Millennial Letters

The Dark Side of Syria's Rebels

What do Syrian rebels have against Anhar Kochneva?

A lot. Syria’s Free Syria Army (FSA), the main military wing in the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is threatening to execute blogger and critic Anhar Kochneva unless they’re paid a staggering $50 million.

The group said they would kill her last week if they didn’t get the money. No one knows if she’s dead or alive, but the case reveals a strange and suspect side of Syria’s shadow power. 

Russia Today’s Maria Finoshina, who met Kochneva several times in Syria, told me by e-mail that Kochneva was known as a vocal critic of the FSA on Russian television as well as social media platforms at the time of her kidnapping in Homs in October.

Kochneva was “what we call very ‘pro’-regime,” Finoshina said. “And never made secret of it.”

The half-Ukrainian, half-Palestinian blogger and commentator was not always “elegant” in her criticism of the FSA, Finoshina said, while the director of Lebanon’s Samir Kasser Foundation said Tuesday even the Ukrainian foreign ministry had stopped calling her a “journalist” in their most recent statements, instead “referring to her as a member of a press/news team.”

“She was very direct, and often even rude regarding the so-called Syrian armed opposition,” Finoshina said.

Information on Kochneva is sketchy at best. Her captivity has not been given wide publicity like that of other journalists gone missing in Syria—Washington Post freelancer Austin Tice, for example—which, given her work, is less surprising in a US context, but more perhaps surprising in a Russian context.

“I’m a bit shocked by reaction of our society,” Elena Sahnova, who has been following Kochneva’s case from Russia, told me by e-mail. She said she’d seen little in the way of public support.

But Finoshina told me Assad himself was said to be aware of Kochneva’s case and following it closely, joined earlier this week by the Daily Beast, where Justin Green, writing on David Frum’s blog, described the death threat against her as “horrifying.”

The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade even translated her Russian-language video appeals—made at the behest of who knows whom. In them, Kochneva describes herself as a 40-year-old reporter who snuck into the country on forged credentials. Earlier reports said she had been on assignment for Russian media outlets. It’s unclear exactly what she was doing in Syria. Finoshina said she was “more of an activist than a journalist,” attributing the reporting label to television appearances in which she presented a decidedly pro-Assad account.

“People want profound reforms, but under the leadership of the president,” Kochneva told BBC’s Russian-language service in an interview translated by Sahnova. “They believe and trust him; he is the person who doesn’t need the power,” Kochneva said, describing rebel forces as “bandits [who] should be destroyed.”

Kochneva claimed to be translator for Syrian and Russian officers in the video as translated by Greenslade, adding, “I’m here at the behest of Russian intelligence.” (Finoshina said she dug up an old business card from Kochneva saying she was in tourism, but whatever her alleged profession, reporters on the ground knew her to close with regime forces in Homs.)

Kochneva’s odd video claims lead to speculation they were coerced. Spying for Russia is not a position likely to endear to her captors, rebel forces presumably angered by Moscow’s arms provisions to Assad.

As for the Kremlin, they earlier issued a statement saying they were working with Ukrainian authorities to secure her release. That does not seem to be going well. Extremist postings on Facebook suggest her death may be imminent, according to a Tuesday report from Ukraine.

Like much of what goes on in Syria, Kochneva’s case is obscured by the fog of war. Both Syrian opposition forces and Assad’s regime stand accused of gross human rights violations during the 21-month uprising in Syria, where some 40,000 people are believed to have been killed. If Kochneva’s life were taken, she would join a tragic number. In a country plagued with nameless deaths, her treatment at the hands of the country’s powerful rebel army is also a warning sign for those eager to see an opposition-led Syria with a free press open to opposing views. It’s a further bitter reminder that not all anti-Assad activity is necessarily good activity—Syria’s pro-rights resistance movement faces a difficult road ahead.


Photo Credit: FreedomHouse2

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