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International volunteers play a key role in documenting Turkish offensive

As the Turkish offensive raged on, foreign volunteers played a key role in helping journalists and the outside world understand what was happening in northeast Syria.

13 October 2019

Amman- As the Turkish offensive, “Operation Peace Spring,” enters its fifth day, facts on the ground remain unclear and allegations swirl across social media—shared by reporters and “experts” alike.

In order to cut through the noise, reporters have increasingly relied upon a local research center, the Rojava Information Center (RIC), to document the fast-moving conflict and verify claims made by different parties.

The RIC, located in Qamishli, the de-facto capital of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA), is a small operation. Staffed by eight international volunteers, the year-old organization has supported “several hundred journalists in [the] first 48 hours of the conflict,” Thomas McClure, one of the founders of RIC who works as a researcher there, told Syria Direct

When the conflict began, the RIC created a WhatsApp group for journalists to give them access to “updates and fact-checks” as developments happened on the ground, and connect them to locals for interviews. 

At the time of publication, the WhatsApp group has over 350 journalists, from a variety of international media outlets, including The Guardian and the Associated Press. In addition, the RIC has been quoted in The New York Times, The Independent and other major newspapers. 

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” an international correspondent for a major global publication told Syria Direct on the condition of anonymity. “Usually both sides of the conflict are making things up or promoting fake news, but they [the RIC] have even fact-checked the Syrian Democratic Forces’ [SDF] figures.”

The goal of the RIC is to “connect the Western world, particularly Western journalists, to what’s going on here [in Northeast Syria],” McClure said. “You very often see a story about northeast Syria which says that the UN said this, some experts in Washington said this; for us, it’s really important to have the voices of local people, a response from the people he’s talking about.”

The group also engages in fact-checking, responding to direct questions about the veracity of certain claims. For example, on Friday night, rumors were circulating that two US soldiers were killed as a result of Turkish shelling on a coalition base outside of Kobane (also known as Ain al-Arab).

The RIC urged reporters to “err on caution” concerning the claim, not having received confirmation from local or official sources on US casualties. The claim proved to be false in the end. 

Further, the RIC has shown a number of videos, shared both by pro-Turkish and pro-SDF figures, to be either fabricated or coming from past battles in Syria. Most notably, the RIC confirmed that a video purporting to show a Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) soldier insulting the dead body of the Kurdish politician killed by SNA forces, Hevrin Khalaf, was not really of Khalaf. 

Khalaf, the co-chair of the Future Syria Party, was “executed by a Turkish-backed mercenary faction,” on Saturday outside of Tal Abyad, according to the SDF. 

To verify its claims, the RIC relies on a network of “local journalists, civilians, [officials] from the political administration [and] military contacts.” 

“In this circumstance, it can be hard to verify information; many civilians have left the city. Maybe they have got better things to do than respond to someone on WhatsApp because they’re fighting for their lives,” McClure said.
The RIC has two staff members in the field who take pictures and videos of events to provide documentation, as well as interview locals as events develop on the ground. The staff members were initially located among towns along the border, including Ras al-Ain, but moved to different locations throughout the conflict to provide the best coverage. 

The team in Qamishli acts as a coordination center, relaying requests for information or confirmation with the staff in the field and then passing on their findings to reporters and media outlets.


Car bomb in Qamishli

The remnants of a car-bomb claimed by ISIS in Qamishli, 12/10/2019 (Rojava Information Center) 

The structure of the RIC has been specifically developed for a Turkish attack. “When it became clear that [Turkish President] Erdogan was eyeing [the] axis between Tal Abyad and Serakaniye [also known as Ras al-Ain], we sent a team preliminary to visit the various institutions [and] collect contacts so that we would be ready,” McClure said. 

“We set up this organization with this day in mind, [so that] when the Turkish came we were ready,” he added. “Two months ago, when it really seemed like Turkey was about to invade we got ourselves ready and had a good dry run. So we knew what we were doing better this time.” 

The preparations for the Turkish attack as well as the founding of the RIC itself came as a direct response to Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” to take Afrin—a Kurdish majority town in Aleppo province—which was “covered poorly,” and dominated by Turkish media coverage, according to McClure. 

A UN report found that armed groups in Afrin have committed war crimes in the aftermath of Operation Olive Branch. 

The RIC and its foreign staff are not the only international volunteers working to support the AA in documenting the Turkish offensive. Michael Sullivan, originally from the UK, has been working with a local news station, SERK TV, for the last 9 months. 

Sullivan came to the AA in December 2018 to “fully understand its revolution and embrace [its] ideas,” in addition to being inspired by the death of his friend, Anna Campbell, a UK citizen who was killed fighting alongside the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin in March 2018. 

Originally Sullivan was supporting the production of a documentary series on the AA, but since the prospect of a Turkish invasion became more likely, he began to coordinate interviews with other internationals to “support the [AA] and the people living here during this invasion from the Turkish state,” he told Syria Direct.

Though the international volunteers feel quite welcomed by the local population, they still face risks as they document the conflict. On the morning of Oct. 13, four Kurdish Red Crescent (KRC) volunteers were allegedly kidnapped by the Turkish-led Syrian National Army(SNA) as they assisted civilians in Tel Abyad, according to the KRC. 

In addition to the risk that international volunteers face from the SNA, the volunteers could face future issues if they continually contradict SDF claims which they find to be false, though the group’s mission is to support the AA. 

They are aware of the danger, but remain “optimistic” about the situation and see their efforts in trying to document the conflict as key to gaining “support from the international community” and turning the situation around, according to Sullivan. 

“Now is the time when we must be here, bearing witness to what is happening as best we can,” McClure said.

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