On the 'complexities' of Syria: A conversation with war reporter Adrien Jaulmes

French war correspondent Adrien Jaulmes left Aleppo in the winter of 2012 for the last time. One of his translators had just been killed, and radical Islamists were targeting Western journalists and aid workers in Syria.

Jaulmes, a foreign correspondent for the French daily Le Figaro and a former French military officer, first reported from a war zone in 2003, when he covered the American invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. 

Since then, he has reported from, among many other places, Chechnya, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and, most recently, Mosul. To say that active, raging war zones are not new to Jaulmes would be an understatement.

But in Syria in late 2012, the situation had become too unstable even for him. Radical Islamist militants were growing in numbers and power, and in a span of mere months, journalists James Foley, John Cantlie and others were kidnapped.

“I realized two things at the time,” Jaulmes tells Syria Direct’s Justin Clark over the phone from his office in Paris. “Everyone I could trust was dead or couldn’t protect themselves, [and] that as a Westerner I’d be completely stupid to keep going there.”

Today, Jaulmes continues to write about the Syrian war—but from a distance. Like most foreign journalists, including those working at Syria Direct, Jaulmes relies on a network of sources throughout Syria to gain understanding of events inside the country.

Syria Direct’s conversation with Jaulmes is the first in a series of interviews exploring how Western media has reported on the Syrian war since the mass exodus of foreign correspondents from the country in 2012 and 2013.

“When you’re there, you have a vision of what is happening,” Jaulmes says. “When you’re not on the ground, it’s kind of like piecing together a story blindfolded.”

Q: What was it like being on the ground in Syria once the war broke out?

I operated mostly in Aleppo province, having crossed the border illegally from Turkey into rebel-held Syria in 2012. In the beginning I was mostly in an area [in northern Aleppo], in a small town called Marea.

Marea is in the middle of a triangle between Azaz, Afrin, and several different farming communities north of Aleppo. The majority of people there are farmers. It’s a close-knit community with a strong local identity.

In the middle of this area were Kurdish militias which were, at the beginning, sort of neutral. They weren’t necessarily with the regime or the rebels.

From Marea, in July 2012, we were moved in the middle of the night with a young group of rebel fighters from Liwa a-Tawhid, and entered unopposed into eastern Aleppo. That was the beginning of the rebel presence in Aleppo.

[Ed.: In 2012, Liwa a-Tawhid was the largest rebel faction active in Aleppo province, at one point claiming to control nearly half of Aleppo city. By 2014, the group had become defunct, having splintered into multiple groups later absorbed by other rebel factions, a Stanford University study reported in 2016.]

Afterwards, I came back to Aleppo a couple of times, and then things started to become a bit sketchy, to say the least. Radical Islamists started to appear on the rebel side of Aleppo.

Of the two fixers I’d been working with, one had been killed by rebels.

What I decided at the time was: A) the only people I could trust [in Syria] were dead or no longer able to protect themselves, and B) as a Westerner, I would have to be completely stupid to keep on going there.

It came down to me being shot by a rebel, killed in a regime bombing, or kidnapped and murdered—or worse.

I also was arrested by the Turks coming back from my last trip [to Syria.] Just last week, the Turkish government sentenced me [in absentia] to a year and a half in jail for illegally crossing the Turkish border.

Q: As someone who’s covered the war both on the ground and now remotely, what makes working as a journalist on the ground unique? For example, are there things that a reporter working remotely—even with the best of sources—simply cannot access without being directly in the field?

Well, it stops being reporting [when done outside of the country]. It’s frustrating—you don’t actually get a sense of what the situation looks like.

However, as long as I was able to report on east Aleppo and the north of the province, as long as I had some reliable sources there, it was different. I knew people there, we knew each other, and it was talking to someone I know personally.

So I knew what they were talking about, where they were talking about, about the places they were describing, the situation they were in.

As time went on, some were killed—others fled the country. At that point, it became completely different. You can get access, you can get a number of people, but it’s a very different set up.

Damascus March 2017. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Dimashqi.

There are still some journalists there working from regime-held Syria, and they’re doing some great work.

Even in 2012, there was still a limited number of journalists on the ground in east Aleppo. It was a different situation than west Aleppo, where there were no Western journalists.

From a reporting point of view, the situation became worse, but it has never been good. It’s never been one of those countries where you could cover both sides.

In war, you can’t really go from one side to another. It’s a bit of the nature of the beast, you just do what you can. Reporting on war is just problem after problem. Syria is a bit extreme but it’s not entirely different.

Q: What I’ve noticed personally is that sources in rebel-held areas are much more willing to talk than those in government-controlled areas. People in regime-held Syria are often too afraid to talk to any foreign journalist.

I don’t blame them. [The government] carefully monitors their communications.

Syria Direct in an interesting point of view to see all of these complexities.

Q: If I had a criticism of foreign reportage on Syria, including my own work, it’s the inability to adequately get reliable sourcing from government-held areas. With the opposition, it’s much easier—they actually want to talk. Every single rebel faction has a Facebook page, and a Twitter handle, and almost every rebel-held area has a media office.

The problem with these media offices, of course, is that they see themselves less as journalists and more as an extension of the revolution. They’re often not impartial sources.

It’s a very tricky position; both sides use their own propaganda. However, just because something is propaganda doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily untrue.

Wars are similar in this regard. Propaganda from both sides of a conflict can be both true, both false or anything in between.

For example, the Western vision of the siege of east Aleppo last year was a bunch of people, children, civilians [behind the siege]— but there was no mention whatsoever of the Islamist groups, jihadis, who were fighting in the battle.

This is because all the information that was coming out of the area came from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in London, or from all this video footage and calls from rebel-held areas.

What people were saying, that there were civilians being bombed and killed, was the truth. What was missing was the problem; these missing bits are sometimes the problem.

Q: How can a journalist with these limited sources report on the conflict without compromising their neutrality?

You can’t, really. I suppose the only thing you can do is double-check things as much as you can, and compare testimonies. Of course, some testimonies are going to be more reliable than others. You can cross-reference locations, for example, to get a better picture of how clear something is.

Q: You covered Iraq in the early 2000s. At the time, insurgents were mailing VHS tapes to journalists’ hotel rooms in Baghdad—that’s how they got their propaganda out.

Today, all they need to do is open Facebook, Twitter or Telegram, and they disseminate propaganda, videos of fighting, videos of executions, whatever they like.

Social media has given both the journalist and the layperson unprecedented access. Could you imagine this during your time covering Iraq?

I think the technological changes have been immense. Anyone with a cheap laptop can go online [and put information out there.]

Just 15 years ago, for instance, Bin Laden would organize a meeting with foreign journalists so he could spread his message. He doesn’t need them anymore. Take a look at what ISIS has been doing: They have an extraordinary propaganda machine—a very efficient one—powered by technology.

Q: During 2013 and 2014 a mass exodus of foreign journalists left Syria. Since then, most reportage has happened remotely. How have you witnessed Syria coverage change since then?

American journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, as well as others, were kidnapped around the same time and in the same areas. Some of them were betrayed by their fixers and drivers.

It happened in a matter of months. The message was very clear.

Syria coverage has transformed, of course. Though while on the ground a journalist is limited in the ability to cover both perspectives, you can still sort of feel both sides.

When you’re there, you have a vision of what is happening. When you’re not on the ground, it’s kind of like piecing together a story blindfolded. You can gather info here and there, but you lose that vision you have when you’re on the ground—the impression. It’s something that is lost when you report from afar.

Q: You have a long history of reporting from conflict zones. Can you think of any examples of stories you would not have been able to cover had you not been there in person, no matter how good your sources were?

Yes, definitely. When I was in northern Aleppo province, it took me about a week to realize that the vast majority of rebel fighters all had relatives who were killed, captured or tortured by the government during the 1982 Hama uprising. There was this sort of deep, direct familial link there.

[Ed.: In 1982, the Syrian Arab Army was deployed by then-president Hafez al-Assad to the city of Hama to quash a revolt led by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.The fighting lasted nearly a month, destroying much of Hama’s old city and leaving thousands dead.]

Young men would tell me that their father was killed in the uprising, or that their uncle was exiled to the Gulf and cannot return to Syria because of his involvement.

I didn’t exactly do a survey, but we’re talking dozens and dozens of soldiers here.

These are the kinds of the things that you can only really get when you’re walking around on the ground. It’s not exactly something that comes up during a phone call.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.