Tag Archives: Syrian nonviolent resistnce

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. http://www.pcr.uu.se/digitalAssets/147/147088_eck.hultman.jpr.pdf

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.  http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2011/10/31/end-of-natos-libya-intervention-means-financial-relief-for-allies

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.


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