Journalist Examines Chaotic Fighting In Syria
The battle in Syria is being fought by rebel fighters who lack many of the basics typically associated with warfare: helmets, a large supply of ammo, and military planning.
"I was with one fighter who had 11 bullets, and he was, like, roaming as a freelance fighter along the front line trying to pick up a fight somewhere," journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad tells Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies.
Abdul-Ahad describes the situation in Syria as fluid and complicated. A correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian, Abdul-Ahad reported for the PBS Frontline documentary The Battle for Syria, which airs Tuesday.
"There is chaos, there is no military planning, there is no organization," he says. "Most of the skirmishes happen like a game of cat and mouse: The tank is the cat. When the tank moves down street, the rebels disperse, run away, try to ambush the tank, they go from a corner to a corner. Meantime, there is shelling [and] mortars raining on them."
Abdul-Ahad has covered conflicts in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq for the past nine years — and he says he hasn't seen such disorder and violence since reporting on Fallujah during the Iraq War in 2004.
"In other conflicts, you meet people and then you hear they died after a few weeks, months, years," he says. "In Syria, you meet someone in the morning and they die at the end of the day. As one of the officers was saying: 'The only thing we have plenty of to spend is men.' "
The Battle for Syria is an up-close look at insurgents fighting government forces in Aleppo, Syria's second largest city.
Abdul-Ahad says most of the fighters he has met — some of whom are jihadis, secularists or Salafists — are "just driven by the spirit of the Arab Spring, the spirit of the revolution ... fighting to topple [Bashar] Assad because they wanted a form of dignity. They were tired of being ruled like sheep, enslaved by one family, one ruling party."
Ghaith says he sees the recent protests and violence in Egypt and Libya as manufactured events by Salafists [ultra-conservative Muslims] looking to drive religion into daily political life.
He says if the film that insulted the Prophet Muhammad were the motivation behind the demonstrations, there would have been millions of Muslims in the streets of Cairo and Libya, not just hundreds or thousands.
"There are so many grievances against the West, but [they're] not necessarily the reason for these demonstrations. We are not entering a new era of anti-American feelings," he says.
On Syrian rebels posing as Salafists, followers of an ultra-conservative sect of Islam
"They are very, very restrictive in the way they interpret Islam. They have a very specific ideology ... You see them as probably 30-40 percent of all the fighting that happens in Syria. ...
"Why? Because most of the support is coming again from the Gulf countries, from Saudi, from Qatar, who really espouse these ideologies. And again, they [Syrian rebels] really have to take money from these countries because no one else is giving them money. I've met Syrian rebels who grow beards, who espouse this very conservative radical rhetoric when they speak. In reality, they drink, they take drugs, they have nothing to do with Islam, but they have to adopt this ideology to get money and support."
On the crowds demonstrating sadness over Ambassador Stevens' death
"[There are] far more people in Libya, in Tunis, in Cairo — especially in Libya — who support what the ambassador was doing in Libya than the people storming the embassy or killing the poor guy.
"But the reality is, those guys, these Salafists, most of these demonstrations were led by the Salafists — and the Salafists were totally outfitted by this Arab Spring. They were posing as the opposition to these oppressive regimes, they were saying for a long time — they and other Islamists — they were saying that Islam is the solution, that Islam provides the path for the revolution. And then, suddenly, you see those masses pouring into these streets calling for democracy. They didn't call for Islam ... the revolution was never about having an Islamic state."
On the American approach to Syria
"I think [the U.S. is] taking the worst approach at the moment. They are not openly supporting the rebels, while they are, from under the table, coordinating with the rebels, letting their allies send them a trickle of weapons — the weapons are neither enough for the rebels to win nor for them to be defeated.
"So you have this prolonged conflict and mainly because of — not only the West, but the whole international community — paralysis of the Syrian situation. For months, the activists, the people were demonstrating in the streets, but no one wanted to touch the Syrian uprising because they feared it might change the balances in the Middle East. ...
"So I think a big opportunity was missed when the activists were not supported, with the paralysis of the international community, allowing Russia, China and Iran to play a huge, big role in this conflict, allowing the Saudis and Qataris to sponsor militias and send weapons. So [the U.S. is] neither supporting the rebels, nor ... stopping this conflict."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who has the day off. Our guest, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, is an Iraqi-born journalist who spent the last nine years reporting on some of the most dangerous conflicts in the Middle East. He began in journalism as a translator working with reporters from the British publication The Guardian, who were covering the war in Iraq. He soon did his own reporting on the sectarian war there and has since spent time with the Taliban in Afghanistan, with al-Qaida in Yemen, with resistance fighters in Libya and, most recently, with rebels fighting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
His stories paint intimate portraits of those engaged in conflict, and he sometimes paid a price for getting so close to the action. He was captured by the Gadhafi regime in Libya and kidnapped by militants in Afghanistan. Abdul-Ahad is now a correspondent for The Guardian, and his reporting is featured in a new "Frontline" documentary called "The Battle for Syria." The film gives an up-close look at insurgents fighting government forces in the city of Aleppo. It premieres on PBS stations tonight.
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad spoke to me yesterday from Istanbul. Well, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, welcome to FRESH AIR. Was it difficult to get to the front line in Syria?
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: No, no, getting to the front line is very easy, unlike any other conflict. Syria, you know, you just cross the border from Turkey, you take a car, you have to wait in different outposts for the rebels until you reach the front lines. So logistically, it's very easy: You just meet the rebels and you drive with them.
Having said that, it is a very, very tough front line, you know, one of the toughest I've seen. I've been covering wars for the last 10 years. I haven't seen anything like this since Fallujah, probably, and that up to 2004.
DAVIES: In what way? What makes this particularly striking?
ABDUL-AHAD: There is no front line in the sense of a front line that is a line defending - people defending the line, people attacking, people coming back. It's a very, very fluid situation. People are fighting over, you know, streets, alleyways. They move from one building to the other. So the whole concept of front line is misleading in a way.
You wake up in the street one morning, and the rebels would advance a couple of streets. Then end of the day, they would lose these two - it's very, very fluid situation. And of course you have the snipers, you have the shelling, you have the planes. It's very, very complicated and difficult.
DAVIES: And we should explain the context here. You were, for this front line, in the city of Aleppo, which is a large city in northwestern Syria, right, relatively close to the Turkish border, right?
ABDUL-AHAD: It's in the northern part of Syria. It's close to the Turkish border. It's not the biggest city, and I think it's second after Damascus. It's the commercial hub of Syria. It's an ancient city, so you have - you know, the fighting was taking place in the new suburbs of Aleppo. But the heart of Aleppo is this ancient city there that's been there for thousands of years.
DAVIES: Right. So this was house-to-house, street-to-street fighting or I guess building-to-building because a lot of these were large apartment buildings that we see in the documentary. Did the rebels immediately trust you? Do they welcome journalists?
ABDUL-AHAD: Yes, the rebels on this stage in the fight, and I have to stress in this stage of the fight, where they really welcomed journalists, and they really want to, you know, show what's happening, so they would take you in. They would let you accompany them. And I think they would let you accompany them in a very dangerous way.
So unlike other, you know, front lines when, you know, the commander will tell you no, no, you can't go to the front line, and your job as a journalist is to keep pushing to go to the front line, in Syria, you want to go to the front line, here you go. You walk down that street.
So there is nothing holding you back from actually falling into the hands of, you know, the regime or someone else, and that's also another challenge, I think, in this - not only in Syria but in this, you know, Arab Spring conflicts; Libya, Syria. There are no restraints to where you can go and what you can do.
DAVIES: Now, the rebels that we see in your documentary, none of them have helmets. It seems to me few, if any, have ballistics vests. They have mostly hand-carried weapons. Do you want to just describe maybe one of the firefights, one of the encounters in the city of Aleppo with the government forces?
ABDUL-AHAD: Dave, not only they don't have helmets and flak jackets, they don't even have enough ammunition. I was with one fighter who had 11 bullets, and he was, like, roaming as a freelance fighter along the front line trying to pick up a fight with someone. So they're very, very unequipped.
There's one skirmish when the rebels hear about an army unit moving down the road, and they want to go and attack them. They go in the middle of the street, which is very, very courageous, on the back of a pickup truck, firing machine-gun fire. And there is chaos. There is no military planning. There is no organization.
Most of the skirmishes happen like a game of cat and mouse. The tank is the cat. When the tank moves down the street, the rebels disperse, run away, try to ambush the tank. Meantime, there is shelling, mortars raining on them, the buildings themselves kind of being attacked by the tank, and then they fire an RPG. Sometimes they go into the middle of the street, the RPG launcher wouldn't work. Sometimes they get killed.
In other conflicts, you meet people, and then you hear they died after a few weeks, months, years. In Syria, you meet someone in the morning, and they die in the end of the day. It was this - you know, as one of the officers was saying, the only thing we have plenty of to spend is men.
DAVIES: And you said that some of the rebels have less experience, military experience, than the journalists. Did you ever find yourself wanting to say, hey, wait a minute, you don't want to be out there, or take the other side of the street or something like that?
ABDUL-AHAD: You know, of course you're a journalist, you're there to monitor. It's not my job to intervene in a military conflict. But, yes, I mean, you hear kind of like mortars falling down, and you have to pull the people around you and say, you know, maybe we should go under a building or hide somewhere.
At one point, it was very, very - you know, I don't want to use the word pathetic, but it's really pathetic. You stand in the street, and there's this, you know, jet fighter kind of circling overhead. And they go and hide under a tree. You know, it's really sad, I mean, as if the tree would stop, you know, the shelling or the shrapnel. It's just this sense of fear that, you know, robs everyone, and you just want to hide. You just want to shrink.
So even the tree, which will absolutely do nothing, it's - for them it's a form of cover. As I said, because most of them are civilians, farmers, they're very, very courageous. They go into the middle of the street to fight. But they have no vision of what happens after they take that street. There is no military planning. There are no commanders.
Even in this front line, where I spent most of the time, 150 fighters probably belong to a dozen units. There is no overarching commander or plan for this front line.
DAVIES: The fighters that you did meet and talk to, what motivated them?
ABDUL-AHAD: Some of them were Salafists, some of the jihadis, some secular. Most of them were just driven by, you know, the spirit of the Arab Spring, the spirit of the revolution. They were revolutionaries fighting to topple Assad because they wanted a form of dignity. They were tired of being ruled like sheep, enslaved by one family, one ruling party.
We've heard so much about this kind of - you know, these kind of regimes in Iraq and Libya and other places, and Syria is a typical, you know, Mukhabarat state, a secret police state. So they are really fed up with that, and they're driving fighting to drive that regime out of - you know, they're fighting to - I don't know, a sense of liberation, to liberate themselves, democracy, if you want to call it.
Now within that frame of mind, you have all different kind of groups and movements. You have Islamists fighting for a form of Islamic state. You have seculars. But mainly it's fighting for - they call it a revolution of dignity.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things that you hear and read about the Syrian resistance is the presence of al-Qaida and other jihadists there. I'm sure it's hard to tell, given, you know, how dispersed the fighting is, but what's your sense of how strong a current the jihadi fighters represent in the Syrian resistance?
ABDUL-AHAD: The jihadis are a strong current, in a way, you know, stronger than what we saw in Libya, in a way totally different from Yemen, the revolution in Yemen. Yet, they are - they are one segment within different elements of the fight. Unlike in Iraq, where the jihadis, you know, owned the resistance when they became the umbrella - al-Qaida became the umbrella, and most other groups entered, you know, fought within that umbrella - in Syria they are a smaller group.
Everyone is armed. So the jihadis are not the strongest element in the street. Last week, there was a skirmish between a jihadi group and a, quote-unquote, "secular group," and the jihadi commander was killed. So they are not the strongest element, yet they are a very strong element in the battle. But again, you have to remember, the Syrians, at this moment they are desperate for support from anyone.
Again, we saw it in Iraq. We saw in Libya. We saw it in other places. They are so desperate that they are, you know, firing old ammunition smuggled from Iraq. They are buying weapons at exorbitant prices. So when a bunch of jihadis, foreigners, come with lots of cash, with weapons and with expertise, and they offer their help, they would be mad to say no.
They would - you know, take their support now, and we figure out in the future. Of course it's a very, very dangerous strategy, but that's what they have.
DAVIES: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is a correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. He is a veteran correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian. He has reported widely on conflicts in the Middle East. He has recently been reporting from the conflict in Syria. His work is featured in a new "Frontline" documentary, which airs on PBS stations tonight.
You also reported from eastern Syria, far from Aleppo, and you reported on an al-Qaida group there. Was the situation similar there, where you saw the jihadi fighters being a small but significant part of the opposition?
ABDUL-AHAD: Yes, it was a very similar situation in eastern Syria. But in eastern Syria, you had - you saw less foreigners. Most of the foreigners were there who came from Saudi, though the shared border, or came from Iraq, or, you know, a few of them came from Yemen. One came from Afghanistan.
In Aleppo, it's different because - because it's closer to the border of Turkey, so it's very easy for the foreigners, the Chechnyans, the Turks, you know, even British, you know, crossing the border was a very easy, you know, just a hike across the hills.
But in eastern Syria, al-Qaida has existed there for a longer time. They've been there since the Iraq war. Some of the bases of al-Qaida in Iraq actually were in eastern Syria. Many of the young men in eastern Syria fought in Iraq. So, sort of al-Qaida in eastern Syria is more, has existed there for a longer time than northern Syria. Northern Syria is a newer phenomenon.
DAVIES: And when you were in eastern Syria, what was your sense of the popular support that the al-Qaida forces got?
ABDUL-AHAD: They have popular support in eastern Syria. Again, these are tribes very similar to the Iraqi tribes. They're very Sunni. They're very conservative. So it's easier for al-Qaida to exist in their midst. It's easier to spread the Salafi-jihadi ideology, and that's very, very dangerous, of course.
In northern Syria, the culture is different. The people are more tolerant, you know, multicultural, multiracial there. So al-Qaida is a distinctive group. Their Salafi ideology is very, very distinctive from the rest of the population. In eastern Syria, they are spreading, you know, faster, easier, and they have been there for a long time now.
DAVIES: And you've used the term Salafi several times. That's a traditional kind of fundamentalist kind of current of Islam?
ABDUL-AHAD: That's, you know, what we can call them, the ultra-conservative. You know, they are very, very restrictive in the way they interpret Islam. They have a very specific ideology. Of course not all the Salafis are jihadis, but all the jihadis are Salafis. And if we're talking about that issue now, then we have to look into the whole map of the resistance in Syria, and we see - we were talking about the foreigners and the jihadis, but if we talk about the Salafis in general, the ultra-conservative, you see them as a, you know, probably 30, 40 percent of all the fighting now happening in Syria is a sort of Islamic in some way or some sort.
Why? Because most of the support is coming, again, from the Gulf countries, from Saudi, from Qatar, who really espouse these ideologies. And again, they really have to take money from these countries because no one else is giving them money.
I've met Syrian rebels who grow beards, you espouse this very conservative, radical rhetoric when they speak. In reality, they drink, they take drugs, they have nothing to do with Islam. But they have to adopt this ideology to get money and support.
DAVIES: Wow, so they're in effect posing as religiously observant in order to promote the opposition?
ABDUL-AHAD: Dave, 90 percent of all the battalions in Syria have a very Sunni conservative name not because 90 percent of the fighters are ultra-conservative Islamists, although this is what the Syrian regime and others would like to portray it, but because the support is coming through specific channels, and one of these channels are the Saudis.
So you need to adopt a name. You can't go and fight and call your name like, I don't know, the secular fighters, and expect money to come from the Saudis. You have to adopt a very religious outlook, religious beards and ideology and names just to get the support that you need.
DAVIES: You mentioned that help is coming from Saudi Arabia and that some of the rebels in effect kind of market themselves to the - as the kind of groups they think that the Saudis would like to support. Is that money from the Saudi government, from private organizations or religious groups?
ABDUL-AHAD: Different sources of funding, you know, the Saudis are providing different sources of funding. So you see Syrian ex-pats working in Saudi Arabia, (unintelligible) Syrians. You see Syrian individuals, religious organizations, and I really suspect with, you know, a lot of Saudi government support.
I've met rebels who have met Saudi or Qatari officials. I don't see money coming out of Saudi without the Saudi government consent, especially after, you know, 9/11 and the whole issues of funding. And it's a very strange thing because I don't see the Saudi and the Qataris as this, you know, democracy-loving regimes. Yet they are playing a big role helping the rebels in Syria.
And that's a - you know, that's creating all this cynical look toward the Syrian revolution. Many people in the Middle East think of it as a Saudi proxy war against Iran. And that's a very, very sad thing for the rebels and for the revolution itself.
DAVIES: In the documentary, we see some of the unit commanders in Aleppo, where you were near the front lines, arguing with each other about how to proceed pretty intensely. I mean, do you see this ever getting more coordinated?
ABDUL-AHAD: There are attempts to coordinate these attacks. So you have the - you know, a couple of battalions, bigger battalions have been created in the past few months. Of course you have the Farouq in Homs. They have existed as a, you know, as a bigger battalion for more than a year now. There is the Towhid Brigade, which is a collective of smaller battalions, Islamic battalions.
You have bigger organization, but still you don't have one commander, for example, for Aleppo. You don't have one commander for one front line. And it's like - it's how do you call it - it's an exercise in democracy. Every single, you know, rebel operation is an exercise of - in democracy. You see guys arguing, no, we fire the RPG now, no we fire the bullets now. No, we go that street.
And sometimes these skirmishes, these attacks, unfold over, like, many, many hours because people arguing. You know, George Orwell, in his book "Homage to Catalonia," he was basically describing a very similar scene between all these international leftist volunteers when they fought in Spain in the 1930s.
You know, how do you move from becoming a revolutionary into becoming a disciplined fighter?
DAVIES: So you see a lot of passion, not much organization. Do you see this as a movement that could win?
ABDUL-AHAD: It's a - I mean, I am sure Syria will not go back to the way it was, you know, two years ago. Definitely, it will take a long time. I do see them winning because there is no way back for those people. They have left everything. They have decided to come and become fighters and fight in the streets of Aleppo.
The longer the fighting takes, the more people will be killed, the more fragmentation happens in the society. So it's a very, very, very difficult situation. I don't see them losing. I see them winning, probably, but in a very long time.
DAVIES: You know, I have to say one of the things that we in the West have heard a lot about what's going on in Syria is indiscriminate bombing and shelling by the government in response to protests and resistance. And it was interesting to me in watching your "Frontline" that here you see government army, infantry, engaging in this neighborhood-to-neighborhood, block-to-block fighting. Is it significant that the government is sending its forces in to contest the rebels in a city, rather than simply bombing from the air?
ABDUL-AHAD: Well, the government have been sending troops for the past - you know, almost for the past two years. And if they can do it by troops, they will do it by troops. They've been always sending tanks and troops and, you know, government-sponsored militias. But when we went in the countryside of Syria, of Aleppo, you see, you know, most of the towns and the villages have been, you know, quote-unquote, "liberated" by the rebels.
But the government still maintains specific bases in this middle of this liberated countryside. And every night, they start, you know, shelling the villages and towns around them, lobbing shells. I don't know if it happens out of their frustration or because they just want to, you know, antagonize the rebels, scare the population. But they do is systematically not only in Aleppo, everywhere in Syria.
In the neighborhoods of Syria, you know, I stood with rebels around a street corner. They had, you know, very, very little ammunition. There were government troops in the end of the street. They had tanks, and they had, you know, obviously lots of ammunition. But they are incapable of driving to the end of the street and retaking the street. I don't know why, because they don't have the same morale like the rebels, because they are scared of the rebels, because they are conscript soldiers, and they don't see why should they fight and get killed in the street.
But that's the situation. You see a bigger army, well-equipped, with lots of ammunition, incapable of taking - of re-taking neighborhoods in Aleppo or in different parts of Syria, from rebels who are less numbered and far less equipped.
DAVIES: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is a correspondent for The Guardian. His reporting is featured in a new "Frontline" documentary called "The Battle for Syria," which premieres on PBS stations tonight. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who has the day off. We're speaking with Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, an Iraqi-born journalist who spent the past nine years covering wars and conflict in the Middle East. He has reported on al-Qaida camps in Yemen, Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and rebels in Libya and Syria. He's featured in a new Frontline documentary called "The Battle for Syria," which premieres on PBS stations tonight.
We've seen a wave of anti-Western violence recently, of course in a number of countries in the Middle East and in Cairo and in Libya, where Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed. You wrote recently that this has little to do with the film which insulted the Prophet Muhammad. What's really going on here?
ABDUL-AHAD: Well, initially the kind of - the demonstration be it in Cairo, be it in Libya, these are manufactured events. You know, a bunch of clerics would like to drive religion in the daily political life. They would seize on an event. They will take the opportunity provided by this idiotic film and then they will create an event, and that event will provide them with power, with a reason to go into the street and, you know, lead the masses, so to speak. That's the initial kind of couple of days. Once that happened, you see all the, you know, grievances that people in this region have against the West coming up to the surface and people start demonstrating for everything - from poverty, unemployment, anger against regimes, into the West support Israel, the - you know, Obama's drone wars, the Iraqi war, Afghanistan, all these things collectively provide the, you know, the pretext, the reason for the anger you see in the streets.
Is it about the insulting of the prophet? I don't think so. Why you see only, you know, hundreds, thousands demonstrating in the streets? Why don't you see 100 million people, you know? There are millions of Muslims around the world, so there are so many reasons for people of this region to be angry at the West. And no, it's not enough for Obama to have this new relationship with the Arab world, it's not enough. The grievances go, you know, longer and deeper.
DAVIES: So are we in for an era of anti-American and anti-Western hostility?
ABDUL-AHAD: I don't think we ever ended the first era of anti-Western, you know, anti-colonialism, to enter the new era. It's there. It will always bubble to the surface.
DAVIES: You know, the days after the attacks that killed Ambassador Stevens, the New York Times reported that far, far larger crowds turned out to demonstrate sadness at his death and some support for the U.S. What do you make of that report?
ABDUL-AHAD: Well, of course it's true. You know, far more people in Libya, in Tunis, in Cairo who, you know, who actually support - especially in Libya, who support, you know, what the ambassador was doing in Libya, than the people who went, you know, storming the embassy or killing the poor guy. But the reality is those guys, those, you know, the Salafists were, you know, most of these demonstrations were led by the Salafists, and the Salafists were totally outfitted(ph) by this Arab Spring. They were, you know, posing as the opposition to these oppressive regimes. They were saying for a long time - they and other Islamists - they were saying that Islam is the solution, that Islam provides the path for the revolution. But the revolution was never about having an Islamic state. How - you know, those Salafists want to come back into the surface and they find in this film as an opportunity, be it in Libya, they find in the Jihadi movements in Syria now as an opportunity for them to come on the surface. So you have to see it within the, you know, the prism of that thing. It's not - again, there are so many grievances against the West, but not necessarily the reason for these demonstrations. We are not entering a new era of anti-, you know, American feelings, it has nothing to do with the American elections, it has nothing to do with the Obama administration. It has to do with the Salafists agitating and frustration in the streets of the Middle East pouring into the streets.
DAVIES: You know, a big question for American policymakers is whether it should be - intervene more directly in the conflict in Syria, I mean, you know, to supply weapons or create a no-fly zone. And, you know, there is this very touchy question. As you say, there are many grievances against the West in many Muslim countries and a lot of resentment at American troops being in mostly Muslim countries. And, of course, we saw this horrific bloody sectarian war that followed the U.S. invasion in Iraq. What's your read of what the American approach - what American approach might be most productive in Syria?
ABDUL-AHAD: I don't know what most productive would be for the Americans to do in Syria, but I think they are taking the worst approach at the moment. They are not, you know, openly supporting the rebels, while they are from under the table letting - coordinating with the rebels, letting their allies send them a trickle of weapons. The weapons are neither enough for the rebels to win, nor for them to be defeated. So you have this prolonged conflict and mainly because of not only the West, but the whole international community, paralysis over the Syrian situation.
For months the activists, the people who were demonstrating in streets, but no one wanted to touch the Syrian uprising because they feared it might change the balances in the Middle East. Then the Syrians decided to, you know, pick up arms and start fighting and move it into an insurgency and now suddenly you have an insurgency under your hand and you don't know what to do. And the next step we'll have a civil war and no one would know what to do. So I think a big opportunity was missed when the activists were not supported, with the paralysis of the international community, allowing Russia, China, Iran to play a huge, big role in this conflict, allowing the Saudis and Qataris to sponsor, you know, militias and send weapons. So you're neither supporting the rebels nor you're, you know, stopping this conflict. It's a worse situation you have at this moment. So to be honest, I don't know what's the perfect solution. I - all what I see on the ground now is a mess.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. He is a correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian.
We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. He is a correspondent for the British newspaper the Guardian. He is Iraqi born and has reported widely on conflicts in the Middle East. His reporting on the conflict in Syria will be featured in a new Frontline documentary which airs on PBS stations tonight.
I'd like to hear little bit about your own experiences. As I understand it, you got into this business by initially translating for Western journalists in Iraq? Is that right?
ABDUL-AHAD: Yes, it was the day after Baghdad fell in 2003, and I, you know, claimed that I was a British journalist and walked through - I don't know, 10 American checkpoints into the palace - what's now the Green Zone. I really wanted to see the palace of Saddam; how did the live, who were those people who ruled us for so long? And then on the way out I hitched a ride with, you know, with a Western journalist, James Meek with the Guardian, and he's now one of my greatest friends - and I started working as his assistant translator, and I just realized I love this. I love to, you know, meet people and talk and then tell a story. I think, you know, that day I stopped being an architect and I think I started the process of being a journalist.
DAVIES: Tell us a little bit about your life before then. I mean how did you learn to speak English so fluently?
ABDUL-AHAD: I was an architect in Baghdad. I studied architecture. I finished school and I decided, you know, to dodge military service and not to join the army. And I spent, you know, many years in Baghdad just changing my apartment, moving from one place to the other, faking ID cards and stuff. And that's, you know, probably that experience helped me a lot later when I became a journalist. I learned English in 2001-2002. I was, you know, tired of reading history, and my history - and I'm sorry to say that, but most of our history books are driven either by ideology or by, you know, we rarely read honest Arab history books in Arabic. So I decided to learn English to read about my history in another language and things start moving from there.
DAVIES: Wow. You know, I'm sure your fluency in Arabic was an enormous edge in a lot of the reporting that you've done. But I also imagine that people detect regional accents and dialects. And I wonder if there are times when you're in, you know, Yemen, or Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or Libya, where people can hear that you're an Iraqi and whether that makes that difference.
ABDUL-AHAD: Sometimes you wish you are a foreigner, I tell you. Sometimes you wish you're American in certain conflicts. You know, in Syria, for example, it's not very good to be an Iraqi. The Iraqi government is taking a huge standing on the side of the government, they are supporting the government, so it's not very good to be Iraqi. The same thing in probably Yemen and other places. But then it's a thing you learn in Iraq. You learn how to switch your accent. For example, during the civil war in Iraq, you know, when you reported in western Baghdad, you have to speak with a Sunni dialect. When you crossed the lines and you go report in Sadr City in eastern Baghdad, you have to switch your accent and you speak like a Shia. The same thing happens in all of all these, you know, situations with civil wars. I know Lebanese friends, Lebanese journalist who, you know, had to switch their accents the Lebanese civil war. Same thing happening now in Syria, for example. If you're Alawite, if you're a Sunni, how do you cross a checkpoint? I think it's a skill you learn very early in your life, how to pass a checkpoint. It's a very, very difficult and dangerous situation. And I saw it in front of me in Aleppo this time. I saw a man coming into the rebels thinking they were the government soldiers and start praising the government and denouncing the rebels. And he was, you know, taken and beaten up and tortured.
DAVIES: So you look at your career. I mean you've covered these horrific events in Iraq. I mean you were among the al-Qaida in Yemen. You were with the Taliban in Pakistan, was kidnapped. While you were covering the conflict in Libya, you were captured by the Gadhafi regime and held for, I think, about two weeks, right?
DAVIES: I have to ask, because - why do you continue to do this risky stuff? Do you think about maybe it's time to do something a little more conventional?
ABDUL-AHAD: Well, I would love to cover the wine industry in South of Spain, but I don't see that...
ABDUL-AHAD: ...making a very interesting story. You know, I mean there is something very interesting in these places, that those guys do have a very interesting story to tell. It's very - most of the time they're kind of put in a corner and then their story is told in a very conventional way - if we can say that. I'm very, very interested in who those guys are. Why do you become a fighter with al-Qaida in Yemen? Because there is some local politics going on in the background. It's not because you woke up one morning and you decided to become an al-Qaida fighter and go attack the United States. Why do you become a Taliban fighter? Why do you fight in the streets of Aleppo if, you know, if you really love food and you have kids and want to spend time with your family? There is something that drives those men to become fighters, and I want to tell that story, in a way. I don't know if I've succeeded in doing that, but this is what I aspire to.
DAVIES: Well, I think a lot of your writing is, in fact, quite personal and you really take us inside the homes and streets and minds of these folks that you meet. Have you become more cautious? Have you learned how to stay out of more dangerous situations?
ABDUL-AHAD: You know, when I first started covering Iraq or covering the war in Iraq, the sounds of bullets were just a backdrop to what you're doing in the streets. Now in Aleppo, in Syria, like every bang is associated with a metal object flying somewhere and you really want to keep your head down. So I would love to say that I am more cautious now, but in the end of the day this is a war situation. And you know, you think you're in control but reality is you're there in the middle of all these different elements
DAVIES: So you got into journalism after the American invasion and you saw such horrific things happen to your country. I'm wondering kind of what - I don't know, it's a big question, but what's your take on where Iraq has come and where it is today? Do you spend time there?
ABDUL-AHAD: Yes. Of course I spend time in Iraq. You know, one thing you do when - and I think I was very lucky in - in that is, I looked at Iraq as, you know, as an outside experience. I was Iraqi. I grew up in Iraq all my life. I'm Iraqi. I speak the language. But when I covered Iraq, I tried to do it as a foreigner covering a foreign country. I - otherwise, you know, I would be too passionate. I would be too angry. I would be too frustrated, and I will just - I won't be able to do it.
So I tried to see it as a different country, as a foreign country, as what happens to the people when their country is occupied, when the fighting happens in the streets and when a regime like this is installed. So I think Iraq now is in a very, very bad place. It's a mafia state. It's ruled by, you know, by a very, very corrupt mafia.
And I don't mean only the prime minister and his party. I mean even the opposition are no better. Everyone is corrupt. You have this clique of politicians, army generals, their bodyguards, their militia commanders who have total monopoly on the state, the wealth of the state.
I mean, we're talking about a country with a budget of $100 billion in the past few years, yet when you drive in the streets of Bagdad, it's the same miserable, it's the same festering garbage, the same sewage overflowing in the street. The corruption is massive. There is no state of law, you know. No one is immune.
You can be detained in the street, tortured, captured, interrogated. You confess to whatever crime they tell you to confess, and then your family has to pay a huge bribe to get you released. So it's a horrible state. I'm more scared when I cover Iraq than I am, you know, in Syria or in Libya.
DAVIES: How much of this do you lay at the feet of the U.S. invasion?
ABDUL-AHAD: You know, people ask me when I'm in the Middle East, and this is my dilemma. Sometimes I really hate it. And they always ask me this same question, you know, every taxi in every other Middle Eastern country, they ask you the same question. Oh, you're Iraqi. So was it better under Saddam or after the American occupation?
And as if you don't have any choice - either a mad dictator or a crazy occupation, you know? You should have a third choice. Of course I blame the American occupation. Of course I blame them for many things. You know, the occupation itself is a crime. Who can occupy a country in this day and age? Yet to blame everything happening now and put it at the feet of the Americans is unfair.
This is a long history of coups and corrupt state and corrupt dictators and, you know, Saddam and before Saddam and after Saddam and the invasion of Kuwait. And the - so the Americans share part of the blame, like every other player in the history of Iraq. They are not the sole perpetrator of the miserable situation now in Iraq.
The Iraqis themselves, you know, they voted for these political parties, and they voted on a sectarian basis. So they do share a part of the blame, too. But the occupation was a disaster.
DAVIES: You've had a fascinating cultural journey yourself, and you wrote an interesting piece about - it might've been the first time you went to London, I think, and you went to the Glastonbury music festival. What was this like for you, coming from a place like Iraq and experiencing London?
ABDUL-AHAD: It's still a fascinating thing for me when I go to a place and I see a huge crowd of people just having a good time. This is a fascinating thing. I mean, I just have this huge smile on my face, be it Glastonbury, be it anywhere else in the world.
When you see a huge crowd of people, even in Istanbul, you know, on a beautiful, sunny day, you see families, people taking their baskets, their food, their, you know, grilling equipment and filling the park, side streets, this - you know, it's an amazing feeling to see a huge group of people just having a good time.
The way I see it, the way I saw it in my country, whenever you see a huge crowd of people, it's always associated with some form of anger or some form of demonstration or even religious expression in a very, very violent way. So this is still my cultural shock when I see a massive amount of people just having a good time.
DAVIES: Well, let's hope it happens in Iraq some day.
ABDUL-AHAD: I hope so.
DAVIES: Well, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, I hope you stay safe, and I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.
ABDUL-AHAD: Thank you, and thank you for having me.
DAVIES: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is a correspondent for The Guardian. His reporting is featured in the new "Frontline" documentary "The Battle for Syria," which premiers on PBS stations tonight. Coming up: Kevin Whitehead reviews jazz pianist Brad Mehldau's new trio album of pop covers. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.