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Nir East

Understanding journalist Nir Rosen's relationship with the Syrian regime.

4:47 PM, Mar 19, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
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Journalist Nir Rosen defended himself against accusations over the weekend that he’d collaborated with Syrian security services. Rosen, who spent four months in Syria reporting for Al Jazeera International’s English-language website, was implicated in emails published by Al Arabiya. Along with the Guardian, Al Arabiya has begun releasing a cache of emails apparently drawn from the accounts of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma. There are reportedly 3,000 emails already, though so far only a fraction have been released—and two relate to Rosen.

rosen nir

Photo Credit: Center for American Progress

One, written in English and dated November 13, 2011, is from Assad advisor Hadeel al-Ali to the president’s private email account, forwarding Rosen’s CV along with his request for an interview with Assad. Ali puts in a good word to Assad for Rosen.  “He's been writing some positive articles on Syria mentioning the armed groups attacking the security forces,” writes Ali, “trying to represent the Alawites in a good way also.”

Then, Ali explains to Assad that Rosen has already been in the country for two months, and how he has been able to travel freely around the country during the course of the uprising. “He got his cover from Khaled and his people,” she explains.

It seems that “Khaled” is Khaled al-Ahmad, another Assad advisor whose exact role with the regime is not yet clear. In any case, because he too has the president’s private email address he is presumably close to, if not part of, the regime’s inner circle. A number of the leaked emails already released are from Ahmad to Assad, addressing security and economic concerns. One, written in Arabic and sent a week after the Ali email, relates in part to Rosen.

After telling Assad about a delivery of Libyan arms to the rebels, Ahmad relays what he has learned from the journalist. “Nir Rosen was able to enter Baba Amr (which is closed off) and has informed me that several journalistic delegations have entered the area after illegally crossing from the Lebanese border, among them a French and German journalistic delegation, and that the fighters are roaming freely in the streets, especially those who call themselves the battalions of Khaled Ibn al-Walid.”

When this email was released Friday night, blogs and Twitter feeds lit up with denunciations of Rosen. Some, apparently aligned with the Syrian opposition, called him a spy. More damning still, others alleged that Rosen’s information may have led to the deaths of journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, both killed in Homs by the regime’s security forces. Rosen’s defenders pointed out that the two were killed three months after the email from Ahmad to Assad. Rosen himself tweeted that the allegations “are completely untrue” and promised to answer the charges.

His response is characteristic of the same sensibility on display when Rosen was chastised for mocking CBS journalist Lara Logan after she was sexually assaulted last February in Cairo—here, again, Rosen is petty, self-pitying, and self-aggrandizing. He’s hired a lawyer and threatens to take those who are “defaming” him to court. Everyone else owes him their gratitude and prayers for enduring “difficult and dangerous conditions to provide them with an understanding of events in far away places.”

And then there’s Rosen’s random cheap shot at Israel. So what if he had to woo Syrian regime thugs to get a visa and clearance? According to Rosen, what was even worse—and worse than having to request access from the Mahdi Army, Al Shabab in Somalia, Mexican drug cartels, Mujahedin leaders in Falluja, and Taliban officials—was having to get approval from the Israeli Government Press Office to cover the Palestinian territories.

In the end, Rosen’s bluster and broadsides can’t help but damage his credibility as a reporter. This is a shame, because his journalism, as he says, speaks for itself—at least his work on Syria. The half dozen or so stories and interviews he’s done since September constitute the most detailed and comprehensive account of the uprising to date.

“My goal,” he writes, “was to provide an anthropology of Syria’s descent into civil war so people could understand what is happening there.” And it’s true—anyone who wants the fullest and most accurate picture of the yearlong rebellion and how it might turn out should read Rosen’s work. Any U.S. policymaker who picked up only Rosen’s long article in FP.com about Islamism and the Syrian uprising would find it a much better guide to the make-up of the armed opposition than the briefings that the American intelligence community has been giving legislators and journalists. 

As Rosen writes of his Syria reporting, “[It] is a clear eyed account which does not idealize or romanticize anybody but while sober it is always empathetic.” This is true. And yet, given Rosen’s marked sympathy for Syrian regime allies like Hezbollah, it’s not surprising some readers can’t see past his outspoken politics. How could a journalist who supported the resistance as openly as any Damascus apparatchik write credibly about a rebellion that threatens the Assad order?

Indeed, some of his Syrian critics have faulted him for being too sympathetic to the Alawite community, a perception confirmed to some by Hadeel al-Ali’s statement that Rosen was “trying to represent the Alawites in a good way.” However, the fact is that some of the opposition can only see the uprising in sharply sectarian terms—that is, if you’re not objectively with the Sunnis, then by default you’re with the Alawites.

However, while it’s true that Rosen did not compromise his work, as he writes, “to obtain access and the privileges that come with it,” the question remains: What was the extent of Rosen’s contacts or relations with Syrian intelligence officials during his time in the country?

Rosen explains that the “media and public relations advisers to the Syrian government or the president himself” that he was in touch with “are the same people who arranged for the ABC News interview with Barbara Walters, for the Sunday Times interview with Bashar al Assad, for Agence France Presse, and for others to enter Syria.”

It’s true that all of these journalists were also granted access by regime officials, including perhaps by figures who were more than just media handlers, who had, as Rosen discreetly notes of some his Syrian contacts, “additional responsibilities.” However, none of those other journalists stayed as long as Rosen did. He writes that during his time in Syria he “traveled and worked completely independently,” but this is not accurate. As Hadeel al-Ali explained in her email to Assad, Rosen worked under “the cover of Khaled and his people”—someone, that is, with close ties to the highest level of the regime. Without that “cover,” it is difficult to see how he could’ve traveled the country freely for four months in the middle of what has become a civil war—especially considering that other journalists have had to sneak into the country, and some may have been targeted by the regime’s security forces.

Rosen writes that the emails that contain his name “are certainly real.” Khaled al-Ahmad’s email to Assad says that Rosen told him about foreign journalists in Homs, and yet Rosen argues that he “did not inform on journalists who were already in Syria.” Since Rosen has himself authenticated the emails about him, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that either he or Ahmad is not telling the truth. Maybe Ahmad is purposefully lying—after all, he is part of a regime that traffics in murder, so why wouldn’t he lie? Or maybe Ahmad just misremembers the source of his information. But it is unclear why in either case he would randomly drag Rosen’s name into his correspondence with Bashar al-Assad.

Rosen should clear up the further ambiguities his defense has raised. 

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