This week we were lucky enough to chat with our Syria correspondent Stephen Starr, just as his book, Revolt in Syria: Eyewitness to the Uprising (Hurst 2012) is coming out. He sheds some light on one of the most intriguing of all the Middle East countries. The reviews are quite startling. Noam Chomsky said: “This searching inquiry is painful reading, but urgent for those who hope to understand what lies behind the shocking events in Syria, what the prospects might be, and what outsiders can and cannot do to mitigate the immense suffering as a country so rich in history and promise careers towards disaster”; Fergal Keane of the BBC added: “Stephen Starr had a unique vantage point as Syria’s revolution unfolded. Written with insight and verve his book is essential reading for anybody interested in Syria”
Stephen has been travelling so much recently that we couldn’t pin him down for a live interview when he was in London, or get him in front of a computer anywhere with a reasonable connection. So eventually we resorted to a good old email exchange, which was, nonetheless, fascinating.
Congratulations, Stephen. Could you start by telling us a little bit about your career as a journalist?
When I got to Syria in 2007 I started working at the Syria Times – a state-run pamphlet. When it closed in 2008 I began freelancing for a few Syrian publications and wrote feature articles for some other international newspapers and magazines. Obviously when the revolt began a flood of work opened up which was good and bad as it was important to be discrete to avoid not being asked to leave Syria. It was extremely difficult to manage both the writing commitments and staying onside with the government – who had granted me a 12-month press visa for 2011. I have reported from Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon, but would very much like to work in other parts of the region.
What got you interested in Syria? When did you go there for the first time?
I studied international security and conflict studies in Dublin in 2006 – the year of the July war in Lebanon and was drawn to the Levant from there. I travelled to Damascus in early 2007 with the aim of moving on to Beirut but got to like Damascus. It had a strange charm. Obviously, there was far less competition between freelance journalists in Damascus than Beirut so I decided to stay there and try to build a portfolio and to learn about the country.
Was there “writing on the wall?” or to what extent was the regime taken by surprise?
Outwardly it seems the Syrian authorities were taken by surprise but the entire political and military/security system has been built for this moment in mind and that is why the Syrian revolt has continued for so long when compared with other Arab uprisings. The system has been built to make defections very difficult, to keep the army and security forces loyal. On top of this, there is an extreme propaganda campaign being run by state media and this has kept many civilians in the major cities quiet. The English-language media don’t focus much on the power of this propaganda.
Apart from the influence of the Arab spring revolts, what were the main causes of resentment in Syria, what kindled the Syrian revolt?
Economic hardship. If we can attribute one event to sparking the Syrian uprising on a countrywide scale it was the government’s inadequate reaction to the drought of 2008-10. The drought forced almost one million farmers and labourers living in the eastern regions into the cities where they lived in substandard housing and searched out part-time jobs. I often took taxis in Damascus where my driver had no idea of the destination I asked him to go to – he was from the east and had picked up a job driving a taxi for a couple of hours a day and didn’t know the streets. We have to remember the initial calls at protests were not for Bashar’s head – they were for reform, for dignity.
Is there a religious-ethnic background to it?
There is, to the extent that three-quarters of the population is Sunni and that the vast majority of protestors are, as a result, also Sunni. The regime has successfully managed to draw many from minority religions and sects to its side by portraying the uprising as an Israeli/terrorist/Saudi/American plot to destabilise Syria. It has armed Alawites and told them to watch out for strangers in their neighbourhoods. It has successfully planted fear in the minds of many. Another smart trick the regime has pulled off is to equate the word ‘Syria’ to ‘the regime’. When the government speaks of ‘Syria’ it really means ‘us’. So when it says – as it does 24/7 in the media – that there’s a “campaign against Syria” it really means there’s a campaign against the regime. Because the propaganda is so intense many – particularly minorities who haven’t been directly affected by the regime’s violence – don’t see the difference.
The Syrian rebels were less explicit about their wishes and desires from their revolution than the Egyptians or the Libyans. What are the rebels trying to achieve, what is the Syria they envisage?
That is because the rebels are the regime’s creation. If the regime sat down with people and genuinely listened to what they wanted there would be no rebel movement today. We must be clear – if the regime had not used guns and shells against protestors the protestors would never have felt the need to defend themselves through arms. Violence has clearly begot more violence. The regime leaders will see the country burn to the ground before giving way.
Some rebels want an Islamic emirate, some say they want democracy, though perhaps, their vision of what that entails may be unclear. All want the fall of the regime as they number one goal and that is what is uniting them – for now.
To what extent does Bashar Assad personally control the oppression of the revolt? Is there any truth in the suggestion that he is still at the mercy of the old school security apparatuses created by his father?
We don’t know and can only speculate. I believe it is not he who is ordering military operations. I believe it was not he who ordered the shelling of Baba Amr in February. Sure, he signed off on these operations, but were they his ideas? I think not.
The number one question we have to ask and to find out is this: Who ordered soldiers to fire on and kill peaceful protesters in Deraa in March 2011? Was it Bashar? Mahar?Or someone else? Whoever made that call is the real leader of the regime.
How much of the army is still under Assad’s control and how many have defected? Will the next regime in Syria be military too?
Again we can only speculate. Thousands of soldiers have been confined to barracks. Thousands more are in training camps around the country. They know nothing of the outside world other than they are fighting Islamic terrorists. The soldiers I saw every day were the ones cowering out from checkpoints or transporting food to different military areas. The ones few Syrians see are those who move on the highways in the early hours of the morning to Homs, Deraa or eastern Damascus. They are steely-eyed and battle-hardened. They are from perhaps only two or three divisions – those closest to the regime.
The more violent the revolt becomes and the more deaths there are, the greater the chance of a military leader/system taking control after. The rebels have fought and died for this revolt. The political opposition is safe and comfortable in Washington, Istanbul or Paris, and they have failed in their efforts to get foreign military intervention – which many protestors want. There will be a huge split (I hope I’m wrong) between the rebels who fight to take over and win control of the presidential palace, and the opposition who arrive into Damascus airport expecting to take up presidential or prime ministry posts and to be greeted by thousands of cheering fans. Syrians themselves will be split on who to support. People from Idlib, Homs, Hama and Deraa will likely side with rebel leaders, while the middle classes in Aleppo and Damascus will probably support less militarised leaders. It will be messy.
There were suggestions that the Saudis are funding the rebels in hope that weakening Assad would weaken his ally Iran. How strong are the evidence of that?
I would say there is some, but it is not like the revolt is solely a Saudi proxy uprising. Lots of money is apparently coming up from the Gulf. But I wouldn’t bank on a post-Assad government that works for Saudi interests. Syrians don’t feel they owe the Saudis anything for funding the rebels largely because the support has not been very transparent. Syrians don’t trust the Saudi government – they are well-versed in Saudi’s close ties with the American government etc. I believe (and hope) that they will feel too much Syrian blood has been spilt to allow significant foreign interference in their country, from anyone.