INTERVIEW: STEPHEN STARR ON SYRIA (The Arabist, 29 & 30/11/2012)

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.

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 everything.

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].

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