When the Assad regime recaptured Aleppo in December, the scale of the destruction it took to do so was on international display. Local media activists—often equipped with little more than a smartphone—uploaded photos and videos, documenting airstrikes leveling apartment buildings and mortar fire crashing into hospitals.
Despite all the activism, east Aleppo fell after a relentless air and ground campaign that left no other option.
Rifaie Tammas—a former Syrian citizen journalist now living in Australia—watched online as the regime’s punishing campaign in Aleppo unfolded, live. Three years ago, he reported from the frontlines of his hometown of al-Qusayr, in Homs province, up until the city fell to regime and Hezbollah forces in the summer of 2013.
Tammas—who is now a Ph.D. candidate in security studies and political science at Australia’s Macquarie University—says that Syria’s citizen journalists need to “be more strategic” in order to have an impact.
“When the voice of activists is not making the same difference as in 2011 or 2012, and the voice of the people with guns is now the one dominating the scene, then this is not a good sign,” Tammas tells Syria Direct’s Justin Schuster.
Q: Can Syria ever go back to what it was before the war?
Absolutely not, that’s the one thing that I’m sure about. Syria either goes forward or it goes backwards, and the way things are going right now, it’s going backwards. When the voice of activists is not making the same difference as in 2011 or 2012, and the voice of people with guns is now the one dominating the scene, then this is not a good sign. Whatever Syria is going to morph into is going to be completely different from what we’ve seen before.
Someone asked me the other day what Syria will be like if Assad wins and reclaims all of the country. It will be hell. It will be similar to Iraq, if not worse. It is possible that Assad could actually retake all of Syria. If that happens, does that mean the end of violence? I don’t think so. There’s going to be a lot of suicide bombing and a lot of guerilla attacks. There may not be so much shelling, but it would be a completely different type of violence, and that doesn’t mean that it’s better. It could be much, much worse.
Q: Earlier this month, Syria Direct ran a story about protests over deeper power cuts in the government’s stronghold in Latakia. Will Assad’s inability to deliver basic services such as power and water impact his re-assertion of control over the country?
It could have been a deep thorn in Assad’s side in the beginning, not now. People inside—especially those who have not really sided but just want to carry on with their lives—can simply see that being against Assad means shelling, means death, means displacement and means being humiliated in other countries.
Even when there is no electricity, they could still see it being much worse in the opposition areas. They’ll say “at least we’re not being shelled” or “at least we’re getting electricity a few hours a day…it’s still much better than an area that hasn’t seen electricity for months and that is under shelling every single day.”
I do see it increasing the frustration, the disappointment or lack of faith in Assad, but I don’t see it affecting the support he has. They’re afraid of a much worse alternative.
Q: There’s no doubt that the battle for Aleppo had the world’s undivided attention. Why do you think this battle garnered such focus whereas countless other atrocities and military campaigns have gone largely ignored on the international stage? Is this just because of the size and historical significance of Aleppo? Is it due to the concentrated severity of the regime’s air and ground campaign? Or was there something else at play?
Like you hinted, it’s mainly the historical site of Aleppo and the strategic importance of the city. It’s the biggest city in Syria and was the industrial hub. It was one of the centers of the Syrian uprising in early 2011, one that tipped the balance to the side of the opposition from early on. So, losing Aleppo meant a lot to the opposition.
There was a lot of anxiety among politicians abroad about the outcome of Aleppo, probably most of them knowing that the regime would win but nevertheless anxious about how this would play out. That was also manifested in the media’s attention.
The other factor is Aleppo—being closer to Turkey—had more activists. It wasn’t cut off from the world. A lot of very prominent activists were inside, and they had the means to actually reach out to the world unlike, let’s say, al-Qusayr when it was about to fall. There were probably two or three activists who were speaking out [in al-Qusayr], but in Aleppo you’d find dozens of activists.
Q: Do you think Aleppo is evidence that the world’s decision-makers are so deeply entrenched in their positions that no amount of media activism, no amount of naming and shaming can make a difference at this point in the war?
Absolutely, and that was one of the main motivations of writing the piece [for Middle East Monitor on the fall of Aleppo]. I could completely sympathize with all the anger that was coming from activists inside. When you’re in there, you just feel very angry, very frustrated with the world. You even feel frustrated with your own people outside. Like, how could they even sleep when we are being killed slowly like this?
I could really understand that shaming wasn’t going to make a difference. And I don’t think it’s the activists’ role to actually change policy. What they have done pretty well is to rally support internationally [and get] average people to take to the streets. That would pressure the policymakers. Would this change the dynamics of what’s happening? I don’t think so. There isn’t much the activists could do to change the realities on the ground, but we could be more strategic, rather than just doing the same thing.
Q: If you’re pessimistic about the ability of citizen journalists and activists to effect change, then what is the goal? What does one hope to accomplish through a strong media voice?
Activists and citizen journalists shed light on what’s happening. They give a credible voice to another side of the story apart from that of Russia and the Assad regime. They empower people just by [pointing out] what’s actually happening. People are dying. But, then, when you turn on the TV and it says, “We’re just clearing Aleppo of all the terrorists cells,” that’s even more humiliating. There is nothing worse than dying alone without anybody knowing that you died for a worthy cause.
The second thing is attracting funding. People like the White Helmets or other local NGOs that deliver aid or provide civil society work need funding, and without the media highlighting [the situation], they wouldn’t get it.
When we’re talking about activism, there’s a difference between activists on the ground and those who are outside Syria. For those who are outside Syria—especially in Western countries—the main thing they could do is be more strategic in reaching out to NGOs. It’s not a good sign when the majority of people around the world are unaware of what’s happening.
For those on the inside, it’s different. It’s more about having a unified narrative among the activists. Why are some activists really effective in reaching out to the world where others are not?
It varies also from area to area. In Idlib, for example, some armed groups probably wouldn’t let activists engage with specific actors. One criticism of Jabhat Fatah a-Sham has been that they don’t allow any actor to engage with an international sponsor, especially the US. If an American agency wants to send support, that would be an issue.
Q: When covering Syria, we often hear about “citizen journalists.” They are an essential source of on-the-ground perspective and insight for international media outlets that are unable to send correspondents to cover these stories. However, we struggle at times to differentiate between independent citizen journalists and more traditional activists. How do you understand the mission of a citizen journalist in Syria today? Do you see the role of citizen journalists as strictly reporting the facts on the ground, or is there necessarily a strategic angle, a political agenda at play?
That’s a very good question. A lot of Syrian activists and citizen journalists don’t see this as two separate things. When I was an activist, I saw it as all complementary. I did more reporting than what activists normally do in the West, but we had a political stand while reporting.
The majority of citizen journalists are anti-Assad, anti-ISIS and mostly against Jabhat Fatah a-Sham. When they report, they try to be objective and neutral, but they also acknowledge they are anti-Assad. That makes it harder for them to report on the other side. Individuals normally focus on what’s happening in their own areas. It’s not so much about not being neutral, but more about reporting what they’re seeing. That sometimes makes them look like they’re turning a blind eye to what the rebels are doing. I don’t think that’s the case. The crimes [perpetrated] by the regime and by Russia far outweigh those by the rebels, and [citizen journalists] see this as the priority.
It’s a grey area for many people. A lot really don’t see the difference, and they’re doing what they can.
Q: You say there is a crossover between activism and citizen journalism in Syria today. Does that ever present a risk to the objectivity of reporting?
It’s not so much a risk as it is just being cautious and [recognizing] they’re humans in the end. The majority of them are not trained to be journalists. Let’s say one or two activists might be actually exaggerating, but 100 activists are in the same area, reporting on the same incident and pretty much saying the same thing. It’s hard to discredit all of this.
I would just say be cautious and compare. [Christiane] Amanpour with CNN once said that saying the right thing doesn’t mean that you’re not neutral. I don’t see it as being impartial to say that Assad is the big devil because that’s what’s happening. The side that is actually responsible for most of the killing is Assad, so it makes sense to talk about Assad. Of course we should also talk about what’s happening on the other side, but I don’t see it as a problem even when they are overtly or covertly opposed to Assad.