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James Denselow

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Reporting from the Centre of the Syrian Storm

Posted: 01/05/2012 22:05

Revolt: Eye-Witness to the Syrian Uprising

One of the biggest challenges to understanding events in Syria over the past year has been the lack of access granted to the international media. The secretive nature of the Syrian state has allowed only for controlled and largely regulated trips or dangerous illegal travel into the rebel held areas of the country. The deaths of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, killed by government rockets in Homs in February, was a brutal reminder of the perils of trying to ensure that the reality of events reaches the global audience. Although Stephen Starr cannot be said to have taken the same risks as Colvin, 'Revolt' is still a brave account written by someone who knows Syria and has been there since the outbreak of protests and violence in March 2011. Starr had the privileged position of working as an editor for the state controlled "Syria Times", an English language excuse for a paper riddled with systemic corruption and nepotism that would lazily report the banal and irrelevant, unsurprisingly focusing on the President's day to day activities. The standards of the paper are typical of the independence and quality of Syria's press, I once knew another Western journalist whose attempts to persuade the Times staff that Syrian forces weren't withdrawing to the west in their 2005 withdrawal from Lebanon (i.e into the sea) was met was uninterested stubbornness.

Starr's access to Syria as a Irish journalist has led to a demand for his writing from papers such as the Sunday Times, Washington Post and the LA Times. There is huge value in the thoughts and stories of someone who has been there for four years rather than the instant impressions of shorter and more controlled trips. Little gems like picking up on the increase in the price of milk (44 to 55 Syrian Pounds) and noticing subtle changes to numbers of police of the streets are exactly the kind of detail denied in most Syria reporting. However it is only made clear how he was allowed to stay in the country for as long as he did at the end of the book, which I think is a mistake as understanding this is central. Journalism during this time in Syria (and perhaps at all times) requires in Starr's words an "exercise in patience, judgement and nerve-control", crucially the author is honest that he can only report things as he sees them.

The book therefore is not a strictly objective look at Syria during this time, indeed many of the witnesses that provide the thread of anecdotal stories are Starr's friends. The book is more a personal tale yet emotions are more or less kept in check albeit for the sense of anger at people's willingness to ignore the reality around them, relief about moving beyond Syria's authoritarian reach to Jordan and journalistic envy when famous international correspondents arrive. The work tells not of the up close brutality that Colvin reported before her death but rather the banality of evil that has underpinned the regime for decades, the insidious control that leads people to refer to the violence as "the situation" and to engage in what the author refers to as "mass self-delusion" where people abandon their critical faculties.

The author admits that the work is Damascus-focused where "on the surface life continued much as normal" despite a raft of subtle changes including increases in petty crime. This would eventually change as RPG attacks and suicide bombings burst the Damascus bubble. The book provides a nuanced look into the protest movements and how it spread "like an unstoppable electric charge, the protest movement moved from town to town, from disaffected family to family, from brutalised neighbourhood to neighbourhood and from rumour to reality for so many Syrians". Starr partially dissects the Local Coordinating Committees, the grassroots engine of much of the protest, but ignores any deep analysis of the 'Free Syria Army' (FSA) or the 'Syrian National Council' (SNC). The important sectarian makeup of both pro and anti regime groups is affirmed as are subtleties such as the majority's sudden about-turn and rejection of Al Jazeera's reporting. The author muses that while the "majority were frozen by fear", that may change when people are affected by the government repression and have family or friends killed, injured or arrested. The regime's tactics of isolating and then applying extreme violence to places like Baba Amr appear to support this hypothesis. The regime is aware that it cannot placate those who are acting against them in revenge so instead they focus on quarantining and then destroying the protesters. In the case of Homs this involved actually building a trench around restive districts and cutting off water and electricity while using a controlled media to persuade or scare the silent majority into not getting involved.

The book is far more than a simple focus on the clash between the regime and the protestors, it explores, from a non-academic perspective, the fundamental debates that define modern Syria, from dichotomies of state and society, urban and rural, rich and poor, ethnic and sectarianism which all contribute towards an overall narrative of suppressed discontent which is essential for understanding what fuelled anger in the first place. The fact that 'poor towns' such as Deraa, Douma and Jisr al-Shaghour became hotbeds of revolt is juxtaposed with the Baath party's original credentials as the 'party of the poor'. There is no small irony that Bashar himself has been responsible for weakening Baath party controls in the interests of opening up. He achieved this by undermining the bedrock of his father's coup-proof state by marginalizing the old guard, introducing communications technology and the internet to the country, reducing funding to the military, removing the local power of Baath party committees and the unions, and, in pursuing his version of the 'Chinese model' of economic reform, exacerbating class differences and forcing large sections of Syrian society to rely on more traditional tribal and sectarian networks.

Starr's wide ranging social networks create an interesting portrait of the Syrian youth. There is no simple narrative to this the vast and discontented section of Syrian society. Starr meets both protestors and those content to live in a alcohol and party-fuelled denial, enjoying $12 drinks in funky Damascus bars. Crucially he identifies that a "lack of respect for the country's youth and the lack of prospects for the future are what have kept the uprising alive". Yet goes further into addressing the seeming paradox that while the youth realise that the 'system' in Syria is broken that doesn't automatically translate into a desire for regime change or a hatred of Bashar.

The book is an important contribution to the hugely stifled subject of Syria despite Starr's journalistic inexperience often showing with ten words used when one will do, in addition his constant references to meeting friends grates. Nevertheless his analysis of the workings of the regime and the demands and divisions in Syrian society demonstrate a excellent knowledge of the country, which is combined to create a rare and thorough eyewitness perspective of the events of the past year.

 

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