Mass uprisings against oppressive governments put the regime’s soldiers in a precarious situation. When ordered to repress the rebelling populace, they can obey those orders to apply military action against largely peaceful demonstrators, wounding and killing many, as has been happening in Syria for months. The soldiers are then clearly tools of oppression and betrayers of their freedom-seeking countrymen.
Many soldiers with a deep sense of honor and love of their country or religion will decide they can no longer do that. Disobedience by soldiers requires great bravery. Disobeying Syrian soldiers have been summarily executed. Nevertheless, others continue to refuse to kill peaceful fellow citizens who seek only freedom.
On occasion, some brave soldiers have both disobeyed and survived. What are they to do in order to serve the cause of freedom?
Some defecting soldiers have turned their weapons against their former fellow soldiers, perhaps believing that is the most powerful action they can take against the oppressing regime. But, perhaps it is not.
When defectors choose to use their limited military capacity in that way, the oppressing regime will then not hesitate to order its remaining massive military force to be applied against those defectors. The targeted defectors will soon discover that their limited military capacity is no match for the far superior greater military capacity of the oppressing regime.
As happened in Libya, an appeal for foreign military assistance can then be expected.
The foreign military aid may or may not come. If it does, the control of the conflict has been placed in foreign hands. Foreign hands serve foreign interests. The military conflict may nevertheless continue for some time. Massive civilian casualties and widespread destruction are guaranteed, as happened in Libya.
Assuming a military victory against the regime, the intervening foreign powers will be in a position to exert major influence. This is to be avoided.
Where such a shift to military conflict has not occurred, and the oppressing regime is facing a strong nonviolent struggle movement, the regime may be facing possible collapse. Its survival may depend on keeping its soldiers reliable, for which the regime may therefore be willing to risk a lot.
Although the obedience of soldiers is rarely an issue in a strictly military conflict (soldiers under fire normally obey orders to fire back), a nonviolent struggle, as in Syria, is different. The regime’s troops have for months been ordered to kill strictly nonviolent protesters. Significant numbers of soldiers have already refused to do so, and some have been summarily executed.
The reliability of many of Assad’s remaining soldiers cannot be guaranteed. Syria may be facing a similar situation to Libya before foreign military intervention derailed the beginning of what might have become a powerful nonviolent struggle.
We do not know what really happened in Libya, but there are suspicions. With its survival at stake, the regime likely feared that at some point the troops might mutiny in response to orders to continue killing peaceful demonstrators. How could the regime prevent that? Key persons in the Libyan regime may have reasoned in the following way:
If the people power struggle had remained peaceful, as did largely the struggles in Tunisia and Egypt, the regime’s soldiers may have become unreliable in large numbers. The army being the most important single remaining source of power for the shaky regime, this could have caused fear of collapse of the Libyan regime. It is known that Kaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam predicted a civil war. Days later that became possible. How so? may be asked.
It is plausible, not a fact, that the fear of mass defections of their troops could have led the regime to take a risk. Confident that it could defeat a rebel military clash, the regime may have attempted to create the civil war it needed to ensure the army’s loyalty.
But, how to do this?
A possible way could be to provide the rebels with an option some of them could not refuse. What if they had on their side a general, complete with soldiers and weapons? The earlier choice of nonviolent struggle could then quickly dissolve in favor of “realism.” All that could be provided by a loyal general willing to act as a high level agent provocateur.
Such a Libyan general did defect with troops and weapons. The resistance movement did shift to military conflict. The general was later killed in a rebel military camp. Only the unanticipated foreign military intervention prevented the loyal Libyan military from defeating the weaker rebel military force.
In Syria, the soldiers who now serve the Assad regime appear to be the main source of the remaining power of the regime. A democratic victory therefore mainly depends on removing those soldiers as reliable agents of repression.
Again, soldiers who are shot at will almost always shoot back. Defecting Syrian soldiers who fire their weapons at the regime’s soldiers therefore are not weakening the regime. Tragically, however unintentionally, they are actually helping the Assad regime to retain the army for repression. The regime’s reliable army could then wipe out the weaker rebel soldiers and the Assad regime would be preserved at least a bit longer.
The counsel to Syrians that defecting soldiers should not kill Assad’s troops is not moralistic advice. It is rooted in historical experience.
A similar situation occurred in the First Russian Revolution. In late 1905, when the whole of Russia was in in the grip of massive general strikes and defiance against the tsarist autocracy. Some of the tsar’s troops had already mutinied and the mass of the tsar’s hitherto loyal army troops was on the verge of disobedience against orders to put down the revolution by extreme repression.
Then, in order to teach the revolutionaries the necessity of violence, Leninists instigated a shift from a nonviolent general strike in Moscow into violent attacks on the tsar’s troops. The wavering mass of troops now obeyed orders to shoot and thereby again became reliable troops for the autocracy.
The tsar’s regime, which had been disintegrating in the face of the mass nonviolent repudiation, regained strength, and survived for another twelve years, until it was destroyed by the predominantly nonviolent revolution of February 1917. (For details, see my Waging Nonviolent Struggle, pgs. 82-88 and references.)
Defecting Syrian soldiers now have a choice. Instead of shooting at the regime’s troops, as some have done, they need to be loyal to the people-power struggle for freedom. They can help the regime’s other soldiers also to defect from the Assad regime.
Thereby, they can take the army of repression away from Assad. Their action can end both the repression and the regime.
Recent criticisms calling the founder of nonviolent theory a Cold Warrior are way off the mark. To rightly evaluate him, we need to understand the role he chose for himself.
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