Stephen Starr writes: “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.
Before the uprising, western-styled malls were flung up in Aleppo, Damascus and one on the outskirts of Homs. New private banks made cheap credit available to thousands of young men and women wanting to buy houses and cars, and to get married. The Damascus Securities Exchange opened in 2009. A Mediterranean cafe culture swelled in the major cities.
But there was also an emerging anger that few well-to-do Syrians ever saw: the suburbs around Aleppo and Damascus, and in Daraa, became cramped with displaced farmers and labourers from Syria’s Jazeera region to the east: hundreds of thousands had fled a three-year drought from 2008 and came to the cities in search of work. They moved to Qaboun, Harasta and Douma – all districts we are familiar with today.
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. [Continue reading…]