< Syrian Rebels Appeal to Donors Through Video


Friday, July 27, 2012

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you noticed that coverage from Syria seems to come in waves. Last week, it sounded like this:

MALE CORRESPONDENT:  Tonight, a bomb strikes at the heart of Syria’s dictatorship.

MALE CORRESPONDENT:  …that we could be in the closing stages of the civil war in Syria…

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:  …potential collapse in Damascus, possibly, the speculation is, within the next 36 hours.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And this week, it sounds like this:

MALE CORRESPONDENT:  So much for those predictions that the Syrian regime would fall over the weekend.

FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:  Government fighters are streaming into Aleppo to try to, to crush the armed revolt, as they did last week in Damascus.

MALE CORRESPONDENT:  If anyone thought President Assad was about to give up this fight, they have clearly been proven wrong.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  The first few segments of this show deal generally with believing what you see and hear. As the battle for Syria has moved from Damascus to the more popular city of Aleppo, much of the global audience and the media are still relying on videos uploaded online to follow events on the ground.

NPR Middle East Correspondent Deb Amos joins us with some words of advice for the news-hungry Web trawler.

DEB AMOS:  Early on in this uprising, activists understood that the international media was not going to be able to cover this conflict. And so, those citizen journalists, those activists, began to cover their own revolution. I have met many of them who began as the documentarians of a peaceful uprising. They have moved on to become the documenters of the armed conflict.

Almost every rebel group in Syria has a media arm to document their armed struggle against the regime, and those are all now posted on YouTube.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So has the general message of these videos changed?

DEB AMOS:  These videos are a fundraising tool. If you want to mount a brigade, say 18, 20 guys, and you need the money to arm them, one of the ways that you get that money is that you produce a video of something that you’ve done in the field, take over an army checkpoint or at least challenge one. And those videos are posted on YouTube, and it’s the way that you show your funders that you’re doing what you said you were going to do.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And who are your funders?

DEB AMOS:  They can be governments, they can be Muslim Brotherhood. It can be Syrian exiles who have an interest in bringing the regime down and are supporting rebel groups now.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  There are as many Syrians out of the country as there are in it, right?

DEB AMOS:  Twenty-three million to 23 million, that’s just about what the numbers are. And in the past year, you have seen a remarkable organization on a political level. I have never seen this before. And it was in the beginning mostly humanitarian, that they were paying for medicine, equipment to be smuggled in to field hospitals. And now, it’s all about the guns.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So how does this work? A rebel commander needs more weapons, what exactly does he do?

DEB AMOS:  Well, I’ll give you an example of one that is on YouTube, and this is from the Farouq Brigade. It’s quite a remarkable bit of propaganda. It’s this commander [SOUND OF CROWD] riding on a Syrian tank. There is lots of young men along the roadway. They’re all holding guns, brandishing them over their heads. They’re all shouting. And there they are, victorious in a Syrian Army tank.

Now, nobody gave them that tank. They had to take that tank from the Syrian Army. That is a sign that they have been successful. And so, the idea is that that video goes up on YouTube and groups around the world will send them money into bank accounts in Turkey and then they can turn that into weapons and bring them across the border.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Are these various rebel brigades competing against each other for the same money, and does that play out in the videos?

DEB AMOS:  Absolutely, they are. This is Darwinian. It’s an armed beauty contest, with different groups trying to vie for the limited funds that there are. It’s the only privately-funded revolution [LAUGHS] that I know of. And that’s why these videos are so important. And because this is a conflict where there is not a lot of coordination between different commanders. They don’t tell anybody that they’re going to do this. And once a checkpoint is attacked, often there is indiscriminate shooting at anything that moves near the checkpoint. So it risks civilians and it risks other rebel units who don’t know that it’s coming. And so, there are times when it is counterproductive to make your video for your donor.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You haven’t talked about the Syrian government. How is it responding to this war, if not for hearts and minds then for money? It has, on some occasions, shepherded foreign media around. You’ve been among them. What’s its strategy, assuming that it has one?

DEB AMOS:  It certainly has a very high end propaganda strategy. When Damascus was engulfed in what the rebels called the Damascus volcano, Syrian TV ran a couple of reports that the sound that people were hearing were the celebrations before Ramadan, which is the month-long fast for Muslims. And certainly, among activists on Twitter, people were just laughing out loud about, you know, “Nice try, Syrian government. [LAUGHS] You are under attack and you’re trying to convince your supporters that this is simply a celebration.”

That was also clear as people were streaming out of Damascus into Lebanon. As reporters caught them at the border crossing, you could see who was a supporter of the government and who was not. Those who were supporters said to reporters, “Oh, nothing’s happening in Damascus, I’m just going to the beach.”

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Deb, thank you very much.

DEB AMOS:  Thank you, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Deb Amos is a Middle East correspondent for NPR.


Deborah Amos

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Brooke Gladstone