“Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” is the title of a documentary film made by Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested in 2017. From many media sources it shows the start of the Syrian Civil War, the development of ISIS, the extension of the war to Iraq and then the gradual defeat of IS. Here is some analysis:
- The initial demonstrations against the Assad regime were met with such brutal suppression that there was bound to be an organized reaction. Young people were being systematically shot down in the streets. One man said that he personally witnessed 80 people tortured to death and murdered in a prison. This prompted many Syrian soldiers to defect and join the burgeoning resistance, that cohered to some extent into the Free Syrian Army. They captured some Army barracks and distributed arms to many local militias.
- At the same time the Assad regime released some high level Al Qaeda operatives, the tactic being that they could then label all the resistance as terrorists. No-one foresaw that Al Qaeda would start to control territory and that this would then metastasize into the so-called Islamic State.
- At first the Islamists took over bakeries and food depots and then banks and gas stations and then they attacked and took over villages and towns. They were more intent on killing the secular anti-Assad forces than the pro-Assad forces, and in effect they took over eastern Syria while leaving Assad in control of the west. It was only when the Kurds with US support counter-attacked after IS took over Sinjar that IS started to spread into Iraq.
- The weakness and indecisiveness of Pres. Obama was intimately connected to the expansion of the fighting in Syria and Iraq. Not only did he take no effective action against Assad, but he failed to support the FSA (in case guns fell into the hands of the Islamists) and he declared a “red-line” against the use of chemical weapons, then failed to act on it. Not only that, later,when IS was making significant gains, he declared that the US would not stand for it, and he called in Senators to brief them and arranged with allies to start military action and then at the last moment went on TV and declared that he would take no action because he didn’t want to get the US involved. At the same time he withdrew all US forces from Iraq, and this was seen by IS as a signal for them to go ahead.
- The film documents the lives of a family that fled Aleppo after the Assad regime bombed it indiscriminately and went into the countryside. But, then IS came and took over the area and started murdering people and extorting money, just like a gang of criminals, and so they fled again, this time to Turkey. They tried to cross the straits to Greece, but were intercepted and returned to Turkey.
- The downfall of IS was presaged when they started to threaten Baghdad. Then the Iraqi Army with US support counter-attacked and drove them back and this process has been continuing. The loss of Mosul and other cities and oil facilities means a loss of revenue for IS and so their finances and influence are waning.
- Meanwhile under the Trump Administration, more support has been given to the Kurdish forces allied with several Sunni Arab forces in the north and they are currently besieging Raqqa.
- The downfall of the so-called Caliphate will lead to more “lone-wolf” attacks as a means of bringing the war home to the countries that IS see as their enemies, including Britain, France and the US.
- Note that Israel is not mentioned in this documentary, thus adding to the contention that the Israel-Arab conflict is not basic to the issues of war and peace in the Middle East, as many so-called pundits proclaim.
There is no doubt that Syria has become a “hell on earth,” with terrible human suffering. Around 500,000 Syrians have been killed and about half the country (ca. 10 million people) have been displaced and/or have become refugees. Attempts to compare this suffering with other situations are futile.