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Supporting Nonviolence in Syria by Stephen Zunes

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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 were  appropriately 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 naivete. 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'etats, and dangerous political volatility subsequently. This may be particularly true in light of the potentially explosive ethnic and sectarian mosaic of Syria.

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Paul Roden is a long time activist DFA & PDA member working for progressive change in America. I am also the point of organizer for PDA, the Progressive Democrats of America in Lower Bucks County. I am a "Neighborhood Leader" or "Victory Precinct (more...)

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