Stephen Starr – Syria can find peace if its minorities seek common ground

“Animosity between the largely Sunni protest movement and the minorities who stood by and watched Assad’s forces slaughter them will have to be ironed out and discussed on a countrywide scale. There will be many more deaths, even after the regime is ousted. Syrians will have to partake on one key activity: to listen to each other. For the country’s minorities and for those fearing a conservative government replacing Assad they must consider themselves Syrian first, and Alawite, Christian, Kurd, second.” — Stephen Starr

On Monday, the Guardian ran “Syria can find peace if its minorities seek common ground,” an article on the dangers posed by animosity between the minority groups in Syria written by Stephen Starr. Starr is a freelance journalist who has lived in and reported from Syria since 2007, and the author of the forthcoming Revolt in Syria: Eye-witness to the Uprising. Starr has written about the Syrian uprising for the Washington Post, Financial Times, the London Times and the London Sunday Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Irish Times.

Starr begins his article by explaining how well-to-do Syrians avoided discussing politics before the recent uprising:

“You can write about anything you want,” friends and acquaintances regularly told me during my five-year stay in Syria. “But do not touch politics or religion.” For Syrians, the open discussion of politics was something on few people’s minds. Before the current revolt took hold, managing to secure a good job in spite of crippling graft and sparse opportunities was a far more pressing concern.

Pre-March 2011, the vast majority of Syrians I know kept their heads down and enjoyed life as they could. In wealthy areas of the country, politics and open discussion were gladly sacrificed for economic security and streets where their children could play in peace.


Of course, Starr claims, those not enjoying a high quality of life under the Assad regime were far less ready to make such a sacrifice. Still, Starr believes that the Syrian government could have emerged intact from the early stages of the uprising had Assad been willing to open up forums of political communication:

The brutal arrogance immediately adopted by the Syrian regime to the current uprising meant it was doomed from the revolt’s beginning. There was a way for it to stay in power had it at the beginning engaged in serious dialogue with Syrian society and taken seriously the grievances of the poor. It could have released the many political prisoners (themselves a sideshow to this revolution) and asked international observers to monitor real elections. It could have allowed commentators and journalists to write freely in media forums.

The regime was relatively popular before the revolt. Syrians looking east and west to Iraq and Lebanon counted stability as a blessing. The government’s at-least-rhetorical opposition to Israel served to unite many around it.

But it chose the way of the gun. It chose to take on the thousands without jobs or money. It used weapons and torture against these people. As the death toll mounts, and Assad is offered “safe passage” by the Arab League, Syrians would of course be far better off without him.

It’s Syria after Assad that most concerns Starr:

The Syrian people have given their lives in their attempts to depose one dictator – they won’t likely settle for another taking Assad’s place. If future governments cannot provide electricity, water and jobs then they too will be shipped out. If current opposition figures cannot act where they have been talking for years, they will be left on the sidelines – this is not a society prepared to settle for the guile of waffling politicians. Furthermore, any likenesses with Lebanon and Iraq are misplaced because of the widely differing population breakdowns. The Iraqi and Lebanese civil conflicts were fought between groups with relatively equal demographic numbers. In Syria, however, only 10% (the Alawite population) will likely feel threatened enough to pick up guns. Christians and others fearful of the revolt movement will not pick up guns and fight for Alawites. As they have done during the revolt, they will likely stand by. . . .

Animosity between the largely Sunni protest movement and the minorities who stood by and watched Assad’s forces slaughter them will have to be ironed out and discussed on a countrywide scale. There will be many more deaths, even after the regime is ousted. Syrians will have to partake on one key activity: to listen to each other. For the country’s minorities and for those fearing a conservative government replacing Assad they must consider themselves Syrian first, and Alawite, Christian, Kurd, second.

1 Response

  1. If we have learned anything from history surely it is that problems will only be solved when people sit down and talk and make concessions. Why can we not learn to skip the violence and start talking.Too many innocent lives are destroyed and ended because we do not realise that no matter where in the world conflict arises, it only ends when the peace process ends it. My impression from Stephen’s book is that the ordinary Syrian citizen would settle for basic human rights and be happy to live with their neighbour regardless of religion or sect.

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