BBC should admit that Raqqa never had a 'dirty secret'

by Mohammed Elnaiem    


Raqqa has a dirty secret, at least according to Quinten Sommerville and Riam Delati, two journalists working for the BBC who claimed to have exposed the scandal. “In light of the BBC investigation”, they both boldly exclaimed, “the [US-led] coalition now admits the part it played in the deal.”

250 IS fighters, along with 3,500 family members were allowed to leave Raqqa, Syria in an evacuation envoy. The Syrian Democratic Forces mediated by local tribal elders to allow for the operation to take place, and the US Coalition reluctantly oversaw the whole process. Even more scandalous were the allegations by the frustrated and underpaid smugglers who transported the envoy. With foreigners in their ranks and arms in their transportation, the bussed IS fighters were delivered to Abu Kamal in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor. With the right contacts, they could travel abroad, and some were already planning their next attack in Europe. One higher IS official, Abu-Musab, was already en-route to Turkey before he was intercepted by Turkish backed rebels.

Once the expose was released to the public, panic-stricken politicians in Westminster and Washington were caught in a frenzy of make-believe. The U.K ambassador to Turkey, Richard Moore, called the agreement “shameful”. In the House of Lords, Lord West of Spithead (Labour) asks Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Conservative/Minister of State) if “her majesty’s government [was] aware of the decision to allow some 4,000 Daesh fighters and their families to leave Raqqa.” Riam Dalati, one of the pieces co-authors, tweeted that while the “SDF said it was only a couple of 100s”, “1000s of Islamic State members left the city on buses.”

In actual fact, both Lord West and Dalati were far from expressing the truth, with the former most likely misinformed, and the latter trying to hyperbolically promote his article within a twitter status word limit.

1000’s of IS members were not safely transferred out of Raqqa -- unless guilt is extended to those with familial ties – and only 250 IS fighters were accompanied with 3500 of their family members in the journey outside of SDF held territory. Needless to state, the family members are civilians. This isn’t a difference of semantics; it is a highlight that has political consequence. It also isn’t the only dishonest way in which the evacuation envoy has been talked about.

What has been more controversial about the piece is that Raqqa’s dirty little secret wasn’t really a secret at all.

Like virtually every major mainstream news outlet, the BBC reported on it almost immediately as it occurred. On 17th October 2017, this is what the BBC had to say about the widely publicized event which was actually “exposed” by the very forces who took Great pains to “hide it from the world”, the SDF and US coalition themselves.

“Up to 300 militants were thought to be holding out on Sunday, after Syrian jihadists and their families were evacuated along with 3,500 civilians under a deal negotiated by the Raqqa Civil Council and local Arab tribal elders.”

It wasn’t only the BBC who reported the widely publicized deal of course. The agreement, which happened on the eve of the IS fall to the US-backed Syrian forces, was reported by ReutersITV, and Al-Jazeera. At the time, when there were conflicting accounts on whether or not foreign fighters were included in the deal, Dalati tweeted that foreigners were being compelled to stay by the coalition, as a "victory display." Such is the hard position that the SDF and coalition must deal with, either they are keeping the foreigners there for public relations, or letting them leave to threaten Europe. Damned if they do, damned if they don't. 

Needless to state, If it was a secret deal, it wasn’t very well kept.

This was not lost on the authors of the piece, who were, after all, the very BBC correspondents on the ground who reported on the evacuation deal in the first place. “The dirty secret was not the deal per se”, co-author Delati told The Region, “but its magnitude and the lies it tried to peddle as truth.”

The question that this ordeal poses is one of journalistic ethics. If it was never really about the deal itself, why has the commentary, from the declarations of the Turkish Foreign Minister, to the U.K Minister of State centred around the deal? Why would the deal itself be implied in the subtext? Perhaps its time for some reflection: Syria has forced us all to reconsider the ethics of our profession.

A story overshadowed
It would be wise to ask an important question about the evacuation deal itself.

According to sources trusted by Dalati and Sommerville, and even in words inscribed on a letter written by the SDF and Arab tribes, the goal was to prevent an unnecessary death toll of civilians in the week preceding the downfall of IS. Considering the fact that the civilian death toll from air-strikes throughout the campaign has made operation inherent-resolve a subject of vigorous criticism, this ought to have been viewed as a positive, albeit difficult compromise.

The deal was not the first of its kind either, weeks prior, a convoy of IS fighters at the Lebanon/Syria border was transferred – with the approval of Hezbollah and Damascus – to Deir Ez-Zor. The escapade was widely reported by most media outlets who followed the convoy daily. As Wladimir Van Wilgenberg, another correspondent on the ground told The Region, “Turkey did the same in Al-Bab, and the SDF did it before in Tabqa and Manbij.”

But if throughout the Syrian Civil War, these kinds of agreements have been brokered, what is it that makes this particular one so tenuous? “The coalition was a little vague about it”, Van Wilgenberg told The Region. “But the problem with the BBC reporting is that it sees this in itself as being negative”.

Or as Dalati put it to The Region, “If it wasn’t a secret” then, “why were journalists kept away from the scene for a week?”

It was this vagueness, coupled with the restrictions on journalists in Raqqa that stimulated the motivations for the piece. From the 9th of October until the 14th, Journalists had their movement restricted in Raqqa.  When the SDF and the Coalition released a press release on the 14th, many had questions. But for those who didn’t believe ulterior motives were at play in the restrictions, the behaviour of the coalition was understandable.

First and foremost, there was the security consideration. In an envoy transferring thousands of civilians accompanied by hundreds of IS fighters, the fastest way to put it in jeopardy was to publicize it. So that safe passage out of SDF territory could be ensured for the civilians secrecy was paramount. A month prior, when the highly publicized transfer of IS fighters to Deir-ez-Zor from the Syria/Lebanon border got full media attention, the United States itself tried to sabotage the trip. Is it possible that the coalition wondered whether their very own tactics would be used against them?

Then, of course, there was the disconnect between the US’s approach to local civilian councils and its public pronouncements. Publicly, as Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend put it, the U.S. disapproved of IS withdrawal agreements. In this particular situation, and in spite of potential accusations of hypocrisy, the U.S. coalition bit its tongue and deferred to the SDF. “We do not condone any arrangement that allows Daesh terrorists to escape Raqqah without facing justice, only to resurface somewhere else.” But “We remain concerned about the thousands of civilians in Raqqa” read the press release that was publicized after the envoy was secured. If media attention didn’t compromise the agreement, it could have been a Washington pressured by it that would.

But Dalati insisted that there was something more insidious going on.

“We broke this story 5 days ago” he tweeted at the time it was announced to the world, “Now its time [for the coalition] to put some lipstick on the pig and make it beautiful”. Perhaps to his and Sommerville’s frustration (and this, I admit, is just speculation), unlike previous evacuation deals, this story was going to be drowned out by the noise of other major events (like the military buildup in Kirkuk), and more importantly, by the celebratory mood surrounding the fall of IS’s capital in Raqqa.

It wasn’t only that 250 fighters and 3,500 civilians were bussed out of IS territory, it was the fact that this story would either fade with the news cycle or be overshadowed by what many hailed as the “liberation” of Raqqa. For both Sommerville and Dalati, there were reasons to tame festivities, but this would happen later. With the help of sources and new incriminating facts, the overlooked news would be repackaged as a scandal, sold to the world and get the attention they probably thought it ought to deserve.

Different Worlds
J. Michael Straczynski, a famous playwright and comic writer, once penned a letter entrusting his readers with the key to the “midnight nation.” Inviting them to a corner of San-Diego in 1978, Straczynski was struck by two worlds “sharing nothing but longitude and latitude.” The daytime nation was composed of the businessmen and clerks, found lounging around and trying to get home. And the midnight nation was that of the lost people emerging “from shadows and beds of pain to walk the same streets In search of fixes, money, and bars.” The daytime nation couldn’t sympathise with the midnight nation. The midnight nation would forever be unfairly maligned as just a world of vice.

Syria, or what’s left it, is truly the convergence of many different worlds, of different nations occupying the same place. Worlds that find it extremely difficult to sympathise with their counterparts.

Sometimes, geography is destiny. In areas towards the north, and north-east, the peoples of Syria have for the longest time confronted the menace of IS while Assad forces had withdrawn to reposition their machine of bureaucratic murder elsewhere. For many of these groups, including those who have stitched the FSA brand on their logo, “The Syrian Revolution” is a beautiful abstraction. Fluid alliances, and sometimes contradictory coalitions are made to first and foremost to defend families from ISIS. Even though many of these peoples rose up in 2011, by now, even pro-Assad battalions can be negotiated with if it means fighting against the dictatorial threat at hand: the Islamic State. Go further South, and the “fight against IS” seems like a betrayal. Whereas the weapons once used to come to fight Assad, now they go to the Kurdish “collaborators” (an old and dangerous trope, regularly used by some in the Syrian opposition). In the Christian quarters of even a rebel-held city, a quite Assyrian family may also have a portrait of Assad up on their wall. Assad is brutal, but they fear that the sectarian direction that the rebellion is taking might make them vulnerable to populist and Islamist infused violence.

All of these worlds can’t truly sympathise with the others. Syria is not therefore just a battle with guns, it is one of the most ruthless wars over narrative. Journalists, whether on the ground like Sommerville and Dalati, or writing remotely like myself, get sucked into these worlds as well. 

When Sommerville and Dalati went to Raqqa, they asked themselves whether or not they were witnessing a city that was “liberated” or decimated. The coalition, Sommerville wrote in a reflection on his time in Raqqa, brought about “433 likely civilian casualties in Raqqa. That is more than the number killed by Russia, the Syrian regime, or IS.” “Street by street, house by house, Raqqa is being destroyed.”

Here too, Sommerville was able to navigate between different worlds. He could feel the grasp of Kobane’s martyrs but also couldn’t drown out the wails of Marwa, Mariam and Ahmed Shahab, three children who perished with their mother after an airstrike hit their home. Both realities existed at the same time, sharing nothing but longitude and latitude.

The truth is that just as there was the tragedy for Marwa, Mariam and Ahmad Shehab, there was also the liberation of Selah Hesen Reso, a fourteen-year-old Yazidi boy who was kidnapped in 2014, and freed by Yazadi women soldiers fighting for the Sinjar Women’s unit. Both worlds are real, and the campaign will be remembered by different people in different ways.

And in many other ways, both worlds preceded the war. With all of the different peoples of Syria who have had different needs. One of the reasons for Kurdish ambivalence towards the broader changes happening around the world has been related both to the side-lining of their quest for self-determination, and also the different and almost always unfair standard of scrutiny that they have had to put up with since the beginning of the revolutions in 2011. The Kurdish movement has to confront “scandals” periodically, in an absurd world where open knowledge is regularly repurposed to delegitimize a group of people, who in the first instance, are constructed in the Arab chauvinist image of “collaborators” by default (this gets translated to western audiences later).

 To take a few instances, Strangled by an embargo and trying to tend to a humanitarian crisis, when the Syrian Raqqa civilian council tried to set up makeshift IDP camps with little resources in Hassakah, they SDF was declared as overseeing "death camps” by the official opposition. When trying to evacuate Arab villages as they approached IS territory, the YPG were branded as the agents of an ethnic cleansing, and by the time the U.N. declared their evacuations as done out of “military necessity”, the damage had already been done. Until today Kurds, are regularly maligned as racist supremacists. And of course, one can’t forget when Roy Gutman insisted that the Islamic State and the YPG, “have often worked in tandem against moderate rebel groups”. Such is the narrative war, in which as we’ve all had to witness, even first responders are not free from condemnation. 

But the narrative wars aren’t only courteous disagreements between analysts, politicians and journalists, they have consequences that can mean imprisonment, and sometimes death. When Kyle Orton – a clear partisan of the Syrian opposition and fierce critic of the Raqqa campaign – wrote a report for the Henry Jackson Society warning that British fighters volunteering in the battle against IS should be immediately detained for posing a “security risk”, he simultaneously cancelled the return tickets of many putting their life at risk in the fight against IS, and condemned those who had already died.  

To be sure, there were new pieces of the puzzle that Sommerville and Dalati claimed to have excavated in their investigation. The First was the involvement of the US which oversaw the convoy through the air. The second was a phone-call expressing the need for secrecy to the smugglers who transported the convoy. The third was an allegation that IS hardliners were bombed into submission to allow the evacuation to take place. Both counts were rejected by the SDF and the coalition, an easy thing to do when a report is based heavily on testimony. And then, as Dalati has insisted to The Region, there is the fact that while the 3500 family members were described as “human shields” by the coalition, they were actually kin. Just because they aren’t hostages, however, that doesn’t mean that their lives shouldn’t have been sparred by the eventual bombings. They are civilians, and on this “We Agree”, says Dalati.

But these details do not, like Sommerville and Dalati insist, truly reveal the “dirty secret”. Nor, aside from the educated observer, are they being interpreted as the dirty secret. The evacuation itself, which was public knowledge is being interpreted as the secret. An open secret, that to the concern of Dalati and Sommerville, threatened to be obscured by the noise of what was a monumental achievement: the fall of IS in Raqqa.

A world of make-believe
Was the repackaging ethical? Here too we must return to the different worlds that occupy Syria, and we must emphasise the lack of sympathy offered to the world occupied by the vast majority of Syrian Kurds. Ankara was probably thrilled with the report, the Turkish Government would love nothing more than to be equipped with the ideological ammunition to aid their campaign in equating the PYD – which it believes to be a front for the PKK – with the Islamic State. Just as Ankara was gearing up to attack Afrin, and make its way into Kurdish territory, a convenient report serendipitously appeared that could, if slanted in a dishonest way, help conflate the SDF with the enemies they risk their lives to defeat. The report, to its great merit, acknowledges that the deal was “about minimising causalities”. But it was too late. “The SDF IS deal is extremely grave and Eye-opening,” wrote the Turkey Foreign Ministry, “The Deal shows if you fight a terror group with another terror group, then those terror groups will eventually cooperate” (does the deal in Idlib with Jihadists mean that Turkey is a terror group then?). “They are in close cooperation with Daesh”, Mevlet Cavusoglu, was happy to declare. 

On November 21st, 2017, Turkish officials made sure to exploit the updated news cycle by implying that it too didn’t know about the evacuation, demanding biometric data of the next potential attackers to Europe. A diplomatic realignment just in time for an invasion of Afrin, in an absurd world of make-believe.

What’s most important though is that those who bled, those who fought IS, those who protected embedded journalists have been thanked by being accused of collaborating with their enemy, overseeing death camps, ethnically cleansing Arabs, posing a risk of equal magnitude to IS to the UK, and now, being responsible for allowing IS to attack Europe. At the end of the day, an overlooked story was repackaged as a “dirty secret”, and those who have fought and died in the fight against the Islamic State are being accused of collaborating with their enemy. Is this the way journalists want to influence international politics? We all need to rethink ethics. Syria changed journalism forever.