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Reporting conflict in Syria

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 16:23 UK time, Thursday, 7 June 2012

Some months ago, I reflected on the difficulties of reporting from Syria. The deaths of Marie Colvin and a dozen other journalists in the country so far this year has given us cause to think long and hard about the very real dangers there. But so too does the complexity of the situation on the ground in Syria, and the need to try to separate fact from fiction.

Damascus prides itself on being the oldest, continually inhabited city in the world. It also has the longest history of rumours passing for fact.

I spent three days in Syria earlier this week, talking to all sides involved in the current conflict. Waking up on my first morning, social media was alive with reports that the mobile phone network was down. True enough, I could access the hotel wi-fi but not place a call. On Twitter and Facebook, people claimed the phones had been turned off as the precursor to a major military assault. The truth it seems was more prosaic. It's the high school exam season in Syria - diplomats claimed the real reason was the phone network had been turned off to prevent students cheating. Even in a conflict zone, good grades count for a lot.

In the aftermath of the massacre at Houla last month, initial reports said some of the 49 children and 34 women killed had their throats cut. In Damascus, Western officials told me the subsequent investigation revealed none of those found dead had been killed in such a brutal manner. Moreover, while Syrian forces had shelled the area shortly before the massacre, the details of exactly who carried out the attacks, how and why were still unclear. Whatever the cause, officials fear the attack marks the beginning of the sectarian aspect of the conflict.

In such circumstances, it's more important than ever that we report what we don't know, not merely what we do. In Houla, and now in Qubair, the finger has been pointed at the shabiha, pro-government militia. But tragic death toll aside, the facts are few: it's not clear who ordered the killings - or why.

Given the difficulties of reporting inside Syria, video filed by the opposition on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube may provide some insight into the story on the ground. But stories are never black and white - often shades of grey. Those opposed to President Assad have an agenda. One senior Western official went as far as to describe their YouTube communications strategy as "brilliant". But he also likened it to so-called "psy-ops", brainwashing techniques used by the US and other military to convince people of things that may not necessarily be true.

A healthy scepticism is one of the essential qualities of any journalist - never more so than in reporting conflict. The stakes are high - all may not always be as it seems.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.


  • Comment number 1.

    The BBC has slavishly followed the line of its government paymasters.

    Why would the Alawites (a minority) wish to start a sectarian war?

    This has all the hallmarks of an Iraq-style deception with our state broadcaster playing its part.

  • Comment number 2.

    We spent the weekend watching non-stop parades and on the news we're treated to journalists regurgitating government propaganda about regimes they want to overthrow.

    In all the experience isn't dissimilar to watching TV in North Korea.

  • Comment number 3.

    Great to read something that bears a touch of truth to the problems in Syria .. may i ask the question? why havent i seen similar reports on the televised BBC news? as i to smell a rat at the whole thing in Syria and can clearly see that it looks like NATO want to go in , no matter what ... Funny that Libya isnt mentioned anymore . Maybe its because its a bloody mess (worse than ever)

  • Comment number 4.

    At last! I have been despairing over how utterly biased the BBC has been over Syria. I wonder whether Jon Williams will be able to make any difference to the mostly appalling coverage of Syria by the BBC. Once upon a time Russians listened to the BBC to get the truth, now us Westerners listen to Russia Today to get the truth. How the times have changed!

  • Comment number 5.

    I was about to say the same thing as you bombus ... i to have recently tuned into RT news to get the truth , the BBC use to be such a non bias , well documented journalism , i Fear it may have now become a government propaganda machine to try and brainwash the people into how War seems to be the new word for Peace!

  • Comment number 6.

    In a world where hacking a murdered child's cell phone passes for journalism of the highest order, I apply healthy scepticism to everything labeled as "news" or "official reports". Every report has a motive, be it power or profit. Neither are fully served by the simple truth, if it even exists.

  • Comment number 7.

    Here Here @ JM72 ... its a disgrace how many innocent women and children are blown to pieces in Drone attacks! why is no one held accountable for all these massacres? While Clinton and Hague are calling for blood of the Syrian regime ,with not as much as even an investigation?? something stinks! and i mean from our side

  • Comment number 8.

    I'm really encouraged to read this article. For weeks I've waited for concrete evidence that these many heinous crimes were ordered by Assad or his military and thank goodness we finally have a reporter stating that no one really knows who is killing who. I'm waiting to judge Assad and the minute you give me evidence of these alleged crimes, I will do so - but not before.

  • Comment number 9.

    As far as I know journalists are free to work in the UK. Syria allows no such freedom to journalists other than its own.If free reporting was allowed the world would hopefully learn the truth.Currently all we have is rumour and inuendo,hardly the fault of the BBC or UK!

  • Comment number 10.

    "In Houla, and now in Qubair (...). But tragic death toll aside, the facts are few: it's not clear who ordered the killings - or why." What is clear though is that the UN Monitors tried to enter Qubair and the Syrian ARMY did not let them in; they were also SHOT AT with small arms. Perhaps we do not have a full reporting in Syria, but we have a mind that can think?

  • Comment number 11.

    I wonder why we would all agree that politicians lie through their teeth , yet we take our governments word (and that of clintons) when they say "Its Assad doing the killing , believe us!" we just nod our heads without questions? its not that long ago we were sold the whole WMD programme in Iraq! by none other than "Our Politicians

  • Comment number 12.

    To "citizenry" would you let social workers into your house if you thought they were going to tell lies about you , so you could lose your children? Im just saying the whole thing stinks to high heaven and we wont get the TRUTH .Personally i think the UN have made their minds up a long time ago , its only a stepping stone to Iran then ww3 .. our leaders love WAR

  • Comment number 13.

    Thank you Jon Williams for the first objective report on the current situation in Syria from a BBC journalist. I've never known the BBC to lose so much credibility in such a short time-frame.

    The unsubstantiated and vitriolic language used by the White House and our Mr Hague is extremely worrying. They are not fools, there is a very dark agenda.

  • Comment number 14.

    Seems to me that NATO wants to drop some of their new toys (in our name and with NO regard for innocent lives) on Syria and the BBC are doing as they are told!! Im not for Assad nor against!! i just DONT believe Democracy comes by a gathering of nations blowing the hell out of a country , but rather from within its own country . is NATO the new 3rd Reich?

  • Comment number 15.

    I happen to have friends in Syria;they tell me about constant fear for their lives by the killings of the regime and the shabiha which occur every day;they kill savagely and target sunnis;and they terrorise;a doctor friend says that now in the hospitals they face the shabiha's guns to treat the wounds of their co-criminals;this is a savage regime; it needs to go down and not turn into civil war.

  • Comment number 16.

    Dear soxaboo; I understand your point; thanks for the comment. But what I say above happens to reflect the syllogism that matches my experience about the horrors I hear from friends that happen in that country. Please anyone having time and willing, see the summary analysis of Jim Muir from Beirut:, it is accurate.

  • Comment number 17.

    Jon Williams' article is the first honest piece of work published by the BBC so far on this sad state of affairs. All else has been laughably one-sided with who knows what motive behind it. Is it just the usual noughties BBC trying to be politically correct (and getting it hopelessly wrong - again) or something darker? Peter Barry's comment (above) hit the nail on the head.

  • Comment number 18.

    And please I am not denying that there are layers of power struggles at a both regional and international level over Syria; what I am saying is that with all and despite those, we STILL have to face a fact from a humanity point of view; that the Syrian people are being slaughtered by a savage regime and are now at the brink of slipping into a dreadful civil war.

  • Comment number 19.

    citizenry said: "I happen to have friends in Syria ..................this is a savage regime; it needs to go down and not turn into civil war."

    Maybe you could you describe the scenario your friends in Syria would like to see if President Bashar al-Assad stood down.

    And explain how the different factions within Syria can live together in peace following recent events?

  • Comment number 20.

    citizenry do take the time to read Jon Williams' article more carefully - "In Houla, and now in Qubair, the finger has been pointed at the shabiha, pro-government militia. But tragic death toll aside, the facts are few: it's not clear who ordered the killings - or why." Proper reporting on this conflict demands objective non-partisan journalism, not anecdotes from your friends or anyone else's.

  • Comment number 21.

    The picture of what is "really" happening in Syria is painted by Western media. I suppose that aim was to create situation that is getting out of control. It is regrettable that Western public can accept such illogical and biased reporting on Syria - on such a massive scale.

  • Comment number 22.

    Dear Peter;people in Syria die every day for 1,5 years now; and for forming a view on the situation there are scores of sources and evidence about what has been happening.The regime is putting up its own version by exploiting that we cant be there;in fact that is why we cant be there.I recommended a journalist analysis too; in fact of the BBC itself.And i take full responsibilty for my comments.

  • Comment number 23.

    Applaud articulating what 'should' happen still, but after Houla or Wisconsin internationally, or Prescott to Guardian to BBC to Today to Newsnight 'outrage' manufacturing daily, hard to accord much credibility to claims from the BBC either, much less those it asks its audience to trust have been vetted in a commitment to 'interpreting events' that has become simply too 'unique'.

  • Comment number 24.

    ps: reducing the character length to its current level is pathetic, truly. As is having a preview with no count to guide, and a system that defaults by erasing all to edit. The BBC plays silly games too often for its own good.

  • Comment number 25.

    Regarding Psyops, Sybil Edmonds reported back in Nov 2011 that Col. Riad al-Assad has been working with U.S. & NATO, right inside the US Incirlik Base in Turkey, participating (among other things) in US psychological and information warfare inside Syria with the Information Warfare Division inside Incirlik base. Why has the BBC NOT checked this out?

  • Comment number 26.

    I do sympathise with the people of Syria , but when i look at how this is just Libya all over again i wonder what the real agenda is , where is this all going? This is a report (By the BBC) as the Libyan conflict was coming to a close .. the cost of life is frightening, and i believe Libya is STILL in turmoil

  • Comment number 27.

    "In such circumstances, it's more important than ever that we report what we don't know, not merely what we do." Facts are few: it's not clear who ordered the killings - or why. These statements are essentially all you have to report: There is nothing that can be reported with certainty, and to report without certainty is not news; it is speculation & prejudice.

  • Comment number 28.

    The problem is that the BBC is reporting what Hillary Clinton or David Cameron says, and most of the public will assume that to be the truth. The BBC might have no evidence as to who is behind these massacres, but neither do Clinton et al (well one might suspect they know exactly who is behind it - we've our freedom loving Saudi friends and our special forces doing their things on the ground)

  • Comment number 29.

    Very well said U12171424 .. Ive heard unconfirmed reports that there were special forces snipping and killing innocent people , to get the whole uprise started . Why will the BBC not report these UNCONFIRMED stories as well? As Hitler said "Tell the people a lie for long enough and it becomes truth to them"

  • Comment number 30.

    Key question: “Who benefits?”
    It was never likely going to benefit Assad Govt - staging something like this right before Kofi Annan's visit. Since then, the BBC has admitted “Houla massacre” photo(s) & trying to suppress its own interviews indicating that anti-government forces were responsible for most of the deaths in Houla, & victims were government supporters.

  • Comment number 31.

    Quick & dirty to figure out truth is to listen to Paul Wolfwowitz & other neocons: Whatever they say, you can bet, it's stretched far beyond anything resembling truth & whoever they support is almost certainly the GREATER EVIL. When Wolfwowitz appeared in BBC interview calling for INVASION OF SYRIA: it’s a sure sign that all decent people should be opposing that prospect.

  • Comment number 32.

    Syria is complex, the underlying dynamic was a process of Turkey seeking to envelop soft control over parts of its former empire, and that policy has been upgraded to an ambition of hard control. Turkey's influence in the Arab world has never been as important since the Ottoman era. Survival for the Alawites and Christians may mean a rump Lebanon sized enclave.

  • Comment number 33.

    Congratulaions to Jon williams on a balanced piece of reporting. Compare with Hilary Clinton's totally unbalanced accusations. I hope the UK keeps its distance on this. the worst thing for all syrians would be a chaotic breakdown of government. it looks as if we will have to rely on Russia and China to sort out a practical alternative to civil war.

  • Comment number 34.

    Wow! What a revelation! The real story is more complicated that it seems on the telly! This guy is "world news editor" and he's only just worked that out!

  • Comment number 35.

    The USA has spent many millions since 2006 training Arab bloggers and funding news outlets, including six million to a UK-based principal source for the BBC. This is called "democracy promtion" and fits their Unconventional Warfare Manual.

    The Foreign Office gave the BBC 1.6 million additional for Arabic service and "democracy promotion".

  • Comment number 36.

    Those seeking facts concerning Syria would do well to follow the postings of the Facebook group "The Syrian Revolution- the untold story".

    "The Editiors" limiting comments to two sentences prevents documentation and rebuttal of their claims.

  • Comment number 37.

    The very reputable newspaper FAZ has today published its investigation of Houla ***

    For details, see the Group mentioned above. Essentially, Sunni did it and sought to blame the government.

  • Comment number 38.

    '36. At 15:51 9th Jun 2012, madmaxtheprof9 -
    "The Editors" limiting comments to two sentences prevents documentation and rebuttal of their claims.'

    The aim seems to be to get it all on twitter eventually, which for accuracy of sourcing and subsequent re-dissemination has worked soooo well for the BBC (and trust) so far.


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