Kelly McEvers is National Public Radio’s bureau chief in Beirut. Since 2011, she has repeatedly traveled into Syria. Her work from the conflict was honored with the 2013 Peabody Award. Previously, she was NPR’s Baghdad bureau chief. She spoke with Syria Deeply about changes in covering the conflict and why Syria is not Iraq.
Syria Deeply: How has strategy changed in recent months, as the conflict intensifies?
Kelly McEvers: I’m never sending anyone. If anyone goes it’s me. We’re still pretty adamant about the fact that freelancers shouldn’t be covering this war without the benefit of a major organization, serious assignments and serious insurance. If we do it, it’s with a staff interpreter and producer and with a security adviser. Now more than ever, that’s really important.
I’ve been to the north a few times, to Aleppo province, to the city of Idlib, and I’ve done some stuff in Tal Abiad. I was in Damascus back in 2011.
SD: People are quick to draw parallels between Syria and Iraq. How does this compare to covering Iraq?
KM: I was in Iraq at a time when the war was by and large waning, and I didn’t get there until mid-2010. So I was there in 2010, 2011, the final years of U.S. troop presence. U.S. troops were not anywhere in the streets, just restricted to their bases, so the U.S. Army and the possibility of an embed was the only way you could get out into the streets. By the time I got there, there was less danger overall because Americans weren’t out in full force, so they weren’t targets and there weren’t as many suicide attacks.
What was great about being in Iraq at that time was that I could go anywhere: Having a totally low profile, dressing and speaking like a local, driving in a car that looked like a local car. That’s pretty much how we do things in Syria too – if we’re going to embed with anyone, it’ll be rebels and that has its problems, so the best way to go is like a civilian.
We’re starting to see a real Islamic insurgency boom, and some people like to make a comparison to Iraq, and on our worse days we think, “Gosh, there’ll be a day when it won’t be safe at all,” because we won’t have the cover [and protection] of U.S. troops to take us around [like we did in Iraq]. Some days I think that, and some days it’s hard to predict. The [terrorism rhetoric of Western countries] makes it worse for us on the ground. Anyone affiliated with these countries is suspicious to these guys. So we’ve seen more kidnappings, if you can call them that – sometimes it’s a daylong detention center, where once they determine you’re not working for the CIA, they let you go.
SD: How will things change on the ground for Western journalists in the months ahead, as regards safety and coverage?
KM: The thinking is that at some point it’s going to change, and no one wants to be the first guy to have that horrible thing happen at the hands of jihadi fighters. We can be cautious, because we learned some things in Iraq, but we can’t expect it to go the same way that the Sunni insurgency in Iraq did. There’s no occupancy to formally oppose, so [Americans] are not blamed – and as much as you hear people saying they want us to intervene, we haven’t.
You definitely have more of a wariness now [from the] Syrians. For a long time they thought that journalists, by telling their story, sharing their situation with the world, would make something change. And now they feel like nothing has changed, and they say, ‘Why should we bother talking to you?’ It’s frustrating for us. Generally speaking, the security situation for journalists is declining, it’s not getting better. The more the groups factionalize, the less noble they are. All of a sudden you find yourself with a completely different organization and you just don’t know anything about them. At least one of the kidnappings was because they wanted to steal the journalist’s equipment. We’re probably taking trips more seriously now, taking more time to do risk assessments, trying to figure out if it’s worth it, every time.