Wednesday, 14 June 2017
Hell on Earth: the Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS
' “Hell on Earth: the Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” is now the third full-length documentary I have seen on Syria and the one I now regard as the best introduction to the conflict. Unlike “Return to Homs”, “City of Ghosts” and “Last Men in Aleppo” that were directed by Syrian partisans of the revolution, “Hell on Earth” is co-directed by Sebastian Junger, an American, and Nick Quested, a Briton whose emphasis is primarily on the humanitarian disaster but within the context of a powerful attack on the Baathist dictatorship. They made the wise choice of drawing on analysis from Robin Yassin-Kassab who offers a running commentary in the film on how Assad used extreme violence and sectarianism to help subdue a popular movement. Yassin-Kassab co-wrote “Burning Country” with Leila al-Sham, a book that is the film’s counterpart. If I were asked by someone trying to puzzle out the six year war in Syria, I would recommend both “Burning Country” and “Hell on Earth”, a film that is now available as VOD (sources at the end of the review.)
The film provides extensive evidence of the mass character of the protest movement in Syria that began in March 2011, with a close look at the victimization of 15 teenage boys who were arrested after painting graffiti on the walls of Daraa, a city widely viewed as the birthplace of the revolution: “As-Shaab / Yoreed / Eskaat el nizam!”, which means “The people / want / to topple the regime!” One of the youths walks through the streets of Daraa showing where they had used spray paint to demand Assad’s fall. He, like the others, had been tortured in jail for a month and then released to his parents who were part of the Sunni tribal network that was the sinew of Daraa. Their suffering, including having their fingernails torn out, incensed their parents and most of the city’s residents who began to protest in the streets raising the central demands of the movement: for justice, for dignity and for freedom. As could have been expected, Assad’s snipers began firing on the demonstrations, footage of which is included in the film.
This pattern was repeated across Syria–in Homs, in Aleppo, in Hama and in the suburbs of Damascus. Continued armed attacks on peaceful protests finally reached the breaking point when soldiers began to defect and form militias to defend the people both in the streets and in their homes. We hear from a number of the men who helped to form the FSA in 2011, an armed movement that had no political agenda except to “topple the regime” as the 15 boys from Daraa had hoped.
Within two years, the regime had adopted genocidal-like tactics including barrel bombing and other forms of aerial attacks against which the rebels had no defense. Syria was rapidly becoming a hell on earth, as Yassin-Kassab put it at one point in the film, hence its apt title.
In August 2013, the dictatorship used sarin gas against the people of East Ghouta, a Damascus suburb composed mostly of the Sunni working poor, many of whom were formerly small farmers driven to leave drought-stricken land when government support dried up as well. The film takes a close look at Obama’s failure to take action against Assad despite his “red flag” warnings. While it is reasonable to assume that Junger and Quested would have agreed with John McCann and Dennis Ross, who are among the film’s imperialist-minded enemies of Assad, that Obama betrayed the Syrians by not following through with a military intervention, there was likely little chance of this happening. By this point, Obama was well on his way to developing rapprochement with Iran and the last thing he needed was to deploy American power on behalf of the “former farmers or teachers or pharmacists” he derided. All that was really needed was to remove the CIA agents from the Syrian border who had been stationed there to prevent the shipment of MANPAD’s from Libya to the rebels who needed them desperately. I am sure that a pharmacist with sufficient training could have put a Russian-made SA-7 to good use taking down the helicopters that were dropping barrel bombs on hospitals, schools, apartment buildings and everything that moved in places like East Aleppo.
What sets “Hell on Earth” apart from the standard Frontline type documentary on PBS is the inclusion of two brothers and their families who had fled East Aleppo to get away from the constant onslaught of Syrian and Russian aerial bombardment. Radwan and Marwan Mohammed were given video cameras by Junger and Quested so they could describe what it was like to be part of the half of the Syrian population that had been displaced from their homes. Crowded into what looks like a concrete shed, they are caught in limbo since they are now in ISIS territory. Like the Syrian refugees in “Lost in Lebanon”, they are motivated primarily by the need to survive rather than to take part in an armed struggle. (The film explicitly refers to the war as a necessary step taken by Assad to preempt the possibility for peaceful reforms.)
The two brothers are probably like most Syrians today, people longing for peace and normalcy. In choosing to impose the law of the jungle on a preeminently civilized and peaceful society, Assad has nearly won but at what price? He has carried out what Tacitus once described: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”
The second half of the film deals with the rise of ISIS and is exceptionally good. It is the first attempt I have seen to describe the origins of the death cult in terms of the persecution of Sunnis in Iraq. “Hell on Earth” comes pretty close to the version of events presented in Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s book on ISIS.
If the beheadings carried out by ISIS in the Middle East and the knife attacks by its supporters in Europe lend themselves to hysterical news reports in the West, the film reminds us that torture and ghastly executions took place in civilized England as well. If you were convicted of treason in 13th century England, punishment took the form of hanging (almost to the point of death), emasculation, disembowelment, beheading and being chopped into four pieces. The remains of the body were often displayed on London Bridge. Maybe that’s where the ISIS supporters got the idea for stabbing people at random on the same bridge.
Drawing upon ISIS’s own recruitment videos, “Hell on Earth” makes it clear that the message is much more evocative of video games and Hollywood action movies than Wahhabist theology. In fact, even though the film does not specifically state this, you can only conclude that the jihadists must have studied the recruitment commercials for the Marines that crop up on professional sports shows on TV. For an 18 year old man, testosterone speaks much louder than longings for a Caliphate.'