Q&A: Inside the Making of “Confronting ISIS”

October 11, 2016
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by Patrice Taddonio Assistant Director of Audience Development

Martin Smith stands in front of a monument in the town of al Alam, Saladin province, Iraq, that was erected in memory of town officials who were executed by ISIS. (Scott Anger/Rain Media)

For more than 15 years, Martin Smith has been covering the Middle East for FRONTLINE.

Back in 1998, he produced U.S. television’s first full-length documentary on Al Qaeda. Since then, he has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, made films about Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and gone inside Assad-controlled areas of Syria.

But none of those films, Smith says, has compared to making his newest documentary, Confronting ISIS — a project that began one year ago with what seemed like a simple idea — tracing the U.S.-led fight against ISIS — but soon became a much larger, deeply complicated story about troubled alliances and conflicting priorities throughout the Middle East.

“We wanted to take a hard look at President Obama’s Middle Eastern coalition of partners in the war on ISIS — to take a measure of their commitment, utility and resolve,” Smith says. “Pulling on that thread, though, led us to greatly expand our story. That’s because everything is connected — and to understand the challenges America faces, we realized we needed to put each and every episode of the war into greater context: Why does America’s alliance with Syrian Kurds outrage the Turks? How does the negotiation of a nuclear deal with Iran affect Saudi-U.S. relations? And how does it all play out in the battle against ISIS?”

In search of that greater context, Smith traveled to five countries with key roles in the fight — Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey — and also spoke with policy makers within Washington, D.C.’s corridors of power.

In the process, Smith and his team, including producer Linda Hirsch, found a fundamental problem with the fight: “No one likes ISIS, but at the same time, none of our ‘partners’ are really on board with U.S. tactics and strategy,” Smith says. “As a result, the war resembles a kaleidoscope of shifting and divergent alliances where America’s ‘friends’ are often dragging their feet or worse.”

In the interview below, Smith discusses  how the story of Confronting ISIS evolved, his reporting process, and what he hopes viewers will come away with when they watch the documentary.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’re no stranger to reporting on conflicts in the Middle East, and you’ve been focusing on ISIS in particular over the past few years. This time around, what made you decide to take a panoramic approach that looks at the fight against ISIS through the lens of America’s regional allies?

When I was looking for a fresh take on the United States’ efforts to defeat ISIS, I was very interested in the role of the so-called coalition — especially our partners in the region. The bulk of the work is coordinated by the United States, but there’s something very important about regional buy-in, politically, on the ground — so I wanted to see what commonality of goals there was with key allies in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan.

This was originally supposed to be a one-hour film. But when we set out on our trip and began digging in, it became clear that there was so much material. The film evolved into a big, two-hour take on the region as a whole and all of its complexities.

For example, look at Syria, where ISIS has the capital of its caliphate. You don’t have a partner government in Bashar al-Assad. And even though Assad is fighting ISIS, he’s at various times let them have free passage — there’s a complicated relationship there. So, you have to put other boots on the ground. Who’s your partner going to be? Well, we run immediately into the problem that our key partner in Northern Syria is the Kurds. I say “problem” because Turkey has a large Kurdish population, fears a separatist movement by them, and is battling them. So, Turkey — our supposed ally — is shelling the very people who are also our ally, and who have been the most reliable fighting force against ISIS. That’s just one example of the sort of mishegoss you get into when you start peeling all of this back.

Your access in these countries was really immersive. You traveled with one of Iraq’s Shia militia groups, as well as Kurdish peshmerga fighters who were less than a mile from ISIS. You interviewed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and sat down with Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, the Grand Mufti. How long did you spend filming on the ground in the Middle East, and what was your process like?

This trip lasted about a month. We set out first in January for Saudi Arabia — which was the hardest country in terms of access. We were there for 10 days, flew in and out of London to track down a prince who was there, and then we went to Jordan, and Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan and then Turkey. The Abadi interview was actually done in Berlin, where I caught up with him while he was traveling.

There were three of us on the ground — me; Scott Anger, who handled camera and sound; and Sara Obeidat, our associate producer. Sara was a tremendous asset: she’s wonderfully resourceful and hardworking, and she grew up in Jordan and speaks Arabic! Had I known that I was going to spend so many years of my career covering the region, I would have taken time off to really learn the language. But anyway, I relied tremendously on her and on Scott, too. He’s very experienced, and we’ve covered many countries together — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen…

We would also connect with local fixers. In Saudi Arabia, our fixers were government people, which made things a bit difficult. We had excellent help in Jordan, and we had excellent help in Iraq and Turkey. And in addition to what we filmed this year, I had also made earlier reporting trips to some of these countries — for instance, I was in Baghdad in 2014 just as ISIS was on the outskirts of the city, and in the summer of 2015, I was in regime-controlled areas of Syria. So we were able to incorporate other materials I had gathered over the last two-and-a-half years that took on a new relevance. Linda Hirsch, who produced the film along with me, was a tremendous contributor throughout the whole process.

Your access inside the corridors of power in Washington is just as up-close. You sat down with Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, his predecessor, Chuck Hagel, and multiple White House insiders. In the film, we see not just deep tensions between the Obama White House and the Pentagon over how best to combat ISIS, but tensions inside the White House itself. Were you surprised by this?

You know, getting agreement in Washington is — as it should be — a process of a lot of back and forth and a lot of arguments. There’s a very complex set of problems in the Middle East, all interrelated, so there’s bound to be some disagreement. But it’s always interesting to know what the generals say, and what the officials over at the State Department say, versus what the White House has to say about a policy.

We’ve seen a lot of dissent over U.S. policy in Syria — and you can’t just look at ISIS, you have to be looking at Syria policy because it’s all interwoven. And then Yemen becomes tangled up in this, because our partner Saudi Arabia goes to war there, and not in Syria, where we wanted them to bomb ISIS. All these things are interconnected. But, we were fortunate to be able to get a lot of access inside the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House.

Throughout the film, it becomes clear that the fight against ISIS is deeply complicated for a number of reasons and factors that overlap and intersect. What does this mean for the shape of the Middle East once ISIS is defeated?

Well, as many people we talked to suggested: If you don’t have a real plan for what happens the day after you defeat ISIS militarily, are you just going to go through this again? Take the sectarianism problem — if Sunnis in Syria and Iraq still feel disenfranchised, that’s the same bitterness that fueled groups like ISIS in the first place.

You can’t just put a fence around these countries and let people inside fight it out. There are all these other players sponsoring proxy forces — whether Iran with the Shia militias inside Iraq, or wealthy Saudis or Qataris who see ISIS and don’t like everything they do, but still see them as a frontline against Shia aggression. So, you’ve got to solve these bigger problems. Or else, once they’re defeated militarily, ISIS will just revert to becoming a terrorist group, bombing targets in Baghdad and harassing Iraqi forces and people in Syria — that will continue even if they don’t hold big cities. And they’ll continue to inspire attacks in the West, as they did in San Bernardino.

The film also conveys a sense of the deep suffering of ordinary people living in the region and caught up in the crossfire. Was there anything that really stuck with you in terms of the human impact of these interlaced conflicts that didn’t make it into the final film? 

Yes. When ISIS took Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh hostage, there was a member of parliament from his district who stood up for the pilot and tried to help push for negotiations to get him out. Of course, the pilot was burned to death by ISIS. Then, a few months after that, this member of parliament learned that his own son, who had gone off to the Ukraine to study medicine to become a doctor, had fallen in with some ISIS guys and had signed up for a suicide mission. It was a tremendously painful experience for him, one that illustrated for me that it’s not just “somebody else’s kids” who are going off and joining ISIS.

What do you hope people who watch Confronting ISIS will come away with?

I hope we’ve done a serviceable job communicating the complexity of the situation without baffling too many people, and I hope viewers will come away with an understanding that the fight against ISIS just isn’t simple.

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