Syrian Journalist Rami Jarrah: ‘The Russians Are The Airforce Of ISIS’

The award-winning Syrian journalist Rami Jarrah fled Syria four years ago, but over the last few months he has returned several times to report on the situation in his country. Last week he was arrested in Turkey but he has now been released. Pieter Stockmans interviewed him one week before he was arrested.

  • © Rami Jarrah Every sector in the society has paid a price, except for the political opposition. They want to re-enter Syria, riding an American tank. © Rami Jarrah

The award-winning Syrian journalist Rami Jarrah has just returned from the besieged Aleppo. 300.000 people are stuck between Russian bombs, a siege by Assad and the threat of IS. Rami Jarrah is one of the few who still report from the struck regions. Pieter Stockmans had a detailed discussion with him on the question: ‘What is really happening in Aleppo?’

Istanbul’s busy traffic sounds through my long Skype-conversation with Rami Jarrah. Like many other Syrian activists and journalists he spends his days in the Turkish metropolis. Yet he has returned to Aleppo four times over the past year and a half.

Jarrah doesn’t want to watch from the side-line, he wants to stand alongside his fellow citizens and report. In 2012 he had already been awarded the International Press Freedom Award by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. For ANA Press, which he has established as one of Syria’s first independent press agencies, he sends out stirring video reports.

With all of his field experience Jarrah is perfectly placed to interpret the strategy behind the bombs which caused tens of thousands of refugees. But also: how he himself lives this tragedy, as a Syrian and as a human.

‘In Turkey I am an illegal refugee without a work permit, like all the other refugees’, Jarrah says. ‘I can’t travel by plane from Istanbul to Gaziantep. I can’t enter Syria legally. If the Turkish police would stop me on my way, I could get arrested even though my reporting now meets with the Turkish government’s narrative. I mentioned this when I met with the Turkish president Erdogan together with a group of Syrian journalists. We asked for solutions to the bad treatment at the border with Syria. I told him he had to provide a separate statute and more freedom for Syrian journalists.’

But then you would need to pass by the Turkish secret service and they will expect you to bring a certain kind of journalism.

Jarrah: Indeed. What if we want to report on things that don’t fit the Turkish narrative? I have been saying for some time now that Turkey, the ally of the Syrian uprising, could potentially become a strong enemy of the people who were at the base of this uprising. And now Turkey is being tested tremendously.

Russia and the Syrian government launched their offensive in Aleppo, precisely when the peace talks in Geneva started. How is that possible?

Jarrah: During the previous Geneva talks, the government started the siege of Homs. At the time of new peace talks they do the same in Aleppo. The opposition was aware that the government was planning to do this. One week before the talks, the government brought troops to the small cities of Nubl and Zahraa, besieged by rebels, and the Nusra-front deployed 2000 fighters in the area. During these crucial developments the media kept their spotlights firmly on ISIS. And then suddenly everyone was surprised when some kind of final battle came about simultaneously with the start of the peace talks.

Are we seeing the first days of a Syrian Sarajevo?

‘By Assad they are called terrorists and by ISIS they are called infidels.’

Jarrah: Absolutely. And we don’t realize that the dimensions of the tragedy are potentially greater than ever before. Both Assad and ISIS will besiege Aleppo. We are talking about 300.000 people who are at the mercy of two brutal dictatorships. Their insisted reluctance to submit, will be met by an extreme response. By Assad they are called terrorists and by IS they are called infidels. The way of the genocide logic has long been paved. Either they will be displaced, murdered, or starved into submission.

How can groups such as the Nusra-Front survive now that the government has cut off their most important supply routes from the Turkish border to Aleppo?

Jarrah: The Nusra-Front could work on an armistice with IS and open a physical lifeline. If Aleppo is under siege, the Nusra-Front could break that siege through a deal with IS which controls the east of Aleppo. This would allow ISIS to emerge stronger from the Russian campaign.

Robert Fisk wrote that ISIS’ days are numbered and that this is the beginning of the final battle between Assad and ISIS in Raqqa.

Jarrah: Even if their caliphate would be destroyed, this would be the beginning of the further ideological spreading of ISIS. It is possible that Assad, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are preparing an offensive on Raqqa. But only as an ultimate propaganda-victory: Assad’s final battle between himself and the enemy he himself helped to grow only to defeat this enemy and prove that Assad is in fact the only alternative.

Which weapons and wounds have you seen in Aleppo?

Jarrah: One of the most frequently used weapons is the elephant missile. When this rocket is fired, you can hear the sound of a screaming elephant. The Syrian government produced these rockets locally because the barrel bombs weren’t fit to hit targets close to the frontlines. Now these missiles are being directed at rebel military outposts on these frontlines. Also more and more people are dying of severe burns, caused by white phosphorous and chlorine-gas, which the Syrian army has already used in Idlib, Aleppo and Damascus.

Assad controls a part of Aleppo. How do the inhabitants of that part of the city perceive the Russian bombings a few kilometres away?

The government has effectively frightened people with the propaganda message that all rebels are like ISIS.

Jarrah: There are people who have been supporting the government since the beginning, mostly people who belong to minorities. The government has effectively frightened many of them with the propaganda message that all rebels are like ISIS. Therefore these people come to accept the Russian and Syrian cruelties as necessary for their survival. But there are also people who support the rebels, and who would love to take action as well. Sometimes they clandestinely come to the side of the rebels.

What do they say?

Jarrah: Recently I was with someone, when we were in a rebel area during a regime bombing he phoned his family on the regime side. His parents knew that their son could die at any given moment under the bombs of Assad. I heard guilt in their voices, as if they were apologizing for the attacks of the regime. If they could afford it, they would leave. But they can’t afford to pay the smugglers.

Do you yourself get used to the death and destruction?

Jarrah: Parents walking the street with their children no longer hold their hands. They walk next to one another like strangers. Me too, I have become like that. I take a distance from my own children. It’s a survival reflex. Some time ago I would look away when I saw children’s corpses lying in the ruins. Now it has become normal. You can see a smashed fly and not see it as important because you see it often. Now it happens to humans.

‘Oddly enough the daily life in the centre of Aleppo looks normal.’

Once, ten seconds after the impact of a barrel bomb, I ran towards a car that was on fire. In the front seat there was a boy. When I touched him to get him out of the car he felt slippery, humid. His skin fell apart. I can’t explain it, but he melted away. That child didn’t survive. I am not happy that I have gotten used to this, but if we can’t see the reality, who will report when the horror has become common?

What’s daily life like in Aleppo?

Jarrah: Oddly enough the daily life in the centre of Aleppo looks normal. Restaurants are open. In some districts you can only hear the sounds of the 25 bombings a day, but you can’t see them.

The fact that it has become so common to lose your loved ones isn’t normal, of course. Before, when there were deaths, we would pay our respect to the family. Today only a cold “may God have mercy on him” is heard. Another surreal situation you can only understand when you live in Aleppo: every time there is an attack on a market, the debris, the bodies and the injured are taken away after ten minutes. People who arrive late don’t even notice there had been an attack.

Since the Russian intervention, are there more missile attacks by rebels against the part of the city controlled by the regime?

Jarrah: Yes, mostly by the Nusra-Front. Since the Russians bombed Aleppo it has become almost regular to retaliate. The rebels are taking more and more desperate measures. Some rebel groups don’t agree on targeting civilian populations on the regime side of Aleppo, since it supports the narrative of the government. But there are those who want to escalate these attacks to make the others feel what they themselves are feeling. The rebel areas are controlled by Sunni fighters who feel they have been abandoned and bear a lot of hatred and resentment.

Russia and the Syrian government allege to be fighting terrorists.

Jarrah: The frontlines in and around Aleppo had been relatively calm for some time. I think the Russians have been preparing themselves, and a media offensive too was part of that. The military offensive started after it had been repeated that they were fighting terrorists, so often that all the other parties looked bad opposing the Russians in fighting terrorism.

The voice of the few people who have been watching the Syrian conflict since the beginning and who remember it started as a peaceful and secular uprising that later turned into an armed and secular uprising and finally an armed and Islamic one, is not being heard. Russia and Assad focus on the majority of the international public that has just woken up. And when you repeat a lie often enough, people will start to believe it.

Have you seen evidence that the Russians mostly attack the rebels and not ISIS?

Jarrah: Yes. I was on the front lines where rebels attack ISIS daily. They are face to face with the world’s biggest enemy and are being bombed by Russian airplanes. Not one single bomb landed on the ISIS-side of the front line, one kilometer away. On a hill the ISIS-flag was clearly visible. Basically, Russian airplanes can’t see such obvious targets but they can see the small checkpoints of the rebels?

The Russians attack areas and targets that aren’t legitimized by the Security Council. But the Security Council hasn’t explained this properly and thus the UN has given a sort of silent agreement to the Russian bombings. ISIS has a great interest in the Russian bombings. The Russians are destroying the enemy of ISIS and are almost playing the role of ISIS’s air force.

In your video reports you seemed to be embarrassed when you ask people at a Russian bombing site if ISIS had been there.

Jarrah: Only ten per cent of all the people who I ask such questions are willing to talk to me. The majority just laughs at my face. I try to explain to them that the world needs to know that ISIS is nowhere around there. But then they laugh even harder. It is too complicated to explain to those exhausted people that my reports could increase the pressure and develop a counter-narrative. After some time I was disgusted with myself because I kept on asking that question. I felt like I wasn’t from this country, while in fact I am.

You had adapted yourself to the needs and expectations of the international public.

Jarrah: A public that views everything through an ISIS-lens. But I refuse to surrender. There isn’t a clear story about what happens in the long term in Syria. Much too soon all the attention was drawn to jihadism, when this wasn’t even representative for what happened in Syria.

The Russian offensive lays bare the strategies within the Syrian conflict. The allies of the Syrian government don’t hesitate to support Assad, while the allies of the rebels doubt and are hopelessly divided, like the rebels themselves.

‘The Russians attack areas and targets that aren’t legitimised by the Security Council.’

Jarrah: Too many of the actors want to support the rebels and that is a geopolitical nightmare. There is competitiveness between Turkey and Saudi-Arabia, between the US and Turkey and between Qatar and all others. They made sure that the opposition is weak and fragmented, while the Syrian government forms a unified front with its allies. The Russian president Putin can see his enemies are divided. He takes his chances. The Russian and Syrian strategy is to divide and conquer. If the US had a clear stance, we wouldn’t be where we are today. The American government promised a powerful response to the chemical attack on Ghouta, where 1300 people died in a matter of minutes. But then they struck a small deal with Russia.

The American hesitation has created a vacuum?

Jarrah: If the Americans had filled the space of the opposition, like the Russians do with full conviction for the regime, there wouldn’t have been a “grab whatever you can”-attitude with the other actors who support the opposition. The Russian strategy is to take advantage of the American non-strategy.

Turkey watches as Russia bombs the Turkish allies and strengthens the negotiation position of Assad.

Jarrah: The groups Russia is bombing nowadays are indeed the groups that are being supported by Turkey and other countries. It is thus a hidden war between Russia and Turkey. In destroying Turkey’s allies, Russia also responds to the Turkish army taking down the Russian jet fighter.

Do you think that Turkey could directly interfere militarily?

Jarrah: No. Turkey wants to avoid a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia. That is why it will press for an acceleration of the negotiation process. Not to protect citizens, but to protect its own interests. Turkey needs to do this before Assad and Russia can impose their authority on Syria even more. Probably it is already too late, and the rebels expect the Turkish intervention to happen. All those years they had limited means to hold on to their positions against the regime and ISIS. And now that it is becoming a matter of life and death, there is no support from Turkey. They feel betrayed yet again.

On the short term, what is the fate of Aleppo? Will the city be controlled by the regime again, or is ISIS coming to Aleppo?

Jarrah: The latter. The Russian and Syrian aim isn’t to get Syria under the control of the Syrian government. It is actually impossible. In the areas controlled by the rebels you can almost taste the hatred against the regime. The resistance will never be extinguished there.

By bombing the rebel areas the regime wants to further radicalize the inhabitants of these areas. The only way out of the besieged Aleppo will be the ISIS-areas to the east. The regime is thus sending a message to the population there: your only breathing space is ISIS-territory.

Will the inhabitants of Aleppo accept ISIS?

Jarrah: In Aleppo there is very little sympathy for ISIS, but they definitely don’t want Assad to return. They have two options: ISIS or Assad. For years they have been refusing both options and have been supporting a third one: the rebels, but of course the al-Qaeda linked Nusra-Front is also present there.

But now that the Russians are mostly bombing those rebels instead of ISIS, ISIS will gradually gain an ability to reach Aleppo-city by recruiting from a radicalized population that doesn’t see any other way out. This will be a sexy message for the Syrian government, because this is their narrative since the beginning: we fight extremists and terrorists. And because IS is pressured in Raqqa, IS might divert to Aleppo. So in Aleppo I think we’ll see IS gain more influence than Assad.

In May 2015 the government organised celebrations after rebuilding some districts of Homs, one year after the government’s recapture of the city. Assad shows that the rebels are the bad guys and that he enables the return of refugees. Maybe he wants a similar scenario for Aleppo.

Jarrah: It is true that a fast restoration of the daily life is one of the most powerful propaganda-tools of the Assad-regime. But the ones who return are only those who are willing to subjugate to the government. Those who don’t want to subjugate stay refugees, but they too are citizens of Syria. No one is representing them.

Also, Homs cannot be compared with Aleppo. Homs was besieged by the government, Aleppo is besieged by two dictatorships: Assad and ISIS. As long as ISIS controls the countryside east of Aleppo, the government can’t carry out a siege on its own.

What is the real aim of the Russian president Putin?

Jarrah: The Russians have made it clear that no one but the Syrian government can secure the Russian interests on the Syrian coast. And the strategy is this: the territory controlled by the rebels cannot be developed. The rebels had taken large parts of Aleppo. There are functioning institutions, local councils, schools, factories and water supplies. The population there started to feel that the rebels were a genuine alternative. It is a fight for the hearts and minds of the Syrians.

Could you give an example?

Jarrah: I went to film in a hospital, but the doctor refused to allow me entry. I asked him if he really thought that the government didn’t know there was a hospital there. There are so many government spies in rebel territory. The doctor answered: “That isn’t the real reason. The real reason is: if you show the outside world that we have functioning civil institutions, Assad will come to destroy them. Because our success damages the narrative of the Syrian government: that there are supposedly only militarized extremists here.”

Russia is supporting the strategy of “de-development”. A dictatorship that constantly hinders civilians to develop freely forces them in the direction of radicalisation. Even those people who would normally never support the extremists.

Have you met such people?

Jarrah: A friend of mine is an Ismaïli, a minority within Shia Islam. They are secular and open. Women don’t wear headscarves. Of all people he became a salafist fighting in Damascus.

With another friend I worked with in the Free Damascenes for Peaceful Change at the beginning of the uprising. He eagerly wanted to show our democratic movement to the world. But soon he was brought to the notorious prison of the Air force Intelligence.

Rumor has it that when you enter this prison you don’t come out. His brother contacted me a few months later. He wasn’t an activist, but wanted to join our movement. He was frustrated about his brother. We gave him the task of filming the protests.

But he wanted to do something concrete for his brother?

Jarrah: Indeed. Soon he told me our actions were pointless. On top of that he had heard that his brother was severely tortured in prison. He joined the rebels of the Free Syrian Army. After eight months the Free Army also disappointed him. They would never be able to take over the prison and liberate the prisoners. There wasn’t enough support coming from abroad. So he joined a smaller, but radical group that had been formed a short while before. He drove a car filled with TNT into the prison. Everything blew up in the air, himself and his brother included. Because he felt there was no other solution. That group was the Nusra-Front. He hails from a communist family. These youngsters go down a road of radicalisation. They seek justice, but find only revenge.

Why didn’t you go down that road?

‘What about people who constantly live in the madness?’

Jarrah: I had time to breathe, in Cairo, in Istanbul, unlike those who constantly live in the madness. Moreover, it is easier to take the path of senseless violence when you believe in God and the hereafter. I am an atheist and I see this life as something precious. But was that boy a terrorist or did he just take revenge?

You can’t take away someone’s most precious possession without wondering what such a man will do next, or how he will seek justice. He joined a group that uses terror as a strategy, but that doesn’t make their traumatised foot soldiers terrorists.

The individual motivation can be revenge, instead of terrorism. The problem with Islam is that you can easily use the religion as a drug, to give people an ideal on top of a mountain of revenge and frustration. I am not Muslim, but I do understand it.

Minorities that felt threatened in their existence by groups such as the Nusra-Front can be relieved, since the government has cut their most important supply-routes from the Turkish border to Aleppo.

Jarrah: Maybe, but it would be a huge mistake. The only sustainable way forward for Christians and other minorities is to repair the relationship with the Sunni Muslims. If they let themselves be seduced by the Assad and Russia narrative now, they might reach the point where the relationship with the Sunnis can no longer be restored. Maybe it is already too late. Maybe too much blood has already been shed.

The rebels drew the sectarian card and done a lot of damage. Shouldn’t the rebels who besieged the Shiite towns of Nubl and Zahraa have known that the regime would try to recapture these towns?

Jarrah: Yes. If they wouldn’t have besieged these towns, maybe they could have won the support of its inhabitants to make the recapture by the regime harder. They are filled with sectarian and ideological hatred against the Shiites, so much that they don’t think about effectiveness and strategy anymore. But only the fundamentalists of the Nusra-Front were behind this siege. Within the broader rebel movement there was no support for it.

I hear more and more inhabitants of Aleppo direct accusations at the Nusra-Front. Yet, until now only the Nusra-Front and Ahrar al-Sham have the kind of street credibility needed to disarm Syria. These Islamist-jihadist groups try to play a political and diplomatic role and they get respect for their efforts on the field.

But is there today a political leader who can unite the Syrians around a new project during the transition? Someone who understands the hell many Syrians are going through?

Jarrah: No. And that’s a big problem. The weak opposition didn’t build a state. ISIS builds a state. The Kurds build a state. Why is the opposition only building temporary institutions instead of a real government in Syria as an alternative to Assad’s? This can’t be done from Turkey, the US or Belgium.

Every two days the politicians of the opposition speak at Al-Arabiya. They live in Turkey while they could have been in Aleppo. The risk is the price you have to pay as a Syrian politician nowadays. They are not politicians in Switzerland or something. And if anything would happen to them: why should they deserve life more than the journalists, activists, doctors and aid workers who did stay and die? Every sector in society has paid a price, except for the political opposition. They want to re-enter Syria riding an American tank.

Hence your drive to go in the field?

Jarrah: I left Syria as well, even though I still enter Syria on a regular basis, risking my life. But yesterday I was in a bar in Istanbul, while people in Aleppo die in another world.

Long before the Russian bombings in Aleppo I was screaming for attention. Now suddenly there is a big Russian offensive and everyone wants to cover that story. Hundreds of big and small television chains have asked me to produce reports or news items. How much extra work would that take? I share the information in my own reports on Facebook and Instagram, for editors all over the world to make their reports based on my work.

But I have mixed feelings about this. Russia and Syria are investing in this media-attention. They are happy because it builds momentum, and because it portrays Russia as powerful and the opposition as weak. The more I talk to the media about my experience in the field, the more I doubt that it actually helps.

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