Displaced Syrians along the Syrian border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in July. Photo by Mohamad Yusuf/AFP.
AMMAN: Scores of journalists and activists are stranded between government advances and closed borders in southwestern Syria, media workers on the ground tell Syria Direct, waiting to learn their fates as the unclear terms of a Russian-rebel reconciliation deal slowly unfold.
“We have no escape,” Hassan al-Hourani, a southwest Syria-based correspondent for the pro-opposition Halab al-Youm media outlet, told Syria Direct on Tuesday from Quneitra province, where he is displaced. “We face serious danger as the regime approaches.”
Al-Hourani is among at least 270 Syrian journalists and media activists trapped in limbo in the remaining rebel-held sections of Daraa and Quneitra provinces, the pro-opposition Syrian Journalists Association (SJA) reported on Monday, after a series of government advances reduced rebel territory in southwest Syria to a fraction of its former size over the past three weeks.
With the borders between Jordan, the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Syria sealed shut, southwest Syria’s remaining pro-opposition media workers have no way to leave a shrinking expanse of territory yet to be reclaimed by Syrian government forces.
The SJA is “watching the situation with fear and apprehension,” Saad Khabiyeh, the Turkey-based association’s internal relations officer, told Syria Direct on Tuesday morning.
Last Friday, a major bloc of rebels in eastern Daraa agreed to a preliminary reconciliation deal with the Syrian government that will see large sections of the province returned to state control as rebels surrender their heavy weapons and choose to either reconcile with Damascus or be relocated to Idlib.
However, the majority of the terms in Friday’s agreement—which include a rebel withdrawal from the Syrian-Jordanian border and the formation of local security forces in eastern Daraa—have yet to be fully realized, leaving some in Syria’s southwest worried that a return to state control could lead to reprisals, conscription or arrests.
While many civilians and fighters are also leery of the reconciliation process, journalists and activists told Syria Direct on Tuesday that they are particularly concerned that their past reporting could draw special ire from the Syrian government.
“The government may despise an activist even more than a fighter,” Ahmad Abu Zeid, a media activist with the largely volunteer-staffed Houran Free League media outlet, told Syria Direct from Quneitra.
Abu Zeid, originally from the town of al-Hirak in the eastern Daraa countryside, fled his home earlier this month when the Syrian army and allied militias grew closer to his home. As pro-government forces continued to press deeper into rebel territory, he eventually found his way to Quneitra along the Syrian border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, “fleeing from place to place as the regime advanced.”
“The regime considers us criminals—that we’re the ones behind the revolution,” he said.
The SJA, which provides legal aid for journalists and activists working under extremely dangerous conditions across Syria, has repeatedly seen activists “treated like soldiers and militants by the government,” internal relations officer Khabiyeh said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a non-profit international organization promoting press freedoms, reports that at least 120 journalists of various nationalities have been killed in Syria since a popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011.
Though some journalists in southwest Syria are optimistic that reconciliation will secure their passage out of the south in an evacuation, others are gripped by fear of violence and prison sentences, six media workers in Daraa and Quneitra provinces tell Syria Direct.
“Every day, nightmares of regime detention swirl in my mind,” Ahmad a-Zayed, a freelance journalist affiliated with several pro-opposition media outlets, told Syria Direct from rebel-held territory in Quneitra on Tuesday.
“I remember scenes of torture from prison,” said a-Zayed, who was detained by the Syrian government in 2012, “and I’m overcome by fear.”
In recent days, a-Zayed has reached out to his contacts within the Jordanian government requesting safe passage from Daraa into Jordan, he says, but his requests have been refused.
A team of Al-Jazeera journalists operating in southern Syria were evacuated by the Syrian government into Jordan on Tuesday, several of the journalists trapped in Quneitra and Daraa said, but Al-Jazeera had not released any statement confirming that its personnel had been evacuated from southern Syria by time of publication. Syria Direct could not independently verify claims of the evacuation of Al-Jazeera journalists from southwestern Syria.
“Al-Jazeera is an international news channel—it can protect its reporters,” Houran Free League activist Abu Zeid told Syria Direct.
“But most of us are volunteers,” he added. “There are hundreds of activists who have no way to protect themselves.”