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Cries From Syria

The world watched, and watched, and watched.

by Peter Rutland 17 March 2017

The day of 15 March marked the sixth anniversary of the Syrian uprising: a bloody chapter in modern history that has left over 400,000 dead and 5 million refugees (plus another 7 million displaced within Syria).


The feeling of “never again” – meaning, no repeat of the Holocaust – was replaced with the feeling “not again” (Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Congo …).


On 13 March HBO screened in the U.S. a new documentary, Cries From Syria, on the plight of civilians trapped in that conflict. It makes for grim viewing, the most sickening two hours I have spent in a long time. It reminded me of when I visited Auschwitz, the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem, or the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, that sinking feeling when one realizes the bottomless capacity of human cruelty – and indifference.


There is nothing in the film that is particularly new, nothing that a well-informed newspaper reader would not have noticed as these events unfolded over the course of the past six years. But to see it all put together into a powerful narrative, showing the whole arc of the conflict, is truly devastating.


The film was made by Evgeny Afineevsky, an American citizen who emigrated from Russia in the early 1990s and who worked in Israel as a producer of musicals from 1994-2000. His previous work includes the documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.


“Cries from Syria” focuses on the human angle, telling the story through the words of charismatic young people and children – an approach also taken by the 2014 BBC documentary Children of Syria. Kholoud Helmi, an editor of the underground newspaper Enab Baladi, is the standout. In one unbearable sequence, she lists the escalation of violence in each phase of the conflict – shooting at demonstrators, torturing captives, shelling cities, starving cities – and then says “Just when we thought it could not get any worse, it got worse” – chemical weapons, Hezbollah fighters, ISIS, Russian bombings.


The Assad forces used chemical weapons in an attack on civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August, and the film unsparingly shows the final moments of the victims, writhing in agony on a hospital floor, and laid out like sardines in a makeshift mortuary.


The film consists of interviews interspersed with video clips, including footage from cell phones and digital cameras, of arrests, torture and executions. As film critic Brian Tallerico writes, “This was a revolution altered and documented by technology, and it allows us to serve witness to atrocities in ways we never have before.”


The old debate started by Susan Sontag about the numbing effects of exposure to graphic scenes of atrocity has been taken to a new level, with 4 billion images being shared on the internet every day. But with so many images of suffering, our individual and collective response is to simply tune out. This film forces us to watch, and think, at least for a while.


The film is “one sided,” presenting the Free Syrian Army as heroes. It avoids analysis, and does not talk about the role of the U.S., the Saudis, and other sometime allies of the myriad opposition forces. Instead it focuses on the “bad guys” (Hezbollah, Iran, Russia, and of course Assad).


But I’m not sure that there is a credible other side to this argument, at this point. I don’t know what a balanced, analytical documentary about the Syrian civil war would look like. And this is a film, not a UN peace plan – hold it, there is no UN peace plan. Four rounds of peace talks in Geneva and Astana have failed to bring the two sides together. In fact, part of the problem is that there are not just two sides. There are at least four – the Assad regime, the democratic opposition, the Islamist radicals, and the Kurds, not to mention the external backers each with their own agenda.


The film does not get into the complex debates about what the United States has been doing, and not doing. That is an argument for another time. Still, I wonder what Obama’s people are thinking as they watch the film. By using chemical weapons in August 2013 Assad crossed the “red line” that President Obama had drawn. However, the White House dithered over whether to use force, and followed the UK example by deciding to punt the decision to Congress.


At that point Putin intervened, suggesting joint intervention to dismantle Assad’s chemical arsenal. That was a cynical ploy that lifted the threat of U.S. intervention and enabled the Assad regime to continue waging war. Russia has used its veto on the UN Security Council seven times to block resolutions sanctioning Assad for his war crimes, most recently on 28 February.


Assistance from Hezbollah and Iran had kept the regime afloat, but it was on the brink of losing the war when Russia intervened with bombers and cruise missile strikes in September 2015. Putin promised it would be a short intervention, but 18 months later they are still there. In December 2016, Russian TV proudly released footage (shown here on CNN) of Russian special forces fighting house-to-house against radical Islamists in eastern Syria. But the bombing campaign was hitting mainstream opposition forces and civilian targets.


As Ciaran Donnelly, of the International Rescue Committee, told an audience at a screening in New York last week, “I challenge anyone to see this movie and not understand why people are fleeing.”

Peter Rutland
Peter Rutland is a Professor of Government at Wesleyan University.

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