After leaving Syria for Europe in February this year I found there to be a clear disconnect between what I had experienced and what was being portrayed on the television screen in front of me. There was nothing in newspapers or television reports of the quiet Damascus streets, nor any coverage of police and government soldiers being killed by rebels. There were no quotes from civilians blaming, equally, the rebels and regime forces for destroying their homes. (A student in the devastated Damascus suburb of Saqba told me in February: "Of course the government's soldiers will shoot back at anyone who is shooting at them".)
Having spent almost five years working as a reporter in Syria, and living with a rural Christian community for much of that time, I reckon I've a good idea of what Syrians think of the revolt. Their views are far from the black and white views we see on news reports here in the west.
Many city dwellers dislike the regime but do not want their homes and streets destroyed by what any NATO intervention may bring. Even among the opposition on the ground inside the country – one activist, a 23-year-old student dentist, told me: "I do not want freedom if it's free; if it is handed to me by American troops."
A well-to-do engineer from northern Syria said over coffee in Damascus last year: "I hate the regime, but if a single foreign soldier sets foot in Syria I will go and defend Assad."
Thousands of people in central Damascus and Aleppo, the country's two biggest cities, are still shopping and dining out at restaurants. They are whiling away their evenings over coffee and shisha pipes. SANA, the state media, continues to advertise nightclub parties in the city centre. And many young Damascenes attend.
They know, of course, there are terrible things happening in the countryside, but the absence of ready evidence coupled with an extraordinary propaganda campaign by the regime mean people can still look the other way.
Indeed, they do not have to travel far: in Saqba, a 10-minute drive from downtown Damascus, I visited the destruction wrought by the government's tanks when weeding out rebel groups. A couple of kilometres further east of Saqba wealthy families cannot weekend at their villas in the lush tree-covered Ghota region: their summer houses have been taken over by displaced families, their own homes destroyed by tank shells and machine gun fire.
Of course it is important for media outlets to broadcast and publish the crimes being committed by the Assad regime; with any luck he and the military and security leaders that make up his so-called inner circle will stand trial for crimes against humanity. The regime has been slaughtering civilians every day for over 15 months in Syria now and this is a story we must cover and know about. But we must also think of the Syrians whose lives are barely untouched, unpalatable to news editors as it might be.We must also think of the Syrians whose lives are barely untouched, unpalatable to news editors as it might beStephen Starr
Ignoring the relative calm in Damascus and Aleppo in the English-language news cycle is as dangerous as it is unprofessional. Why? Because as an appetite for international military intervention grows – fed through a one-sided media portrayal – the voice of a large percentage of Syrians is drowned out. There are millions of Syrians who want the regime to stay in power, to give it a chance to enact its reform process within a specific timeframe simply because they fear any alternative.
And when we see thousands of Syrian protestors in the streets calling for NATO intervention and for the downfall of the regime we cannot be duped into thinking all Syrians want this.
Then, of course, we have the minority communities – almost 25 per cent of the country's population – the vast majority of whom certainly do not want military intervention.
One friend in Damascus, a wealthy Sunni dentist, told me he hates the regime, "but I will attend the pro-Assad rallies because the alternative – civil war – is so much worse".
The situation in Syria is evidently complicated. Activists I talk to argue among themselves as how to bring down the regime. The only semi-coordinated entity is the regime itself, and that too, is crumbling. This leaves us with a much muddied situation. Unfortunately, the images we see in the five-minute Sky News reports don't show us this nuances.
The Syrian regime is its own worst enemy. The rebels will win and succeed in their revolt. We will hear and see the unbridled celebrations on the streets of Damascus via Anderson Cooper, the BBC and Sky. We probably won't hear much of the fears of Syria's Christians, Alawites and other minorities. We should, because it will be their stories making the news headlines in the following years.
Stephen Starr is an Irish freelance journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 until February. His book, 'Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising', is out in the UK now.
Free daily newsletter
- One year since launch, the Refugee Journalism Project is hoping to expand across the UK
- How SMART News Agency is telling stories from Syria in virtual reality
- SMART News Agency: 'We're testing what can be done with virtual reality in Syria'
- Are drones a new avenue for data journalism?
- How can drones be used to generate data for in-depth journalism?