Interview: Stephen Starr on Syria

Contributor Paul Mutter interviewed Syria expert Stephen Starr at NYU this week about his book on the conflict there, and his impressions of Syria since last winter when he departed the country. Starr is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eyewitness to the Uprising and — full disclosure — Mutter's editor at Near East Quarterly. This is part one of the interview, part two will be published tomorrow.

How common are nonviolent demonstrations now in Syria today?

In terms of to what extent there are people still protesting across the country, I think there’s certainly a lot less now than there were in the first six months … I think there’s three main reasons for that: one is that [more] people don’t see peaceful protests as a way of achieving what they want to achieve, which is the downfall of the regime. And they see that the armed element of the uprising has taken precedence over the protests, and they see the regime so violent that they feel that peaceful protesting is going to stop the regime when they use guns and shelling … they’ve carried out airstrikes against protestors in Idlib Province, whereas before when they had a presence of troops on the ground they would shoot or shell them. Another reason … is that a lot of people who took part in recent protests but were detained were often radicalized by the violence and the torture they experienced while detained, and when they got out a lot of people took up arms. Now, when I say a lot of people, though, [we have to be cautious since] you can’t put a number on it. These guys got out, they saw firsthand what the regime was doing, and felt that the only way to beat the regime was to pick up a gun and fight back using violence And the third sense is the feeling that, generally speaking, peaceful protests haven’t achieved what they wanted to do. In the beginning, it was very much obviously about peaceful demonstrations, these were the cornerstone of the revolution. And I think that certainly, there’s revolt fatigue amongst protestors. I see a lot of frustration among people trying to maintain peaceful protests, other kinds of non-violent dissidence against the government.

They find it really difficult to cajole other people who are unhappy with the regime, who may have participated in protests in the first six to twelve months [to come out]. They find it difficult to get their former fellow protestors to come out on the streets again because they feel that’s there’s no sense to it when the regime uses guns. But for sure, there are still a lot of protestors and activists who still want to keep true to the core values of the revolution, of a peaceful uprising. It’s divided.

Are there a lot of people who went out to protest in the beginning now determined to stay in their homes, hoping the war does not come to them anymore than it already has?

Absolutely. But it depends on where you are. If you speak to people in the Damascus suburbs, for example, in al-Yarmouk, the Palestinian camp in the south of Damascus, which has been shelled. If you go back six months from now, a lot of people I knew participated in protests there [both Syrian and Palestinian]. And they were detained. They were warned that their families would be killed or detained as well if they took part in the protests, and they stopped. And I think it’s really important to distinguish between that individual and the rebels, who for the most part came from the countryside. When rebels launched attacks to try and Damascus in July, the rebels who took part in those attacks didn’t actually come from Damascus, … they came from other areas outside of Damascus, but they launched these campaigns because they knew these areas were sympathetic to the cause because they were having demonstrations there.

Were these attacks coordinated with the demonstrations?

That’s a good question. What’s happened since suggests to me there wasn’t much coordination. A lot of people who lived in these places that had been protesting peacefully for over a year didn’t want this violence to take over, for a number of reasons, primarily because what had happened thereafter was the regime shelled these areas and the rebels fled, but the people from there area were still there so their families were killed and their houses were destroyed.

Even if you only watch the state news, you’ll see that the regime will surround and shell neighborhoods where rebels, described as “al Qaeda,” are or are suspected to be operating. So are people still able to move between the cities and try to organize protests, or are they locked in their towns by the regime’s forces?

I think people are for the most part locked in, but it varies from day to day. In Damascus, some days people can get inside the city, other days, they cannot. I lived outside Damascus for the first five months of the revolution, and I went into the city most days then. Obviously, there were a series of checkpoints going in and coming out, and if you wanted to leave or enter the city after a certain time in the evening, you couldn’t. In terms of people organizing protests across the country, I don’t think there’s much of that [going on] anymore. They’re indigenous to particular areas where they are, if it’s still happening, partly because of the increase in violence.

Does the regime try to co-opt any of the demonstrators it took in for interrogation?

Yes. I spoke to some people, people who had been educated as doctors who participated in protests. They told me that their interrogators tried to use “logic” with them, that their interrogators would say to them, “Look, you’re an educated guy, what are you doing taking part in these protests. The people who are organizing these protests are country people, they’re uneducated, they have no idea what they’re they’re doing, they’re asking for freedom and have no idea what it means. They don’t know what democracy is.” They said to these doctors that they’ve got “a good life, a salary,” so “why do that?”.

In your book you discussed how there were complaints from regime supporters watching the demonstrations that a lot of the protestors “don’t really know what they want” and “we have to give the government a chance and the people demonstrating have to take a step back.” Did that argument work with the doctors here?

I don’t think so. I think this is because the regime [has become] so violent. Whether they agree or disagree with the way things are being portrayed in the media, they see what’s going on in Homs or Idlib or Aleppo.

Speaking of media coverage, can you expand on your description of how Syrians have responded to foreign media coverage of their country’s internal conflict? Are the polarization problems you described in your book, where you wrote that Al Jazeera’s “editorial policy when reporting on the Syrian uprising daw its popularity fall among Syrians, especially with the ‘silent majority’ that was neither with nor against the government,” still present in foreign media coverage of Syria?

Today’s coverage to me seems to be much the same [as it was then]. When Syrians were watching what was happening in Egypt or Tunisia, they were glued to Al Jazeera. When the revolution started at home in Syria, they were much more [circumspect], though, again, it depends on what Syrians you are talking to. The nonviolent protestors, or even the “silent majority” who make up quite a large portion of the population, they knew that Al Jazeera would only speak to activists, to FSA officers, or only to people partaking in demonstrations – they wouldn’t speak to independent voices in the country or get the regime [and its supporters’] views.

One thing that struck me when I left the country was that Syria would only get a sixty-second or a five minutes broadcast at the top of the hour saying there had been shelling, or fighting in Aleppo and Homs. We got very little sense that there were millions of Syrians who don’t identify with the revolution, who don’t want any part of the revolution. Maybe they don’t like the regime, but they don’t back the revolution. [Even though] they will say the regime is a mafia. We get no sense of that. There is no coverage of what these people, the Syrians in-between, think.

Are these people willing to air their views?

Again, it depends. A lot of these people were afraid to do so, even though the government allows some semblance of an internal opposition. But the regime knows exactly what this internal opposition does, what it’s capable of. They let it out on its leash sometimes to speak to foreign media, and then they pull it back in. That is how it has been for decades. [There are people in this bloc] who don’t want a violent uprising because they feel it will destroy the social fabric of Syria and lead to sectarian civil war … but also say the regime has to change, and change in a huge way and there has to be a democratic transition. But we see very little about them.

To be continued.