Covering Syria as a young, freelance journalist is deeply challenging -- and in the view of some, deeply foolish.
Syria is considered among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work. Yet the main challenge for me is simply getting into the country. Practically speaking, this uprising is a very cash-intensive conflict to report on, and publications that I am willing to take risks for are less and less willing to accept freelance reporting from inside Syria -- much less send me in on assignment.
This is not because newspapers are uninterested in what is going on in this part of the world. Rather, it is because of the shrinking budgets in U.S. journalism and the high degree of danger inherent in reporting from Syria.
But whatever the cause, reporting has suffered as a result: Journalists have been forced to rely on YouTube and Skype calls with faraway activists -- hurdles that have directly affected the picture of the conflict shown in the press. This lack of reporting has allowed for only a very small number of narratives to be presented to the public, diplomats, and top officials in government. Reporting from Syria is certainly dangerous -- but our ignorance of the country can endanger us even more.
The challenges only multiply once you make it into Syria. All bets are off once you cross the border: At any moment, a regime jet can target your car or obliterate part of a town you had considered relatively safe. The rebels are also massively outgunned, which means there is almost no safety for those reporting alongside them.
I learned that lesson the hard way. In August, I was in Aleppo, embedded with a group of rebels who were headed into a firefight. The rebels were showing a new level of organization and resourcefulness, and I wanted to see how this carried over to the battlefield.
Despite their increased coordination, they were spotted by a regime jet, and we suddenly found ourselves under attack from its rockets and machine guns. The two truck-mounted "dushka" heavy machine guns the rebels possessed were largely useless against the speeding aircraft. Yet the rebels were enthralled. Even under attack -- or perhaps especially when under attacked -- their morale was sky high.
Journalists, like generals, need to know when it's time to retreat. With the gruff reminder of one editor resounding in my head -- "you can't file if you're dead" -- I decided the situation was too dangerous and got out, only to discover the rebels guiding me back had forgotten the keys to the car. It took hours to eventually get out of the city, looping through the countryside to avoid regime aircraft. Upon arriving, a deathly stillness permeated the village where I was staying. A regime air strike had just killed more than 40 people in a nearby village.
The conflict in Syria today has changed radically from when I first met a group of villagers calling themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on the side of a muddy hill in Syria's northern Idlib province in December 2011. Happy to find a Western journalist, they excitedly welcomed me. They tried to impress upon me that they were not Islamists, despite their beards, and appealed for a Western-backed buffer zone in northern Syria. Today, after seeing what they believed to be a humanitarian request denied, some of the same rebels I met a year ago have little time for Western journalists. Elsewhere, Western journalists have angrily been accused of being spies and even kidnapped.
As the conflict has spiraled into a regional war, the increasing complexity of rebel forces -- and the difficulty of verifying almost anything -- has constrained international action on Syria. It takes time and perseverance to get the real story: Syria's rebels, by and large, are increasingly media-savvy and often will only allow a designated spokesperson to deliver a pre-formulated message.
Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda-linked rebel group recently designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, is no exception to this. I remember clearly a morning when one of their commanders, who seemed to be the go-to press spokesperson, was woken up to speak to me in Aleppo. Unsurprisingly, he denied most of the allegations thrown at the group by the West. At times, he seemed sincerely confused by them.
It was only by sitting long enough to get into conversations about religion and the horrible practice of war that I was allowed to interact with other members of Jabhat al-Nusra. They asked: Why were car bombings unjustified when bombs dropped by regime jets opened swimming pool-sized craters in villages? At the time, there was less hostility toward Americans: When they heard I was looking for a commander from an affiliated rebel group, three burly Jabhat al-Nusra fighters drove me in a van pockmarked with bullet holes to find him.
I gained insights from these experiences that I couldn't have earned with any number of phone calls. No matter the challenges, many observations can only be made by being there -- a practice Syria shows journalists are forgetting.
Justin Vela is an Istanbul-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @justinvela.