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Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising

Revolt in Syria takes us right to the heart of the revolution in Syria where the author has lived since 2007. A freelance Irish journalist, Steven Starr has covered the Syrian uprising for some of the world’s leading newspapers and his work has been published in The Washington Post, the Financial Times, The Times, The Sunday Times, Los Angeles Times and The Irish Times. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Near East Quarterly. Despite the complexity of the subject matter, the book is an easy read. The author spares us the usual references to the country’s political history and economy and delves instead into the present with pertinent interviews cleverly woven into the narrative. Starr himself acknowledges that this book and his understanding of Syria have their roots in the stories of the people he has lived with, people both, for or against the regime.
In the insightful prologue, we are reminded that the Syrian Baath regime has lasted far longer than many previously thought.
“The entire political and security system, and by consequence, Syrian society, have been built with this moment of internal revolt in mind...” says Starr.
Lama Al-Hariri, the first female Syrian diplomat to defect, believes that the regime was aware from the very beginning that the success of the revolution would depend on its ability to remain peaceful. The government therefore drew a plan that involved the killing of peaceful demonstrators. By turning a peaceful revolution into a civil war, the Baath regime thinks that its chances of survival are much greater.
The incident that triggered anti-government demonstrations took place in Deraa. It was caused by a group of children who wrote anti-regime graffiti on the walls of a school in early March 2011. The school principal reported them to the so called, “mukhabarat”, secret services and the children were immediately arrested and tortured. Their fingernails were taken out and they were severely beaten. When the mothers asked the local police about their children, they were told, “You won’t be getting your children back. Go home and tell your useless husbands to make you some more”. The families denounced their children’s incarceration and participated in street demonstrations. After two mothers were arrested, an unprecedented and totally unexpected uprising began in Syria.
“There is a major void between the street and the state. There is no one that is well-regarded by the business class, the street and the authorities collectively”.
The reason, for the total absence of any form of opposition, is due to Article 8 of the 1973 Syrian constitution that establishes the Baath party as the “sole leader of state and society in Syria”. As a result the country had no legal opposition parties until the creation of the Local Coordinating Committees (LCC). Its members are people of all ages recruited in and outside of Syria. An LCC spokesman remarked that the revolution in Syria differs from other Arab revolutions in so far as the sons are marching with their fathers and grandfathers.
At this point, one should point out that without smart phones and the Internet, this revolution would certainly never have succeeded. During an interview with “Dark”, one of a few activists networking in Syria, the author was told that activists in Syria are “organized into loose circles”:
“We use a combination of Tor proxies, tunnels and VPN (virtual private networks) to surf the web, and we talk in code when using mobile phones. Due to the nature of the way we operate, information passes from one group to another through people from one group whom the other group trusts. These connections may be mutual friends, or long-time activists. This sometimes means that information may be sketchy or even inaccurate, but this is the only way we have and it has worked out well so far”.
“Dark” admits that he uses camouflage, acting as a pro-regime supporter in his daily life. Stephen Starr also played a cat and mouse game with the authorities. He took a series of measures that helped him prolong his stay.
“I rarely associated with foreigners, who were subjected to heightened security attention during the revolt. I changed e-mail addresses weekly and passwords daily. I never risked speaking about certain items on the phone. I had over the years come to recognize secret police on the street; how they looked, what they wore, what their body language said. This helped me make decisions on topics of conversations and when to speak English and when to use Arabic when they were close by. I got out when I felt it was time, when I had taken risks that crossed a line”.
Thanks to an extended network of friends from all sides, Starr benefits from a unique source of information. The interviews with Syrians from different communities highlight not only the great divide between the activists and pro-regime supporters but also the silence and lack of interest of the majority of Syrians during the uprising.
There are now 235,000 Syrian refugees and the uprising has turned now into a civil war. It is imperative for all political parties to come together. The silent majority has to shed its passivity and voice an opinion. It has an essential role to play in bridging the gaps between the opposition and the regime.
Revolt in Syria is a good introduction to Syria’s present quagmire. “In the long term” concludes Starr, “the regime simply cannot win this fight. Too many have suffered too much. Syria seems set for months and perhaps years of economic stagnation, brutal repression and divisions”.

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