Live from Syria

She often travels alone, she doesn’t use fixers, and she reports from the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Rania Abouzeid is an award-winning freelance journalist who frequently travels inside Syria to write about the three-front war between the Assad regime, the moderate opposition, and the Islamist groups. On Tuesday, she spoke at the New America Foundation about the conflict and her experiences in Syria.  She is now reporting mostly for The New Yorker and Al Jazeera America.

When the protests first began in the beginning of 2011, Abouzeid was covering the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. By February of that year, she was in Damascus covering the demonstrations and walking alongside the Syrian men and women who peacefully protested President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian regime. Even as the protests took a violent turn after the government crackdown, Abouzeid said that very few people flinched when bullets were fired. And from the moment the Syrian people took to the streets, it was clear the conflict was going to be existential on both sides. The people of Syria finally had a platform to advocate for change and they weren’t going to back down without a fight. Unfortunately, that fight continues 35 months later, and with a whole new dynamic.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed in the summer of 2011, and Abouzeid said that it needed the Islamist cooperation in order to have a chance against the Assad regime. She said, “It was a marriage of convenience” because they were willing to shed blood and die for the opposition. However, a nasty divorce ensued. With rise to prominence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), the largely under-supported moderate opposition was cast aside. Abouzeid said that many fighters became disillusioned because they were helplessly caught between the two extremes of the conflict—the oppressive regime and the often-brutal Islamists. Today, fighters are even beginning to sit out the fight because their efforts are no match for the regime, which is financed by Hezbollah and Iran, and the Islamists, who are funded by independent financiers.

A few months into the conflict, Abouzeid was black-listed by the Syrian government. So, she began to report from areas that were controlled by the Islamist militant group Jabhat al-Nusra. The last time she was in Syria this past August, Abouzeid traveled with both Jabhat al-Nusra militants and members of the Ahrar al-Sham brigade. During this time, she noticed an increase in the religiosity of Syrians. An Ahrar al-Sham militant told her that he wasn’t always like this, but as the civil war continued, many Syrians have come to the conclusion that only God can help them. “There aren’t many atheists in foxholes,” said Abouzeid.

ISIS has become increasingly prominent in Syria, especially in the Northern town of Ar-Raqqah. While Abouzeid was traveling with al-Nusra this year, a militant told her that if ISIS decides to come after her, even they couldn’t do anything about it. When asked about whether ISIS cooperates with the Assad regime, Abouzeid said that she does not know for sure. But, she does know that the ISIS headquarters in the Ar-Raqqah governor’s mansion and in the town governorate has never been hit by a government air strike, while random shelling has ravaged the rest of the town.

It is difficult to imagine what it is like to report from such a dangerous and war-torn country as Syria, where 28 journalists have been killed since 2011. When Abouzeid speaks with people who are in Syria, they often prefer to communicate with text messages or they refer to her in the masculine during phone conversations because they are afraid of being picked up by ISIS for talking to a woman. Life inside Syria is dangerous enough, but working as a female reporter in areas controlled by ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra takes a lot of courage. Rania Abouzeid has just that, and her reporting on the insurgency and life in Syria has played an important role in informing the international community on the state of Syria’s seemingly interminable civil war.

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