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Product details

  • Paperback: 232 pages
  • Publisher: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd (22 Jun. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1849041970
  • ISBN-13: 978-1849041973
  • Product Dimensions: 21.3 x 1.8 x 14 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 384,898 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'[Starr's] material is vivid, thought-provoking and sometimes shocking . . . As eyewitness testimony, it has great value, not least because it challenges some of the simple certainties that have characterised coverage of the Syrian uprising. Mr Starr captures the pain of a deeply torn society in the throes of a bitter struggle, one that has estranged brother from brother, friend from friend.' ----The Economist

'Starr's book is the only account that gives previously unheard voices a chance to be heard. ... his familiarity with the sectarian and political milieu in Syria is better than anyone I know. He has spent five years in the country, marrying into Syrian society if there is one Irishman that the Syrians would describe as muta rrib, Arabicised , it is him. ... Through a series of vignettes and anecdotes, Starr provides us with a plethora of voices from minorities: Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Palestinians, pro-regime and anti regime Syrians. ... The book is a witness to a dilapidated regime [and] Starr captures it all brilliantly.' ----New Statesman

'Unlike most western reporters who have written from Syria, Stephen Starr brings to bear a great deal of personal experience of the country, having lived and worked in Damascus for four years, including a spell with the state media. He's the sort of man who notices the price of milk going up and the increased presence of security forces on the streets as the noose tightens. With a wide network of friends and contacts, he conveys the warp and weft of daily life with an admirably nuanced understanding of the place.' ----The Spectator

About the Author

Stephen Starr is a freelance Irish journalist who has been reporting from Damascus since 2007. He covered the Syrian uprising for some of the world s leading newspapers and his work has been published in The Washington Post, Financial Times, The Times and Sunday Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Irish Times. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Near East Quarterly.

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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Gary Fox on 4 Sept. 2012
Format: Paperback
Starr possesses a keen eye for detail and an ability to craft a beautiful narrative that transforms the stories of the people of Damascus and Syria.

At times brutally honest and revealing, the author avoids the judgements and the black/white views often portrayed in mainstream media. Starr tells the story of the Syrian people and their struggle for a normal life in extraordinary circumstances.

The author possesses the unique view of having spent 5 years living side by side with people of every belief in Syria and he avoids at all costs the reporting from the hotel room journalism that western audiences have become accustomed to.

To truly understand the complex situation and the massive human impact from the conflict in Syria, you must read this book.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Omar Alqayyeh on 17 Aug. 2012
Format: Paperback
The best book that explains the Syrian situation right now it is clear full of details written by a specialist in Syrian issues since2007 must be read for any one concerned about Syrian uprising
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a very interesting book, written in a way that even if English is not your first language, it is easy to understand. Always again! I am completely happy with the product and the way it was delivered.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Period Drama Fan on 16 Nov. 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Very interesting book to read regarding the build up to the existing war . Very easy to read and for those of you who have lived in the area is quite intriguing. It enlightened me to what was happening whilst I was living there and made sense to many of the things I saw and experienced. I have bought this book for 2 friends so would recommend this as one view of the present crisis from a foreign journalist who was living there.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Frustrating but unique 25 Dec. 2013
By James R. Maclean - Published on
Format: Paperback
(The author of this review has never visited Syria. What follows is a book review, not a discussion of events in Syria.)

A survey of books published on the Syrian Revolt of 2011 is disappointing: nearly all of them (this excepted) are summaries of widely available news reports on Syria (1). This one and Mr. Wieland's (see footnote) consist mainly of the authors' personal observations in Syria. Starr's account is almost a diary, while Wieland's is organized like an area handbook.

Starr's book urgently needs an editor. The writing is at times difficult to follow, as if he had stitched together many rough drafts, without being able to remember what he had explained to readers. Crucial backstory is often missing or misrepresented (2). Whenever summarizing relevant historical events, Starr crumples the chronology:


When the Baath (Renaissance) Party took control of Syria in 1963, followed by an internal military coup led by Hafez al-Assad in 1970, Arab nationist sentiment was elevated to the extent that Kurds were sidelined. In 1962, an 'exceptional census' stripped some 120,000 Kurds of the Syrian citizenship. [...] An alliance established by Hafez al-Assad in the 1970s broke down in in 2004 when an uprising followed a football game in the remnants of the Damascus Spring of 2000-01, the 2004 Kurdish revolt serving to embolden the Kurds [...] (p.35)


However, there are so many books about the history of Assad in Syria, or Syria in general, that most readers will not care about this. Most readers will want a feel for Syrian society drawn from Starr's interviews or observations.

Here, Starr excels. Often his writing is vivid and evocative, if hopeless in its pursuit of a conclusion. He does capture a lot of nuance in the complicated relationships of different segments of Syrian society: the Baathist epoch has utterly transformed the country, spawning a host of 2nd-order effects.

But Starr's own personality gets in the way a lot, too. He argues and hectors interview subjects; he dwells a lot on observations that are frankly noise. For example, it turns out that Syrians no less than US nationals, when asked a question about public issues, typically say several incompatible things--like, we need a theocracy to be free, or the like. This is not meaningful, especially if one is exposed to political arguments in a lot of different countries (it's not just countries in dire crisis where people say deranged things). In the first part of the book he records not only his questions, but his pronouncements to Syrians--no doubt stunned at a journalist lecturing them. For example, he rails to ordinary civilians about their preferences:


[LEILA:]"The last thing we need is for NATO or America or Turkey to come and help us. This will destroy the country and I know that if they come it will only be for their own interests [...] I do not want freedom if it is free"


"[STARR:]So how many people must die for you to get what you want? Is it not wrong that people are dying every day?" I asked. (p.119)


This is not intended as a real question, however tactless. And Starr does this constantly. After one particular observation, he suddenly becomes convinced the regime will fall; before, he has been impatient with people who want the regime to fall, and afterward, he is doubly impatient with people who fear the consequences of it falling.

The description of society or how Syrians/Syrian institutions behave in common situations is handy, if random (because he's simply generalizing from his personal experiences.) So this book falls into the category of one Westerner's testimony of the early phase of the Revolution, just as it transitioned into a guerrilla war. Starr's own personal expectations and preferences muddy the waters, and it is often quite difficult to decide what point he's trying to make, but not many other outsiders have recorded their experiences in such detail.
(1) For up-to-date information, I've relied mostly on Joshua Landis's blog, Syria Comment. One very good companion to this work, in my opinion, is Carsten Wieland's Syria - A Decade of Lost Chances: Repression and Revolution from Damascus Spring to Arab Spring (released 1 March 2012). Starr's book was released 23 weeks later, in August. Starr was a freelance journalist from Ireland, while Wieland was a diplomat from Germany.

(2) In addition to the turgid syntax of the quoted passage, Starr makes occasional jabs at the Baath Party's socialist past. I'm not sure if this just hippie-punching, or Marx-kicking (see my review for the The Morality of Money), or if Starr genuinely feels let down by the Baath Party's one-time socialist credentials, but characterizing the Baathist as "socialist" is a little like calling F. von Hayek a "liberal," and then taking this to mean he was just like Senator George McGovern. In a like manner, nearly all political activists in the developing world self-identified as "socialist" for many years; in some cases, such as early Baathists Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar (founders of the Baath Party) or Gamal Abdul Nasser (1958-1962, President of the United Arab Republic of Egypt and Syria), this meant scarcely more than a developmentalist agenda and a commitment to "reform" traditional social institutions.

After 1962, Aflaq and Bitar resumed their control over Syrian politics; in 1966, a bloody coup replaced them with Saleh Jadid, who really did attempt to implement a hardline quasi-Leninist regime in Syria. After 1968-ish, this mainly consisted of terrible foreign relations--war, or veritable war, with Israel, Jordan, and the West (Edward Luttwak, in Coup d'État: A Practical Handbook, argues that Jadid was compelled to affect "socialism" because it afforded a manageable state structure, considering the sectarian and class structure of Syria). Assad's 1970 coup explicitly replaced a "socialist" dictatorship with a "nationist" one. This is not ironic, nor does it say anything about leftwing politics. The right beat the left in Syria after an open fight between military factions.
Like him they are simple hulks 12 Oct. 2014
By Declan Hayes - Published on
Format: Paperback
I give this two stars, not so much because of Mr Starr but because of how I feel he is being used by those who wish to smash Syrian and install a Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship, fronted through the Free Syrian Army or some similar gang of mercenaries.
I say that as Mary Fitzgerald and other die-hard supporters of Syrian and Libyan murder gangs have wheeled Starr and others out for their own reasons of pretending that their side of events in Syria and in Libya is the correct one. Events have shown that the mercenaries they supported have been thieving, throat-cutting thugs and, as such they can have no credibility. In this regard, you will notice I am posting on an older version of the book whereas others can post on a 2015 edition.
What of the book itself? Well, I have visited Damascus and Syria three times this year and my experiences were not his. I have met and seen members of the Shabiha, the Syrian Army, Syrian politicians and most of all Syrian civilians. The Shabiha types I met are not my type and many ordinary Syrians are scared of them so that is not an issue. The ones I met were too fond of steroids and they are physically off putting as they strike too much of a resemblance to Brutus, Popeye’s nemesis. Like him they are simple hulks, good perhaps for breaking prisoners in two or being heavies in extortion rackets but not much else. Some of those I met showed me the knife wounds and rope marks they had as souvenirs of assassination attempts they survived so they too have a story.
Importantly, they are, if you like, the New Shabiha as many of the Old Shabiha and the Ba’ath party are at the front, putting their lives on the line for $40 a month, which is roughly a third of what you can earn in a day if you join the mercenaries of the Free Syrian Army.
Starr tells us of the resentment a lot of Syrians felt towards their government. Well, if you were on $40 a day, so might you. And that is if you had a job. At the moment, jobs are as scarce in Syria as are white blackbirds. This is a side product of the war of attrition being waged by Turkish and Saudi mercenaries with the help of US led sanctions on secular Syria.
He tells us of his experiences and that of other journalists, including those working for the pro Muslim Brotherhood Al Jazeera network. They complain about the secret police watching them. With me, the authorities were more worried about so-called moderate rebels snatching me. They were overly protective and, as such, a symptom of the static society from whence they came.
This is an important point. There was no Syrian spring but a foreign-imposed uprising that used the grievances of the Syrian people to destroy the country. The rebels are a mixture of amoral Syrian mercenaries who prefer $150 a day to $40 a month, Syrian expatriate Muslim Brotherhood opportunists who fancy themselves as future leaders of an American-controlled Syrian client state and the fanatics of al Nusra and ISIS who were the muscle of Saudi and Turkish foreign policy and who are paid in cash and in looted booty for bringing mayhem to Syria.
But what of the democrats, you say. Quite simply there are none or none of consequence at least. The roots of domestic dissent can be found in the embittered families of the Muslim Brotherhood and in groups such as the Turkmen who supply most of the local jihadists. There is no great democratic tradition for others to draw from. Sure, the proponents of democracy, equality and fraternity Starr met had their moments in the sun in the early days but the bombs, bullets and targeted assassinations of the Free Syrian Army soon put paid to them. They are less than a fig-leaf now on what is a brutal war of attrition against the Syrian people.
I was in the heart of Homs for the Presidential election, in areas destroyed by the Syrian air force and the Syrian Arab Army. Yet all of the conservative Sunni Muslims came out of their own volition and voted for Assad. Why? Because he is a war President and they want this war won and the extremist rebels who used them as slaves defeated.
Will there be reform? Quite possibly there will be if Syria survives and if the American cure does not turn it into another Iraq or Libya. The solution is in dialogue, not in exterminating Kurds, Alawites and Armenians for the greater good of Erdogan’s Turkey.
What has all this to do with this book? Quite a lot. Starr cobbled this book hurriedly together when the Troubles began and, like me, he repeats himself a lot, in this edition at least, to pad it out; unlike the other reviewers, I am not privy to the 2015 edition as it is only 2014 in my time zone. Yet we must look forward to 2015 and not always backwards.
His 2015 edition might be a big improvement if he condenses all of this into one small chapter, adds some background information and lots more new material. But there is the rub. I doubt he will get a visa to enter Syria legally in the near future and so will have to take the road rebel apologists like Mary Fitzgerald of the Irish Times took. On the positive side, because he broadly supports the rebels rather than the Syrian people, the Irish Times should carry his pieces. This is unlike Finian Cunningham who reported on Saudi abuses in Bahrain and was blacklisted by the Irish Times as a result. Liberty comes with a price. That price is high for the Syrian people and for the Syrian Arab Army who will, please God, deliver that freedom from foreign serfdom to the Syrian people.
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