This site has regularly criticized certain New York Times reporters for their coverage of the Middle East. We are happy to break that tradition with enthusiasm for the work of Times correspondent Robert F. Worth, some of which has just appeared in a superb new book titled A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil from Tahrir Square to Isis.
Worth has spent years in the region, and his experience shines through in his first-hand reports and interpretations of the dizzying events in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. He also has valuable material on Yemen, the most forgotten conflict in the whole region.
Arguably Worth’s best work in this outstanding book is his coverage of Syria. He is modest and self-effacing, but he must have risked his life for some of his reports. The armchair advocates for even deeper U.S. military intervention in the Syrian war should be required to listen to him.
Worth brilliantly centers his account of Syria’s collapse around two young women in the coastal town of Jableh, whom he got to know over time. Noura Kanafani is a Sunni Muslim, and Aliaa Ali is from the Alawite minority. When the story opens in 2011, the two are best friends, and they laugh at the idea that the first stirrings of more intense sectarianism could ever drive them apart. But by 2013, after years of growing violence, Noura and her family are in exile in Turkey, Aliaa has become a passionate defender of the Assad regime, and the two young women have bitterly ended their friendship. Worth has shown how the fighting causes sectarianism to grow fiercely, as unscrupulous leaders on all sides encourage the existing moderate prejudices to explode into armed hatreds, forcing everyone to choose sides.
By 2013, passions within Syria alone would have made a return to peace difficult. But Worth explains how the fighting was now internationalized: “. . . the Syrian war had spun outward and was drawing in almost every country in the region and many beyond it.” He adds, “There were thousands of rebels fighting in the name of jihad from more than a dozen countries, bankrolled by intelligence services and militias and zealots of every kind.”
Worth does not say what U.S. policymakers should do about Syria. But having just shown how violence promotes sectarianism and lasting bitterness, it is hard to see how he would then advocate more violence as any kind of answer.
The New York Times needs more reporters like Robert Worth. We respectfully suggest that the paper at some stage assign him to Israel/Palestine, where his skill and experience are sorely needed.