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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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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.

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