Nonviolent discipline key to success in Syria

Anti-government protesters shout slogans against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad during the funeral of Sunni Muslim villagers killed on November 2, in Hula, near the city of Homs.

The Syrian uprising is at a critical juncture. With 3,500 civilians killed since the movement began in March, according to the U.N., some of the opposition groups within the country—albeit still a small minority—are now taking up arms and calling for foreign military intervention.

Defections within the military and police have been growing. Col. Riad al-Asaad, who announced the creation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in July, now claims that they have some 15,000 defectors in their ranks. (The Economist, however, notes that “the true number is probably a lot smaller.”)

While defections are normally a positive sign that a key pillar of support for any regime is weakening, the situation in Syria is complicated by the fact that these defectors are not only refusing orders to crack down on protesters but have organized into the Free Syrian Army, which is now going on the offensive—attacking checkpoints, military convoys and pro-regime gangs. The more intense this fighting becomes, the greater the probability that the conflict will devolve into an all-out civil war and President Bashar al-Assad will use force even more indiscriminately on the civilian population.

There have also been protests throughout Syria calling for the imposition of a “no-fly zone,” that were backed by the Syrian Revolution Facebook page, which has more than 300,000 fans. And the Syrian National Council, a broad-based umbrella opposition organization, has recently appeared to be opening the door to foreign intervention, which it originally opposed.

While I can only imagine the terror and suffering that has driven these factions of the opposition to take up arms or call for outside military help, it would be wise for Syrians to take a hard look the potential impact of this path.

First, even if the FSA is as strong as its leaders says it is, they are still pitted against the far better-armed Syrian army that numbers around 220,000. Not great odds.

Moreover, as Erica Chenoweth explains in a wonderful piece, violence on the part of the Free Syrian Army is actually likely to slow defections within Syria’s security apparatus.

Part of Assad’s propaganda has focused on how the uprising is comprised of armed gangs seeking to disrupt public order and destroy Syrian society. Such propaganda has heretofore seemed totally ridiculous, even among many security forces who have chosen to defect to the movement’s side. For a regime where loyalty within the security forces is crumbling, adopting armed struggle or an armed defense wing can actually reverse these trends in shifting loyalties. Security forces generally don’t surrender themselves to armed “traitors,” and Assad’s rhetoric may seem less crazy to the security forces when they suddenly find themselves under attack by their former comrades.

After analyzing a data set of more than a hundred nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006, Chenoweth and Kurt Schock concluded that there is simply no evidence to support the claim that having an armed wing will increase the probability of success for a nonviolent campaign. In fact, their findings show a slight negative effect on success rates.

This shouldn’t be surprising, because not only do nonviolent movements that have an armed wing reduce the likelihood of defections within the military, they also historically reduce popular participation in the struggle, which is a key to success for nonviolent campaigns.

And the calls for a no-fly zone in Syria are both odd—in that no protesters have been killed by Syrian airpower—and dangerous. While the loss of 3,500 people in the pro-democracy struggle in Syria is tragic, the number of deaths would likely only skyrocket were there a foreign military intervention. All one needs to do is look at how well that worked out for Libya. As Seumas Milne writes in The Guardian:

while the death toll in Libya when Nato intervened was perhaps around 1,000–2,000 (judging by UN estimates), eight months later it is probably more than ten times that figure. Estimates of the numbers of dead over the last eight months—as Nato leaders vetoed ceasefires and negotiations—range from 10,000 up to 50,000. The National Transitional Council puts the losses at 30,000 dead and 50,000 wounded.

Moreover, numerous academic studies have shown that the likelihood of a democratic state emerging after foreign military intervention is slim to none.

The fact is that the pro-democracy movement is still young. Despite the widespread and erroneous belief that the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt swept away their dictators overnight, the opposition had been building and engaging in nonviolent action in both countries for years. In fact, the average nonviolent campaign lasts two and a half years, with some lasting far longer. As Chenoweth concludes:

If Assad falls, it will be because hundreds of thousands of unarmed protestors have withdrawn their cooperation from the regime; because security forces refuse to obey orders to crack down on unarmed protesters; and because business elites within the country will pressure Assad to abandon his post.

On the other hand, as Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan demonstrate in extensive detail in their important book Why Civil Resistance Works, should the wider movement decide to embrace violence, the likelihood that they will succeed dramatically declines, along with the probability that a democratic government will follow Assad’s rule—and the chances that the country will fall into civil war within the next 10 years greatly increases.

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