Front-line reporting in Syria can be as perplexing as the war

Sunday 16/10/2016
Jürgen Todenhöfer (R) interviewing an Egyptian ISIS fighter.

London - A German journalist who became the first West­erner to report from ter­ritory held by the Islamic State (ISIS) has become embroiled in a controversy with his country’s leading news magazine that questioned the authenticity of his latest front-line reporting.
In late September, Jürgen Toden­höfer had an interview published in a Cologne newspaper that was said to be with a senior commander of the formerly al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, conducted in no-man’s-land near the battle-torn Syr­ian city of Aleppo.
Under the headline The Ameri­cans are on our side, the masked commander, identified as Abu al-Ezz, claimed that a number of countries, including the United States and Israel, were actively sup­porting his jihadist movement in its war against the Syrian regime.
Jabhat al-Nusra, which changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, or Conquest of Syria Front) in July when it announced it was splitting from al-Qaeda, has been excluded from internationally sponsored peace talks because of its jihadist links.
The interview reinforced a per­ception, widely shared in some cir­cles, that the West is supporting the most reactionary elements battling Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Moscow-backed regime.
It also underlined the near im­possibility of receiving unbiased ac­counts from any side in Syria’s com­plex civil war, largely inaccessible to outsiders, in which propaganda regularly trumps straight news.
The day after the videoed inter­view was published, JFS denied that any such encounter had taken place, hinting that the “fake” com­mander was linked to the regime.
The German news magazine Der Spiegel followed with a foren­sic study of the interview, chal­lenging the identity of the alleged commander and even the location where the two men met.
The interview “strangely con­firmed the war propaganda being propagated by the Assad regime — that America is indirectly support­ing al-Qaeda and that the rebels are opposed to aid deliveries to civil­ians”, Der Spiegel wrote.
Todenhöfer gave the plausible response that the jihadist group could be expected to deny an inter­view that might have revealed more than it intended. “The fact that my critics choose to believe the politi­cal leadership of a terrorist organi­sation more than me is messed up!” he wrote on his Facebook page.
“It was clear from very beginning that Jabhat al-Nusra would deny the interview,” he added.
He also contrasted his role as a front-line reporter with that of his desk-bound detractors. “Some things cannot be researched in front of a computer but require moving one’s butt under great risk into the war zones of this world,” he wrote.
Rebel-linked groups joined in the attempted debunking of Toden­höfer, pointing out his alleged sym­pathy for the Damascus regime. The German conducted an inter­view with Assad in 2012 that critics charged gave a propaganda plat­form to the Syrian leader.
Todenhöfer had previously at­tacked Western media coverage of the Syrian war as hostile to As­sad and too sympathetic to his en­emies.
Der Spiegel had a debate in July 2012 at which its Syria correspond­ent, Christoph Reuter, challenged Todenhöfer’s view that Assad was at that time interested in compro­mise. Reuter was the author of the latest article that set out to debunk Todenhöfer’s JFS interview, an indication that the antipathy be­tween the magazine and the for­mer right-wing German politician-turned-journalist is long-standing.
Der Speigel was also critical of Todenhöfer’s 2014 visit behind ISIS lines and a subsequent book that topped its own bestseller list. “Those who go there… are at the mercy of their hosts and are only permitted to ask subservient ques­tions,” the magazine wrote.
While Todenhöfer has been mauled at home and undermined by a variety of voices among the anti-Assad opposition, he contin­ues to enjoy positive media cov­erage in Russia, which also sub­scribes to the theory the United States actively supports ISIS and other jihadists.
The Kremlin-backed Sputnik News carried Todenhöfer’s lengthy defence of what it called his “explo­sive interview”.
“Speaking to Sputnik Deutschland about the now-famous interview, Todenhöfer explained that he never had any illusions that his journalistic effort, and its shocking revelations about the extent of Western support for Islamist terrorists, would cause a strong reaction ‘both from terrorists and from those who support main­stream Western policy in the Middle East’,” Sputnik News wrote.
As with so much of the infor­mation coming out of Syria, the Todenhöfer interview — authen­tic or not — appears to have added more heat than light to the debate over what can be done to salvage that benighted country.