One of the most significant challenges foreign journalists have faced in covering the Syrian uprisings these past 18 months has been their lack of understanding regarding the country’s society. Unlike neighboring Lebanon, Israel or regional powerhouse Egypt, Syria’s decades of stability until last year had led the vast majority of Western journalists and analysts to shun it in favor of more ‘juicy’ stories. Even Robert Fisk, The Independent correspondent based in Beirut for three decades, dedicates barely 20 pages to Syria in his 1,000-plus page work on the modern history of the Middle East, “The Great War for Civilisation”.
So when the Arab uprisings eventually worked their way into the country, months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis, many foreign correspondents found themselves lacking the basic knowledge necessary to produce top-quality coverage. In the absence of this they often fell back upon simplistic versions of events based upon the revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. All the people were against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, we were told, while those that were expressing their support were regime stooges forced to do so by Damascus. The political nuances of both the country and the uprising were lost in favor of the wider “Arab Spring” narrative.
Stephen Starr’s book, “Revolt in Syria – Eye-witness to the uprising,” should serve as a counterpoint to this view, which has increasingly proved inaccurate in the past year. Starr had been based in Damascus as a journalist for five years by the time the protests broke out and had written almost exclusively about his host country. He had a detailed knowledge of the key figures involved in the regime and, having even worked for a state newspaper, understood what made it tick.
In “Revolt” Starr recounts the first year of the revolution as seen from his home in Damascus. He assiduously searches out different viewpoints to those that were given so much prominence in the early part of the revolution.
In one of the early chapters he documents the revolt through the eyes of Syria’s minorities – its Christian, Druze, Kurdish, Shia, and Alawi communities. The process is both illuminating and startling. Far from being opposed to the regime, the majority were focused on the threat posed by the opposition. One particular fear — of the uprising taking on a sectarian element as the majority Sunnis seek control over the rest — comes through clearly. At one point the writer hears rumors of three churches that had received a note saying “you’re next,” which is interpreted as a threat that Christians would be targeted following the fall of Assad. While it is disappointing, if in a practical sense understandable, that the writer did not verify those claims himself, these stories provide an insight into the atmosphere in the country during the middle of 2011.
Building upon this, Starr shows how the Syrian state media manipulated these fears by exacerbating sectarian tensions to serve its own interests. Featuring interviews with several key pro and anti-regime journalists, the book breaks down the traditional portrayal of Syrian media as a monolith by drawing a distinction between the state-owned publications and those that are independent but have tended to back the regime.
It is also at times a wonderful portrayal of the average day-to-day normality of Syrian life, far away from the conflict. While the war has now come to Damascus, for much of 2011 the city’s residents felt removed from the crisis. The Damascenes quoted in the book often talk about the war in Homs and Hama as if it were in Timbuktu. But Starr also captures the sense of regime paranoia in the city and documents how the crackdowns gradually increased in intensity even in the capital.
The book is not without fault, however, and at times it feels like both the writer and the editor failed to make the most of Starr’s unique viewpoint. Most importantly there was the perplexing editorial decision to start the book on the first day of the revolution, without allowing space for the background information to which the writer has almost unique knowledge of.
Starr has said elsewhere that the uprising was largely caused by the government’s failure to deal with the 2008-10 drought, but this kind of in-depth detail is not given much prominence. Some of the best parts of the book are anecdotes of the inner-workings of the regime before the uprising but they are not used in an intelligent manner. In a sense the writer’s unique selling point has been underplayed.
Similarly, while parts of the book are well written, with sound analysis being supplemented by fascinating anecdotes, the structure is weak — with a number of middle chapters seemingly lacking purpose. There are also grammatical errors that leave the reader wondering if the book’s editors were so keen to capitalize on the news-value of the Syrian crisis that they rushed it onto the market.
Nevertheless ‘Revolt’ will serve as a key resource for those trying to understand Syrian society during the uprising. Many books will be written on the crisis in the coming years, but this will prove a vital and rare first-hand account of Damascus during the first year of a crisis that is still unfolding.