MSc Conflict Studies student Barbara Wachter reflects on the Documentary Feature Film “Syria – The Impossible Revolution” by Anne Daly and Ronan Tynan, which premiered at the LSE on Wednesday 18 October.
In March 2011, the Syrian people – in the wake of what is widely referred to as the “Arab Spring” – took to the streets to express their discontent with Bashar al-Assad’s government and to demand democratic reform, more freedom and the end of the emergency law. Today, six years later, Syria lies in ruins: the estimated death toll since the outbreak of violence exceeds 400’000, more than five million Syrians have registered as refugees in Europe and neighbouring countries, and over six million people were displaced within the country. We are, to put it bluntly, faced with one of the worst humanitarian and refugee crises of our time.
How could we get to this point of devastation and human catastrophe? The Documentary Feature Film “Syria – The Impossible Revolution” by Anne Daly and Ronan Tynan seeks to answer this question by tracing the roots of the conflict through the regime of Assad’s father up until the fall of Aleppo in 2016. Using extensive archive material and interviews with actors ranging from activists to journalists and a number of regional experts, it creates a unique mosaic of historical, political and human perspectives on this disastrous war. The 88 minute documentary, which was made over a period of three years, provides an overview of the political complexities in the region, including the politics of the Western response to the conflict and, even more importantly, provides a platform for the often disregarded voices of the Syrian population.
On Wednesday 18th October, the film was launched at the LSE’s Hong Kong Theatre by photographer Paul Conroy, who was wounded in Syria during the regime’s attack that led to the killing of war correspondent Marie Colvin. Present at the event were director Ronan Tynan, Sawsan Abou Zainedin, a Syrian Human Rights defender, and Brian Klaas, LSE fellow in Comparative Politics in the Department of Government at LSE, who also figures as an interviewee in the film. The following paragraphs will guide the reader through the different stages of the Syrian conflict and introduce some of the topics and opinions touched upon in the documentary.
The Kingdom of Silence
In its first part, the film recalls the time of Hafez al-Assad’s reign in Syria. Since its rise to power in 1963, the Ba’athist regime upheld a state of emergency they claimed necessary for the country’s protection against Israel. With it came state repression and violence, suppression of civil society and complete control of information – in short, Assad set up a state of totalitarian nature. Syrian voices in the film reflect on how politics became a taboo, not only in public, but also in private spaces. Freedom of opinion and expression were foreign concepts, public gatherings were prohibited and Assad’s portrait, one activist recalls, was omnipresent in the country. Under this constant fear of denunciation and oppression, the country fell silent.
After almost half a decade in this “kingdom of silence”, the “Arab Spring” reached Syria. The first demonstrations felt unreal and scary. Fear had been so normalised that Syrians were genuinely surprised at the spill-over. The initial spark turned into a flame and then a fire: the masses conveyed a sense of protection, which made the people overcome their fear and stream to the streets. One regional expert analyses the social and economic context in which the uprisings erupted: in the course of the neo-liberal economic reforms of the 2000’s, large parts of the rural population and the working class were impoverished. This was a gradual process, and until 2011, the expert points out, some parts of society had still benefitted from the regime’s policies. But eventually, the level of discontent for an outbreak of protest was reached. It is important to stress that the initial protests were not only completely peaceful in nature, but also did not demand regime change. The slogans were simple, people asked for “freedom”, for “dignity”. It was the severe and savage reaction of the security forces which fuelled escalation and led to the outburst of violence.
Escalation into Civil War
Faced with open violence from the regime, opposition groups and, in particular, defected army officers started to organise themselves, formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and ultimately took control of Aleppo and parts of southern Syria. Assad responded militarily, launching attacks on the FSA and international attemps to broker peace – e.g. through a UN-backed ceasefire – failed miserably. Demonstrations and protest had turned into an armed conflict.
Very comprehensively, the film draws attention to the narrative which Assad carefully created from the very beginning of the revolution. According to an expert, Assad framed demonstrators – and later the opposition movements – as extremists and jihadists in order to delegitimise their cause and to complicate Western involvement. As part of this strategy, he also helped nurture extremism himself – e.g. through the release of criminals from prison. His strategy proved successful: the conflict is now commonly looked at through a sectarian lens. Virtually everyone in the West wanted to support the Syrian opposition. The UK, the US and France became however reluctant to arm the FSA and other opposition groups. It is also mentioned that in order to defend themselves against the government troops and in view of the lack of Western support, many members of the opposition did not have many alternatives but to turn towards armed extremist groups. The West’s reluctance to intervene became most apparent after Obama’s “red line” – the use of chemical weapons – had been crossed and then, all of a sudden, was no longer talked about. The vacuum in the country and the paralysation of the international community further opened doors for transnational Islamist groups to enter the stage. As one activist in the film highlights, we should, rather than perceiving Daesh (the so-called “Islamic State”) as a further cause of escalation of the Syrian War, much rather look at Assad’s brutality and Western states’ inactivity as being responsible for the rise of transnational terrorism in the country.
The proxy war
More and more it became clear that Assad would hold onto power come what may. For decades, he had nurtured relations in the region, especially with Iran and Hezbollah. And they came to help. What began as a peaceful uprising and deteriorated into an armed civil war eventually diffused into a brutal proxy war, or, as leftist dissident, activist and author Yassin al-Haj Saleh calls it, a “global civil war”. The power game between Assad and his allies – Russia, Iran and Hezbollah – and the sunni-dominated opposition, supported by Turkey, Saudi-Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, along with the US, UK and France, keeps running, making a resolution of the conflict virtually impossible.
Syria and “the Left”
Peter Tatchell, a British Human Rights Campaigner who had previously lobbied Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to condemn the Russian Intervention and to send UK aid drops to the besieged cities of Syria, analyses domestic developments which contributed to the inactivity of the Western world. In the film he speaks about the alignment of the political Left with the extreme Right on the issue of the Syrian civil war. Through openly defending the Assad regime against “US imperialism”, Tatchell argues, the Left has ultimately decided to prioritise its condemnation of Western involvement in the Syrian war over fundamental principles of human solidarity and humanitarianism. While considering the protest against foreign intervention as perfectly legitimate, Tatchell raises the question of why the political Left is apparently oblivious to the role of Iran, Russia and other foreign actors involved.
The “three monsters“
Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who spent sixteen years as a political prisoner in Syria and now lives in Turkey, describes with precision his view on the “three monsters“ he now sees “treading on Syria’s corpse”: the Assad regime and its allies, Daesh and other jihadists groups, and Russia and the US. He highlights with passion that the democratic mass movements which initially sparked the revolution still exist in Syria. We are all looking for a simple solution and a legitimate reason to abandon Syria, al-Haj Saleh argues. Seeing the country as a lost place where one evil is fighting the other and simply embracing a “war on terror” narrative, of course comes in handy. Saleh has written a book which has also lent the documentary its name: “The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy”, in which he recounts the devastating impact of Assad’s rule and the West’s failure to respond.
Syrian voices in the film conclude disillusioned that they were naive to believe that the international community and especially Western states would come to help people fighting for the same values that are held high in their world. Tatchell and other voices in the movie and on the event panel conclude that the lack of empathy with the millions of Syrians who peacefully protested for freedom represents an enormous moral failure. In her passionate statement at the end of the film premiere, Syrian activist Sawsan Abou Zainedin highlights that the Syrian people are well aware of the recent developments in their country and the wider world. Daesh is rapidly losing ground and will eventually be defeated, at least in geographical terms. And the tendency of Bashar al-Assad’s rehabilitation grows stronger. It seems that indeed the success of Syria’s revolution has been made impossible. However, Abou Zainedin concludes, the Syrian peoples’ struggle will not end with Assad’s military victory.
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.