(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.