STEPHEN STARR — Syria has its own silent majority, and it does not support the rebels or the regime.
The Alawite government has for many years emphasized Syria’s sectarian tensions to justify its dictatorial rule. On the ground, though, were these tensions as pronounced as they might have been in a country like Iraq?
These tensions were not as pronounced outwardly as they were inwardly. Everyone knew that the government was an Alawite system. If a Syrian citizen were to go to any government ministry, wanting to get certain documents signed or stamped, it was almost inevitable that the person at the desk would speak with a coastal accent, where most Alawites come from. The Assad regime puts Shiite clerics and Christian priests on state television and on the covers of magazines and newspapers to show how secular and open it is. But in reality, very few Syrians believe this rhetoric; the government has been arming Alawite neighborhoods in parts of the country since the outbreak of the revolution. On one hand, there is a Public Relations system working to tell everyone about the supposed secularism espoused in Damascus, about how Syria is an oasis of calm in a very bad regional neighborhood. Yet under the table, the situation is very different.
It is clear today that the Assad regime harbors no qualms about cracking down harshly on dissent and killing its own citizens. In the years leading up to the current conflict, how did the central government instill a sense of its authority?
Before the revolution, it was the case that if a Syrian had to do anything, he had to go through the state. If he wanted to hold a concert, for example, he would have needed to go to the Ministry of Culture to seek permission. And all the media and correspondences would have to say “Under the Patronage of the Minister for Culture” on them. This would be the case for any other type of event. This governmental presence was felt in all facets of Syrian life. The example I use about concerts is a fairly benign manifestation of this involvement. The military has its hand tied up much more in civilian affairs.
There was no real dissent in Syria before the revolution; people knew what they could say and what they could not. There was very little sense that a revolution was coming, and certainly not that a situation as bloody as the current one was about to break out. Very few people expected the regime to fight as dirty as it has.
You lived in Syria for about five years preceding the current Revolution. Could you describe what the Syrian civilian’s experience was in the last few years and months before the outbreak of the Revolution; is there any particularly illuminating aspect of pre-Revolution Syrian society that exemplifies the situation?
There were two narratives that took place in Syria leading up to the Revolution. One was for people who lived in the major cities. In the last few years about thirteen private banks started up in Syria, which offered easy credit to people who wanted to buy cars or get married (couples needed to have an apartment before they could marry, and thus people needed to buy homes). These banks provided access to cash, and gave people a sense of freedom. Sectors like marketing, public relations, and advertising all expanded too. The best example of this growth is in the streets of these cities: They are full of Kia and Hyundai cars, because people could acquire them cheaply. Syrians lived relatively comfortably in the major cities; they had stable jobs, cars, and a level of comfort that they enjoyed very much.
Yet, if one were to ask people in the Eastern provinces, in Hasakah or Deir ez-Zor, they would have a very different perspective on life leading up to the revolution. They had a major drought between 2008 and 2010 that forced almost a million farmers and workers off the land, to leave their farms and the jobs. They had to head to the inexpensive suburbs of Damascus, Aleppo, and Daraa. They found jobs bootlegging items across the border into Jordan or driving taxis at nighttime, for example.
The legacy of these different perspectives rings true today. The major cities are not taking part in the revolution at all. It is people from the countryside who are taking up arms against the regime. There have been clashes in the major cities, but even these have been instigated by rebels who are from outside these cities. In the case of Aleppo, the rebels are mostly from Idlib and other eastern areas. In Damascus, they are mostly from the southern region, from Zabadani and Douma. These rebels are not Damascenes or Aleppians who picked up guns to fight the regime.
You note in your article in Foreign Policy that many “Syrians back neither the regime nor the revolt.” Do outsiders understand this reality, or have they been misguided by what you also described as news services that must rely on youtube videos to tell the story in Syria?
There is only so much that can be fit into a five-minute video package. There is a middle class, a “silent majority,” which does not like the regime and knows that it is brutal. Yet they are opposed to Free Syrian Army rebels in their streets; they know that if there are rebels in the streets, their own houses will be shelled.
Initially the Syrian Revolution was a nonviolent movement. There was a very good article in The National about a group of people who were arrested a few months ago for protesting against the regime. When they were released, they had found that all their friends had picked up guns and were rebels.
The international community is simply not hearing very much about the people who like neither the rebels nor the regime. This group comprises millions of people, living in Damascus or Aleppo: The people who received loans and were living comfortably.
When you lived in Syria before the revolt, the government knew what type of work you were doing. Yet in your book, Revolt in Syria, you manage to share the stories of such an incredible range of people. How do you account for the government’s allowance of these interviews?
I would not say that any time I left my home that I had to inform the government. The situation was not like that at all. But at the same time, if I wanted to go to Daraa or Homs, for example, the government would know straight away since I would have to pass through police checkpoints, where the officers would radio for permission to let me through. The government would very rarely allow me to visit these places in any case. It was not difficult to travel within the main cities, to speak with people in restaurants or organize meetings with people at their homes or in cafes. I could not simply pick up the phone and directly ask to interview someone about the revolution. But over a period of a few months, through friends, contacts, or even chance meetings face-to-face, I was able to gather these stories.
Although I did not have to phone the government anytime I wanted to go somewhere, that was indeed the case for many journalists who were in Syria on short-term visas. They were accompanied by minders throughout their visits.
Could you describe your final image of Damascus as you left it earlier this year?
When I left the airport was surrounded by tanks. It was impossible to see them from the air, since they were hidden in a tunnel of sorts covered with clay and dirt. But when the plane was just taking off, it was possible to see these tanks concealed under the mounds. That is a very telling final image I have of the city.
While I was driving to the airport, at each traffic light, there were children begging for money. The people with whom I was traveling were Christians, and when these kids came to the car door, they would waive the group away. My companions said that the kids are taking all the money they collect to the mosque. This unfortunate and deep-seated mistrust between certain religions in Syria was very pronounced. The children just wanted the money for food or for their parents. I thought it highly unlikely that they were taking it to any mosque. This view, however, highlights what the Christians were thinking, and that perspective is shared by various minorities throughout the country.
Especially during the first few months of the revolt, were Syrians in Damascus aware of what was going on in other parts of the country?
People became very sick of the revolution very quickly. For those who were not directly affected by the fighting, the revolution meant higher prices and electricity cuts. For example, I had to plan my day around having electricity. I would get up up at a certain time, have my phone and laptop charged, and work things out so that I would be out of the house when there was no electricity. Everyone was forced to make similar plans. For many people, that was what the revolution represented. At the same time, the regime upped its propaganda message very seriously, which meant that everyone had to listen to a great deal of pro-regime programming, that the government was strong and was fighting against terrorists sponsored by a whole number of outside groups, including the Saudis and Israelis. People grew sick of this too.
In the beginning of the uprising, there was an opening of conversation. People would debate about what should happen and how the rebels should be confronted. After the first few weeks, though, people had taken sides — with or against the government — and very little talk took place after that. People who had opposing views would not talk to each other anymore, which helped to make deeper divisions. To a large extent, people do not particularly like to listen in Syria; they prefer to convince others of their own opinions, which is a very unfortunate facet of the conflict, one that does not bode well for the future.
Before the revolution, how was dissent manifest in Syrian society, that is, was there an intellectual, popular, or political dissenting voice?
Since Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya began to fall apart, Syrians would gather around televisions and were absolutely astonished by what was happening. And they were happy to see the dictatorships collapsing elsewhere. They never felt that a similar upheaval could come to Syria. There was a traditional opposition movement in Syria, composed of human rights lawyers and other professional-types. All but a couple of these people are now outside Syria, in Cairo, Beirut, or Istanbul. Their legs have been cut from under them by the local, young coordinating committees on the ground now. These young people who are the engine of the revolution have very little time for the traditional opposition. These older members go on Al Arabiya or Al Jazeera every evening to denounce the regime and shout about Assad’s violence, but they are safe and far away from the fighting. Many people, especially activists, really do not like these figures.
This traditional “old guard” have very little place in a future Syrian system or government, simply because they have so little credibility on the ground. It is the young people who fought and died for a new Syria. In a functioning, stable Syria, it will be the rebel chiefs who will have the most say in government. The traditional opposition will likely expect to be greeted by tens of thousands of people when they return to Damascus. I do not expect that to ever happen.
In 1982 Hafez al-Assad bombed the rebellious city of Hama, killing between 10,000 and 30,000 people. How did Syrians, especially in the early days of the Revolution, interpret this history? Did they take to the streets expecting a similar response by Basher al-Assad?
That uprising in Hama has been identified and was always considered as an Islamist revolt. It did not enjoy much broad, popular support at the time, which was why it failed. There was no Islamist root to the current revolution, during which the initial calls were for reform and civilian dignity. But nevertheless, the Hama incident did hang over people’s heads, although they also felt that the connections between the two movements were weaker given Hama’s Islamist identity. There was thus very little to be drawn from 1982 other than the fact that the regime would react in a very brutal way.
STEPHEN STARR lived in Syria from 2007 until February 2012, where he worked as an editor at the Syria Times and then as a freelance reporter. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of the Near East Quarterly. His book, Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising, has been released in the United States by Columbia University Press.