'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.