The worsening violence and repression in Syria has left many analysts and policymakers in the United States and other western countries scrambling to think of ways our governments could help end the bloodshed and support those seeking to dislodge the Assad regime. The desperate desire to "do something" has led a growing number of people to advocate for increased military aid to armed insurgents or even direct military intervention, as the French government has said it will consider doing unilaterally.
While understandable, to support the armed opposition would likely exacerbate the Syrian people's suffering and appear to validate the tragic miscalculation by parts of the Syrian opposition to supplant their bold and impressive nonviolent civil insurrection with an armed insurgency.
The Assad regime proved itself to be utterly ruthless in its suppression of the nonviolent pro-democracy struggle in 2011. However, it is important to stress that this ruthlessness was not the primary reason the movement failed to generate sufficient momentum to oust Bashar al-Assad.
From apartheid South Africa to Suharto's Indonesia to Pinochet's Chile, extremely repressive regimes have been brought down through largely nonviolent civil insurrections. In some cases, as with Marcos in the Philippines, Honnecker in East Germany, and Ben Ali in Tunisia, dictators have ordered their troops to fire into crowds of many thousands of people, only to have their soldiers refuse. In some other countries, such as Iran under the Shah and Mali under General Toure, many hundreds of nonviolent protesters were gunned down, but rather than cower the opposition into submission, they returned in even larger numbers and eventually forced these dictators to step down.
Historically, when a nonviolent movement shifts to violence, it is a result of frustration, anger, or the feeling of hopelessness. Rarely is it done as a clear strategic choice. Indeed, if the opposition movement were organizing its resistance in a strategic way, with a logical sequencing of tactics and a familiarity with the history and dynamics of popular unarmed civil insurrection, they would recognize that it is usually a devastating mistake to shift to violence. Rather than hasten the downfall of the dictator, successful armed revolutions have historically taken more than eight years to defeat a regime, while unarmed civil insurrections have averaged around two years before victory. Unfortunately, the fragmentation of Syrian civil society combined with the hardness of the security apparatus has made it challenging to maintain a resilient movement. Whether a movement is violent or nonviolent, improvisation is not enough when dealing with a regime that readily instills fears as in Syria.
Indeed, the failure of the opposition movement to overthrow the regime in its initial months, when it was primarily nonviolent, does not prove that nonviolence "doesn't work" any more than the failure of a violent movement to overthrow a regime subsequently proves that violence "doesn't work." Whether or not a movement is primarily violent or nonviolent, what is important is whether it employs strategies and tactics that can maximize its chances of success.
Another factor is that, unlike the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the Saleh regime in Yemen, or the Qaddafi regime in Libya, Syria is not a case of a regime whose power rests in the hands of a single dictator and the relatively small segment of the population that benefits from their association with the dictator. The Syrian regime still has a social base. A fairly large minority of Syrians -- consisting of Alawites, Christians and members of other minority communities, Baath Party loyalists and government employees, the professional armed forces and security services, and the (largely Sunni) crony capitalist class that the regime has nurtured -- still cling to the regime. There are certainly dissidents and "latent double thinkers" within all of these sectors. Yet regime loyalists are a large enough segment of the population so that no struggle -- whether violent or nonviolent -- will win without cascading defections.
The Baath Party has ruled Syria for most of the past 50 years, before even the 30-year reign of Assad's father. Military officers and party apparatchiks have developed their own power base. Dictatorships that rest primarily on the power of just one man are generally more vulnerable in the face of popular revolt than are oligarchical systems in which a broader network of elite interests has a stake in the system. Just as the oligarchy which ruled El Salvador in the 1980s proved to be far more resistant to overthrow by a popular armed revolution than the singular rule of Anastasia Somoza in neighboring Nicaragua, it is not surprising that Syria's ruling group has been more resilient relative to the personalist dictatorships toppled in the wave of largely nonviolent insurrections in neighboring Arab countries which climaxed last year.