- - Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Only a few days after graduating from Temple University, one of my former students headed off to Syria to report on the civil war there.

Jad Sleiman, 25, speaks Arabic and wanted to show what he considered the face of the Syrian resistance — not the fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. He stayed with Harakat Hazm, which means “The Steadfastness Movement” in English, just outside of Aleppo.

Mr. Sleiman produced a four-minute video about the organization, which includes 22 secular groups, for The Washington Times.

“This story involved a lot of very normal, very human individuals put in an inhuman situation almost overnight. When you see the guys I talk to, they seem like college students. It was amazing how these people’s lives were turned around 180 degrees almost overnight,” he said in an interview.

The members of Harakat Hazm despise the terror tactics of ISIL, including the butchery of captured soldiers.

“What was interesting was how hated these people were by the more moderate people,” Mr. Sleiman said in the interview. “There are a lot of blanks, a lot of questions about funding. This group has an enormous amount of money. In Syria and in Iraq, they are considered foreigners.”

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His Syrian sources are not alone in that assessment. The Soufan Group claimed this month in an analysis that several thousand foreigners from more than 80 countries have come to fight in Syria, including 800 from Russia, 700 from France and about 400 from the United Kingdom.

Years ago, journalists enjoyed a sort of truce with guerrilla groups, mainly because they wanted to get their story out. After numerous kidnappings and murders of journalists by guerrillas, reporters have become dependent on material such as the extensive social media presence of ISIL. These include YouTube videos of the group taking over military posts and possible executions of Iraqi Shia from the police and military.

As a result, the coverage of ISIL overshadows that of more moderate, nonreligious groups in the Middle East. “The most extreme images and the scariest images are the ones that stand out,” Mr. Sleiman said.

As the sectarian battles raged in Syria and Iraq, so, too, have debates raged in Washington.

Political pundits from all sides of the spectrum have trundled forth to expound on a region most of them know little about.

Therefore, the debate has started to center on who lost Iraq? Was it George W. Bush because he got the U.S. there in the first place? Was it President Obama because he failed to negotiate a deal with the Iraqi leadership to allow some U.S. troops to stay?

Because pundits have relied primarily on Washington sources — nearly all of whom had no idea what was going to happen — the media have made the story either much too complicated or much too simple.

In a mind-numbing analysis of a possible third Iraq War, Robin Wright, said in The New Yorker, “Iraqis must become invested in their own political order and risk putting their lives on the line to secure it.” The article contained numerous cliches about the Middle East — similar to much of what I have seen and read over the past week.

Many analysts have described the current fighting as a sectarian battle between Sunnis and Shia. Actually, it is the Sunnis trying to retake power, which they held for years in Iraq.

As is often noted, the first casualty of war is truth. Unfortunately, this war is no different.

[Full disclosure: The late President Saddam Hussein expelled me from his country for my reporting in Newsweek about his brutality in Iraq.]

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 [email protected] Twitter: @charper51.



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