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C.J. Chivers: On The Ground In Syria
Originally published on Wed May 1, 2013 7:48 pm
New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers, has spent much of the past year with the rebels in Syria, and has written poignantly about the impact of the fighting on the lives of ordinary Syrians and its devastating impact on that ancient land. Before becoming a journalist Chivers was a Marine and his knowledge of the military sometimes leads him to stories that only an insider would see.
Chivers also reported from Afghanistan and Libya. While covering these conflicts, he's been tracing the sources of the weapons and ammunition that are fueling the wars. He's the author of the book, The Gun, about how the AK-47 has defined modern warfare.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The first president at President Obama's press conference today was about whether he risked losing credibility if he didn't take action against the Assad regime in Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons. The president said we now have evidence chemical weapons have been used, but we don't yet know when and how they were used and who used them. Then he framed the complexities in coming up with the next policy steps.
My guest, C.J. Chivers, is a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. He's been reporting on the civil war in Syria and has traveled with rebel troops. His most recent article from Syria was datelined earlier this months. Chivers has covered fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Chechnya. He's investigated the arms trade and human rights. He's also the author of the book "The Gun," which is a history of the automatic rifle. Before becoming a journalist, he served in the Marines.
C.J. Chivers, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Thank you for coming. So there have been calls in Congress to - for the U.S. to arm the rebels in Syria. And we've officially been giving nonlethal aid, and President Obama has publicly refused to supply arms. But you've reported that the CIA has been covertly participating in arms lifts to Syrian rebels. Can you describe the operation as you know it?
C.J. CHIVERS: Well, there clearly has been something of an airlift of, you know, military cargo planes that have been going into neighboring countries and in some cases carrying weapons that are then distributed to rebel fighting groups that are operating inside Syria. And the United States' role in this seems to have been - at a minimum you might call it providing some adult supervision, you know, facilitating and helping to put together the logistics.
The United States has a lot of experience, for better or worse, with moving these types of materials around the world and through the Middle East. And so it's not especially surprising that they would be involved. But what we don't know is how deeply involved they are, and we don't know who all of the suppliers of these weapons are.
Many weapons are turning up in Syria, that we've been seeing for the last few months, that were not there before. And someone's providing them, and the Central Intelligence Agency does seem to have a hand in some of the air movement.
GROSS: Have you been trying to trace where those weapons are from because that's something you do really well?
CHIVERS: To the extent that it's possible. I mean, you run into a lot of stone walls when you try to walk weapons back to their sources, particularly when the deals and the arrangements have been secretive. But in some cases we've been able to walk them back to, you know, the originating countries.
The problem with that is you can oftentimes tell where a weapon came from, where it was made and who may have owned it some years back, but you can't tell all the middle steps. And rarely is there a record for the middle steps. So in some cases, for example, we know that there were cartridges that came from Ukraine that have turned up in the hands of rebels in and around Aleppo, and in and around the Idlib governor, at the two areas in northern Syria where reporters have had the most access.
And we've seen these cartridges in both places, and we know they came from Ukraine, and we know that the Saudis were at one point a purchaser, because the labels have been seen on at least one of the shipping crates, but what we don't know is exactly how the Saudis moved them. We don't know when they arrived, presumably, in Turkey, and then made their way into northern Syria because that would be the route. We don't know who handled them in Turkey. We don't know the exact distribution network.
So a lot of times you can see A, and maybe you can see B, and you can certainly see Z, but you might be missing, you know, everything in between.
GROSS: So you've reported that these covert arms lifts have been landing in Turkey. Why Turkey?
CHIVERS: Well, Turkey is the, you know, the country beside Syria with which you have had the most rebel activity. Those two northern provinces I named, and others, many of the groups that are operating there are also operating in Turkey, they have logistics and medical and social bases, if you will, inside Turkish territory. And it would make sense that that's where you would be supplying the weapons.
It also makes sense that you would work and distribute out of the Turkish side because the Turkish military has a lot of logistics capability there, and there are many airfields that you can use. Some of the airfields are civilian and military joint - jointly operated airfields, but you have all of the sort of conditions and infrastructure in place to run a sizeable logistics operation, and so that's probably why you're seeing most of it in Turkey.
We're also seeing some in Jordan, but we've had less visibility of it, and it's a little less clear how much is going on in Jordan.
GROSS: Is this operation of supplying arms to the rebels in Syria covert because the countries who are supplying the arms don't want to get involved in a wider war?
CHIVERS: Well that's a good question. The idea that it's covert or even unknown is a bit hard to swallow, because clearly it's known. If you can pick up these weapons, you know, visually off the YouTube videos or physically by traveling with the rebels and spot them. You can be sure that the regional players are aware that the weapons are there, as well. You know, the other side, if you will, of the conflict, the Syrian military or the Syrian intelligence services, the Iranians, are certainly aware that these weapons have been moving into the theater.
They would spot them just as quickly, if not more quickly, than outsiders like me or like bloggers, or any other reporter would pick them up. So it's not exactly - it's not exactly understandable why you would want to keep it so covered up because in some ways if you want to get credit for distributing the weapons, if you want, you know, the rebels to appreciate your support, you might want to declare it a little bit more openly.
There are many rebels - it's sort of fascinating, to think that the West and the United States are doing almost nothing, I mean next to nothing at all, to help them, and here you have a program in which there actually is some significant aid going in, and no one's getting credit for it.
GROSS: So what are some of the most difficult aspects of making the decision about whether we should actually directly send arms to the Syrian rebels? What is President Obama facing in terms of making this decision? What are the possible problems of arming the rebels?
CHIVERS: Well, I think you have a short-term and a long-term program, at a minimum; and the short-term problem is you don't know who gets the arms. You don't know that the arms go where you would like them to go. I mean, arms tend to be pilfered along the way, and certainly there is a concern that weapons that are being moved into Syria, that all equipment that's being moved into Syria, is not really reaching the Syrians - or the right Syrians.
Some get stolen, some gets diverted, and then of course there's the security question of whether or not the arms would reach people who you don't want to have them. And in this case we're talking, from the West's perspective, about various Islamist groups. So that's the short-term question. That's the one that drives much of the conversation. And every element of that is familiar. I mean, we see this in war after war.
But I'm more concerned, I think, about the long-term question, which is when you hand out weapons, when you distribute these kinds of weapons, they tend to move and move. You know, weapons are not really, in most instances, what you would consider a disposable objects. Some actually are. There are fire-and-forget systems, you know, single-use systems, but many systems can be used again and again for many, many years, even for generations.
And there's no shortage of weapons in the regions around where we've had large wars. When you look at any - if you follow almost any war where there's been a significant arming program, you see those weapons migrate out, and they get used again and again in ways that, you know, aren't foreseen, could be foreseen but almost never are foreseen, by the people who hand out the weapons.
GROSS: And they could be used - those weapons could be used against us in some future conflict.
CHIVERS: They could be used against most anyone but certainly against us.
GROSS: My guest is C.J. Chivers. He's a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and has spent a lot of time in Syria covering the civil war. Chris, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is C.J. Chivers, and he is a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. He has covered the war in - the civil war in Syria. He writes about conflict, the arms trade and human rights. Is it your perception that the rebels in Syria have been becoming more extreme, more Islamist?
CHIVERS: Sure, I think that would be everyone's perception. I think it started out fairly Islamist, and I think it's become, outwardly, more Islamist. And I think some of this, you know, is self-evident and very visible. I also think it can be overstated, and by that I mean there's a lot of symbols that are used, there's a lot of appearances that are assumed, there's a lot of garb that is donned when people go to war in the Middle East.
And so you will see a lot of people who will grow their beard out and grow their hair out, resort to, you know, black or green ribbons with Qurannic script upon them. You will hear a lot of prayer. And some of this is certainly very religious, and some of that is probably not harmful. You would expect it. Some of it might be harmful.
And then there's a degree of it, and I think this is not broadly understood, but it's pretty clear if you spend time with these fighters, there's a degree of this - some of it's kind of like professional wrestling. Some of it's almost a costume. You know, it's a swing and stomp. People put on the kit, and they wear the equipment, they don the slogans, and they do that because that's what you do when you go to war in the Middle East as a guerrilla or a rebel or insurgent, pick your word.
It doesn't necessarily mean that these groups are al-Qaida aligned. Some of them certainly are, and they openly are, and they'll tell you that they are, but many of these - many of these young men who are wearing this equipment, assuming this posture, if you will, in public, are probably less jihadist, if you will, than it might seem from afar.
GROSS: So you've traveled with rebel troops in Syria. From what you were hearing from those troops, would you describe them as Islamist, as having, you know, an extreme Islamic philosophy?
CHIVERS: Some of them, yes. And you'd be surprised, as I was just saying a moment ago. In some cases you'll be with people who, you know, if someone were watching from Washington or looking at the YouTube video, might be very, very alarmed at their appearances, and I've been with them during Ramadan, and they're not fasting. Or I've been with them during Ramadan, and they're smoking, and they're engaging in a number of behaviors - I've been with some who aren't even praying, and yet at a glance they would look right out of sort of jihadist central casting.
GROSS: I guess the larger question is, like, if we help the rebels in Syria, will we help create a state that will then turn against us?
CHIVERS: I think that's one of the principal fears, right now, that has the foreign policy undecided.
GROSS: Would you tell us something about the faction that you traveled with, the Lions of Tawhid?
CHIVERS: That was last summer, and the al-Tawhid Brigade is the largest and arguable the most effective group operating in the Aleppo governorate and down into the city of Aleppo. And this was one small subset, if you will. It was about 50 or 55 men. Many of them had come from Tall Rifat, which is a small, rural town or small city, I think I'd call it a town, that's north, a little bit, from Aleppo.
And it began with a cell, if you will, of several local men who after fighting for a bit had managed to recruit many fighters from - many soldiers from the Syrian army, and it had grown into a group of a few or several dozen fighters who were operating, both in the countryside and then down, taking rotations, if you will, on the front lines down in Aleppo.
GROSS: Was this group aligned with the al-Nusra Front, which is, from what I've been reading, the front most aligned with al-Qaida?
CHIVERS: Well, at the time, this group was not publicly aligned with al-Nusra, and al-Nusra was not, sort of, the centerpiece of conversation that it would become by later in the year. But this group now certainly sees itself as aligned with Jabhat al-Nusra, and it certainly supports Jabhat al-Nusra and will talk openly about its collaborations with Jabhat al-Nusra.
GROSS: So what did you learn about who the men are in this faction that you traveled with and what got them there?
CHIVERS: Well, that was sort of probably the most fascinating piece because most of these fighters were actually former Syrian conscripts. These were guys who had come out of the Syrian army. Now it had begun with a small group of local men, and these men came from the walks of life that you would see in any small town. I mean, the leader was formerly an accountant. There was a guy who was a short-order cook. There was a gentleman who had been a nurse. There was someone who sold and rented real estate.
And these guys had come together and were fighting a true, if you will, guerrilla campaign, grassroots, small, cellular and very much in the shadows. And as they had managed slowly, with the passage of months, to push the army back, and they had done this by the sort of standard tactics of modern guerrilla campaigns, you know, with ambushes and roadside bombs.
They had set about a campaign of recruitment and they quite wisely, if you will, in practical terms, realized that the best place to recruit from was the army because every new member you got from the army was in many ways a twofer because your strength went up by one, and the other side's strength went down by one. And also these guys came trained. They knew something, and they in some cases came with intelligence.
And so there was a very active recruitment campaign to - you know, using cell phones and using Facebook and social media sites, to lure fighters - lure soldiers rather - to come out of their positions and join the opposition. And most of these fighters were actually former soldiers. And they were young men; they were from across Syria. They were Sunni. There was a strong sectarian element to their desertion from the ranks and to their joining the rebel forces, which are principally and overwhelmingly Sunni.
And these forces had come together, and I would sit with them and say, you know, you've just left this unit a few weeks ago that's on the other side of that fence a few miles from here, and your friends are there, and, you know, tomorrow, today, tonight, next week, you could be involved a skirmish or even an outright battle where you're fighting your friends and killing your former friends, your former bunkmates.
And these men would say they made their choices. And I think we were at that point, as we sort of moved deeper into 2012, at that point that was a very telling remark. People were choosing their sides in Syria. I think most desertions now, most defections if you will, people switching sides, I think most of that's already happened. At that point it was still going on, but people in Syria were trying to decide which side they were on.
GROSS: Now you wrote that you witnessed a mismatch between the rebel weapons and the Syrian weapons. What was that mismatch like?
CHIVERS: Yeah, that mismatch persists. We just, sort of, talked about a social shift in the country. At this point you are also seeing, simultaneous to that, a tactical shift. You know, the Syrian army, when it first set out in the crackdown, had the run of the countryside. It could drive around freely on the roads. It could - it was even using the rail lines. It could move as it saw fit, and it could move almost predictably in these large columns and patrols.
That changed when the rebels developed a, sort of, an indigenous effort at making improvised explosive devices or makeshift bombs. By bombing the roads, by setting up ambushes, they were able to deny sections of the countryside to the army. Certainly the freedom of movement to the countryside, where the rebels were strong, became a thing of the past.
And as that happened, the army reacted, and the army understood that when it couldn't fight, you know, sort of, this free-roaming battle that it needed to find a way that capitalized on its own strengths; and its strengths, in some cases manpower, but often just firepower.
And so they went to a series of strong points, like islands, all across the areas of the countryside where they were weak. And these islands are almost in some cases impregnable to the rebels weapons. If the other side's not coming out, if the other side's not exposing itself, it's very difficult to dislodge that army with rifles, and rocket-propelled grenades and makeshift bombs that are, you know, waiting in the culvert or along the side of the road.
It's very, very hard to gain momentum against a stronger side, militarily stronger side, that will not move when all you have are these weapons that, you know, you can carry on your shoulder or on your backpack. And that mismatch persists, you know, as recently as a few weeks ago when you're traveling with a group. And we were traveling with groups - they still only had, in the main, rifles, light machine guns, some cases bolt-action rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and very occasionally you would see, you know, an anti-tank, an old anti-tank system known as recoilless rifle or recoilless gun.
These tend to be relatively short-range, flat-shooting weapons that don't have an ability to dislodge a force that is bunkered in.
GROSS: This is an example of why the rebels in Syria want the United States to send arms and to arm the rebels with heavier arms than they have now.
CHIVERS: That's exactly right, and what you hear constantly from the rebels is not that they want a military intervention per se but that they want equipment so that they can fight themselves more effectively. And the rebels would certainly welcome and appreciate something like a no-fly zone, but what they want and they probably think is more realistic to get, are weapons that will allow them to fight against these strong points and a lot of them to fight against armor and that will allow them to defeat aircraft that are bombing their positions and in some cases their homes and their towns. Not in some cases, actually, in many cases their homes and their towns, because a lot of the air strikes are clearly just dropped on neighborhoods.
Weapons in the view of the guys who are doing the fighting are the things that they need most.
GROSS: C.J. Chivers will be back in the second half of the show. He's a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times foreign correspondent C.J. Chivers. He's been reporting from Syria on the civil war. He's covered the civil war in Libya and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the questions facing the Obama administration in deciding whether to send arms to the Syrian rebels are who are the rebels and what are their long term ambitions. Chivers travelled with rebel troops in Syria last summer and last month.
So how did the rebel group that you traveled with recently compare to the rebel group that you traveled with over the summer?
CHIVERS: In many ways they were very similar. But there were some differences. This group had fewer defectors from the Syrian army, it had more local guys, and it was harder. War is a deeply radicalizing phenomenon, and these men, you know, were further along, many months deeper into this conflict, and they were more tired and they were more frustrated. You know, they were toward the end now of their second winter and they didn't have a lot of confidence that anyone outside was particularly concerned about their plight. They were very frustrated. And the war in Syria is really a civil war. And so these people are not professional soldiers; they are villagers in many cases. And you've got to sort of understand the mentality that drives a lot of their fighting. I mean they feel like they've been abandoned by the world. And they feel that in some ways the way the world measures their conflict has this strange theoretical distant quality to it, this whole red line being chemical weapons. You know, the use of chemical weapons will be a red line that will prompt some sort of Western or U.S.-led military reaction against the Syrian army. They don't understand that. They don't understand that as being in their interests at least.
And let's just for a moment try to imagine their perspective, because that red line, if you will, I think in some ways has backfired in terms of having the Syrians look up to and admire and support the West. Because let's say you live in one of these villages, let's say your family and your extended family live in the village in the area immediately around it. You know, in 2011 the village may have been occupied, if you will, by the Syrian army, there may have been checkpoints around it, and the Syrian army and security forces were in the eyes of local people preying upon the local people and taking some of the young men, and from your extended family maybe a few young men were arrested. Gradually, as the war deepened, there is fighting. And as the fighting intensified, your village started to get shelled. And the shelling then led with time to the occasional airstrike, and the shelling continues to this day. And in your extended family you've had several losses, several people have been killed - not just fighters, not just people inclined to be fighters, but women, children, the elderly. Several, a few - but it's enough. And then you're listening to this argument that says now if chemical weapons are used the world would be so concerned and so outraged that they would take action. And you start to think, so my life isn't what you care about. It's the nature of my death. So if I die by high explosives, if I die by a bullet, if I die by disappearance because I'm rolled up at the checkpoint, never seen again, that's OK. That's a green line? And a SCUD missile's OK? An airstrike's OK? But chemical weapons, that's not OK. I mean there are, according to, you know, the most recent estimates as many as 70,000, maybe more than 70,000, people who have been killed in this conflict. And to the Syrians, they say those don't count? But if someone, you know, takes the cork off some chemical weapons - even a few - that suddenly does count?
GROSS: Let's flip the coin over and look at it from a more global perspective. What are some of the reasons why chemical weapons might be a legitimate red line?
CHIVERS: Well, certainly you want to deter other countries from using chemical weapons. And so you don't want to tolerate one that's using chemical weapons and then have several. So I mean that would certainly make it a legitimate red line. But if that's the red line, the Syrians would argue, boy, that red line is pretty far out to the right. Because if we look at how many people are killed or wounded by chemical weapons compared to high explosives, if we run the numbers, I mean there's almost no comparison in the scale of the violence. So while I agree with you that there are certainly reasons that we would want, and that any reasonable people would want to prevent the use of chemical weapons, certainly the use of chemical weapons without something beyond censure but real punishment, the chemical weapons comes so late in this game that you're already in human terms, you've already tolerated and absorbed great cost.
GROSS: To what extent do you think that the civil war in Syria has attracted jihadists from other countries who are going there not only to help but to, you know, to radicalize the direction?
CHIVERS: Well, certainly there are a lot of foreigners fighting in Syria, there are lot who've crossed in from Turkey and probably from Iraq who have, you know, taken up the rebels' cause. And they're not hard to find. You find them by accident. You know, you'll be working on one thing and you'll stumble across someone who you find out is from Egypt or from Libya or - in some cases I think I've met two guys from France and one from Belgium. There are many, many foreigners fighting in Syria. And when you talk about their motivation, they will say, you know, I came because these are my brothers and my sisters. This is a Muslim country. It's under a particular threat and I couldn't stay at home. I had to come participate. The second point, to what extent they're there to radicalize, it depends on who you're talking to. There are some who clearly are advocating for an Islamic state and how you go about getting that Islamic state could be very, very troublesome for the future of Syria. And there are others who see that they're there essentially on a shorter term, if you will, a humanitarian mission - again, if you will, to help speed along the end of the current government and to stop the shelling and the attacks on these villages.
The trick here, Terry, is trying to quantify it. You know, it's very hard to do a census. It's very hard also to know that, you know, people who are telling you these things are telling you the truth. People will say anything in a war. So it's very, very difficult to measure or even to put, you know, a fraction on to say this percentage, this, you know, this portion of the revolution is Islamist and of that Islamist portion, you know, this degree of it is menacing for the future.
GROSS: In terms of both the local troops and the people who have joined those troops from other countries, have you gotten a sense of whether there's much anti-Western thinking? Like, you know, for example, jihadists in Iraq were very anti - were often very anti-American. Of course we had invaded their country. We did not invade Syria. In fact, the Syrian rebels want the assistance of the United States. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they don't hate the United States
CHIVERS: Well, you've gone to sort of the heart of the puzzle right there, because you'll find - let's not talk about hostility. Let's start with suspicion, something a little less than hostility. You'll find people are extraordinarily suspicious of the West. You know, I sat with two Islamist rebel commanders a few weeks ago, in the Idlib governorate, and they were so suspicious of the West; they said, you know, even if the West were to help us, I don't think I'd use the radios because I think that the radio might, you know, have a beacon in it that would give away my position or, you know, that they would - I would be listened to and everything I did and said. And they were very suspicious of the listing of Jabhat al-Nusra as a, you know, the designation as a foreign terrorist organization because they thought that, you know, this is a business opportunity for the West, that this just opens the door for more Blackwater activity and sort of this perpetual war against Muslims. And so there was all sorts of suspicion that then veered gradually towards hostility, until you came to this counterweight, which was, again, unsurprising but powerful, which was hope.
They're suspicious of the West and they really hope the West will get involved. They really hope that the West will solve the solution, that the United States will arm them, that the United States will, you know - you know, lead a campaign that would come to a no-fly zone and would ground the Syrian Air Force, that might level the battlefield a bit to the rebels' advantage. So there's this push-pull. And you're right, we haven't, the West has not invaded Syria. There are rampant conspiracy theories that the West wants the destruction of Syria, that the West has sort of choreographed with Russia and China and Iran and all these outside players to have this war go on and on so that Syria will be, you know, physically and socially and economically destroyed and so it won't be a regional power, and that this would be something that would be, you know, in the eyes of the rebels something that the West wanted. You hear that almost constantly. People say this all the time. And then, in the same conversation, you know, over the same cup of tea, they'll say we hope the West gets involved. So these people of whom we're deeply suspicious, if not in some cases hostile, they hold the key to our security and to our future, and so would you please come help?
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is C.J. Chivers and he's a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He has made several trips to Syria reporting on the civil war there. He's also reported from Afghanistan and Iraq. He writes about conflicts, human rights and the arms trade.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is C.J. Chivers, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. We're talking about his reporting from Syria.
There is an enormous refugee crisis now in Syria. Over four million people have had to flee their homes or have been chased from their homes. And you found a large community of people living in ancient caves in Syria. Would you describe the scene?
CHIVERS: Well, you come to these caves by traveling, you know, up the side of these small mountains and through the olive groves and then past some fighters' encampments and down sort of a dirt trail, and then there's just a series of caves cut into the knolls, and they've been there for thousands of years in some cases. They're small caves. You know, they might be in some case five, six, seven yards across, some cases even a little bit smaller than that. Some are two or three rooms - if you can call them rooms. I mean they've been scraped out with pick and shovel. They have dirt floors but people have made them their homes and they've brought rugs from where they used to live and they've put them down. They've brought water jugs, shelves, maybe a small table. They'll have a few cooking utensils. They might have a light strung up to a generator outside so that when they get fuel they might be able to run, you know, a little bit of electricity and have some lighting and maybe a radio or TV so they can gather a bit of news. And in this particular cluster of caves - there were perhaps eight or 10 caves - but as you go through the countryside you see eight caves here, two caves there. Then you see these caves that also actually inside villages that people are using more as bomb shelters. They're not living there but when they fear an attack is coming or during an attack they may run to it to take shelter for a short period of time. But these are really abysmal conditions.
GROSS: There was a mother raising her baby in one of these caves.
CHIVERS: The baby had practically been born in the cave and the mother had carried the baby in the cave until, you know, the day or two before the due date and then had been brought down to an aid tent and delivered there and then had brought the baby home, I think the next day.
GROSS: This is heartbreaking.
CHIVERS: Well, and this goes back to what we were talking about a few minutes ago. When the Syrians who, you know, are on the side of the opposition are living like this and in some cases they'd been there for something like a year - you know, they had moved there last summer, and again, that aligns with sort of the tactical shift. In the war, when the army, you know, realized it can't really move freely about the areas where the rebels were strong and the army then set up these strong points, these bunkered off positions that are scattered throughout the countryside and began to shell out from them randomly, for the families it became, you know, psychologically intolerable. We're not talking about villages that are getting shelled hour upon hour upon hour, day upon day for weeks. What you're talking about is three shells a day, eight shells a day, a few days off, a dozen shells the next day, five shells the day after that. One shell may land and a few minutes will pass and another shell may land right beside it, so that the people who had rushed to the first crater to help the wounded, or just out of curiosity, would then be struck by the shrapnel or the blast wave from the second shell. After this kind of exposure, people are on edge like you would not believe, to the point of where they will pick up their possessions and move to a cave.
GROSS: You know, I just want to end this chapter of our conversation again thinking about the kind of quandary that the Obama administration is in. The people in Syria are really suffering. There are reasons to arm them and there are reasons not to arm them. And I wonder, if you could have a one-on-one with President Obama now, what would you want to say to him?
CHIVERS: Well, I have the luxury of not having to make policy recommendations.
GROSS: But is there information that you have that you'd want him to have that you think he might not be aware of?
CHIVERS: The United States finds itself in a pretty unenviable position. So did the Syrians. I mean, this war, when you look at it, could not have worse timing. It really couldn't. It came sort of, if you will, into the public consciousness at the tail-end of the Arab Spring, after, you know, the intervention in Libya had gone not so well.
It came during, you know, it really rose in the, you know, in the public discourse and in terms of the application of violence, really accelerated in 2012, an election year in the United States where the electorate was exhausted by war financially. Emotionally exhausted by war. And had no interest in being involved in another one, or very little interest in being involved in another one.
It came, you know, later in the cycle, if you will, of the way the Arab Springs were playing out, and with very cunning savvy leadership in terms of calibrating the tactics of the war to what they thought that the West could tolerate. And by that I mean, you know, the Assad government did not do what the government or the Gadhafi family did in Libya, where it came out of the gates in Libya hard and fast with armored columns, you know, bearing down on Benghazi. You know, immediate use of attack jets, you know, dropping, you know, dumb bombs on the road outside of Benghazi right in front of the foreign reporters. Which kind of galvanized international will and gave it a sense of immediacy.
And, you know, what Gadhafi got for that was, you know, the U.N. Security Council resolution which authorized intervention. He got, you know, U.N. 1973. The Assad government seems to have looked at that and has realized that you don't come out with everything at once. You spin this thing click by click or you move it like a dimmer on your wall. You brighten the lights a little bit at a time.
And so you start with arrests and batons and you move to bullets, and from bullets, you know, you move to the army being involved. And you get the mortars, you get the 107 millimeter rockets. And then you gradually move up to artillery. And then you escalate a little bit by rolling out your air force. But when you roll out your air force, you start with helicopters. You don't go right to jets.
They didn't go to - you know, they didn't start using their attack jets against the towns until last summer. And then you go to, from there, to ballistic missiles. And now perhaps to chemical weapons, which would be the last piece, you know, the last arrow, if you will, left in the quiver. And if you follow this sort of boil the frog slowly policy, you sort of, you know, sensitize your political opponents outside of the country.
The West has watched this step by step and not really taken action beyond rhetorical action. And the Syrian government knows that. And they've sort of escalated the ante so slowly, so methodically, so smartly, that they've almost paralyzed the West. And so the West now finds itself in this position where it's tolerated all of these things. There's never been sort of a trigger moment.
And it's got a population, you know, in our case in the United States, that seems to not want to be involved, that there aren't a lot of good options. There aren't a lot of clear paths. And even if there were, it's not clear what you would do to solve this. I mean I don't, you know, the West may be able to guide this conflict a little bit, certainly cannot control it.
GROSS: My guest is C.J. Chivers. He's a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and has spent a lot of time in Syria covering the civil war. Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is C.J. Chivers and he's a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. He has been covering the civil war in Syria for the Times and has also covered the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's written a lot about weapons. He's even the author of a book about the history of the AK-47, the Kalashnikov, called "The Gun."
You know a lot about IEDs from your reporting on wars. What was your reaction to an IED exploding near your home? I mean, you don't live in Boston but you do live in New England. From your work covering the Chechen conflict and conflicts in the neighboring republics, what are some of the questions you have about the older brother's visit to Dagestan?
CHIVERS: Well, just like the investigators who are there working on it and the reporters who are there working on it, you'd want to assemble the right itinerary and know who they met. And that may tell you something about what they knew and what their plans were. But there's a part of me that would be surprised if this was tied to an organized Chechen group per se.
Meaning that it would be a sanctioned job or that it was an assignment, if you will, a mission that was given from the Caucasus to be carried out in Boston. The Chechens, when you meet them, they make no - they leave no doubt that they have enemies and that they're willing to use terrorism to fight their enemies. They don't list among their enemies, typically, the United States.
There's no direct line you can draw from the interests of the Chechen separatists to the bombings in Boston. You can't really draw that line. And over the years, when I've met with Chechens, Chechen fighters, Chechen activists, they're perfectly clear that while they're fighting Russia, that they confine their war to Russians and Russian targets, to Russian interests, and that they don't necessarily see the West as an enemy.
They've got some anger at the West for not helping them in their view and - but they also see the West as a sanctuary. There's a lot of Chechens living in the West, particularly in Europe, who have come out. They get asylum or refugee status and they are living sometimes with significant public resources and they're grateful for that. And it's not a natural extension for Chechens to do something like this, as I said, as a sanctioned job.
GROSS: So I want to ask you a question about yourself. There was a piece about you in Esquire magazine a while ago, and I want to read one of your quotes. You wrote - and I'll preface this by saying my guest is C. J. Chivers, who has been covering conflicts for years and often writes about arms also. You wrote - you said: I can move through a firefight as if it's almost happening in slow motion and make a record of it, understand it and on some days even anticipate where it's going as it's happening. But I can't sit through violence to a soundtrack. I can't watch a war movie. I think that's really interesting and I'd like you to explain if you know why you can be in the middle of a battle and kind of be taking notes and you can't sit through a war movie.
CHIVERS: Well, you know, I watch war movies, I get scared. And you know, they play the music and the soundtrack's going and, you know, they flash from character to character and, you know, using all the cinematic devices. And you can kind of anticipate what's going to happen that way. And I find it oppressively artificial. And I find it worrisome as entertainment.
And, you know, I live in a house without a TV. I haven't had a TV for years. I don't watch TV. I don't want to see violence outside of my job. I'd rather, you know, plant and dig potatoes and go fishing and be with my family and not let that in. I can't sit through one of these movies.
I've rented them and oftentimes I just end up getting up and walking away immediately, you know, as soon as it starts to get - as soon as the plot really starts to get going. It's different when you're being in it yourself. It's different when you're covering it. You have a reason. You have a purpose, you have a job, and you have training. And you follow your training and you make a record.
Your job is to make an accurate, as thorough as possible, account of the experience of violence and who's in the violence. And so your mind is fully occupied. You're actually usually overwhelmed. When you're sitting at home watching a movie and you're entertaining yourself with violence, I feel hollow and I don't enjoy it. And like I said, I sometimes get scared and I don't want to be scared when I'm home. So I switch it off or really in most cases I just don't bother.
GROSS: Well, C. J. Chivers, thank you so much for talking with us. I wish you, as always, safe travels. And thank you for your excellent reporting.
CHIVERS: Thank you for having me back.
GROSS: C. J. Chivers is a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. You can find links to his articles about the civil war in Syria on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at #nprefreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.