Frontline: “Syria Undercover”
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Frontline: “Syria Undercover”

In the first half of tonight’s Frontline, reporter Ramita Navai goes on a covert reporting mission deep inside Syria. Armed with little more than a camera, a cell phone, and a tourist visa procured under false pretenses, Navai journeys across the country, from one safe house to the next, meeting with members of the movement rising up against President Bashar al-Assad. It’s a riveting, if necessarily incomplete, snapshot of a country in a deep state of turmoil.

The first stop on Navai’s two-week journey is the funeral for a 22-year-old protestor who died in police custody, his eyes gouged out. She then travels to the town of Duma, where the blood of a 14-year-old boy shot by government snipers is still visible on the streets. Nearly everyone who speaks on camera is obscured in some way—we see only their mouths, if that—but their bravery is still remarkable. One activist shows Navai the DVDs of damning footage he’s hidden in his backyard, in case Assad’s security forces raid his home.  After government forces began to raid hospitals looking for injured protestors to arrest, doctors began to set up underground hospitals to treat the wounded. The commitment is staggering and inspiring: Navai visits a fully-equipped underground hospital set up in a barren warehouse, complete with sterile scrubs and heart monitors. It’s an unfair comparison, perhaps, but “Syria Undercover” makes sleeping in a tent in Zuccotti Park seem a little pedestrian.

The dramatic climax comes when Navai finds herself trapped in a safe house with leaders of the opposition movement. On YouTube, they watch clips of Assad’s security team rolling into town, and they know that trouble is ahead. For the next three days, they wait and listen as government forces go door-to-door rounding up suspected activists. It’s gripping stuff, made even more so by the various precautions Navai had to take as a filmmaker. One sequence is filmed on her cell phone camera, while others are obviously shot from beneath layers of clothing.

The second half of the program acts as a primer on the brutal Assad regime. It’s a more traditional  Frontline segment, with Will Lyman’s grave narration rounding out a chorus of expert voices—most notably, Anthony Shadid of The New York Times. Presumably, the producers wanted to grab viewers with sexy, covert footage at the top of the hour, then make them eat their vegetables in the second half, but the order feels distinctly out of wack. If you, like me, were relatively unacquainted with the history of the Assad family's rule in Syria, then I'd recommend fast-forwarding and watching his segment first, and following it with Navai’s report.

The movement, which Shadid calls “the most important rebellion in the region,” began in a small farming town this March, when a group of 15-year-old boys were brutally beaten after painting vaguely subversive messages on their school wall. Some of the boys never returned home, and their parents were simply told, “Forget that you have these kids; go and make other ones.” The incident sparked protests across Syria, particularly in its rural areas, and six months later the country now teeters on the brink of civil war. (See today's front-page story by Shadid.)

At the center of the turmoil is President Bashar al-Assad, the scion of a family that has ruled Syria for four decades; Assad also happens to be a trained ophthalmologist, and his British wife once worked for J.P. Morgan. In a predominantly Sunni country, the Assads are members of the Alawite Muslims minority, a group that found favor during French rule. Historically, the Assads have brooked little in the way of opposition, particularly after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Assad only came to power by accident after his brother, Bassel, was killed in a car crash. Initially popular, especially with the young people of Syria,  he has responded brutally to the uprisings. In one particularly awful incident, the singer of a popular protest song was punished by having his throat cut out.

At just over 20 minutes, the segment is shorter than it could be. It’s a useful primer—call it “Syria for Dummies”—but at points it feels a bit cursory. We learn about the so-called “Damascus Spring,” a period of relative openness that followed Assad’s rise to power in 2000, but not much about why it ended. We’re merely told that “the old guard warned [Assad] against the Damascus Spring,’ and that soon afterwards, the President began arresting intellectuals. Why the abrupt change of heart? Some more context, and a more thorough explanation of Assad’s political evolution, would have been useful. Just how did the Western-trained doctor become the kind of leader who’d maim his own subject? It’s a question that requires at least an hour of its own.

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