Syria: The World's War

BBC Four


Lyse Doucet tells the story of one of the biggest humanitarian crisis of our age, the Syrian civil war – seven years of brutal conflict, surpassing the length of World War II. In this two-part series, Lyse Doucet, who has reported on the conflict from the start, explores how peaceful protest for change spiralled into unspeakable savagery – half a million people killed, millions of lives shattered and so much of Syria in utter ruins.

The series tells the inside story of the war from multiple perspectives. It hears accounts of the experiences of Syrian people from different sides – civilians and fighters who stayed loyal to the government of President Assad as well as those who rebelled.

This second film in the series picks up the action as Raqqa falls to a mixture of Islamist and moderate forces. The story of the extraordinary events of the following months is told by two characters. One is a protester who aims to build a new civil society based on democracy, the other is a torture victim who joins the Islamists as a hired assassin. Within a few weeks of the fall of Raqqa, a new, even more extreme Islamist group arrive – ISIS. The civil society activists ends up being tortured in an ISIS jail, the other ends up joining ISIS and working his way through a kill list they have given him. Each tell their story with extraordinary candour.

As Raqqa descends into chaos, arguably the most important battle of the war is entering its second year – Aleppo. Lyse meets the militia leader who was a key player in the government fightback against the rebels who had occupied a large part of the city. On the other side we meet the bomb-maker who takes us inside the Islamist forces as they dig tunnels underground to blow up government buildings on the other side of the frontline. To gain greater understanding of how this catastrophe unfolded, Lyse also speaks to politicians and soldiers from within Syria and also from western and regional powers. She asks difficult questions of the foreign minister of Syria itself, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, concerning their involvement in the decisions that shaped the conflict. She also gains candid interviews with the key Western leaders from the time, such as the then foreign secretary William Hague and US Secretary of State John Kerry. They tell the story of how the US and then the UK finally enter the war – not against Assad, but against ISIS.

By 2015, four years since the start of the war, the Assad government is under real pressure. The crucial battle is Aleppo. We talk to the fighters on both sides who felt that the city could have been lost to rebels – something that might have proven a mortal blow to the regime. Through interviews with politicians close to the action, Lyse tells the story of how Russian intervention turned the war in President Assad’s favour. In the final terrible months of the siege of Aleppo, we see the suffering of civilians under the massive bombardment through the eyes of a doctor whose hospital is repeatedly hit. Lyse interviews a local politician who claims the hospital is an Al Qaeda base – something denied by those who worked there.

The recapture of Aleppo by Government forces in late 2016 arguably marked the point at which President Assad could no longer be removed by force. The film tracks the most recent year of the war ending with the recent events in Eastern Ghouta and Douma – incidents which mark Assad’s gradual re-assertion of control of the areas around Damascus.

This two-hour series provides the most comprehensive account to date of how the tragedy of Syria unfolded. Importantly, it gets as close to a 360-degree account of some of the key moments in a war that by now has drawn in 75 countries and counting.