The worsening violence and repression in Syria has left many analysts and policymakers in the United States and other western countries scrambling to think of ways our governments could help end the bloodshed and support those seeking to dislodge the Assad regime. The desperate desire to “do something” has led a growing number of people to advocate for increased military aid to armed insurgents or even direct military intervention, as the French government has said it will consider doing unilaterally.
While understandable, to support the armed opposition would likely exacerbate the Syrian people’s suffering and appear to validate the tragic miscalculation by parts of the Syrian opposition to supplant their bold and impressive nonviolent civil insurrection with an armed insurgency.
The Assad regime proved itself to be utterly ruthless in its suppression of the nonviolent pro-democracy struggle in 2011. However, it is important to stress that this ruthlessness was not the primary reason the movement failed to generate sufficient momentum to oust Bashar al-Assad.
From apartheid South Africa to Suharto’s Indonesia to Pinochet’s Chile, extremely repressive regimes have been brought down through largely nonviolent civil insurrections. In some cases, as with Marcos in the Philippines, Honnecker in East Germany, and Ben Ali in Tunisia, dictators have ordered their troops to fire into crowds of many thousands of people, only to have their soldiers refuse. In some other countries, such as Iran under the Shah and Mali under General Toure, many hundreds of nonviolent protesters were gunned down, but rather than cower the opposition into submission, they returned in even larger numbers and eventually forced these dictators to step down.
Historically, when a nonviolent movement shifts to violence, it is a result of frustration, anger, or the feeling of hopelessness. Rarely is it done as a clear strategic choice. Indeed, if the opposition movement were organizing its resistance in a strategic way, with a logical sequencing of tactics and a familiarity with the history and dynamics of popular unarmed civil insurrection, they would recognize that it is usually a devastating mistake to shift to violence. Rather than hasten the downfall of the dictator, successful armed revolutions have historically taken more than eight years to defeat a regime, while unarmed civil insurrections have averaged around two years before victory. Unfortunately, the fragmentation of Syrian civil society combined with the hardness of the security apparatus has made it challenging to maintain a resilient movement. Whether a movement is violent or nonviolent, improvisation is not enough when dealing with a regime that readily instills fears as in Syria.
Indeed, the failure of the opposition movement to overthrow the regime in its initial months, when it was primarily nonviolent, does not prove that nonviolence “doesn’t work” any more than the failure of a violent movement to overthrow a regime subsequently proves that violence “doesn’t work.” Whether or not a movement is primarily violent or nonviolent, what is important is whether it employs strategies and tactics that can maximize its chances of success.
Another factor is that, unlike the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the Saleh regime in Yemen, or the Qaddafi regime in Libya, Syria is not a case of a regime whose power rests in the hands of a single dictator and the relatively small segment of the population that benefits from their association with the dictator. The Syrian regime still has a social base. A fairly large minority of Syrians — consisting of Alawites, Christians and members of other minority communities, Baath Party loyalists and government employees, the professional armed forces and security services, and the (largely Sunni) crony capitalist class that the regime has nurtured — still cling to the regime. There are certainly dissidents and “latent double thinkers” within all of these sectors. Yet regime loyalists are a large enough segment of the population so that no struggle — whether violent or nonviolent — will win without cascading defections.
The Baath Party has ruled Syria for most of the past 50 years, before even the 30-year reign of Assad’s father. Military officers and party apparatchiks have developed their own power base. Dictatorships that rest primarily on the power of just one man are generally more vulnerable in the face of popular revolt than are oligarchical systems in which a broader network of elite interests has a stake in the system. Just as the oligarchy which ruled El Salvador in the 1980s proved to be far more resistant to overthrow by a popular armed revolution than the singular rule of Anastasia Somoza in neighboring Nicaragua, it is not surprising that Syria’s ruling group has been more resilient relative to the personalist dictatorships toppled in the wave of largely nonviolent insurrections in neighboring Arab countries which climaxed last year.
What this means is that, whatever the method of struggle in Syria, it was always likely to have been a protracted one. Armed struggle is not a quick fix. Whether a popular struggle against an autocratic regime succeeds depends not on the popularity of the cause or even the repression of state security forces, but on whether those engaged in resistance understand the basis of the real power of the regime and develop a strategy that can neutralize its strengths and exploit its vulnerabilities.
Nonviolent struggle, like armed struggle, will succeed only if the resistance uses effective strategies and tactics. A guerrilla army cannot expect instant success through a frontal assault on the capital. They know they need to initially engage in small low-risk operations, such as hit and run attacks, and take the time to mobilize their base in peripheral areas before they have a chance of defeating the well-armed military forces of the state. Similarly, it may not make sense for a nonviolent movement to rely primarily on the tactic of massive street demonstrations in the early phases of a movement, but diversify their tactics, understand and apply their own strengths, and exploit opportunities to mobilize support and increase the pressure on the regime.
Despite the ruling Baath Party’s nominally socialist ideology, the uprising in Syria has a much stronger working-class base than most of the other Arab uprisings. Strikes and boycotts have been used only sporadically in Syria, but they have been enough to demonstrate the potential of undermining the loyalty of the crony capitalists who benefit from their close relationship to the regime. Indeed, this is what proved to be decisive in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. For a revolution against a heavily armed and deeply entrenched dictator to succeed, the opposition movement needs to mobilize a large percentage of the population on its side, as took place in Tunisia and Egypt. The Syrian resistance needs to act in ways to make the regime come across as illegitimate and traitorous, while making itself look virtuous and patriotic.
There is little question that the Assad regime feared the ability of the nonviolent opposition to neutralize the power of the state through the power of civil resistance more than it has armed groups that are attacking state power where it is strongest — through the force of arms. They recognized that an armed resistance would reinforce the regime’s unity and divide the opposition. That is why the regime has so consistently tried to provoke the pro-democracy forces into violence. It claimed that the opposition was composed of terrorists and armed thugs even during the early months of the struggle, when it was almost completely nonviolent, recognizing that the Syrian people were far more likely to support a regime challenged by an armed insurgency than through a largely nonviolent civil insurrection.
Encouraging defections from the government’s side is essential. Defections by security forces — critically important in ousting a military-backed regime — are far more likely when they are ordered to gun down unarmed protesters than when they are being shot at. Defection, however, is rarely a physical act of soldiers spontaneously throwing down their arms, crossing the battlefield and joining the other side. Not everyone can do that. Sometimes defections come in the form of bureaucrats or officers degrading the effectiveness of the regime through quiet acts of noncooperation, such as failing to carry our orders, causing key paperwork to disappear, deleting computer files, or leaking information to the other side.
In turning to armed resistance, what was once a political struggle becomes an existential struggle, and therefore more difficult to win people to your side. One’s loyalty to the regime may depend in large part on how they perceive the alternative. They need to decide whether the goal of the opposition is to create an inclusive Syria in which all political factions and sectarian communities will play a part or whether they instead simply seek to destroy their perceived opponents. The chances of bringing down Assad will be greatly enhanced if Syrians are forced to choose not between two savage forces, but between a repressive regime and more inclusive representative movement.
An unarmed civil insurrection which resists the temptation to fight back with violence gives those who may be in a position to defect real hope that they would be welcomed in joining the opposition in building a more democratic and pluralistic system in which they could have a part. By contrast, facing an armed movement — particularly one which has engaged in acts of terrorism and targets minority communities and other alleged supporters of the government — gives rise to fears that they will be persecuted or even executed if the opposition wins, and will therefore fight even harder. In short, armed struggle hardens rather than weakens the resolve and unity of repressive regimes.
The most critical limitation of armed struggle is that its occurrence can significantly decrease the number of participants in a movement or popular opposition since most citizens are unwilling to put their own lives at risk. Another significant limitation is that armed struggle plays to the strength of an authoritarian regime, which commands the arena of military force. When the armed wing of the insurgency initially came to predominate in Syria toward the end of 2011, there was still a fair amount of nonviolent resistance as well. As late as April 12, the initial day of the United Nations-brokered cease-fire (and the only day it effectively held), the largest demonstrations since before the launch of the armed struggle happened. However, armed opposition elements feared the cease-fire might simply give the regime time to stall, enact some reforms, and reinforce its standing, and immediately resume fighting. This gave the regime the excuse to engage in some of the worst massacres to date and the cease-fire completely collapsed.
As the New York Times noted, “The Assad regime probably likes the fact that the opposition has embraced armed struggle. This solidifies its support among its core constituency — the Alawites, who represent about 10 percent of the population— as well as other minorities … The regime can argue it has to hit back hard, otherwise it will be massacred.” Indeed, when the regime in the early months of the struggle last year insisted that the diverse, peaceful pro-democracy protesters were “terrorists,” “Islamist extremists,” “foreigner-backed,” and included “foreign infiltrators,” they wereappropriately ridiculed, which served to further delegitimize the regime. Since the turn to armed struggle, however, some elements of the resistance do indeed match those descriptions.
When the armed resistance escalated dramatically in 2012 after the failure of the cease-fire late in the spring and into the summer, it proved deleterious to the civil insurrection and dramatically increased the death toll. From May to August, the monthly death toll rose from 1322 to 5039 while the number of Friday demonstrations declined from 834 to 355. Subsequently, the weekly total has been well under 300. Indeed, despite claiming to defend the civilian population from the regime’s armed forces, they have only succeeded in fearfully increasing the civilian death toll.
A large fraction of former nonviolent protesters have since embraced the armed struggle and, given the horrific repression the opposition has faced from the brutal regime, it would be difficult for observers in the West to pass moral judgment on individuals who have made that choice. However, for those of us who want to see the Assad regime replaced with a true democratic government, there are plenty of reasons to question that choice on strategic grounds. And there are many Syrians still involved in the nonviolent struggle who agree.
According to pro-democracy activist Haythan Manna, the turn to armed struggle has resulted in the fragmentation of opposition groups and has served to “undermine the broad popular support necessary to transform the uprising into a democratic revolution. It made the integration of competing demands — rural v. urban, secular v. Islamist, old opposition v. revolutionary youth — much more difficult.” He also noted how the militarization of the resistance has “led to a decline in the mobilization of large segments of the population, especially amongst minorities and those living in the big cities, and in the activists’ peaceful civil movement.” He also notes how the armed struggle has increased the influence of hardline Islamists, noting, “The political discourse has become sectarian; there has been a Salafization of religiously conservative sectors.”
Another problem with armed struggle historically is that it can lead what were independent indigenous movements to become dependent upon foreign powers who supply them with arms, as happened to various popular leftwing nationalist movements in the Global South during the Cold War which ended up embracing Soviet-style Communism and adopting Moscow’s foreign policy prerogatives. While the initial pro-democracy movement explicitly rejected sectarianism, the Wahhabi-led regimes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar saw the challenge to Assad, an Alawite, as a means of breaking the so-called “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran through Iraq to southern Lebanon. These autocratic Sunni monarchies clearly do not have a democratic agenda, yet — thanks to the armed struggle — they have developed significant influence. Gulf-based networks like Wisal and Safa pushed the Salafi line that the Syrian revolution should be seen not as a diverse pro-democracy struggle, but part of a global “jihad.”
As a result of all this, there are serious questions as to whether it is appropriate for the United States and other foreign powers to support the armed resistance. Providing military support to a disorganized and fragmented armed resistance movement means more people getting killed; it does not necessarily create a disciplined fighting force capable of defeating a well-armed regime, much less establishing a stable democratic order. Even more problematic would be direct military intervention.
Empirical studies have repeatedly demonstrated that international military interventions in cases of severe repression actually exacerbate violence in the short term and can only reduce violence in the longer term if the intervention is impartial or neutral. For example, the wholesale ethnic cleansing in Kosovo by Serbian forces in 1999 began only after the launching of NATO air strikes. Other studies demonstrate that foreign military interventions actually increase the duration of civil wars, making the conflicts longer and bloodier, and the regional consequences more serious, than if there were no intervention. In addition, military intervention would likely trigger a “gloves off” mentality that could dramatically escalate the violence on both sides.
There is also the problem that the intentions of Western governments, particularly the United States, are highly suspect in the eyes of the Syrians. U.S. military intervention would simply play into the hands of the regime in Damascus, which has decades of experience manipulating the Syrian people’s strong sense of nationalism to its benefit. The regime can point out that the United States is the world’s primary military supplier to the region’s remaining dictatorships and is using the “promotion of democracy” as an excuse to overthrow a government that happens to oppose Washington’s designs on the region.
And, facing a Syrian political media sphere rooted in Arab nationalism, socialism, and anti-imperialism, Western intervention could unwittingly trigger the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Syrians — perhaps even those otherwise opposed to the regime — to resist foreign invaders. Hundreds of Syrians have quit the Baath party and government positions in protest of the killings of nonviolent protesters, but few defections could be expected if Americans and Europeans attacked their country.
Furthermore, given that there are now heavily-armed Islamist extremists and others involved in the resistance, there is no guarantee that Assad’s overthrow would actually bring peace. U.S. occupation forces in Iraq soon found themselves caught in the middle of a bloody sectarian conflict and quickly learned that some of Saddam’s biggest foes were also quite willing to turn their guns on the “foreign infidels.”
The Obama administration is eager to see the Assad regime fall and the sooner the better. However, it recognizes that foreign intervention in Syria is a far more complicated proposition than Libya. The population is more than three times bigger and the terrain far more challenging. As a result, the administration recognizes the need to find alternative means of supporting the resistance.
In addition to providing humanitarian assistance, the United States has provided communication equipment and other resources for what remains of the nonviolent opposition. In addition, the State Department’s Office of Syrian Opposition Support (OSOS) has served as a point of contact between the international community and various nonviolent opposition networks inside Syria. The Obama administration appears to recognize that this approach — which has the support of many moderate Syrians and democratic U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere — is the most realistic and effective means of supporting the resistance and a utilitarian alternative that avoids the pitfalls of doing nothing in the face of savage repression or becoming a party to horrific and protracted civil war.
Despite this, some critics mistakenly confuse this appropriately cautious approach with isolationism, pacifism, or naiveté. For example, Justin Vela, in an October 10 FP article, condescendingly claims the Obama administration is “fixated on the peaceful activists” and favorably quotes Syrian militants who deride these efforts as “useless.” He goes on to dismiss OSOS advice to activists as “civil society workshops,” with the implication that they are no different than those supported by the National Endowment for Democracy and other groups supporting middle class liberal constituencies in emerging democracies. In reality, what is being provided is basic information about how to organize and mobilize resistance efforts, which is sorely needed at all levels of the Syrian opposition.
In order for an unarmed civil insurrection to succeed, it is necessary to build a coalition representing broad segments of society, requiring the kind of compromise and cooperation which can provide the basis for a pluralist democratic order in the future. As a result, the majority of countries in which dictatorships are overthrown by nonviolent insurrections are able to establish stable democratic institutions and processes within a few years. By contrast, since armed struggles are centered on an elite vanguard with a strict military hierarchy and martial values, these patterns of leadership often continue once rebel military commanders become the new political leaders. Indeed, history has shown that dictatorships overthrown by armed revolutions are far more likely to become new dictatorships. Furthermore, there is also a high correlation with the method of struggle and political stability: countries in which the old regime was toppled through armed struggle are far more likely to experience civil war, coup d’états, and dangerous political volatility subsequently. This may be particularly true in light of the potentially explosive ethnic and sectarian mosaic of Syria.
In sum, opposition to U.S. support for the armed resistance in Syria has nothing to do with indifference, isolationism, or pacifism. Nor is it indicative of being any less horrified by the suffering of the Syrian people or any less desirous of the overthrow of Assad’s brutal regime. With so much at stake, however, it is critical to not allow the understandably strong emotional reaction to the ongoing horror or a romanticized attachment to armed revolution serve as a substitute for strategic thinking in our support for and solidarity with the Syrian struggle for freedom.