Pressenza has recently re-launched an article written by Silvia Cattori, that reported the documentary made by Anastasia Popova and transmitted by the channel Russia 24. This publication has attracted praise and criticism for the point of view about what is happening in Syria that is very different from the one circulating in the European media.
For this reason we decided to pursue this issue by talking to the author of the report, a young journalist who covered the “Arab spring” in different countries and has spent some time in Syria, in contact with many people involved in the conflict.
Anastasia, first of all many thanks for your willingness. How long have you been in Syria with your crew?
We were there for 7 months in total, from August of 2011, when there was no war yet, until now when the war in full swing. So, you can say that all the events unfolded right in front of our eyes. On average we were on the ground in Syria for about a month at a time, from Deraa to Idleb and Aleppo and from Latakia along the Turkish border to al-Qamishli and down to Deir Ez Zour.
What is your general impression about the state of the conflict?
From the time when we arrived in August all the way until December, what struck us the most was the difference between what was being said about Syria from the outside and what was actually happening inside the country. Sometimes it would reach the point of absurdity, when we would get calls from our channel asking us about so-and-so square where an anti-government demonstration was being shot at by tanks or artillery. We would get to that square and there was literally nothing — a few pedestrians and a policeman directing traffic.
Despite all our attempts we didn’t manage to find the thousands-strong demonstrations against the government so often talked about by the Western media. We spoke to the opposition, and even they told us that it was very difficult to gather people to protest. The only way to do this was through the mosques, and if they managed to get even 50 people to come out for fifteen minutes and film them, they considered it a victory. The vast majority of the population was just not interested.
Then provocations started, people were killed for belonging to the wrong religion, armed attacks on government buildings and employees, police stations and court houses began.
Nevertheless, the government responded to the peaceful demands. Laws were changed. A commission was created for a national dialogue that included almost all the opposition groups. Based on the work of this commission a new Constitution was adopted through a national referendum. Then, elections were held, and a lot of the political opposition inside Syria got seats in the Parliament. And so, the whole topic of mass protests became moot.
But as it turns out, for the key interested players this was not the end of the game. They put together what can be called “the foreign opposition”, composed mainly of people who had been living in Europe for over 40 years. Obviously, due to lack of support inside Syria, this opposition had no chance of coming to power via elections, so they turned to the only option available to them — overthrowing the current government with weapons.
They began pitting religious confessions against one another and at the same time sending in foreign insurgents. The proof of this can be found in the latest UN report, which lists armed people from 29 countries (!) fighting against the Syrian army.
They use foreign weapons that cannot be purchased in Syria, which we filmed, and which the Syrian army does not have, including M16 sniper rifles, European machine guns, various anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, as well as advanced satellite communications equipment which is openly provided to them by certain Western states.
These weapons are first sent to Turkey (evidence of this was provided by an Egyptian businessman), then given to the FSA by Turkish officers on the border. This was witnessed by a Lebanese journalist who tried to film it but was arrested in Turkey for three days and had her camera broken.
By the way, the border between Syria and Turkey is controlled by the Turkish army due to an agreement between the two countries signed in 1998. There is no Syrian border patrol. I have been there and I have seen it.
In addition Western states openly provide the opposition, which is composed largely of foreigners, with money. Because of all this, it is hard to call what is happening in Syria a civil war, although now they managed to divide the people and there are cases when half of a family is fighting for the government and the other half against it.
Do you think there could be a peaceful solution?
I think it is the only way to end this crisis. Most wars between countries at some point stopped by signing a peace agreement. The situation on the ground is this: all the major cities are still controlled by the government. After more than a year of fierce fighting armed groups still couldn’t create any strongholds or take the main part of the territory. They keep splitting up because some lose financial support, some end up looting, some already began battling foreign insurgents, some join al-Qaida, which is also fighting against Syria and which, if I may remind you, is officially named a terrorist group. So with whom should they negotiate? Even the UN monitors couldn’t find any single leader of these armed groups and another attempt to reach a ceasefire had failed. And yet, in his recent speech the president once again stressed his readiness to negotiate, but this time he openly referred to the foreign sponsors of the militants. Unfortunately, a peaceful solution does not seem to be on their agenda — they’ve already rejected his offer.
Why did you realize this documentary? Have you been asked by your superior or was it your initiative?
The original decision to send me to Syria was made by my superiors, but naturally, during the course of my work there I made friends, many of whom were subsequently killed. I went to Syria to report facts, but in time I realized that people are not facts — they are people, and I felt their pain in my own heart.
This movie was my personal initiative. It was an emotional response to the events which I was reporting. I made it to honour my fallen friends and the people of Syria, who don’t care about politics and who just want to live in peace.
Fortunately, my job provides me an outlet to get this point across to many people, and I used this opportunity, although getting my superiors to approve this film was not that easy.
We have received criticism that Russia 24 is a channel that only reflects the position of the Russian government: what can you reply?
It’s easy to attack the messenger when you don’t like the message. When people see reports done from comfortable hotel rooms in Lebanon, citing “unverified information” from activists about supposed government atrocities, they chant “Yes! Yes! Kill the evil dictator!”, but when someone actually spends considerable time in Syria trying to figure out what’s going on, then comes back and says, “Hey guys, that is not AT ALL what is happening…”, people brand it as government propaganda. So what can I reply? That a ticket to Syria is not that expensive and its borders are open. Over 300 foreign media outlets worked there and sent their reports via the Internet, freely and without any censorship from the Syrian government; 3G is available all over the country. If you do not trust me, “a young reporter from a state-owned Russian channel”, go and see for yourself. But don’t be surprised to end up in an alternate reality.
Here is a good example from The Independent: “I have now been in Damascus for 10 days, and every day I am struck by the fact that the situation in areas of Syria I have visited is wholly different from the picture given to the world both by foreign leaders and by the foreign media.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/syria-the-descent-into-holy-war-8420309.html)
Another one from The Guardian:
FSA- “There has been no real progress on the fronts and that has affected our sponsors, who haven’t been sending us ammunition…Even the people are fed up with us. We were liberators, but now they denounce us and demonstrate against us.
What do you think of the attitude of the Russian government regarding the situation in Syria?
I think they are perfectly aware of the situation on the ground and they constantly insist on peace — immediate ceasefire and all-inclusive dialogue. What more can you ask for?
You are going to leave for a well-deserved vacation. Will you return to Syria? What hope do you have about it?
It was not my decision to go there in the first place. I was sent to Syria as a special reporter and I was just doing my job. It’s up to my superiors to decide where I go next but if they say Syria – I guess I will agree.