DO IT LIVE

Syrian War Footage Has Become a Video Game

Military footage captured from drones and body cameras has created a new generation of military propaganda auteurs to the point where terrorist videos posted online are as captivating as a video game.

12.04.16 5:15 AM ET

One day in late August, a lone Syrian BMP-1—a Soviet-designed cross between a tank and a tracked armored personnel carrier—made its way between the besieged Syrian Air Force Academy and advanced combat positions on the front. Throughout the summer, fighting between the Syrian Arab Army and its Islamist opponents in the Southern part of Aleppo had intensified significantly.

Traversing a well-worn path between berms, burned out tanks, and other obstacles, the BMP driver was highly focused on getting where he was going. So focused, in fact, that—consciously or not —he drove the BMP over the lifeless bodies of soldiers from his own side, crushing them into the dirt. They may have been Syrian infantry soldiers, Hezbollah fighters or even possibly Iranian advisors. Regardless, the BMP rolled along, mutilating several corpses beyond recognition.

These things happen in war, of course. Not every fallen soldier can be recovered, no matter what the military tradition. And human bodies, both living and dead, suffer awful, unspeakable damage in every conflict. It’s a fact most of us don’t contemplate, far removed as we are from wars we only hear about in the news.

What was different on this day in August, however, was that unbeknownst to the BMP driver, the action was being filmed from above. The camera wasn’t attached to a Predator drone, or a Global Hawk, or an MQ-9 Reaper. It wasn’t operated by a secretive military unit half a world away. The camera was likely attached to a DJI Phantom 3, purchased commercially for less than a thousand bucks, weighing less than 3 pounds and measuring a little over a foot across. It loitered under a thousand feet over the action.

The operator of that drone was probably associated with Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (JFS), an organization formerly named the Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria and Iraq. And almost as soon as the video could be taken from the camera, it was edited and uploaded to JFS’s propaganda channel, featuring subtitled commentary in Arabic telling viewers what they were seeing, along with syrupy Jihadist anthems playing in the background.

This is war footage as it’s never been seen before.

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For most of the modern history of war, soldiers have either been accompanied by journalists, who were focused on producing ‘real,’ unfiltered images of armed conflict, or by military shutterbugs whose brief was to capture action for mainly public affairs and internal Army uses.

True first-person combat footage was a rarity in past conflicts because soldiers were generally prohibited from attempting to produce it in order to protect battlefield secrets, but also because doing so would necessarily interfere with their military objectives. Moreover, the technology to make it practical was simply not mature enough until fairly recently. All that has changed since the Syrian civil war began.

High definition cameras are now cheaper to acquire, lighter and less obtrusive to carry, and easier to operate than ever before. It should come as no surprise that the early adopters of these gadgets are young men on all sides of the fight in Syria.

They document their experiences for a variety of reasons. Chief among these is propaganda—exciting footage that shows the thrill of combat and the ‘good guys’ vanquishing hated enemies is a powerful recruitment tool. JFS in particular has become adept at regularly producing short videos with near-professional production values. And because for the most part they don’t feature in-your-face gore and stick to battlefield facts, they don’t infringe on the major video-serving sites’ terms of service, so they can be viewed tens of thousands of times and distributed via a dizzying array of social media channels.

The films provide a unique, even banal, window into the reality of 21st century warfare. In another recent example, VICE News obtained footage purportedly taken from a fallen ISIS fighter. The camera appeared to have been mounted on the front of the man’s helmet, so we see him waving to friends as he and his comrades leave camp in an improvised troop transport vehicle. As they pull out, we hear him chant “God is great” to himself over and over, but it comes out sounding less like a prayer and more like he’s just psyching himself up for the battle to come.

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What follows is eerie and at times bordering on humorous, and the viewer gets a visceral sense of the truly chaotic nature of war. When he runs out of bullets, the “main character,” Abu Ridhwan, searches for a lost ammo magazine, while another fighter—we learn his name is Abu Abdullah—asks for an RPG round. As he is looking for the RPG, Abu Abdullah orders a third fighter, Abu Hajaar, to cover them. Abu Hajaar unleashes a volley of rounds from a belt-fed rifle, spraying hot bullet casings around the back of the vehicle which hit his comrades, drawing an angry reproach from Abu Abdullah. Abu Hajaar does not appear to be the most competent of soldiers.

Abu Abdullah gets the RPG round loaded, and Abu Ridhwan warns him to get up high so that the backfire from the rocket can clear the passenger compartment of the “transport vehicle,” which is basically just a pickup truck with walls. Abu Abdullah gets the round off, but he isn’t quite high enough, so the shot blows smoke and debris all over the men, leaving a smear on the camera lens.  Abu Ridhwan remarks sardonically that it was a good shot, but that Abu Abdullah had succeeded in “roasting” them as well.

The “transport” suddenly gets hit by a Peshmerga rocket, and the camera’s view is momentarily obscured by smoke and sparks, prompting the men to abandon the vehicle. Through the haze, Abu Ridhwan wonders aloud where his gun is. He tells the others their driver, Khattab, is dead. With no driver and stuck in the middle of an open field, Abu Ridhwan decides to retreat, and we hear the sound of incoming rounds zipping past the men.

Then he cries out, “I’m hit!” and falls to the ground. From that point on, the action is all tilted 90 degrees. Abu Ridhwan can only try to roll himself like a log back toward his base. We see a fighter running away from him toward the front, gun blazing, in what is probably a last suicidal charge toward the Kurdish line. Is it Abu Hajaar? Abu Ridhwan rolls over once or twice more, then the film stops.

It is Reality TV at its most authentic. The film has the feel of a first person shooter, except the person and the shooting are real. And yet, the man’s apparent death seems almost anti-climactic in the context of the disarray of battle. Perhaps Hollywood has done such a good job of illustrating and dramatizing war that we are unimpressed when we see it as it truly is.

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As cameras and drones have grown more sophisticated, so have the combat productions. A small clutch of jihadists have become wannabe auteurs, creating short films documenting their battlefield prowess (no doubt their failures are left on the cutting room floor).

In a recent example from Ahrar Al-Sham, another Salafist group allied with JFS, the film opens with high quality motion graphics displaying the group’s logo and the film’s title, “Redemption of Hama—Part 1.” After a brief clip of a man giving a speech, the soldiers set off in armored troop carriers and tanks, ready for battle.

A short documentary-style interview of a fighter follows, and we see a quick succession of clips of outgoing mortar, rocket, and artillery strikes. Then the drone footage starts.

The group has managed to situate a drone in such a way as to capture not only Ahrar Al-Sham’s armored vehicle charge on the enemy, but also the group’s artillery as it lands on the battlefield, an impressive visual feat. A small inset window appears next to one tank, with video taken from inside, apparently in real time. Then we see footage from the perspective of the front of the tank itself, looking ahead towards the enemy. How many cameras do these guys have?

The Ahrar Al-Sham “director” has positioned another drone lower over the group’s objective, and uses animated graphics to circle the retreating enemies in red as well as to identify incoming artillery strikes. A larger red circle marks the group’s main military goal, and smaller green circles highlight advancing Ahrar Al-Sham fighters. The frame is filled with smoking craters from the earlier artillery barrage — literal scorched earth.

The video goes on for another few minutes, with first person video of a fighter lifting his AK-47 high above his head in order to shoot over a berm. Then another drone—this time filming much lower and looking directly down—shows that the men have seized their objective. This is depicted using a “meter” that ticks quickly up to 100%, a filmic device surely inspired by any number of video games. Power up!

Clocking in at just under 6 minutes, the film is reasonably successful at its apparent objective, namely demonstrating how Ahrar Al-Sham’s military victory played out. Subtle audio touches, such as dubbed explosions and glitchy beeping sound effects, round out the film with arguably state-of-the-art production values. All that’s missing is a credit roll at the end (unfortunately for counterterrorism analysts, the director, crew, and creative team aren’t named).

When we stop to consider that this type of “war movie” would have required a prohibitively expensive studio less than 10 years ago, and also that the aerial combat footage would have been nigh on impossible for safety reasons alone before the existence of drones, and furthermore that the “producers” of the film likely don’t have more than a high school education—well, one has to tip one’s hat to American technology. Syria is the Adobe After Effects/Final Cut Pro war.

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Few things unite young men the world over more than a love of colossal explosions, and the Al-Nusra Front does not disappoint in this regard. In a video  posted in May, the group manages to capture a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED, i.e. suicide truck bomb) outside Aleppo from two separate angles.

The drone pilots clearly know the target of the operation. One follows what appears to be a large truck, presumably loaded with explosives, as it wends its way across the rural landscape toward a small village surrounded by farms.

As the truck gets closer to the target, the drone operator pulls back, a telling sign. He knows what’s coming. The force of the explosion is so great that we literally see the shock wave radiate over the ground, and a plume of fire and smoke rises quickly over the impact area. A quick cut, then we see the explosion again, from a reverse angle, as if it were an instant replay from Monday Night Football.

Then, to underscore the operation’s success, the drone does a quick pass over the still-smoking crater, surveying the obliterated buildings. We can see that nearby olive trees dozens of feet from the center of impact have been showered with dust and debris. There’s nothing left of whatever was here.

It’s easy to forget—from a drone’s eye view—that there were people on the ground here. It was probably a remote Syrian Army outpost or a checkpoint. And someone, a shahid, or martyr, was driving that truck. A handful of people were killed in an instant, and the moment of their deaths has been preserved for posterity, complete with a soundtrack.

We’ve been watching gun camera footage for years, of course. The U.S. military long ago decided it was acceptable to show things (including people) being blown to bits as long as it wasn’t obviously gory. It suited the purposes of politicians who wanted to show that America was taking action. But those films rarely had the fidelity we see in clips such as those produced by Al-Nusra/JFS.

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The Salafists don’t have a monopoly on new propaganda tools in Syria, of course; the rest of the combatants have cameras and drones, too. In late 2013, for example, Al-Nusra claimed it had shot down a Syrian military drone. They assessed (probably correctly) that it was of Iranian manufacture, and provided film of the broken military grade—rather than commercial—fixed-wing UAV to Al Jazeera.

Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah claims to have produced (again, no doubt with Iranian assistance) a drone prototype that can deploy small cluster submunitions. Recent footage provided by the Al Alam News Network, the Iranian government’s Arabic-language propaganda channel, shows small bombs being dropped from a stationary hovering position onto various supposed rebel targets.

And the Free Syrian Army—a US-backed consortium of “moderate” militias opposed to the Assad regime—earlier this year started experimenting with its own improvised drone bombers. The FSA claims that it is in the early stages of deploying a small drone not unlike the one in the Hezbollah clip. Ironically (or not), the clip supposedly shows bombs being dropped on “Iran’s foreign mercenaries,” probably code for Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.

Unsurprisingly, the Russians have also gotten into the game. A Russian website affiliated with the state-owned broadcaster VGTRK has published numerous drone-filmed movies showing what it calls “fierce clashes between [the] Syrian Army & US-backed Islamic terrorists,” presumably a reference to the FSA.

The Syrian civil war isn’t so much being televised as it is being YouTubed and LiveLeaked.