Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).

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  • Ethics of survival rule the day in Syria

    Regime propaganda painting all opposition as terrorists has made it easier for regular Syrians to ignore the horrors.


    2017/05/21 Issue: 107 Page: 4



    Having lived in Syria for four years prior to the outbreak of the 2011 uprising, neither I nor the Syrians I interacted with every day expected Bashar Assad’s government to react with such violence. Torture, mass starvation, chemical attacks and the slaughter of civilians are everyday experi­ences for many who live in areas registering opposition to the Syrian president and his forces.

    Five years in Syria gave me an unforgettable insight into the depths of the regime’s cruelty. One of the lasting experiences, however, was to witness how many Syrians simply stood by or contributed to the violence against their fellow citizens. In the years since leaving Syria, I’ve spent countless hours pondering why they did so, speculating whether or how the violence used by the regime may reflect on Syrians’ own mindsets.

    Whereas the regime’s motiva­tion is clear — to stay in power at any cost — that of the man on the Syrian street is much less so. The sectarian make-up of society certainly accounts for some of the fear that made people do or turn a blind eye to horrific things but it does not explain the individual acts that, collectively, have worked in the regime’s favour.

    Can that be accounted for by the promise of professional or personal advancement?

    A sense of national duty?

    An overriding fear of punish­ment?

    Or does Syrians’ destruction of their fellow countrymen and women fall into something we may call the ethics of survival — kill now, ignore the security forces’ raids and torture around you or run the risk of something similar happening to you later?

    To what extent, if any, have the malcontents of society created the Assad regime?

    Regime propaganda painting all opposition as terrorists has made it easier for regular Syrians to ignore the horrors the govern­ment bestowed on civilians in eastern Aleppo and elsewhere.

    Early on during the revolution, many Syrians decided, in their minds, whether they supported the tenets of the revolution or not. For the majority — and they are a majority — who decided not to actively back the uprising and saw the peaceful protests morph into car bomb attacks, an armed opposition and the rise of Islamic State (ISIS), their support for the regime strengthened over time and, with it, a disassociation from citizens in opposition areas.

    History, too, presents us with several possible answers to why Syrians in government-con­trolled areas have turned a blind eye. Carved up by imperialist powers a century ago, Syria existed as a country before the faintest concept of a Syrian national identity was realisti­cally proposed.

    On top of the fact that state­hood was and remains, to a degree, a foreign construction ungrounded in centuries-old tribal and ethno-religious relations, the idea of all Syrians being equal doesn’t apply as it would to citizens in, for exam­ple, Western countries that have existed more or less territorially intact since the Thirty Years’ War of the 1600s.

    When Hafez Assad took control of Syrian politics, the country did little to engender a sense of ground-up civic duty that would have forged a lasting national identity. The Assad family has, of course, forced the idea of Arab nationalism — via the Ba’ath Party — down people’s throats but that has been interpreted as something Syrians must accept, not a facet of respect that the majority wanted to embrace. If Syria embraced a national identity it was because the police state forcibly made it so.

    That means when Syrians today are massacred in Idlib, Deir ez-Zor or in the Damascus suburbs, people in other parts of the country don’t feel affected in the same way that, say, the entire country of France was following the November 2015 attacks.

    The final critical reason that may explain why many Syrians have stood by an authoritarian political leadership is because it mirrors the patriarchy that exists in their own family structures. With fathers and brothers from government-controlled territo­ries going to the front, in hiding or dodging conscription, the regime has stepped in to fill this missing authoritarian gap. A patriarchal society minus its patriarchs is arguably more susceptible to accepting the rule of the strong, in their case the regime.

    For many barely surviving under the regime’s rule, it is easier to survive by staying silent, turning the other cheek. With the country in ruins and perhaps half a million dead, can we blame them?

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