James Traub writes: In the ancient southeastern Turkish city of Antakya,1 20 miles from the border with Syria, a plump Syrian merchant who calls himself Abu Nabil can be found most evenings drinking tea in the Bellur, a pleasant open-air cafe. Abu Nabil is the kind of mysterious middleman who germinates spontaneously in war zones. His specialty, or so he says, is arranging the release of journalists and activists kidnapped by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.
When I met Abu Nabil, in the first days of October 2013, he told me that he was at that very moment negotiating for the freedom of James Foley, an American freelance journalist who had disappeared the year before. I said that I had heard that Foley was held by rebels, not by the regime. Abu Nabil shot me a masterful look.
“The company” — Kroll Risk and Compliance Solutions, the private security firm working the case — “doesn’t know anything; the government doesn’t know anything; nobody knows anything,” he said, through an interpreter. “James Foley will come to his family in 15 days.”
Foley did not come to his family in 15 days; whatever hole he has been deposited in, he is there still. Abu Nabil’s tale, like so many of the narratives emerging from a vicious civil war now well into its third year, was a compound of outright lies, exaggerations, and, quite possibly, truth. The kidnapping and ransom specialists at Kroll had been sufficiently persuaded of Abu Nabil’s veracity that they dispatched two agents to Antakya, where they had spent weeks trying fruitlessly to press this Arabian Sydney Greenstreet for hard proof.
The fate of journalists kidnapped in Syria is a terrifying mystery. As of press time, at least 30 journalists, as well as a number of humanitarian actors, are languishing in captivity. In only a few cases do their colleagues or employers know where they are or who is determining their fate. In almost no cases have their captors made any effort to communicate. It is as if these unlucky men and women have simply disappeared.
The early days of the war saw a number of tragic deaths of journalists, including the Sunday Times of London’s Marie Colvin and freelance photographer Remi Ochlik, killed by regime shelling during the bombardment of Homs. And then things took an even nastier turn. On August 13, 2012, Austin Tice, an American former Marine, law student, and sometime journalist, was nabbed, apparently by the regime. Nothing has been heard from him since October 2012. Two months later, the NBC reporter Richard Engel and his team were kidnapped by what Engel described as the pro-regime militia known as shabiha. They escaped after five days when their captors drove into a rebel checkpoint. Those were just early mile markers on the road to anarchy. Today, rampant kidnapping has become the norm.
Covering wars is, of course, a dangerous job; that’s one of the things many war correspondents like about it. But Syria is dangerous in a way that is less thrilling than sickening. Stephanie Freid, who covers the war for the Chinese CCTV network, says, “I’ve never been in a bleaker, darker setting; it’s a godless place. Whenever I go in I feel like, ‘Just let me get out alive.'” While some major news organizations continue to work inside Syria, many of the world’s most experienced war correspondents — including C.J. Chivers of the New York Times, Paul Wood of the BBC, and Janine di Giovanni of Newsweek — stopped crossing into Syria in September 2013. They’re not afraid of being killed, at least no more than any sentient being would be in such a dangerous place. “I can take anything but kidnapping,” says di Giovanni.
Thus at a moment when Syria’s destiny hangs in the balance, and states opposed to Assad’s regime debate how, if at all, to support the rebels, it has become almost impossible to know what is actually happening inside the country. Though YouTube videos and citizen journalism of various bias and veracity litter the Internet, the average engaged person knows less and less about the real balance of forces, both between the regime and its opponents, and among the rebels themselves. Of course, given the actual state of chaos and internecine warfare on the ground, more coverage might not result in more support for the rebel cause.
The Assad regime has arrested journalists and probably targeted others like Colvin for death. That is what pitiless regimes do in the midst of wars. What makes Syria unique is the growing role of foreign jihadi forces among the rebels. Since the summer, the al Qaeda affiliate known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has spread like a contagion across the “liberated” region of northern Syria, from Idlib in the west to Raqqa in the east. Journalists who travel there are thus all too likely to come in direct contact with al Qaeda, which rarely happened even in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And al Qaeda has made clear that it views Western journalists as infidels and worse — CIA agents. They seize them not in order to get something in exchange, as criminal gangs and even “moderate” rebels brigades do. They seize them as agents of the enemy. The only mystery is why ISIS doesn’t kill them. [Continue reading…]