HARPER: Lethal toll on journalists clouds view from Syria

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French journalist Yves Debay died in Aleppo. Yara Abbas, a reporter for Syrian television, was killed by a rebel sniper in Al-Qusayr. Hozan Abdel Halim Mahmoud, a citizen-journalist working for a rebel website, died covering a battle near Syria’s border with Turkey.

The list of reporters killed in action in Syria’s civil war is a long one. In fact, Syria has become one of the deadliest conflicts in history for journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 50 reporters have died since the civil war started 2 1/2 years ago. The Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders, which includes citizen-journalists on its list of those who have died in Syria, puts the figure at 89 since 2011. The latter figure is roughly the same as the number of reporters who died in Iraq and Vietnam, both of which lasted much longer than two years.

The death of a reporter is no more important than the death of a civilian or a soldier. Nevertheless, the dangers in Syria have left the world with few journalists as eyewitnesses to events such as the suspected chemical attack near Damascus earlier this month that left more than 300 people dead and has the United States on the brink of military action against the regime of President Bashar Assad.

“The conflict is evolving every day,” Soazig Dollet of the Paris group said recently. “In order to cover the conflict, there is no other choice than citizen-journalists to get the images out. But that does not mean the conflict is properly covered. Both the authorities and armed opposition groups are spreading disinformation. And despite the emergence of citizen media — usually pro-revolution — there are very few independent observers and a very limited number of foreign correspondents.”

Some journalists relish the action of war. “I like the boom, boom,” said the late Horst Faas, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who covered the Vietnam War for The Associated Press, when asked why he covered war.

Others, like me, are reluctant, but willing, war reporters. Many correspondents are young, trying to make a name for themselves because wars often lead news broadcasts and make the front page.

The difficulty of war reporting is that a journalist usually can see only one side of the conflict. In Syria, for example, a reporter either works from the government side or behind rebel lines. That provides a skewed vision of what actually happens. As the Greek writer Aeschylus put it more than 2,500 years ago, “In war, truth is the first casualty.”

The lack of many independent observers — with the possible exception of the U.N. team assessing the chemical attack — makes the Syrian conflict even more difficult to untangle. Many politicians and journalists want to see military action against Syria for its use of chemical weapons, particularly since President Obama made such a pledge.

I advocated American involvement more than two years ago when the rebels did not include fighters from al Qaeda and other Islamist groups. Now I think the time for any type of effective military action has passed. Such an attack would simply embolden Mr. Assad.

The great Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz gave some sage advice in his classic “On War,” writing in the early 19th century about Napoleon’s military strategy. “Three-quarters of the things on which all action in war is based are lying in a fog of uncertainty,” he wrote.

Finding the truth in the fog of war has become far more difficult without many independent reporters in Syria — something Mr. Obama should keep in mind as he ponders military action.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com or on Twitter @charper51.

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