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We Spoke to One of the Few Journalists Covering the Syrian Civil War in Aleppo

Rami Jarrah, also known by his alias, Alexander Page, says Russian and Syrian airstrikes are targeting residential areas, not just areas controlled by rebels or ISIS.

Journalist Rami Jarrah. Photo via Wikimedia

Rami Jarrah, also known as his alias Alexander Page, is a media activist and one of the very few Syrian journalists on the ground covering the civil war. He is currently working on a series of video reports documenting the Russian airstrikes in Aleppo because he believes that Western media's presentation of the conflict is misdirected. According to Jarrah, journalists are neglecting the fact that Russian and Syrian air strikes—which he estimates are as frequent as 15 a day—are targeting residential areas not under ISIS control, killing civilians and rebels. Jarrah says this strategy benefits the Assad regime, and ultimately ISIS, and that more should be done to stop it.


We reached him earlier this month at home near a frontline in rebel-held Aleppo.

VICE: What's been happening these past few days? What have you been witnessing?
Rami Jarrah: In general, there's been an escalation in the strikes in the center of the city. About a week ago, the attacks were more so in the Northern Region and on the Southern front where there are basically clashes between the regime and the opposition groups, but it's been escalating over the past few days in the center of the city. This morning [December 9], there was an attack in an area called Salheen, which is in central Aleppo, which killed at least nine people and injured about 15.

Yesterday there was an attack in Sukari… I'm just trying to demonstrate that on a daily basis there's now roughly an attack in the very center of the city that manages to target a residential area.

Tell me about the Russian involvement. What is happening and what does the media here not get?
In general, the misinformation is so extreme that there isn't really any understanding of the fact that there are civilians [being targeted] that are not even in areas that ISIS control. Of course, I oppose the idea of civilians dying even if they are in ISIS territory, but this is totally out of jurisdiction, the attacks that are happening here, in terms of the Russian and Syrian attacks, because they're attacking areas that have seen no sign of ISIS.


And these attacks are taking place totally randomly in residential areas. They're able to do this because there is this general fight against terrorism where 12 countries intervened in Syria and are attacking areas in Syria to bring down ISIS. However, there are two sides in this, those are the Syrian regime and Russia, which are taking advantage of this by attacking areas that are only in opposition to them. But they're also in opposition to ISIS. So there's hypocrisy in that they're attacking those fighting ISIS and it sort of paints out a very clear picture that there is no intention to eliminate ISIS before eliminating the opposition to Assad that considers Assad a dictatorship.

How can you tell that it's a Russian airstrike. What distinguishes them from any other airstrike?
If you're in Aleppo and you hear the plane, you go out, you look. It's a white plane, it's very obvious and it's very high up. The Syrian planes have a different sound. They're either green or black. The Russian airplanes that we're seeing are white, the jetfighters. I hear it launch a missile, the missile doesn't land anywhere near where we are. The Syrian jet fighters are not capable of that. I've seen a plane above me attack and then we've chased the civil defense ten minutes later to see that it landed in an area three or four kilometers away. So the Russians are attacking diagonally, rather than shooting these directly down whereas the Syrians would dive and then attack. The Russians are going out more in the day, and the Syrians are going out at night.


And sighting the planes has totally been different. I don't know if flying in different areas and shooting into other areas is to prevent documentation, but there is some effort now to sort of resist that and provide that evidence.

Do you have any idea how frequent the Russian attacks are, do you have an estimation?
The majority of the attacks now in Aleppo are Russian attacks. I found that surprising, but the majority are Russian attacks. On a daily basis, you have a maximum that I've seen of about 15 strikes, in a day. But they go down to around six strikes, and each plane carries around six missiles, so one plane can carry out six strikes. But usually it's an attack in the morning everyday around nine, ten, eleven, and then you have an attack in the evening just when it's starting to get dark. And then throughout the night you hear lots of attacks—that's the Syrian planes, and I'm not counting them, but you would hear about four, or five, or six airstrikes. But in the day, we've had up to 15 Russian airstrikes. On a normal day it's between six and ten strikes.

What is it like on the ground? What are you witnessing?
There's a lot of despair, in general. Especially now, the border's been totally closed between Turkey and Syria. So they're not letting anyone in or out. It's easier to get into Syria than to get out. A lot of the people here feel very isolated from the rest of the world. As if they can no longer connect to the way of understanding even Syrians that are just across the border in Turkey, or Lebanon, or Jordan, or elsewhere.


Also, there are shelters that no one uses. I found that very surprising when I first came here, but you get the picture soon after. There's almost always a plane in the air. It's not always the plane that attacks, but almost all the time, there is an aircraft in the air and it means that it can attack at any time. Which would mean that people would spend most of their time underground or in shelters if they were going to respond to that. So there is this general sort of feeling that people are used to the fighting, used to the attacks, especially the airstrikes.

That's really contrasting. I think it means that people are staying put and they're not moving. And that's positive in some way to the Syrian opposition, because there is a strategy to clear this area out and create a dead zone where it's just a military zone, which would make it easier for Russia and the Syrian regime to attack the areas. But it's negative in the sense that, mentally, I feel that people here are very, very, very lost. And there's no sort of trust in the international community whatsoever.

No trust in democracy, or human rights… No one believes in that stuff anymore, no one believes in the media. When I'm trying to talk to people here, for example I say to them, "Is ISIS in this and this area?" and they say, "Of course it's not." And I [ask them to] say that to the camera and they say, "No I don't want to speak to the camera." I'd say "Why?" They'd say, "Because they know that ISIS isn't here and they're attacking us and they know that we're being killed and everyone knows that Russia and Syria are just killing civilians and they're not doing anything about it."


You know, I tried to put up the argument that it's not true, that there is a lot of misinformation and that a lot of people don't know, but [people here] don't believe that. And I think they have the right not to believe it because of the amount of information that has been passed out of Syria to the international community. But there is a propaganda that is much stronger that is making it to the front pages.

You're in a safe area?
I'm in a safe area. I'm close to the frontline. But they're launching elephant missiles, which are very indiscriminate. They launch it from the other side of the frontline, so they know that it's going to go onto the other side. That's all they know, they don't know where it's going to go. It's a homemade and very inaccurate weapon.

And they're launching those right now?
For elephant missiles, we've had up to 100 in one day. Sometimes there's none. Sometimes there's ten. Sometimes there's about 20 at once, they're just really quick. So you hear this roar. Have you heard about elephant missiles?

You hear the sound of basically an elephant. You hear this roar and then you count about 20 seconds, and it lands. And it's basically, it's a substitute…

There are planes now.

Right now?
Yeah. So basically the barrel bombs have totally stopped. We don't have any anymore. But the Russian airstrikes, or even the Syrian airstrikes, don't protect the areas that are very close the frontline. And it's because they could target their own troops or their own frontlines, and they could cause some havoc. These frontlines are mostly stable and they want that to remain the case. So they launch these elephant missiles, which basically just go up and down. Surprisingly, it moves very slowly, but its impact is about 70 percent or 80 percent of a barrel bomb. And they're able to use lots of it and there's no way of documenting where it was hit from. You see what I mean? It's not a plane. So it's something that they're using a lot. They're using that more than they're using the strikes.


You've been covering this for a long time now. How frustrating is it for you to see this misinformation, and to see the frustration, and to see the lack of progress?
[At first] there were lots of activists, media activists. Sort of the biggest contribution you could give was participate in the media during the beginning of the uprising. A lot of those people have left and there's a lot that has contributed to that. Mainly it was groups like ISIS, like al-Nusra, and definitely the Syrian regime that made it very hard for people, for media activists, for media workers, for journalists in general, and especially even foreign journalists, to actually work in Syria. And the proof of that is the fact that you don't really have any foreign journalists at the moment in Syria. And it's the same reason that you don't really have any serious journalists, Syrian journalists, that are able to provide information in an objective manner—one that's actually useful in [providing] an international community or Arab community, or even Syrians with what's really going on.

It is very frustrating, and it's why I'm here right now, because I feel that nothing that is being portrayed right now in the media is correct. And I know that sounds very extreme, but I'm saying this because all the information that's coming up now is all built on one concept. And it's ISIS [and] Assad. So as long as that is the situation, where we're only talking about ISIS and Assad and other groups that look like ISIS, [that] is the propaganda that is being pushed and being amplified. If that's the only tone we have, then the news is all wrong, because it's not true.

I think that what we need right now is a very big campaign of journalist action to shed light on real context on what's going on in the country. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister said that there are around 70,000 fighters in Syria who oppose Assad and are not considered extremists and are capable of fighting ISIS. That's not a fantasy. I'm not saying the numbers are correct, but there is a very large number of people that oppose the Syrian regime, [that] are actually fighters, and also oppose ISIS, and the majority of those are actually fighting ISIS. There are more fronts right now in Aleppo between ISIS and these rebel groups, than there are between the regime and these rebel groups.

The only thing holding back the rebels in Aleppo and in Idlib from actually fighting ISIS off, and actually accomplishing or gaining any ground back, and pushing them further out of Syria, are the airstrikes. And it's not just the Syrian and the Russian airstrikes. The Syrian and the Russian airstrikes are actually applying most of their pressure on the rebels, which is preventing them from being able to fight with ISIS. And then the international coalition's attacks are pushing ISIS further out of Iraq, towards Syria, towards Aleppo. And this is exactly what the Syrian regime wants. If Aleppo is to be taken by ISIS, then this is a victory for the Syrian regime and it's a victory for Russia because it becomes the whole world's problem.

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