In reporting the bloody uprising in Syria that is now in its 19th month, many foreign broadcasters have relied on ‘citizens' journalism' – unverified, and often unverifiable, footage of protests and their suppression by security forces, uploaded to YouTube. As the uprising took its course, it became clear that – although the broad outlines of the picture provided by ‘activists' inside Syria were generally accurate – the specifics often were not.
Some viewers in the West began doubting what they were seeing on their screens, and international media began focusing on the unsavoury aspects of the uprising, such as the involvement of Islamic extremists. Initially seen as a struggle between non-violent protesters and brutish security forces, the uprising increasingly appeared to be a civil war along sectarian lines in which all sides were committing crimes. To some extent, this did reflect the changing reality on the ground. But it also served as an excuse for cutting short any debate about outside intervention.
Stephen Starr's “Revolt in Syria” is a corrective to the simplistic narratives that have emerged about the Syrian uprising. The rage of the demonstrators and the courage of the opposition are real, he writes, not an artefact of reporting by ‘mainstream media' with a neo-imperialist agenda, as some left-wingers in the West have claimed.
But equally real is the wary acquiescence, even support, that the regime of Bashar Assad still enjoys among many – perhaps most – Syrians, notably the country's numerous religious minorities. Starr, who has spent five years in Syria, adds nuance that is often missing from foreign reporting on Syria, which makes the events narrated here even more terrifying. “Revolt in Syria” is an account of how a society worn down by decades of brutal dictatorship has been torn apart within a matter of months.
Starr's main constraint was the pervasive fear that the authorities would expel him. He was legally resident in Syria and had to worry about things that did not bother reporters who were smuggled in by the opposition or who came on government-sponsored, three-day reporting trips. Starr, who lived near Damascus, had to be transparent but inconspicuous at the same time. He never made it to Homs or Deraa, hotbeds of the uprising.
As a consequence, Starr's book shows little of the savagery with which the Assad regime – a “cabal of gangsters”, in his words – has responded to the uprising. Instead, Starr lets ordinary Syrians speak, especially the country's “silent majority”, those who may or may not have supported the regime but were terrified of what might come after. Such fears are not to be taken lightly: Syrians well remember what happened in neighbouring Iraq after its ‘liberation' by a US-led coalition, or the sectarian civil war that raged in Lebanon in 1975-90.
“Revolt in Syria” is unpolished and on occasion baffling: after travelling around Damascus by mini-bus for most of the book, all of a sudden Starr pulls up at a checkpoint driving a car. But it is as clear-headed and important as anything about the events in Syria currently available in English.
His prediction for this country is grim. “Those who took to the streets in the spring of 2011 did not do so championing democracy,” he writes. “They did so because their fathers, brothers and sons disappeared, were beaten or were killed. They had no links to America, Israel or other enemies of Syria. They were not members of the political opposition.” This, Starr says in his depressing conclusion, suggests that the conflict will drag on. “If the regime or the opposition could win over such individuals, they would surely have enough support to bring down the other. But neither side has, nor do they appear likely to do so.”
Revolt in Syria: eye-witness to the uprising
By Stephen Starr (226 pages)
Hurst & Company, €19