“You’ll be killed.”
“You’re going to be pilloried, lambasted. Yeah, you’re going to be unpopular.”
That was the conclusion of a colleague, somebody with quite a lot of expertise within the Center East after watching simply the opening minutes of my new FRONTLINE documentary, Inside Assad’s Syria.
“It’s the very concept of it — going into regime-held territory. Too many individuals have a view of Syria that this may inevitably problem. That is an invite for abuse.”
One other colleague advised me earlier than I left, “You’re going to get the allure offensive. The regime’s greatest canine and pony present. Potemkin village.”
In fact I went anyway. Since 2011, protection of the conflict in Syria has nearly fully come from the insurgent facet. Exterior of a variety of surprisingly repetitive and uninteresting interviews with President Bashar al-Assad, Western reporters have had restricted entry, particularly lately. So 5 years into the conflict, life in regime-controlled areas was nonetheless largely a thriller.
I had quite a lot of questions. What could be individuals’s prevailing narratives about how the conflict started and what it was about? Would individuals make distinctions between totally different insurgent factions? Have been individuals there actually supportive of their authorities’s extra brutal techniques, like its use of barrel bombs? How did they think about the conflict would finish?
“… 5 years into the conflict, life in regime-controlled areas was nonetheless largely a thriller.”
Principally I assumed it was necessary to place a face to the individuals who stay there — to know who they had been and what they had been pondering and feeling.
The issue I confronted as a reporter, although, was that for these few journalists that do get in, there are quite a lot of restrictions. An itinerary needs to be authorized by the International Media Division on the Ministry of Data. They grant seven-day visas and assign each journalist a minder. Anytime you journey, you might be accompanied.
I used to be lucky to have the ability to circumvent this.
The telephone name got here this summer season. After making an attempt to get into regime-controlled Syria for greater than a 12 months, I used to be contacted by somebody who requested if we may be concerned with seeing some footage taken by a Syrian journalist, Thaer al-Ajlani, a younger man with entree into the Syrian army.
During the last four-and-a-half years, I used to be advised al-Ajlani had traveled everywhere in the nation, filmed many battles, hung out with troopers, interviewed their commanders and talked to refugees. I advised my contact that after all I used to be , however I would favor to come back to Damascus, meet al-Ajlani and do greater than see his footage. “We’ll see,” I used to be advised. I used to be shocked when, inside a matter of weeks, I had an invite from the president’s workplace. The Ministry of Data would help the journey. However I’d not have a minder, and our visas could be open ended.
The movie tells the story of our three weeks there this previous summer season. I don’t wish to spoil right here what had been for us many stunning encounters and occasions … from the disturbing to the absurd. However, I can say that I used to be capable of stroll the streets and discuss to whomever I wanted. And I used to be capable of go to officers if I so selected. Some particular requests had been denied however different serendipitous encounters made up for what we didn’t obtain.
And for essentially the most half, individuals had been open about their hopes and fears. As to how the conflict started, that they had a constant narrative: That the protesters that took to the streets in 2011 had legit calls for, however that the demonstrations had been shortly hijacked by international backed jihadists. They reject the concept Western-backed rebels are “moderates” as they’re typically termed within the US. There’s a tendency to conflate all armed teams opposing the regime as sectarian extremists.
On the similar time, not everybody loves Assad. However I needed to learn to hear for that. Their method of expressing this was by no means to criticize the president instantly — that could be a line nobody dares cross. As a substitute, individuals would merely stress their love of Syria. Others may speak about supporting the federal government, however that “was not as a result of we love the regime” as one man put it, however as a result of “we don’t need the collapse of the state.” They noticed what occurred in Iraq after Saddam, and in Libya after Qaddafi. They watched as state infrastructure — faculties, hospitals, police, water, electrical energy — crumbled with the autumn of central authorities, they usually don’t wish to the identical to occur to them.
“… Not everybody loves Assad. However I needed to learn to hear for that. Their method of expressing this was by no means to criticize the president instantly — that could be a line nobody dares cross.”
As to how the conflict may finish, “solely God is aware of” is the very best reply I heard. It could be essentially the most sincere.
In the long run, I got here away with one huge thought that needs to be apparent however I don’t suppose is. That’s that the objective right here shouldn’t be to win, to both vanquish Assad and his regime, or if you’re a loyalist, to defeat all of the rebels. At this level within the conflict, it’s onerous to see how both goal is attainable.
The objective needs to be to cease the killing. Maybe new borders will have to be drawn, as some have recommended, with some lodging made for Assad to stay in energy for the close to time period and a few lodging made to grant the rebels some autonomy. Russia’s direct entry into the conflict presents new challenges, but in addition new alternatives. Washington and Moscow are at the moment exploring the likelihood for ceasefires, utilizing leverage with their proxies to stabilize the battlefield and push for a political resolution in Damascus. Efforts up to now have failed, however the rising refugee disaster and the specter of much more conflict is spurring new initiatives.
This doesn’t tackle the ISIS drawback, however actually so long as preventing continues between the regime and extra accommodating insurgent teams, the struggle towards intransigent militants like ISIS and the Nusra Entrance, the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, can by no means succeed.
As as to if we’ll face criticism for going, so be it. The saddest factor about Syria is that folks have made up their minds. The opposition sees Assad as a monster decided to win in any respect prices. Loyalists really feel they’re besieged by international conspirators. Each views have some fact to them, however clinging to these narratives is futile. It results in the form of rigidity that can solely convey extra preventing, extra struggling, extra refugees and extra demise.
Martin Smith, the correspondent on Inside Assad’s Syria, is an Emmy- and Peabody-award-winning documentary filmmaker for FRONTLINE. Smith wrote and produced the 2015 investigation Obama at Conflict — concerning the administration’s wrestle to take care of ISIS and the civil conflict in Syria — and was a senior producer on the 2011 movie profiling Bashar al-Assad, The Regime. Smith works with RAINmedia, an impartial manufacturing firm in New York Metropolis.