The two Irish filmmakers Anne Daly and Ronan Tynan already dealt with Syria in their 2018 documentary film, Syria: The Impossible Revolution, which tells the story of the Syrian revolution from the first protests to the fall of Aleppo. Bringing Assad to Justice is the latest film by Daly and Tynan. Based on the trial of two former Syrian intelligence officers taking place at the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany, the documentary covers the efforts of Syrian exiles and human rights lawyers to secure evidence of war crimes committed by the Assad regime. The film can be accessed via digital streaming services.
Harald Etzbach is a historian and political scientist who works as a translator and journalist. He publishes mainly on Middle Eastern issues and U.S. foreign policy.
Both films have won international film awards. On the occasion of the premiere of Bringing Assad to Justice in Berlin in early October, Harald Etzbach spoke with Anne Daly and Ronan Tynan.
First of all, what is your professional background? What brought you to filmmaking?
RT: Basically, we founded Esperanza Film Productions about 25 years ago which sounds like a long time ago. So we are professional filmmakers. And we always seem to find us — not necessarily by choice — making documentaries about people fighting peacefully or working as human rights defenders for the rights of others. That’s how Anne and I met as well, our common background is very much in human rights work.
AD: I worked for the Irish public radio broadcaster; for a number of years we did a programme that was called Worlds Apart. As a young reporter I travelled extensively for about ten years, and I worked a year in Latin America, primarily in Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador — always with a focus on human rights issues. Coming from Ireland, I always felt that the cultural connectedness between Ireland and the United States is very strong, and the criticism especially in the 1980 and 1990s about the role of the United States in Central America was very interesting. There were so many groups here that were critical of the United States. Unlike today, when it comes to Syria that was a very fertile ground in terms of being part of networks that would have been very supportive. After founding Esperanza Productions I worked in parallel as a journalism lecturer at Griffith College here in Dublin where we have many international students.
Why and when did you start to work on Syria? Was there a specific catalyst or trigger?
AD: I started to be particularly interested in Syria after the murder of Marie Colvin  2012 during the siege of Homs. As we now know, when Marie Colvin reported from Homs, she was in the middle of an extraordinary dangerous situation. And still, she was telling that story very calmly, very coolly, always with the focus on the civil society. When you read a little bit into her own back story, you will see, that the previous months in London she was talking about the role of journalists and of the importance of giving voice to civil society.
That for me as someone who was teaching journalism at that time was very powerful in terms of looking at the values of journalism, the role of journalists particularly in the kind of media landscape that was developing then, the 24/7 landscape, the importance of names, the technology beaming in disinformation into our living spaces, and the responsibility we have in this situation.
RT: I think when you look at the Colvin case, it’s not just that a Western journalist was murdered but a Western journalist who in a real sense was a human rights defender who not only showed us how to work for the suffering Syrian people who were peacefully struggling for the things we take for granted. It was more that she opened the door for us. We were genuinely shocked at the lack of action in response to her murder.
I still vividly remember that last report she did when she spoke about shivering, defenceless, innocent civilians with no protection being just bombed mercilessly by the Assad regime. It was the ultimate human rights report, obviously a great piece of journalism. That was the amazing thing about her, she had an incredible empathy for people. And no more so as well Paul Conroy, her professional partner, the photojournalist who was critically wounded in the attack that killed Marie Colvin. It was an eye opener to the hell that Syria was well advanced in becoming at that time.
Now we have all these great journalists, all these reports. Rarely have events been better documented than those in Syria. How do you explain that there still seems to be a great indifference to the Syrian tragedy?
RT: We talked a lot about that. And in fact, it is one of the major motivations for making our films. We are trying to overcome this shocking lack of interest. It is also a victory for the very well worked-out strategy of the Assad regime and Russia and the way they concocted or created a false narrative in Syria. We look at that in both of our documentaries.
For example, from the very beginning Assad tried to muddy the waters. It did not work at the early stages of the revolution in 2011 when he was physically gunning down peaceful protestors in the streets, because it is very hard to call a peaceful protestor you are shooting down with machine guns and heavy weapons a terrorist. But we know that Assad went so far as to release hardened jihadis from the country’s prisons to try to poison the image of the opposition and to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, so he would appear to be fighting terrorists, To be fair, even when ISIS did emerge he avoided fighting them, because they too were killing the opposition that developed from the peaceful protests. So in a sense Westerners looking at the situation in Syria in some cases were falsely persuaded that the Assad regime in some way was fighting brutal terrorists when in reality it is an extremely brutal regime but was using the false image of allegedly fighting terrorists to cover up its own crimes. And that is a very difficult thing to get across.
Another point — and this is very important, because it has a devastating effect on Europe politically: the refugee crisis, and the Russians who are helping Assad in particular, are fomenting racism in Europe by presenting refugees as some kind of virus bringing jihadist terrorism to our shores. Thus these defenceless refuges who were forced to flee by a brutal regime are presented as if they were in some way a threat to ourselves — which they very much are not. That kind of negative and very large-scale propaganda campaign helped to nurture far right and racist politicians in Western Europe.
AD: I’m currently reading Sam Dagher’s book Assad or We Burn the Country. It is primarily concentrating on those early years. I do not like to use the word “clever”, but you can see how strategic the Assad apparatus and regime was. We are looking at a regime that is 50 years in power, and there is no way that they will let power go. As Yassin al-Haj Saleh  said in our first film on Syria, the whole purpose of the regime is to stay in power. And Sam Dagher’s book kind of shows you how they did that and how they set in place the state apparatus with their cronies, the kleptocracy, and all this. They played perfectly with the ISIS narrative in the media. They knew exactly how we would respond. In every interview you would hear about ISIS. Nobody looked at what Assad was doing.
RT: I think that we have to admit that the Western intervention in Iraq based on false intelligence did not help. It created a ready audience for people to believe a lot of this nonsense in relation to Syria. And it really created these elements who disgraced the Left by failing to identify with people. Obviously, we see ourselves very much on the left, but we found it profoundly disappointing to see people supporting the Assad regime, presenting Assad as some kind of anti-imperialist when he actually is a proxy of Russian imperialism and Iranian neo-imperialism.
One part of the explanation, of course, is that some people on the Left still feel some kind of loyalty to Russia. Somehow, they seem to believe that there still exists a glimmer of socialism.
AD: Ireland and the Irish left have a long and proud tradition in supporting the Palestinians, and it is very sad that they do not make the link. Assad has killed so many Palestinians and disenfranchised them. But human rights are universal, and their universality is what we need to get across. Many people think “it’s too difficult, it’s too complicated”. That is basically where we are at the moment. People do engage with the refugee issue, but nobody looks at the context. The attitude is, “let’s leave Syria alone and concentrate on looking after the refugees”. But obviously, that is only half the story.
How have your films been received, both by activists and the general public? In both of your films it becomes clear that the war in Syria is also a confrontation — or even a “war” — of narratives. Do you see your films as a contribution to this discussion of narratives? What can a film actually achieve?
AD: We were in Manchester the other day for the screening of the film. It is extremely well-received. But Syrians kept saying, “this is something different, you are showing something new”, and that the film is showing the ‘arc’ of the struggles since 2011 and the heroism of the Syrian people. The most important thing for me is that the Syrians felt that we told their story, that we give a voice to the ordinary people in Syria.
We met an amazing woman, Aminah Khoulani. She worked as a history teacher in Syria. Her three brothers were murdered by the regime. They could be seen in the Caesar photographs. One of her brothers was a lawyer, the youngest was a legal student. He was the one founder of the movement that gave flowers and water to the soldiers in the early days of the uprising in Darayya. She and her husband were detained in Mezzeh, the airbase near Damascus that held also a notorious prison. She is also a co-founder of the Families for Freedom initiative.
People often ask us if we think Assad will be brought to justice. And of course, he will be brought to justice because the crimes that he has committed against the Syrian people are so horrific. Amina Khoulani said something very remarkable. She said that had been campaigning very long and, of course, she does become depressed, she does become down, she does get disillusioned, but as soon as she remembers her brothers she gets the energy to continue on. She also told us that she is very inspired by Martin Luther King’s non-violent activist approach and similarly the work of Rosa Parks. She was even introduced as the Syrian Rosa Parks when she travelled to Alabama — Parks’ home state — to receive the Women of Courage Award.
RT: This documentary is by far the most important we have ever made for one reason: it is a perfect response to those trying to normalize. And in a strange way it is the best times, because it was delayed again and again because of COVID, and we had terrible problems finishing it. But I think there is probably a reason, because that campaign to normalize Assad is at high gear right now.
One of the key points in the film based on extensive research is that the whole thrust of the massive propaganda campaign against the peaceful uprising was particularly driven by the resources at the disposal of Russia, even state channels like RT, Sputnik etc. Social media is like the Wild West, there is no editorial filtering system that that gives the public the chance to know what is actually correct to the extent that that information can be checked for its truthfulness. As Kate Starbird who is an Associate Professor at the University of Washington working on crisis informatics and online rumours says in the film, people would check out.
That is particularly true in relation to the White Helmets. You see how an amazing humanitarian movement working 24 hours a day, seven days a week saving lives could be falsely accused of terrorism when they are actually not only saving lives but, while they save lives, are attacked in double-tap attacks  by the Assad regime. A movie about them could be made and win an Oscar, and the Russians could still come back relentlessly with that propaganda campaign to try to delegitimize them. And there is no point denying that that campaign was successful, so it is very difficult now to try to undo it. Bringing Assad to Justice tries to do that.
You work very much with material from social media. Are you also in contact with activists on the ground? What role do such contacts play?
RT: We definitively have contacts on the ground. But the important thing in this documentary is that it also shows the immense value and power of media generated by citizen journalists. Remember, in the early days of the conflict the big networks were only able to confirm these incidents.
What we are showing in the documentary is that open source journalist techniques are really showing the way. One of the pioneers in that movement is definitely Malachy Browne at the New York Times who did an amazing work with his team. It really shows how you can even prove something like the Douma chemical attack and how the Russian campaign bombing hospitals can be proved. It is possible to generate evidence that could even stand up in a court case which we also illustrate in this documentary.
I think we’re entering a new era. That is why it is very important that people are aware of the potential of this new era. It means that Western journalists, Western media is no longer powerless if they want to illustrate to their own audiences in their own country what is going on in places like Syria — by getting access to people on the ground like we do.
An important topic of your second film is the trial that has been going on at the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz since April 2020. Here, two former employees of the Syrian intelligence service have been charged with crimes under international law. What is the significance of this trial?
RT: The trial in Koblenz does show there is considerable evidence to convict the Assad regime and its leaders of crimes against humanity. It is only focused on one particularly notorious torture facility, but there are a lot of others. Our documentary is not just about that particular court case. It illustrates the power of the evidence and the people generating it which we focus on. So when they say that they have more evidence than the allies had in Nuremberg, people can take that at face value.
But of course, Koblenz set a precedent. It’s the first time during a conflict of that nature that people are actually being brought to trial for crimes that are still going on in Syria. That is why Assad and his fellow collaborators in the leadership are so worried about it. It proves to the world the evidence exist to convict them too, because we show in the documentary that the evidence links Assad and the other leader to the crimes being committed by the people who are on trial. Another good thing is that these leaders do not know if international arrest warrants have been issued against them when they travel abroad. So effectively it is keeping them tied down, and it is an example of what international justice is doing.
AD: At this time, some European countries are sending Syrians back. This is a terrible situation, people thought they were secure, and now they see that they do not have security. I hope that more and more people might see our film. My big wish is that especially journalists will see it and start asking and digging and prove the questions that have loaded the discourse up to now. That could give at least some security to so many that do not feel secure at the moment.
Will you continue to work on Syria? Will there be another film from your production on this topic?
RT: We are certainly not ruling that out, because the issue of Syria is not going away. The crimes are so terrible, there must be accountability. What is terrible about Syria is these crimes continue. Syria is the world’s largest crime scene. There are many other serious crimes against humanity, committed in Tigray, in Yemen, in Myanmar, in China in relation to the Uighurs in particular. But the nature of the Assad regime is characterized by torture prisons and massacres as the primary instruments of governance, as the political scientist Salwa Ismail describes it in the film. This is a particularly egregious regime. It must be stopped — but really by peaceful action, by international court action.
It must be made very clear that unless there is justice and accountability this regime will not be allowed to function normally, its leaders will not be allowed to enjoy the fruits of their corruption in other countries. Otherwise there is no hope for Syria, but there is also little hope for humanity given the way impunity has been given free reign as result of Syria: dictators everywhere watching what is happening in Syria, looking at no accountability are encouraged to commit crimes. In the film, the human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni made the point — and an amazing number of Syrians made that point to us — that accountability is not just important for Syria but for the world, because if it will help stop these crimes elsewhere as well.
 Marie Colvin (1956–2012) was a US journalist. She was killed in Syria in 2012 while covering the siege of Homs. In January 2019, a US court held the Syrian government responsible for Colvin's death and ordered Damascus to pay 300 million US dollars in damages to Colvin’s family.
 Yassin al-Haj Saleh (born 1961) is a left-wing Syrian intellectual and author. He was detained as a political prisoner in Syria for a total of 16 years in the 1980s and 1990s.
 A repeated attack after a few minutes with the aim of hitting the helpers who had arrived in the meantime.