“Eventually, if you kill civilians enough, they will arm themselves and fight back,” said Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Sebastian Junger, when he joined Jim Braude on “Greater Boston” to talk about his new documentary, “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS.” The film explores how what began as peaceful demonstrations by Syrian citizens escalated into the destructive civil war that now engulfs the nation. It chronicles the stories of participants and the personal struggles of those now caught in the middle.
A longtime journalist well-versed in war, Junger, alongside filmmaking partner Nick Quested, intended to explore exactly what led to the extreme violence that has devoured much of Syria, and how the group that calls itself the Islamic State, or ISIS, emerged as a global threat.
“The longer civil wars go on, the more they favor radical elements,” said Junger. “ISIS is this international pariah, renowned for their bloodthirsty behavior, and we wanted to explain that they’re a logical outcome from the circumstances.”
A U.S.-led coalition has orchestrated strikes in the Syrian city of Raqqa in recent weeks and heavily damaged ISIS strongholds. ISIS, however, is an ally to neither Syrian President Bashar al-Assad nor the civilians being persecuted under his rule.
“This is the irony — [Assad] wants ISIS there,” explained Junger. “The biggest threat to Assad, actually, were the moderate factions in the beginning that were wanting real democracy … he knew that they would be appealing to Western powers.”
Those Western powers, specifically the United States, were largely unresponsive during the Syrian civil war’s inception. Citing the divisive momentum that had been brewing in several Arab countries, Junger believes that war would have begun with or without initial intervention.
“It’s not our fault that it started, but there was a time when we might have been able to stop it,” posited Junger. “I’m not sure the airstrikes [then-President Barack Obama] had in mind were designed to stop the war so much as to be punitive as a reaction to the use of chemical weapons.”
A more recent chemical attack perpetrated by Assad did draw a response from the United States, under the leadership of President Donald Trump, who greenlit a plan to launch fifty-nine tomahawk missiles were at aircraft and infrastructure targets in Syria. Junger acknowledged that, while the strike may have done little to deter the warring factions, it was nonetheless significant.
“It does nothing, except that there is some value in symbolism,” said Junger. “The problem with doing nothing, which is what Obama did … is, basically, he communicated [that] you can do something outrageous and we’re not going to act.”
Junger foresees no peaceful resolution to the struggle, and predicts that Assad will remain in power, even with the number of ISIS insurgents diminishing.
“[Assad] is not going anywhere; he’s got Iran behind him, he’s got Russia behind him, he’s not going to be toppled,” said Junger. “The end of the war … might come through a kind of partitioning of the country, which in some ways seems too bad … if it ends the bloodshed, that’s the right thing to do.”
A great deal of the bloodshed has been inflicted on innocent Syrian civilians, which is why Junger and Quested chose to focus the picture through a human lens. A National Geographic Documentary Film, “Hell on Earth” showcases explicit scenes of daily torment for the Syrian people, pared down from hundreds of hours of captured footage. Families are shown hiding in darkness amid gunfire and explosions and, in some cases, taking the uniquely dangerous risk of fleeing the country.
“They’re just good, ordinary people,” said Junger. “That’s the vast majority of civilians in any civil war.”
Their leaps of faith in the face of such horror have fortified the filmmaker’s belief in the ability of the human spirit to prevail.
“Humans are adaptive; we are wired to overcome trauma,” said Junger. “If that weren’t true, the human race wouldn’t exist. We wouldn’t have survived.”
To watch Sebastian Junger's full interview, click on the video link above.