Spyer says he knew he risked his life making the trip

Syrian minister said fired over visit by Israeli journalist, who met him twice

Jonathan Spyer tells ToI he was in group that met Information Minister Mohammad Ramez Tourjman on recent trip; Tourjman insisted he had no idea Spyer was Israeli, Al-Arabiya says

Jonathan Spyer (left) poses for a picture with Syrian Minister of Reconciliation Ali Haidar and Minister of Information, Mohammed Tourjeman (right), while on a government-sponsored tour of Damascus in April, 2017.
Jonathan Spyer (left) poses for a picture with Syrian Minister of Reconciliation Ali Haidar and Minister of Information, Mohammed Tourjeman (right), while on a government-sponsored tour of Damascus in April, 2017.

Syrian President Bashar Assad ousted his information minister Mohammed Ramez Tourjman for failing to prevent the entry into the country of a Jewish Israeli journalist, the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news agency reported (Arabic) Tuesday.

The journalist, Jonathan Spyer, told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that he actually met twice with Tourjman, as part of a group, during a recent trip to Syria.

“I met Mohammad Tourjman as part of a group on two occasions during the trip,” he said. “The visit was organized with the cooperation of his ministry, making the minister, I suppose, officially responsible for its management.”

Added Spyer: “It would seem to me that organizations other than the ministry of information might more properly be held responsible for incidents of this kind. Still, I don’t suppose my opinion would be especially relevant here. The Syrian regime, as is well known, operates according to its own logic.”

Jonathan Spyer, wearing a black leather jacket, meets with Kurdish YPG fighters in northern Syria in 2013. (Courtesy)

According to Al Arabiya, Tourjman had claimed that Spyer had entered Syria on a British passport, and insisted he did not know that he was Israeli. However, officials from his ministry responded that a quick internet search would have easily revealed Spyer’s background, the report said.

Assad reshuffled his government Monday, also replacing the ministers of defense and industry.

In a November interview with The Times of Israel, Spyer described how he managed to gain entry into a regime-controlled area of Syria, where he was even able to interview a few ministers, by joining a propaganda trip sponsored by the government.

He provided a photo showing him posing with Tourjman and a second Syrian minister.

Spyer said in that interview that the fact that his Israeli identity was not uncovered at any point was due to “gross incompetence” on the part of the Syrian authorities.

Read: Israeli journalist describes reporting from Syria and Iraq, hiding his secret

In Syria, a direct neighbor of Israel, fear of infiltration from the Jewish state is palpable, he said in the interview. “They’re talking about it so much that they didn’t realize the ‘infiltrator’ sitting next to them,” he added, chuckling.

He acknowledged that he had put his life at risk. “If you put it into the cold logic of the gamble, getting published in The Wall Street Journal versus death, well, that’s obviously stupid,” Spyer said. But he noted that all war reporters risk their lives, Israeli or not. “I did it. People do it. On some kind of level, it is worth it, because I think the Syria story is the major news story of the century so far, and we’ve got a ringside seat at it,” he said.

Spyer said he has been to Syria about eight to nine times and Iraq five to six times in recent years, generally for around two-week periods. Half of that time, he said, he was in the Kurdish-held areas, where being an Israeli is acceptable.

Former Syrian information minister Mohammad Ramez Tourjman (SANA)

The cabinet reshuffle comes at a time when Assad’s forces have been gaining ground over the past two years under the cover of Russian airstrikes and with the help of Iran-backed fighters.

SANA said army commander Gen. Ali Ayoub has been named defense minister, replacing Fahd Jassem al-Freij who had held the post since 2012. Ayoub had been the army chief of staff since July 2012.

The agency added that Imad Sarah has been named information minister and Mohammed Mazen Youssef was chosen as the new minister of industry.

The announcement came as parts of Syria witnessed violence, mostly in the suburbs of the capital Damascus and northwestern Syria, where troops are on the offensive on the southern edge of Idlib province.

Heavy clashes broke out between Syrian government forces and insurgents east of Damascus when troops tried under the cover of a dozen airstrikes to reach a force trapped inside a military installation on Sunday by rebels backed by al-Qaeda-linked fighters, opposition activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syria-based activist Mazen al-Shami said Monday’s fighting was concentrated inside the military installation near the suburb of Harasta, where the government force has been trapped.

In this frame grab from video released January 1, 2018 by the Syrian Civil Defense group, known as the White Helmets, Syrians evacuate a boy from a building by using a ladder after an airstrike hit the Damascus suburb of Masraba, Syria. (Syrian Civil Defense, via AP)

The Observatory said the Syrian air force conducted at least a dozen airstrikes on Harasta and nearby suburbs. Al-Shami reported dozens of airstrikes. He said the government brought in reinforcements overnight and is trying to reach the trapped force.

The Observatory said three days of violence in the suburbs of Damascus known as eastern Ghouta has killed 35 civilians, as well as 24 government troops and 29 insurgents.

An official with the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham insurgent group said the government is negotiating the passage of its fighters trapped in the military installation. The official, who asked not to be named because of the secrecy of the talks, said the negotiations are in their preliminary stages.

Syria’s state media did not mention the trapped force but blamed insurgents for the violence, saying that they are firing shells into government-controlled areas killing at least one civilian.

The UN says government forces are holding nearly 400,000 people under siege in eastern Ghouta. The region was once a hotbed of protest against President Bashar Assad’s government.

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