By Mohammed Alaa Ghanem
I lived in the Syrian capital of Damascus for 30 years, and I assisted pro-democracy activists as they began their peaceful revolt against the Assad regime. I remember watching with horror, and then receiving eyewitness accounts, as Assad forces began to gun down protesters in broad daylight. Months before the first rebel brigade existed, I remember watching videos of regime forces torturing and killing innocent protesters in cold blood. And even though these brutal acts suppressed the revolt inside Damascus, I still know countless activists there who long for the fall of the regime.
That is why I was quite surprised to see that PBS Frontline reporter Martin Smith, in his documentary "Inside Assad's Syria," had found a "consensus" in regime-held areas that there were no moderate rebels and that the protests had been "hijacked by foreign backed jihadists." It is absurd to imagine that in regime-held Hama, which saw the largest anti-Assad protest ever, there is a "consensus" against the Syrian rebels. In many Damascus areas later reclaimed by the regime, anti-Assad protests were a regular occurrence well into the Revolution's armed phase. Even as late as May 2014, activists inside Damascus organized a secret campaign to reject the sham elections conducted by the Assad regime.
Mr. Smith could not see or interview these activists because if they had shown their faces publicly and expressed their true views, they would have been arrested or killed. This is a critical flaw that should leave us deeply skeptical regarding his conclusions.
Smith claims that the Syrians he talked to were "open about their hopes and fears," but this would be news to Syrians who lived under Assad. I used to work in one area where Smith interviewed passersby -- the historic Old Souk of Damascus -- and this area is constantly monitored by regime intelligence agents. Activists who tried to protest in this area were instantly arrested or beaten with batons by intelligence agents in plainclothes. One woman Smith interviewed in the Souk said that all her sons were abroad, but Smith never asked why. Chances are, they were fleeing regime military conscription, like tens of thousands of other Syrians, but the woman could have never said that on camera.
The entire documentary is shaped by such errors and Smith shows no sign that he is aware of them. Most notably, he identifies his main contact in Syria, named Thaer al-Ajlani, as merely a "war reporter." When Ajlani died and received a lavish military funeral, Smith takes it to mean that Ajlani was simply a "hero to the regime." But with a brief internet search, he could have discovered that the regime had other titles for Ajlani besides "hero" -- titles such as head of military propaganda for the Damascus area, and former head of propaganda for the regimes rubber-stamp parliament. Ajlani's mother, Huda al-Homsi, was Assad's ambassador to Greece until she was kicked out in 2012. If Ajlani was really Smith's chief contact inside Syria, then we saw only what the regime wanted us to see.
Ajlani's death threw sand into the gears of Smith's documentary, probably because Smith was then without a government minder. Instead of travelling to the Alawaite coast, Smith was stranded in his hotel and was even served three days' notice to leave the country by a government ministry. Luckily for him, though, Smith then connected with a "film director" named Najdat Anzur. But this was no ordinary film director. Anzur had the power to override the government ministry and take Smith out to the coastal areas. He also had as his bodyguard and chauffeur a colonel from the Air Force Intelligence, Syria's most feared intelligence branch, who probably kept interviewees from speaking freely as well.
None of these grave and fundamental flaws in Smith's reporting methods are mentioned in the documentary, nor does Smith ever mention the close connections of his local guides to the Assad regime. At best, this reflects a gross failure in background research. At worst, this reflects a deliberate omission. In either case, these reporting flaws have clearly skewed the documentary, such that Smith not only documents the regime's false narratives, but also presents them as fact.
First off, Smith asserts that the initial Syrian protest videos were "confusing" regarding who fired first, the regime or the protesters. As someone who helped organize these initial protests, I can tell you that the activists being fired upon had no confusion. Nor was nonviolent protest guru Gene Sharp confused; five months into protests, he praised Syrians for having "maintained, by and large, their nonviolent discipline." Even Bashar al-Assad himself said, in August 2012, that protesters only began to take up arms after five months of a "popular revolt". Smith's "confusion" is therefore blatant pro-regime revisionism, and he should have identified it as such.
Smith also misrepresents the nature of rebel battle tactics outside Damascus. Twice, he claims that the "tactic of the rebels" in Damascus' eastern suburbs is to fire mortars at regime-held areas, at which point the regime "responds" with barrel bombs. But this is not an accurate description of events. Regardless of rebel behaviour, the regime has been besieging , starving, and bombarding civilians in these suburbs for years, including with chemical weapons. The main rebel group in this area, called Jaish al-Islam, responded in kind for only a few days before its leaders were dissuaded due to civilian casualties. Therefore, once again, Smith's description of events is blatant pro-regime revisionism disguised as fact.
Smith also omits key facts essential to understanding the conflict. For one thing, he allows regime supporters to harp on the "foreign-backed jihadists" fighting Assad, while never challenging them that Assad rarely fights such extremists. He also ignores the thousands of "foreign-backed jihadists" that are fighting on Assad's side and that are widely credited with having kept Assad in power. This omission is especially glaring because Smith drove from Lebanon to downtown Damascus, meaning that he most certainly passed through pro-regime checkpoints managed by the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.
Despite his stellar reporting credentials, Smith appears to lack the specific knowledge of Syria needed to create a documentary on Assad's Syria. That didn't stop him from reaching the broad conclusion that "the goal should not be to...vanquish Assad and his regime...Perhaps new borders will need to be drawn." Perhaps this is easy for him to say as someone who parachuted into Syria, received the royal treatment, and then returned home. But most Syrians who have actually lived in Assad's Syria feel differently. I know, because I am one of them.
Mohammed Alaa Ghanem is a Syrian political activist. He currently serves as senior political adviser and government relations director for the Syrian American Council in Washington and a fellow at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies.