Interview: Stephen Starr on Syria, part 2

This is part two of Paul Mutter's interview with Stephen Starr. Read part one.

Do you have any advice for correspondents on this matter, to better report on this “silent majority”?

I don’t want to give advice on this. You can’t go from a rebel-held area – and you can’t shoot photographs in rebel-held areas – to regime-controlled areas. You can’t pass, and even if you do get in, you can’t behave in the same way. In areas under the FSA’s control, you can take photographs, you can speak to people and get direct quotes, you can get a pretty good picture [of what’s happening in the area]. But if you try to do that in Damascus, in areas under the regime’s control, you won’t last five minutes: you’ll be picked up by the regime’s security You can’t go out into the streets of central Damascus with a camera and just ask people what’s happening. There’s security everywhere.

Are any of the powerful business families the “big families” you described that depend on the Assads for patronage – like the Tlass clan – less supportive of the regime now?

I think not. Those who backed the regime from the beginning solidified that stance. Those who were less supportive of the regime are too fearful to do anything. Their businesses have essentially shut down now. There’s no industry operating in Aleppo, the industrial manufacturing center of Syria.

Where are their workers?

[Some] are they’re protesting, [some] have guns in their hands, [some] are sitting at home waiting for things to end.

I know lots of business leaders who are trying to leave or have left. To what extent trying to aid the rebel opposition? I think they’re waiting it out. There was all this talk in the beginning that the business community might begin to move against the regime, but that was never going to happen. They have family, they have so many contacts in the country that if they publicly opposes the regime or say that they support the rebels, they and their families might be locked up and never be heard from again. Now, that’s not to say that some leaders haven’t actually come out publicly and said they would finance the revolt, but for the most part they are sitting on their hands, they are waiting for the rebels to win the war. [Many] are hiding out in … Beirut, or Istanbul, Cairo and Dubai. I know quite a few people who have gone to these cities. They’re making plans for afterward, but they are in no way taking part in the actual revolt, even though they oppose the regime.

Is the regime actively pursuing defectors, especially from the armed forces?

I would probably say not because the regime is so stretched right now. The army is so stretched right now it does not have the resources to go out to every defector’s house and pull them back into the army … I think there are thousands of conscripts tied down in bases throughout the country who aren’t taking part in anything, they’re being held captive [essentially].

The increased use of shelling, earlier on, and of air capabilities [now], is an obvious sign they don’t trust their own soldiers and have to resort to these indiscriminate ways of trying to defeat the rebels.

Do you think there will be a change in the rebels’ military fortunes now that they’ve begun capturing military bases and airfields? They still don’t seem to be able to do much against the regime’s air force.

I think last week has been quite important. The fall is coming, and obviously we don’t know when and can’t say when but we know it’s coming. They’ve got their hands on a lot more ammunition and artillery and more sophisticated weapons. It’s coming, and it was always going to be the case. How it will work out on the ground [though], we don’t know at this stage. They [could try to] take Aleppo, and from there Hama and Homs, then on to Damascus. It’s very difficult to say: it could takes weeks, [or] we could be talking a year from now and Damascus could be surrounded by all sides by rebels. No one really knows.

They took control of a border crossing near the Jordanian-Syrian border. As soon as they had, they left, they feared airstrikes, they didn’t want to be targets, they didn’t want the civilian population in the area to take the brunt of whatever airstrikes came their way. Even if they don’t operate out of government airbases, the fact that they have destroyed a capability that can carry out air raids from … that’s a partial victory.

Is foreign intervention more likely now because of these successes?

Probably not …. I think what’s going to happen with the rebels taking more strategic areas and having their hands on more sophisticated hardware, it’s more likely that the international community will back off, and I think that’s a good thing [for Syria].

Is the FSA coordinating its offensives at a national level?

There seems to be very little coordination, even between the political opposition. I had a conversation with some [Syrian National Council] leaders a couple of months back, and they’re trying to “rein in” armed rebel leaders in Homs and other areas, and they can’t.

What’s the view of the new Syrian National Coalition, then? Is it having acceptance issues in Syria like the Syrian National Council has had?

That seems to be the case. To go back to your previous question, there isn’t much coordination between rebels on a national level. When one side needs ammunition or arms, there’s some kind of negotiation where “we give it to you, but want something in return” instead of uniting, as was the case in Libya. It’s not happening.

(For more on this sort of bargaining, see Charles Levinson’s “Leadership Rifts Hobble Syrian Rebels”.)

In terms of the new coalition, maybe it’s good that there are so many problems now, as opposed to when, eventually, they do govern the country. Maybe perhaps now that they [the opposition leadership] don’t have control of the country and are making all these mistakes first, when they don’t have a country to run, is [a positive development]. Maybe I’m looking at it a little too optimistically, but they’re working through their personality disputes right now as opposed to when they’re in Damascus.

If and when they come in the militias, will be the ones physically in control of everything.

Yes, this is the biggest question. But we also hear very little discussion about this point. The regime is not going to fall until it is physically and violently deposed from the presidential palace, from the main security areas in central Damascus. And who’s going to do that? The armed rebels will do that. The political opposition, maybe in terms of Burhan Ghalioun or the other kind of traditional [opposition] political leaders who are based overseas now, I feel that they feel they have a right to take over leading government positions once the regime falls, but on the other hand it was the rebels’ who sacrificed everything to get there. We don’t how that’s going to work out. Are rebel leaders going to take high positions? Is it going to be the case that a chief rebel leader, that we’ve yet to see, will transpire to occupy a major leadership role, and is he going to want to be President? And if he’s got militias on his side, there will be serious forces to deal with. And plus, they [the militias] have a lot more credibility amongst the Syrian population that support the revolution than these political guys who are based overseas.

Since the emigre activists have been out of the country for decades in some cases, how important and active are the local coordinating committees (LCC) still? Are there still areas where there is no government at all, either regime or otherwise?

It’s remarkable that in some rebel-held areas, there’s still functioning state electricity, functioning telephone lines. People go to the ATMs the first of every month and their government salary is there, even though there hasn’t been a government in place in that particular town in months. It’s really quite strange.

I think the LCCs were a tremendously important force earlier on, to get demonstrations going. Once there were eight hundred demonstrations on one particular Friday nationwide; that doesn’t just happen by accident. In that the LCCs were very important [and now] that’s not happening to the same extent. But … once the regime is toppled, they will already have the activists, the local civil society leaders in place. I think of them [then] in terms of turning out a vote, or campaigning for a particular leader.

So who are these people at the local level?

I think for the most part they’re university-educated young men and women, typically Sunni because three-quarters of the population is Sunni. And they know what the regime is doing is wrong, and at the same time they don’t want to take part violently in the uprising. And they, through their use of social media, they’re able to get their points across different areas of the country, and of course, they’ve had much help from outside. I think the leaders, the top people in the LCCs, are basically here in the US. They’re obviously a very important pivot for organizing what’s happening inside. They’re perhaps young medical students, or young literature students who’ve studied in the state universities. For the most part they’re not the students who went to private universities [in Syria or abroad] who pay US$10–15,000 a year. It’s really important to differentiate between them because the people who went to the private universities, on the highways to Damascus, they are the sons and daughters of wealthy businesspeople in Damascus. They want to go to their cafes, to the malls, to the cinemas: they don’t want any part of the revolution.

It’s the students from the state universities who don’t see themselves having a decent future once they graduate, and they blame the government for it. They see security guys and Alawi leaders driving around in big fancy cars, and they’re going to their state universities where the classrooms have no glass and they sit on twisted benches. And the education they’re getting, they recognize that it’s absolutely ridiculous. They learn everything by rote, it’s essentially a waste of time for them. If you ask a student that goes to Damascus University, “Do you regularly go for classes, they’d say ”No, I just go for the exams." And there’s tremendous, tremendous anger there amongst them.

These are young men and women [in their early twenties]. Take a dentist, for example. They’d need to buy equipment for their practice, but they feel that they’re getting a substandard education, but when they graduate they need to spend money on all this [equipment] … they get their practice, and they go to the kind of poor areas of the country because they can afford the rent there, and because their clients are working-class people, so they can’t charge the same amount for their work as practitioners would in central Damascus. They’re going to be an important force to be reckoned with.

What’s their relationship with the FSA?

They see themselves as very, very different from the rebels. They’re a hardcore, battle-hardened set-up of young men. Some are defectors, some are people who’ve lost family members. For the most part, they are not students. Of course, there are people from the public universities who have picked up guns, who are running with the Free Army.

I think a lot of them are dormant right now. These young men and women are dormant. And also, as I said at the beginning, a lot of them have picked up the gun. I know a couple of guys who I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they are now part of rebel battalions because of their own forceful views as activities. But this is reason has endured for so long, because it’s such a fragmented opposition.

We say opposition, but what do we mean? Do we mean the political opposition that is based overseas? Do we mean the rebels? Do we mean the LCCs? We can’t roll them all up and say they’re one opposition. What about the traditional political opposition guys who are based Syria, who have been the traditional Marxist-leftist guys with a relationship with regime and oppose violent opposition? That’s four sections of an opposition right there.

Is it possible to talk to any of your former colleagues inside Syria since you last spent time in Syria this past February?

A lot of [my Syrian journalist colleagues] have left the country. I have to be careful. I could phone up my friends in Syria, but if they’ve been detained, I wouldn’t [necessarily] know, and then who am I getting on the other end?

How good is the regime’s electronic surveillance capability?

Yes, it’s pretty sophisticated, the Syrian Electronic Army. Their surveillance technology had been supplied earlier this year and last year [from private companies abroad].