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Frontline’s visit to Assad’s Syria reveals surprising contrasts

What is it like inside Assad's Syria today? PBS Frontline filmmaker Martin Smith captured the country at war -- cities in ruins, looming danger and dashed hopes -- as well as some surprising discoveries. Smith joins Gwen Ifill to discuss the conflict and what he found on the ground.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now to a look inside Syria, beyond anything we have seen before.

    Frontline's Martin Smith visited the war-torn country this summer, after securing a rare government visa to report on the ground. He witnessed evidence of a country at war, but also captured an alternate view of life there for tonight's documentary, "Inside Assad's Syria."

    In the following excerpt, Smith visits a new resort development with Syria's tourism minister located just outside the bombed city of Homs.

  • MARTIN SMITH:

    During my visit to Homs, I actually meet the man in charge of the campaign, Syria's minister of tourism, Bishr Yazigi.

    How do you do?

    BISHR YAZIGI, Syrian Minister of Tourism: Hi. How are you? Fine?

  • MARTIN SMITH:

    I'm good.

  • BISHR YAZIGI:

    Nice to meet you.

  • MARTIN SMITH:

    Nice to meet you. It's good to be here.

  • BISHR YAZIGI:

    How do you see Damascus and Homs?

  • MARTIN SMITH:

    The minister is still very upbeat about his mission.

  • BISHR YAZIGI:

    Yesterday, there was a festival in the Wadi area. It was amazing yesterday. And you can see how the Syrian people live without any makeup.

  • MARTIN SMITH:

    Right.

    The minister is here in Homs to see one other project. So, we follow him and the governor through the bombed-out remains of central Homs to this place five miles east of the city.

    The resort isn't fully open yet, just the pool and public areas. Everyone seems excited. The minister's visit attracts 10 local reporters, and the resort is already taking reservations.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    You have reservations?

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    Yes, there are reservations.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    Wow.

  • MARTIN SMITH:

    The official opening is just a month away.

  • MAN:

    Maybe it's better to take a picture on the other side.

  • MARTIN SMITH:

    Just 10 miles from rebel lines, the animals look as stunned as I am.

    We drive back to the reality of Homs. This city is going to need a lot more than a new resort. I talk to some high school students who make that clear. Syria has little to offer them. They face military conscription when they finish school or a car bomb tomorrow.

    What do you worry about?

  • STUDENT:

    I worry about my friends. I worry about explosions that happen in our neighborhood. There's so many.

  • MARTIN SMITH:

    Who is doing the explosions?

  • STUDENT:

    Terrorists.

  • MARTIN SMITH:

    Terrorists. And where are they from? What group?

  • STUDENT:

    No one knows that. They're from the Free Syrian Army or Nusra.

  • STUDENT:

    The terrorists have destroyed my future. I don't have any future now in Syria. They destroyed our life. We were happy people because we live in a safe place. Now we can't. We're afraid of every car could bomb now.

  • MARTIN SMITH:

    Are we safe here?

  • STUDENT:

    No place in Syria is safe, no place, because the American government has given the rebels long-range rockets. They can destroy any place in Syria. We're not safe in our homes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Joining me to talk about his trip and tonight's documentary is Frontline's Martin Smith.

    Martin, you're putting the face on a conflict that most of us never get to see. But, first of all, the practicality of this, how did you get in?

  • MARTIN SMITH:

    Well, I had worked for more than a year, trying various avenues to get in. Some reporters can get in and they get short-term visas, maybe one week, maybe a couple of days' extension, but I needed more time if I was going to put together a documentary on this.

    And then I got a phone call. Somebody offered me access to a trove of footage taken by a young journalist, maybe more than 1,000 hours over the last four-and-a-half years, and they asked if I was interested in looking at it. I said, sure, but I would like to come there and look at it. And then the project became more ambitious after that. I stayed on and we planned travel together, and I was able to make this trip.

    And one of the things about the trip, we didn't have a time limit. I stayed a full three weeks, could have stayed longer, and we didn't have the usual minder from the ministry of information, from the foreign media department that a lot of journalists are saddled with.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, I want to ask you about the surprises, and the surprises for me would be whether anybody would feel free to speak to you, a Western journalist, and actually criticize Assad.

  • MARTIN SMITH:

    No.

    I mean, that is a red line for them. They are not going to criticize Assad directly, because they risk a beating or worse. So people generally will say very kind things, enthusiastic, patriotic things about Assad. But one of the things you learn over time is that if you listen to people and you ask them about Assad, often, they will just go on and talk about the Syrian nation, the Syrian state.

    What they are most concerned about is not Assad and his future. They're concerned about their future. They're concerned about the services that the state provides, whether it's water, electricity, sewer, schools, hospitals. They saw what happened in Iraq. They saw what happened in Libya when those dictators were deposed. They don't want that to happen to them.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Did you see any sign in your reporting of what we're now — what now looks more and more every day like a proxy war that is heating up in Syria involving Moscow and Washington?

  • MARTIN SMITH:

    Well, it's been a proxy war for some time.

    The Russians have been in there, the Iranians have been in there, the Chinese have been in there on the side. Of course, now you're referring to the fact that the Russians are directly involved in running air campaign and launching missiles into Syria.

    There was — while we were there, we heard — we saw there were Russian officers in the central market. I didn't know what they were doing there. There was the activity in the Alawite heartland around Latakia against the Mediterranean of — expansion of an air base.

    But it didn't happen until after I left that the Russians directly entered the war. And, of course, last week, Assad traveled to Moscow to strategize with Putin.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So how do the people that you spoke to view the U.S. involvement, especially against the Islamic State?

  • MARTIN SMITH:

    It's interesting.

    A number of people pulled me aside and they would say to me, who do you think supports ISIS? And I would say, well, that's a complicated question. I know their roots. And they would say, well, it's the U.S. And I would say, well, how do you — how do you make that argument?

    And they would say, well, if you look at their Humvees, their vehicles, their weapons, their ammunition, it all comes from the United States, so the United States is supporting them.

    And I said, well, no, the United States' weapons were stolen from Mosul when they took over Mosul in Northern Iraq.

    But their idea of the United States is extremely distrustful. And, you know, this is a part of the world where conspiracies — where lack of education, in many cases, leads to a lot of wild conspiracy theories. So there is the belief — and they also conflate all their enemies.

    So, the fact that the United States supports Western-backed, you know, rebels, so-called moderate rebels, and you have ISIS on the other end of the spectrum, they conflate all that together and they call everybody, as the schoolchildren in the clip that you ran termed them, terrorists. They're all terrorists, in their view.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You spent more time on the ground there than most of us get to, and you came away with, I'm sure, a whole lot of conflicting images, as we just saw outside of Homs.

    What — is it possible for you to narrow it down to the single most kind of surreal experience that you had while you were there?

  • MARTIN SMITH:

    There were a number of them, I mean, the new resort being opened just a few miles from the absolutely devastated center of Homs city, the fact that while rebels were raining mortars on Damascus and the government was responding with a bombing campaign on one of the suburbs, I was invited to go to the Syrian National Symphony, where they played a beautiful rendition of one of Brahms' Hungarian dances.

    I mean, there was a beach resort that I visited. At the same time, I met people who were suffering from the war, whose emotion was palpable, a lot of women who were extremely angry about what they are facing. So, it was a little of both.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Martin Smith, we will be watching tonight on most PBS stations for "Inside Assad's Syria" on Frontline.

    Thank you for giving us a preview.

  • MARTIN SMITH:

    Gwen, thank you very much.

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