“You can 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 loads 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 informed me earlier than I left, “You’re going to get the attraction 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 nearly solely come from the insurgent facet. Exterior of quite a few surprisingly repetitive and uninteresting interviews with President Bashar al-Assad, Western reporters have had restricted entry, particularly just lately. So 5 years into the battle, life in regime-controlled areas was nonetheless largely a thriller.
I had loads of questions. What could be individuals’s prevailing narratives about how the battle 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 ways, 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.”
Principally I believed it was essential 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 loads of restrictions. An itinerary must be authorised by the International 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 cellphone name got here this summer time. After attempting to get into regime-controlled Syria for greater than a yr, I used to be contacted by somebody who requested if we is likely to 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 informed al-Ajlani had traveled all around the nation, filmed many battles, hung out with troopers, interviewed their commanders and talked to refugees. I informed my contact that in fact I used to be , however I would like to return 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 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 time. I don’t wish 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 capable of stroll the streets and speak to whomever I needed. 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 battle started, they’d a constant narrative: That the protesters that took to the streets in 2011 had authentic calls for, however that the demonstrations had been shortly 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 identical 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 straight — 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 straight — that could be a line nobody dares cross.”
As to how the battle may finish, “solely God is aware of” is the most effective reply I heard. It could be essentially the most sincere.
In the long run, I got here away with one large thought that must 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 battle, it’s laborious to see how both goal is attainable.
The objective must be to cease the killing. Maybe new borders will have to be drawn, as some have steered, 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 additionally new alternatives. Washington and Moscow are right now exploring the chance for ceasefires, utilizing leverage with their proxies to stabilize the battlefield and push for a political answer in Damascus. Efforts prior to now have failed, however the rising refugee disaster and the specter of much more battle is spurring new initiatives.
This doesn’t handle the ISIS downside, however actually so long as combating 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 overseas conspirators. Each views have some fact to them, however clinging to these narratives is futile. It results in the form of rigidity that may solely convey extra combating, extra struggling, extra refugees and extra dying.
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 Warfare — in regards to the administration’s battle to cope with 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.