By Stephen Starr, Special to CNN
Journalist Stephen Starr lived in Syria for five years, until earlier this year, and is the author of ‘Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising’. He tweets @stephenstarr. The views expressed are his own.
Syria is a country divided. Its poor, dusty towns and villages have exploded in rage against the ruling establishment, while life in the major cities often continues largely as normal. Christian neighborhoods and Alawite towns around the country continue to back the regime. And Sunni rebels and families have been massacred time and again.
Glued to state television, Syria’s minorities are charmed by a false nationalism that reinforces their own communal beliefs and hopes. “Syria is strong,” goes the regime’s rhetoric, “the army is winning” and “the crisis will be solved soon.” Many among Syria’s minorities espouse such delusions. To add to the sense of conspiracy, some minority communities have been armed by the Bashar al-Assad regime, which has preyed on the fears of Christians and other minorities.
Others in Idlib, Azaz and Bab Amr – areas that have been leveled by the government’s shelling campaigns – have a very different perspective of what has happened over the past 18 months. Once civilians, many among them are now rebels fighting for a Syria where their children and grandchildren can live without fear or intimidation. Equally, these individuals, those who have lost loved ones at the hands of the regime’s thugs and guns, cannot comprehend a return to life before March 2011. With more than 3,700 killed in the month of August according to opposition activists – the highest monthly toll yet – the discord between these two sets of groups is driving Syria to the brink.
However, it is simplistic to claim the divisions are sectarian only. The reason the revolts have ignited, but failed to achieve any genuine short term success in either Damascus or Aleppo is because there are thousands of families, the old Damascenes and the nouveau riche, who have done well under the al-Assad regime and do not want change. “Historically Damascenes do not get involved in the messy business of revolution,” a Syrian analyst told me in Damascus last year. “They will come up with a political solution and a government, but things such as uprisings are below them.”
Furthermore, to demonstrate in central Damascus is to bear a death wish. Security agents stand on most street corners armed to the teeth. Those opposing the regime have seen what happens to those that defy conventional order in other parts of the country, and few are willing to partake in suicide missions.
But even though many hate the regime, the residents of the major cities will not protest, initiate substantive strikes or take up arms. Repeatedly we have seen reports of how the fighting in Aleppo and Damascus was started by fighters from outside the cities, not indigenous populations. Over the first 12 months of revolution I spent in Syria people would speak of how they hoped the regime will fall; “soon, inshallah.” Instead of actively participating in bringing down the regime, they wait for the country folk, the poor who have initiated the revolt, to bring change to them.
Many such people point with frustration to the political opposition. New opposition parties, road maps for a new Syria and equally, divisions, appear almost every other day among their ranks. All lack the unity of vision to capture the country’s imagination. Even though it may greatly assist their cause in the short term, activists in the opposition have worked hard to prevent a unifying, Ataturk-like figure emerging as a leader.
In spite of these divisions and the bloodshed, Syria is charging towards a new path. We don’t know when or how, but the regime of Bashar al-Assad will end in its current form at least, and for the milieu of opposition groups the floor will then be theirs. When that day comes the deficiencies they are currently trying to hide will be exposed and, we hope, amended by the people of Syria.
The opposition’s intentions are noble and their promises of protecting minorities commendable, but few speak of the elephant in the room: the role rebel leaders will play once the regime falls. As I have discussed elsewhere, they are the people who have fought and died for this revolt; they are battle-hardened and motivated by the memory of their dead families and friends, and they are likely to seek a large slice of power in a future government.
Syrians themselves must take responsibility for their country following the seemingly inevitable fall of the current regime. Some activists have already done so where and how they can. But many others like to cast blame.
Al-Assad and his government cannot be blamed for civilians running red traffic lights, building illegal homes or stealing electricity from central power lines, as I have seen take place in various parts of the country since the revolt began. Under a new political system Syrians will no longer have the unscrupulous al-Assad regime as a scapegoat to blame for the ills in their lives.
The repercussions of Syrians themselves not soon coming to terms with the responsibility they hold for their own futures could be disastrous for the long-term future of the country. For towns and cities where Syrians of different religions live together, airing concerns and listening to neighbors will be key. Truth and reconciliation committees may serve as the best method of laying out such grievances and of ending local feuds.
A billboard sign found around Damascus in the early months of the uprising claimed that “with freedom comes responsibility.” At some point in the future, 21 million Syrians will live with a degree of personal and political freedom they have never previously experienced, be it with the help of international intervention or not. How they react to such liberty will have implications not just for their own country, but for the wider Middle East. Once the al-Assad regime falls, their futures are truly in their hands.