PHOTO: Colonel Ramiz Sultan, interviewed by BBC reporter Jeremy Bowen in Damascus
After 4 1/2 years of conflict, what is life like in Damascus? And how should journalists cover the story — about the Assad regime, the Syrian military, and the civilians in and near the capital?
Those issues flared on social media last week when the veteran BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen tweeted during a trip to the capital:
Popcorn man. Hamadieh souk Damascus pic.twitter.com/yREKFvTMmE
— Jeremy Bowen (@BowenBBC) September 10, 2015
Thomas Pierret, one of the top analysts of the Syrian crisis, responded:
@BowenBBC Don't u think your food porn is slightly inappropriate when reporting from a country where some ppl r starving under siege?
— Thomas Pierret (@ThomasPierret) September 10, 2015
Bowen defended his remark: “It was a picture of a pop corn vendor. Many of them in Old City selling popular snacks for pennies. Even in war people eat.”
“Shop Early for Christmas” — Seeing Part of Damascus, Overlooking the Rest
On its own, Pierret’s comment might seem churlish. Bowen responded, “Old City is packed with Syrians trying to hang on to bits of their old lives. Don’t try to censor that.” Some commenters on Twitter rallied behind the journalist, saying that he was reporting on the humanity of Syrians in wartime: “God forbid Syrians enjoy ice cream and popcorn. I guess only Westerners have that privilege.”
However, there were far wider contexts for Bowen’s reporting, on social media and in his videos for the BBC. The popcorn tweet was only one of a series of portrayals of a vibrant, seemingly care-free Damascus:
Thursday night shopping, Damascus old city. pic.twitter.com/Y4zJ8NSbNR
— Jeremy Bowen (@BowenBBC) September 10, 2015
Other images from the Damascus souks showed colorful headscarves, bodices — “Shop early for Christmas” — and even Hezbollah bracelets and Assad watches.
All of which is a representative slice of life in Damascus, with people surviving and finding happiness amid conflict. However, Bowen never mentioned other slices of life in the capital. There was no reference to the sharply-rising prices for basic goods and food, from eggs to tomatoes to bananas. Or to the housing shortage and soaring rents, making it close to impossible for many to find decent housing, if they do not already own their residence. Or to the limiting of gas subsidies or the recent restructuring of electricity prices, affecting the poorest in Damascus.
Then there were the unseen areas, very close to where Bowen was reporting.
— Dark Matter (@bigmo1965) September 10, 2015
At no point did the journalist mention regime-held suburbs of Damascus, such as Douma and Darayya, where hundreds of people have been killed this summer by barrel-bombing and other bombardment by the Syrian military. He did report from Jobar in northeast Damascus — more on that later — but the aerial attacks never featured in his commentary.
Nor, amid the popcorn, did he note the long-time sieges on those areas which have blocked supplies of food and medicine to civilians — “some eat, some starve”, noted one activist tersely.
As Bowen was tweeting, Hugh Naylor of The Washington Post was offering an alternative portrayal of Damascus:
The ancient city’s downtown still bustles with people. Bars attract swilling patrons. Streets are safe to walk, at least by Syrian standards.
But residents of the capital are watching with concern how the tide of a four-year-old civil war appears to be turning against their guarantor of security: President Bashar al-Assad. His forces are losing vast territory to Islamist rebels in Syria’s northwest, while the Islamic State militant group may now control as much as half the country. Just a few miles beyond central Damascus, rebel-held suburbs are mired in relentless death and destruction.
Meanwhile, the conflict is hobbling the capital’s economy. Power failures and gas shortages have worsened over the past year. As jobs become scarcer, living costs are rising because of a weakening currency and subsidy cuts to water and oil.
It should be noted that Bowen did report from two areas of deprivation and destruction in Damascus. While Jobar was empty of people, except for the Syrian military guiding him, his visit to the Yarmouk camp in the south showed civilians who have suffered from fighting, siege, and starvation.
He could do that, however, while sealing off the center of Damascus — as well as rebel-held areas — from scrutiny. Articles such as Naylor’s and mention of barrel bombs are disruptive, as Bowen — with the best intentions — tries to uphold some humanity and hope:
In between the Assad family and the scores of opposition militias, there is a big middle ground of Syrians who just want to survive the war, protect their families and property and have the chance to get on with their lives again.
On his last journey to Damascus in November 2014, the journalist found that hope in ice cream:
— Jeremy Bowen (@BowenBBC) November 12, 2014
In September 2013, in “Ice Cream in Damascus“, he explained the treat’s significance under the sub-title “Keep Cool and Carry On” — it showed the capital could still rise above the conflict:
The central parts of Damascus feel more like a city at war than they did a year ago but physically the place is still almost untouched. Roadblocks cause huge traffic jams and power supply is patchy but almost no buildings have been damaged and, in the Old City, the staff at the best-known ice-cream shop in Damascus, Bakdash, still pummel the ice cream inside its churns with great wooden poles.
Finding Hope in the Syrian Military
Amid the popcorn discussion, another dimension of Bowen’s reporting went almost unnoticed. He wrote on Monday:
Predictions of the imminent, or even medium-term fall of Damascus are wrong.
It does not feel like the capital of a regime that is about to crumble.
The government-held areas that I have visited seem calm and functional. The Ministry of Defence, behind heavy layers of security, moves at a stately pace.
On Twitter, he went farther with his proclamation of a steadfast military:
Syrian Republican Guard soldiers in front line in Jobar, central Damascus. Don't look like a beaten force to me. pic.twitter.com/OyP96VmA4d
— Jeremy Bowen (@BowenBBC) September 10, 2015
For those who have closely followed the course of the war, that comment might seem surprising. The Syrian military has suffered a series of defeats in the past year, losing much of northwest Syria and parts of the south to rebels. The Kurds hold parts of the north and northeast. So does the Islamic State, as well as areas in central Syria like the historic city of Palmyra, captured in May.
Bowen’s proclamation of a strong Syrian military has been pre-empted by no less than President Assad, who said in May and again in July that his armed forces face problems with manpower to keep fighting:
There is no doubt that times of war lead to more army desertion cases….
Retreating and advances occurred in the same areas in less than a month, which is natural in wars, and I focused on that point in my speech to motivate youths to join the armed forces.
So how could Bowen — from a photograph of four soldiers in one area in Damascus — reach a far different conclusion about the state of the Syrian military across the entire country?
A clue to the answer came in other tweets, as the reporter returned from a visit to a camp for displaced persons in Latakia Province in western Syria. He posted an image of another military unit and then praised the security services escorting him amid a sandstorm:
Mukhabarat kindly escorted us out of Latakia. pic.twitter.com/3hrzsESkZD
— Jeremy Bowen (@BowenBBC) September 7, 2015
It makes PR sense that Assad’s officials would ensure that Bowen was escorted by the some of the best units in the Syrian military, and that he would see other well-equipped, sturdy-looking troops.
It also made PR sense that the BBC journalist was taken to the frontline in Jobar by those units, to see the tunnels of both the regime forces and the rebels in the area:
The report keeps Jobar — “one of the capital’s key battlegrounds” — and other name-checked areas, such as the suburb Douma, distinct from the popcorn and ice cream in central Damascus. More importantly, it is a commentary putting the viewer alongside a strong Syrian military, as he and Bowen ride to the frontline with one of the officers:
Colonel Ramiz Sultan has a short drive to work….Colonel Sultan and his men are from the elite Republican Guards….
The colonel and his men say they are patriots fighting terrorists. He rejects accusations that the Syrian army targets civilians.
So Bowen can conclude, “Syrian troops…have good morale, well maintained weapons and operate in cohesive units.”
Complications in the Script
But the script of a stable Assad regime and its strong military soon faced complicated. Between the time that the BBC filmed in Jobar and Bowen wrote his Monday article, rebels launched a major offensive northeast of Damascus, taking area near the towns of Adra and Harasta.
So now the unmoving frontline in Jobar was accompanied by the prospect of a moving front only miles away — and not one favorable to the Syrian army. Bowen had to insert the paragraphs in his Monday article:
In recent days Jaish al-Islam, one of the best organised rebel groups, has made significant breakthroughs after an attack out of eastern Ghouta. If Jaish al-Islam can hold on to its gains, the strategic position around Damascus would change.
At the same time, he tried to maintain his original line, albeit with a belated nod to the economic problems noted by other journalists:
But with the army counter-attacking, it might be just another episode in the ebb and flow of war….
The economy has been ravaged by the war, and prices are much higher.
But the economy still functions. Farmers bring food to market. The wholesale vegetable market, which is a couple of minutes drive from front line positions in Jobar, is open.
Still — whether because of the developing events, because of the sight of the devastation in Jobar, or because of further consideration — the reporting has been unsettled. At the end of the article, the assurance of a regime and military firmly in control has been replaced with the assessment that the situation is “Complicated”. Bowen comments in the video:
Until the war, Syria will go on exporting violence and refugees….The war ebbs and flows, but no side has a decisive edge.
And then, at the very end, that war reaches the center of Damascus for the first time in Bowen’s stay:
Across Damascus, you can hear the war….Power cuts mean that the night is dark. So is the future.
Handle With Care
But if the tone of Bowen, between last week and Monday, has shifted from assurances to uncertainty, the reporting is careful not to cross certain lines.
The civilians who have tasted bombing rather than popcorn are still largely excluded. Or, if mentioned, they are framed carefully not to cast the regime and military in a bad light.
Colonel Sultan, having driven Bowen to the battlefront, pushes away the claims of targeting of civilians:
This is all propaganda to slander the reputation of the Syrian Army. It’s all lies. We were brought up not to kill peaceful civilians.
Bowen carefully says, “[The army] pounds the suburbs held by the rebels, where many civilians live,” and then writes the civilians out of the footage of a regime attack “On the rebel side, this is what is like to be on the receiving end.” Any civilians who “on the receiving end” are never shown.
It is far from the first time that the journalist has exercised such caution. When he regaled “Ice Cream in Damascus” in September 2013, it was only weeks after the Assad regime’s chemical weapons had killed more than 1,400 people a few miles away. Bowen tread carefully, not ascribing blame and keeping distance from the casualties: “The outer suburbs are the places hit by the chemical attack that the Americans say killed almost 1,500 people.”
Indeed, the strongest words about chemical weapons, rather than food, came from Bowen’s quotation of Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad:
When I asked Mikdad about the evidence that the Americans had come up with for the use of chemical weapons, he looked back into history, too. He explained that he had been Syria’s ambassador at the UN and remembered when the then US secretary of state, Colin Powell, gave his infamous briefing about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The new evidence, he said, was just as useless.
Tweeting About Food
In November 2014, Bowen offered a prequel to this month’s story:
I have taken to tweeting pictures of food. I’ve sent plenty from Damascus. That’s partly because I think food tells you a lot about a society. But also because it is important to show how people live as well as how they die. I have had a quite a severe trolling from those who disapprove, on the grounds that anything other than the horror of war is a distortion and a distraction. I disagree. If you don’t like it, trolls, don’t look at the pictures.
All of which is fair and proper comment.
The issue is what goes on beyond the popcorn and ice cream. Bowen claimed in the same article, “I was pleased with our reporting. We were managing to see both sides.”
But “both sides” from Damascus translates — as it did up to the close of the video on Monday — as:
The regime of Bashar al-Assad seems more comfortable than at any time since the war started in 2011….
In Damascus, the war seems to have receded. The city no longer shakes quite so much from the cracks and booms of outgoing artillery fire. The Syrian armed forces have taken ground around the capital, and negotiated local ceasefires.
And the civilians? The only reference to them is “plenty of people are still dying”. Oh, and that incident in August 2013 just before Bowen’s previous visit to Damascus: “[Assad’s] regime was accused of using chemical weapons.”
No, the issue is not the humanity in Bowen’s reporting about food and life in Damascus.
The issue, amid the easy assertions about the Syrian military and President Assad, is the humanity that is never seen.