications, among which the New York Times New Yorker magazine, The Atlantic, VQR, and now Wired. His work has been translated into Arabic, Spanish, German, and Japanese, and he's the author of two books. This is a great favour in joining us from the region in the Middle East. So welcome to the podcast, Ken.
Mr Kenneth R. Rosen: Paul, thanks for having me.
Dr Paul Vallet: You're most welcome. Well, my first question to you, of course, has to do with a bit of your work experience, but probably those of your fellows as well. Can you tell us what has been the experience and the role of foreign correspondents and reporting about the war in Syria?
Mr Kenneth R. Rosen: Sure, the former press corps is given a lot of access to campaigns and military movements and a lot of the upper political parties who are tied into the region and also into these conflicts writ large. If I if I can just go back a little bit in history, you know, the First World War in the Second World War, foreign correspondents on both sides were granted unprecedented access. I mean, you had AP and Reuters correspondents who were embedded with German troops. And there was a lot of transparency on either side there. And I'd like to mention that only because while we do have access to say the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria or the Peshmerga, in northern Iraq, where I am calling you from today, it's just not the same as it was many years ago, even as even as recent as the invasion of Iraq with US forces, a lot of American media, we're able to embed with the forces and see upfront up close the multiple sides of the conflict. But now it's a little bit more restrained. There's more vetting going on between who's allowed in to report on different campaigns or different situations, such as the internally displaced people's camps within north-eastern Syria, you certainly can't report from regime controlled areas, and it's very difficult to report from Turkish-backed opposition controlled areas. There was a recent report in the New York Times when a correspondent and several other agencies were granted access to the Turkish areas. But generally speaking, it's very difficult. And when you are granted access, you're followed by miner and taken only to areas that are of interest to government agenda. So it's a lot of narratives are coming out of the region. And there are a lot of journalists who are doing really great work. And it's important work. But it's very limited given the situation and the types of parties who are involved with the conflict. You have Russia, you have Iran, you have northern Iraq, you had the autonomous administration in north-eastern Syria, you have the regime controlled areas of the government of Syria in the West. And then of course, you have the Turkish forces up in the north. So there's so many different players nowadays that it makes it very difficult to really garner a full perspective. And then lastly, just want to note that while we are granted access to as much as we can, there are so many news outlets and media outlets and blogs and podcasts and radio stations that are trying to get access to these areas that it sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish yourself from maybe the chaff right to be able to say that you are part of an organization that is able to disseminate the information and stories about these people more widely than say, a smaller outlet would so there are discerning factors among parties who are allowing people and journalists into these regions to cover the much needed ongoing conflict.
Dr Paul Vallet: Oh, yes. And of course, journalists have also been among the casualties in the past few years in terms of doing this really difficult job, but thank you for giving us an insight on that. And so precisely what I was going to ask you next is how is the Syrian conflict being perceived by the outside audiences? This may have changed I'm a little bit over time. And is reporting on it, you feel, still providing some help towards conflict resolution?
Mr Kenneth R. Rosen: I don't believe there to be a real resolution in sight for the country, broadly speaking. So I'm not sure what the reporting is doing. As far as helping that narrative for it. Obviously, foreign interests have their own objectives and ideas of how the conflict ends. But as reporters were tasked with maintaining those updates in the public eye, and continuing to file dispatches that sort of helped people understand the situation as it unravels. But, most American audiences, which is who I write for, aren't receptive to the idea of the Syria conflict anymore, or reading about it, or hearing about American involvement there in the northeast, specifically. In large part because they're sort of inundated with these forever wars and tired of hearing about American casualties tired about hearing about American investment overseas in something that seems like a dead end. So it's really tough to come up with stories that I think will engage a readership that has become, over time, exhausted with these stories of more troops in a region when they don't understand the conflict and the nuances, or fewer troops in a region but more development projects in something that seems like a lost cause. So it's tough from a writer and a journalist perspective, to keep the interest of a reader who has been, for the past 10 years, reading about a conflict that doesn't seem to end. And I think that's true of most awards, just because there isn’t really a clear-cut black and white frontline or objective. ISIS was maybe something different insofar as we understood who the enemy was: we could see them be diminished over time, and understand that victory was in sight based on the reach of their caliphate. But ever since then, the government forces in Syria, the regime versus Russia versus Iran versus America versus Turkey, all these different parties, and factions make it very convoluted and very difficult to follow. So I think, coming up with stories that are interesting are the most important things when considering what to write about from the region as a journalist, as a storyteller. And those stories aren't easy to come by, because they do maintain these continually diluted and convoluted political parties, and aspects, factions, and people who are switching sides, left and right. We saw America withdraw very quickly, and then come back into the fold. So it's tiresome for a casual reader. But I have hoped that if journalists continued to make their way out there and continue to publish stories on the region, and doing the best they can to get a full bodied picture of what's happening, then, one day, hopefully soon, the general public will see the benefit of maintaining our footprint and interest in the region.
Dr Paul Vallet: Indeed, as you point out, it sometimes seems hard to believe that this conflict has been going on for 10 years. And with a smaller side, it reminds me of the history project that I followed some time ago. We were introduced to, at the GCSP, to some historians who were trying to draw some analogies between current conflicts and past ones. And the Syrian conflict, some three or four years ago or so, already attracted the attention of specialists who were comparing it to the 30 Years War. So that to me, European history is already something that is, of course extremely convoluted and complicated for a readership to follow. So, indeed, what you're saying about the difficulty of reporting on this particular conflict. The more it drags on, the more delicate is the need keep the readerships attention on this.
Mr Kenneth R. Rosen: Right. And I think on the onset of a conflict you have a very clear vision of what the problem is, right? The civilized population want to rise up against a more or less authoritarian rule and wanted to replace him. Very simple, clear cut, in my view. And then, over the years, different parties got involved, operation pre peace spring brought turkey in, and then affected the US partner in north-eastern Syria. And it just gets more and more complicated as the years go on. So I think in the initial stages, it's easy to support an effort that seems clear cut with a certain objective. But as that time goes on, things get more and more complex and more and more complicated, and now it's just a geopolitical nightmare.
Dr Paul Vallet: And indeed, here in Geneva, we were also, at some stages, the setting for some of the attempts at conflict resolution. And over the years, we saw, not only the parties involved, but the narratives stemming from these parties become more and more complicated to resolve in that respect.
Mr Kenneth R. Rosen: Right. And resolution 2254 which you're referring to in Geneva is probably on hold for the next several months, at least until the Syrian elections. We have a change-over in the US administration and it isn't necessarily a priority for the Biden administration to focus on Syria and the Middle East. Although, there have been people put in place in the administration who have a keen interest in Syria and Iraq and have been working in the region for a while. So things are certainly ongoing. We're not really certain we'll see any movement here toward a finite resolution for many more months.
Dr Paul Vallet: To return to the issue of the narrative construction, and you did touch on that in your first answers too. It was very interesting to hear whether from the point of view of correspondents like yourself, who has spent a substantial experience of the area, you've also put the time together to think about whether you've learned any lessons in terms of what it's like to cover a conflict such as this, and how that compares to the experience of the reporting that we've known in other wars in recent times? Some of these conflicts that are stated a little bit like landmarks in terms of a war reporting: we all hear about Vietnam being the first televised war and the first Gulf War of 1991 - also an anniversary year - which was a one of the first permanent cable news broadcasts covered war. So what do you think about this one?
Mr Kenneth R. Rosen: I suppose you could say the Arab Spring was prefaced on a rise in social media use, so I would say that, perhaps these conflicts are really social media conflicts. That is to say that, a lot of the information being disseminated by some of the leaders of the different militias and the different parties involved is heavily through social media. Second, I would also note that a lot of the people that I've worked with and seen out in the field, as far as reporters and journalists go are genuinely freelance journalists, independent journalists, who are filing stories to magazines, and newspapers, and web outlets, who aren't anything more than a contractor. So there's really this network of freelancers, and independent writers and journalists who are doing all this hard work on their own and hustling without the necessary backing and support of an organization, as you would see with someone who was a bureau chief for a newspaper or a full-time magazine. And I think that's really been a revelation to me to know that there are so many young people who are doing all this really great work and putting the time and effort and sacrifice in both their personal and professional lives in order to bring these stories to fore. And that's really opened my eyes, because I never really understood how the mechanics of something like that worked until more recently, when I spent a lot of time on the ground. And I can't really compare it to other conflicts, because I haven't covered them myself, certainly not the Vietnam War. But yeah, it seems to me like most of the really good reporting I've seen is not only just the people who are bureau chiefs, or staff reporters or staff writers, but very young postgraduates who are fronting the bill themselves to get out here and ask the hard questions and do the necessary work to bring these stories out. And then lastly, I just want to note that the things that I've learned over the last, I guess, almost five years of covering the region has been that I know nothing. I know absolutely nothing. Every time I learned something new is different, or I didn't learn specifically that one party enough to come back into the situation with a better understanding of it than when I left before. Everything's always changing, everything's very complex. So I try to do my best to come in as blind as possible. So I'm open and receptive to new ideas and new people, and new developments in the region. Which also is sort of part of my comfort plan is, as long as I maintain a personal level of comfort and take care of myself physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and keep in a good physical space that I end up doing better work, rather than worrying too much about who I'm with or who I'm around. I guess more on a fundamental level. That just means that I travel with, my own medicine, I travel with extra recorders, extra batteries, I make sure that nothing can go wrong and lead me down a path of worry or estrangement and that I can just focus on the work. That's something that I didn't necessarily do in the beginning. But now I've come with my own little personal kit, my little personal happy kit to make sure that I can come out and focus on the work and not worry too much about my health or the health of my fixers or translators, who I oftentimes supply with hand sanitizer or, you know, Advil or Tylenol and all, or a little snack bar that I carry with me. All these little things help, these little precious gems of comfort.
Dr Paul Vallet: Well, this is quite fascinating to listen to you. Also mentioning the fact that, of course, so many very young people are improvising themselves as freelance correspondents. And in some ways, it may provide them with, I think, a lot more flexibility in terms of the use of the kinds of technologies that they need to be able to put their reporting across too. But as you're saying, you know, there's also of course, some risks in that autonomy in that you are left on your own and dependent on issues and health wise, that can be, of course, quite tragic. I think it was the case of Anthony Shade for the New York Times.
Mr Kenneth R. Rosen: Right, right. That was many years ago. And I think it was something from an asthma attack, based on who was riding a horse at the time over the border with Syria. Tragic, absolutely tragic. To the point about the youth and the sort of independent contractors and freelance journalists who are working in the region. It is extra difficult for them, though, because they also don't have the necessary credentials, when presenting to officials to get the proper permissions to go to a certain area or to visit with someone high ranking, or even enter internally displaced persons camp. And there have been efforts in recent years to form networks and agencies who can vouch for the legitimacy of these young correspondents who aren't necessarily tied to a magazine or a publication. And I've seen that becoming more and more important to the work of freelancers. Freelancers who need press cards, freelancers who need letters of accreditation, there's good work being done with the frontline freelance register. There's another organization that I'm blanking on at the moment, but they're pulling together a culture of safety as another organization, and they're pulling together a lot of resources that are helping people operate in these conflict zones. And I think that the more support that young journalists and independent freelancers can get, the better reporting we'll see and the more clear-eyed sober pictures we’ll see coming out of it.
Dr Paul Vallet: Well, I was also considering the incredible effort that you and these younger colleagues are going through to indeed keep this narrative in the public eye and in the public conscience. And, given the fact that we're also of course, living in a world shifting technologies, and the way the way of filing stories is becoming much more dependent of a social media coverage type. And I was wondering whether, in your experience, the day to day reporting of the conflicts: that sort social media coverings considered to have more potential impact on audiences? If you're finding more and more stories and doing it in short, regular, almost daily clips? Or would a longer piece reporting, such as materials that you might write for a long article, or for one of your books, would have more of an impact in terms of raising public comprehension of what you're talking about?
Mr Kenneth R. Rosen: I think long-form magazine articles are key to help people understand these very complex situations, only because of the breadth in latitude given to the writers to spell out all the different elements of an ongoing conflict. You know, you get ten thousand, fifteen thousand, thirty thousand words to be able to explain a situation or hyper focus on one aspect of something. It gives people a fuller bodied understanding of the different components. I think daily news has, of course, an inherent value and it informs these longer pieces, no doubt. I'm wondering also if those daily pieces lend to the sort of exasperation of the general readership. As far as books go, I wonder if those aren't necessarily being sought-out unless someone is already keen or interested in the subject matter itself. I know myself personally, I primarily write magazine articles now. And those are, for me a better way to understand the subject because I have more room to delve into a subject and not have to worry about explaining things very briefly and then glossing over other aspects, or cantons or militia groups, or their structure and how they play into the whole thing. But I'm not really sure how general readership I mean, you know, I publish things often, send them out into the world, and never hear back from anyone. So if anyone you know is reading and wants to send me a note: let me know if it's if it's working or if they'd prefer something shorter. I'd appreciate it, of course, to know what people’s reading habits are these days. I've heard both lines of thought: short is better, long is better. I guess it's also a personal preference.
Dr Paul Vallet: Yeah, well, I think, speaking from personal experience, my own research, I found that over the past years, reading about current issues in long-form articles (and in some magazines) are often indeed sources of incredible insight. So that's perhaps the historian in me speaking. In this matter, I certainly consider them to be quite informative, and often thought provoking for this matter.
Mr Kenneth R. Rosen: I think some of the best books and the most vivid reporting are the longer pieces. And they receive a high level of attention. In part because there's stories and people can relate to storytelling. And the better the storytelling, the more compelling it is, the more likely it is to engage in a reader who might not otherwise be interested in Syria, who might not otherwise be interested in the Kurdish diaspora or how they're faring in the autonomous administration of north-eastern Syria. All these things play a part in how we develop a story and an idea to engage someone who might not otherwise wish to be engaged with it. And I think, as someone who tries to write those stories, I struggle a lot to divorce myself from what I know, to be able to present it in a way that is both engaging and informative. But as you said, if historians are reading it, and taking from it, you know, good tidbits of information that they hadn't thought of, then all the better. We're heading to two birds with a single stone.
Dr Paul Vallet: Well, I think that's sort of a wonderful note to end on. And let's hope that indeed your work, and those of others, is really going to keep this story in the in the limelight. Because sadly, as you pointed out, we're so far from the conflict resolution in this issue. So thank you very much for joining us today to mark a little bit of this anniversary. So that's all we're going to have for today's episode. Please listen to us again next week to hear about the latest insights on international peace and security. Don't forget, you can subscribe to us on anchor FM, Apple iTunes, or follow us on Spotify and on SoundCloud. I'm Paul Vallet with the Geneva Centre for security policy. Until next time, bye for now.