Revolt In Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising, by Stephen Starr, C Hurst and Co Publishers Ltd, 232 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1849041973
Dubliner Stephen Starr’s account of the Syrian uprising offers an account of recent events based on notes and interviews made over the last few years when he was living in Damascus, working as a freelance journalist. While severe restrictions were placed on the foreign press, Starr was able to travel round his immediate area relatively unimpeded and to use a network of contacts which included both political activists and people working in government departments. Eventually, however, the heat of war got too much and he decided, understandably and for the good of his health, to leave this most complex of countries.
He used the house he had bought in Damascus as a base from which to travel to centres including Homs, Hama, Salamiyeh and Deraa ‑ all places where dissidents have continued to be active and where, as he notes, funerals of people shot often evolve into political demonstrations. Starr made good use of his time in Syria, as is evident in the number of individuals who walk through his book ‑ people like Hani, who lived near Homs, and Abu Ali, a security agent who comes to check up on him. Hani expresses thus his dissatisfaction with Assad’s government: “Today we have girls wearing short sleeves and short dresses. This is not right. The regime has allowed these things to happen and Syria is an Islamic country ... it is not right to have a man and woman walking in the streets together if they are not married ...”
But of course Syria is not an Islamic country. It is a secular Arab state and for that, its citizens must thank the Ba’ath Party, a sixty-year-old political system well past its sell-by date which, though supported by some, is detested by many.
The Ba’ath Party was founded in 1952 by two young men, Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar who, meeting at the Sorbonne and both being fired up by the politics they encountered there, combined to set up a party based on three aspirations: socialism, pan-Arabism and secularism. The organisation quickly fell victim to various internal power struggles and both men eventually sought refuge in Lebanon. Al-Bitar was assassinated in exile in Paris in 1980. The party lives on to this day wielding a power which occasionally gives pay increases to workers, organises demonstrations in support of the government, rewards the faithful by finding jobs for the boys ‑ and girls – and consequently has created a generation of people totally disillusioned with their country’s political system. It is the voices of these people that we hear most often in Starr’s book.
The 1960s and 1970s in Syria were decades marked by unrest, with coups and assassinations following each other with terrifying inevitability. It was a former president, Adib al-Shishakli, who, brooking no opposition to Ba’ath, banned all other political parties, silenced the independent press, repressed religious minorities such as the Druze and drove dissidents out of the country. In fact, it was a Druze who, in 1964, tracked him down and assassinated him in Brazil, where he had fled following a coup.
This period of unrest only ended with the arrival of Hafiz al-Assad, who became president by the time-honoured device of engineering a coup. It was his iron fist which ruled Syria for thirty years, during which time he bloodily repressed the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1982. By the time he died in 2000 his son, Bashar al-Assad, had been groomed to take over. Starr acknowledges the reforms introduced by the elder Assad ‑ and the sometimes negative reactions they provoked: “ ... in the early years [he] introduced projects to modernise infrastructure and brought education to the poor and to rural communities. Agrarian reforms begun by his predecessors had transformed the countryside: however, the Sunni Muslim majority in places like Hama and Homs still deeply resents the loss of vast landholdings.”
The stability brought about by Hafiz al-Assad led to expansion of the tourist industry, the arrival of foreign banks, the building of luxury hotels and the introduction of the internet. (When I first arrived in Damascus, in 2000, cell phones were few and far between and there were no internet cafes. Within two years all that had changed.)
It has been the internet, social media and cellphones which have brought the war in Syria onto the world stage. Starr has a good chapter on this, which demonstrates the use made by activists of facebook, Twitter and video cameras. Most Syrian newspapers, he found, were suspect, being funded by US dollars or, as in the case of the English-language Baladna, owned by the son of the man who, until 2005, was in charge of Syria’s internal security. There has been activity in this sphere on the government side too, with computer-savvy Assad supporters hacking into websites to post pro-regime propaganda. Distrust is everywhere. One man Starr interviewed speaks of his time in prison during which men who were arrested for attacking the American and French embassies sat drinking mette with the guards: they were from the same side.
We often read that the various separate religious or ethnic groups in Syria ‑ Muslim and Christian, Kurd and Arab, Alawite and Sunni ‑ had all, until the recent violence, got on well; that sectarianism has been introduced by the government to sow seeds of fear in the people. Certainly concord between the various groups did appear evident until acts of obscene violence began to be carried out by both the regime and anti-regime forces. But few people in the future will want to live alongside those they suspect of destroying their homes and families.
Syrians as a people are resilient, resourceful and innovative. When, earlier this year, I gave a talk on the country at Antigua’s national museum, no less than fifteen Syrians turned up, all of them running businesses in that part of the eastern Caribbean. Those are the ones who left. At home, however, there are obstacles to success. While Sunnis make up the vast majority of the population, it is the Alawites who control the military and the media. The Assad family itself controls something like sixty per cent of the country’s wealth in terms of land, property, water, telecommunications and electricity supply.
Through numerous interviews, Stephen Starr has been able to shine an intriguing light on the lives of those who have remained: the police who augment their meagre earnings by accepting cigarettes, biscuits, water and tea from businesses on their beat; the café where menus are presented on an iPad; the Syrian journalist whose apartment comes with its own swimming pool.
Given the complex nature of the struggle it is hardly surprising that Starr is driven to hedge his bets as to the outcome of this particular stage in Syria’s troubled history. “The repression and cruelty,” he writes, “experienced by the Syrian Kurds for so long, have not been, or cannot have been, washed away during a few months of unrest that may or very well may not succeed in overthrowing the regime.” Events of course are moving swiftly in Syria and Starr has had to write equally fast to keep up. His book, it must be said, would have benefited from more scrupulous editing.
Those interested in Syria might find it useful to read Starr’s book alongside that of Samar Yazbek, a writer, an Alawite and a single parent. Fiercely supportive of the democracy movement, she details the subversive nature of the struggle, her intimidation by Syrian security and her isolation by friends who regard her activism as a betrayal of their Alawite leader.
Mary Russell is the author of My Home is Your Home: A Journey Round Syria