On Syria Analysts and “Experts” Who Have Never Stepped Foot Inside the Country

https://levantreport.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/phot0001.jpgNot an “expert” or “analyst”: Me (left) with my buddy on one of many visits to Maaloula.

Would you be surprised to learn the think-tank and media “expert” community is often dominated by people who have never stepped foot in the countries of their expertise?

I’VE BECOME INCREASINGLY ALARMED at the number of “experts” and professional analysts occupying influential positions in the public sphere, who supposedly help interpret Syria for us, but who have little actual experience (if any at all) in Syria. Add to that the fact that many of these very “experts” don’t speak Arabic (which should be the minimal requirement for being considered a Middle East expert or professional analyst), which for most respectable postgraduate Middle East studies programs is an absolute minimal qualification.

I myself would never claim to be an expert, but I do have something which I’m constantly surprised to learn that many of the foremost pundits and public experts lack: a significant amount of time spent in country.

A couple of years ago my colleagues and I began writing about Syria not necessarily because we were enthused to do so or had a lot of time on our hands (we all have busy teaching schedules), but because the narrative which dominated major media and other public forums was so atrocious, so full of very simple errors, that audible laughs would often result upon us hearing the reporter on the TV screen (whether this was a FOX, CNN, NBC reporter, etc…) offer up utter falsehoods alongside whatever think tank panelist happened to be there giving the lies “credibility” and air of authenticity (ex: “the Syrian regime is Shia” is something heard a lot back then.)

We would see deeply flawed “news” about events on this or that street inside this or that village in Syria and felt compelled to at least vent our frustration through writing articles which few might ever see. Our “expertise” was not bookish or necessarily based on formal credentials, but we simply tried to “write what we know” from having stood on “this or that street” many times or having lived in “this or that village” at some point a few summers prior.

For example, my colleague Dr. Tim Heckenlively one day saw one of Anne Barnard’s (Beirut bureau chief for the NY Times) standard propaganda pieces in “the paper of record” on the Battle of Maaloula and knew it to be false based simply on having physically stood in the town. At first we waited and figured that surely somebody working for a major newsroom who had been to Maaloula, and knew the topography there, would point out Barnard’s glaring errors concerning the source of the shelling and destruction of churches. Surely somebody out there personally knew Mother Pelagia Sayyaf (who had been held at gunpoint by rebels, and forced to make a propaganda video) and understood she was being paraded in front of the camera under duress (Barnard and others would promote the narrative that the FSA/Nusra forces were “liberating” the ancient Christian town).

But a much needed corrective never appeared outside of independent media. Tim knew Maaloula and Mother Pelagia quite well and was easily able to deconstruct Barnard’s false report (which she wrote far from Maaloula in Beirut). While Tim’s article never made it into papers or onto big news sites, it was promoted and appreciated by some true experts who’ve actually been to Maaloula (and ironically, the article was “favorited” by Barnard herself; it should further be noted that, as As’ad AbuKhalil routinely points out, Barnard doesn’t know Arabic). This case of Maaloula is but an old example of something I’ve seen play out many times since then.

Stephen Kinzer made waves recently for his article “The Media are Misleading the Public on Syria” published in The Boston Globe. Its brilliance lies in articulating how the media and experts keep getting Syria so wrong from a “media culture” perspective (for lack of a better term). Kinzer breaks down the corporate media “machinery” and its process which continues to ensure that bad analysis makes it to the top:

Under intense financial pressure, most American newspapers, magazines, and broadcast networks have drastically reduced their corps of foreign correspondents. Much important news about the world now comes from reporters based in Washington. In that environment, access and credibility depend on acceptance of official paradigms. Reporters who cover Syria check with the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House, and think tank “experts.” After a spin on that soiled carousel, they feel they have covered all sides of the story. This form of stenography produces the pabulum that passes for news about Syria.

Yes, this means you too can be considered a Middle East “expert” so long as you get the right internship in the right DC beltway or NYC newsroom or think-tank. Forget about the days of getting your start trekking around the region of your expertise, getting to know the people, language, and customs…you can even become a media darling from the comfort of your own couch without ever having to apply for a passport!

Kinzer’s article has struck a deep chord (esp. as it was published in a visible, major paper) with biting lines like these:

Americans are said to be ignorant of the world. We are, but so are people in other countries. If people in Bhutan or Bolivia misunderstand Syria, however, that has no real effect. Our ignorance is more dangerous, because we act on it.

Kinzer is shining a spotlight on this whole sham enterprise from the perspective of a veteran foreign correspondent who has spent decades inside the media establishment (he himself is not claiming to be an expert on Syria, but he is an expert on the ills of newsroom culture). The whole process whereby a certain orthodox view of a foreign conflict gets entrenched, and from that point on must remain unquestioned, is indeed dangerous. As I wrote before: “American assumptions never line up with Eastern realities, yet our power combined with ignorance continues to sow disaster.”

Ironically, Kinzer’s point about reporters/analysts “not being over there” and the ignorance that results was given confirmation in the example of the very first person to attempt a point-by-point critical attack of Kinzer’s article. UK-based Kyle Orton wrote his “Assad and the Academics: Disinformation in the Modern Era” as a direct response to Kinzer.

Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprising), Orton has been published and quoted widely in multiple international and mainstream outlets. He recently had a New York Times op-ed piece called “How Saddam Hussein Gave Us ISIS” (which also ran in the print edition), wherein he argues that U.S. intervention and occupation in Iraq had little if anything to do with the rise of ISIS (elsewhere he’s argued the “Assad behind ISIS” conspiracy theory, long ago debunked by real experts).

Orton’s NYT bio is nice and official sounding: “Kyle W. Orton, a Middle East analyst, is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based foreign policy think tank.”  But a rebuttal of Orton’s NYT piece written in Foreign Policy has it right when it leaves him simply as “blogger Kyle W. Orton.” The FP article authors Samuel Helfont and Michael Brill used their knowledge of…ya know…Arabic to analyze Iraqi archives and quickly proved Orton’s claims to be baseless:

These depictions are inaccurate and dangerously misleading, as documents in the Iraqi archives and at Hoover Institution’s Ba’ath Party records make clear. Our rigorous study of those records has found no evidence that Saddam or his Baathist regime in Iraq displayed any sympathy for Islamism, Salafism, or Wahhabism.

I too was at first under the impression that Orton must have some level of serious training or knowledge of Syria or Iraq until I realized he’s stepped foot in neither country (which he in so many words admitted to me directly).

Orton’s own bio on his blog includes the following: “After a misbegotten degree in zoology (biology), I completed a social science Masters in Humanitarian Studies at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine…”. Little more needs to be said, other than the good news for anyone with aspirations of being published in the New York Times: at present they must be desperate for contributors, or at least writers that can tow the line. Again, one need not leave their couch.

I admit that finding in Orton a prime example of Stephen Kinzer’s fundamental point is perhaps going after “low hanging fruit” but I’ve encountered this too many times in Syria discussions (though the most absurd case confirming Kinzer’s article is “Rocket Man” Elliot Higgins…and yes the following are real sentences about him written in The New Yorker, not The Onion: “Although Higgins has never been to Syria, and until recently had no connection to the country, he has become perhaps the foremost expert on the munitions used in the war… When he doesn’t recognize a weapon, he researches it, soliciting information from his many followers on Facebook and Twitter.”).

I’ll leave off with the below exchange I had with Orton, wherein I realized that he was making simple mistakes for lack of direct experience that would be impossible to make for even the casual backpackers who used to fill up the youth hostels of Damascus back in better days. Anyone who has spent even as little as a week in Syria anytime in the past decade (or more) knows of a certain long-standing custom of the Syrian presidency on all major religious holidays like Christmas and Easter.

When I realized Orton’s confusion came from never having stepped foot in Syria, I said: “[You] Would know this if you had experienced Syria”…Orton of course changed the subject. And nothing more needs to be said.



Maaloula Burns

The following video appeared on YouTube December 3rd. It is a compilation of images from the fall of Maaloula compiled by pro-regime activists. Most of the camera angles suggest (and the obscured logos in the left corner) suggest that these images were taken by anti-regime fighters to glorify and document their “success”. The lyrics to the accompanying song have a simple repeating theme: Lord, I implore you, give peace to my country!

Islamists Abduct Nuns in Maaloula

**NOTE: This video is supplied only for the sake of its current visuals (posted yesterday, 12-2). Neither I nor LevantReport endorse the specific military or political views expressed therein.**

Yesterday I raised concerns about early reports from the renewed combat in Maaloula. Sadly, confirmation of those initial reports has begun to emerge in today’s news cycle. Based on interviews with the Vatican’s ambassador to Syria, The Daily Star is confirming that up to 12 nuns  have been abducted from the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. Thekla and relocated, most likely to the village of Yabroud (about 30-45 min NW). AsiaNews adds some additional details of unstated source. Given that the Catholic Patriarchate is located less than half a mile from the Orthodox Patriarchate on the same street, there is a high probability that this statement came from credible information shared between the two churches.

The Daily Star article also cites claims by opposition forces that they entered the convent merely to protect the nuns from the hostile Assad regime. Given al-Nusra’s history of violence against Christians and the fact that they rained explosive-filled tires down on the village, this claim is patently absurd, especially given that Assad has a history supporting the Monastery and making personal visits. Most of the English-language news so far has ignored the preposterous element of rebel claims, but nevertheless taken then at their word that the nuns are still present at the Monastery, preferring to label them as hostages  (cf. Bloomberg, Reuters, AP via Fox). Given the degree to which the western press agencies trust the pro-opposition activist Rami Abdulrahman, a.k.a. the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, for their information, it is possible that they are taking his agnostic approach to the initial conflict reports. Certainly they have copied his analysis, repeating that the assault is strategic, based on the need to control a major N-S freeway near the village. Had they bothered to check a map, they might have noticed that the village is separated from the freeway by a good 7 miles of winding, dusty road and that another village, Ayn At-Tina, stands far closer. Another 8 miles SW (though at a much lower, less strategic elevation), Qutayfeh lies directly adjacent to the freeway.

Breaking News: Islamists Re-enter Maaloula

Maaloula, Syria: view of the St. Thecla monastery from the top of the rock. In the cove above the monastery there is a shrine of St. Thecla. This file is licensed to Wikimedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Earlier today The Daily Star (a Lebanese paper) was one of the first English sources to break the news. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights copied and pasted their work (changing only the spelling of the village) and the story is now beginning to get wider media exposure at AP, NPR, and elsewhere. The derivative stories focus more on the greater context of the battle to control the Qalamoun Mountains, which are strategic to supply lines for both sides.

Sadly, this means that initial reports of a great tragedy are passing in silence. Multiple Arabic Facebook pages are reporting that the Islamists have seized control of St. Thekla’s Monastery and have kidnapped the nuns and the soldiers who were guarding them. Reports claiming to come from foot soldiers stationed in Maaloula indicate that the opposition forces are destroying the convent. All indications are that the girls from the Monastery orphanage and the younger nuns under 60 were relocated to a safer location before the latest outbreak of violence. The Mother Superior and the older nuns chose to stay and there whereabouts not certain. Those whom I have been able to contact in Syria fear the worst.

I point out in full candor that my information is fragmentary and hearsay. That is the nature of information from an active war zone. That said, I would rather express  watchful – and perhaps on some points, overly hasty – concern than wait for a media cycle dominated by football and consumerism to turn its attention to the fate a few pious elderly women who stood their ground against al-Qaeda in one of Christianity’s oldest and most venerable monasteries.

Saidnaya: another Maaloula in the making?

Convent of Our Lady of Saidnaya 01

It appears that the Islamist opposition forces who wrecked havoc in Maaloula may be preparing for a similar assault on the equally important Christian village of Saidnaya. On Oct. 1, Fides (a site of the Vatican news network) reported that raids were now commonplace and that one man was dead after clashes the previous day.  The “committee” mentioned in the article is a local militia comprised of citizens from the village. These have, alas, become commonplace. Pravoslavie (a Russian Orthodox site) provides further context, including mention of previous attacks on the city’s famous convent.

One less reported claim from Maaloula was that al-Nusra and company had taken the Safir Hotel back in March and had been harassing the villagers regularly prior to the major assault on September 4th. It is a disquieting precedent and it comes on the heels of an announcement that opposition forces are planning a major attack through the Qalamoun mountains, the range which is home to Maaloula, Yabroud, and Saidnaya.

Saidnaya lies about 30-40 minutes to the south-west of Maaloula along the very same road that Muslim extremists used in their initial suicide attack there. It was, in happier times, one of chief tourist and pilgrimage sites in Syria. The village is predominantly Christian and contains many ancient and important churches. Our Lady of Saidnaya convent dominates the landscape. The Roman emperor Justinian I (ruled 527-565) laid its foundations and it claims to be home to one of the four original icons of the Virgin Mary painted by St. Luke. Cherubim convent sits atop the adjacent mountainside. St. Ephraim Monastery, home to the Syrian Orthodox community’s Patriarchal for teaching Syriac, lies at the edge of town.

I should add that heavily fortified monasteries usually exist for obvious geopolitical reasons. The main N-S freeway connecting Daraa, Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo also runs through this region, following the basic contour of ancient trade routes. The hills SE of Saidnaya are also home to a number of military facilities and an infamous political prison. Despite these obvious military targets, it deserves notice that the first shots fired in Saidnaya were directed against a church.

Mar Sarkis and Realities of Disinformation

Mar Sarkis and the neighboring monastic caves. Photographed by the author in 1996.
Mar Sarkis and the neighboring monastic caves. Photographed by the author in 1996.

Author’s prefatory comment: The human death toll in Maaloula and elsewhere matters far more than any building ever will. On this day, however, a particular building deserves our attention.

Today, October 7th, Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians throughout the world celebrate the memory of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus. The traditional account is that both men were Syrian soldiers who had served with distinction in the Roman legions and were widely respected despite their Christian faith. When, however, the emperor required that they prove their loyalty by sacrificing to the Roman gods, they refused. They were tortured and executed around the year AD 303. They were laid to rest in the city of Resafa, about 30 south of the modern city of Raqqa in N. Syria.

Veneration of the two saints spread rapidly through the region. Their tomb grew into a fortified basilica and the city became Sergiopolis, an important pilgrimage center. Its ruins still stand in the desert. It enjoyed the patronage not only of Justinian I and other Byzantine emperors, but also of Persian Sassanids and Ommyad caliphs. One of the more important churches in Constantinople was dedicated to their memory as was a later church in Rome.

One of the earliest and most important churches dedicated to their memory lies in the village of Maaloula. The locals call it Deir Mar Sarkis (St. Sarkis Monastery). Its very name suggests its age, for it uses the ancient Aramaic word mar instead of qadees, the Arabic word for “saint”. The church itself was built over the remains of a temple to Apollo that had fallen into disuse when the village became Christian, sometime in the mid-late 1st century. It was almost certainly built within a few years of the death of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, between the legalization of Christianity in AD 313 and the Council of Nicea in AD 325. A bishop Eutychius, from St. Sergius in Maaloula, is listed among the roll of bishops who participated in the council. Its marble altar was semi-circular with a raised lip around the outside. The design came from pagan practice, where it was necessary to drain the blood of sacrificial animals. It was clear, however, that this altar had always been Christian. It had a plain border instead of one with sacrificial processions and reliquary instead of a drainage hole. Such altars were banned at the Council of Nicea, a further indicator of the church’s early date. The masonry also uses timbers as expansion joints to protect the building from earthquakes. The carbon dating on the wood accords with the other evidence. The church also contained a number of antique icons, many of them 400 years or older.

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On September 4th, the chaos of Syria engulfed Maaloula. Fighters from the al-Nusra front, which the U.S. State Department clearly identifies as a mere alias for al-Qaeda, seized control of the village with support of the supposedly moderate FSA.

Most of the villagers, both Christian and Muslim, fled the village. From Damascus they reported that, in addition to terror and murder, the extremists had shelled and desecrated the ancient church of Mar Sarkis.

Soon the propaganda war began. The FSA posted videos to YouTube claiming that the Assad regime was shelling churches in Maaloula and started promoting them on Twitter using various aliases. This was soon followed by a video in which a wahabi-bearded “liberator” gave a tour of the supposed damage. Their efforts soon met with the desired reward. On September 10, the New York Times ran an article by Anne Barnard giving credibility to such videos and portraying public outcry about Maaloula as potential misperception. Eight days later, Lina Sinjab of the BBC used such materials to portray the whole event as an unfortunate scuffle with few deaths and no particular damage to local churches.

The supposed evidence told a different story however. I spent many hours of lenten retreat exploring Mar Sarkis and the ancient monastic caves that surround it. When I saw the shelling on YouTube I was indeed horrified, but I also had no doubt about the perpetrator’s identity.

The topography of Maaloula is remarkable. Two huge mountain faces thrust out of the earth in a V shape, each at about a 30 degree angle. The village is built straight into the mountainside, right at the base of the V. Towering rock faces surround it on all but one side. And this was the critical issue. Mar Sarkis is nestled behind the mountain face. The opposition forces held this area above and behind the village. They had an easy, short, unobstructed line of fire to the Monastery. They also have a history of violence toward Christians. The last time I was in Syria, I saw a newly renovated Mar Sarkis and the Assad regime was clearly pressing to make the most of Maaloula’s tourism value as a potential UNESCO world heritage site. War can change people and lead to extreme decisions, but such bombs would certainly be out of step with my every experience of his regard for Christians, and especially those of Maaloula. In any case, geography was the key issue. BBC and RT reports both showed that government forces had their hands full trying to secure the entry point to the village, some 1.5 winding and sloping miles away and many feet down vertically.

The next video showed a tour of Mar Sarkis, but something was out of place. I could not recognize any element of the sanctuary. Then I realized that we were not examining the sanctuary at all. We were in the former gift shop, all of its merchandise now looted or destroyed, supposedly by troops who, to judge from RT and the BBC, had not yet even advanced to the lower village square.

The subsequent articles by Barnard and Sinjab emphasized one more bit of evidence. They rest on video of Mother Pelagia of St. Thekla’s Monastery as evidence that no harm was done to people or nuns. The man to the left is clearly tapping something as she speaks and it gives an audible metallic noise. Another man hides his face just out of camera view behind the nun on the right. As the “Assad shelling” video shows, one could practically walk to the edge of the cliff and drop bombs on St. Thekla’s convent by hand from the position held by al-Nusra. There is every reason to think her assurances were coerced by threat of violence.

Subsequent events proved these suspicions correct. Maria Finoshina of RT was of the few English speaking journalists daring enough to report from the actual combat zone. Her videos show the black jihadist flag (not the Syrian opposition flag) flying over the buildings they had occupied. The parties responsible for the chaos also posted celebratory videos (note again the the black flag in the upper right corner). Finally, this past week, a reporter for ITAR-TASS news agency was able to survey the actual damage to Mar Sarkis: http://www.itar-tass.com/en/c32/895365.html. Granted, this is a Russian news agency and therefore pro-Assad in slant. That said, the nature of the damage – targeted destruction of the altar and of Christian religious art – justifies the sensational headline. This is behavior characteristic of Islamic extremists. One might recall the Buddhas of Bamiyan as an instructive example.

So, in a nutshell, the initial reports of the refugees proved true, and the sad tale of Mar Sarkis can serve as an instructive tale about the dangers of propaganda and careless reporting about the situation in Syria.

I watched Syrian Muslims flock to the holy sites in Maaloula nearly as often as Christians. It was a deeply respected part of their heritage both spiritually and historically. Only one icon is known to have survived, rescued by a Syrian soldier. To judge from his ignorance about it, he is likely Muslim.

That is the Syria I once experienced and I pray for its survival.