In his new book, Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising, journalist Stephen Starr details what life was like as the uprisings unfolded in the country, including conversations with Syrians from all walks of life.
In 2007, fresh out of university and on the way to Beirut where he planned to move, Starr stopped for a visit in Damascus. He ended up staying in Syria for the next five years, first writing for a state-sponsored newspaper and then reporting as a freelancer for The Washington Post and The Financial Times, among others. Starr covered the country’s uprisings from inside Syria until leaving this past February when he felt a growing sense of paranoia and concern for his safety as a result of his reporting. LSE MEC Blog Editor Dania Akkad talked to him about his experiences and where he sees Syria headed.
Dania Akkad: It seems pretty clear from your book and your article in Foreign Policy that you feel that things are much more complicated than the media is reporting. You ended the Foreign Policy piece with a line about that: “Too often now, it is Syrians killing Syrians, but reading the news you might never know.” I think Bassam Haddad said something similar on PBS a couple of days ago. I wonder if you could reflect a bit on why shades of gray are missing from so much of the reporting? Is it an access issue? Is it a misread of what’s happening in Syria? What is it?
Stephen Starr: I guess it’s a number of different factors. There is only so much a five minute TV news pieces can say about Syria. It’s obviously a very complicated place. The controls on access to the country for journalists is certainly an issue, too. But at the same time, journalists are being allowed in through the official channels.
You can’t simply say that all Sunnis oppose the regime and all minorities which make up about 25 percent of the population support the government. It’s just not that black and white. It’s important to point that out because when other countries around the world make policy decisions about what they are going to do about Syria, certainly it’s important in terms of whether direct military intervention is going to take place, such decisions are based on assumptions that this kind of set of people will support the rebellion and what kind of military intervention comes.
It’s really clear in what’s happening in Aleppo at the moment because there certainly doesn’t seem to be – obviously I haven’t been there enough so it’s difficult for me to say — there hasn’t been this kind of ground support among families and people in the city for the rebels and what they are doing. You had demonstrations for months and months in Aleppo, but there is very little support, it seems, for the actual violent conflict and what he rebels are trying to do. Like anywhere, people want peace and stability and when they see the rebels coming, they know the regime is going to react in a very violent way. Inevitably, it’s the civilians who suffer.
From that perspective, the FSA hasn’t done a very good job in its public relations to convince civilians that they are working for them. So that’s another aspect of why it’s very complicated: you have protestors who want the regime out, but they don’t want to resort to violence. And you have rebels who are using guns and weapons to fight the government. And at the same time, you have this regime propaganda that it’s foreign forces that are trying to disturb the country. So it’s very complicated situation. I could talk about it for hours.
Akkad: It seems like it often gets simplified – opposition versus regime – when there are many oppositions. From inside Syria – I don’t know when you left exactly – but I’d be curious to know your impression of the opposition from within. If it’s still LCCs at work? Or is it small, local networks? How does it work exactly?
Starr: I left in mid-February and certainly at that time, there was very little respect and support for the traditional opposition groups – the SNC and other opposition groups. These are the guys that appeared on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. They were safe and secure, being in Cairo or Istanbul. The regime couldn’t come and get them. They didn’t succeed in what they were trying to do which was to get international military support. So from the point of view of the protestors and I guess the Free Army, they have very little respect for the opposition that is based overseas.
Speaking of the local coordinating committees, I think they are very important. I think they will be very important in the future in a post-Assad Syria because they already have the context on the ground. They have a very wide network of activists. When it comes to some stage, we don’t know when – when it comes to the point of elections hopefully and referendums and so on, these guys already have a support system in place. They have contacts in every town and village and neighbourhood in the country. So I think these LCC committees will be very important in the future.
Akkad: And do they work in coordination with the FSA or are they a completely separate entity? Or in some places are they connected and others not? How does it work?
Starr: I think in some places they are connected and they exchange intelligence and so on. For the most part, their goal is the same: they both want the regime to fall. The method of doing it differs quite a bit, it seems. The LCCs began out of these peaceful protesters where people, after prayer, would come out of the mosque and call for the downfall of the regime. They weren’t picking up guns. So they are, at their core, a peaceful movement. The FSA is something very different. It is bands of rebels around the country doing what they can to get the regime to fall. So from their kind of objective perspectives, they are quite different. The LCCs are essentially peaceful. The rebels are not for the most part. Essentially, they want the same thing, but their way of achieving is quite different.
Akkad: I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read the ICG report released last week? In the end of it, they were suggesting that Syria’s future largely depends on the fate of the Alawites. I’ll just quote it: “Toppling the regime….means going to war with the Alawite community and going to war with the Alawite community means the end of a united, pluralistic Syria.” The end of the report really asks what the opposition – or oppositions — will do about the increasing sectarian killings and how will it insure that a transition includes Alawites as full-fledged partners? Do you agree with this kind of narrative that ICG is seeing? Do you think these different groups have a plan for the next day if and when the regime is toppled?
Starr: I’m not sure the opposition has a plan for the day after. They seem to be extremely inept in what they are trying to do. The longer the regime stays, the more likely there will be a sustained civil war that could go on for years. The longer the regime stays, the more the violence grows, the more number of people die and the more opportunities, I suppose, for retribution. They increase as well. It’s difficult to say because the regime has surprised a lot of people, including myself, with its durability. I think once the regime falls, there won’t be civil war because I don’t think Alawis have enough numbers to sustain a civil war against a Sunni-led transitional authority or government. Alawis are the only people that we can expect to try to continue a conflict and the demographics don’t add up. They don’t have majority of population in any cities in Syria. Even on the coast, they are the minorities. Except for the villages in the mountains which are mostly kind of Alawi-dominated, but they are isolated. I can’t see Alawis inviting violence into their own villages.
But obviously, the more people who die, the more possibilities there will be for a kind of civil war continuing after the government falls and tit for tat kind of killings. There will be retributions between families, particularly where you have Sunni villages close to Alawi villages. That will happen, but I don’t think there will be a full scale civil war, but that’s based on the fact that the regime falls in the near future.
Akkad: One thing that I got from your writing – both from the article and the book – was the sense that people, especially in the beginning, were going into the streets not based on any sectarian sort of thing, but because they had been personally affected by the regime. You had a section where you are talking about how the people went out. They weren’t part of an opposition. They weren’t trying to bring democracy. They went out because they had lost a son or a father or a brother. It just seems that there is a silent majority in there somewhere in Syria, not necessarily with any parties or following because they are worried about their safety as a sect, but they are silently waiting things out.
Starr: There are two issues there. For every individual who dies in Syria, overnight you have – whether they be pro-regime or rebels or demonstrators. For every person who has died, overnight you have dozens of people, in terms of family and friends, who become more in support of the opposition or more support of the government and more hard-lined in their views and more militarised in some respects. So from that point of view, the more people who die, the more difficult it is going to be to reconstruct the country.
Akkad: So you are saying that as more time goes on, there are more incentives to take a side?
Starr: That’s essentially it. I don’t think we can compare Syria to Iraq or Lebanon. The demographic numbers don’t add up. It’s just 10 percent of the population who are Alawis and can be expected to continue to fight. I don’t think Christians are going to take up arms for the remnants of Bashar’s regime. They’ve done rather well, but it’s a big difference between being supported and taking up guns. I think at least in the long term or even what happened in Lebanon and Iraq, I don’t think it’s as likely to happen in Syria.
Akkad: What do you make of the recent defections? Do they make a difference?
Starr: They make some difference, but not as much as I think we are led to believe in the main stream media. The prime minister –it’s, and especially at this time of war, largely a ceremonial post and they can bring in ministers all day long.
There are two kinds of entities I think we need to distinguish between. One is the regime and one is the government. The regime is the family and the people who are involved and in charge of the security and the military. The government then are all of the government positions and ministries where people come and go in their positions. Maybe every couple of years, maybe you have a new minister for whatever ministry. So the regime itself is something quite different from the people inside the regime. I think ministers, not so much. It’s good for morale, I guess, for the opposition and the Free Army when they hear prime ministers defecting.
Akkad: I’m also curious also what you make of the international involvement. Obviously, you have China and Russia on the one hand. On the other, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Obama has signed an intelligence order to support the FSA. There was the William Hague announcement about the £5 million in UK non-lethal assistance. Do these actions tip a balance or prolong fighting?
Starr: They don’t tip any balance. They give an advantage to the Free Army and the rebels, but the Free Army and the rebels need anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft guns. They need hard, heavy duty kinds of military equipment if they want to defeat the regime in the near or short or medium term. I guess it’s symbolic more than anything else what the international community is doing.
But I’d be slow to say on the one hand its Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Turkey and on the other side, it’s supporting the regime of Iran and Hezbollah. I don’t think Syrians themselves would accept a very pro or leaning government that leans towards what Saudi Arabia wants. There is a healthy distrust of Saudi Arabia among Syrians in the country. I’d be sceptical to think that Saudi Arabia, when the regime falls even, that Saudi would have significant control over whatever government that follows. A lot of people have died in Syria. I think people would be very slow to give up their country and give up their government based on other country’s desire and wishes.
Playing up this idea that it’s a proxy war, certainly other countries are influencing what is happening. That’s quite obvious, but in a post-Assad kind of situation, Syrians have lost a lot and they are going to want to keep the country for themselves when and how they can.
Akkad: What do you think of Lakhdar Brahimi? Do you think he can pull through where Kofi Annan failed? Do you think the UN mission at this point is meaningful at all?
Starr: I don’t think there is an individual on the planet who could succeed in that position. The regime has absolutely no interest in playing ball, in following a diplomatic solution. It says it is and it always plays up how important Kofi Annan’s plan is and so on, but it’s a total charade. It’s cover for them while they continue to pound parts of Aleppo or parts of Homs or Idlib or wherever. On the one hand, they say they are working with Kofi Annan’s plan and partaking in it, but in reality, it’s very different. It doesn’t matter who is leading any group. It’s a waste of time. The international community can put their hands up and say look, we’re trying to do something, but it’s fairly symbolic. The regime has no interest in peace, in any kind of transition government situation.
This interview was first published on LSE's Middle East Centre blog, which is run out of the MEC at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Starr — one of the speakers at the MEC’s Syria conference at LSE on 20 September – and LSE MEC Blog Editor Dania Akkad talked on August 9. This is the first piece published as part of Your Middle East's partnership with LSE's Middle East Centre blog.