Inside Assad’s Syria


Martin Smith


Linda Hirsch


Martin Smith


MARTIN SMITH, Correspondent: [voice-over] My trip starts in Beirut, Lebanon. Damascus is just 85 miles away. This is the only safe road in.

Since the war began four-and-a-half years ago, the government of Bashar al-Assad has severely restricted access to regime-held Syria. But now a contact with ties to the regime has arranged some special visas. Before crossing, I change dollars for Syrian liras. With the country under economic sanctions, it’s an all-cash economy.

After we leave Lebanon, we come into a kind of no-man’s land. Then we hit the first Syrian immigration point. In less than an hour, we reach Damascus.

The first thing that surprises me is the jolt of an American pop tune on a local English language radio station. This I don’t expect. I am struck by how relaxed and ordinary things appear. Damascus has always been a secular city, a mix of Muslims, Christians, Druze and Alawites, many with European aspirations.

But while these were the kinds of images so familiar before the crisis, I did not expect them now in the middle of a brutal war— men playing games, young girls enjoying the evening, good Syrian food, and in a rooftop bar, lots of drinking and dancing. It may not seem like it, but the fighting is only a few minutes away.

When we arrived, in July 2015, the regime controlled just a narrow strip along the Western edge of the country. Much of the rest of Syria was in the hands of either jihadists like ISIS or Western-backed rebels. This includes areas in or near Damascus.

Rocket and mortar attacks on the city are frequent. The regime responds with air power, including notoriously inaccurate and deadly barrel bombs on crowded neighborhoods.

NEIGHBORHOOD MAN: [subtitles] Those kids, what did they do to deserve this? Bastard!

MARTIN SMITH: On my first full day in Syria, I visit the old souk of central Damascus. I ask passersby where they are from.


1st MAN: Aleppo.

2nd MAN: Aleppo.

3rd MAN: I’m from Qalamoun.

4th MAN: I am from Homs.

5th MAN: Homs.

6th MAN: I am from Aleppo.

7th MAN: Palmyra.

MARTIN SMITH: These are some of Syria’s seven million internally displaced people.

[on camera] You left before ISIS or after ISIS took over?

MAN FROM PALMYRA: [subtitles] After ISIS took over. We used to live in heaven until those people came to our country and destroyed it.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Millions of other Syrians have fled to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and to Europe. These people have chosen to stay.

8th MAN: [subtitles] I am 40 years old, and I am ready to go serve in the Syrian army, if they want me to serve. There is no one who loves Syria more than the Syrian people.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Can President Assad bring the country back together?

1st WOMAN: [subtitles] We have hope in God and in President Assad.

MARTIN SMITH: Many people see him as somebody who has lost control of the country.

1st WOMAN: [subtitles] He is the one holding the state and the people together.

3rd MAN: [subtitles] There is no alternative to President Bashar at this time. No alternative.

2nd WOMAN: [subtitles] I am the mother of a martyr, and I wish all my sons would martyr for Syria. I have 4, 5 sons, and I would sacrifice them all for Syria. Our country is more valuable than any other country. [weeping] All my children are now abroad. I have 13 kids, and one died and the rest are all gone. And I can’t see them!

MARTIN SMITH: How can this end?

2nd WOMAN: [subtitles] We don’t know. We don’t know. Only God knows.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] On my second day in Damascus, I meet with this man, pro-regime journalist Thaer al-Ajlani. For four-and-a-half years, he has chronicled the war.

THAER AL-AJLANI: [through interpreter] My main work is military. Every area, every battle in Syria has been archived within a folder.

MARTIN SMITH: Al-Ajlani has agreed to take us to the front lines.

THAER AL-AJLANI: [through interpreter] Here in this footage, I was filming wearing a helmet. Here we are trying to open a hole in the wall so we can be inside ISIS areas. We’ll now be inside ISIS areas.

MARTIN SMITH: He wants me to see things from the regime’s perspective.

[on camera] So these are the rebels who’ve come over to fight with the NDF?

THAER AL-AJLANI: [through interpreter] They shaved their beards before defecting. This scene is only half an hour after they defected. The defectors were scared that they would be tortured by the state. But look at them. They are eating and drinking.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] I couldn’t verify this scene, but he shows me another where he was filming as he was hit by shrapnel.

THAER AL-AJLANI: [through interpreter] In this shot, I’m shooting with the camera on me. I was wounded when I was making this report.

MARTIN SMITH: We agree to meet later. He promises to get us the needed permits and to introduce us to people and places Western reporters rarely see.

THAER AL-AJLANI: [through interpreter] Any area you wish to visit, I will sit with you and give you pictures and information.

MARTIN SMITH: But before we travel with al-Ajlani, he encourages us to attend a government-sponsored media conference in Damascus designed to promote the regime’s narrative.

The first thing I am shown are dozens of horrific pictures. I am told these are the innocent victims of attacks against the Assad regime. Inside the hall, a film is playing.

REGIME FILM: [subtitles] Syria’s history has known a lot of enemies that destroyed and burnt and killed.

MARTIN SMITH: It depicts the regime as valiantly defending itself against terrorists who are supported by foreign conspirators.

REGIME FILM: [subtitles] Qatar and Turkey and Jordan and supported by America—

MARTIN SMITH: As the lights come on, I am suddenly in the midst of hundreds of regime officials and their friends. There’s Assad’s media adviser in the white coat. The woman in the black dress, a regular columnist for a prominent regime newspaper.

There’s the Grand Mufti in his white turban, leader of Syria’s loyalist Sunnis, and there’s a famous pro-regime film director with the long white hair.

On the stage is Syria’s foreign minister flanked by two key allies of the regime, deputy secretary general of Hezbollah on the left and Iran’s minister of culture on the right. I’m also told the Russian ambassador is in the audience, but I can’t find him.

In any case, they’ve all gathered here along with selected guests from mostly Middle Eastern media outlets to counter what they see as skewed Western reporting and to denounce their enemies.

NAIM QASSEM, Deputy Secretary General of Hezbollah: [subtitles] The extremists made a mistake in calculating how long this would take and cost. They thought it would only take a few months and that the costs would be limited. Syria has proven its strength. [applause]

MARTIN SMITH: During the break, I’m cornered by some of the reporters. As one of the only Americans here, they want to know if I think this conference will help end the war.

[on camera] I don’t want to disappoint you, but I’m not here to give opinions. I’m here as a journalist to ask questions and to listen to people.

I’ve come here as a visitor, and I’m here to listen.

[voice-over] We decide not to stay for the afternoon. I am eager to travel. Back at my hotel, I look through some more of al-Ajlani’s reporting.

The next couple of days pass as various permits and paperwork are processed. I also put in a request to interview the president. One morning, I hear that he is giving a speech. With my translator at my side, I tune in to Syria’s state TV channel.

It is the first time he has addressed the nation in over a year, and the speech is surprising. Assad says that because of a shortage of soldiers, the regime must give up control of some areas of the country.

BASHAR Al-ASSAD, Syrian President: [subtitles] Sometimes, in some circumstances, we are forced to give up areas to move those forces to the areas that we want to hold onto.

MARTIN SMITH: But he makes it very clear that he and the regime are not backing down.

BASHAR Al-ASSAD: [voice-over] We are at a critical stage where there can be no middle ground, where hesitation is equivalent to cowardice, defeatism and treason.

MARTIN SMITH: The next morning, I awake early to the sound of bombs and rocket fire. Out my window, I see a column of smoke rising above a nearby neighborhood.

Then I receive a phone call. I am told that the journalist al-Ajlani had been out early that morning filming the battle. He was hit by mortar fire. He is dead.

It’s a shock. We had just met. I wanted to get to know this man better and to understand his Syria. The next day, I attend the funeral. I had expected a quiet family affair, not this.

MOURNER: [subtitles] No God but God! Martyrs are loved by God!

MARTIN SMITH: As the procession makes it way across town, crowds build. It’s clear al-Ajlani is a regime hero.

THAER’S FATHER: [subtitles] God be with you, my son! God be with you!

MARTIN SMITH: One more family has lost a father, a son, a brother.

MOURNER: [subtitles] No God but God!

MARTIN SMITH: The regime has lost a defender.

MOURNER: [subtitles] Martyrs are loved by God. Heaven, open your doors!

MARTIN SMITH: It is generally accepted that the Syrian civil war began in March 2011 in Deraa, a town 60 miles south of Damascus, when peaceful demonstrators were fired upon by regime forces.

I want to hear how regime loyalists tell it. This man agrees to talk if his identity is hidden. He was sent to Deraa as a member of Assad’s state security, the Mukhabarat. He says it was the protesters who fired first.

LOYALIST: [through interpreter] We had only plastic clubs riot security personnel usually have. And there was a big number of people taking part. We stood there watching them. Some armed men among the protesters started shooting at us. We had no body armor, no helmets.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Were any of you guys killed?

LOYALIST: [through interpreter] Yes, of course, by a sniper shooting from the minaret of the mosque. He died before we could take him to a doctor.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Videos posted by opposition protesters from around this time are confusing. Some scenes do show security officers beating protesters with their clubs. Other videos show protesters running away from gunfire. I ask about charges that it was the security forces that fired first.

LOYALIST: [through interpreter] No. The peaceful demonstrations were always protected by the security force and kept safe from any harm.

MARTIN SMITH: But I then ask about all the TV coverage showing the army brutally attacking the demonstrators. He says that only happened after the protesters turned violent. He adds something I have heard often since I arrived here, that the uprising was really a foreign conspiracy.

I go see that movie director from the media conference, Najdat Anzour.

NAJDAT ANZOUR, TV and Movie Director: [through interpreter] What happened in the beginning of the uprising is that there were some legitimate demands, but there were also foreign agendas being carried out.

MARTIN SMITH: Anzour shows me a trailer from a movie he made about Syria’s arch enemy, Saudi Arabia, and its founder, King Abdul Aziz al-Saud. According to Anzour, it is Saudi Arabia that escalated the violence in Syria, not President Assad.

NAJDAT ANZOUR: [through interpreter] I believe that the swamp of terrorism and backwardness in the Arab world is Saudi Arabia, and if we want to get rid of ISIS and Nusra, we have to get rid of the Saudi regime.

MARTIN SMITH: In this clip, an aide asks the king what should be done with two adulterers, and what should be done with a thief.

NAJDAT ANZOUR: [through interpreter] You are looking for Daish. This is Daish.

MARTIN SMITH: And like many loyalists, Anzour talks as if all opponents of the regime are like ISIS.

[on camera] But is it necessary for the government—

[voice-over] But I press Anzour on the regime’s heavy use of indiscriminate weapons like barrel bombs.

NAJDAT ANZOUR: [through interpreter] The areas being bombed by the regime, that the West or other people claim have civilians in them— in my opinion, these areas are harboring extremists, so they are part of this extremism. So when you are throwing barrel bombs on an area where extremists live with the people, in my opinion, the government should be doing much more. The government response hasn’t yet reached the desired level.

MARTIN SMITH: I’m still trying to get permission to travel outside of Damascus, but with al-Ajlani dead, I will need someone else to help me to get through military checkpoints. So I go to the Ministry of Information, where I hope they can help me, but I get off on the wrong floor and walk into the foreign media department. This is a big mistake.

I am told I have to leave the country in three days. So I go back to see the director, Anzour. I find him in a cafe. Because he is close to the regime, I ask him if he can help me get our trip back on track. He is receptive.

NAJDAT ANZOUR: [through interpreter] Your presence in this country is an opportunity not just for you, but for us also, to say our opinion and have it reach the world. That’s why I want this.

MARTIN SMITH: He sets us up with a member of his security detail, a Syrian air force intelligence colonel. We drive north toward Homs, Syria’s third largest city after Aleppo and Damascus. The colonel brings along a couple of Kalashnikovs, a revolver and a grenade.

[on camera] Camera down.

PROTESTERS: [subtitles] Freedom! A revolution of dignity and freedom! Freedom!

[voice-over] As in Deraa, the fight began here when men, women and children took to the streets to protest government corruption and brutality.

PROTESTER LEADER: [subtitles] Bashar! You are an oppressor!

MARTIN SMITH: And within months, it devolved into armed struggle. The rebels called Homs the capital of their revolution. Assad’s forces imposed a siege. But unlike Deraa, where the government prevailed early, the siege of Homs lasted two years.

FIGHTER: [subtitles] Intense shelling on the besieged neighborhoods of Homs! In the name of God, we will not leave unless we are dead!

MARTIN SMITH: Today, the old center, about one third of the city, lies in ruins. I go meet the man in charge, governor of Homs province Talal al-Barazi.

[on camera] Marhaba.


MARTIN SMITH: Pleasure to meet you. I am your first American visitor?

TALAL AL-BARAZI: Oh, yes! [laughs] Welcome.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Al-Barazi was a businessman working in Dubai when Assad asked him to take over Homs in the middle of the siege. I ask him whether the rebels are still occupying any parts of the city.

TALAL AL-BARAZI: [through interpreter] In Homs, there are 36 neighborhoods. Today, 35 of those are in the hands of the government. Only one neighborhood, Al-Waar, still has armed groups.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Last night, we heard a large explosion. What did we hear?

TALAL AL-BARAZI: [through interpreter] Yesterday, I was outside Homs, in Wadi, where we had the opening of a tourism festival.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] A tourism festival? The governor and the regime are working hard to put on a good face. To that end, this June, the government launched something they called the Summer in Syria campaign. It involved art fairs, film festivals and fashion shows. They urged Syrians to share their experiences on Twitter.

They got an unexpectedly heavy response— [Twitter comments accompanying pictures of destruction] “Enjoying the summer in Syria,” “Greetings from Homs,” “Just having some tea and enjoying the view from my balcony,” “C’mon. It will be a different experience,” “Just a few more barrel bombs, and this will all be white sand.”

During my visit to Homs, I actually meet the man in charge of the campaign—

TALAL AL-BARAZI, Governor of Homs Province: Mr. Martin.

MARTIN SMITH: —Syria’s minister of tourism, Bishr Yazigi.

[on camera] How do you do?

BISHR YAZIGI: [subtitles] How are you? Fine?


BISHR YAZIGI: Nice to meet you here.

MARTIN SMITH: Nice to meet you. It’s good to be here.

BISHR YAZIGI: [subtitles] How do you see Damascus and Homs?

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] The minister is still very upbeat about his mission.

BISHR YAZIGI: [subtitles] Yesterday, there was a festival in the Wadi area. It was amazing yesterday. And you can see how the Syrian people live without any make-up.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Right.

[voice-over] 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.

BISHR YAZIGI: [subtitles] You have reservations?

RESORT OFFICIAL: [subtitles] Yes, there are reservations.

BISHR YAZIGI: [subtitles] Oh, wow.

MARTIN SMITH: The official opening is just a month away.

TALAL AL-BARAZI: [subtitles] Maybe it’s better to take a picture on the other side.

MARTIN SMITH: Just 10 miles from rebel lines, the animals [statues in children’s play area] 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.

[on camera] What do you worry about?

1st STUDENT: I worry about my friends. I worry about just explosions that happen in our neighborhood. There is so many.

MARTIN SMITH: Who is doing the explosions?

1st STUDENT: Terrorists.

MARTIN SMITH: Terrorists. And where are they from? What group?

1st STUDENT: No one knows that, from the Free Syrian Army or from Nusra.

2nd STUDENT: Terrorists 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 be bombing us.

MARTIN SMITH: Are we safe here?

2nd 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.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Next we head west into the provinces of Tartus and Latakia, the Alawite heartland of Syria. Assad’s father, Hafez, an Alawite, came from this region.

Before the war, the area was known for its luxury hotels and beach clubs. This is where Syria’s vacationing elite have always come to play. And even with occasional car bombs and rocket attacks on the town, it is still hard to get a hotel reservation.

After taking these pictures, we are asked to stop filming. We are told members of the president’s family are here. Tartus and Latakia are considered the regime’s last refuge.

Assad’s ally, Russia, has long operated a port in Tartus, and while we were there, Russia was expanding a military airfield and base in Latakia.

The area is home to some of the regime’s most fervent supporters. Everywhere we go, there are posters memorializing dead Alawite soldiers.

More than one million people have also flooded the area, displaced by fighting, seeking safety. On an unusually hot and humid day, these Sunni women are lined up at a center run jointly by the Red Crescent Society and the U.N.

[on camera] When did you come, and from where?

1st WOMAN: [subtitles] From Aleppo. My son is in Damascus. He’s a soldier. His father died, and I’ve dealt with so many tragedies. But thank God, at least we found safety.

2nd WOMAN: [subtitles] The terrorists came and they destroyed our homes. Our hearts are burning.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Noor Shughari volunteers for Red Crescent.

NOOR SHUGHARI: [subtitles] These poor displaced people. It’s not their fault. And the women and children, it’s not their fault. We used to live, eat, drink and have fun. We were like every other people.

MARTIN SMITH: She tells me a story about her brother, fighting for the regime in al-Raqqa.

NOOR SHUGHARI: [subtitles] Yahya was a soldier in the Syrian army since 2011. He joined the army three months after the uprising began. He said, “If I become a martyr, don’t be sad.”

MARTIN SMITH: But then he was captured by ISIS.

NOOR SHUGHARI: [subtitles] For 16 days, I didn’t hear anything from Yahya. His phone was locked from the day they took him.

MARTIN SMITH: A propaganda video of his killing circulates on Facebook. Before he is shot, he calls for the eradication of ISIS. Noor says her brother’s defiance makes him a hero.

NOOR SHUGHARI: [subtitles] I was just waiting for him to come back. He should have come back. [weeps] He should’ve come back and told me why they did this to Syria. Yahya was young. He was so young and such a man.

MARTIN SMITH: Before leaving Latakia, we by chance meet an Alawite businessman who runs his own private militia. He invites us up into the mountains above Latakia to see it. We head toward areas near the front. Locals here are fighting for their very survival. This man’s daughter was a regime sniper.

FATHER: [through interpreter] I am proud of her martyrdom. And as long as our leadership is wise, we are all proud of it.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Do you have other children?

FATHER: [through interpreter] Yes, I have two sons who were also injured. One lost a part of his arm. But thanks to God anyway. This is a cause I believe in very much.

MARTIN SMITH: Two other sons that are fighting with the Syrian army?

FATHER: [through interpreter] Yes. There are lots of martyrs from this small town of 2,050 people. We have 40 martyrs and 70 injured.

MARTIN SMITH: That’s a big cost.:

FATHER: [through interpreter] Very.

MARTIN SMITH: That’s very hard.

FATHER: [through interpreter] Very.

MARTIN SMITH: Good luck to you, sir.

[voice-over] Next, we rendezvous at a crossroads with the group of pro-regime militiamen we were invited to see. Up the road we meet their leader, Munzer Nasr.

MUNZER NASR: [through interpreter] The people here, we’re ready to sacrifice in any and every moment to defend Syrian soil and unity.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] And how close is the front to here?

MUNZER NASR: [through interpreter] We are almost at the front line. We’re about 30 kilometers away, 25 to 30.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] On the other side of these mountains is the al-Ghab plain, site of some of the fiercest fighting in all of Syria. Rebel groups want to cross here, break through to the coast and cut the regime’s supply lines.

[on camera] And what’s the toll of the war been on this town?

MUNZER NASR: [through interpreter] I don’t know the exact number, but there’s a big number.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Nasr shows me his martyrs’ wall.

MUNZER NASR: [subtitles] The martyr hero Najib Akeel Hassan, Talal Souleiman Mohammad, Qusai Mohammad Ali, Madian Mahmood Hassan, Wael Mohammad Ali, Saaid Mohssenb Saaid, Fouad Adra, Milad Hassan Ibrahim, Mokdad Faysal Ali—

MARTIN SMITH: Afterwards, he invites me to lunch. Over grilled Syrian kebabs, we talk about who he is fighting, ISIS, the Nusra Front or the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. I ask him about the difference.

[on camera] What’s the difference between those that join the Free Syrian Army groups as opposed to ISIS and Nusra?

MUNZER NASR: [through interpreter] In the beginning, they would join the Free Syrian Army. And then it developed into Islamist groups, to Nusra and to finally ISIS. They will all become ISIS. All of them.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Then, after conflating all his enemies, he tells me why he wants to destroy them.

MUNZER NASR: [through interpreter] I have a beautiful wife and three beautiful daughters, and I need to protect them because these scum of the earth have started selling the women from minority groups.

Look at who is behind ISIS and who is making it work. Who is behind ISIS? Definitely individuals in the American leadership, the Zionist lobby, the Turkish secret service— Turkey 100 percent. They facilitate everything the Saudis and Qataris are funding. It’s a world project.

MARTIN SMITH: Many in America say that the president is a war criminal and he is conducting a war indiscriminately and killing civilians. What do you say to those Americans?

MUNZER NASR: [through interpreter] What should we say, “Welcome armed groups, welcome rebels, come take this country and do with it what you please”? When a group of 400 armed men comes and they take control of everything and they organize themselves in battalions against the regime, what should we do, send boxes of flowers and fruit?

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Nasr’s vision offers only more fighting. A regime contact wants me to hear a different possibility and suggests I meet this man. His name is Majd Heimoud.

We go with him into Quneitra province south of Damascus, a hot zone with many active battlefronts. There are a slew of checkpoints. But I’m told Majd has a story worth hearing.

In 2011, he was fighting on the side of the Syrian army, but he says his officers were untrustworthy and corrupt.

MAJD HEIMOUD: [through interpreter] I was a volunteer in the Syrian army, but the officers in our division would abuse us. I had to defect out of fear that they would detain and treat me unjustly.

FIGHTER: [subtitles] We pronounce ourselves the defectors of the Syrian army.

MARTIN SMITH: In December of 2011, Majd defected to the rebel side to fight against the government.

FIGHTER: [subtitles] We aim to protect our people and their peaceful demonstrations and protect our revolution from the treachery of Assad.

MARTIN SMITH: When he was a rebel, Majd’s army targeted Assad’s forces in southern Syria near Israel. A regime commander recalls.

[on camera] So he was killing your men?

NDF COMMANDER: Of course. Not him by himself, but his group.

MARTIN SMITH: They killed some of your—


MARTIN SMITH: —relatives?

NDF COMMANDER: —yeah, four relatives of mine.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] The commander doesn’t want to be identified, but he tells me how he came to know Majd personally.

NDF COMMANDER: A friend of mine once came and told me that Majd want to talk with you.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] You knew who he was?

NDF COMMANDER: Of course. He was a leader of the al-Mouatassem battalion fighting against us. Every day, clashes between us.

MARTIN SMITH: And you talked to him?

NDF COMMANDER: Yeah, of course, one call after one call after another call after another call. There’s a joke between us. There’s— and there’s a man word between me and him, that nobody attack other— the other one. Just for put the trust between us.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] Finally, after eight months—

MAJD HEIMOUD: [through interpreter] I told him that my men and I want to come back and fight with you guys again. We got amnesty from the president, and we reconciled.

MARTIN SMITH: Someone in the president’s office wanted me to hear this story. It shows that there are some Free Syrian Army fighters willing to defect back to the regime side. How many is unclear. The great majority are still fighting Assad.

Meanwhile I had heard that there are some Syrians pushing from within for a political solution. In a far suburb of Damascus, I meet Anas Joudeh. Joudeh has invited me to a meeting of political activists.

ANAS JOUDEH, Building Syria Movement: [subtitles] Today, we should talk about saving Syria. This is what’s important today. Syria is on the verge of complete destruction. We need to bring all Syrians together to find a political solution.

MARTIN SMITH: Many of these people have spent time in Assad’s prisons.

1st ACTIVIST: [subtitles] I was jailed for six years by the regime under martial law. I was banned from travelling abroad for five years. We work inside Syria despite threats of detention by the regime and the danger of being killed by armed groups.

MARTIN SMITH: Their situation is tricky. They oppose Assad’s dictatorship, but they know that the regime also uses them as a kind of token opposition that gives Assad cover.

[on camera] The opposition that resides outside the country calls you the “pseudo opposition.” How do you respond to that?

2nd ACTIVIST: [subtitles] We are the ones who lived without fuel and electricity and under sanctions. We are the ones who suffered, and we are the true ones. Here we are demanding a change of government to achieve a democratic secular state from the inside.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] In this meeting, they are trying to formulate a political platform.

ACTIVIST: [subtitles] It needs amending—

ACTIVIST: [subtitles] It could be a framework—

MARTIN SMITH: The meeting disintegrates before they are able to agree on common goals.

ANAS JOUDEH: We were trying to launch a new initiative, but this is a process.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] So that effort, at least in the short term, failed.

ANAS JOUDEH: Yes, in the very short term.

MARTIN SMITH: But you’ll try again.

ANAS JOUDEH: Sure. This is— this is the path. This is the way at the end. There is no alternative. We have no alternative rather than to talk with each other.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] In 2011, Joudeh joined the protests calling for the downfall of Assad. But after four-and-a-half years of a destabilizing war, he now cautions that rapid change could be dangerous.

ANAS JOUDEH: It’s not that because we love the regime. It’s because we don’t want the collapse of the state. People are coming here in the areas controlled by the state or by the regime because they want the institutions of the state, because they need security, the minimum of security, the minimum of stability.

And we know— we have witnessed what happened in Iraq and what happened in Libya and what happened in many countries where this law’s main institution will collapse.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] Right now, you know, we hear bombs. The tactics of the rebels is to lob mortars inside Damascus. The response of the government is to go out and pummel these neighborhoods with barrel bombs. What’s the alternative?

ANAS JOUDEH: The alternative— it’s about going directly to the armed groups and talk directly to them.

MARTIN SMITH: What do you think the United States should be doing regarding the Syrian crisis?

ANAS JOUDEH: First of all, addressing the crisis directly, not going around it, by talking, first of all, with the Russians and having agreement with the Russians.

MARTIN SMITH: Should the United States be talking with Assad?

ANAS JOUDEH: Yes. At the end, the United States is the leader of the world. The United States is the one and the only one who can make this kind of agreement and this kind of stabilization in the region.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] But President Obama has been resolute— Assad must go.

I go see Yacoub El Hillo, a Sudanese who heads the U.N.’s humanitarian mission in Syria. He believes the world powers are to blame for the depth of Syria’s crisis.

YACOUB EL HILLO, U.N. Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator: The paralysis at the Security Council is what is causing the suffering of the Syrian people today. The council is responsible for maintaining international peace and security, but in the case of Syria, I think the council has failed its responsibilities fully. And the result is the suffering of the Syrian people.

This was a country that was taking off in economic terms, in development terms, in opportunity terms. But it is a conflict that has pitted Syrians against themselves to levels unimaginable. I mean, the intensity and the passion with which this war is also being prosecuted is shocking.

MARTIN SMITH: [on camera] The United States says that until Assad goes, there’s no— there’s no peace, that they have described him recently as the root of all evil in Syria.

YACOUB EL HILLO: Well, that’s the United States which is saying this. I am here living in Damascus, and I say there are national institutions that are delivering services to the 18 million people that are still living in Syria. It is our responsibility to work with these institutions where they exist, and they exist in most parts of the country.

There are 18 million Syrians who have not given up, and none of us has the right to give up if they are still here in this country.

MARTIN SMITH: [voice-over] For many Syrians, it is too late. The crisis has already led to thousands upon thousands of deaths and sent millions of others permanently abroad. The makeup of Syria is likely forever changed.

On my last day, I’m awaiting word from the president’s office as to whether he will sit for an interview. But events derail my request. The Iranian foreign minister has come to visit Assad, and in protest, rebels rain dozens of mortars on downtown Damascus.

A man just outside my window is shrapnelled in the stomach. The government responds with an air attack on the Damascus suburb of Darya. We ask to visit a hospital to interview the injured. Instead we are offered tickets to the Syrian National Symphony.

Since my visit, the Syrian crisis has entered a dangerous new phase. At Assad’s request, Russia has launched direct air and missile attacks on Syrian rebel forces, including those backed by the United States. And just last week, Assad flew to Moscow to strategize with President Putin and to discuss the future of his regime.

We leave before the concert ends. We head back to Beirut.

[road sign at the border, “Thank you for visiting”]



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