A Subtle Approach to Unmasking the Assad Regime

By 
Bobby Gulshan

Inside Assad's Syria
PBS Frontline 2015
Written and Produced by Martin Smith

I struggled a bit to know what to say about PBS Frontline's “Inside Assad's Syria.” Searching the internet for reviews of the film, I found a rather uninteresting piece in a Hollywood business daily, as well as a blogger who felt that PBS had finally abandoned any pretext of truth in favor of outright propaganda in order to sell Assad to the American people. Clearly, they weren't paying attention to the fact that Smith registers his frustration throughout the program, wearing a purposefully tired expression while being carted along on an obvious pro-regime tour. Their inability to identify this clue made me wonder if the blogger and his approving commentators proved equally oblivious to the fact that Frontline obviously recognized the dog and pony show being provided by the regime, and could see just how easily people could fall for such tactics. In the end, Martin Smith's efforts do not represent pro-Assad propaganda, but rather stand as a thoughtful, albeit subtle, and, at times, frustrating indictment of Assad's regime and methods.

The apparent normalcy of life strikes Smith immediately upon his arrival in the Syrian capital. The fact that life, as reported by the journalist, appears so normal in Damascus strikes a dissonant note, contrasting with what Western viewers usually see on their nightly television screens. This carries a subtle message -- one not necessarily in support of the regime. History abounds with similar scenes from previous theaters of war, where groups of people were gassed and massacred, other groups of people went about their daily lives. In fact, it makes you wonder if that majority in Damascus might not dance, drink, and sing harder and louder knowing that death looms only few miles away.

As far as the scenes of nightlife in the capital, Smith makes a valid argument in pointing out that the Assad regime has restricted Western media access to territories under its control. Those scenes may have even represented a gamble on the journalist’s part, a hope that he might encounter a scoop by reporting on the under-reported.

Still, Smith obviously wants to go beyond scenes of nightlife in Damascus. Those desires appear to have been thwarted when, and this is just a guess, something went terribly wrong with the journalist’s media guide or fixer, Mr. Thaer al-Ajlani. Smith candidly introduces al-Ajlani as a regime loyalist, but does expect the man to take him to the front, to see the battle from the perspective of the Syrian Army. Unfortunately, al-Ajlani dies while covering the fighting shortly after Smith's arrival

Affected by his guide’s death, Smith and his crew attend the young journalist's funeral, only to witness a much grander scene than they had anticipated. Rather than a mere family affair, al-Ajlani's funeral becomes a demonstration of state support and loyalty. This leads Smith to admit he had underestimated the strength of the tie between al-Ajlani and the Assad regime.

Some critics of Smith’s “Inside Assad’s Syria” say that the film ultimately acquits the regime of wrongdoing and paints an overly sympathetic picture of life in regime-controlled Syria. This interpretation has proven short-sighted and incorrect. Any journalist in a foreign land can expect to be subject to restrictions, and the quality of the resulting reportage ultimately depends upon the worth of the fixer or media handler who guides the reporter through the country. Smith needs permits to venture outside Damascus, and he accomplishes this with the help of Najdat Anzour, a filmmaker and self-proclaimed Assad supporter.

Smith’s critics protest his giving air time to some of the pro-Assad apologists, including the aforementioned filmmaker Anzour. Yet when attending a conference of regime supporters, the journalist clearly points to these men as apologists for the regime. Again, we have to look deeper and take note of what Smith and his team have included in the final cut of the film. While the journalist obviously needs Anzour’s contacts and help in order to produce the documentary, viewers can easily notice Smith’s indifference toward the director and his inflammatory films about the Saudis, featuring the strict, and inhumane punishments they give to dissenters, adulterers, and thieves.

Critics make a gross mistake when they underestimate Smith’s intelligence, and neglect to note the subtle messages he offers, such as those included with the inclusion of Anzour’s rabble-rousing cinematic scenes. Although intended to discredit the opponents of the Assad regime, by their very nature, these scenes raise questions at a time when most of the world believes this regime killed more than a quarter of a million human beings. Once again, the credit goes to Martin Smith and his crew for creating a film that demands attention to nuance, as well as critical evaluation from its audience.

The need for intelligent viewing continues, when, after the death of al-Aljalani, Anzour places Smith in the care of a new fixer, a colonel in the state military intelligence apparatus. As he has done with others in the film, Smith points this relationship out to the audience. This warning makes it incumbent upon the viewer to see every turn in the tour as an effort by the regime to show its best face to Smith.

This becomes particularly evident when Smith travels to Homs and meets a representative from the Ministry of Information. The slick, well dressed ministry man, who speaks adequate English, tells Smith that Homs has served as the site of a recent tourism festival. The journalist remains understandably incredulous, and the viewer should share his skepticism. Smith’s visit to Homs -- the third largest city after Damascus and Aleppo -- stands as a major high point of the documentary, offering an intelligent, and subtle indictment of the regime. The program juxtaposes the ministry man and his tour of a luxury hotel with archival footage of fighting, and scenes of ruined neighborhoods throughout the once bustling metropolis.

The film does have its problems, of course. Some of his interviews conducted in Damascus and Lattakia lack the context or background essential to allow viewers to judge their credibility or usefulness. I stress here the word “some,” because the piece introduces interviewees in the Alawite dominated Lattakia as refugees from Sunni areas, while failing to do the same with others in Homs. The teenagers who speak so passionately about their bleak futures in Homs offer misleading images as the audience does not know the neighborhoods from which they hail -- details that prove especially important with the sectarian and religious lines drawn in the city between Alawites, Christians and Sunni Muslims. While their answers speak for themselves, alerting native viewers to their pro-regime nature, Western audiences will be less likely to understand the implications.

Other questionable moments come when Smith interviews subjects under conditions which make them feel vulnerable or threatened. Many individuals, whether they be Sunni or Alawite, have spoken for the regime while in a regime-controlled area.

Moreover, the issue of refugees should have figured more prominently in the documentary, particularly in terms of its magnitude and how the crisis has altered the social fabric of Syrian society. Aside from the four million displaced externally, seven or more million remain displaced internally. The goal of making current Syrian reality accessible to the viewer requires this vital context.

As the documentary comes to an end, Smith visits Assad’s heartland, known as Al Sahil, the coastal region which consists of the two major cities, Tartus and Lattakia. None of what Smith encounters there feels surprising. Alawites offer genuine sentiments about what could happen to them if Al Nusra or ISIS takes over. Yet, the film appears to invite the viewer to listen to a familiar tune in regime-controlled parts of the country, naming the U.S. and Saudi Arabia as the supporters and creators of ISIS.

Though Smith does not hide his coordination with regime contacts, they cannot help him when the journalist fails to secure his goal of sitting down with President Assad, due to a supposed scheduling conflict with an Iranian dignitary. Whether or not Mr. Smith believes this excuse remains uncertain. But his account of what follows suggests additional irony. Instead of meeting Assad for an interview, the regime presents the journalist with tickets to a concert by the Syrian National Symphony, which he attends, but leaves before it ends. The regime also denies Smith’s request to visit a hospital to interview the injured, something also pointed out in the documentary.

In the film's last frame, Smith's team offers one final, clever, sarcastic clue as to the true nature of this subtle documentary.  They drive by a sign on their way out of Syria which they translate and place into titles. That sign, brimming with unconscious irony, reads, “Thank you for visiting!”

This essay will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 19, No. 69, 2015

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