HELL ON EARTH: THE FALL OF SYRIA AND THE RISE OF ISIS B
USA (99 mi) 2017 d: Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested
One of the problems of letting civil war go on for so long is that more and more people get involved. It’s like a bar fight, where all a sudden everyone’s jumped in and is throwing chairs at each other. Syria became a civil war in response the violence of the government, but eventually Iran got involved through Hezbollah to support the Assad regime; the Kurds, Turkey, the Arab Gulf states got involved. … Eventually all the world powers and all the regional powers had some investments in Syria. Once you get a proxy fight, with so many powers, so huge interests in the outcome, it’s almost impossible to stop.
—Director Sebastian Junger on Syria’s civil war
One of a flurry of recently released Syrian documentaries, though it’s more of a history lesson, providing plenty of background information while getting at the root of what started it all, namely a spreading optimism in 2010 arising out of the Arab Spring democracy movements in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, where young people in particular envisioned a better future for themselves, often expressed by massive street demonstrations captured on social media that challenged the government’s hand, toppling dictatorial regimes that had previously appeared invincible. Even in Syria, following the death of Soviet-style Syrian strongman President Hafez al-Assad in 2000, a country governed by the authoritarian rule of the Ba’ath Party since 1963, living under a declared state of emergency since then, where the head of state since 1970 was a member of the Assad family, including his son, Bashir al-Assad, who was installed as president, yet it appeared there was some loosening of the grip, as some opposition parties were allowed, the press got a little bit freer, and hundreds of political prisoners were released during a period described as Damascus Spring. But within a few months, opposition leaders were arrested and the government clamped down on any voices of resistance, calling them enemies of the state, reinstating the repressive measures of his father. When a 14-year old kid is seen writing anti-government graffiti on school walls protesting the rule of Assad, he is immediately arrested and tortured, where we see photographs of his battered body being returned to his family. Looking around at what happened in other Arab countries, with the toppling of authoritarian regimes, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad decided that was not going to happen in his country, so he actively retaliated, using maximum military force against peaceful street demonstrators, attacking them with machine guns, crushing the spirit of any budding revolution before it had time to spread, where his calling card was leaving dead bodies on the streets. The funerals of dead protesters turned into bigger protests, with many calling for Assad’s removal from power, but this was only met with more torture and arrests, literally filling the prisons, where one man described the condition of prisons at the time, which were so overcrowded there was literally no room to breathe or sleep, with precious little oxygen, where prisoners viciously fought each other for what little food was provided, causing massive deaths simply from neglect. An estimated 13,000 prisoners have been executed in government prisons. Seeing the abuses, many soldiers started defecting from the ranks of Assad, forming local militia groups to defend the protesters called the Free Syrian Army. While they were initially successful, stopping a succession of government army tanks entering the neighborhood, seen expressing what can only be described as open jubilation, but they had no answer once Assad starting dropping barrel bombs on his own citizens (List of Syrian Civil War barrel bomb attacks).
Narrated and co-directed by American photojournalist, Sebastian Junger, who previously shared directing duties in Afghanistan with Restrepo (2010), this is a film about the eye of a camera, where the viewer sees what the camera sees, compiling footage from as many as a dozen different countries, collected by Middle East news outlets, but also activists, journalists, and witnesses, providing a you-are-there style of cinéma verité, bringing the war into the living rooms of people around the world, premiering at film festivals, but then broadcast in 171 countries and in 45 languages on the National Geographic Channel that normally screens gorgeously filmed animals-in-the-wild television shows. In an unusual twist, the filmmakers gave cameras to two brothers, Radwan and Marwan Mohammed, who film the reactions of their families as they are being bombarded in Aleppo, at the time the country’s largest city, where they continually smile and put on brave faces in order to minimize the fear of their children who are cowering under the covers, eventually following their dangerous quest to smuggle themselves into Turkey, though repeated attempts to make it to Greece fail. It was only after the FSA rebels took a military base in Aleppo and freed most of the city from Assad’s army that the aerial bombardments began, barrel bombs day and night, nonstop, on civilians and militia alike. While the film doesn’t get into it, barrel bombs have a history in the Middle East, as they were used by the Israeli Air Force during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, bombing the Arab village of Saffuriya, causing widespread destruction and panic in the population, where other than a few elderly, the entire town fled and relocated elsewhere. Nothing of the former village remains, so in 1992 the area occupied by the former village was turned into a national park. In Syria (Assad 'dropped 13,000 barrel bombs on Syria in 2016', watchdog ...), barrel bombs are dropped out of helicopters, wherever the Syrian president saw pockets of resistance, and could easily be attributed to no one else but Assad, as none of the rebel groups have helicopters. But in 2013 Assad went further, using sarin gas in rockets targeted against the people of East Ghouta, a Damascus suburb of working poor, killing an estimated 1400 people, largely children, with 3600 more victims displaying neurotoxic symptoms in hospitals. American President Obama met with Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, along with various allied countries and initiated military plans for a counter attack, including the British and the Saudis who were willing to join an alliance against Assad, claiming Assad had crossed that “red line” warning Obama issued a year earlier. But at the last moment, Obama had a change of heart, cancelling all military plans, as there was skepticism among international intelligence communities, as well as several member of Congress, with some suggesting rebel groups were capable of processing sarin, implying they could not definitively prove the chemical poisoning came from Assad. This is one of the major American blunders, according to the film, as that left these communities completely defenseless from unrelenting aerial attacks that continually escalated, feeling betrayed by the West, who would not even provide surface-to-air weapons to shoot helicopters out of the sky, where the number of dead would only rise exponentially, a decision that is at the root of the European refugee crisis, as since the outbreak of civil war in March of 2011, an estimated 11 million Syrians have exited the country in droves to escape the bombings.
Meanwhile, as Assad was busy encountering resistance throughout his country, ISIS filled the void, starting out with missionary offices throughout the country, which gathered needed intelligence information, before utilizing quick military strikes to grab huge areas of unprotected land in both Iraq and Syria, taking weapons and oil fields in their path, which financed their mission, while establishing themselves as a force to reckon with. The other colossal American mistake was made earlier in the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, supposedly to liberate the people from Saddam Hussein, yet among the first things they did was disqualify anyone from Saddam’s Sunni Ba’ath Party from serving in the new government, including the police and military, basically disempowering them, forcing them to go underground, where they immediately became the American opposition, with many of them eventually joining arms with ISIS, proudly defining themselves as the saviors of Sunni Islam. One other mistake was for American soldiers to be broadcast on television continually pointing their guns at Iraqi citizens, yelling, screaming, and constantly threatening them, which sent a sign they were not there on any peace mission. Showing themselves to be expert in social media broadcasts, ISIS immediately caught the eye of the world through sheer viciousness and brutality, posting live beheadings on YouTube, looting ancient artifacts, while destroying mosques or other cultural heritage sites as a sign of cultural cleansing, burning historic papers and books, including works dating back to 5000 BC, leaving no trace of any previous culture or civilization. In this manner, they instill fear around the rest of the world and dominate the area under their jurisdiction, while luring others to join them. Using recruitment videos that resemble video games, this appeals to vulnerable young men, as it displays a perception of strength, reminiscent of similar recruitment commercials for the Army or Marines, where young men aren’t joining out of any political or religious affiliation, but for the visceral thrill of action, where they can be part of a dominating force. At their peak in 2014 ISIS governed nearly 6 million people, but an American bombing campaign has forced them to relinquish territory, where they are on the retreat, but continue to operate in lone wolf situations, reigning terror on a smaller scale. One of the more shocking moments in the film comes from footage shot by a lone French terrorist, Mohammed Merah, a 23-year old French national of Algerian origin, who is seen getting on his motorbike, where the camera follows his actions as he meets another biker, an off-duty soldier, where they pull into an empty parking lot, supposedly to shoot the breeze, but Merah pulls a gun on him, ordering him to the ground, and when he refuses, shoots him dead on the spot, all captured on his own first person video. Over the course of ten days, Merah killed three soldiers, a rabbi, and three children near his home in Toulouse before being shot in a dramatic police capture. This film makes clear that ISIS is not really perceived as a radical Islamist organization, as they operate closer to the criminal practices of the mafia, where all they really want is money and power, resorting to extortion methods, taking a cut out of every profession in the areas under their control that generate income. In this way, they’re constantly getting a piece of the action. It’s also interesting that Assad never attacked ISIS, but left them alone, even releasing many of the jihadist political prisoners from his jails, causing confusion in the West, as they were afraid weapons might end up in the wrong hands, where Assad’s plan all along was to eliminate any opposition force, where the choice for Syrians eventually became following Assad or ISIS. The Russian military intervention siding with Assad only made that clearer, as their bombing targets were almost exclusively rebel strongholds, rarely bothering with ISIS at all, and then only to protect Assad assets, such as oil fields, which generate an ongoing source of revenue. If and when the bombing ends, 470,000 people have been killed so far, and major Syrian towns have emptied after being reduced to rubble. One has to wonder, after all is said and done, just what constitutes victory and what will history call a moral disgrace?