Revolt in Syria

Eye-Witness to the Uprising

July 2015 9781849044509 176pp


In January 2011 President Bashar al-Assad told the Wall Street Journal that Syria was ‘stable’ and immune from revolt. In the months that followed, and as regimes fell in Egypt and Tunisia, thousands of Syrians took to the streets calling for freedom, with many dying at the hands of the regime.

In Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising, Stephen Starr delves deep into the lives of Syrians whose destiny has been shaped by the state for almost fifty years. In conversations with people from all strata of Syrian society, Starr draws together and makes sense of perspectives illustrating why Syria, with its numerous sects and religions, was so prone to violence and civil strife.

Through his unique access to a country largely cut off from the international media during the unrest, Starr delivers compelling first hand testimony from both those who suffered and benefited most at the hands of the regime.

Revolt in Syria details why many Syrians wanted Assad’s government to stay as the threat of civil war loomed large, the long-standing gap between the state apparatus and its people and why the country’s youth stood up decisively for freedom. Starr also sets out the positions adhered to by the country’s minorities and explains why many Syrians believe that enforced regime change might precipitate a region-wide conflict.


‘This searching inquiry is painful reading, but urgent for those who hope to understand what lies behind the shocking events in Syria, what the prospects might be, and what outsiders can – and cannot – do to mitigate the immense suffering as a country so rich in history and promise careens towards disaster.’ — Noam Chomsky

‘Vivid, thought-provoking and sometimes shocking … has great value, not least because it challenges some of the simple certainties that have characterised coverage of the Syrian uprising. … 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

‘Stephen Starr had a unique vantage point as Syria’s revolution unfolded. Written with insight and verve, his book is essential reading for anybody interested in Syria.’ — Fergal Keane, author and BBC journalist

‘In Revolt in Syria, Stephen Starr has taken on the mammoth task of elucidating this confusing country. After four years in Syria he has some insight. … He presents a very readable account of the chaos and confusion in Syrian towns and neighbourhoods. … The general conclusion is than no one in Syria knows what is going on … It is therefore a strange kind of enlightenment that this book offers, but probably an accurate one.’ — Times Literary Supplement

‘… Starr, a journalist who lived in Damascus for five years, records his encounters with ordinary Syrians and with the state’s intelligence apparatus in an unadorned narrative of the Syrian street. … It follows as Starr argue[s], that on major issues, Sunni cronies who are not ‘family’ ultimately have no voice.  … Starr, who was there at the revolt’s beginning, cannot make up his mind about whether the regime had been expecting this challenge for years or was taken by surprise.  Both observations may well be true.’ — John Waterbury, Foreign Affairs

‘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

‘This book has the privilege of being a first-hand account of the events that shaped/are shaping the contemporary history of Syria…It is an important contribution to the studies on the Arab Spring in general and, on Syria, in particular. No one interested in the contemporary Arab world can afford to miss it’— Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmed Sikander, The Muslim World Book Review, 2014

‘Starr’s book, published in 2012, now looks remarkably prescient—not because it sets out the answers, but because it introduces us to the anxieties of a cross-section of Syrians as the uprising against Assad acquired momentum. Starr, an Irish journalist, is familiar with Syria, having lived and worked there as a journalist for four years. He supplies a vivid picture of a tyrannical state that eradicated political opposition with chilling efficiency. But like the best reporters, Starr lets the people do the talking—and many of them side with Assad’s dictatorship against the revolutionary alternative.’ — The Daily Beast

‘No person having interest in contemporary Arab can afford to miss this book … A powerful and welcome read indeed.’ — New Age Islam

Revolt is a must-read for anyone interested in the causes and course of the Syrian uprising. Stephen Starr plums the religious and class divisions of Syria with a keen eye for personal anecdote and broad truths. What is more, he entertains as he instructs; his prose is lively and his conversations are filled with insight and startling revelations. He records his discussion with a broad spectrum of Syrians, both famous and unknown. Having spent five years working in Syria as a reporter, Starr gets below the surface of this country where people so often speak in half-truths and use misdirection as the first line of defense. Starr knows the corruption and immobility of Syria’s state institutions, having worked as an editor of Syria’s only state-run English language paper. But he also understands why so many Syrians cling to these same institutions for stability and jobs in a region troubled by so many failed states. Starr is a deft guide to Syria in the midst of revolution.’ — Joshua M. Landis, Director, Center for Middle East Studies, University of Oklahoma, and author of Syria Comment

‘In the style of Kapuściński, Revolt in Syria offers the reader a lively text, filled with interesting anecdotes and conversations detailing the first year of the conflict. Aided by five years as a freelance journalist based in Damascus, Starr draws on a broad array of interviewees when offering examples of the decay afflicting many of the country’s institutions.’ — José Ciro Martínez, New Middle Eastern Studies

‘Stephen Starr’s four year stay in Syria as a sharp-eyed freelance journalist has given him unusual assets — an uncommon knowledge of daily life in Damascus; an understanding of the ills of Syrian society; an extensive network of friends from different communities; and a sympathetic insight into divided loyalties as the country slides ever closer to civil war.’ — Patrick Seale, author of Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East; and The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East.

‘A brave account … There is huge value in the thoughts and stories of someone who has been in Syria for four years rather than the instant impressions of shorter and more controlled trips. … Revolt is far more than a simple focus on the clash between the regime and the protestors, it explores, from a non-academic perspective, the fundamental debates that define modern Syria, from dichotomies of state and society, urban and rural, rich and poor, ethnic and sectarianism which all contribute towards an overall narrative of suppressed discontent which is essential for understanding what fuelled anger in the first place. … An important contribution to this hugely stifled subject.’ — James Denselow, Huffington Post UK

Revolt is a brave account written by someone who knows Syria and has been there since long before the outbreak of protests and violence in March 2011. … The book provides a nuanced look into the protest movements and how they spread. … Far more than a simple focus on the clash between the regime and the protestors, the book explores, from a non-academic perspective, the fundamental debates that define modern Syria, from dichotomies of state and society, urban and rural, rich and poor, ethnic and sectarianism which all contribute towards an overall narrative of suppressed discontent which is essential for understanding what fuelled anger in the first place. … Starr’s analysis of the workings of the regime and the demands and divisions in Syrian society demonstrate an excellent knowledge of the country, which combines to create a rare and thorough eyewitness perspective of the events of the past year.’ — John Calvert, Associate Professor of History at Creighton University and author of Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism

‘A valuable and unique contribution to the growing literature on Syria’s tragic recent trajectory. … Starr’s journalistic prose paints a colourful and detailed picture of how ordinary Syrians have dealt with the descent into civil war.’ — International Affairs

‘A complex, nuanced and even-handed account that avoids the simplicities of much of the analysis of the Arab Spring. … At its core is an extraordinarily wide-ranging set of interviews with Syrians of all political and religious persuasions, from those who actively support the regime, to those who oppose it by a variety of means, to the very many in between who long for something better than the political repression and economic stagnation that Assad’s rule offers but who fear what might happen should he be overthrown. … Anyone interested in the complex realities that underpin the conflict in Syria should be grateful that he took the risks that he did in order to produce this impressive and insightful eye-witness account.’ — Irish Times

Revolt in Syria is a testament to the need for ground reporting. … [Starr] provides those knowledgeable of Syria with familiar and refreshing antidotes to mainstream coverage of the conflict. For those less familiar, [his book] is essential reading to gather a deeper understanding of how Damascus ticks, and why it matters.’ — The Daily Star, Lebanon

‘Stephen Starr’s excellent ‘Revolt in Syria’ provides a snapshot of Damascus in 2011 as the revolution encroaches and the apolitical are forced to choose sides. Starr’s analysis is precise and well-informed – he offers useful summaries and contextualisations of Syria’s class cleavages, the fears and hopes of its ethnic and sectarian minorities, and the urban rural divide – but the book’s foremost strengths are its eyewitness reporting and the space given to ordinary Syrians, in all their variety, to speak. This account, therefore, has the texture and the drama of a genuine inside view.’ — Robin Yassin-Kassab, author of The Road From Damascus

‘Syria seems set for months and perhaps years of economic stagnation, brutal repression and divisions. This depressing outlook is all too real, but Revolt in Syria is an important if uncomfortable reminder that there is still little movement towards any kind of solution.’ — Gulf News

‘Starr’s invaluable contribution clarifies the tragic quagmire that is Syria today, but, realistically, he is not optimistic about the future.’— Publishers Weekly

‘No-one interested in the contemporary Arab world can afford to miss this book.’ — The Muslim World Book Review


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.

Request an academic inspection copy Request a press review copy
Inspection Copy Request
Review Copy Request
Join our mailing list

Subscribers receive exclusive discounts and early access to new books from Hurst.