FRONTLINE | Inside Assad's Syria
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Watch Tuesday, October 27, 2015 at 10pm on WMHT TV

All eyes are on Syria as Russia’s military campaign intensifies, and as tens of thousands of refugees continue to flee the war-torn country for Europe.

What is life like for those who are left behind?

In Inside Assad’s Syria, premiering Tuesday, Oct. 27 on PBS and online, veteran FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith makes a dangerous and revealing journey into government-controlled areas of Syria as the war escalates.

“In the past, most reporting about Syria has come from the rebel side, since the government of Bashar al-Assad has severely restricted access to regime-held areas,” says Smith, who has been documenting conflicts in the Middle East for FRONTLINE since 2003, most recently in Obama at War and The Rise of ISIS.

But by working his contacts, Smith made his way in — and the resulting documentary delivers an up-close look at both the Assad regime’s efforts to hold onto power, and the realities of everyday life for ordinary Syrians caught in the crisis.

“We used to live, eat and drink and go have fun. We were like every other people,”

says one woman whose brother, a soldier in the regime’s army, was killed by ISIS. A propaganda video of his death circulated on Facebook. The woman now volunteers at a help center for people who have fled their homes.

“Our hearts are burning,” another woman says. “We are humans. We are good people.”

Starting in late July, Smith spent three weeks on the ground in Syria — from the central cities of Damascus and Homs, to the far South, to the Alawite heartland further north. As ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Western-backed rebels continued to push forward, Smith sat down with regime supporters and officials who defend Assad’s actions, and insist that his leadership will save the country.

As Smith sees firsthand, the regime’s PR efforts are sometimes surreal — from launching a “Summer in Syria” social media campaign promoting regime-sponsored art fairs, film festivals, and fashion shows as ISIS takes the ancient city of Palmyra; to opening a new luxury resort five miles east of the bombed-out remains of central Homs; to staging press conferences highlighting atrocities allegedly committed by anti-Assad rebels even as the regime drops barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods.

In the meantime, ordinary Syrians — some seven million of whom have been internally displaced by the ongoing fighting — remain caught in the crosshairs of the crisis, hoping for safety and security.

“There is no alternative to president Bashar at this time. No alternative,” one man in Damascus tells Smith. It's not because we love the regime; it’s because we don't want the collapse of the state,” another man says.

The documentary is an unsettling look inside the perilous reality of everyday life in Syria, where the mundane – men playing games, bakers making bread, people dancing at a rooftop bar – exists side by side with the tragic. In fact, four days into Smith’s trip, one of his contacts was killed by mortar fire. And on his last day in Damascus, a man was hit by shrapnel and seriously wounded outside his hotel window in an attack by anti-regime rebels. The Assad government, in turn, responded with massive air attacks on several rebel-held Damascus suburbs.

“And then,” Smith says, “the conflict entered a dangerous new phase.”

With Russian jets now bombing ISIS and rebel positions in Syria — including forces trained and backed by the United States — Inside Assad’s Syria is a raw and rarely-seen glimpse inside a country in crisis.