Times journalists answer questions about reporting inside Syria

Opposition activists provided this image showing the damage caused by heavy fighting between government and rebel forces in Aleppo, Syria.
(Aleppo Media Center / Associated Press)

Los Angeles Times staff writers Patrick J. McDonnell and Raja Abdulrahim recently returned from reporting trips in Syria.

McDonnell, the paper’s Beirut bureau chief, was covering the war from the government side. He wrote about the start of the school year in the Syrian capital, Damascus, the daily frustrations of living in a war zone and the boost President Bashar Assad has received from pro-government militias.

Abdulrahim was reporting from rebel-held areas. She wrote about people rebuilding their homes amid the ruins of Aleppo, the terrifying bridge where residents are picked off daily by a government sniper and fighting between Al Qaeda-linked militants and mainstream Syrian rebels.

They answered questions Monday about their reporting from readers on Reddit. Here are a few of the questions that generated interest:

From Reddit user Rhinoceross101: Given the level of insight you have in the area, are you any wiser on what would be the best course of action to stop loads of people dying? or does nobody have a scooby doo?


McDonnell: Wiser, probably not. But there is a broad consensus among people on both sides that a military victory by either side is extremely unlikely and a negotiated political settlement would be the best way to end the conflict. How to achieve such a settlement is the big question, however. Of late, both the United States and Moscow have revived the idea of peace talks in Geneva, possibly as soon as next month. We don’t know what will happen, or whether those talks will take place, but it is a sign that there may be some momentum towards a political settlement, however fragile and fleeting that sentiment may seem right now.

Abdulrahim: I’m not sure. Being on the ground gives us a first-person look at how complicated the situation is and is increasingly becoming as it devolves from a conflict between two sides to a war with multiple sides and players. There is no simple solution to stop all of the killing with many armed groups. But many of those who are killed each day are killed by government weapons like tanks, warplanes and Scud missiles. The chemical weapons currently being dismantled account for a small percentage of the more than 100,000 killed in Syria, so getting rid of those is not expected to make a large impact on the daily death toll. When I was in Syria recently, a man told me his take on the “give a man a fish” saying. He said, “Don’t give us refugee camps, give us a no-fly zone so we can live in our homes.” His opinion reflects that of many Syrians (in opposition areas).

brettmurf: How much has time in Syria made you reassess your own quality of life?

Abdulrahim: Of course it makes me very appreciative of living in a stable and safe city. Seeing how quickly lives and livelihoods can be disrupted shows us how much we take for granted. For example, I live in Los Angeles and any Angeleno knows well the sound of helicopters (“ghetto birds”) flying low throughout the day. I remember when I was in Damascus last year and heard the sound of a helicopter early in the morning. My first thought was “Ugh, ghetto bird,” before I quickly remembered where I was and the deadly implication of a military helicopter flying above. (Opposition areas are regularly attacked with government military helicopters and warplanes.)

whiskeyking: Raja and Patrick, do you think your different genders affect your reporting in Syria?

Abdulrahim: For the most part I don’t think being a woman has negatively impacted my access in covering Syria and has had some benefits. You’ll hear this a lot from female correspondents covering the Middle East, that being a woman allows us to sit with women and families in more personal settings that would be difficult or impossible for men to do. This is of course needed when covering a war, because wars are about more than just armed men fighting on the front lines. The Syrian conflict has created a huge humanitarian crisis and being able to access all parts of Syrian society enables me to better report on that.

McDonnell: Probably, in subtle and maybe not so subtle ways that I can’t articulate right now. I guess everything about us affects our reporting in some way. In every war zone that I’ve been to, I’ve run into extraordinarily courageous women journalists, usually found a lot closer to the front lines than I. Nothing but admiration from me.

mrtukkin: Is Syria doing a good job with destroying their chemical weapons?

McDonnell: So far, both the international inspectors and U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry have complimented Syrian authorities for their cooperation in the destruction of the nation’s chemical stockpiles. But the process has just begun -- the first physical destruction of Syrian weapons materials took place yesterday [Sunday] -- so there are likely greater challenges down the line. All agree it will be a complex and difficult endeavor, especially since a war is raging in Syria.

stumblecow: How many rebel/opposition groups are there in Syria, and how does that affect the war?

Abdulrahim: There are probably hundreds of rebel groups across Syria right now and new groups are constantly being formed. Disunity and splintering has been one of the biggest problems plaguing the rebels from the start. I’ve seen small militias break up even further into smaller groups over small disagreements. We’re seeing some recent efforts to unify certain rebel groups, mostly under Islamist banners, but it’s unclear whether this will be successful. Past efforts haven’t really panned out for them. What this means for Syria is an increasingly fractured country, where certain rebels groups could try to carve out their own territory. Some areas have already become like little warlord fiefdoms. For the rebels, this fracturing of their ranks and infighting means they are constantly distracted from fighting against the Syrian government.

100dm: How [do] smaller groups finance their purchases (weapons)?

Abdulrahim: In the beginning, we heard a lot of stories of people selling personal property or very often the gold jewelry of female relatives in order to buy weapons. As the conflict grew, so did the sources of funding. Syrian merchants have been known to finance rebel groups even as they outwardly display loyalty to the Assad government. Perhaps the biggest source of funding has been wealthy expatriate Syrians living in the [Persian] Gulf and other Arab countries. The videos rebels post of their group’s military operations against the government are meant to encourage donors to contribute.

sart0: is the country divided in support for the government and rebels? Would it be possible to divide the country into two part as in other countries, giving a sovereign area to the rebels to control while retaining the rest for the current government?

McDonnell: There are deep political fissures within Syria today, no question. But dividing the country geographically, as some outside experts have suggested, seems problematic to many Syrians. I have yet to meet a Syrian inside Syria who backs such an idea. For many it seems to go against a deep sense of nationalism. There are also practical obstacles to such a geographic breakup, as Syria is a very diverse nation composed of numerous sects and ethnic groups, often living in close proximity.


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