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The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins On Syria

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

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HH: Dexter Filkins is perhaps the finest combat journalist of our era. His 2008 book, The Forever War, is on my “Necessary Bookshelf” for anyone who wants to really understand what was going on in Iraq in all those years. He’s also of course reported from Afghanistan, from Pakistan, and earlier this week, posted on Syria at the New Yorker. He currently is the correspondent for the New Yorker on the Syrian question, one of the most arresting pieces written thus far on the just incredible complexity of the situation there, and the horror of the chemical attack. Dexter, welcome back, good to talk to you.

DF: Hey, Hugh, thank you very much.

HH: This is a really remarkable piece.

DF: Thank you.

HH: Is this different in terms of magnitude of horror than things you’ve written about over your long career of war?

DF: Well, thank you, I’ve never covered a chemical attack before. I mean, all you have to do is, you know, is look at some of the videos on YouTube, and they are, they’re horrifying. And you also see they’re totally convincing. I mean, I just, just today, I watched the one of this little girl who had lost her parents. Something really terrible happened out there.

HH: Now in terms of the reports that are coming out, John McCain said earlier today the attack begins on Thursday, it will go on for three days. Iran is saying they will attack Israel. How much of a boiling point do you think we are at compared to other boiling points you have witnessed in the past?

DF: Personally, I don’t think we’re at a boiling point. I think the Obama administration, if they act, they’re going to do it in a very limited way. They’re not going to threaten the regime. They’re going to go after, they’re not even going to go after the chemical sites, because that’s, I mean, that’s problematic if you do that. But I think it’s going to be a pretty limited strike. We’ll hit probably some military units that have used chemical weapons in the past. And we’ll probably hit those guys pretty hard. But I’d be really surprised if this lasted very long, or if it spread beyond just the next few days.

HH: At the end of your piece that you filed earlier this week at the New Yorker, you wrote, “How much longer are we going to allow these questions to prevent us from trying?” Do you consider what you just described to really be trying?

DF: I don’t, boy, I think the idea, if they hit Assad, will be to deter him from doing it again. But this is, I think that anything that we are likely to do is not going to fundamentally alter the dynamics of that war. It’s a, you know, we’re in the third year. It’s a terrible, bloody stalemate. You have this murderous regime on one side, and you have a pretty fragmented rebellion on the other side which is, you know, dominated by al Qaeda offshoots. And so it’s pretty messy down there on the ground. And I don’t think the White House wants to really get very deeply involved.

HH: You managed to report on your contacts with a Syrian reporter who was reporting for Al Aan TV. Have you been back in touch with him since Monday?

DF: I haven’t. I haven’t, but I have to say, and you know, I’ve done this before. You can, there are people in the United States who can hook you up with people inside Syria. And it’s pretty remarkable. I mean, I talked to a guy last, sorry, I talked to a guy a few months ago in Syria who also gave me a very vivid description of a chemical weapon attack. And when you talk to those people, it’s like watching these YouTube videos. You can’t fake this stuff, you know? It’s really, really convincing, and it’s really chilling to imagine what’s going on there.

HH: Now my friend, Yoni Tidi, formerly of the Israeli Defense Services, lives in the States now, is very worried, dual citizenship, very worried that things could spiral very, very quickly out of control, that if Assad feels threatened, he goes out in a blaze of poisoned gas aimed at Israel. Is that far-fetched, Dexter Filkins?

DF: I don’t think we’re there, and I have to say, if I can just back up for a second, I’m surprised that Assad did what he did. I mean, he’s been using, I think as I reported in my piece, the best estimates are he’s already used chemical weapons more than 30 times. He’s kept the attacks very, very, at a very, very low level. They haven’t killed very many people, so basically, that he’s been flying under the radar screen. But I think in the last six months, the war has turned in his favor. He is much, in a much more solid position than he was six months ago, and that’s because of, you know, most of the things probably that your listeners already know. You’ve had a massive Iranian intervention, you’ve had an intervention by Hezbollah, you’ve had the Russians come to his aid. And you know, he was teetering six months ago. He’s not teetering now. And so it’s, you know, using chemical weapons is the act of a desperate man, and he has fewer reasons to be desperate today than he did six months ago. So I find it all kind of a surprise.

HH: Now what’s your degree of confidence in that, because that’s what I thought until I read on Monday and Tuesday about this attack combined with the story in the Wall Street Journal about Saudi support for the rebels, and how there is an alleged deal between the Russians and the Sauds now on oil, and that the Saudis are committed to bringing down this regime because of the Hezbollah-Iranian connection? In other words, this is the great Sunni-Shia death match that you have been watching for a decade.

DF: Yeah. Yes, absolutely. I think the Saudis are committed to bringing down Assad, and I think, you know, who knows what the future holds, but you know, it’s hard to imagine that Assad can hang on forever. But I mean one of the things that I’ve been told, for instance, is that the Saudis in the last few months have been sending anti-tank missiles to the rebels, and that they’ve been extremely effective on the ground in destroying Assad’s armor and some of his artillery. And so you know, ultimately, I mean over time, Assad’s forces are going to be degraded if that sort of thing keeps up.

HH: Now Dexter Filkins, I don’t think you’re old enough to have been able to cover the Beirut civil war. But in the last two weeks, a Shia massacre occurred with a bombing in Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon. And then a Sunni massacre occurred with a bombing in Christian-Sunni Lebanon. Do you think it’s restarting?

DF: Well, maybe. I think the one, everything that’s happening, I mean, just as you described, everything that’s happening in Lebanon is really troubling. I mean, it’s such an amazing country. It’s, Beirut in particular, is so beautiful, it kind of breaks my heart to imagine it all happening again. But…and I think the one thing that really prevents it, or I say mitigates the chances of it happening again are the fact that the memories of the civil war, which ended in 1990, are still very, very fresh, and nobody wants that again. And so people have been kind of restrained in the way that they act. And I think what we’re seeing is that the longer that the war in Syria drags on, you know, that the more, the greater the chances are that the war is going to spread. And that’s what’s happening. I mean, it’s spreading into Iraq, where the Sunni insurgency has kind of restarted. It’s spreading into Lebanon, because you have the intervention by Hezbollah, which is the Lebanese group. And the people are worried about the monarchy in Jordan next door. I mean, this is right in the heart of the Middle East, and it’s, you know, it’s going right down the Sunni-Shia fault line. So I think there’s a lot of reason to be nervous.

HH: Now Dexter, let me finish by asking you as a professional journalist how do you recommend people cover this? This is the age of Twitter and of YouTube, and people can have a thousand reports out, and it’s hard to know what to trust. How are you covering what is happening right now in Syria, which is at the epicenter of this convulsion that’s wracking the Muslim world?

DF: Look, I think, I’ve had friends killed in Syria, and it is a more violent and unpredictable conflict than any I’ve ever seen. But I think it, so it’s extremely difficult to cover. And I think when you go into Syria, it’s kind of like when you, I mean, in a completely different way, when you embedded with American forces in Iraq, you’re kind of stuck where you are, and you’re kind of looking down a soda straw. And so it’s very, very difficult to get a sense of the big picture, and I think that’s the hardest thing, is to try to figure out, you know, to try to figure out which way this thing is going. And I think at the moment, everything points to a stalemate.

HH: But how are you personally doing that? Do you just stay on the phone all day long with everyone whom you can talk to there?

DF: Yeah, I mean, we’ve had, the New Yorker’s had people going in. I may go in at some point. And going in and going on the ground, there’s no substitute for that, to see this stuff up close. It’s incredibly dangerous. I’ve been, yeah, I mean, like I’m working on a story right now that is like a really big picture. It tries to sort of stand back and look what’s happening in the region. And so I just got back from Baghdad. I was in Jordan, I was in Israel, I was in the Kurdish region of Iraq. So I sort of was all over the region trying to sort of report what’s happening all around Syria. But, so there’s a lot of different ways to cover it, you know, because there’s a lot of different ways to get information. And that’s one way, but there are several others.

HH: Well, we’ll look for that piece. Is that this week’s or next week’s, Dexter Filkins?

DF: I think I need a little bit more time. I need a couple more weeks.

HH: Okay. Well, thank you for joining us, and I look forward to continuing the conversation. The best reporting and writing on Syria you can find is Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker.

End of interview.

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