With the U.S. and Russia at odds over Syria, and refugees streaming into Europe, an examination of conditions inside the Middle Eastern country could hardly be timelier. Frontline provides just that with “Inside Assad’s Syria,” a report that correspondent Martin Smith accurately describes as an intermittently “surreal” visit to the war-torn region. Filmed over three weeks beginning in late July, Smith’s methodical account is both a glimpse into a land filled with contradictions and a testimonial to the dizzying and dangerous hurdles reporters face when they venture into such zones. The show refrains from trying to offer a clear solution to the area’s myriad problems – or an elusive exit strategy.
The incongruities of Smith’s journey begin early, as he travels along “the only safe road” into Damascus while listening to American pop tunes on an English-language radio station. Once in the city, he confesses to being “struck by how relaxed and ordinary things appear,” although he needn’t go far to find evidence of the conflict.
The main question surrounding Syria is the future of dictator Bashar al-Assad, and what happens if the efforts to overthrow him succeed, or are thwarted. Talking to people in the streets as well as approved voices that support the regime, Smith finds a fair amount of ambivalence even among those who think that Assad should stay, with one man (through a translator) saying simply, “There is no alternative to President Bashar at this time.”
The surreal aspect of the documentary, meanwhile, is reflected in the government’s attempts to paint a portrait of harmony and peace, including efforts to bolster tourism, such as opening a ritzy resort just 10 miles from rebel lines. There’s also a tourism festival in a city near where violence and fighting are happening, and even a social-media campaign that involves urging people to tweet using the hashtag #SummerInSyria – an enterprise that spectacularly backfired, with people sending out pictures of bloodshed and bombed-out neighborhoods.
Smith endeavors to remain out of the story, even when locals prod him to discuss whether he thinks the U.S. might help end the war. Yet the really heartbreaking sequences involve his conversations with those who are helplessly caught in the crossfire, with one woman pleading: “We are humans. We are good people.”
Events ultimately prevent Smith from having the opportunity to interview Assad, but he winds up being steered to attend a performance of the National Symphony, another bizarre moment, creating the inescapable impression of a country – and perhaps a world – fiddling while Syria burns.
Frontline and Smith have produced a number of projects devoted to the quagmire that has been the Middle East, including “Obama at War” and “The Rise of ISIS.” And if this latest documentary doesn’t provide any obvious answers to the ongoing policy debate, it deftly and dispassionately highlights just how intractable problems can be in a part of the world where the tragic cacophony often sounds like just another version of the same old tune.