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Myopia of the Syrian Struggle and Key Lessons (part I)

3 Feb

Forthcoming in “Is Authoritarianism Staging a Comeback,” Atlantic Council publication, 20151

Maciej J. Bartkowski2 and Julia Taleb3

Failure of the armed resistance

By any measures the armed struggle against the Assad regime is a perfect disaster. The armed struggle failed to topple the Assad’s government, protect civilians or bring more rights and freedoms to Syrians. Although the Assad’s government is primarily responsible for the atrocities, the opposition’s deliberate choice of militarizing the resistance has contributed significantly to what is considered to be the worst humanitarian crisis in the last two decades, which- as of August 2014 – has left more than 190,000 people dead, 6.5 million internally displaced and close to 3 million as registered refugees. Among other things, the armed resistance invited an influx of foreign fighters, decreased the chances of possible reconciliation among various ethnic groups and made the prospect of a democratic outcome highly unlikely. A number of the ‘liberated areas’ in Syria are now experiencing deep tensions and open conflicts among various armed ‘liberators’4 that vie for power and control while endangering the lives of civilians.

Achievements of nonviolent resistance have not been fully assessed and little consideration has been given to possible strategic gains that could have been accomplished had the resistance remained peaceful. The myopic strategies of the Syrian resistance paralleled a general failure of the international community to provide effective assistance to the Syrian nonviolent movement.

Rise and force of the Syrian civil resistance

The Syrian nonviolent resistance, manifested in mass demonstrations that began on March 18, 2011, created the gravest challenge to the

"Alawite symbol of double-pronged sword, cross, crescent, and star with national flag colors, carried by protesters in Tal, (mostly Sunni town in Damascus countryside), April 2011" Source: https://www.opendemocracy.net/civilresistance/maciej-bartkowski-mohja-kahf/syrian-resistance-tale-of-two-struggles

Protesters in Tal, April 2011″ Source: Syrian Resistance: Tale of Two Struggles in openDemocracy

Syrian Baathists in more than 40 years of their rule. The threat was greater than all combined armed uprisings by the Muslim Brotherhood or Kurds in recent Syrian history and more effective than any other opposition towards the Assad regime, including the so-called “Damascus Spring” in 2005. During the first six months — March to August 20115 — the vibrant nonviolent movementwas reminiscent of nonviolent and cross-sectional mobilization of Syrians during the 60-day general strike in 1936, which forced France to grant formal independence to Syrians a year later.6

During this period, the regime’s brutality backfired and the number of protests and participants steadily increased. Corteges honoring killed activists soon became rallying venue. What started as peaceful demonstrations of tens of thousands of people in a few cities and towns turned to massive protests of hundreds of thousands of people across the country by the end of July 2011. People from diverse ethnic, social, and religious backgrounds were participating. Solidarity among various sects was evident in that Ismailis Shia from Salamiya donated blood to injured Sunnis that were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama. Druzes and the Greek Orthodox minority in Al-Suwayda organized protests to support Sunnis in Daraa—the bedrock of the revolution. Alawaites in Jableh and other coastal cities hit the streets by the thousands to protest, chanting “Christians, Alawites and Sunnis, we are one!” and calling for the trial of Daraa’s governor who was responsible for the arrest and torture of children — the event that triggered the uprising. One of the activists remarked, “no one was thinking of religion, ethnicity, or status. It was all about demanding freedom and supporting each other.” Demonstrators held Christian and Muslim signs and chanted “peaceful, peaceful, peaceful—neither Sunni nor Alawite, we want national unity.”7 The nonviolent discipline of protesters was a strategic goal to increase the participation. “We were careful not to use force,” emphasized a Syrian activist and an organizer of peaceful demonstrations. “From day one we chanted ‘peaceful, civic,’ and used signs, music, and caricature images [not guns], which attracted people’s attention and generated sympathy.” While the Syrian nonviolent resistance was predominantly characterized by protests, it used other tactics involving art, music, public theater, graffiti, and caricatures to promote their cause. The movement also established “local coordination committees” that spearheaded nonviolent campaigns and opposed militarization of resistance.8

With increased demonstrations the movement was winning government concessions that included the dismissal of the governor of Daraa, the release of hundreds of political dissidents, the grant of citizenship rights for Kurds, and the removal of the 48 year-old emergency law. Defection from the bureaucracy, Ba’ath party, diplomatic corps, business community, and the security forces was a growing movement. Prominent intellectual figures such as Muntaha al-Atrash, a Druze and the daughter of the late renowned nationalist leader Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, and famous Alawites actors like Fadwa Soliman and Jamal Suleiman joined the revolution. Security defections including high-level army defections, though limited to Sunnis, accelerated. By the summer of 2011 it was estimated that around 30,000 soldiers had left the Syrian army.

At a time when civil resistance was gaining public support, and both government concessions and a limited yet growing number of defections, the monumental decision was announced on July 31 to form the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to protect civilians and topple the regime with arms. This, however, played into the regime’s hands as it led the rebels to engage the government on military terms where the Assad rule remained at its strongest. FSA attracted a motley of secular and religious groups, each with its own goals and agenda. As a result, it failed to deploy a more organized force with an effective strategy. Finally, rebels were also responsible for mass killing, executions of minorities and looting, which further deepened sectarian tensions9 and undermined solidarity that the nonviolent resistance built.

Advent of opposition violence driven by emotions and miscalculations

With an increase in regime assaults and brutality against protesters including detention and torture of activists, the leadership of the civil resistance movement was decimated and the consensus around nonviolent tactics weakened. This was accompanied by a growing desire for revenge among ordinary people. According to an activist from Hama, the regime “would purposefully capture children and torture them to trigger violence among protesters.” In one of the rare surveys conducted recently in Aleppo and Idlib, almost half of polled Syrians identified revenge as the single most important factor behind their decision to join the armed resistance.10

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, which saw sudden mass refusals of the militaries to follow regimes’ orders thus helping civil resistance win, the gradual defections from the Syrian military undermined the nonviolent resistance. While the regime managed to maintain its capacity to repress, activists were left unprepared to integrate marauding and defecting soldiers into nonviolent protests. Eventually, soldiers organized alternative armed resistance, a tactic they knew best. Tragically, nonviolent actions were undermined by the same armed soldiers who responded early on to the appeal of the nonviolent movement and defected from the regime. To some extent nonviolent resistance became the victim of its own success.

Nonviolent resistance was seen as an unsuitable and weak strategy to face Assad’s repression given the level of violence. Consequently, it was seen as impossible to bring the regime down with only peaceful means. Skeptics spent much less time than needed assessing the level of risks of armed struggle, the resources required to sustain it and the probabilities involved in removing the regime with arms. In this way, civil resistance confronted a much higher burden of proof in persuading others it could be effective against the brutal regime compared to its armed counterpart.

Resorting to arms was also dictated by another misguided assumption. An interviewed FSA member noted that “we did not think for a second that we are going to end up fighting for real and long. We thought we would put on a show, so the international community will come and save us the way it was in Libya. They will bomb Bashar Al Assad’s Palace and bring the government down.” He added, “when this did not happen, we found ourselves stuck in an armed struggle that we were not prepared for. ”An expectation that the international community would intervene meant there was no incentive to consider at any depth how well the armed resistance was prepared to take on the Assad regime. After all the very weakness of the armed resistance — as in Libya — could be crucial to its rescue as it increased pressure on the international community to intervene and salvage what was left of the revolution.

Militarization of the resistance has given the Assad government a pretext to use indiscriminate firepower, including warplanes and chemical weapons that were not deployed when the resistance was peaceful. Arming the resistance also meant that Syrians themselves lost control over the trajectory of the struggle. Armed rebellion helped foreign extremist elements to establish their footing in Syria and start competing with FSA for battlefield-derived legitimacy and outside military assistance. Syrians became dependent on foreign states’ sponsorship for arms and money to fuel the armed struggle. A lawyer and activist from Hama acknowledged, “the moment there were arms in the hands of some, we knew we lost our battle. It is what the government wanted us to do. They wanted a reason to fire and we were careful not to give them that excuse.  Once the resistance became armed, we had to go home. The dynamic of the conflict changed and it was not our fight anymore.”

Armed struggle in Syria reinforced divisions among religious and ethnic groups, hardening extreme views. The regime’s divide-and-rule tactics, including the use of sectarian militias, have been very effective in further undermining opposition unity. Syrian civil resistance also experienced a significant decline in the weekly protests at the onset of violent struggle.11 Violent resistance undermined the solidarity that nonviolent resistance managed to build as long as it lasted. The armed resistance jeopardized any attempts to develop a more unifying and inclusive vision of a future Syria. By choosing to shoot its way to freedom, the opposition squandered its chance to make all ethnic groups stakeholders in the political change – the idea originally advanced by the civil resistance movement.

Civil resistance percolating on the surface of civil war

Although overshadowed by the armed resistance, nonviolent resistance remains visible and active despite ongoing civil war — a testimony to the endurance of peaceful struggle and its deep roots that were developed during the first few months of the resistance. This is evident in the work of grassroots committees that sprang up across Syria to provide humanitarian assistance and basic services. It is also expressed in civic actions such as the “Stop the Killing” campaign organized by minority women12 to monitor the work of the local councils and promote the culture of rights and justice,13 the peaceful protests in various Syrian towns against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its authoritarian practices and the establishment of an alternative schooling system, including volunteer-run baccalaureate exams.14 The Karama (“dignity”) Bus—a mobile center for addressing trauma in children—was organized by women in Kafr Nabl outside the regime’s controlled area but with the intention to expand to other places.15 In the same town, a group of young activists called ‘Sharaa’ (Arabic for “street”) deploys graffiti as a way “to gain back the public space that was stolen from us by the militias,”16 according to one of its members. The proliferation of local newspapers and political magazines is another example Syrian civic groups’ self-management. The number of publications available went from less than a dozen that were tightly controlled by the regime to more than sixty independent outlets run by popular groups.

If nonviolent organizing and mobilization is still blooming in a predominantly violent environment, then how much more could be achieved if the opposition violence was taken out of the conflict and the resources committed to supporting armed groups were instead used to strengthen the Syrian nonviolent resistance?

For instance, the return to nonviolent resistance could be highly disruptive for the Assad regime and prove to be a more rational choice with more realistic chances of success than its violent counterpart. Media reports point to growing dissatisfaction among the members of the Alawite community from which the Assad regime draws its main power and support.17 Members of the Alawite sect feel they are bearing an unusually large burden of sacrifice to keep Assad in power and receive relatively few benefits in return. But they remain unwaveringly loyal to him and his family because they are genuinely terrified of violent insurgents. The moment this fear is assuaged, Alawites would be ready to challenge Assad by asking for a “payback” for the costs they endured. Thus, the internal dissent and strife among Alawites would be much more likely to result in political action if the current violent insurgency would cease and open the way for the return of unarmed resistance.

Continue to Part II Key Lessons from the Syrian Conflict

 


1. We would like to acknowledge that analytical and narrative text in an unpublished piece on Syria written by Peter Ackerman, Mohja Kahf and Maciej Bartkowski provided important source material for this article. We would also like to thank Maria Stephan and Stephen Zunes for their recommendations and suggestions on improving the content of this chapter.

2. Dr. Maciej J. Bartkowski is Senior Director for Education and Research at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. He is editor of Recovering Nonviolent History: Civil Resistance in Liberation Struggles, published by Lynne Rienner Publishers in 2013. He can be contacted at mbartkowski@nonviolent-conflict.org and followed on Twitter @macbartkowski.

3. Julia Taleb has worked in the field of journalism and international relations for several years, with a focus on Middle Eastern politics and cultural affairs and the conflict in Syria. She earned her M.A. degree in international relations and B.A. in journalism from Carleton University in Canada. Her work has been featured by many organizations including the Middle East Institute, Voice of America, Fair Observer and the Atlantic Council. She can be contacted at julia000@gmail.com.

4. Mohammed Al Attar, Al: Raqqa: The reality of the military brigades, the administration of the liberated city and the revolutions to come, September 16, 2013. Source:  http://therepublicgs.net/2013/09/16/al-raqqa-the-reality-of-the-military-brigades-the-administration-of-the-liberated-city-and-the-revolutions-to-come/.

5. Maciej Bartkowski and Mohja Kahf, “The Syrian Resistance: A Tale of Two Struggles,” Part 1 and Part 2 in openDemocracy, September 24, 2013.

6. See, for example, Philip Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism 1920-1945, (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press), 1987.

8. On August 29, 2011 the LCC warned and accurately predicted that “militarizing the revolution would minimize popular support and participation in the revolution (…), undermine the gravity of the humanitarian catastrophe involved in a confrontation with the regime [and] would put the revolution in an arena where the regime has a distinct advantage and would erode the moral superiority.” Cited by Ignacio Alvarez-Ossorio, The Syrian Uprising: Syria’s Struggling Civil Society, Middle East Quarterly, Spring (2012), 27.

9. “Syria: Executions, Hostage taking by rebels, Human Rights Watch, October 11, 2013.

10. See Vera Mironova Loubna Mrie and Sam Whitt, Voices of Syria Project, February 2014 http://vmironova.net/voices-of-aleppo/papers-and-reports/

11. Stephen Zunes, “Supporting Nonviolence in Syria,” Foreign Policy, December 20, 2012, and see the graph that shows the raise of death toll and a decline in a number of protests since the resistance turned violent:https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=495042097174752&set=a.288141837864780.82005.287684561243841&type=1&theater

12. For more information about the Stop the Killing campaign and each of its actions check its facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.309765662466852.67278.220124418097644&type=3

13. Joseph Daher, The Roots and Grassroots of the Syrian Revolution (Part 3 of 4), openDemocracy, April 4, 2014.

14. Ibid.

15. For more about the Karama Bus check its facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/alkarama.bus

16. Adrian Hartrick, Syria’s Graffiti Revolution, Al Monitor, March 23, 2014.

17. Anne Barnarda, If Assad Wins War, Challenge From His Own Sect May Follow, NYTimes, April 24, 2014.

My Recent Maxims on Civil Resistance Compiled

1 Nov

Here is a compilation of my twit-length, pithy sayings, mostly about civil resistance. Their aim is to stimulate creative thinking about tenacity of nonviolent struggle and nature of political conflicts in general.

  • Dictators are boring & humorless. Another reason to rebel against them.
  • People that eventually won against oppression waged struggle equally with unjust rule as with themselves. They stopped acting like victims.
  • Nonviolent struggle is not sprint but marathon. The last thing we want is a burnt-out movement 10 years before ultimate victory.
  • Civil resistance draws out violence & shows that people’s obedience is no longer voluntary. No regime can survive without obedience.
  • How to know civic activism is alive & well? When u hear: “We do not have money. We have something more valuable: our hands & minds.”
  • Nonviolent struggle is about unique grassroots power. It cannot be exported or foreign born. It is in minds & hearts of the oppressed.
  • Dictatorship has stronger players but successful movement prevails because its team has better strategies & discipline
  • Successful nonviolent struggles are led NOT by protest movements BUT welfare movements capable of building networks of mutual trust & civic solidarity
  • Mastering resilience in civil resistance? Millions develop supreme confidence in positive outcome of nonviolent struggle even though it does not seem likely in their lifetime.
  • Inner voice ‘I have no choice.’ Alter voice ‘Choice is there. Imaging it craves for ur intellect or courage or both.’
  • Power of authoritarians is inversely proportional to self-organization, mutual solidarity & mobilization of ordinary people.
  • How to convince authoritarian brute that cost of repressing people is higher than cost of accommodation? Make him face organized society.
  • Regimes often say that peaceful protests & civil disobedience are illegal. True, civil resistance breaks law to uphold rule of law. (inspired by Michael Davis)
  • Nonviolent struggle is like long distance swim. Need to pace speed, regulate moves & improve technique to minimize risk going under water
  • Nonviolence is not running from wrong instead it is fighting wrong with right. (inspired by Rev. James Lawson)
  • Those ordered to repress activists should ask for WRITTEN orders from superiors. Nothing concerns tyrants more like evidence of their crimes
  • Tactician credo: If anything can go wrong it will. Strategist credo: In the process of ‘going wrong’ there are opportunities for victories.
  • Often cited as a reason for taking up arms against brutal adversary is revenge. This is shortcut to failure not strategy for success.
  • How to move from spontaneous to organized civil resistance? Build networks & collaborations among different segments of society
  • What is civil resistance? Self-organized, resilient, disciplined, mobilized, agile, diffused but united biopower of citizens.
  • Liberating & transforming society without challenging oppressor directly. Essence of stealth civic struggle
  • Civil resistance is driven by a voluntary commitment of many. Authenticity of nonviolent movements comes from that force
  • Autocrats spend huge resources on trying to make civil resistance violent. Understanding why is step to victory for nv activists
  • True power rests in people’s minds & thoughts
  • Saying fundamental HRs are culturally bounded is like accepting different global standards for plagiarism & its permissibility
  • Havel wrote about disturbing peace. Diplomats know little about it. They only practice making peace.
  • Nonviolent struggle is not sprint but marathon. The last thing we want is a burnt-out movement 10 years before ultimate victory.
  • How to be more effective nonviolent trouble maker? For start, let’s imagine our rebellion & check how it fits with society we want to build.
  • Nonviolent resistance wins the day not because it mobilizes masses but because it imposes prohibitive costs on regime’s pillars of support.
  • Nonviolent resisters succeeded in the past because they down there believed that failure was impossible.
  • In civil resistance solidarity is more important than heroism. It is primacy of strategy over emotions. Victory comes from former not latter.
  • Rule of law’ occludes the fact that without people’s consent no laws, institutions, elites can rule. Call for new lingua of people power.
  • Gandhi, Havel, Walesa, Mandela agreed on this point: idea of political violence to overthrow dictatorial regimes is NOT radical enough.
  • Resistance is about preeminence of action. Inaction is less effective than violent action. Violence is less effective than nonviolent action
  • Movmts cannot transform society without doing it one breath at a time. Short goals and small victories are crucial to propel transformation.
  • For every insurmountable condition that hampers civil resistance there is a skill that overcomes that condition
  • People revolutions are unpredictable because they are driven by human creativity, ingenuity & imagination that defy known rules.
  • Peacemaking is far too often about pacification. What is needed instead is to energize suppressed society
  • Civil resistance is iterative & protracted process of collective mobilization & organizing not merely media grabbing protests
  • Saying fundamental HRs are culturally bounded is like accepting different global standards for plagiarism & its permissibility
  • People know social/political problems they face. They now need alternative possibilities and knowledge of how to implement them.
  • What movements do: alert, educate, serve, mobilize. If you say you have a movement, how do you do in each of these areas? (inspired by Hardy Merriman)
  • Insubordination is easy to punish. Incompetence is not. Good Soldier Shvejk knew that. Anti-dictatorship activists could use his example. (inspired by Ivan Marovic)
  • If I am being asked to die for a cause I say I prefer to live for it. (inspired by Kumi Naidoo)
  • People activise after & only when their own rights are violated. People must act prior to their rights being violated & fight 4 rights of others (inspired by HR defender from Kazakhstan).
  • In the era of junk food Gandhi’s wisdom “your food must be just enough to keep your mind and body in good order. Men becomes what he eats.”

International recognition of nonviolent movements

  • International community gives awards to single pro-democracy activists. It is yet to recognize pro-democracy movements. We see towering trees but not majestic forests.
  • Time to change it: No multilateral document recognizing contribution of nonviolent movements to democratization processes.
  • Right to civil resistance has not yet been raised to the level of a universal human right. Can this be done & how?

China/Hong KongIMG_3210

  • Perfect dilemma for Chinese censors? Democratic movement in China adopts & reclaims ‘Xi’ & ‘Jinping’: 习 or 近 or 平 or combinationIMG_3211
  • Umbrella movement activists reclaim President Xi Jinping for their struggle. Chinese censors in tough spot, need to censor their boss.
  • NPR: ‘Protest became violent in Hong Kong’ & all I then hear is about police violence. Media must say: protest is peaceful, police is violent
  • @OCLPHK would benefit from knowing who their potential allies in Chinese regime & security forces are & how to help their moderate stand
  • Drone- tool in civil resistance. This shows how large protest in HongKong was. No state censorship can deny it http://ow.ly/C5hWb
  • #‎HongKong‬ govn’t lets protests & hopes it discredits itself. Counterstrategy is to self-organize HK society so it runs without govern’t.
  • Protesters in ‪#‎HongKong‬ must lead two struggles: for hearts & minds of HongKongers & sympathy & support of mainland Chinese.

Russia

  • #‎Putin‬ is truly afraid of his own society not western militaries. Assistance must go to civic mobilization & movements
  • Creativity of defiance- Russian environmental NGO must identify on its publications ‘a foreign agent’ but adds ‘not’ before & ‘even frogs know it’ after
  • Russian NGOs that receive foreign funds need to register as foreign agents. Russian regime receives more foreign funds through loans and payments from abroad than all Russian NGOs combined. According to its own definition Kremlin is the MAIN FOREIGN AGENT in Russia.
  • How to defeat ‪#‎Putin‬? Work on humanitarian aid to Russian schools hospitals libraries & service organizations to create human solidarityUntitled
  • How to take on Putin? Challenge him in the way he will not know how to react. Like on this picture:

Ukraine

  • Ukrainians must work out strategies of reaching out to such Russian activists and helping them grow- without undermining them.
  • In US Congress ‪#‎Poroshenko‬ rephrased Kennedy to say “I am a Crimean Tatar.” In fact, our call must be “We Are All Crimean Tatars now!”
  • #‎Ukraine‬ must keep ceasefire & build bufferzone around occupied parts of Donbas. Rebels-Russia will get into quagmire of costly occupation.
  • Ukraine risked its democratic transition when it opted for war in Donbas. Never was there a country that successfully democratized when at the same time it waged a violent conflict no matter how just its cause was.
  • The Ukrainian Maidan was violent for a total of 5 days. The real revolution happened during the remaining 88 days http://ow.ly/wl3iV
  • Embassies of democracies in Kyiv -open your doors to Ukrainians for medical emergencies. Bring your embassy doctors to help (during Euromaidan revolution)
  • Diplomats of democracies in Kyiv- GO to hospitals, document crimes against civilians & protect them from arrests! (during Euromaidan revolution)

ISIS

  • Bombing ISIS gave it opportunity to shift blame on outside aggressors for all that is wrong on the territories they control, enhanced ISIS credentials and increased effectiveness of its recruitment propaganda
  • Military chiefs from more than 30 countries meet at Andrews air force base to discuss a campaign against ISIS while all agree that there is no military solution to the ISIS problem. Am I missing something here?
  • ISIS survival depends on credibility among locals. Military campaign may contain ISIS. Only political organizing can defeat it.

Miscellaneous

  • Voting age should be lowered to 16 like in Scotland. No healthier civic education for youths than political campaigning & ballot box.
  • US military – Jack of All Trades – will fight Ebola in Africa. If we invested as much resources in civilian side of life we would not need army to fight diseases now.
  • 70 years ago Warsaw fought Germans-200,000 died. Krakow did not take arms & people lived to fight battles they could win. Bravado vs wisdomBaltic Way 25 Google Doodle
  •  The Google way to celebrate the Baltic Way – the nonviolent struggle for freedom

 

Check also:

Maxims on Civil Resistance part III

Maxims on Civil Resistance part II

Maxims on Civil Resistance part I