BY INSI

SAFETY ADVISORY: Syria as at 30/08/13

Last week’s suspected chemical weapons attack in rebel-held suburbs of Syria’s capital, Damascus, has prompted speculation over possible US military intervention.

The United States and its allies are considering launching strikes on Syria in response to the attack in Ghouta which reportedly killed more than 1,000 people. Such an attack is likely to take the form of an air strike.

Syria is currently the most dangerous country for journalists. INSI has recorded the deaths of nine members of the news media there since the start of 2013. Countless others have been attacked, injured, kidnapped and detained by both pro-government and opposition forces.

INSI urges all journalists planning to operate inside Syria to be adequately prepared for an attack by US forces and its allies. Such an attack is likely to be on Damascus. Syria has never been more of an unpredictable environment than it is now. Only journalists who have worked there before are advised to attempt to cover this story at this time.

PLANNING AND PREPARATION

Ensure you have undertaken a hostile environment course, have up to date medical training and have previous knowledge of warfare.

Ensure that you have carried out a thorough risk assessment and have robust contingency plans. You must have a workable crisis management plan in case of emergency.

Share your travel plans with a trustworthy person and ensure they know what to do to fit with your contingency plan.

Kidnappings of foreign journalists in Syria, particularly in northern Syria, are still rife and may well continue.

Make sure your management is clear about the risks, and when and how to pull people out of an assignment. Ensure you have a back-up exit plan from the country in case your primary route is compromised.

Consider the type of weaponry that may be used. No one’s safety can be guaranteed during such air strikes, even if US military headquarters know the location of your accommodation.

Make sure you have life assurance for the area you will be travelling to. Ensure that it covers all your personal needs and responsibilities in the event of your injury or death.

INSI has compiled a list of insurance providers for journalists travelling to conflict areas.

TRAVEL

If travelling to Damascus, INSI would advise against entering the country illegally. Government forces are still likely to arrest anybody entering the country without appropriate paperwork.

ACCOMMODATION

Ensure that you are not staying near any military base or near buildings used by government forces. In the event of a US air strike, it is likely that strategic buildings such as military intelligence buildings, army barracks, police barracks and palaces will be targeted.

It is advisable to let the US military know your location so that US forces know where you are staying and can plot your position. Remember that there is still no guarantee of safety during air strikes.

Where possible seek out a cellar with reinforced concrete so you can use this to take cover should there be an air strike.

If you are using a cellar as shelter or accommodation, ensure you check whether anybody else is using it. Troops often shelter in these places, which could make your building a target.

EQUIPMENT

Ensure you are familiar with wearing body armour and helmets and have these with you and near you at all times. INSI’s latest advisory on body armour is available here.

You should ensure you have an advanced trauma kit and know how to use it. Consider a day’s refresher training in advanced life support.

Carry your first aid kit with you at all times, as well as communication equipment (sat phone), grab bag, GPS and all emergency kit. Your grab bag should have enough equipment to sustain you for 48 hours; food, water etc. Contact INSI if you are unsure of what to pack in this bag. Your hostile environment course should have explained this in more detail to you.

Consider that communications and data are insecure and act as if they are being intercepted by the regime. Do not say anything sensitive over the phone, on text or by email. Be aware that the social media is being monitored. Be careful about broadcasting personal information, your location and movements.

If bombing occurs, the infrastructure (buildings, roads, power supplies) is likely to be disrupted. Ensure that you are self-sufficient in terms of food, water and lighting. For example, ensure you have torches and a means to purify water.

Consider taking a safety advisor with you who can advise on military tactics, weapons systems and ranges of weapons, when to think about moving locations, as well as deal with advanced trauma care.

WEAPONRY

Know your weapons and be able to distinguish between the sound of air strikes, shelling, tank fire, mortar and artillery. If you are unsure, research it or ask for advice from the people who conducted your hostile environment training.

Ensure you know the difference between incoming and outgoing fire.

Consider that you may only be able to hear noises, particularly at night, when air strikes are often carried out. Ensure that you know what these sounds are like at a distance and close by so that you know when it is time to 'ignore', 'worry' or 'leave'. If you are unsure, take cover and out your flak jackets and helmets on.

IN THE EVENT OF A CHEMICAL WEAPONS ATTACK

It is recommended that journalists travelling to Syria in the next few weeks take protective equipment with them in case of a chemical weapons attack, such as suits and gas masks (respirators). You should have training to accompany CBRN equipment.

All journalists considering a visit to a chemical weapons site must seek professional help and undertake awareness training, so that they wear the correct equipment and understand the implications of the effects of chemical weapons. Do not rush in to cover these stories unless you are well prepared.

If journalists are planning to report near to where a chemical weapons attack has taken place, chemical weapons experts SecureBio recommend that they invest in proper equipment, including a respirator (SecureBio recommend Avon’s C50), a CBRN suit (SecureBio recommend suits from Blucher or Paul Boye) and boots and gloves, which can be expensive.

For more information, contact SecureBio directly at [email protected]

A protective suit is cheaper and more lightweight than a CBRN suit, however they are hot, afford lower levels of protection and may easily tear. They are well suited to a one off use. SecureBio recommend Dupont's Tychem F. A gas mask (respirator) must be worn with it.

An escape hood does not require fitting, is cheaper and packs down smaller than a respirator and protective suit. However, most escape hoods will only afford you about 20 minutes of protection and do not protect your body. SecureBio recommends the single use Avon EH20 if this route is taken.

SecureBio recommends using butyl rubber boots and gloves. Two pairs of nitrile surgical gloves are a cheaper option which will afford some protection however they are susceptible to ripping.

•  Inner gloves. Always wear the butyl gloves with some cotton inners, which should be supplied with them.

•  Boots. If the suit is supplied with built in socks, you do not need to purchase additional boots.

•  Avoid latex gloves.

Duct tape can be used to patch up tears in protective suits and seal gaps/seams between gloves and boots, and bin bags are useful for bagging any contaminated clothing and can be used as a drop sheet to give you a ‘clean’ place to stand or kneel.

More information on what to do if you suspect a CBRN attack is available here.

SUMMARY

If Syria is hit by air strikes, all journalists will have to be self-reliant. They must consider how they will transmit their story back to their editors, as electrical supplies may well be damaged during or after a military attack. Consider buying a generator and fuel while times are quiet.

Journalists must be prepared for anything - from being taken as human shields, to all-out war between Syria and other countries. Consider all analyses of the situation and factor these into your planning.

Ensure all plans are robust and workable.

For more information, please contact INSI.



Note: The views here are those of the author and are personal reflections and safety advice. They are meant to assist the media in preparing to work in Syria and are not meant to be negative in nature. If they cause offence to anyone, sincerest apologies are offered in advance. INSI holds no responsibility for any ensuing problems, bodily harm or death in relation to this advice.

Photo: Smoke rises after explosives were dropped by a Syrian government warplane, in Idlib province, northern Syria, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. United Nations experts are investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria as the United States and its allies prepare for the possibility of a punitive strike against President Bashar Assad's regime, blamed by the Syrian opposition for the attack. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN)