When This Western Journalist Reports on Hezbollah
What Sulome Anderson’s Latest Newsweek Article Reveals About the Standards of Western Journalism In The Middle East
Three days ago, Western journalist and Hezbollah connoisseur Sulome Anderson published another article for Newsweek based on several interviews with Hezbollah commanders, titled “The Next Middle East War? Hezbollah May Risk Everything in All-Out Fight With Israel”. This time, however, the article centered around a trip she took into regime-controlled Syria, and included a video documenting the trip and her interviews.
Anderson has faced backlash in the past over the authenticity of her sources (her articles are based on interviews she claims to have conducted with numerous Hezbollah commanders). In response to the question marks surrounding her claims, she has previously said she would post some of the recorded interviews with these sources. While she never published the recorded interviews of the articles that were being questioned, she did however produce a video for her latest one.
Perhaps in a keen attempt to prove the accuracy of her sources (that she does actually interview bona fide Hezbollah commanders), Anderson cobbled together a somewhat bizarre video that demonstrates, at best, she may have been duped into believing those she interviewed are Hezbollah fighters and commanders, or at worst, she is willfully misleading both her Newsweek editors and audience, fully armed with the knowledge that those interviewed are not members of Hezbollah.
The video was shot on the outskirts of the regime-controlled part of the Palestinian al-Yarmouk camp, South of Damascus, currently run by the PFLP-GC. Other Palestinian factions such as Fatah al-Intifada, PPSF, Liwa al-Quds, and Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, all have a presence in the camp. Hezbollah has absolutely zero presence, neither inside the camp nor in its immediate outskirts. If this was not enough to raise question marks for her editors, then the presence of the Fatah al-Intifada logo on the trucks featured in the video, as well as the Palestinian flags, should have been.
Let us assume, for the benefit of the doubt, that Anderson does not read or understand Arabic, and the same applies to her editors, surely all of them would have noticed the Palestinian flag in the video? Do they believe that Hezbollah marks its vehicles, not with its own very distinctive logo, but with the logo of a Syrian-Palestinian group? Additionally, since when do Hezbollah commanders wear caps with Fatah al-Intafada’s logos on them?
PFLP-GC sources have since confirmed to me that Anderson was unable to enter the camp, but was escorted, with her American cameraman and Lebanese fixer, to the outskirts by Fatah al-Intifada. There was no mention of Hezbollah members.
The video starts with eight seconds of what appears to be an assault on a military position, with four men apparently leading the assault. Although several close gunshots from an automatic rifle could be heard, none of the fighters in the video are assuming actual firing positions, nor are any of them seen firing at anything. The gunshots sound effect with the accompanying dramatic music were clearly later added to the video, possibly as an attempt to give the audience the impression this is an active frontline. Yet the place where this was shot, as will be illustrated below, is not a direct combat zone, nor were there any clashes ongoing there at the date of shooting the video.
Now we come to the characters featured in the video. The first ‘commander’ interviewed speaks with a Syrian accent and has no issue revealing his face. Hezbollah is a Lebanese outfit, and is renown for being highly secretive. It seems the second and third ‘commanders’ are aware of the role they are supposed to play, and refuse to show their faces. But they don’t seem to be on the same page when it comes to disguising their voices (one does, while the other doesn’t). Maybe these commanders are confused about the strict regulations of the party they belong to? Furthermore, taking into consideration any video released by Hezbollah-friendly and affiliated outlets (these outlets have never been granted the unprecedented access Anderson claims to have been given in Syria) are forced to cover/blur the faces of the fighters, did the editors not question why the other Hezbollah ‘fighters’ loitering in the background had no issue having their identities revealed on this particular embed?
Attention should also be paid to the translations accompanying the video; they are sloppily done and riddled with mistakes. Here, for example, the guy says verbatim “Here there were bases for Jabhat an-Nusra, Daesh and Jaysh al-Islam, and big battles took place between them and us”, whereas the Newsweek translation mentions no bases, and replaces Jaysh al-Islam with Ahrar ash-Sham, which the fighter doesn’t mention once. Maybe Newsweek and Anderson don’t see a difference between these groups, but for the sake of accurate reporting, this is unprofessional.
The second fighter starts his sentence with, word-for-word, “Around two-three days ago”, not specifying any day of the week or date, whereas the Newsweek translation falsely starts the sentence with “On Tuesday”.
Next is the clothing. From the eagle-eyed online Hezbollah observer to the intrepid reporter who covers every movement made by the party, to party supporters themselves, they are all familiar with and well versed on the fatigues and the uniform by which Hezbollah fighters have to adhere to, according to party regulation. Therefore, Anderson, who claims to be familiar with the party and its commanders, should have noticed when the fighters accompanying her to this ‘frontline’ showed up wearing sneakers, colored T-shirts and shiny accessories. These should have been clear signs for her that maybe the people she embedded with are not who she thought they were. Or maybe she knew, but carried on anyway.
Below is a picture of Anderson with some of the fighters featured in her video.
Then there is the question of how Anderson entered into Syria — accompanied by her American cameraman and Lebanese fixer — in the first place. Foreign journalists, as in most countries around the world, are required to apply for a visa to be able to enter Syria legally and report. Lebanese journalists are also required to apply for a permit to report legally from inside Syria. Sources in Damascus have told me they have no record of Anderson receiving a visa to report from inside Syria. This implies Anderson and her team were illegally smuggled across the border into Syria then back into Lebanon, breaching Articles 6 and 16 of Order №319 of the 1962 Lebanese Law Regulating the Status of Foreign Nationals, which explicitly state that “No foreign national may enter or leave Lebanon unless he or she passes one of the posts of the Sûreté Générale and on condition that he or she has the regulatory documents and visas as well as a passport…”, and according to Article 32 of the same law, Anderson and her cameraman could be facing up to three years in jail.
During the first few seconds of her video, Anderson tells us “Hezbollah has been fighting in the Syrian civil war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad since 2013”. Yet in the second paragraph of her article, she informs us that “Since 2012, Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite organization, has been fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against rebel and extremist groups”. 2012, or 2013? Should we believe Video Newsweek or Article Newsweek?
Anderson also tells us U.S. airstrikes prompted “Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, to warn of retaliatory strikes if America continues to infringe upon the territory it holds in the country.” This is completely incorrect. She literally made this up. Nasrallah never warned of any “retaliatory strikes” against the U.S. The citation she uses comes from the Lebanese website NaharNet from June 7th (Nasrallah had spoken on the 25th of May, 14 days prior to the airstrike and cited article, and on the 24th of June, 17 days after the cited article Anderson is basing her claim on) which in turn copied the story from AP, claiming “Hizbullah-Linked Media Threaten Strikes on U.S. in Syria over ‘Red Lines’”. The reality behind this is a series of six tweets posted by Hezbollah’s military news Twitter account on June 7th, quoting the commander of “Syria’s Allies Joint Command Room”, which represents all of Syria, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, not just the latter alone. Nowhere in the joint room commander’s statements is there a reference to a threat to attack the U.S. This somehow ended up being Nasrallah threatening the U.S., according to Anderson and her editors.
Anderson then informs us that one of the Hezbollah commanders she interviewed bears the rank of “Lieutenant”. There is no lieutenant ranking in Hezbollah. Hezbollah is not a conventional army, and these ranks with their military significances do not exist among its troops. (There are no officers, corporals or major generals either).
This ‘lieutenant’ claims, “Hezbollah now has weapons that we never dreamed of. When Syria was at peace, we could never have had access to such weaponry, especially at these low prices.” This suggests Hezbollah actually pays for its weaponry. One would expect a Hezbollah commander to at least know everything the group owns comes in the form of aid directly from Iran and Syria — nor is this a secret. Hezbollah doesn’t own profitable businesses that enable it to buy any weaponry. This Hezbollah commander must have not heard Nasrallah when he said the party’s budget and everything it owns comes from Iran, something he has stated several times.
Quite bizarrely, both Anderson and the Newsweek editors seem to think Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, is the Israeli capital:
“Russian-made anti-tank missiles tore at Israeli ground forces, eventually forcing Jerusalem to agree to a cease-fire.”
In the same paragraph, Anderson tells us “Hezbollah’s casualties ranged from 49 to 300” during the 2006 July War. The first number comes from a cited BBC article on the 25th of July, only 13 days into the war. How is Anderson using an article written 20 days before the end of the war to give a total estimate of Hezbollah’s causalities? More ridiculously, the article doesn’t even mention the number 49 once, instead, the article says, “Hezbollah said 27 of its fighters had been killed as of Monday”. The second number, 300, uses this link as a citation, which takes you to a 404 error page on The Australian. Did literally no one fact-check the information and its accompanying links within this article?
Anderson, her editors and her Hezbollah fighters all seem to have a problem with the most basic principles of mathematics as well. Anderson quotes an alleged fighter saying: “Especially after the experience we’ve gained in Syria. A boy who was 18 years old and went to fight in Syria — now, he is 25.” Hezbollah went to Syria in 2013, unless Anderson and her editors believe Hezbollah fighters age quicker than your average human being, this fighter should be 22 now.
But perhaps the most farcical quotes come from this “older commander in Dahieh”:
“Everybody is going to fight. Women and children will pick up knives.…”
This ‘commander’ is aware this isn’t the West Bank, correct?
The ‘commander’ continues: “We were keeping our Borkan-1 missiles as a secret weapon to use against the Israelis, but then we had to use them in Syria, and now the Israelis know we have them.” Here’s a tiny lesson in missiles for Anderson, her editors, and possibly the ‘commanders’ she interviews:
1. It is Burkan with a u, not an o.
2. The Burkan-1 missile is a modified ballistic Scud missile that was developed by the Missile Research and Development Center of the Houthi group Ansarullah’s Military Ballistic Missile Force in Yemen, which was tested last September against Riyadh. The Burkan-1, with a range of more than 800 km, was not designed by Hezbollah, nor has it been used in Syria by any groups, to date. Certainly a real Hezbollah commander would know medium-range ballistic missiles are not used by Hezbollah in Syria, simply because they are of no use for the group in Syria, where it engages in direct combat.
3. What Hezbollah developed and uses in Syria is the Burkan Dwarf Missile (known as the Burkan), first used in Qusayr and Qalamoun battles, which the Syrian Arab Army now uses too. The Burkan is originally a regular 122 mm BM-21 Grad missile, attached to a barrel that could carry around 1 ton of explosive material. This significantly reduces the missile’s firing range from about 20 km to a maximum of 2 km, diminishing its accuracy, making it useful for close clashes inside cities like in Syria, and rendering it ineffective against Israel. Any Hezbollah commander would know this.
The same commander continues: “They have no idea how we can hit their gas infrastructure. We have anti-aircraft missiles. The [Israeli] planes will leave the airport and immediately explode.” As a matter of fact, Israel already knows Hezbollah can hit its infrastructure, given the group’s leader has threatened several times that it would demolish Israeli infrastructure in case of an upcoming aggression.
Anderson also alludes to “The tension on the Lebanese side of the Israeli border is palpable, as it has been for years”. This is also highly inaccurate, and has been pointed out to her on several occasions, even by veteran Lebanese Al-Akhbar journalist Hasan Illeik, whom she dismisses out of hand, claiming she has better knowledge of the Beirut suburbs of Dahiyeh — an area he actually resides in — than he does. Personally, I live on the Lebanese side of the border and there is no such tension. Farmers are going to their fields on a daily basis just meters away from the Blue Line, and there is definitely no “new note of urgency here”. This is the definition of false hysteria being propagated by a sensationalist journalist.
What this article demonstrates is that time and again Western standards on reporting in this region are sub-par, resulting in the publishing of inaccurate, misinformed, dishonest and unprofessional work. Journalists have a responsibility to their audience to be truthful, honest and factual. Anderson has either been misled into believing the people she interviews are members of Hezbollah, or she’s deliberately misleading her audience into believing they are Hezbollah members when she knows they are not. But at this point, all of her previous work should be called into question too.
Newsweek seems to have removed the video from Anderson’s accompanying article without any comments explaining why. Here’s the now removed full video, flaunted by the author herself: