10 Years in, Explore the Syrian Conflict’s Origins, Evolution and Toll in These Streaming Documentaries
In an image from 2012's "Syria Behind the Lines," an early documentary on the Syrian conflict, a woman pushes her stroller away from the blast, moments after a deadly airstrike hits the Sunni village of al-Bara.
In early March 2011, after popular uprisings swept Tunisia and Egypt, a group of young schoolboys in the small Syrian farming town of Deraa, 60 miles south of Damascus, painted messages opposing President Bashar al-Assad on a local wall.
Shortly thereafter, they were rounded up by the government’s secret police and reportedly beaten and tortured — sparking outrage that would help protests against the Assad regime in Deraa and beyond gather momentum by March 15, the date widely considered to be the start of the Syrian uprising.
As Syrians took to the streets to protest and to call for more freedoms, the response by Assad and his security forces was swift and brutal — following a playbook for crushing dissent that his ruling family had honed over 40 years.
But the killings sparked further anti-Assad anger instead of suppressing it, and what began as peaceful protests evolved into an armed opposition movement as the government’s tactics escalated. In the coming years, Assad and his allies would attempt to put down the revolution through a variety of means, including airstrikes that killed civilians, the use of chemical weapons and the Russian-aided bombing of hospitals. As foreign actors poured fuel on the fire, the tactics of some opposition groups also grew more brutal. Extremists, including the leader of ISIS, stepped in and exploited the chaos, with ordinary people caught in the middle.
Ten years in, we’ve collected a number of FRONTLINE documentaries on the origins and evolution of the Syrian conflict and its staggering human toll. Although precise counts are difficult to come by, the United Nations estimated in 2016 that deaths due to the conflict had reached 400,000. The UN Refugee Agency reported in February that “more than 6.6 million Syrians have been forced to flee their country since 2011 and another 6 million people have been uprooted from their homes but remain displaced inside the country.”
A recent report published under the umbrella of the UN Human Rights Council said that over the course of the conflict, “pro-government forces, but also other warring parties, resorted to methods of waging war and used weaponry that minimized risks to their fighters, rather than those minimizing harm to civilians.”
“The horrors of the conflict,” the report said, “have left no Syrian family untouched.”
Stream the documentaries below, grouped loosely by theme, for a better understanding of the past decade in Syria and join FRONTLINE March 26 for a virtual event discussing the 10th anniversary of the Syrian uprising.
For Sama (2019)
This Oscar-nominated film documented the harrowing realities of the Syrian conflict — hospitals bombed, children killed, Aleppo turned to rubble — from a rare perspective: that of a mom married to one of the last doctors in the city, trying to raise her baby daughter, Sama, in the middle of the devastation.
Children of Syria (2016)
Also an Oscar nominee, this documentary followed four children surviving in war-torn Aleppo, their escape to safety in Germany and their adjustment to life as refugees.
This panoramic film told the first-person stories of refugees and migrants fleeing persecution and war worldwide, including in Syria. It incorporated footage filmed by the refugees themselves as they left their homes on dangerous journeys in search of safety, including a harrowing sequence filmed by a Syrian refugee on a sinking dinghy crossing the Mediterranean — a journey on which thousands have died.
Exodus: The Journey Continues (2018)
A sequel to the 2016 film, this documentary followed more migrants and refugees displaced by conflict and expanded on the story of a Syrian family that was initially featured.
Syria Behind the Lines (2013)
Filmed in Syria’s rural Orontes River valley, this documentary looked at how the conflict pitted neighbor against neighbor: on one side, a young rebel soldier fighting to the death to bring down Assad, and facing him, a career soldier determined to preserve the regime’s hold on power.
THE UPRISING’S ROOTS & THE ASSAD REGIME’S RESPONSE
The Regime (2011)
From the first year of the conflict, this film looks at how the Syrian rebellion began, how Assad moved to crush it and how his regime originally came to power.
The Regime Responds (2012)
Eighteen months into the rebellion, this documentary examined how Assad held on to power via increasingly brutal means, including attacking civilian neighborhoods, as opposition tactics also escalated.
Inside Assad’s Syria (2015)
Filmed inside government-controlled areas of Syria, this documentary examined the contrast between the Assad regime’s PR campaign and the reality of life on the ground, as well as why many regime loyalists equated all opponents of Assad with ISIS and the perspectives of some Syrians pushing for a political solution.
INSIDE THE SYRIAN OPPOSITION
Syria Undercover (2011)
With undercover reporting, this film followed members of the Syrian opposition movement who were forced into hiding, revealing accounts of torture by government security forces.
The Battle for Syria (2012)
This documentary followed Syria’s rebel leaders and warring factions within the opposition movement, finding that some had turned to brutal means.
Syria’s Second Front (2014)
Believed to be the first in-depth U.S. TV report on the emergence of ISIS, this film showed how, three years into Syria’s war, rebel forces were no longer fighting only the Assad regime but were also vying for control against a ruthless group calling itself the Islamic State.
Syria: Arming the Rebels (2014)
This documentary followed Syrian rebel fighters who said they were being secretly armed and trained by the United States, part of a covert U.S. intelligence program.
Obama at War (2015)
This documentary chronicled how President Barack Obama responded to the Syrian uprising, the regime’s crackdown and the chaos that followed. The film paid particular attention to deep divisions within the administration about what the U.S.’s role should be, including what happened when the White House assessed that the Assad regime had crossed what Obama once called “a red line”: the use of chemical weapons on civilians.
The Rise of ISIS (2014)
This documentary traced how the extremist group that would become known as ISIS rose to power, including by taking advantage of the conflict in Syria, and examined the stakes of disagreements inside the Obama administration over whether to provide arms for moderate rebels.
The Secret History of ISIS (2016)
As part of its examination of how ISIS came to be, this documentary recounted how Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi exploited the Syrian uprising and sent agents into Syria to commit bloody attacks and fuel the war, ultimately seizing large swaths of territory and declaring a capital in Raqqa.
Confronting ISIS (2016)
This film examined the successes and failures of the U.S.-led effort to degrade and destroy ISIS, including the Obama administration’s struggle to deal effectively with the crisis in Syria.