Reporting from Syria

Olly Lambert writes: There’s a private bar in London whose members are nearly all war correspondents. The men and women standing at the bar could easily convince you that war reporting is one of the most exhilarating experiences that life has to offer, a gateway to the outer limits of human experience. This, of course, is absolute nonsense, and they all know it. I can tell you that because I’m frequently one of those people drinking there, and I’ve spun that line on more occasions than I care to remember.

I’ve been making documentaries in war zones on and off for the last 10 years, and I can assure you that working in a conflict zone is absolutely the most horrible, lonely and uncomfortable experience you’re ever likely to have.

But that’s easy to forget. Within days or even hours of getting home, the bitter and complex reality of seeing a conflict close-up quickly melts into a series of increasingly honed anecdotes whose veracity I can’t quite guarantee.

The only true and abiding memory I have of the weeks and months spent in places like Helmand province in Afghanistan or a field hospital in Iraq is a vague and intangible sense of my split personality. One part of me becomes the journalist thief, prowling in search of people and stories to turn into a film. And at the same time I’m something quite different but also connected: a profoundly moved and thin-skinned witness to the awful extremes of human behavior. Both sides need the other, but they pull in very different directions.

For five weeks last fall, I embarked on a new project, living on both sides of a sectarian front line in rural Syria to make a documentary for the PBS series “Frontline,” and for Channel 4 in the U.K. I filmed with Sunni rebels on one side and regime loyalists on the other as they descended into an increasingly hateful feud.

Nothing could have prepared me for the imperial-scale level of violence that I witnessed there. It was totally unprecedented in my experience. And it’s only now, reading journals and looking back at footage, that some of it is even becoming real. [Continue reading…]

When it comes to understanding what is happening in Syria, I defer primarily to those who either live there or whose reporting derives from firsthand observation made during extended visits.

The longer the fighting continues, the easier it becomes to look at Syria through the prism of universal truths about war — that it is self-perpetuating; that much of the fighting accomplishes nothing; that violence begets violence; that the willingness to kill others in pursuit of ones goals opens the door to all kinds of atrocity. But as much as Syria might reveal about the nature of war, understanding the nature of war can only provide a limited amount of insight into what is happening in this instance.

While Olly Lambert’s film is deeply depressing in the way it reveals in granular detail why this has become an intractable conflict, it also shows why there remains reason support Assad’s opponents.

Watch the beginning of the film below and then click “continue watching” to watch the rest at the Frontline site.

Lambert is no propagandist. This is truth-telling journalism. And while one can view the two sides in the conflict he portrays as involving some kind of equivalence — each with good reason fears being wiped out by the other — the differences between the two are crucial.

On one side are Sunnis who know their enemy: Syrian government forces who are dropping bombs and firing artillery and who are predominantly Allawites.

On the other side, the Allawites themselves who willingly believe government propaganda and imagine their opponents are all “terrorists.”

Watch Syria Behind the Lines on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

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