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Reddit Q&A: Andrew Simmons on Syria

Al Jazeera's correspondent answers questions from the online community about his recent trip to Syria.

Last Modified: 04 Oct 2012 07:32
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Al Jazeera's senior correspondent Andrew Simmons, who just returned from Syria, hosted an AMA - Ask Me Anything - on social media site Reddit on Wednesday.

As he sat down to answer questions in Antakya, near the Turkish border, news broke of five Turkish nationals being killed in a border town by a mortar fired from Syria. Turkey launched artillery attacks across the border in response.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE CONVERSATION ON REDDIT

Here's a selection of the questions and answers:

TheGrouseYarn: In your opinion, is there any way this conflict could end other than either side claiming a military victory? Would Bashar al-Assad ever conceivably step aside under an amnesty agreement, power-sharing arrangement, or some other non-military option?

AndrewSimmonsAJE: I think your question is well put. Russia wants to see a political settlement along the lines of the latter part of your question. However, all sides in this have come so far down a bloody road it is hard to see anything settled in the near future. But many observers feel realpolitik will have to kick in eventually. One has to ask what the people of Syria want - they don't have a vote or any means of an opinion poll. The longer this goes on the more polarised it gets with sectarianism making a peaceful solution appearing unattainable.

lappy482: Are you always fearful of your surroundings? Are you always alert just in case you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time?

AndrewSimmonsAJE: Yes, you have to be alert - not just for yourself but the camera person who takes more risks than the correspondent. In TV news the pictures are obviously the priority and that sometimes means taking calculated risks as a team. We are also so dependant very often on fixers/translators/guides who are much braver than us. And so often we leave them behind when the assignment is over. They deserve more plaudits than us in making things happen. As for wrong place, wrong time, well yes, you are mindful of that but if it spooks you through some extinct then you just don't do it.

thecooldude20: How much is your station influenced by the fact that the Qatari royal family is funding you? They are really pro-America and against countries who are openly hostile to western interference.
This fact is also why your network has lost a lot of face, would be great with your perspective on it.

AndrewSimmonsAJE: I answer this with all sincerity as a correspondent of 57 years of age with three decades of experience in broadcast news. Not once with Al Jazeera English have I been swayed, censored or had story ideas refused in my seven years with the organisation. And I know I also speak on behalf of my colleagues in saying this. Please judge our journalism from what you see on screen, not the predictable lines you have obviously seen in other media.

Spotlight
In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria

Master2u: Do the rebels have any chance of winning?

AndrewSimmonsAJE: That is hard to predict. And dependant on how they can somehow co-ordinate their actions on the ground in a better way. And far more crucial - they are crying out for more effective heavier weaponry and more ammunition supplies.

Museca: When do you think Turkey will say "Enough" and either intervene or close their borders? Thanks for the AMA.

AndrewSimmonsAJE: Turkey has already closed its borders to internally displaced people in Syria who become refugees once they are here. They are allowing a few thousand a week through but that isn’t enough. Turkey is overwhelmed by the influx of Syrian people – the total of officially registered refugees is about to reach 100,000 and you have to add to that a colossal number of unregistered Syrians, most of whom have been smuggled across the border illegally – something that is commonplace at a cost to the Syrians. Politically Turkey is at risk of political isolation should it try to intervene militarily. Put simply, without US support it will not do so.

P-Hustle: Mr. Simmons, thank you very much for this. Where does Turkey stand on the movement of men and materiel across its southern border into Syria? How are weapons and ammunition, outside of store captured from the regime, making it to the frontline brigades?

AndrewSimmonsAJE: Turkey turns something of a blind eye to the movement of men across the border and I have no doubt that arms and ammunition are crossing as well although covertly and with the watchful eye of Turkish intelligence services. I cannot give absolute evidence of this but I do know their intelligence agents are active on the border and fairy well appraised of what is going on. Again I cannot prove this but reliable sources have told me that much of these arms and ammunition are bought on the black market and smuggled along well-used routes through holes in fences along the long winding border with Syria that stretches more than 900 kilometres. As for foreign arms shipments there appear to be none from Western states in line with their public statements. However there are unconfirmed reports of Arab states supplying arms or the money to buy them. But how such weaponry is getting in is unclear.

DisGateway: How many foreign fighters did you come in contact with?

AndrewSimmonsAJE: Only a handful -- but I haven't been to areas where they are reportedly prevalent. They tend to be at the very frontline of conflict.

ServerGeek: Thanks for doing this!
What's the average day like for the citizens there?
Have you ever been close to dying from a suicide bomber or gun-fight?

AndrewSimmonsAJE: The average day is absolutely dreadful for so many Syrian civilians right now. Please view the report running on AJE if you can. It's the children who are suffering the most.

On your second question - I've never thankfully been near to a suicide bomber. In this conflict I have been lucky so far although only a few days ago we had to take hard cover during an air raid. In the past, yes, I have been too close to gun fights. In Grozny, Chechnya and in Bosnia. And in Iraq on Gulf War 1 I was taken prisoner by the Republican Guard in Basra for more than a week. At one stage it looked like I was going to be executed. However, it was at the end of the conflict and I along with the rest of the team for the UK news organisation ITN became part of the final peace deal by being classified as POWs and handed over to the ICRC in Baghdad.

ApolloAbove: As many others have said, Thank you for taking the time to do this. These AMA's really are making reporters seem human again.

More than 90,000 Syrian refugees have been registered in Turkey [Reuters]

Recently, Hillary Clinton pledged millions of dollars for the Syrian rebels/Resistance. She pledged humanitarian aid, and electronic support/assistance. By your view, have these pledges made there way to the ground? Have you seen such missions being carried out? If so, what sort of aid has been given?
By your own view at least.

AndrewSimmonsAJE: I was in Istanbul when Hillary Clinton pledged more humanitarian aid in August and there have been more such gestures since. There is aid - but not enough - reaching the 90,000+ Syrian refugees here in Turkey. But on the other side of the border next to nil. Western NGOs and aid agencies are very thin on the ground, partly because the Syrian government doesn't want them there, Last week I was at Atma camp - a stone's throw from the border where 7,000 internally displaced people are living in dire conditions. Many under the branches of olive trees strewn with the few blankets they possess. I spoke at length to a Syrian lawyer there who explained he didn't necessarily want to leave the country he loved.. he was living in those awful conditions to keep his kids safe. Sorry have to cut short.. shells have landed Turkish side of border at least five dead and we have to do a team briefing, Back within 15 minutes.

euklides: What are the main foreign interests in Syria? Who is (or isn't) supporting which side of the struggle, and for what reasons? And why are the UN having such trouble there?

AndrewSimmonsAJE: The main foreign interests in Syria are these: Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Egypt, the USA of course, Europe (particularly France of late), Russia and China. Russia and China are with the Assad government. The rest support opposition to Assad but they are split on which elements of resistance both politically and militarily they are prepared to back.

As for the UN – the Security Council is impotent in taking any action. Resolutions have been vetoed by China and Russia. And the UN General Assembly is turning out to be little more than talking shop and place for all sides to grandstand. Meanwhile the abysmal human tragedy of Syria carries on.

P-Hustle: Mr. Simmons, thank you very much for this. Where does Turkey stand on the movement of men and materiel across its southern border into Syria? How are weapons and ammunition, outside of store captured from the regime, making it to the frontline brigades?

AndrewSimmonsAJE: Turkey turns something of a blind eye to the movement of men across the border and I have no doubt that arms and ammunition are crossing as well although covertly and with the watchful eye of Turkish intelligence services. I cannot give absolute evidence of this but I do know their intelligence agents are active on the border and fairy well appraised of what is going on. Again I cannot prove this but reliable sources have told me that much of these arms and ammunition are bought on the black market and smuggled along well-used routes through holes in fences along the long winding border with Syria that stretches more than 900 kilometres. As for foreign arms shipments there appear to be none from Western states in line with their public statements. However there are unconfirmed reports of Arab states supplying arms or the money to buy them. But how such weaponry is getting in is unclear.

sklegg: How does the Free Syrian Army compare to similar groups in similar conflicts?

AndrewSimmonsAJE: I normally baulk at comparing one warzone or force within it to another because every conflict is different. Syria is one of the most complex wars I have covered. The Free Syrian Army is an umbrella organisation that gradually started showing some signs of co-ordination. But now it has splintered and its very existence is at stake. No one knows an accurate number of brigades, battalions, military councils and fighting groups. The head of the FSA Riad al-Asaad who has been trying to run his campaign from Turkey is under serious pressure now because of dissent and outright hostility on the ground in Syria. I reported on this two days ago. A new command of military councils has now been formed that claims 80 per cent support. One of the main aspects of the frequent switches of allegiance from one command to another is the poor supply of weapons, almost exclusively off the black market, that the FSA gets. Riad al-Asaad told Al Jazeera English in a rare exclusive interview that he hasn’t received one bullet from any foreign power. However other groups do seem to be getting much better arms shipments from Arab states. It gets complicated but as for comparing the FSA to similar groups in similar conflicts I would say there are no such similar groups and no such similar conflicts.

lbagpiperb: What is the most interesting thing you have encountered during your time spent reporting in Syria?

AndrewSimmonsAJE: Depends what you mean by interesting. In terms of news interest the moment is now. Sorry I haven't been able to answer more questions but I have been reporting live for the past three hours in open-ended coverage of Turkey's artillery attack on Syria in response to the Assad forces' mortar that killed five Turkish nationals, among them children. This is the first time Turkey has responded militarily in the 19-month conflict. Diplomatic hotlines are buzzing, NATO emergency meeting soon.

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