By Avi Asher-Schapiro, news.vice.com
March 4, 2016 | 7:15 am
The US State Department has set up a hotline to help document reports of violence in Syria, but some of the operators working the phones don't speak fluent Arabic, and sometimes nobody answers the phone at all.
The problem was first revealed on Wednesday by reporters with the news site Syria Direct, which receives funding from the State Department. One of its reporters tried to call the hotline on February 27, hours after a "cessation of hostilities" — basically a limited truce — that was brokered by the US and Russia went into effect between many of the parties in Syria's ongoing civil war.
Syria Direct's newsroom in Amman, Jordan had been tracking shelling in several Syrian provinces, and had heard reports of continuing violence after the truce went into effect. But when one of the site's reporters, an American named Orion Wilcox, phoned in the potential violations to the State Department's hotline, the operator on the other end didn't seem to comprehend Wilcox's Arabic.
"He's really struggling and can't understand me," Wilcox reported in Syria Direct. "I'm like, why is this American guy on the phone who can't speak Arabic? I'd give a detailed account of something happening in Homs province and he would listen and his answer was: 'Homs.' That's it." Wilcox conducted the rest of the call in English.
The next day, Osama Abu Zeid, another Syria Direct reporter, called the hotline to report another violation of the ceasefire in the city of Homs. Syria Direct provided a copy of the audio recording of the exchange to VICE News.
In the recording, the State Department employee who answers speaks in heavily accented and broken Arabic, offering mostly one-word answers to questions, and at one point confuses the Syrian village of Hirbinifsah with the Arabic words for "Pepsi War."
On Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner revealed at a press conference that the hotline was staffed by State employees working as volunteers, and acknowledged that their language proficiencies were not "properly vetted."
"It's important that we have Arabic speakers that were able to field incoming calls," he said.
VICE News called the hotline at regular intervals on Thursday using a proxy that blocked the phone number being used. Only two of our five phone calls were answered. The operator who picked up the two calls spoke Egyptian-accented Arabic and said that the hotline's staff was doing the best it could to field the calls that were coming in.
When we followed up with the State Department about the persistent short-staffing, a State Department official who spoke on the condition that their name be withheld said: "We are mindful of and working to address the difficulties that some have experienced when calling to convey reports of incidents in Arabic."
When asked what was being done to ensure that staff could communicate with callers in the future, the official replied the effort was "evolving," and that the department was exploring "more permanent arrangements." For now, the hotline is staffed by at least "one officer" with "some Arabic proficiency," the official said.
The question of staffing on the hotline is a concern because incompetent operators who are unable to distinguish the names of cities or are unfamiliar with military jargon could very well hamper accurate reporting of ceasefire violations, coming away with incorrect or incomplete information.
Over the past 24 hours, for example, the State Department reported "no significant new number" of ceasefire violations. But Syria Direct has heard from a rebel commander in Homs who said that his men were under Russian and regime bombardment. If the rebel commander were to phone the State Department hotline, it's unclear if anyone would pick up, or if an operator who did answer would be able to effectively communicate with him.
"The State Department is saying to the world that there really aren't any serious violations of the ceasefire, but they have people manning their hotline who can't even understand if breaches are being reported," said Syria Direct editor Kristen Demilio. "It's not enough to close your ears and say you aren't hearing anything. We've been following that area, and there's a lot of fighting."
The call center is part of an international effort to keep tabs on the cessation of hostilities deal reached late last month. Implementation of the truce is being monitored by a task force set up by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), a collection of 20 world powers chaired by the US and Russia. Keeping tabs on violations is challenging because not all of Syria's warring factions are included in the deal; it does not apply to groups like the Islamic State and the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Further complicating matters, the Nusra Front is often embedded with other rebel groups that are covered by the ceasefire.
The UN, which is helping to gather information on potential violations, admitted on Wednesday that the monitoring process is makeshift.
"If we wanted to have a perfect ceasefire," said UN's Syria Envoy Staffan de Misrata, "we would have required of course to have 4000 monitors."
Instead, Russia and the US have set up a series of monitoring centers — like the State Department's hotline — to take in reports of violence on the ground.
Rebel groups, civil society organizations, and journalists are forwarding reported violations to the ISSG, which is tasked with assessing those complaints.
While such hotlines are by no means the only means of reporting ceasefire violations, the State Department confirmed to VICE News that information coming into its call center would eventually be forwarded along to the ISSG taskforce that assess the overall effectiveness of the truce.
The State Department also encourages those reporting violations to use messaging apps or send emails. The official with whom we spoke said that the "vast majority of reports" so far have arrived through "written channels," such as the instant-messaging application WhatsApp, rather than phone calls.
But Alberto Fernandez, a 30-year veteran of the State Department who served as the coordinator for strategic counterterrorism communications before becoming vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute, called the department's hotline kerfuffle an "unforced error."
"The question is who's bright idea was it to establish a hotline with an Arabic capacity that they cannot meet," he remarked.
Fernandez is himself a fluent Arabic speaker who worked as a foreign service officer in Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq before retiring last year.
"If you're going to understand the details of an airstrike, you going to need a higher rating than a three," he said, referring to the language scale that the State Department uses to rate linguists. Linguists rated "three" are considered to have "professional working proficiency." While someone at that level would qualify to operate the hotline under the current guidelines, they would struggle to understand military terminology or a thick regional accent.