A History of Syria with Dan Snow
Robin Barnwell, who directed and produced 'A History of Syria with Dan Snow', explains the challenges of filiming amid the conflict, and describes the spirit of the Syrian people he met.
The Syrian Airlines jet performed an alarming dive on its nighttime approach into Damascus airport in an attempt to avoid any hostile fire. The exterior lights on the aircraft were switched off to make it less visible to any rebel fighters attempting to shoot the plane down. Syrian army artillery rounds were flying through the air, thudding into residential suburbs not far from the airport.
Once we'd landed, I saw little of the Syria I knew from my previous two visits. The airport that had been the gateway to the country for tourists was quiet. The road to the centre of Damascus was eerily empty. Our driver drove as fast as he could, speeding us past signs welcoming us to Syria on a road that regularly comes under attack or is caught in the crossfire in a conflict that has now cost more than 70,000 lives and displaced millions. How, I wondered, had Syria and its people, whom I had such warm memories of, reached such a state?
Like many people, I first travelled to Syria in 1995 to immerse myself in the country’s extraordinary and varied history. Now I was in Damascus to direct and film a documentary that would explain how history had helped shape and influence the appalling civil war that is tearing Syria and its different communities apart. It was a strange relief to be in Damascus, as visas for journalists and filmmakers, issued by the Syrian government, are difficult to obtain.
The programme’s Middle East producer had doggedly convinced a suspicious Syrian Ministry of Information that now was the right time to make a history of Syria after weeks of officials telling us to come back after the ‘current, temporary problems’ were over. We persisted in pushing for access because history can help explain the current violence in Syria; violence that has become increasingly incomprehensible for audiences of news programmes around the world.
I was surprised by my own ignorance about the subject. It was only after weeks of reading and meetings with experts before actually arriving in Syria did I map the historical connections, linking present day events with the past. How though, were we to go about making a documentary in a country consumed by civil war?
Permission to film almost anything and anyone was frustratingly difficult to obtain. The official from the Syrian Ministry of Information assigned to take us around kept apologizing for the numerous new restrictions that had been put in place. Getting access to the beautiful Old City of Damascus now involved negotiating a way through sandbagged checkpoints past soldiers who were suspicious of foreigners and visibly on edge.
Surreally, though, Syrians were rushing around going about their daily business, seemingly ignoring the near constant sound of gunfire and fighter jets which screeched overhead to bomb targets in the suburbs. An even stranger sense of normality prevailed in other locations we filmed, particularly in Syria’s coastal city Lattakia, where no fighting was taking place. We mingled with couples watching the sunset over the Mediterranean and for a moment one was back in pre-conflict Syria. But the effects of war were never far away.
Outside Lattakia a number of funerals for Syrian soldiers killed in the fighting were taking place. Our Syrian government minder stated – only half in jest - that he would tell the funeral goers that we were from a Russian television channel rather than the BBC. The Russian government has stood by President Assad and his regime. The British government recognizes the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and Assad loyalists regard the BBC as an instrument of British foreign policy.
However, as I filmed the funeral, even in such tense circumstances, the warm hospitable spirit of the Syrian people, which I remembered from previous trips, was still evident. There were those extremely hostile to us being there, but many others helped us. These were ordinary, scared people caught up in a terrifying civil war that has become increasingly complex.
Providing a balanced, impartial view of Syria’s history and the current conflict was a major challenge. Syrians were understandably very reluctant to criticise the government in front of our Syrian minder and we had to find ways of escaping his attention to seek out people or find voices from amongst refugees in neighbouring Lebanon to tell the history.
It was also difficult to get to see senior members of the Syrian regime, many of whom feel alienated from the Western media. Our Middle East producer managed to get us access to Bouthaina Shabaan who is an adviser to President Bashar al-Assad. She also served his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, in that role.
After a lengthy process of security checks we were admitted to her office. Before the interview started, she talked about her PhD at Warwick University on ‘Shelley’s influence on the Chartist poets’, her love of English romantic poetry and how she regarded Britain as her second ‘home’. This is a ‘home’ she is now prevented from visiting after a ban on travel to Europe was imposed by the European Union, as a result of her connection to a regime that first brutally suppressed peaceful protests, turned an army against its people and continues to commit gross abuses of human rights.
However, as Dr. Shabaan talked in favour of a Syrian secular state, the importance of protecting minorities, and railed against Islamic extremism, I started to understand better why some Syrians, more than Western governments would like to admit, are sticking – many reluctantly - with Assad’s regime or sitting on the fence with the attitude: ‘a plague on both your houses’.
History books from countless previous conflicts show how civil wars over time foster extremism. Often the high ideals of protesters and revolutionaries are washed away in the bloodshed, the fight hijacked by other agendas. As so often in Syria’s history, the majority of its people, who are not combatants, are being forced to watch a titanic struggle over Syria’s future, involving outside powers and a bewildering array of internal forces.
A refugee named Nada told us through her tears that Syria would survive this turmoil and be rebuilt. History suggests that she might be right, but I was left wondering what will be left of Syria the longer the current fighting persists.