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A war with no winners

Personal ambitions, ethnic divisions and political posturing willkeep Syria in the grips of chaos

Gulf News

Revolt in Syria: Eye-witness to the Uprising

By Stephen Starr,

C Hurst & Co, 232 pages, £14.99

The world is confused about how to react to the ongoing struggle in Syria between an incoherent opposition and the ferocious government headed by President Bashar Al Assad. After initial hesitation, the majority of the Arab world now sympathises with the opposition, although it is concerned that the lack of a serious political offering may lead to chaos in the event of the opposition gaining power. With the shocking use of force by his government on its own people Al Assad has lost legitimacy, but that has not translated into any desire from most Arab states or Nato to offer military action in support of the opposition militias.

The grave ignorance of the local and ethnic political forces in Syria means that any attempt to forecast the country’s future is likely to fail, but this vacuum in thought should not be allowed to continue. The war is set to expand, and neither side is looking for a political solution. In a short period of time, the regional dangers of a disintegrating Syria will force the Arab world to try to find a solution. In fact, the fighting is already becoming regionalised as Islamists and others have rushed to support the rebels while Iranian troops have come to the government’s rescue.

This is why a book such as “Revolt in Syria” becomes essential reading, with Stephen Starr telling the story of the opposition from his unique vantage point of having worked for local newspapers and reported on the country for the international media for many years. Starr’s analysis and anecdotes combine to offer a powerful overview of the variety of forces at work in Syria, and he avoids over-simplification. He is not one of the notorious news “firemen” who travel to every troubled spot, where they become instant experts on the war and its political causes. Such analyses are inherently dangerous since they tend to be based on international consensus and ignore local factors.

For example, as the opposition desperately seeks outside support, Starr points out the dangers of taking foreign money. He reports on the “pot of gold” cash injection announced at the second Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul in April 2012, when Saudi Arabia and Qatar offered the rebels substantial sums. To many Syrians this showed that these two countries, both of which have taken a lead in denouncing the regime, wish to exert control in Syria without getting their hands dirty. “Saudi Arabia was never particularly popular with Syrians,” Starr writes, “and this venture is unlikely to increase further defections”. Such events, which took place only a few months ago and are at the core of Starr’s analysis, increase trust in his other comments throughout the book.

Starr speaks for the variety of people that make up Syria. He includes the ethnic and religious mix, talking to Awalites, Sunnis and Shiites, Christians of various sects, and the Druze and Kurds. But in some of the most interesting chapters he moves beyond these ethnic categories and instead looks at what drives the young twentysomethings seeking a different world from that of their parents, the rich and the merchants looking for stability and not particularly concerned about the politics, the professional classes getting increasingly desperate, and the members of the armed forces unable to desert everything they have always stood for. These (and other) economic divides cross ethnic or religious camps, and as Starr points out, are powerful forces for change in Syria’s very traditional society. They existed before the present conflict and have determined how people react to the fighting.

Starr’s familiarity with the people and his readiness to quote anyone, from the president to a show assistant, makes his book come alive. In one of his most charming insights on society, Starr quotes a young man who dismisses any hope for dialogue. The Syrian points out that every Syrian thinks he or she is the boss and that no one knows more than them on their subject. The wife is the boss of her children and her home. The husband is the boss of the house. The taxi driver who takes the husband to work every morning is the boss of all issues related to cars, and the policeman who stops the taxi driver for jumping a red light knows more about the law of the land than anyone else, and so on.

“People cannot accept that they are wrong. They cannot sit down and listen to another’s opinion and admit that that idea is better than their own,” he says, adding that “we all need to take responsibility for our country and not blame the protesters or government for our problems”.

Starr ends his prologue with the gloomy outlook that “the regime cannot win this fight, but nor can the opposition win it outright in the near future”.

Syria seems set for months and perhaps years of economic stagnation, brutal repression and divisions. This depressing outlook is all too real, but “Revolt in Syria” is an important if uncomfortable reminder that there is still little movement towards any kind of solution.