A different take on Syria

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This article first appeared in cjr.org

Jihad Yazigi discusses why The Syria Report sticks to covering the economy

It’s one of the few steady voices on macroeconomic and business affairs in a country that is normally in the headlines for bombings, beheadings, and battles. And site founder and editor Jihad Yazigi says he keeps the focus of his 13-year-old site on the economy because it’s a way to reflect the state of the country without injecting politics.

“I am neutral because everything around me is not neutral,” said Yazigi. Accordingly, governments, think tanks, and organizations like the International Monetary Fund read Yazigi’s weekly updates.

He started the online newsletter as a blog reviewing press reports while he was living in Paris in 2001. “No one talked about Syria back then, and I thought that was very unfair,” he said in a Skype conversation from his home in Beirut.

At the time, President Bashar al Assad had begun liberalizing the economy and society, and Yazigi thought it would be interesting to spotlight his native land. And who could better do it than the son of a man who had fled Syria after a failed coup? His father, Raja, a dissident, and his mother fled to Africa to escape events that eventually led to Hafez al Assad coming to power. Yazigi spent his first years of life as a refugee in Ghana. When he was eight, his parents sent him to Paris to boarding school. He later attended The American University of Paris, and he holds a French passport.

With Syria more open under Bashar al Assad, Yazigi was able to start making trips there again. As he built up contacts, he started to write his own reports in addition to the press translations, and his contributions were noticed. In 2002, someone from the World Bank called to thank him for starting Syria Report, he said. More emails came from other international government institutions and embassies. He added a database of statistics and a directory of Syria’s largest corporations. He found his listings of government and company tenders were popular with companies like Total and Shell.

Yazigi realized that he had found his niche, concentrating on the economy. Still, he was U=unable to find funding—the dot-com bubble had only recently burst—so Yazigi switched in 2002 to a subscriber-only model, charging his institutional clients $600 a year. He proudly states that his is the first Middle Eastern news sites to erect a strong paywall. At its peak, he had a subscriber base “in the hundreds,” he said.

He moved his growing family from Paris to Damascus in 2005 and hired a staff of six. Things were looking good until the March day of 2011 when police in Daraa beat a handful of schoolboys for painting anti-government graffiti on a wall. He may limit The Syria Report to covering economics, but current events have affected how he produces it.

“We didn’t see [the uprising] coming,” he said. When the government kicked out all foreign correspondents, Yazigi and his team were part of only a handful of reporters left in Damascus. “It was an extremely important experience for me. For a good period of time my business was no longer a priority,” he said. He worked instead with western journalists blocked from entering the country and with diplomats, helping them understand the economy and the impact of sanctions. But his business suffered.

“Quite quickly we lost subscribers. People closed down and left,” he said. Gradually his team in Damascus left. Then he left, too, though he still employs one part-time and one full-time journalist, both still in Damascus.

“There was a car bomb explosion at eight o’clock in the morning, which was the time the kids went to school and I thought, ‘You know, I just don’t want to be spending my year like this,’” he said.

To make ends meet now, he writes for other publications, like The Guardian, and was recently a fellow at the European Council of Foreign Affairs, reporting on the Syrian war economy. He’s editing papers on the Syrian reconstruction for the Carnegie Center.

But he says he is convinced the war won’t drag on forever. So Yazigi says he will continue his news site, documenting Syria’s demise in neutral tones. But he hopes one day to be reporting instead on his country’s rise.

“I’m attached to it,” he said, and it’s unclear whether he means the newsletter or Syria.