U.S. Withdrawal From Syria Leaves A 'Tangled Mess,' Journalist Says | Connecticut Public Radio
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U.S. Withdrawal From Syria Leaves A 'Tangled Mess,' Journalist Says

Oct 22, 2019
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. President Trump's order to pull out U.S. troops from the Kurdish-controlled area of Syria along the Turkish border has left our allies, the Kurds, feeling betrayed, and it's throwing the region deeper into chaos. My guest Liz Sly has been covering the Syrian civil war since it started in 2011. She's now The Washington Post's Beirut bureau chief. She's also served as The Post's Baghdad bureau chief and has reported from Africa, China and Afghanistan.

She's briefly in the U.S. to accept an award tonight for courage in journalism from the International Women's Media Foundation. The citation reads, described as the dean of Middle Eastern correspondents, Sly's decades in journalism have rendered her fearless, despite constant government surveillance, immense personal risk and incessant surrounding violence. Since 2011, Sly has covered the war in Syria as the preeminent journalistic authority on the conflict. We recorded our interview yesterday.

Ms. Sly, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the award you're receiving. I know you've been traveling in the States for the past couple of days. But starting from the time that the U.S. pulled out its forces from the Kurd-controlled area of Syria, how have you been able to get any handle on what's going on there? It's not safe to be there.

LIZ SLY: Well, yes. We're in touch with a lot of people there. There are many wonderful ordinary people there who we talked to and who share information about what's happening with this. And the SDF, the main U.S. ally there, is pretty organized on the PR front. They keep us updated with their point of view and what's going on there.

And you know, this - Syria was a social media war. Everything's getting videoed and posted, and you spend a lot of your time just keeping track of it through the different postings, which of course you have to verify. But, for example, that's how we found out about the war crimes that were being committed on a remote country road. At least nine people taken out of their cars and executed - that came out on social media by the guys who did it, who filmed themselves and posted it.

GROSS: Where have the Kurds been fleeing to? Is there a safe place for them?

SLY: Well, there really isn't a safe place for them because the area along the border that has been targeted mostly by shell fire - the Turks have actually gone into a very small - a small-ish area between two towns. I think it's about 80, 90 miles between them. And that is actually a mostly Arab part of Syria. Most of the people who live there are Arabs. But of course there are Kurdish residents, too, and they have fled to the next town along, which is called Qamishli. It's not a target for the invasion at the moment, but shells have been landing there.

Throughout these past eight years, a lot of Syrian Kurds have fled to northern Iraq, where the Kurds have a sort of autonomous region that's very friendly to Kurds, and that is safe for them. But Kurdistan is filled to capacity with refugees from that part of Syria. They are very reluctant to take more. And we have also seen some reports - which I have not been able to independently confirm, but a lot of people have given some quite compelling evidence to suggest - that the Syrian Kurds themselves, the SDF, don't want Kurds to flee. I think they might be worried about demographic change in the region. They don't want Kurds to leave and this area not to be Kurdish anymore.

GROSS: But if the Kurds stay, would they survive?

SLY: At the moment, it's very, very complicated. I don't think many Kurds will be feeling particularly keen on staying in that 86-, 90-mile area that's targeted by the Turkish invasion. But we're not sure yet what's going to happen to the rest of this. So we don't know how much Erdogan's bluffing about wanting to take the entire border. It's a huge responsibility. The Turkish army would be stretched very thin. It would face an insurgency. It doesn't have international sympathy on its side.

In the talks with the regime, the discussion with the Syrian government between the SDF and the Syrian government brokered by Russia, that sort of deal that's cooking suggests that the Syrian army is going to be in those Kurdish border areas on the border. That might substitute eventually for Turkey taking over the whole area, as it's threatened to do.

GROSS: My understanding is that the Turks are really looking to organize a demographic change to remove the Kurds from the border region and replace them with Syrians who had crossed the border into Turkey during the Syrian civil war - bring those Syrians back across the border from Turkey into Syria. What are the odds that the Turks will really do that, do you think?

SLY: It's so complicated. What you're looking at is an Arab-Kurdish conflict over those areas and that Turkish-Kurd conflict over the areas across the border that dates back for decades, centuries. Some of those areas - and that includes the area that's currently targeted by the Turkish incursion - are mostly Arab with Kurdish minorities. There are other parts of the border that are mostly Kurdish with Arab minorities. And the war has seen them all mix up. The Arabs from those areas have largely fled to Turkey. Kurds have returned and kind of, you know, have come to dominate those areas.

If Erdogan fulfills his plan to bring 1 to 2 million Syrians, Syrian Arabs, into that area who are refugees in Turkey now, it would be a big demographic change. But as I said, we're not totally sure that he is going to bring - to take the whole border. It does look like a deal that is in the works to restore the sovereignty of the Syrian government there. And I mean, I would also add that you can't guarantee that the Syrian government is going to be a lot nicer to the Kurds in the area than the Turks would be.

GROSS: So the Kurds think that we betrayed them. After Erdogan told Trump that Turkey was going to send troops across the border into Syria, into the Kurdish-controlled part of Syria, Trump decided to remove our troops, abandoning the Kurds. Is there a geopolitical or tactical or military explanation that makes sense to you?

SLY: Well, it's very interesting because if you talk to the actual Kurdish officials, they will not say they were betrayed, and that's for two reasons. One is that they are still hoping the U.S. will do some kind of deal with them. We've seen Trump flip-flop on Syria three times now in the past little more than a year. So they're still holding out hope. They also say that they have not - they've never been given any guarantees by the U.S. of a long-term presence, that this is an issue of mutual interests between them, and they believe it's in the U.S.'s interests to stay.

Well, on one level, it does make sense. America really isn't in the mood for a new war. I don't know what the response would have been in the United States if suddenly U.S. troops started getting killed in a giant war in northeast Syria.

GROSS: You mean, like, if the Turks came across the border into Syria, as they said on October 6 that they were going to do, then American troops would have been facing Turkish troops?

SLY: Yes, in principle. Now, I am not sure it ever would have come to that. I think Erdogan called Trump's bluff, and he took it. I don't think it makes sense for the U.S. to have a long-term indefinite presence in Syria. What would it want to achieve like that? What could it achieve from that? Russia is making it clear that it wants Syria to be - all of Syria to be under its aegis, under its influence. But the U.S. troops were supposed to be staying there as a sort of place holders for a Syrian - a settlement to the Syrian war, that that would include political reforms guarantees of a level of Kurdish autonomy. And they had hoped that by staying there they would be able to go after a proper settlement was agreed, after there was going to be a real peace settlement in Syria. One flaw with that policy was that there is no prospect of a real solution in Syria that would go anywhere near to satisfying American demands. And so we were looking at a potentially indefinite U.S. presence in Syria. And another thing is that a lot of U.S. officials were, after the ISIS war was over, saying, we are going to leave when the ISIS war is over, and it's almost over.

But what I think has startled everybody and has sort of really upset the region and rocked, like, everybody's view of the United States is the sort of manner of this walking away, the abrupt decision not to keep any troops in a couple of bases, pull them back and let Turkey go in. That has sent a sort of message that the U.S. is completely unreliable; not that it acts in its own interest, necessarily, one way or the other, but that it just, you know, could up and leave you and abandon you in a heartbeat.

And I think that's a dangerous message for America to send to the world because people are going to be very reluctant to do things or act with America that maybe America would like them to do, that would be in American interests. People are going to say, we're not going to stick our necks out with you.

GROSS: The Kurds basically had their own territory in the area of Syria on the border of Turkey. Why is Turkey so afraid of Kurds being on the border?

SLY: What Turkey is really concerned about is any kind of Kurdish state entity on its border would almost inevitably, after it had established itself and got going, the Kurds of Turkey who are just across the border would look to that as an inspiration, and almost certainly, they feel or fear that a piece of their country could be broken off by the Kurds and also try and join this country. So they're opposed to any form of Kurdish state put on their border.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Liz Sly. She is The Washington Post Beirut bureau chief. She's in the U.S. briefly to accept a courage in journalism award from the International Women's Media Foundation. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Liz Sly, who's been based in the Middle East in one form or another, covering one country or another, since around 1982. She's in the U.S. briefly to receive a courage in journalism award from the International Women's Media Foundation. She's the Beirut bureau chief for The Washington Post, and she's covered the Syrian civil war since it started in 2011.

In Syria now with Syria and the Kurds and Turkey, there are such complicated alliances. Turkey is fighting the Kurds. We were aligned with the Kurds. The Kurds were fighting our enemy, ISIS. Now the Kurds are starting to see Russia and even Syria as their protectors against Turkey. They think we've betrayed them. We oppose the Syrian regime. Russia is our foe. When we were backing the Kurds, it was Turkey that was threatening the Kurds. Turkey is our ally. So it's just so tangled. I don't know what my question is, but if you can talk about all the complications of those alliances between U.S. friends and foes in that area and how that's even becoming more complicated now.

SLY: It is such a tangled mess. It is actually incredibly hard to write your stories about this in a way that will become - will come across as coherent to somebody who's not following it on a microscopic basis. When the U.S. went into Syria to fight ISIS, they went in there very single-mindedly just to fight this terrorist organization. But they did step into this minefield, this tangle of alliances, that once ISIS has been defeated - and territorially, it has been defeated. It doesn't exist anymore. So the original purpose for the presence has gone away.

You were always going to have to deal with this tangle, though it's an inevitability that Russia is going to emerge as the dominant power in Syria because it has spent these years fighting to keep Bashar al-Assad in power in Damascus. That has worked. So Russia kind of holds sway over the whole of the country. Russia does not want the United States with a little foothold in its client state that it's spent a lot of money and sent troops and weapons to prop up. Iran has also benefited from the war in Syria because it has played also a big role in propping up Bashar al-Assad. Iran does not want America there. Turkey is allied with America, but it doesn't like America supporting the Kurds. That is anathema to Turkey. So Turkey doesn't want the U.S. there.

You are looking at a situation where the forces that don't want the U.S. there were always going to combine in some way or another to pressure the U.S. to go out, and Trump seems to have made it very easy for them.

GROSS: So do you think President Trump basically handed a victory to Iran and Russia, as well as Turkey? Turkey is our ally. They're a member of NATO. How allied they are with us is unclear. But Iran and Russia are definitely not our allies.

SLY: And Turkey is becoming increasingly close to Iran and Russia. Russia has set up a diplomatic process, called the Astana Process, which is an alliance of Turkey, Iran and Russia. And it's Russia's goal for those three countries to be the powers that decide Syria's fate. There is not a seat at the table for the United States in the Syria peace discussions at the moment. And what's happened just now in northeast Syria, with the Americans announcing that they're leaving, has affirmed this Turkish, Iranian, Russian alliance. And yeah, we're going to see those three countries sorting out Syria's future.

GROSS: So Americans have been focused on our troops' pullout from the Kurdish-controlled area of Turkey and what that's going to mean. But in the larger Syrian civil war, what is the state of that now? Has the government virtually won?

SLY: Yes. The government has won. Assad has won. He's not threatened in Damascus. The rebellion is, to all intents and purposes, over. The rebels still control a corner of the northwest of the country around the province of Idlib. There's a mixture there of some rebels, a very substantial number of al-Qaida linked fighters there. It's the last corner for him to quell. It'll probably happen in a mixture of war and dealings between Russia and Turkey. The American pullout effectively guarantees that Assad will get back that huge third of the country that they had been in...

GROSS: That the Kurds had been in.

SLY: ...Almost - yes. Almost without a fight. You know, I mean I think he can't believe his luck.

GROSS: That he's getting this third of the country back without any fight because the American troops are pulling out. Yeah.

SLY: I mean, he's been threatening to fight for that corner for ages. But his army really doesn't have the capacity at the moment to take on that big area, and especially not with Americans standing behind the Kurds. You can't take on America if it's using airpower. But the Americans going, it's like, you know, yay, you know, we're going to get this area back, and we don't have to fight for it. So yes, it affirms his survival in Damascus. But the country is the most unbelievable mess. I mean, it's destroyed so much. So many - whole towns and villages have been destroyed. I think we're looking at a sort of historical epoch change because there's going to be depopulated areas and towns that will never come back because there just isn't money to rebuild.

There's a lot of unhappiness there, as well, unhappiness within his own community, among the people who basically supported him throughout this war. Living conditions are miserable. There's shortages of basic products. The financial situation is dire. They literally almost have no money to spend in the central bank. They've been sort of trying to scrape, shake down businesses to give them money. You just have this feeling that it's not over and that this isn't going to be solved for a very long time. But for now, he is certainly the victor of this war.

GROSS: So Assad is the victor of the war, and he now has control over a country that he has helped to destroy.

SLY: Yes. I think a lot of Syrians, whether they're with him or not, are aware that this country they're living in was basically destroyed because one man would rather drop a lot of bombs on people, on civilians, and on towns than make political compromises.

GROSS: Are there things that you think can accidentally go wrong right now in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, leading to a bigger war involving the U.S.?

SLY: Well, that is the danger. I think that the U.S. has signaled very clearly it doesn't want to get involved in any other war at all. The troops went there to fight ISIS. They're only going to fight ISIS. They don't want to get tangled up in this tangle. The danger of a bigger war is there. We do have this sort of seeming agreement slightly coming into focus between Russia, the Syrian government, the SDF. Turkey, sort of on a slightly opposite side of that, but it's going to have to cooperate with them if it wants to continue to pursue its interests in Syria.

I think the bigger danger is that we would have maybe a fight between the Syrian government and Turkey over some of these border towns. Perhaps Russia would end up getting involved on the side of the Syrian government. If the U.S. troops do keep a small residual presence inside Syria further south from the area where the Turks are operating, that would run the risk of a confrontation with Iran, which also has troops and allies in that area on the other side of the river. And they would not be happy at all to see the United States remaining in that sector of the country because it has been their goal to get them out.

So that could start feeding into the wider U.S.-Iran tensions that we've seen cropping up all over the region. This could suddenly become a flashpoint in those tensions if the U.S. troops stay and Iran is still in the area.

GROSS: My guest is Liz Sly, The Washington Post's Beirut bureau chief. Tonight she'll receive an award for courage in journalism from the International Women's Media Foundation. We'll talk about the dangers faced by journalists reporting on conflicts after we take a short break. And Maureen Corrigan will review Daniel Mendelsohn's new collection of essays, "Ecstasy And Terror: From The Greeks To 'Game Of Thrones'." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Liz Sly, The Washington Post's Beirut bureau chief. She's been covering the Syrian civil war since it began in 2011, and she's been reporting on the impact of the U.S. withdrawal from the Kurdish-controlled area of Syria along the Turkish border. But for the past couple of days she's been in the U.S. to accept an award for courage in journalism from the International Women's Media Foundation. The citation says, Sly's decades in journalism have rendered her fearless despite constant government surveillance, immense personal risk and incessant surrounding violence. Sly formerly served as the Post's Baghdad bureau chief and has reported from Africa, China and Afghanistan.

You're getting an award for courage in journalism. It seems to me it would take a lot of courage just to try to get into Syria to cover what's been going on there since 2011, and you've been in Syria how many times since the Civil War started?

SLY: Oh, I'm not sure - a couple of dozen, maybe.

GROSS: That's a lot. To the extent that you can tell us, how do you even get in?

SLY: Well, one of the big frustrations of covering the Syrian war has been how hard it is to access the country. In the first year or so I was able to visit Damascus and get visas from the Syrian government, but in 2012, after rebels started taking over large parts of the country, it became possible to cross illegally into Syria to go and see the other side of the fighting.

So I did that, and that automatically disqualified me from getting a government visa, so I haven't been back to the government side since 2012. And then, you know, maybe a couple of years after the rebels took over all these areas, the emergence of ISIS and their deliberate targeting of Westerners, Western journalists, our colleagues and friends such as James Foley made it just too difficult even to go to the rebel areas.

And for the past few years the only area that it has been safe to go to is the northeast of Syria, where the Kurds are extremely friendly and welcoming to foreigners and to westerners. And in the areas they've controlled, they've, you know, managed to install a very strong sense of safety and security in the areas away from the frontlines. Of course, the battle lines with ISIS were fierce and difficult, but away from that, they've - yeah. They've really kept the peace, and there's been a lot of stability. You can move around freely. And, you know, one of the sad things about what's happening is that it is going to make it even harder yet again to access yet another part of Syria.

GROSS: So you'd get into the Kurdish-controlled part of Syria through the Turkish border?

SLY: No, the Turkish border has been completely sealed for maybe five years now. It's an impossibility. The only way in is from Iraq, and you get on a little boat and go across the Tigris River, which takes about 10 minutes on this little boat, and then you're on the other side. It's an old smuggling route that has now become the Syrian Kurds' only window to the outside world.

GROSS: I would imagine you know a lot of Kurds who were living near the Turkish border who have since fled or who are living there still but are very uncertain about what the future looks like. Are you still in touch with them?

SLY: Yes, I've been in touch with a few people there over these past weeks. They're all absolutely heartbroken that America's leaving. They see that they achieved something here. They achieved a peaceful, calm corner of Syria where Kurds were in control, Kurds could lead their own lives untrammeled by the central government without interference. And they see it all collapsing, and it's heartbreaking for them.

GROSS: And are they - are you finding this out through texts, through social media? Like, what's your way of staying in touch?

SLY: The whole of the Middle East is on WhatsApp all the time. Everybody's in groups. Everybody's chatting. Yeah, WhatsApp is the mode of communication in the Middle East.

GROSS: You talked about how difficult it has been to get into the Kurdish-controlled part - into what was then the Kurdish-controlled part of Syria. Tell us a little bit about what that journey is like.

SLY: You fly into Irbil, which is the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, drive a few hours north, get to this little sort of hut by the river. And there's some Iraqi Kurdish officials there who make you fill out a lot of pieces of paper and stamp a lot of pieces of paper, which is normal for the Middle East. Then you get on the - you climb onto this little kind of iron boat dinghy thing, and it goes across the river. And you get out the other side, and then some local Kurdish officials receive you there, and there are more pieces of paper to be filled out and more stamping to be done. And then you can drive off. Northeastern Syria is a very, very remote area. You spend an awful lot of time in the car just to do anything because you're driving through this kind of empty desert for hours on end. It's a pretty sparsely populated part of the country.

GROSS: A while ago you had tweeted a photo of a Syrian child's body washed up on a Syrian beach, and you were criticized, you know, for, you know, showing a dead child, for - you were criticized that maybe the child's death was being exploited. And you, in response, talked about how many dead children, how many mutilated bodies of children that you'd seen in the years you were covering the Syrian civil war. And I was wondering if you could talk about that a little bit, about the toll that the war has taken on children.

SLY: Yes. I didn't even think twice about tweeting that photograph, and as you said, some people said, oh, you know, it's disrespectful to spread around these photographs of dead children. But to tell you the truth, throughout most of the civil war we've spent most of our days looking at bodies of dead children, and most of them are far too gruesome to ever show anybody - just horrible scenes with, you know, insides spewing out and heads half-missing - horrible, horrible things.

There's a very different attitude to death and dead bodies in the Middle East and Syria than there is in the West. There's no squeamishness about people seeing this. People spread these photographs around because they want people to know what the suffering is. They want people to know how awful it is, and then you bump into the West's squeamishness about ever showing any form of death. I think it's important that people do know what's happening and they do understand the toll that this is taking and not in a way to cause, like, revulsion or to really kind of upset people, but when possible, to bring home to people the fact that this causes death and people are dying.

GROSS: You said you spent a lot of your days looking at photos of dead and mutilated children. Is this through social media?

SLY: Yes. The Syrian war is the social media war. It's not the only social media war, but the explosion of social media and the Syrian war kind of coincided with each - with one another. And this is a war that has been kind of broadcast on social media live at almost every minute and every twist and every turn.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Liz Sly. She's the Beirut bureau chief for The Washington Post. She's covered the Syrian civil war since it started in 2011. She's in the U.S. to get an award for courage in journalism from the International Women's Media Foundation. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: My guest is Liz Sly, the Beirut bureau chief for The Washington Post. She's covering the entire region. She's covered the Syrian civil war since 2011. She's in the U.S. to receive a Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation.

You started reporting as a freelancer. And you started, I believe, in Beirut. Was that during the civil war?

SLY: That was during the civil war, yes.

GROSS: So what was it like for you as a freelancer without the backup and security that, you know, a newspaper or TV network can - to be out there on your own, inexperienced, covering a civil war?

SLY: Yes. I look back on it, and I really was very stupid. And I'm quite lucky to be here. Now that I have the support of a newspaper, I can't imagine going through, again, the things that I went through then. But I didn't know any better.

GROSS: What were some of the things you did then that you think were foolish?

SLY: I mean, just living alone in situations where there was very frequently shelling in your neighborhoods. And you would have to hide, and people were being snatched off the streets. And - as hostages, this was - the - hostage-taking of Americans and other foreigners at that time was a very big thing that was going on there. And I used to think - oh, nothing will happen to me.

The idea that nothing will happen to you is something that goes away the more experience you have because you see the narrow escapes, and you see all the things that do happen to people you knew. And yeah, you start to realize that - it couldn't happen to me - is not something you say after a certain age.

GROSS: So in 2012, you were contacted by a freelance reporter named Austin Tice, who asked your advice. He was covering the civil war in Syria. And you told him it wasn't a good idea to stay in Syria very long. Tell us what happened to him.

SLY: Well, yes, the story of Austin Tice is, you know, one of the big tragedies for journalism of this war. I mean, he went there with no experience, crossed into Syria and wanted to start reporting. He contacted us. He contacted several other major news organizations, including McClatchy, maybe some others as well. He was just so, so enthusiastic to be a journalist.

And I just accepted one piece from him, and it came in. And it was actually really good. It was vivid. It was colorful. It read really well. He clearly had talent. I told him this. I told him I thought he'd done, you know, a brilliant job. And he just went - he was running around the war fronts and running between towns. And every available minute, he wanted to get on Skype for advice for how he could build his journalism career, what stories and subjects he should be touching.

I did start to say to him, you know, you're going too far. You shouldn't stay too long. I mean, one of the rules of staying safe when covering wars is not to linger too long, not to get your presence too known to everybody, not to make yourself into a target that everybody's heard about. Spend a little time there, but keep low profile. Don't attract too much attention.

When he started getting closer and closer to Damascus, I was very worried for him because the government still had a pretty solid grip on Damascus. He had crossed into an area where the government had completely lost control. And you know, you could move around fairly confident that you weren't going to bump into any government checkpoints or any government soldiers' positions.

But he reached Damascus. He was on the outskirts of Damascus. He kind of had this hair-raising tale that he wrote about - for McClatchy about dashing through Damascus wearing an abaya and being chased by some Syrian government soldiers. He had attracted a lot of attention at that point. And yes, it - I mean, very tragically, he was picked up at a checkpoint outside the rebel-controlled town that he had been visiting. And yep, we still don't know where he is.

GROSS: A hundred-thirty journalists have been killed in Syria. What's left of the Syrian press?

SLY: Well, the Syrian press is a kind of evolving concept, if you like. The official government Syrian press has always been completely state-controlled. It's not free. It doesn't report freely. It just parrots the government line. What we saw happen with the uprising in 2011 was this emergence of citizen journalists who all began documenting these events, these extraordinary events - first of all on their phones, then some of them got proper camera equipment.

There have been news organizations - independent news organizations set up in areas outside government control. And these people have paid a tremendous price. I mean, it's incredibly brave what they do. They go to the airstrikes. They go on the frontlines. And they - huge numbers of them get killed. It's a measure of just how dangerous the war has been for everybody - for every civilian, for every soldier, every fighter. And the people documenting it, they get killed, too.

GROSS: So you're based in Beirut in Lebanon. And there have been, like, massive protests there now against government corruption. There's a big financial crisis in Lebanon. The government recently declared a state of economic emergency. So tell us a little bit about what's going on there now and how that fits into the larger pattern of the region.

SLY: Yes. What's going on in Lebanon is extraordinary. It all erupted just as I was leaving, and I have missed it all, but I have been glued to the social media where it's playing out. Hour by hour, everybody's posting all of the scenes, all the chants, all the singing. It really is - it does seem to be a genuine sort of uprising, the first we've ever seen, where Lebanese of all sects and all political persuasions have come together to express absolute outrage at the government, at the level of corruption. The economy is in very bad shape. People have been suffering a lot. It was triggered, actually, by a government announcement that they were going to impose a tax on WhatsApp, as - which is the communication tool of choice for the whole Middle East. The idea that Lebanese would have to give their government money in order to use an app on which they all rely and which is free for everybody else in the world just triggered this sense of people just going onto the street and saying, no, we've had enough.

It does very much play into what's happening in the wider region because in the Arab Spring, we sort of saw a democracy movement emerge that was seeking freedoms from the government, and for the most part, those revolts have been horribly and brutally suppressed. And we now have more authoritarian governments than ever before, but we're also now moving into a situation where economies are really, really bad. And what's happened in Lebanon is being mirrored by a similar situation in Iraq, where people have poured onto the streets in anger, motivated by no particular political agenda other than that they are so angry and frustrated with the performance of their government, the corruption.

And it's sort of potentially an optimistic moment for the Middle East because these corrupt governments - I mean, the corruption is just unbelievable, and it stifles all growth. It stifles opportunity. And people are starting to take a stand against it in a way that's not divisive at the moment.

GROSS: Is the fact that it's not divisive what leaves room for optimism, considering how badly so much of the Arab Spring turned out?

SLY: Well, yes. I mean, Lebanon and Iraq in particular are societies that are very starkly organized around sectarianism. The government positions are distributed according to sect. Make sure that the Shia have this number and the Sunnis have this number. And what that does is it acts as a - it precludes real politics. Everybody only gets their job because of what sect they belong to, and jobs are distributed like cards, and then they become tools of patronage for people to compete and fight over. And there's no real politics. There's no real democracy. Each sect controls its own people, and you're required to express loyalty to the leader of your sect. And people are coming together - Christians, Sunnis, Druze, Shia - to say, we've had enough of this system. We don't want this system.

GROSS: Well, Liz Sly, I want to thank you for talking with us. Congratulations on your award for courage in journalism, and thank you for being courageous enough to do the reporting that you do.

SLY: And thank you for having me.

GROSS: Liz Sly is The Washington Post's Beirut bureau chief. Tonight she receives an award for courage in journalism from the International Women's Media Foundation. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review Daniel Mendelsohn's new collection of essays "Ecstasy And Terror: From The Greeks To 'Game Of Thrones'." This is FRESH AIR.

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