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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.


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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.

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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." 

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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.

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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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