LONDON: It will soon be the second anniversary of the start of the events currently still known as the Arab spring, but we don’t yet know the meaning of what has happened or the outcome of the bloodiest chapter of the upheaval, being played out in daily mayhem and misery across Syria.
Bashar al Assad’s regime, which had seemed to be one of the most stable of Arab dictatorships, has certainly been profoundly shaken — and not only because an estimated 25,000 people have already died. But is it possible that the still-defiant Assad will follow in the footsteps of his father Hafez, who killed as many or more in Hama in 1982, in the pre-YouTube age, but lived for another 17 years before dying peacefully in his bed?
Author Stephen Starr supplies a partial answer in his vivid account of the first months of the uprising. His book — Revolt in Syria: Eye-witness to the Uprising — is also fascinating on how a young Damascus-based journalist, who had previously struggled to interest editors and now found himself in the right place at the right time, managed to operate in hazardous circumstances. He was lucky that the Irish business paper he was accredited to erected a paywall so that the ministry of information didn’t read his stories online.
In significant ways Syria was a different case from Egypt and Tunisia, where the army quickly sided with the revolution, and Libya, where a united opposition consolidated its base in Benghazi and won the western support that led to Nato’s intervention and finally Qadhafi’s violent death.
But Syria did have one crucial thing in common with other Arab countries touched by the spring fever of 2011: that was a sense — de Tocqueville identified it as “a revolution of rising expectations” — that living under an authoritarian system with brutal instincts was no longer tolerable.
The spark ignited in the southern town of Deraa, where schoolchildren who daubed anti-regime graffiti on walls were arrested and beaten and had their fingernails pulled out by the Mukhabarat secret police. That abuse triggered a defiant response. Within days al-Jazeera, a key player in this drama, was broadcasting pictures of a statue of Hafez being pulled down — Saddam-style — as dozens lay dead on the streets. State media, of course, didn’t report it. But Starr started getting calls from horrified contacts urging him to cover the story. It was, he writes, “hardly believable”.
These origins are worth recalling because memories have faded. These days debates about Syria focus on western intervention, opposition divisions, the role played by jihadis and the motives of the Saudis and Qataris in arming the rebels. All too often, ordinary Syrians are robbed of any agency, portrayed as pawns in a geopolitical game.
Culture of fear
Starr’s strength was as a resident correspondent who had the time to get to know the man on the Damascus microbus. He describes the “culture of fear” pervading Syrian society and how it faded in the face of the repression and violence — “a massive miscalculation” — that followed Assad’s belated and unconvincing promises of reform. But he criticises those who fail to understand why the president has retained support, from his own minority Alawite community, from Christians, as well as substantial sections of the Sunni middle classes and those who depend on the state — a “silent majority seeking a better life”. This still seems pertinent even after the regime has used artillery, air strikes and Shabiha thugs to commit sectarian massacres. On a highly contentious point, Starr also believes that the government, known for manipulating extremists in Lebanon and Iraq, staged several suicide bombings that it blamed on Al Qaeda.Assad and those who surround him, Starr predicts, “will not negotiate because the concept is alien to them in their everyday lives … The regime set a path to run both itself and the country into the ground. It would not give up an inch of Syrian soil.”
Assad’s journey to this point is surveyed by the American academic David Lesch, whose blunt conclusion is spelled out in his book’s title. By his own admission he was one of those Syria-watchers who, in the early noughties, thought that the western-trained ophthalmologist and computer geek with the attractive, London-born wife and a taste for the music of Phil Collins was a genuine reformer, who was held back by Hafez-era hardliners. (Lesch’s previous book was flatteringly called The New Lion of Damascus.) Others never believed in the novelty or the promise in the first place.
Lesch argues now that Bashar raised expectations he could not meet, that he remained a child of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the cold war, keeper of the Alawite flame — and above all his father’s son. The brief “Damascus Spring” of 2002 was followed by a wave of repression that the regime liked to blame on the US invasion of neighbouring Iraq, but which in truth ended because it challenged the status quo. Syria needed a Gorbachev figure who would break out and embrace a genuinely transformational role. “But he was not up to the task,” Lesch concludes. “He failed miserably.” That failure continues to be written in Syrian blood.
By arrangement with Guardian