“You may 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 a variety 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 can inevitably problem. That is an invite for abuse.”
One other colleague informed me earlier than I left, “You’ll get the appeal offensive. The regime’s greatest canine and pony present. Potemkin village.”
After all I went anyway. Since 2011, protection of the battle in Syria has virtually completely come from the insurgent aspect. Exterior of various surprisingly repetitive and uninteresting interviews with President Bashar al-Assad, Western reporters have had restricted entry, particularly not too long ago. So 5 years into the battle, life in regime-controlled areas was nonetheless largely a thriller.
I had a variety of questions. What could be folks’s prevailing narratives about how the battle started and what it was about? Would folks make distinctions between completely different insurgent factions? Had been folks there actually supportive of their authorities’s extra brutal techniques, like its use of barrel bombs? How did they think about the battle would finish?
“… 5 years into the battle, life in regime-controlled areas was nonetheless largely a thriller.”
Largely I assumed it was vital to place a face to the individuals who dwell 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 a variety of restrictions. An itinerary must be authorized by the Overseas Media Division on the Ministry of Info. 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 could be all in favour of seeing some footage taken by a Syrian journalist, Thaer al-Ajlani, a younger man with entree into the Syrian navy.
During the last four-and-a-half years, I used to be informed al-Ajlani had traveled everywhere in the nation, filmed many battles, hung out with troopers, interviewed their commanders and talked to refugees. I informed 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 informed. I used to be shocked when, inside a matter of weeks, I had an invite from the president’s workplace. The Ministry of Info would assist 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 need to spoil right here what had been for us many shocking encounters and occasions … from the disturbing to the absurd. However, I can say that I used to be in a position to stroll the streets and discuss to whomever I wanted. And I used to be in a position to 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 probably the most half, folks had been open about their hopes and fears. As to how the battle started, they’d a constant narrative: That the protesters that took to the streets in 2011 had respectable calls for, however that the demonstrations had been rapidly hijacked by overseas backed jihadists. They reject the concept that 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 discover ways to pay attention for that. Their approach of expressing this was by no means to criticize the president instantly — that may be a line nobody dares cross. As an alternative, folks would merely stress their love of Syria. Others would possibly discuss 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 need to the identical to occur to them.
“… Not everybody loves Assad. However I needed to discover ways to pay attention for that. Their approach of expressing this was by no means to criticize the president instantly — that may be a line nobody dares cross.”
As to how the battle would possibly finish, “solely God is aware of” is the perfect reply I heard. It might be probably the most sincere.
Ultimately, I got here away with one huge thought that ought 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 in case you are a loyalist, to defeat all of the rebels. At this level within the battle, it’s exhausting to see how both goal is attainable.
The objective ought to be to cease the killing. Maybe new borders will have to be drawn, as some have urged, 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 battle 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 answer in Damascus. Efforts up to now have failed, however the rising refugee disaster and the specter of much more battle is spurring new initiatives.
This doesn’t deal with the ISIS drawback, however definitely so long as preventing continues between the regime and extra accommodating insurgent teams, the battle 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 overseas conspirators. Each views have some fact to them, however clinging to these narratives is futile. It results in the type of rigidity that may solely carry extra preventing, extra struggling, extra refugees and extra loss of life.
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 battle in Syria — and was a senior producer on the 2011 movie profiling Bashar al-Assad, The Regime. Smith works with RAINmedia, an unbiased manufacturing firm in New York Metropolis.