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Sebastian Junger on the consequences of not stepping in on Syria

A searing new documentary on the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State group called "Hell on Earth” debuts at the Tribeca Film Festival this week. Hari Sreenivasan talks to journalist and the film’s co-director Sebastian Junger about the ways that war in Syria spills over into crisis around the world.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now a look at a new film about the brutal Syrian civil war.

    Hari Sreenivasan has that story.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The French government said today its analysis of samples from a chemical attack in Syria earlier this month prove that the government of Bashar al-Assad was responsible.

  • That attack was one more flash point in a war that has now entered its seventh year, and it is the subject of a searing new documentary called “Hell on Earth:

    The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS.”

    It debuts at the Tribeca Film Festival this week here in New York, and will air later this summer on National Geographic.

    It is co-directed by the journalist and author Sebastian Junger, who also narrates the film.

    Thanks for joining us.

  • SEBASTIAN JUNGER, Co-Director, “Hell on Earth:

    The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS”: Thank you.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Why make this right now?

  • SEBASTIAN JUNGER:

    We started about two years ago.

    We wanted to explain why the Syrian civil war happened, how it evolved, and particularly why ISIS came out of it. ISIS is a kind of rare phenomenon. And we wanted to explain that to the American people.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But there’s a family that you intersperse throughout this documentary. They are making their way out of Syria, or attempting to as they go along. And there’s a real telling clip early on in the film where there’s a father just trying to comfort his kids.

    Take a look.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    Don’t be afraid, dear. Don’t be afraid.

    (CRYING)

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    Honestly, I’m about to explode. I can’t express what is happening inside of me. I have to smile against my will, so the kids don’t get scared.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, this is juxtaposed with a phrase that you have from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad saying, we don’t indiscriminately bomb anyone.

    And here we have a family who clearly could be the target of this.

  • SEBASTIAN JUNGER:

    Yes. I mean, that clip shows a nighttime bombing by the Syrian government, by the Syrian air force. Assad is just lying. Plenty of politicians do, and he’s one of them.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    One of the interesting things, there’s also a little map that you have throughout this film about how massive this tiny country, this tiny war has gotten, meaning how many other global partners or parties are involved in this.

    It’s not just the reason. I mean, you have proxies in Russia and the United States involved, but you also have so many countries around it that are involved now.

  • SEBASTIAN JUNGER:

    Yes.

    I mean, wars a little like tumors. You know, they sort of like drawn draw in more and more blood supply, and they grow. And so there’s arms going in. There’s oil coming out. There’s antiquities coming out. There’s people coming out. And there’s jihadis going in.

    And it’s the whole ecosystem. And even on the sort of diplomatic level, on the sort of national level, there are a good dozen countries that are directly involved in the mechanics of that war, and some very, very powerful players in the world.

    So, it’s like a bar fight that, you know, the longer it goes on, the more people are involved, until everyone is fighting, and one of the rationales for stepping in early and trying to stop these civil wars before they get this kind of critical mass.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Speaking of stepping in early or later, one of the things that you point out is that there’s a legacy that goes all the way back, perhaps, to the de-Baathification in Iraq and how that contributed to what is happening in Syria.

    And also you take a fairly pointed look at President Obama and the red line and the United States’ inability to do anything after that red line was crossed.

  • SEBASTIAN JUNGER:

    Oh, there are huge missteps by the United States, the invasion of Iraq arguably being one of them.

    After we invaded Iraq, the de-Baathification put on the street tens of thousands of Baath Party members who weren’t necessarily loyalists, but they were sort of expelled from government, expelled from the military, expelled from their jobs.

    And then we helped install a Shia government in Baghdad that really starting preying on these people, killing them. And so of course those people saw ISIS as — ISIS presented themselves as their protectors. And so, you know, of course, that — you know, that worked quite well for ISIS.

    And had that not happened — and, you know, this analysis comes from American generals. This isn’t some sort of far-out left-wing analysis. These are American generals looking back at the war in Iraq and thinking, my God, was that a mistake.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And the ripple effects now it has even going all the way up into Europe and even political repercussions of the migrant influx into Europe.

  • SEBASTIAN JUNGER:

    Yes.

    In the modern world, and maybe even the ancient world, you really can’t say that someone else’s problems aren’t your problems. They will eventually reach you. My first war was Bosnia. It was a war that a lot of people sort of ignored, but it started just pumping millions of refugees out of Eastern Europe into neighboring countries, and along with that came a lot of problems, including organized crime into allied countries, countries that we’re allied with.

    So, eventually, President Clinton stepped in and put a stop to it. But there are real consequences. And in Syria, it’s a sort of cauldron of an awful lot of things that will affect us, refugees, terrorism, and a huge nexus of sort of illegal activity, arms sales, drugs, antiquities.

    And wars are not something you want happening in the world, and they will affect everybody, including people in the United States. I think people don’t quite understand that.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Sebastian Junger, thanks for joining us.

  • SEBASTIAN JUNGER:

    Thank you.

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