Twenty-eight journalists have been killed in Syria this year, making the country the world's deadliest place to be a reporter, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Nearly half of all the journalists killed worldwide in 2012 were slain in Syria, including top foreign correspondents like Marie Colvin of the London Times. Another celebrated journalist, Anthony Shadid of the New York Times, died in February of an allergy attack during his trek out of the country. NBC's Richard Engel and his crew, no strangers to hostile reporting territory, narrowly escaped being hostages of the Syrian regime this week. Freelance reporter Austin Tice remains missing. Is Syria just too hazardous for journalists? We asked four veteran observers of the conflict to tell us what it's like to cover the riskiest beat in the world.
When the Arab Spring first rumbled into Syria, it was clear that it would be a different story than the other revolutions seizing the Middle East.
At the time, correspondents of all hues were scattered from North Africa to Yemen, covering what in essence were "good news" stories. The narratives were simple: Collective empowerment was breaking down tyranny. The downtrodden were clawing back dignity. Absolute power was contestable after all.
It was hard not to soak in the heady scenes of Cairo's Tahrir Square or Tripoli, Libya's Green Square, or to champion the resilience of Bahrain's vocal masses. All three stories seemed enjoyable to cover. But they were curtain-raisers. Even then, Syria loomed large as the main game.
As far back as March 2011, when the Syrian revolt began, I sensed that what was about to take place in the heartland of Arabia would come to define careers and potentially reshape the region's geopolitical landscape. Nearly 22 months later, Syria is still doing both.
At least seven of our colleagues have lost their lives, along with dozens more citizen journalists. Many more reporters have been captured. Some have been maimed. And at least six remain missing as of mid-December.
Early on, the Guardian, like other outlets, determined that there was no substitute for being there -- despite the tangible risks. Ubiquitous cellphone videos and data feeds were useful at times, but were sometimes manipulated to support often irreconcilable narratives rather than clarify what was happening on the ground.
I have crossed into Syria seven times. I would have done so more often had I not first spent four months waiting for an official visa, which would have given me access to areas controlled by the regime.
Despite five applications, that permission has never come. Since the beginning of the uprising, we have received only one 10-day visa. That has kept Damascus -- an essential element of the story -- off-limits for us. But we have made it to most other points of Syria and tried to convey how war was slowly ravaging the country.
Each of my seven journeys has been different. Homs province in February was the first foray, a difficult journey from northern Lebanon through orchard land that is now locked down by the regime.
Jabal al-Zawiya, an area in the northern Idlib province, was next -- an impossibly beautiful patchwork of farm land, green-water rivers, and concrete villages built into grey hillsides. Then came the Aleppo countryside, the Idlib plains, and three trips back to one of the world's oldest cities, Aleppo itself -- the crumbling center of which remains ground zero of the battle for Syria's destiny.
War has hardened Syria and many of the people I've met along the way. It has forged alliances and broken others. And it has forced people to make choices.
In my past two trips to the north, I have noticed a cohort that was not there in the beginning. Jihadists, who were until mid-summer a bit player, know they have status and a stake in what emerges from Syria's ruins.
Those who started the fight know full well they can't finish it without help from the well-armed ideologues. "I'll dance with the devil if I have to, then fight with him later," my battle-hardened front-line friend, Col. Abu Furat, who was killed this week in Aleppo, once told me.
Abu Furat was a true nationalist. He was a secular Syrian who had stayed true to the ideals of the revolution's early days, back when Syria's uprising reflected the rest of the Arab Spring. When he died, I began to worry for Syria more than I have at any point this year.
There are, of course, many thousands of others like Abu Furat -- committed nationalists whose desire to oust tyranny has its limits. Their voices need to continue to be heard above the clamor.
I fear Syria like I have feared nothing else in seven years of covering the region. It is not a crippling terror, more a deep abiding concern. I fear that both the undercurrents of this conflict and the issues at stake are so profound that perhaps nobody can manage them.
I will keep going back. Like my colleagues, who also remain committed to covering the story, I will likely continue to be viewed by the regime as a subversive threat. I wish I could predict a better year for Syria. But I can't. The next 12 months will likely prove historic. And tragic.
Chulov is a correspondent covering the Middle East for the