'No one has any idea what to do about Syria'
An Irish journalist’s boots-on-the-ground analysis of the country’s conflict is nuanced, even-handed and sometimes terrifying, writes VINCENT DURAC
REVOLT IN SYRIA: EYE WITNESS TO THE UPRISING/Stephen Starr C Hurst & Co £14.99:IN REVOLT IN SYRIA the Irish journalist Stephen Starr has written an extraordinary account of the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has dominated the political life of that country since early 2011 and defied attempts at understanding or intervention on the part of outsiders. Starr draws on his experience of living in Syria for five years to offer a complex, nuanced and even-handed account that avoids the simplicities of much of the analysis of the Arab Spring.
The past 18 months have been the most eventful across the Middle East and north Africa since the heyday of pan-Arab nationalism in the 1950s. The impact of the Arab uprisings has been enormous, unseating regimes that had enjoyed decades of largely unrivalled power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen while posing a significant challenge in others, notably Syria. The challenge has not been confined to the politics of the region. Long-held assumptions about the nature of Arab politics have also been shattered, such as the claim that Arab culture, or Islam, the dominant religion of the region, are, somehow, inherently incompatible with democracy.
However, much of the instant analysis of the new politics of the region runs the risk of substituting one set of misleading insights for another. The very term Arab Spring is evocative of this danger. We assume that 2011 was the Arab world’s “1989 moment”: just as the inexorable force of democratisation swept away the communist autocracies of Central and Eastern Europe, so the Middle East is finally, if belatedly, succumbing to the power of the democratic ideal. The reality is both messier and much more difficult to capture or comprehend. The Arab uprisings are indeed about politics, but they are also born of the dire economic conditions under which tens of millions find themselves. New political actors have come to prominence in the form of the educated and technologically adept young people beloved of much media commentary. But so have the trade unionists, human-rights activists and members of opposition political parties who laboured, in some cases for decades, to the relative indifference of the outside world. The importance of understanding the context of each of the uprisings has often been missed in the rush to subsume them into a single, coherent and easily understandable narrative.
What Stephen Starr has done in this book is to refuse the easy categorisations and analyses of Arab politics. At its core is an extraordinarily wide-ranging set of interviews with Syrians of all political and religious persuasions, from those who actively support the regime, to those who oppose it by a variety of means, to the very many in between who long for something better than the political repression and economic stagnation that Assad’s rule offers but who fear what might happen should he be overthrown.
As elsewhere in the region, economic distress and a rapidly growing – hence young – population are central to an understanding of the revolt. The Damascus in which Starr lived is one where the average price of an apartment in 2011 was $100,000 but in certain areas could reach $1 million. In towns and villages a dozen kilometres away, sewage seeps on to main streets that are unpaved. Seventy per cent of the Syrian population is under 30, and the labour force is projected to grow by more than 250,000 a year for each of the next 20 years. It is not difficult to see how this might challenge even the most stable of states. Modern Syria is anything but stable, however. As Starr repeatedly makes clear, the composition of the country’s population makes for a combustible mix.
At the centre of the regime lies the Assad family, drawn, as most of the ruling elite are, from the minority Alawite community, an offshoot of Shia Islam, which is, in turn, the religious tradition of a minority of the Muslim population of the region. Starr suggests, as others have done, that regime hardliners led by Assad’s brother, Maher, will do almost anything to prevent the regime failing to “Muslim extremists”. But it is not just the Alawite minority, less than 12 per cent of the total population, that fears regime change. Syria also has significant Christian and Kurdish populations, many of whom fear the ascent to power of the Sunni Muslim majority. Starr’s interviews make clear, however, that the dynamics of the Syrian revolt are not black and white. The regime has Alawite and Christian opponents, and many Sunnis are as fearful of the possibility of radical Islamists in power as their Christian counterparts. One of the many virtues of this text is the constant reminder that simplistic analysis of the country’s political dynamics in purely sectarian terms does an injustice to its complexity.
A constant theme in his interviews concerns the possible role of outsiders: almost all foreign intervention, whether pro- or anti-regime, is seen as undesirable. As one interviewee expressed it, the entry of foreigners to Syria would unite the entire population in opposition. Syrians also remember, if the outside world sometimes forgets, that the role of foreigners in the past has not always been benign. The modern state of Syria, with all of its sectarian instability, owes its origins to the colonial impositions of Britain and France in the Middle East after the first World War. Nor was the 1982 massacre of thousands of the inhabitants of Hama by the regime of Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, the first time that air power was used against Syrian civilians. For that we have to go back to the bombardment of Damascus by the French in 1925, in the course of suppressing an anti-colonial insurrection.
The impartiality that characterises this text means that Starr takes pains not to prognosticate on how the conflict should be resolved. He quotes the pithy, if somewhat unhelpful, comment of King Abdullah of Jordan: “No one has any idea what to do about Syria.” Elsewhere he comments that, from Burhan Ghalioun, a prominent leader of the opposition in exile, to Starr’s friend Abdulrahman, the car mechanic, people call for the end of the regime, “but it appears that the car mechanic has as much of a clue what to do next as Ghalioun”.
Towards the end of the book is a vivid and at times terrifying account of what it was like to be a journalist, not simply covering the Syrian revolt but also living in the country. Anyone interested in the complex realities that underpin the conflict in Syria should be grateful that he took the risks that he did in order to produce this impressive and insightful eye-witness account.
Dr Vincent Durac lectures in Middle East politics at University College Dublin and is a visiting lecturer at Bethlehem University, in Palestine. He is co-author of Civil Society and Democratization in the Arab World: The Dynamics of Activism, published by Routledge in 2010