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.
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I do not agree with this assessment for a number of reasons:
1- The make up of the officer corps in the Syrian army is sectarian, a majority from the president’s own minority Alawi sect. They will remain loyal till the end. In fact, the strongest units in the army, the republican guards and the 4th regiment are almost entirely made up of the Alawi sect, soldiers as well as officers.
2- Defecting soldiers generally try not to target regular army troops, but instead the security forces or secret police(mukhabarat) who are to blame for the bulk of violence against protesters, as well as loyalist irregular militia known as Shabiha.
3- Defectors are engaging in guerrilla style urban warfare tactics, not open confrontation. They have the support and assistance of the local populations, and their attacks have been very effective in demoralizing regular troops and security forces.
The commenter is wrong on his last point. There no meaningful difference between defected violent resisters using “urban warfare tactics” or conventional military tactics, in causing regime solidification and in damaging civil resistance. It’s the risk-intensifying spread of violence, especially in populated areas like cities, that demobilizes most civilians from actively participating in a resistance movement.
Unarmed civilian-based resistance is what has brought the Syrian conflict to its present point, as it has become evident that rising civilian participation is robbing the regime of any residual legitimacy and as people continue to lose their fear of participating in meaningful resistance. Introduce offensive violence by resisters (whether defectors or not) into that context, and you reverse that dynamic. Any “demoralization” of regime troops caused by converting the conflict from a nonviolent to a violent conflict is beside the point.
The commenter is actually just making an argument for conversion of this conflict from civil resistance (which has been strategically effective in many ways thus far) to violent insurrection and/or civil war — with all the perils and uncertainties of that which Dr. Sharp has explained.
Luckily, the French resistance never had you as an Adviser, or they’d all be speaking German now.
Edward, you’ve overlooked the successful and robust use of nonviolence resistance against German occupation all across Europe, especially in Denmark and the Netherlands. Unfortunately, the exaggeration of the effectiveness of violent resistance has obscured this more important history of how ordinary people imposed extraordinary costs on German occupiers. The French scholar Jacques Semelin documented this a long time ago: http://www.amazon.com/Unarmed-Against-Hitler-Resistance-1939-1943/dp/0275939618
And if the Libyans had listened to this piece of advice where would they be now? Gaddafi would still be in power, and hundreds of thousands of them in graves or in his torture chambers. Sometimes holding flowers and singing real loud doesn’t oust a dictator
Mr. Sharp needs to adjust his geopolitical glasses. The “revolt” in Syria is hardly coincidental with the recent overthrow in Libya and the expanding covert war against Iran. Many reliable sources are describing impending Turkish involvement in the revolt, at the behest of NATO. This is a made-in-Washington revolt. They have been planning it since at least 2002, and now they are trying to pull it off.
All of this does not excuse the repression of the Syrian regime, but to characterize the current struggles as strictly indigenous at this point is naive at best. From the beginning, this insurrection has been marked by provocative bombings of government buildings and bloody attacks on troops. This is not what nonviolent or even locally-grown resistance looks like.
Further, Mr. Sharp’s take on the 1905 Russian revolt is convoluted and inaccurate, judging by hundreds of historical accounts. Lenin had no need, nor motivation, to “teach” the Russians to be violent. It was the violence of the Tsarist army that forced the militant workers into defensive responses. Mr. Sharp’s hysterical anti-communism distorts his thinking on the 21st century.
Ah yes, the “conspiracy theory” crowd dons their tinfoil hats and dive into the foray, wielding their wild accusations, untethered in any reality or proof.
FYI, Turkey and Qatar, the main protagonists now against the Syrian regime were up until a very short few months ago one of it’s major allies and friends in the region, providing political support and financial investment. So much for your NATO conspiring since 2002 with Turkey.
Revolt made in Washington my ass, you think Syrians came out in their hundreds of thousands to be shot dead on the streets for protesting against 40 years of tyranny, corruption and nepotism because Washington told them so. Man, the nerve of some of you pea-brains.
“From the beginning, this insurrection has been marked by provocative bombings of government buildings and bloody attacks on troops.”
I’m assuming you know the above statement as fact because you …(fill in the blank). Ah of course you don’t, it just fits your narrative. The uprising started because the security chief in Daraa, Assad’s own cousin, Atef Najeeb, arrested school kids for writing anti-government graffiti in their school, and then tortured them and plucked their fingernails off. When their families protested against this, he shot and killed them in the streets. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, Syrians had had enough and were revolting. To suggest otherwise is an insult to us protesting inside Syria and risking our lives so that our children can have a better future and not worry about being murdered like cattle, capiche?
And we are supposed to believe you’re a Syrian? The fact is, most protesters that came on the streets for democratic reforms, a new constitution and parlament elections in Syria, have since seen what the real nature of this revolt is. Foreign funded, backed by dictatorships Saudi-Arabia and Quatar, and their main oil-customers USA with NATO. Don’t tell me these foreignly funded and armed terrorists are homegrown. Most of the western narrative has long since been disproved as faked news-segments by Avaaz and other CNN and Al-Jazeera stooges orchestrated out of the states. I would mention pentagon, but then you would probably pin a tinfoil hat on me.
The reality is most Syrians back the Assad government, and I don’t see any democratic forces ready to step in and run this country in a western-style democratical fashion. The rebels seem mostly to be hardline sunni anti-democratic sharia-rule extremists. So don’t try to color the current rebel opposition as fighting for democracy, ’cause they aren’t. When most Syrians want the current government to continue, the struggle to oust the Baath government is per definition not democratic.
I have had Gene Sharp’s books, dog-eared from study, on my bookshelf for many years and have participated in a number of non-violent civil actions in the U.S. Regardless, I am disturbed by the lack of even minimal documentation by all of the writers in this dialogue.
“The uprising started because the security chief in Daraa, Assad’s own cousin, Atef Najeeb, arrested school kids for writing anti-government graffiti in their school, and then tortured them and plucked their fingernails off”
Where does this story come from?
I agree with Edward
the link talk about the children who was abused
Arabs love demoracy .but their leaders is not.Arab leaders never know what is democracy means.democracy mean always have new leader.so all arabs now rebelled their leaders,to teach their leader,what is nowdays democracy means……i think arab leaders now is the most agnorant leader in the world.They never give another a chance to take over their place.What a greedy leaders they have….Mahathir muhammad step down by his choice,even a lot of his friends and malaysian people not allowed him to go…shame on greedy arab leaders.
Arabs now always have barbarian leaders.They never practice open and nice democracy,they dosen,t know what democracy mean.Democracy mean always have new leader.But these fool barbarian arabs leader stay too long on their position>even the prophet said,”on you with the majority of people”.So If the majority say they must go,the leaders must step down.Arab now practicing coward barbarian politic.They not only backward in civilization,they are backward in art of politic too.This barbarian Assad will have same fate with gaddafi.We will see..God will punish evil man,not only in hereafter but in here…this told in quran.. read quran.- malaysian