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Supporting Non-Violence in Syria


The worsening violence and repression in Syria has left many analysts and policymakers in the United States and other western countries scrambling to think of ways our governments could help end the bloodshed and support those seeking to dislodge the Assad regime. The desperate desire to "do something" has led a growing number of people to advocate for increased military aid to armed insurgents or even direct military intervention, as the French government has said it will consider doing unilaterally.

While understandable, to support the armed opposition would likely exacerbate the Syrian people's suffering and appear to validate the tragic miscalculation by parts of the Syrian opposition to supplant their bold and impressive nonviolent civil insurrection with an armed insurgency.

The Assad regime proved itself to be utterly ruthless in its suppression of the nonviolent pro-democracy struggle in 2011. However, it is important to stress that this ruthlessness was not the primary reason the movement failed to generate sufficient momentum to oust Bashar al-Assad.

From apartheid South Africa to Suharto's Indonesia to Pinochet's Chile, extremely repressive regimes have been brought down through largely nonviolent civil insurrections. In some cases, as with Marcos in the Philippines, Honnecker in East Germany, and Ben Ali in Tunisia, dictators have ordered their troops to fire into crowds of many thousands of people, only to have their soldiers refuse. In some other countries, such as Iran under the Shah and Mali under General Toure, many hundreds of nonviolent protesters were gunned down, but rather than cower the opposition into submission, they returned in even larger numbers and eventually forced these dictators to step down.

Historically, when a nonviolent movement shifts to violence, it is a result of frustration, anger, or the feeling of hopelessness. Rarely is it done as a clear strategic choice. Indeed, if the opposition movement were organizing its resistance in a strategic way, with a logical sequencing of tactics and a familiarity with the history and dynamics of popular unarmed civil insurrection, they would recognize that it is usually a devastating mistake to shift to violence. Rather than hasten the downfall of the dictator, successful armed revolutions have historically taken more than eight years to defeat a regime, while unarmed civil insurrections have averaged around two years before victory. Unfortunately, the fragmentation of Syrian civil society combined with the hardness of the security apparatus has made it challenging to maintain a resilient movement. Whether a movement is violent or nonviolent, improvisation is not enough when dealing with a regime that readily instills fears as in Syria.

Indeed, the failure of the opposition movement to overthrow the regime in its initial months, when it was primarily nonviolent, does not prove that nonviolence "doesn't work" any more than the failure of a violent movement to overthrow a regime subsequently proves that violence "doesn't work." Whether or not a movement is primarily violent or nonviolent, what is important is whether it employs strategies and tactics that can maximize its chances of success.

Another factor is that, unlike the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the Saleh regime in Yemen, or the Qaddafi regime in Libya, Syria is not a case of a regime whose power rests in the hands of a single dictator and the relatively small segment of the population that benefits from their association with the dictator. The Syrian regime still has a social base. A fairly large minority of Syrians -- consisting of Alawites, Christians and members of other minority communities, Baath Party loyalists and government employees, the professional armed forces and security services, and the (largely Sunni) crony capitalist class that the regime has nurtured -- still cling to the regime. There are certainly dissidents and "latent double thinkers" within all of these sectors. Yet regime loyalists are a large enough segment of the population so that no struggle -- whether violent or nonviolent -- will win without cascading defections.

The Baath Party has ruled Syria for most of the past 50 years, before even the 30-year reign of Assad's father. Military officers and party apparatchiks have developed their own power base. Dictatorships that rest primarily on the power of just one man are generally more vulnerable in the face of popular revolt than are oligarchical systems in which a broader network of elite interests has a stake in the system. Just as the oligarchy which ruled El Salvador in the 1980s proved to be far more resistant to overthrow by a popular armed revolution than the singular rule of Anastasia Somoza in neighboring Nicaragua, it is not surprising that Syria's ruling group has been more resilient relative to the personalist dictatorships toppled in the wave of largely nonviolent insurrections in neighboring Arab countries which climaxed last year.

What this means is that, whatever the method of struggle in Syria, it was always likely to have been a protracted one. Armed struggle is not a quick fix. Whether a popular struggle against an autocratic regime succeeds depends not on the popularity of the cause or even the repression of state security forces, but on whether those engaged in resistance understand the basis of the real power of the regime and develop a strategy that can neutralize its strengths and exploit its vulnerabilities.

Nonviolent struggle, like armed struggle, will succeed only if the resistance uses effective strategies and tactics. A guerrilla army cannot expect instant success through a frontal assault on the capital. They know they need to initially engage in small low-risk operations, such as hit and run attacks, and take the time to mobilize their base in peripheral areas before they have a chance of defeating the well-armed military forces of the state. Similarly, it may not make sense for a nonviolent movement to rely primarily on the tactic of massive street demonstrations in the early phases of a movement, but diversify their tactics, understand and apply their own strengths, and exploit opportunities to mobilize support and increase the pressure on the regime.

Despite the ruling Baath Party's nominally socialist ideology, the uprising in Syria has a much stronger working-class base than most of the other Arab uprisings. Strikes and boycotts have been used only sporadically in Syria, but they have been enough to demonstrate the potential of undermining the loyalty of the crony capitalists who benefit from their close relationship to the regime. Indeed, this is what proved to be decisive in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. For a revolution against a heavily armed and deeply entrenched dictator to succeed, the opposition movement needs to mobilize a large percentage of the population on its side, as took place in Tunisia and Egypt. The Syrian resistance needs to act in ways to make the regime come across as illegitimate and traitorous, while making itself look virtuous and patriotic.

There is little question that the Assad regime feared the ability of the nonviolent opposition to neutralize the power of the state through the power of civil resistance more than it has armed groups that are attacking state power where it is strongest -- through the force of arms. They recognized that an armed resistance would reinforce the regime's unity and divide the opposition. That is why the regime has so consistently tried to provoke the pro-democracy forces into violence. It claimed that the opposition was composed of terrorists and armed thugs even during the early months of the struggle, when it was almost completely nonviolent, recognizing that the Syrian people were far more likely to support a regime challenged by an armed insurgency than through a largely nonviolent civil insurrection.

Encouraging defections from the government's side is essential. Defections by security forces -- critically important in ousting a military-backed regime -- are far more likely when they are ordered to gun down unarmed protesters than when they are being shot at. Defection, however, is rarely a physical act of soldiers spontaneously throwing down their arms, crossing the battlefield and joining the other side. Not everyone can do that. Sometimes defections come in the form of bureaucrats or officers degrading the effectiveness of the regime through quiet acts of noncooperation, such as failing to carry our orders, causing key paperwork to disappear, deleting computer files, or leaking information to the other side.