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

2 Feb

Part II    (to read Part I go here)

Key lessons from the Syrian conflict

An extremely violent adversary wants civil resistance to turn violent

Anti-Assad protest in the Damascus suburb of Douma, 2011

Anti-Assad protest in the Damascus suburb of Douma, 2011

It is widely thought that a regime that rules with brutal violence can only be stopped by another more powerful violent force. However, violent regimes are often caught off balance when challenged by the unarmed resistance. The British historian B.H. Lidell-Hart, who interrogated the German generals after the World War II, noticed that Nazis were bewildered by nonviolent resistance. Therefore, “it was relief to them when resistance became violent and when nonviolent forms were mixed with guerrilla action thus making it easier to combine drastic repressive action against both at the same time.”18 The Syrian regime brutalized its people with the goal of suppressing the resistance. When this did not succeed the regime used indiscriminate violence to force people to abandon peaceful resistance in favor of armed uprising. According to an activist who later joined the FSA, the Syrian security forces were leaving caches of weapons in public areas to encourage the use of arms. If brutal regimes are interested in facing a violent rather than peaceful challenge, activists must develop a plan to thwart that desire.

Fewer civilian casualties in civil resistance campaigns

For civilians the cost of armed struggle will always be higher than the costs of civil resistance even in cases where violent resistance succeeds. A study that examined violence against civilians in wars between 1989 and 2004 showed that civilians’ risk of dying in conflicts that did not devolve into armed struggles was less than one percent.19 During the relatively low intensity armed resistance in South Africa, a former African National Congress (ANC) operative noted that ANC’s own intelligence assessed the survival rate of an ANC armed insurgent to be between three and seven days on average. Despite the risks involved in suffering from years of imprisonment, the death rate among nonviolent resisters was much lower. As for Syria, the probability of dying in the conflict became three times higher once the opposition abandoned nonviolent resistance in favor of the armed rebellion.20

Developing a mindset for a protracted, five to ten year long struggle against a brutal regime

Two factors contributed to the failure to develop a collective mentality and strategies for a protracted struggle and led to a premature abandonment of the nonviolent resistance: the impatience of the opposition mixed with the belief shared by policy makers in other capitals that Assad would step down as quickly as his counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia.

The research on nonviolent and violent campaigns concludes that it takes on average three years for nonviolent resistance to run its course (whether it succeeds or fails) while a violent uprising requires at least nine years.21
In practice, Syrians allowed for only one-fifth of the average lifespan of a nonviolent movement before they turned to arms.

Winning the loyalty contest

Unlike other autocrats in the region, Assad had initially a larger social base of support that included minority groups, business entrepreneurs, religious figures, military and middle-income citizens across various ethnic groups. The loyalties of some of these groups were shaken with the onset of nonviolent resistance. However, the regime made a concerted effort to keep the loyalties intact and attract neutrals with financial and political incentives. It was relatively effective in preventing major loyalty shifts within its pillars of support – a strategy that the opposition was unable to counter successfully.

Ultimately, it was degeneration of the conflict into a civil war that offered a major boost for the government. Opposition violence combined with the influx of extremists allowed the regime to consolidate the rank and file people who until then sat on the fence. They did not necessarily support Assad’s policies but they did favor him over radical Islamist groups that hijacked the armed struggle and whose presence they associated with the interference of foreign powers, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, backed by the West, in the affairs of their own country.22

Devising a viable strategy to shift from armed towards nonviolent resistance

South Africa, Nepal, Egypt, Palestine, West Papua, Western Sahara, and East Timor have all seen the reduction of emphasis on armed struggle replaced by an emergence of mostly nonviolent campaigns after re-evaluating their goals and means, taking stock of the costs, and weighing the risks and probabilities of the success of civil resistance. Syrians can rely on existing citizens’ councils and the ongoing nonviolent organizing in localities, which is also extending mutual aid networks and developing cross-sectional coordinating bodies.  All of these efforts are developing the foundations of future “peace communities.” Examples of resistance-driven and self-managed nonviolent local communities abound in countries that experienced high level of violence including Colombia23, the Philippines24, Mexico25, Kosovo26, Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Bosnia.27 They offer encouraging lessons for Syrians. Their local populations rose up and defied violent state and non-state groups, establishing zones of peace where organized citizens expelled or kept at bay violent perpetrators. In violence-torn places like Liberia, the emergence of women-run networks helped launch anti-civil war campaigns and forced the warring parties to negotiate and sign a peace accord.

Reinventing the role of the international community

From the beginning of the conflict in Syria the international community resorted to traditional instruments of pressuring the government. In May 2011 the European Union and the United States introduced series of targeted political and economic sanctions against the Assad regime. What became clear is that the international community lacks instruments to protect and assist nonviolent uprising when it lasts. There is an urgent need to reinvent the role of the international community in helping nonviolent movements.

The international community and the Syrian nonviolent movement

No amount of external assistance can substitute for an authentic grassroots movement to achieve its civic and political goals. Unlike violent resistance, nonviolent struggles are owned and won by the indigenous population alone. However, international aid could support these grassroots movements in achieving their goals more effectively. The Syrian tragedy showed that the international community has yet to develop effective mechanisms to support civil resistance movements, at least with the same energy and material aid that it devotes to finding diplomatic solutions, reaching peace accords, or intervening militarily.28When, in early 2012, senior US policymakers were asked why the international community had not encouraged a sustained civil resistance, their response was: “Why should we bother? Assad will be gone in a couple of months.” Although Western governments were not enthusiastic about backing armed resistance and probably wanted civil resistance to succeed, their support for nonviolent movement was modest.

Lessons from Syria show that there is a genuine urgency to develop new international norms or understandings (e.g. in the form of a universal right to help) designed to refocus international efforts to assisting nonviolent resistance movements and preventing them from turning to arms. A global normative framework for helping nonviolent movements could also benefit from the establishment of an international rights-based institution devoted entirely to supporting civil resistance movements around the world. In the Syrian case, such an institution could have deployed small teams of veteran nonviolent volunteer-activists from the Arab-speaking region and more broadly from across the world to meet their younger, more inexperienced Syrian counterparts to share lessons from their respective struggles. The extended “train-the-trainers” program in different localities across Syria could have been devised to share practices and experiences among activists. When strict security measures made it difficult to facilitate the entry of trainers, commonly used and accessed online technology could have been used to disseminate information and address the bedeviling problem of how to plan a protracted nonviolent struggle. Other activities undertaken by a specialized international institution could include in this case distribution of Arabic-language educational toolkits that highlight aspects of civil resistance movements and explain what makes them historically more successful than their violent counterparts.

Providing technology and communication equipment including laptops, portable printers, satellite phones, and cameras without the usual bureaucratic red tape, could support nonviolent movements in spreading their messages faster and more effectively. Such assistance, according to a young Alawite female activist who was part of the 2011 uprising, would have been extremely helpful. “We were too poor to afford to buy computers, toners, printers that were needed to produce informational brochures to break government propaganda.” During the government’s nationwide shutdowns of the Internet, the availability of inexpensive, subsidized, and secure satellite technology to coordinate protests among activists inside the country and communicate with the outside world would be particularly useful. Other valuable support from the international community would include access for activists to mainstream media or support in setting up local radio or TV broadcasts so that activists could beam information about the achievements, progress, and challenges on the nonviolent battlefield. Provisions of such technology and resources would benefit from greater discretionary powers given to diplomats on the ground by their own capitals. A major impediment that Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Syria, found in his work was a lack of autonomy in decision-making. He recalled, for example, spending time in “long meetings to debate small issues, such as which Syrian opposition members he could meet with and whether it was okay to give cell phones, media training and management classes to a local Syrian government council controlled by the opposition.”29

Finally, benchmarks of the progress of civil resistance could be set up to assess levels of defections, increases in civic mobilization and participation, and government responses including any concessions as well as the toll from repression, and costs to society. These benchmarks could be used to compel those advocating military solutions to explain and show how they could achieve more and with lower costs. In the Syrian case, millions of small handheld radio and TV devices could have been distributed to the public, making it easier to reach out to hesitant minorities with messages of unity and cooperation.

On the military front, the international community could have facilitated exchanges between activists inside and outside Syria on how best to prepare for gradual defections from the security forces so as to prevent defected soldiers from undermining the nonviolent nature of the resistance, including effective ways of integrating them into the civil resistance movement. If that would not have been feasible, the international community should have developed strategies to keep defecting soldiers and their arms away from the urban centers where civil resistance was thriving.

The establishment of large military camps in remote places closer to the border with Turkey or Jordan and Iraq where soldiers could receive stable salaries, training, and modern equipment would have attracted fighters and, in turn, encouraged more officers to defect. Arguably, the existence of such camps could have incentivized foreign countries in the region that transferred weapons and fighters into Syria without much coordination and strategic planning to channel their material and human resources to the established military camps.

Containment of defected soldiers in camps protected against regime’s air-strikes could have kept them safe and occupied until such time when a capable, vetted, and professional force was ready for deployment. By then, however, civil resistance might have already won the struggle and a military force could have been used to perform a policing function and provide security for all segments of the Syrian population regardless of religious affiliations to win them over to support the common fight against violent foreign extremists.

Today, local councils and civil administrations in both liberated and conflict areas are in a need of more decisive international support. For example, according to UN staff, the administration of the city of Homs is taking great risks in trying to implement water projects benefiting both sides of the conflict. Local administrations need to be trained in governance, rule of law, and civil liberties, including inclusive policies for women and minorities. Local administrations should be funded so they can rebuild critical infrastructure such as water and sewage systems, and electric power infrastructure. Setting up local police forces would require help in re-training and equipping policemen that defected from the Assad regime.

Both, the international community and mobilized local population have yet to acknowledge that they are engaged in a genuine race with extremist groups such as ISIS not who can deploy most capable fighting force but who can be most effective governance manager. This is because ISIS secures local support not purely by military conquest and brutal repression but also- if not mainly – by restoring damaged infrastructure, delivering water and electricity to the population on the territories they govern and by providing basic social services as well as jobs and salaries. The communities with the experience of nonviolent mobilization and organizing will be better prepared than violent groups to establish and run more effective governance while, at the same time, staying stronger to defend their autonomy.  This understanding could help international community develop appropriate tools to assist these communities become more skilled governance managers.

With extremist Islamic practices taking place in many liberated areas, outside support for civil institutions such as schools and courts is needed to counter views and actions of radicals that are despised by most Syrians. Various protests contesting the authoritarian and brutal practices of ISIS30 took place in Aleppo and Raqqa. More than 40 percent of Syrian children are out of school, mainly in conflict zones but also in some liberated areas, where Islamic teaching is becoming the only alternative to non-functioning public education. Support for building schools and developing curricula that promote self-expression, critical thinking, and basic democratic and civic concepts would be invaluable for a democratic future of the country. Similarly, in areas where Sharia Islamic courts are functioning and sentencing people to public flogging, civic courts and local councils need to be supported to counter religious courts. International funding could also aid defected judges and lawyers who are now working to establish civic courts in places like Harem and Atareb to counter Sharia law.

Most valuably, the international community could work to ensure that external sponsorship for armed extremist groups dries up, incentivizing armed groups to disengage and providing space for civil resistance groups to reemerge and renew nonviolent conflict.

Despite the ongoing civil war, threats from the regime and Islamist reactionary groups, hatred combined with a lust for revenge, and seemingly insurmountable divisions among Syrians, nonviolent activism and mobilization remain the most realistic alternative for achieving social and political change in Syria. The Syrian resistance movement failed to plan for a prolonged confrontation while the actions of the international community were less than adequate to strengthen the Syrian nonviolent resistance and prevent it from becoming violent. It is time that both learn from their short-sightedness.  In the current humanitarian crisis, a number of opportunities might emerge to build solidarity and mutual aid-networks across divided ethnic communities affected by the war. Nonviolent activists must identify and utilize such opportunities while the international community must remain ready to step in to support activists’ efforts.


18. Kurth Schock, Nonviolent Action and Its Misconceptions: Insights for Social Scientists, Political Science and Politics 36, no. 4, (2003), 708.

19. Kristine Eck and Lisa Hultman, “One-Sided Violence Against Civilians in War: Insights from New Fatality Data,” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 44, no. 2 (2007), 237.

20. “During the first five months of nonviolent civil resistance (mid-March to mid-August, 2011), the death toll was 2,019 (figures exclude regime army casualties). In the next five months (mid-August 2011 to mid-January 2011) mixed violent and nonviolent resistance saw the death toll climbed to 3,144, a 56% increase. Finally, during the first five months of armed resistance (mid-January 2012 to mid-June 2012) the death toll was already 8,195, a staggering 161% increase in comparison with the casualties during nonviolent struggle.” See Maciej Bartkowski and Mohja Kahf, “The Syrian Resistance: A Tale of Two Struggles. Part 2” in openDemocracy, September 24, 2013.

21. Erica Chenoweth, “Why Sit-Ins Succeed–Or Fail,” Foreign Affairs, August 11, 2013.

22. “Assad Winning the War for Syrians’ Hearts and Minds,” World Tribune, May 31, 2013.

23. Oliver Kaplan, “How Communities Use Nonviolent Strategies to Avoid Civil War Violence,” ICNC Academic Webinar, January 20, 2013.

24. Ibid.

25. Lilian Palma, “The Courage of Cheran: Organizing against Violence,” openDemocracy, December 14, 2011.

26. Howard Clark, Civil Resistance in Kosovo, (London: Pluto Press, 2000).

27. All three last cases are discussed in Mary B. Anderson and Marshall Wallace, Opting Out of War: Strategies to Prevent Violent Conflict. (Boulder, CO., Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).

28. As for the latter, the bill for a relatively short-lived NATO military intervention in Libya (limited to 8 months of air campaign) was estimated to reach at least $2 billion.

29. David Rohde and Warren Strobel, Special Report: How Syria policy stalled under the ‘analyst in chief’ Reuters, October 30, 2014.

30. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. More on the foreign fighters in Syria see Aaron Y. Zelin, “Who Are the Foreign Fighters in Syria?” The Washington Institute, December 5, 2013.


Myopic Strategies of the Syrian Struggle and Key Lessons

14 Jul
Members of the Free Syrian Army. Source: Al Arabiya

Members of the Free Syrian Army. Source: Al Arabiya


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10 Misconceptions about the Syrian Struggle

4 Dec

According to the advocates of the armed struggle against the Assad regime – both inside and outside Syria – a largely nonviolent resistance that lasted between March and August 2011 had no viable option but to turn violent. I identified at least ten arguments that have been used to justify or account for the shift away from civil resistance in favor of the armed struggle in the country. Some of these arguments explicitly devalue the role, and impact of nonviolent resistance.

1. Brutality argumentmy55r6g9-1344834470
• It was naïve to continue nonviolent struggle in the face of an extremely brutal opponent. In fact, nonviolent activists stood no chance against a ruthless regime. In these circumstances their resort to arms was the only rational choice Syrians could make.

2. Ethnic polarization argument
• Ethnic and religious polarizations were too strong in Syria and it was unrealistic to expect Alawites or Christian to defect the regime and join the anti-Assad resistance.

3. Self-defense and honorable death argument
• Syrians had the right to self-defense and armed protection of their communities against violent thugs of the regime. Failure to resort to arms in order to defend oneself would have led to a carnage. Furthermore, soldiers that deserted from the Syrian army feared they would have been killed in reprisals for their ‘treason’ – defections. Armed resistance thus offered a choice to die with a gun in hand rather than to be slaughtered without a fight.

4. Redressing an affront argument
• Regime’s arrests, tortures, rapes and killing were an affront to ordinary Syrians and needed to be revenged. The violent rebellion against the Assad regime is to right an affront and falls within the ‘just’ tradition of honor killing that is part of the history and culture of the society.

5. Historical argument
• The road to a genuine liberation can never be peaceful. Liberation struggles in Libya, Kosovo, or earlier in Algeria or Syria under the French protectorate were violent. Earlier uprisings against Syrian Ba’ath regime were also violent.

6. Foreign fighters’ argument
• Violence on the opposition side would ensue anyway given the influx of the foreign fighters whose primarily means to fight the regime is the armed struggle.

7. Complementarity argument
• Violent struggle more often than not incorporates civil resistance. Nonviolent political organizing is needed for violent resistance to succeed. This was the case with the grassroots insurgencies in Vietnam against the United States or in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union and now against NATO. The combination of violent resistance and nonviolent organizing is also practiced by the political-armed groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas.

8. Violent adversary understands only violence
• Violence works against Assad as he is a rational thug who wants to ensure the survival of his family and his political control. He agreed to give up his chemical weapons when faced with an imminent military attack by a more powerful adversary. Consequently, Syrians need more not less weapons and widespread violent uprising to tip the balance of force in favor of the resistance.

9. Blaming the victim argument
• Criticism of Syrians for their resort to arms against a dictator is immoral. Syrians are victims and Assad is a perpetrator.

10. Passivity of international community
• International community does not intervene on behalf of nonviolent movements in contrast to the well-known interventions in support of violent insurrectionists – e.g. in Libya or earlier in Kosovo. The violent struggle had more chances than its nonviolent counterpart to bring about greater international involvement in the conflict that could eventually topple the Assad regime.

My take on the misconceptions

1. Civil resistance is a realistic alternative to violence though, paradoxically, it faces a higher burden of proof than the violent struggle
The continuance of civil resistance would have been no more unrealistic than the eventual choice of the armed resistance. In fact, the resort to violence by the Syrian opposition was the most unrealistic options among all available alternatives to tip the balance of force in their favor. The terrible outcome of the violent strategy in Syria, clearly seen today, shows that the choice of the armed struggle – rather than that of the nonviolent resistance – was in fact “naïve”, “idealistic” and “irrational.” By turning to arms and prematurely terminating the six-month old nonviolent resistance (between March and August 2011), the Syrian opposition began fighting the regime at its strongest and on the regime’s own violent terms. The likelihood of success in the armed challenge dramatically decreased for the poorly armed opposition. In this unequal conflict the rebels had to turn to the external parties for the military assistance. Such help never comes free and gives external actors excessive influence over the domestic situation. The choice of armed struggle, although emotionally satisfying, was less than well-thought-out strategy to reach a successful outcome in the conflict.hp.12.14.12.Syriaprotest

Worse, the choice of arms has faced much lower level of scrutiny as a viable strategy than the civil resistance did. Never in the history of civil resistance struggle were nonviolent actionists exempted from the some kind of violent repression. In fact, wherever civil resistance occurs violence by its adversary is and should be expected. Far too often the efficacy of nonviolent resistance is dismissed in the face of activists’ killings while the deaths of rebels in violent insurgency is seen as a usual progression of the conflict. Rather than the sign of weakness of the civil resistance strategy repression exposes government’s limitations on its control over the population. Now, the regime is compelled to rely on the extraordinary (and no more voluntary) methods to ensure obedience. When a disproportionate violent reaction backfires – as it happened in Syria in the first months of nonviolent resistance – it increases domestic and international sympathy for the activists and creates fissures among government’s supporters and between regime’s moderates and hardliners. This reveals more about the authorities’ vulnerabilities than that of the citizens. In spite of the evidences to the contrary the repression against peaceful resisters in Syria was used to claim that nonviolent resistance failed and armed response was justified. At the same time, when the armed rebellion faced even more ferocious violence by the Assad regime (e.g. the fighter jets and chemical weapons that had not been used during the civil resistance were deployed by the regime once the resistance turned violent) this was hardly seen by anyone as the evidence that the armed rebellion stopped being effective. Furthermore, recent scholarly work Why Civil Resistance Works by Chenoweth and Stephan showed that a brutal nature of the regime does not impact the overall likelihood of success of nonviolent resistance.

2. Ethnic polarization is not an obstacle for civil resistance
The 2007 Freedom House study on the adversarial conditions and civil resistance concluded, among others, that between 1973-2005 a degree of societal or ethnic polarization determined neither the emergence of civil resistance, nor its eventual success and failure. Correspondingly, the ethnic polarization in Syria has not prevented the civil resistance movement from emerging in March 2011. In fact, at its onset, different ethnic groups led nonviolent actions against the Assad regime. There were examples of anti-regime protests and demonstrations organized not only by Sunnis but also Christians, Kurds and Alawites. All sectors of the society felt one way or the other that they are oppressed or subjugated by the Assad family. Increasing unity among various groups not a growing ethnic polarization was the main concern for the regime during the civil resistance phase. And this is why, from the very beginning of the civic uprising, the government spent considerable resources to depict the resistance as driven by the Sunni extremists. Turning peaceful revolution supported overly or tacitly by the majority of Syrians into a violent resistance was the most strategically beneficial outcome for the regime. It was also the worst result for civil resistance as the coalition building across various societal groups and greater mobilization of people had propelled the movement. These drivers became significantly weakened once the resistance turned violent. It was the armed rebellion and not civil resistance that reinforced the regime’s strategy of divide and rule while, at the same time, raising ethnic divisions and deepening polarization. This, in turn, impaired the chances for building a nationwide movement against the Assad family.

3. Arms do not offer protection. Honorable death is strategically pointless
There are no studies that would compare the survival rate or battle deaths in both violent and nonviolent conflicts although future NAVCO 3.0 dataset will, among others, offer that statistics. The anecdotal evidences and individual case studies strongly suggest, however, that no major atrocities that will be equivalent to ethnic cleansing or genocide happened during civil resistance struggles in contract to civil wars. Additionally, the study that looked at violence against civilians in wars between 1989-2004 suggested that the civilian risk of dying in conflict countries with nonviolent movements was less than 1% in comparison with countries that experienced civil war. As for Syria specifically, the probability of dying in the conflict jumped by more than three times as soon as the opposition abandoned nonviolent resistance in favor of the armed rebellion.

No violent resistance that is militarily weaker than its adversary is ever able to protect civilians. Thinking otherwise goes against a common sense and a sound resistance strategy. A weaker side might eventually be able to win the war after it gains a military advantage – often as a result of the external assistance – but that usually comes with huge civilian losses. Two years into the armed resistance Syrian rebels have been able to achieve neither of the objectives: to protect locals and win the war. Arguably, given a historically lower degree of casualties and an impressive historical record of undermining brutal regimes civil resistance in Syria would have been an effective strategy in a long run, both to defend people and defeat the regime.

Finally, the Syrian army defectors should have had little strategic grounds to believe that, as lightly armed as they were, they would have increased their chances of survival when engaged in the firefight with much more powerful adversary. If they looked for an honorable death while resisting Assad violently their fight missed entirely the strategic objective that drove him to take arms in the first place – to survive and protect their own lives and those of the civilian population.

4. Revenge is not part of the effective strategy to wage a successful resistance
Similarly to a sound military campaign civil resistance is based on a rational calculus of costs, risks and benefits of different strategic options and tactics. In fact, a major aspect of civil resistance success is driven by how effective the resistance is in keeping a tab on emotions in favor of a rational analysis. The instinct of honor killing or a revenge is often ingrained in communal traditions that, on one hand, undergird future rebellions but also contain the seeds of their own demise. They often fail to create sustainable movements based on a diverse social or ethnic composition because such endeavor would require rejection of honor killing or right to revenge in favor of reconciliation and reaching out. Syrians were not predestined to engage in an eye for an eye struggle to the detriment of a more strategic approach in the same way traditionally militant Pashtuns led by Abdul Ghaffar Khan in the 1930s were not doomed to violence. In fact, the latter managed to create a 100,000-strong nonviolent army as did Kosovars that built their nonviolent movement in the 1990s. Both civil struggles successfully overcame emotional or traditional drive to ‘just’ violence rooted in generational-long animosities and intercommunal conflicts in favor of cross-familial or intertribal cooperation, mutual aid, nonviolent mobilization and civil resistance against a common adversary.

5. History lends support to civil resistance not armed rebellion
Poor historical inferences about conflicts in general and nonviolent struggles in particular contributed to the overconfidence in the effectiveness of arms and underassessment of what nonviolent conflict can achieve to win people’s freedoms. There is also almost nonexistent calculus of historical costs for nonviolent and violent struggles. Syrians failed to engage in more thorough discussions regarding costs and effectiveness of the Islamists’ armed uprising against the Baathist regime from the mid 1970s till the beginning of the 1980s and reflect more deeply on a relatively successful and united nonviolent struggle in Syria against the French colonial authorities in the middle of the 1930s. Furthermore, the Syrian rebel army and their western supporters missed another important piece of data that winning liberation through violence as it happened in Algeria at the beginning of the 1960s and recently in Libya on average decreased significantly the chances for these countries to become democracies- by at least 85% – in contrast to more than 80% of the likelihood that a successful nonviolent resistance would lead to a democratic outcome within 5 years after the end of the conflict. See Why Civil Resistance Works.

6. Syrians not the foreign fighters determined the nature and direction of the struggle
The foreign fighters engaged in violent battles with the Assad loyalists from the beginning of 2012 when the resistance had already turned into the armed uprising. In other words, foreign fighters joined violent rebellion rather than started it. Syrians themselves and not the foreign contingents determined the strategy used to challenge Assad. It is true that with the influx of foreign fighters the choice of violence has only been reinforced. If civil resistance, however, dominated the conflict landscape in spring 2012 that would have meant that the nonviolent discipline had now been strongly ingrained in the culture of the Syrian resistance. Consequently, the foreign fighters would have had an extremely limited space to operate within, and faced costly social ostracism by the indigenous population. With the difficulties of finding local support and shelter, and challenges with securing provisions foreign fighters might have faced marginalization and have become a relatively easy target for the regime.

7. Dictator fears the force that can dislodge his control
A superior military is one of the forces that the dictator fears it can dislodge his control. It is one of the reasons why Assad yielded on chemical weapons when faced with the threat of the American attack. But the opposition does not have such a superior military force at its command and is unlikely to acquire it in the future even with the external assistance. Meanwhile, the Assad forces keep being replenished with the military aid from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Consequently, violent resistance against materially stronger dictator is not an effective force to dislodge his control.

If dictators understand violence so well why to use such well-understood weapon against them? – one of my colleagues, Jack DuVall, observes. Eventually, the struggle is won not because an adversary understands the instrument used by its opponent but precisely the opposite – when he fails to phantom the strategy deployed against him. Civil resistance is the phenomenon that brutal dictators have more difficulties in grasping and thus dealing with.

8. Civil resistance is undermined by violent resistance
Although violent struggle can feed on and be reinforced through nonviolent political organizing, as it was the case with the national communist struggle in China in the 1940s or the North Vietnamese insurrection against the South Vietnamese and US forces in the 1960s, civil resistance is mortally weakened if it colludes with violence. The possibility of violent repression backfiring decreases in the mixed resistance as the dictator and its supports effectively brand the whole resistance as being violent. This, in turn, justifies in the eyes of the public the extraordinary violent measures deployed by the government against the rebels.

Once violent resistance emerges it quickly overshadows civil resistance as a dominant means of struggle – as it happened in Syria and in other conflicts – e.g. in Kosovo in the late 1990s, Libya in 2011, or in Sri Lanka in the 1950s. Consequently, civil resistance loses its two important leverages in the fight against the opponent: its participation and defection drivers. On average, between 1900-2006, armed struggles were 4 times smaller in terms of citizens’ participation in the violent campaigns than in nonviolent resistance (Chenoweth and Stephan). A decreased participation as a consequence of the emerging violent flank bodes ill for the civil resistance. Furthermore, violence used by some extremists within or on the fringes of the movement consolidates the opponents as much as it polarizes movement’s supporters. Movement’s adversary can rally its supporters easier around the call to resist violent opposition and stay united which decreases the chances for the defections from the regime. It is always difficult to shift one’s loyalties towards another group that is perceived as posing a physical threat.

Moreover, violence perpetrated by a movement that contradicts its goal of building peaceful and democratic society helps the regime to further dehumanize it. Violence on the part of the opposition- even if limited – helps the regime to show to its own supporters as well as outsiders that the government faces predators, murders and rapists and itself is a victim of violence. It thus creates greater psychological and social distance between the rebels and their potential domestic and international supporters, further undermining chances for civil resistance to bring about mass defections from the regime and a greater international solidarity.

9. Syrians are victims of their own poor resistance strategy
Assad is the murderous perpetrator. Opposition and a general population are his victims. However, Syrians are also victims of their own poor strategic choices made to fight that oppression. It is actually immoral – not when the resisters are criticized – but that under the cover of the victim argument – the strategic shortsightedness of the opposition and rebels are denied. Around the beginning of 2011, the Syrian population understood that they were the key to their own liberation and their silence, compliance and obedience helped sustain the Assad regime. They realized they were part – voluntarily or not – of the evil system. The rebellion of ordinary Syrians came from the realization that they were themselves the problem as well as held the key to their own liberation from the enslavement. However, this psychological awakening did not match smart strategies needed to turn emotional readiness to stand up for ones’ rights into a rational strategy that would increase the probability of eventual victory. For example, Bassam Ishak, a Syrian political dissident, identified at least two failed strategies of the Syrian civil resistance when it began – the failure to mobilize all Sunnis to join nonviolent struggle and to understand better the culture of violence in the Syrian society in order to devise more effective strategies for maintaining nonviolent discipline. Moreover, the impatience of the opposition mixed with the belief that Syrians can achieve their liberation as quickly as Tunisians and Egyptians did led to the failure to develop a collective mentality for a protracted struggle and contributed to the premature abandonment of the nonviolent resistance. Consequently, Syrians became double victims – of the regime but also of their own wrong choices, particularly the ones that led them to opt for violent resistance.

10. Passivity of the international community
One of the arguments of the opponents of civil resistance was that the international community has not developed an effective mechanism to support nonviolent movements. However, this should in no way justify the resort to violence. It is true that the existing doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has set up the mechanism to intervene when violence breaks out on all sides of the conflict as it happened in Bosnia, Kosovo or Libya. And there is no mechanisms – besides the traditional instruments of punishing the regimes through sanctions – that could be used by the international community to provide a robust assistance to the nonviolent resistance movements when they last and help prevent them from turning into armed resistance. Therefore, my colleague, Peter Ackerman, rightly so, advocates the Right to Assist (R2A) as the new international principle designed to help nonviolent movements. Such a new norm could lower down a political threshold that is needed to support the practice of providing assistance to peaceful resisters as this type of intervention would be neither violent (as is often the case with R2P) nor selective (would be applied wherever widespread civil resistance emerges) and thus would hardly need the approval of the too-often-divided UN Security Council.

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