Taking the future into their own hands

by

Taking the future into their own hands

A review of Revolt in Syria: Eye-witness to the uprising

In the 16 months since the first signs of protest began in Syria, we have been inundated with images and stories of the ongoing conflict between the regime and the people on the streets. Due to the near blackout on international media, news organisations have had to rely on reports and accounts provided by opposition activists, often of questionable veracity. More worryingly, as Stephen Starr points out in Revolt in Syria: Eye-witness to the uprising, “the international narrative on the revolt in Syria has been decidedly one-sided,” with little understanding of the cultural and social intricacies that make up the patchwork of Syrian society.

As one of the only foreign reporters based in Syria during the uprising, and with more than five years’ experience living and working in Damascus, Starr’s unique insight into the contours of Syrian political and civil identity provide compelling reading for anyone wanting to delve beneath the black-and-white media image of the current revolt. The picture he paints is of a frustrated and deeply divided society, fractured along class, income and sectarian lines and with an unhealthy disregard for civil law.

“In Syria, people do not like to examine their failings. They don’t like to look weak. They are all bosses or prophets.”

Through a series of anecdotal encounters and interviews with anti-regime activists, pro regime militias, soldiers, security officials and ordinary citizens, Starr presents us with a multi-faceted view of contemporary Syria that is not reducible to a mere Sunni-Alawite power struggle. Through Starr’s eyes, we meet the Alawite student who is staunchly anti-regime, the secular female opposition activist who dresses in a burqa when attending protests (in order to conceal her identity; she was later detained), as well as the man who believes war with Israel is the only way to reunite all Syrians against a common enemy. The resulting confusion, of diverse opinions and conflicting viewpoints pulling in all directions, is perhaps reminiscent of the current state of mind of what Starr calls the “silent majority”, the vast number of Syrians who have not taken to the streets and who wish for life to continue as normal.

“Generalisations have been sweeping in the international and national debate on the Syrian uprising. Some Alawites I know were fervently anti-regime. Some Sunnis would die for the president.”

Within the first few months of the uprisings, we learn through Starr’s account, the protests remained isolated and remote, mainly concentrated in poor rural areas with little effect on the urban centres of Damascus and Aleppo. Indeed, according to Starr, it was precisely the regime’s brutal response to the first protesters, reverting to the age-old method of brute strength over negotiation (shock and awe by another name), which in turn drove ordinary Syrians out onto the streets of the capital. It was only when people had loved ones, relatives, friends, killed in the escalating violence that they felt compelled to takes sides. It was this cycle of violence, Starr argues, that led to what has effectively become a civil war in the country.

The resulting confusion, of diverse opinions and conflicting viewpoints pulling in all directions, is perhaps reminiscent of Syria’s current state of mind

It is noteworthy that Starr never once refers to the current Syrian crisis as a “revolution”, as it is so often dubbed in the international media. What is clear from his narrative is that there are too many opposing sides and conflicts of interests to be able to classify contemporary events as a unanimous uprising of the people against the regime. Instead, Syrians who chose to take to the streets are often doing so in their own ways, with little organisation or coherence, each side blaming another for the escalating death toll.

“[In the first few months of the uprising] it was obvious that there was an ongoing blame game taking place between the activists and the regime. The activists were neither a golden salvation nor the antithesis to the Assad regime. The regime, clearly, was offering stability through its show of strength.”

Starr is also cautious about singling out Bashar al-Assad as an evil and despotic tyrant in the manner of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi, stressing that in the case of Syria it is the regime, and not any individual leader, that is ultimately in control of the country. Importantly, Starr’s assessment of the power structure of Syrian society cautions against any foreign military intervention in the country, since forcing out the current regime is likely to leave a power vacuum to be filled by the increasingly reactionary militias developing across the country. But neither does he gloss over the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, citing instances where he personally witnessed the military attacking peaceful protesters, as well as the murder of innocent civilians in the eastern Damascene district of Saqba – an event that ultimately forced him to flee the country.

He writes cautiously of the “powerful men” in charge of Syria whose lives revolve around getting what they want, no matter what the consequences.

“They do not care if the entire Syrian population is destroyed as long as they and the few close people around them survive. This is the mentality facing the protest movement and international community. Not a new problem, no. But a complex one.”

The situation is unlikely to improve until Syrians themselves are able to take civil responsibility for building their own society, and to stop blaming others for their own shortcomings

It is this complete lack of civil responsibility by the Syrian ruling elite (who aren’t just confined to the Assad family) that is helping fuel the current crisis, as they staunchly hold on to their positions of power in the face of growing national and international criticism. Moreover, the history of sectarianism in Syria and the current reality of a ruling minority has only served to entrench in the minds of that minority that those who wish to overthrow they do so out of identity politics:

“They will fight to the last man on the premise that those coming to take their place want to kill them for being Alawite. The notion that the Sunnis were coming to take over because some Alawites have used/misused their power was never a reality for them. They will not negotiate because the concept is alien to them in their everyday lives, never mind in the game that is international politics.”

It would be easy to criticise a book on the Syrian uprising for riding the tide of current events for its own benefit, just as it would be easy for such a book to present nothing but re-hashed accounts of existing media coverage. But Revolt in Syria can be criticised for neither of these things. Although rather disjointed at times, with the heavy-handed use of the anecdote-cum-interview approach regretfully taking precedence over in-depth and thoughtful inquiry, this book brings a unique, fresh, and highly valuable perspective on the news story of the year. Avoiding the “generalisations” and “one-sided” narrative so prevalent in the mainstream international media, Starr goes to great pains to present a nuanced and informed analysis of the country he used to call home. What emerges is a compelling and important work that offers a powerful reminder of the dangers of believing piecemeal reports from “the wave of journalists that descended on Syria in January 2012 and flew off days later.”

Ultimately, Revolt in Syria leaves many questions unanswered about the future of the Syrian uprising. What is clear, however, is that the situation is unlikely to improve until Syrians themselves are able to take civil responsibility for building their own society, and to stop blaming others for their own shortcomings.

“The repercussions of Syrians themselves not soon coming to terms with the issue of responsibility could be disastrous for the long-term future of the country. Only Syrians themselves can… stabilise their futures, no matter how much blame they cast around.”


Revolt in Syria: Eye-witness to the uprising was published by Hurst on 12 July 2012.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review. She has written about the Middle East and Arab world for numerous publications, including the Economist, the New Statesman, the Telegraph and the Sunday Express.