NBC's Richard Engel is a very lucky man.
The network's "Chief Foreign Correspondent" was released earlier this week, five days after being taken captive while covering the civil war in Syria. Engel and the rest of his crew were freed on Monday when their captors (part of a faction loyal to Syrian President Bashir al-Assad) were stopped at a checkpoint manned by anti-regime forces. At least two of the kidnappers were killed when a firefight ensured and the NBC cerw managed to escape. Members of the rebel group that ended the abduction helped Engel and his colleagues reach safety in Turkey on Tuesday.
In an interview that aired on his network, Engel said the NBC team was not tortured during their days in captivity, but they were subjected to mock executions. That strikes us as a bit odd; a number of journalists have died inside Syria and Assad's thugs would have little problem with torturing a western news crew before executing them and disposing of their bodies. But Engel and the other NBC journalists lived long enough to escape when the opportunity presented itself.
So why were Mr. Engel and his crew allowed to survive? The first possibility is that the kidnappers realized they had nabbed a really big media fish, one that was worth more alive than dead. Engel has been covering the Middle East for more than a decade, and speaks fluent Arabic. Without the language barrier that confronts many western journalists, perhaps Engel convinced the kidnappers to let them live, in exchange for a potential ransom from NBC, or the "goodwill" that would come from eventually releasing them.
Still, that scenario is a bit of a stretch. The Assad government has murdered 44,000 of its citizens over the past 18 months, and their public image went in the toilet a long time ago. Somehow, the Damascus government doesn't seem overly concerned with the subtleties of public relations, and that same trait extends to the pro-Assad group that nabbed Mr. Engel.
In reality, there is probably a much more simple--and direct--explanation for Engel's survival. The Assad government planned to use the NBC crew to send a message, warning western reporters to stay out of Syria. Perhaps there would have been a show trial in Damascus, or some rougher treatment before their release. While Engel and his colleagues deserve credit for making the best of a bad situation, their relatively long survival (before escape) suggests their captors had no plans for a quick execution.
Unfortunately, the next foreign reporter to be captured inside Syria may not be as fortunate. As we've noted in previous posts, the conflict in Syria is growing more savage by the day. There are growing concerns about Assad's massive arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, and their potential employment against rebel forces. The regime has also begun using SCUD missiles and shorter-range (but more accurate) SS-21s against its foes. Obviously, a surface-to-surfaced missile isn't exactly the weapon of choice against rebel forces, which don't mass in large concentrations or operate from fixed facilities, like conventional forces.
But on the other hand, a SCUD or SS-21 is an ideal weapon for delivering a chemical warhead against populated areas where the rebels operate and find refuge. So far, there have been no confirmed reports of missile strikes against insurgent forces using chemical weapons, but opposition groups claim the Assad regime has used chemical weapons several times in recent weeks. However, these reports are no better than second-hand and they have not been confirmed by any western intelligence organization, or media outlet.
Which brings us back to Mr. Engel and his competitors. If Assad is planning to unleash chemical weapons against his people, the last thing he wants is a western media crew to document the mass casualties, or falling victim themselves, if they happen to be in the affected area. So, why not grab a high-profile western journalist and use that unfortunately individual (or crew) to send a not-so-subtle message to the rest of the press. Engel was clearly the chosen medium, until the plan was interrupted by rebel forces at that checkpoint.
We're guessing that Mr. Assad's goons are shadowing other western reporters, in a search for their next kidnap victims. And with the survival of the Assad government at stake--and a CW offensive in the offing--the next abduction will occur sooner, rather than later. And we will likely see a much different outcome.
ADDENDUM: Damascus may have other reasons for chasing reporters out of the war zone (and other areas). It was reported today that Syria is serving as a trans-shipment point for the Russian-made S-300 air defense system en route to Iran. Officially, Moscow has refused to sell the state-of-the-art equipment to Tehran, but Fox News reported today that the S-300 is being shipped to Iran through Syria. In exchange, the Iranians will continue to provide the guns, ammunition and support that Damascus needs to continue the war with the rebels.
While Russia has sold the advanced3 SA-17 SAM system to Syria in the past, Moscow reportedly canceled an S-300 delivery to Assad's forces earlier this year. Other reports suggest that Croatia is transferring its older SA-10 equipment to Iran through Syria, with the blessings of Moscow. The SA-10 represents of the "first generation" of the system, which has evolved into the more advanced SA-20/S-300 variants.
Croatia never deployed the SA-10 operationally, and the radars, missiles and other equipment were kept in covered storage for years. The condition of the Croatian SA-10s is unknown, but they could be restored to operational service with Russian assistance. Deployment of the SA-10 in Iran would present serious challenges to potential air attacks by the U.S. or Israel. Transferring the surplus gear from Croatia (through Damascus) creates a degree of deniability for Russia, which never allowed a direct transfer of the S-300 from its production lines, to Iran.
If the Croatian SA-10s are being flown to Iran, the most likely trans-shipment point is Damascus International Airport or military airfields in that area. Clearly, there are plenty of people in Syria, Iran, Russia and Croatia who don't want western reporters ("embedded" with rebel forces) to provide more video proof of these flights.