For much of the past year, she has focused on the country’s borders and what the spillover has meant for those in limbo.
Sly spoke with Syria Deeply about how coverage of the conflict has changed in recent months, and whether on-ground reporting from Syria is endangered.
Syria Deeply: Let’s talk about the lack of access. Because it’s got to be frustrating sitting in Beirut, as it is here in Istanbul, covering this story without being able to go in and see it firsthand.
[![Liz Sly]]Liz Sly: It’s only been for the last few months now that we’ve had a real lack of access. There’s such a massive kidnapping threat in the north that it’s not even possible to go there at all. And it’s impossible to get visas from the regime side. So it’s massively frustrating, we have to cover Syria without going there. I don’t know if that might change, but I’m hopeful that some of this rebel fighting might change our situation. A lot of people, including many Syrians, are crossing their fingers that we might see a change in access in the coming weeks.
I’ve made around six trips into the north, the last one was in April. I got busy with various things including Egypt over the summer, and then by September it was suddenly too dangerous to go back.
SD: How have you been getting around that lack of access? How have you refocused your reporting?
LS: One of the things you do now is look for things you can do without going in there. A lot of Syrians are outside Syria at the moment, and they all have stories to tell. Two to three million people have been forced to leave. It’s a humanitarian issue, there’s a medical issue, there’s the impact on local communities [in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan], and you’ve got people with stories specific to what we’re seeing now, like activists who’ve been chased out by both sides, the government and ISIS.
One story I did recently was to look at the breakdown of the borders in the Middle East, which has been written about a lot by commentators, but I decided to go to border areas and talk to people living there and figure out how the conflict affects their lives and what their perception of the refiguring of the borders actually is. It was an interesting way to talk about the huge issues confronting Syria without actually being able to go.
SD: When you talk to Syrians now, has the narrative changed? A year ago, the people I interviewed still seemed to have hope, still praised the Free Syrian Army. And that’s all but stopped.
LS: It’s very sad because a lot of people supported the revolution with high hopes and there’s no way I can see now of disentangling the nightmare it has become. All those people who’ve left their homes and are living in camps – it’s heartbreaking. I can’t imagine how some of those people feel waking up every day, knowing there might not be a chance for them to go home anytime soon.
SD: Can you talk about the importance of local Syrian journalists in covering this conflict?
LS: [One] of the interesting things going on in the rebel-held areas is what’s been happening to the citizen journalists who played such a huge role in publicizing what was happening in the early days of the conflict and who have really defined the Syrian revolution as part of a whole new era in journalism and international news. Syria was a place where Western journalists couldn’t visit, and so local journalists were the ones telling their stories to the outside world.
That has really defined the Syrian story, and now these people have been squeezed out, and that’s pretty sad. I’ve noticed that we definitely don’t get the volume of local reporting out of Syria that we used to.
SD: What’s the most interesting Syrian story to you now?
LS: I’ve always found what’s happening in Raqqa and the east incredibly fascinating, and the way ISIS has moved in to replace the regime, but it’s because of them [ISIS is reported to have kidnapped dozens of foreign journalists and aid workers in the past year], we can’t go there.
SD: What are the risks of the lack of ground reporting?
LS: I’m really sad that the barrel bombings in Aleppo aren’t getting the publicity they could because we can’t get there to cover it. I do hope that changes very soon. But the situation has become so bad that unless there’s a significant change to the dynamic, we won’t be going back again soon.
There is a real risk the Syria story could just fade from consciousness in the absence of interesting ways to tell the story. If you have extremists controlling one part of the country and stopping journalists, and the regime controlling another part and stopping journalists, after a while there will be only so many ways to say something about Syria, and it will fall off the radar. That will suit the government well, because they want it to be seen as a non-story and fall off. But the other side wants it to remain in the consciousness of the world so that the issue gets solved.
Syria is not indefinitely going to be the most important story in the world. Iraq will be an important component of the story, Lebanon will be, and we could see a lot of attention shifting away from Syria. The challenge for those of us whose job it is to cover Syria is to keep finding interesting ways to keep the story alive.