Things are getting progressively worse. In Turkey, the government is trying to outlaw the predominantly Kurdish HDP political party.
Today, our guest, Lindsey Snell. Snell, a 37-year-old year old journalist is originally from Daytona, Florida. She is a print and video journalist specializing in conflict and humanitarian crises. Snell left for Syria to film the toll of Russian and Syrian airstrikes on civilians, which have relentlessly pounded hospitals, schools and markets. She has filmed more than 30 video dispatches from Syria, some of which have aired on Vocativ, MSNBC, Fusion and the Discovery Seeker Channel. One of her pieces, on Aleppo schools hit by airstrikes, won an Edward R Murrow award last year.
For several years, Snell has covered the Middle East and North Africa, especially Syria, Iraq, and Tunisia. She was once kidnapped by Turkish-backed terrorists in northern Syria and then thrown into a Turkish jail for two months after her escape from Syria. Snell had left Turkey just before the failed 15 July coup against Erdogan’s government and returned in the middle of an ongoing crackdown during which authorities have thrown hundreds of Turkish journalists in jail. The US government’s efforts to get a US citizen safely out of Syria ended up being used against her. Turkish media portrayed her as a US spy, at time when the same media was alleging that the CIA had been behind the coup. We talked about Kurdish politics of Turkey and the role of different states involved in Syria with Ms. Snell.
Enjoy your reading.
What could you tell us about yourself, Ms. Snell?
I’m an independent print and video journalist who has spent most of the last decade covering the Middle East and North Africa.
You have written extensively about the crisis in Syria. The popular uprisings that swept much of the Arab world in early 2011 have been widely interpreted as opposition to political authoritarianism, but acknowledgement has also been made of the fact that they were equally driven by salient economic factors such as dissatisfaction with the distribution of wealth and opportunity. How do you foresee the changes in political dynamics and the possible change in the role of different states involved in Syria?
There are the government-held areas with major Russian influence, of course, and the SDF-held areas, with a measure of US influence.
In the parts of North Syria occupied by Turkey, especially those along the Turkish border, they’re basically operating as Turkish colonies already. The Turkish government controls these areas both directly and indirectly, through their Syrian National Army proxies. There’s a PTT outpost in al-Bab, schools are teaching children—Arab children—in Turkish, the currency used is the Turkish Lira, not the Syrian Pound…the examples are endless.
Erdogan and other AKP politicians have made a number of statements over the years indicating that they believe the Syrian border cities to rightfully belong to Turkey. MHP politicians have said as much even more directly. So, for as long as they’re allowed, Turkey will continue to occupy these parts of Syria. Turkey will attack additional cities (Manbij, Kobane) to complete a corridor. And it’s pretty clear that the ultimate goal is official annexation.
It’s unclear what role the US will play in Syria in the future, but at this point, Biden has done little to reverse the Trump’s step back from partnership with the SDF. US politicians have admitted that the US saw the local al-Qaeda affiliate as an “asset” for the US strategy in Syria, though, so between that and the years of disastrous support for opposition factions fighting the Syrian government and each other, it’s pretty clear that no US role in Syria will ever be a positive one. And there’s obviously negotiation between Russia and Turkey over parts of Syria. For example, Russia has withdrawn from Ain Issa previously in an effort to get the SDF to surrender the area to the Syrian government, knowing that Turkey and the SNA would capture the area if they refused to do so. It’s very complicated.
One of the important developments we saw in West Asia this decade was the emergence of the world’s most powerful terror group, the ISIS, and its end. As a reporter from the battle ground, what led to the emergence of the ISIS? Do you expect the ISIS’ resurgence in West Asia?
Chaos led to the emergence of ISIS, particularly the chaos caused by the Arab Spring. Tunisia, which, despite being a tiny country, had more men and women go to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS than any other country, is a good example. The Arab Spring started in Tunisia. Secular, authoritarian Ben Ali was overthrown, and the Islamist extremists who’d been in the shadows throughout his rule were suddenly free to operate openly. In early 2014, I visited Tunisia, and there were men on the streets holding signs encouraging other men to go to Syria to join the fight.
And then, of course, the Turkish state allowed these men, and tens of thousands of others from virtually every country on earth, to land in Turkey and cross the border to Syria with few impediments.
In Syria, ISIS came about alongside the Free Syrian Army and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Even in 2014, Free Syrian Army factions, including those that had been vetted and approved for support from the US government and deemed “moderate,” were bemoaning ISIS’ switch from ally to solitary group, fighting everyone else. A Jaish al-Mujahideen fighter in Aleppo told me then of ISIS, “They’re good men, and good Muslims. They’re just a little brainwashed now. But I think they will join us again.”
Obviously, that didn’t happen. ISIS grew more brutal and more isolated. But it serves to illustrate ISIS early on: fighting on the same side and friendly with the “rebel” factions supported by America.
I don’t think ISIS will re-emerge in a major way in Syria. There are still cells, obviously, but the US-led coalition is still in Syria and Iraq under “Operation Inherent Resolve” eliminating them. It’s just a bit ridiculous to celebrate the defeat of an ISIS cell comprised of a half dozen barefoot militants in Deir Ezzor when, a few hundred kilometers down the road in the Turkish-occupied regions of Syria, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and myriad extremist, Turkish-backed Syrian National Army factions are getting stronger and doing more harm.
The Kurd community is one of the prominent communities in West Asia. They have been fighting for an independent state for a long time. What would be the future of the Kurds in West Asia and their political dreams?
This varies by area. But things are getting progressively worse. Currently, there’s a conflict in the Kurdish community between those who support the PKK and those who don’t. It’s especially clear in the KRG. Turkey is building more bases in northern Iraq, they’re occupying large swaths of predominantly-Kurdish territory in north Syria, and in Turkey, the government is trying to outlaw the predominantly Kurdish HDP political party. None of these realities bode well for the future of the Kurds.
What challenges do journalists face while reporting from a conflict zone? How do you look back at the few decades of your career?
There are the obvious challenges related to safety and security when in conflict zones. I’ve experienced a couple near worst-case scenarios personally, having been kidnapped by al-Qaeda and subsequently arrested by Turkey in 2016. It’s just a reality of conflict reporting. But a less obvious challenge is the challenge of publishing news without outside bias or influence. Every outlet has an agenda, and can twist a journalists’ work to fit it.
For an MSNBC piece in 2015, I reported from opposition-held Syria. Militants from the faction I was with, another faction deemed “moderate” and worthy of US government support, were driving around with explosive suicide belts so that they could, in their words, “kill as many Shias as possible to please Allah,” referring to the Syrian-government allied militias they were fighting at the time. The on-air correspondents aired the story with the tagline “Iran-backed Shia Militias Fight in Syria.”
Journalism is just a hobby for me these days. It’s much less maddening this way.