Yes, nonviolence, even now

TheAtlantic.com published my call for a return to nonviolence in Syria this morning, under the infelicitous title “Why the Syrian Free Army Should Put Down Their Guns”:

Nonviolent organization has a better chance at unseating Assad’s regime than an armed uprising.

It is remarkable how quickly we’ve forgotten about nonviolence in Syria. Only a few months ago, the White House was testifying unequivocally in favor of nonviolent protest, rather than armed opposition, against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime’s awful crackdown. Even today, President Obama eschews military intervention. Yesterday, Yahoo News’ Laura Rozen offered the views of four experts on moving forward in Syria. While one doubted the efficacy of arming the opposition, none advocated nonviolence. When blogger Jasmin Ramsey wrote up a rundown of the debate over intervention in Syria, nonviolence wasn’t even mentioned.

There are reasons for this. No one is going to march around Homs singing kumbaya while the Syrian army shells the city. It is correct to believe that Syrians have the right to defend themselves from a state that is attacking them. Certainly international military intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, and arguably Libya saved a lot of lives. Why should Syrians not be entitled to protection? Isn’t it our responsibility to meet that expectation?

First on protection: the responsibility belongs in the first instance to the Syrian government. The international community is not obligated to intervene. It may do so under particular circumstances, when the government has clearly failed to protect the population. I don’t see a stomach for overt intervention in the U.S. Nor do I think the Arab League or Turkey will do it without the U.S., as Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests.If the violence continues to spiral, the regime is going to win.

The Syrian government has not only failed to protect, it has in fact attacked its own citizens, indiscriminately and ferociously. Self-defense and intervention are justified. The question is whether they are possible or wise, which they do not appear to be.

The Free Syria Army, an informal collection of anti-regime insurgents, is nowhere near able to protect the population. Their activities provoke the government and its unfree Army to even worse violence. It would be far better if defected soldiers worked for strictly defensive purposes, accompanying street demonstrators and rooting out agents provocateurs rather than suicidally contesting forces that are clearly stronger and better armed. A few automatic weapon rounds fired in the general direction of the artillery regiments bombarding Homs are going to help the artillery with targeting and do little else.

Violence also reduces the likelihood of future defections from the security forces. For current Syrian soldiers weighing defection, it is one thing to refuse to fire on unarmed demonstrators. It is another to desert to join the people who are shooting at you. Defections are important — eventually, they may thin the regime’s support. But they aren’t going to happen as quickly or easily if rebels are shooting at the soldiers they want to see defect.

But if you can’t march around singing kumbaya, what are you going to do? There are a number of options, few of which have been tried. Banging pans at a fixed hour of the night is a tried and true protest technique that demonstrates and encourages opposition, but makes it hard for the authorities to figure out just who is opposing them. The Arab variation is Allahu akbar called out for 15 minutes every evening. A Libyan who helped organize the revolutionary takeover of Tripoli explained to me that their effort began with hundreds of empty mosques playing the call to prayer, recorded on CDs, at an odd hour over their loudspeakers. A general strike gives clear political signals and makes it hard for the authorities to punish all those involved. Coordinated graffiti, marking sidewalks with identical symbols, wearing of the national flag — consult Gene Sharp’s 198 methods for more.

The point is to demonstrate wide participation, mock the authorities, and deprive them of their capacity to generate fear. When I studied Arabic in Damascus a few years ago, I asked an experienced agitator friend about the efficacy of the security forces. She said they were lousy. “What keeps everyone in line?” I asked. “Fear,” she replied. If the oppositions resorts to violence, it helps the authorities: by responding with sometimes random violence, they hope to re-instill fear.

Could the Syrians return to nonviolence after everything that’s happened? As long as they are hoping for foreign intervention or foreign arms, it’s not likely. Steve Heydemann, my former colleague at the United States Institute of Peace, recently suggested on PBS Newshour that we need a “framework” for arming the opposition that would establish civilian control over Free Syria Army. This is a bad idea if you have any hope of getting back to nonviolence, as it taints the civilians, making even the nonviolent complicit in the violence. It’s also unlikely to work: forming an army during a battle is not much easier than building your airplane as you head down the runway.

What is needed now is an effort to calm the situation in Homs, Hama, Deraa, and other conflict spots. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is visiting Damascus, could help. The continuing assault on Homs and other population centers is a major diplomatic embarrassment to Moscow. The opposition should ask for a ceasefire and the return of the Arab League observers, who clearly had a moderating influence on the activities of the regime. And, this time around, they should be beefed up with UN human rights observers.

If the violence continues to spiral, the regime is going to win. They are better armed and better organized. The Syrian revolt could come to look like the Iranian street demonstrations of 2009, or more likely the bloody Shia revolt in Iraq in 1991, or the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1982, which ended with the regime killing thousands. There is nothing inevitable about the fall of this or any other regime — that is little more than a White House talking point. What will make it inevitable is strategic thinking, careful planning, and nonviolent discipline. Yes, even now.

 

7 Responses to Yes, nonviolence, even now

  1. Troy Carter says:

    Dear Sir,

    I’m with you on non-violence but I think your suggestion of Allahu Akbar and the mosques story from Libya are mistakes. Syria and Lebanon already have sectarian problems and the domination of the anti-Assad movement by Sunni Muslims puts everyone who hates the regime but isn’t a Sunni in a tricky situation. I know that even Christian Arabs say Allahu Akbar but why go there if a non-theistic pot could do the trick?

  2. Even when militarization certainly is not going to stir much enthusiasm from peace(ful) activists, it strikes me that the current mess in Syria is well beyond banging pans and relying on the Russians.

  3. Shakeeb Al-Jabri says:

    If you are that ill-informed about Syria’s revolution you should avoid writing about it, let alone giving advice.

    The text above clearly shows that the author has little idea about what is happening in Syria today. For months now protesters have taken to banging on pots, not only for hours, but throughout the night. They’ve also been shouting Allahu Akbar, again all night long, since April 2011.

    While Lavrov was in Damascus, Assad’s forces were committing massacres in Homs. Furthermore the idea that the opposition could count on Russia to help is pure fantasy.

    Assad will not go until there is a gun to his head, period.

  4. Amer says:

    Nonviolence may work where the government either worries about its international reputation (the British in India, the U.S. South, So. Africa), or where it has decided in advance to retreat (Russians from Eastern Europe), or where the power structures are willing to give up an unpopular ruler to preserve their own position (Romania, Serbia, Egypt). Where the government is not willing to give up at the sight of marching citizens(Kosovo about 1985-1995, Iran), nothing happens to change the situation. The Syrians may be counting on the KLA scenario – provoke the government and pray for international support to bail you out. The Serbs in Kosovo had an escape hatch to the north, but Assad’s supporters are trapped in one country with the opposition. With Assad promising Lavrov to end violence “wherever it exists,” things sound ominous.

    The Pentagon is supposedly preparing for all eventualities – if it means boots on the ground, they had better be Arab boots. We’ve really outstayed our welcome in that part of the world.

    • Amer says:

      “We’ve really outstayed our welcome in that part of the world.”

      And yet, in a news report from Homs on the news tonight, a Syrian fighter asks the camera, in despair “Where are the Americans?”

  5. […] opciones:1. Volver a la no violencia. Es la opción más radical, difícil y que se oye menos. Aquí es donde la explican mejor. Las protestas sirias han sido siempre pacíficas. Aún hoy hay […]

  6. Wim Roffel says:

    I don’t share the enthusiasm about Gene Sharp. These are in essence PR tricks with which you can make even the demands of a small minority look very reasonable while you ridicule the established powers. In a revolutionary context like Syria everyone will recognize them as propaganda tricks for what in the end is a violent goal and deal with them accordingly. Occupy Wall Street used these tools and look what happened to them.

    If you want real non-violence you should start with negotiations. Sure, Assad may sometimes act in bad faith, but so will the opposition. The negotiations to end the Vietnam War took years and had its false starts too. I don’t see that as a problem. Rome wasn’t built on one day either. The goal of negotiations is to find a solution that both sides find acceptable: not to find some abstract formula that consequently will be abused by one side to grab all the power.

    This applies the more if the goal is democracy. Compromise is at the heart of democracy. If you start with a one-side-gets-all revolution it is very difficult to go from there to democracy.

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