After years covering the "main battlefield in World War III," Narwani says everything you think you know is wrong
When the war in Syria was recently declared decisively over, there were few correspondents or witnesses to turn to for a credible look at exactly what happened during eight years of conflict. The questions were many, but I could count on one hand those worth putting them to. Among these was Sharmine Narwani, whose work I have long counted distinctly thorough and honest amid coverage that — in her view as well as mine — hit a new low by way of collapsed professional standards and abandoned ethics. Narwani’s pieces, written for a variety of publications, consistently reflect her hard work on the ground — work nearly no one else did. She is eyes wide open and beholden to no national interest or media slant.
Narwani brings impressive credentials to the craft. After earning a masters in journalism from Columbia, she was for four years (2010–14) a senior associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford. It was during those years that she began to make her mark covering the Middle East from her bureau-of-one in Beirut. Her accounts of the war as it truly unfolded have opened many eyes over the years, mine included.
Having witnessed the Syrian war from start to finish, she now casts it in a usefully broad context. “The Syrian conflict constitutes the main battlefield in a kind of World War III,” she said during our lengthy exchange. “The world wars were, in essence, great-power wars, after which the global order reshuffled a bit and new global institutions were established.” This, in outline, is what Narwani sees out in front of us, now that the Western powers’ latest “regime change” operation has failed.
Narwani and I conducted our exchange via email, Skype and WhatsApp over a period of several weeks in late March and early April. In this, the first of two parts, Narwani dissects the role of various constituencies — radical jihadists and the nations that backed them, the Western press, the NGOs — in prolonging a war that, in her view, could have ended far sooner than it did. I have edited the transcript solely for length. Part 2 will follow.
Christopher Weyant, The Hill
You returned from Syria just last week — this after going in several times last year. The intervening months were important, given the war has just ended. What have you been seeing on the ground?
My trips last year took place in May and June, in the weeks before the battle for the south of Syria began. I visited Daraa, Suweida and Quneitra, the three southern governorates most critical to the upcoming battle. It was fascinating. It dispelled a number of myths about the conflict for me. One of these was the discovery that al–Qaida was smack in the middle of the fight in Daraa, indistinguishable from Western-supported militant groups in all the main theaters. Another shocker was when I interviewed former al–Nusra and FSA [Free Syrian Army] fighters near the Lebanese border: They told me their salaries had been paid by the Israelis for the entire year before they surrendered, around $200,000 per month from Israel to militants in the town of Beit Jinn alone.
The southern battle was very swift, and since then all focus has moved to the north — to Idlib, where the most extreme militants have amassed in their final stronghold, and in the northeast, where U.S. troops have begun a slow withdrawal, without having yet ceded those territories back to the Syrian state…. Last week, I visited Idlib to see what I could glean about the timing of the upcoming battle, but nothing much has changed. There has to be a political decision first; some hope this will come after Russia, Iran and Turkey meet in late April. Idlib is different from Daraa because the militancy there is probably around 80 percent al–Qaida, and the rest, its allies. But Turkey and the Western powers — including the U.S. — continue to protect it for the moment.
Sharmine Narwani on the end of the Syrian war and the "post-imperial Middle East"