A scene from Cries from Syria (HBO Documentary Films)

 In 2011, democratic revolutions swept through Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and finally Syria, countries where authoritarian regimes were challenged by popular uprisings. The Syrian revolution, unfortunately, transformed into a bitter, six-year-long civil war, growing more desperate, more complex, and more vicious by the day. The conflict there is well known to anyone paying attention to world affairs, yet it is often viewed as hopelessly complex.

For this reason, the new documentary from HBO, Cries from Syria, is quite welcome. With some of the most daring war footage you will ever see, the film lays bare the truth of the situation—women, children, and men are suffering and dying because President Bashar al-Assad wants to hold onto his power. By focusing on the suffering of the Syrian people, the film cuts through the geopolitical and sectarian complexities to get at the core of the civil war. It is essential viewing for anyone interested in understanding the world as it is today, in all of its boundless horror.

Featuring footage of Homs and Aleppo being devastated by ceaseless bombing, and even chemical weapons attacks, the film brings viewers down on the ground with the Syrian revolutionaries who have been fighting the Assad regime for six long, bloody years. The Free Syrian Army started out idealistic and vibrant as captured in the impressive demonstrations, the lively protest culture, and the creative chants used to keep spirits high. Yet for all their zeal and goodwill, the Syrian Free Army relied on old automatic rifles and beat-up minivans and the like, while the Assad regime had fighter planes and bombs. It seems no one was prepared for how willingly Assad would slaughter his own people.

The film dismantles Assad’s tactical claim that he was bombing “terrorists” to justify his destruction of revolutionary-held cities. A Syrian revolutionary makes the compelling point that those fighting for a democratic society based on civil rights will be viewed as “terrorists” from the perspective of the regime in power. We could extend this and recall that Nelson Mandela was viewed as a terrorist in his quest for civil rights, and even the American Founding Fathers were viewed as terrorists by King George.

The rise of the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) around 2012 gave Assad’s tactic the ultimate credibility—he could now bomb with impunity and claim it was in the effort to battle ISIS. We see, however, that the city of Aleppo is filled only with Syrian civilians, not ISIS, yet Assad was merciless in his destruction of the city. There, Assad’s ally Vladimir Putin of Russia deployed internationally illegal weapons, like cluster bombs and phosphorous bombs, and we see evidence of it.

We witness incredible, incendiary, damning footage of countless Syrian children maimed, dead, torn apart, barely breathing, always covered in a thick layer of dust from the destroyed buildings all around. It is unlikely that such graphic, extreme violence has been featured in a mainstream documentary before this, and the film is certain to shock and appall even the most desensitized viewers. Scenes of children of Aleppo suffering at the hands of superior Russian warplanes are intercut with Putin and Assad glad-handing each other, underlining who the bad guys in this mess are.

A Syrian revolutionary believes that the crimes of ISIS, though grave, account for perhaps two percent of the evils that Assad has committed. There is some credence to this, since ISIS relies mostly on swords, knives, rifles, and some small artillery. Still, the extreme fear of ISIS has been a major reason why the West has not fully condemned Assad and Putin, since they present themselves as doing the good work of fighting the terrorist group. Watching Cries from Syria, however, will make it clear that the world’s foremost current terrorist is the Syrian president.

Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky
Released by HBO Documentary Films
USA. 111 min. Not rated