Theater of Cruelty

Syria war minute by minute

Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS
New documentary explores IS's path to power in Syria – and what role international media played in it all.


Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS is probably the closest we can come to an all-inclusive narrative of the Syrian civil war. Movies like City of Ghosts and Last Men In Aleppo tells the incredibly complicated story of the war through individual stories from the journalist group "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently" and the volunteer helpers in The White Helmets. In these cases, the context is sacrificed in favor of depictions of what is happening on the ground. Unlike these signs Hell on Earth the big picture, without unauthorized tricks.

Seduced by IS. The story is recognizable, at the same time as it is complex and cruel. Early in 2011, some teenage boys in the city of Daraa in southern Syria scribbled regime-critical graffiti on a wall. The regime responded by arresting and torturing them. The people protested. The regime, which saw what happened to the rulers of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, would not take the chance of indulgence; instead, they responded by crushing the protests with violence. The funerals of dead protesters then led to larger protests. Soon, crowds across the country demanded Assad go, which was met with bombs and gas attacks.

Soldiers who saw these assaults began deserting to defend the Protestants against the regime, starting local militias under the Free Syrian Army. The president characterized this opposition as "foreign-funded jihad." In light of these warnings, and with the hanging walls of Iraq and Afghanistan fresh in memory, the West refused to provide financial and military assistance to the rebel groups. Free Syrian Army was split up. Into the void this left, came IS.

A large number of young people were seduced by IS's action movie-like propaganda videos.

The film delivers many stories of where IS fighters come from. Many are from al-Qaeda, veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Some are former Iraqi Baathists. The American cleansing of the Baha'is left many Iraqis without work or pensions; some probably joined the party for career reasons. Driven to desperation in a ruined country and radicalized by US violence, they joined IS. Extremists formerly imprisoned by the Assad regime were set free after the outbreak of the revolution to blackmail the rebels. These also joined the IS. The same was true of foreign warriors from Africa, Central Asia, Europe and North America – to a large number of young people who were seduced by IS action movie-like propaganda videos.

Desperate refugees. IS quickly took over large areas of northern Syria, declaring Raqqa as its capital. As they were driven out of certain parts of this area, they stormed the border with Iraq, taking control of Mosul and massacred the Jesuits, a religious minority group. The Kurds came to the rescue and drove IS out of northern Iraq – while the Iraqi army drove them back from their outposts near Baghdad. IS returned to Syria. There they remain, in a mournful imitation of a ceasefire with Assad and his Russian supporters, concentrating on expelling the remaining remaining rebel forces and restoring regime control.

If this is a lot to take in – well, there is still more, both in the film and beyond its scope. What is at stake for Russia? What are the interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia? Why are refugees, who know how dangerous it is to cross the Mediterranean, so desperate to leave the apparent security of Turkey as soon as they have arrived in the country? What is Turkey's wish for Syria and the Kurds?

There is an alternative ecosystem of journalists, university people and conspiracy theorists who appear in relatively respectable media across the political spectrum.

The most important unanswered question, however, is what lies at the center of the West's involvement – or lack thereof – in Syria, at least until President Trump's April attack: Obama's "red line" for chemical weapons. There is a famous article in the journal Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg entitled "The Obama Doctrine", which addresses this quite in detail. The essence of what Goldberg writes is that Obama concluded that he had no concrete evidence that Assad was responsible for the infamous chemical attack that killed 1400 Syrians, and therefore chose to drop direct military involvement.

Hell on Earth does mention this uncertainty, but at the same time has to rush forward to include the rest of the story.

Critical voices. However, it is important to note that there is a completely alternative news ecosystem of burgeoning journalists, bloggers, university people, and conspiracy theorists, who emerge in relatively respectable media across the political spectrum – The Intercept, Alternet and The American Conservative – and is deep in places like The Center for Research on Globalization, Consortium News and Russian-funded RT (Russia Today), among others. They have perceived this uncertainty, and the fact that mainstream media does not seem to have covered it properly, as a sufficient basis for going to war. This loosely composed group has questioned many of the claims being made Hell on Earth. For example, what was the cause of the revolution; was it really a mass movement? Was it really spontaneous? What about the Assad regime's crimes: Is it really that he bombs people? Is the specified number of dead exactly? In an underground war with human rights organizations and non-professional journalists in and outside Syria, such questions emerge, disputing the narrative of governments, mainstream media and films that Hell on Earth og City of Ghosts build up.

It would be nice if we could reject these questions, but some of them – for example, those dealing with the gas attack and which have been repeated now that there has been a new one – have no convincing answer. Why would Assad want to use saring gas against his own people in April 2017 when he already had good cards in his hand? Why were the Syrian protests referred to by mainstream media as Time and The New York Times so cautious to begin with? We are left with unruly coalitions that target opposite positions. Trump and the media, which have finally reconvened, say that Assad did; Putin, Assad and a click of self-proclaimed grave journalists who may appear to be either left-wing or right-wing, say that IS did. Who can we believe in?

Media credibility. That is the most important issue the coverage of the Syrian civil war has raised. North American faith in the political establishment has always been fragile, but over the last couple of years it has almost completely been smashed. In the United States, we have seen Trump's growth, Clinton's fall, the Democratic Party's sabotage of Sanders, case after case of Republican moral decay, the rampage of Obama's major (rhetorical as well as real). In Canada, we were upset when Trudeau sold billions of dollars in weapons to Saudi Arabia, approved oil pipelines and seems to capitulate to Trump at every opportunity. At the same time, trust in the media is weaker than ever. That no one supposedly credible news sources predicted Trump could win before he did, proved to many that mainstream media was hopelessly short-sighted and pure voice of the liberal / neoliberal establishment. It is in this context that "alternative news" has flourished – a context in which the mainstream seems to have lost all credibility.

IS's beheadings are compared to past lynchings in the United States and that British criminals were dragged to the gallows by horses.

Not even Hell on Earth – a complex film that does not apologize, but which endeavors to provide historical and philosophical background to many of the worst atrocities of the war (IS's beheadings are compared to historical examples of violence as a tool of social control, from lynching in the United States to the fact that people in Britain was dragged to the gallows by horses, or four horses dragged the body of the criminal in their own direction) – able to convey the full meaning of the story it tells. It is a characteristic of our time and this conflict. In a situation where propaganda, fake news, defamation, paranoia and prejudice are ubiquitous, epistemological questions of evidence and interpretation cannot be overlooked in pursuit of a conventionally declared objective narrative. An authoritative tone and skillful treatment of a material cannot, when it comes down to it, replace openness about sources and methods.

Daniel Glassman
Daniel Glassman
Glassman lives in Toronto and writes about film and music. See also

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