When it comes to interpreting Syria, a strong tension exists between outside and inside perspectives, between journalistic storylines and anecdotal accounts. This is a tension I’ve felt deeply through my own experiences, which often seem to stand in stark contrast to traditional narratives about Syria in Western media and academia. I spent six months in Damascus before the overthrow of Egypt’s Mubarak. In the short four months after Egypt captured the imaginations of Syrians, I watched my friends in Damascus transform profoundly in their political ideals, aspirations, and even their personalities. In the first year of protests in the country, I often felt that Syria ‘experts’, who may have had a deep understanding of Syria before the revolution, did not grasp how profoundly it had changed since they undertook their fieldwork. For instance, imagine my bewilderment in the first months of 2011 when I read Syria scholars reiterating that the minorities were scared of the revolution, while I watched my Christian and Alawi friends heading out to the Sunni mosques for Friday protests! I don’t mean to dismiss the expertise of a long-term perspective, which I think is certainly valuable. But I want to draw attention to the ways in which, especially in times of rapid and radical societal change, things often look completely different from the inside, and to point out that area scholars aren’t always well attuned to the logics of internal dynamics.
One example of an empirical misreading of Syria is the continuing perception from outside of a deep urban-rural divide among the ranks of the opposition. This narrative holds that, until fairly recently, Damascus remained an oasis of quiet untouched by the revolution, partially because the regime was able to successfully squash dissent there by use of force, but also in great part because the urbanised, cosmopolitan citizens of the capital did not want the revolution in the first place. It’s easy to see why one would assume this to be the case, based on the scarcity of protests there relative to the rest of the country. In fact, many residents of Damascus were very active protesters – just not in Damascus.