Dec 6, 2013
Patrick Cockburn: Covering Syria’s Complicated Civil War
Posted on Jul 31, 2013
This summer Patrick Cockburn, the Middle East correspondent for England’s Independent newspaper, spent two weeks reporting from Damascus, Syria. I contacted Cockburn by phone to hear about the complexities of covering that country’s underreported civil war, now entering the midpoint of its third year.
Cockburn is regarded as one of the Western world’s most experienced and knowledgeable reporters on the Middle East. As he talked about the country he began covering in the 1970s, his tone was melancholy but unsentimental. This transcript of our conversation has been edited for length.
Alexander Reed Kelly: You’ve been to Syria as a journalist numerous times. What was your objective on this occasion?
Patrick Cockburn: I wanted to do something very simple. This was to find out what the real situation was on the ground politically and militarily. The reporting on this has been so skewed by bias, propaganda, muteness on the government side and second and third hand evidence that people outside Syria—and to a degree inside—don’t know what is happening. The way to do this is simply to travel a lot and to talk to as diverse a group of Syrians as possible. The picture will never be complete but it should be largely true.
Also, as part of this reporting I wanted to compare what I saw and heard reported on Al-Jazeera, The New York Times, Reuters and the AP, which on occasion was plain wrong, but more often partial and incomplete.
PC: You’re talking to people in the middle of a war. You have to keep in mind that they are going to be careful what they say. They’re not going to be particularly critical of the government in government-held areas and similarly critical of rebels in rebel-held areas. On the other hand, they have something to talk about. A lot of the time I spend sort of listening to people, refugees, vendors and so on.
One of the things about reporting on Syria is the lack of basic information. I often just go to areas that were being reported on the wires and Syrian television and see if what they were saying is true. Again and again you have reports of a battle in some area and I find there is nothing happening there at all. It’s generally a very ill-reported war. Every area is different. I was first in a big international hotel. It was just me and some U.N. people. Later I was in the Christian quarter that was being mortared by a rebel held area. When traveling you come to government checkpoints every few kilometers. You try to glad-hand your way through those.
AK: Given the difficulty of confirming the accuracy of what many people say to you, how do you determine what is true?
PC: You try to find out as much as you can from a lot of people. You try to establish basic facts, what happened in an area, for instance. Bear in mind that people aren’t going to tell you things that could get them in enormous trouble unless they feel really compelled to do so. I depend a lot on chance meetings because I try to get a variety of opinions. I also like to go to military hospitals. You know they’ve been in action so they know what’s happening.
A lot of this means being a good listener. I was surprised how much Syrians did talk to me. You can say about Syria what you used to say about the Soviet Union, that anyone who was 30 in 1980 is bound to have an interesting life story.
AK: How did you stay safe?
PC: It’s important to get on with people, above all at checkpoints. It’s best not to act nervous, but also not to be reckless. While driving, for example, you learn to watch oncoming traffic. If there’s no one on the road then you know there’s some reason you can’t get through—traffic jams, explosions, etc. Sometimes you can be stuck for three or four hours.
AK: Because you’ve traveled to Syria since the ’70s you have a long view of the country’s recent history. How did covering the region change in that time?
PC: I used to go quite a lot in the ’70s and ’80s. I was in Damascus in 1982 for the Israel invasion of Lebanon and for years afterwards. Syria for a long time wasn’t the center of journalistic attention. One, you needed visas to get there. Second, there wasn’t a lot happening. It was tightly controlled by Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. I would go occasionally, but usually I would go somewhere else. I would say of journalists in general there wasn’t a capital of knowledge about Syria before 2011. It’s something people weren’t interested in. There are not many well-informed books on modern Syria.
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