We Must Make This Country Safe Again
“Here is my photo,” says Ahmad, the camera tight on a passport-sized portrait: his face is stern, he wears a Syrian policeman’s uniform. “I looked evil when I was serving in the regime. I was full of hatred.” The camera cuts to a medium shot of Ahmad as he kneels on the floor in his mother’s home, wearing a green argyle sweater. He pulls out another tiny image, this one showing a gold-colored t-shirt and camouflage uniform, set against a rebel flag. “Now I look better,” he says, “This photo was taken after I joined the Free Syrian Army. This is the real me.” His expression is still stern.
But in the second photo, he wears a beard. And this is the difference for Ahmad. After he defected, he says, he started to grow the beard the regime forced him to shave every day. “I wanted to change my look while fighting with the rebels,” he explains. Again the camera in Frontline: Syria Behind the Lines cuts, this time to Ahmad’s mother Nasra. She stands in her kitchen. “He’s just showing off,” she says, smiling as she adjusts her niqāb. “It’s just a fashion, it’s not really him.”
Just who Ahmad—and other Syrians—might “really” be forms a question at the center of Syria Behind the Lines, premiering 9 April. While Ahmad suggests the beard is a sign of both his spiritual and ideological commitments, Nasra notes that he “struggles to read the Koran,” that he doesn’t pray as she might like him to do.
Ahmad appears earnest and thoughtful, but his choices are limited, far more limited than the complexities and nuances of his experiences. Ahmad defected, he says, after he and his fellow policemen were expected to fire on protestors: “I used to hide,” he admits, “I threw the bullets away.” His internal conflict has to do in part with his changing external circumstances: growing up in a Sunni village in the Orontes River valley, Ahmad lived peacefully with the Alawites located in across the river. Now Ahmad patrols with his weapon and an Adidas t-shirt, the two populations are at war, each army seeing the other as an obstacle to democracy and freedom and itself as the defender of women and children.
In the rebel-held village of Kansafra, the 20-year-old Ahmad first appears at work in his father’s garage, but it’s soon clear that he understands himself as a rebel fighter first and foremost, his civilian life set aside until the question of Syria’s future is resolved. This even as such resolution looks remote. Farmers can’t harvest their crops, planted in fields now on the other side of a military checkpoint; one farmer, Mohammad Hamadeh, leads the camera crew out to his sugar beets, rotting on the ground, lamenting. “We are ruined,” just before a shell explodes nearby. He runs for a nearby berm, scampering out of sight as the camera pitches and ducks behind him. “They keep shooting at us,” Mohammad says a few moments later, “They’ve killed shepherds and farmers before. We don’t even know who’s shooting at us.”
Kansafra’s residents live with similar uncertainty, sometimes spotting attacks before they hit, sometimes not. They peer into the sky (“it’s a plane,” one man says, “No, it’s a shell”), they run into alleys, they dig through the rubble after an explosion, hoping against hope to find people alive. Ahmad provides his own footage, recording the chaos at a local hospital after a shell hits. “I wanted to help,” he says, visibly distraught. “These people’s lives are over, this is what God has written for them. I just despaired and thought it was time that other Arab countries should feel their suffering.” While his video shows suffering, his missions as a rebel fighter help to inflict it. Like the hospital staff, the rebels are ill equipped, their days filled with frustration, their plans often thwarted. Still, they make plans and still, they fight back.
While Bashar al-Assad’s forces are surely better funded and armed, they share with their neighbors a sense of righteous determination. On the other side of the Orontes, Frontline follows Lieutenant Ali Ghazi, stationed in Aziziya. “Our mission is dangerous, but we must make this country safe again,” he says. The camera shows a portrait of Bashar al-Assad’s father on the wall behind him, even as Ali asserts, “My soldiers put this on the wall, not me.” His offscreen interviewer asks why he says this. “Because people say the army is from one sect or that the conscripts are forced to do things like that, and that’s not true.” He says, “This army’s from all parts of Syria, we don’t think in a sectarian way.” The rebels, they’re the sectarians, he adds, “We don’t accept that.”
And this is this is the trouble, as you come to see in Syria Behind the Lines. Both sides, not even a mile apart, believe they are right and the others are wrong. Schoolchildren in Aziziya declare their loyalties for the camera: one boy says, “Our motto is peaceful coexistence,” just before the scene cuts to a gathering of students in the hallway, panning their faces as they chant, “God, Syria, Assad, and nothing else!”
Such assertions sound emphatic, amplified within echo chambers. Just as Ahmad believes that his “greatest joy will be to become a martyr and for Syria to be liberated,” so too Ali insists, “We’re all martyrs in the making, to preserve this state and protect its citizens and unarmed civilians.” No matter their similar beliefs and language, they only see difference. When Ahmad’s battalion leader Jamal Maarouf gets word of a UN-organized ceasefire for the Eid holiday. But, he says, gazing intently at his interviewer, “I’ve been in touch with divisions on the ground by Skype and phone,” and none of them wants to “commit to the truce.”
All sides seem both too aware of how to comport themselves for cameras and also too isolated, unable to imagine a perspective that’s not their own. Their shortsightedness is hardly unique to this war or these opponents, but its consequences appear endless, for now. As you watch the regime soldiers watch TV for news, Frontline‘s narrator Will Lyman observes, “Many are convinced they are fighting an army of armed terrorists who are aided by the international media.”
It’s hard to see a way out of this cycle, as Syria Behind the Lines makes visible in its final minutes, which consist of a government airstrike on al-Bara, a village about an hour south of Aleppo. The attack comes while filmmaker Olly Lambert is interviewing Jamal, with artillery landing just 300 meters from their location (the 36-minute version is online). As a coda for this Frontline the assault is surely harrowing: Ahmad
A boy wails, inconsolable as he’s held by a rebel fighter, gun over his shoulder. “My grandparents are gone,” the boy sobs. “They’ve been running from the shelling every day.” The camera lingers on the devastating scene, as the fighters regroup. “Get that kid to shut up,” someone says. They find survivors and corpses, tally their losses and decide to fight on. “It breaks my heart,” says Ali, “I wish Syria could return to the way it was the was, the way it used to be.” This even as memories are increasingly elusive, receding and transforming in moments.