Tag Archives: Syrian civil resistance

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.

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