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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.

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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