Reporting Syria: I Talked to Everyone, Except Assad

Photograph Source: Zyzzzzzy – CC BY 2.0

I’ve spent months these past eight years in Syria’s amputated cities. They are a scar on all our lives – the Russians, the Syrians, the armed Islamists, the western powers that spent more time trying to destroy Syria than the Syrian regime.

The bodies buried deep within these heaps of concrete, the survivors, and those invisibly but forever mentally wounded have paid the price of our military cruelty and indifference. Many of those who fled these gaunt cities are now in Europe – or at the bottom of the Mediterranean. And we don’t even know – or care? – about the statistics. Did 350,000 die here? Or 450,000? Or 500,000? These figures have all been used, a careless 150,000 separating the first from the last.

Beirut, Mostar, Sarajevo, Aleppo, Homs, and now Mosul and Raqqa – we are forced to ask ourselves if these sepulchral ruins are something we have come to regard as natural, something we accept or have accepted for hundreds of years: that destruction is a natural part of history.

I hope I don’t believe this. I’ve driven thousands of miles across Syria, with no minders (they are mostly called up into the army) and no protection to reach front lines where Syrian government soldiers, often wounded, have run and crawled through the broken concrete to show me Isis flags in the next field or broken house.

If they cross the lines, journalists will have their heads cut off – which is why there are no Western reporters based in the government-besieged province of Idlib (they only very rarely ever visit). And I’ve always believed that regimes are to be avoided. I’m one of the few journalists I know who has not interviewed Assad. Talking to armies can reveal the truth.

I reckon half the Syrian soldiers I’ve interviewed have later been killed. The total dead of the entire army is a state secret, but I’ve discovered the real figure: around 85,000 – quite a toll for the Assad regime’s only real defenders. Until the Russians came.

I talk to them all. It’s my job. One general, ‘The Tiger’, was so used to gunfire that he spoke while sitting in a field erupting with shell explosions – until I realised he was already, in his own mind, ready to be killed, and I explained that I could hear him more clearly if we were in a trench.

That’s what you’ve got to remember in all wars: that you are going there to report – not to die.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.