News / Middle East

Syria: Restraint in the Face of Repression

An injured protester is helped by others around him in a location provided as Homs April 22, 2011 in this still image taken from video
An injured protester is helped by others around him in a location provided as Homs April 22, 2011 in this still image taken from video
Cecily Hilleary

Many analysts were not surprised last week when discouraged protesters in Hama, Damascus and other Syrian cities began carrying placards and banners advocating for foreign intervention.

Syrians are in the sixth month of a nonviolent uprising that has left them battered and bruised by a regime intent on staying in power, no matter what. More than 2,000 Syrians have died and countless others have disappeared into the black holes of the Syrian prison system, according to organizations monitoring the situation in the country.

Meanwhile, half a continent away, Libyan rebels, fortified by NATO weaponry, last week took Moammar Gadhafi’s compound in Tripoli, sending the dictator and his family into hiding.

While understanding that some Syrian protesters might have begun questioning the merits of their own peaceful rebellion, its organizers and some policy analysts say the demonstrators' best course of action would be to remain on the nonviolent path they have chosen.

The Syrian Local Coordination Committees (LCC) and other Syrian opposition groups have been quick to denounce calls to an armed rebellion, insisting that nonviolence is the only effective means to defeating the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

In a statement to the Syrian people released earlier this week, the LCC cautioned that militarizing the revolution would minimize popular support of - and participation in - the uprisings. They warned that taking up arms might weaken the seriousness of the inevitable humanitarian catastrophe that would result from a confrontation with Assad’s military. The LCC also forecast that an armed struggle would rob Syrian protesters of their “moral superiority” over the regime.

“The objective of Syria’s Revolution,” the statement reads, “is not limited to overthrowing the regime. The Revolution also seeks to build a democratic system and national infrastructure that safeguards the freedom and dignity of the Syrian people."

Violence cheapens causes


Hozen Ibrahim, spokesman for the LCC, sympathizes with Syrians who are dispirited by the ongoing violence and rising death toll. “But that doesn’t justify arming ourselves or going for the Libyan scenario,” Ibrahim said, “because it’s not going to work in Syria. For us, the uprising is a peaceful one to gain freedom for Syrian people. It is not to fight or make a civil war.”

Arguing in defense of keeping the revolution nonviolent, Ibrahim cites the example of the two Palestinian intifadas. “The first one was peaceful, and they gained the solidarity of the international community, they reached some goals they were fighting for. However, in the second intifada, some Palestinians armed themselves, they fought against Israel and they lost more than they gained.”

There is a reason for that, says Dr. Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco and Chair in Middle Eastern Studies. “When you have movements that have both nonviolent and violent elements, there is a tendency to treat the entire movement as violent,” he said.

Stephen Zunes
Stephen Zunes

Zunes argues that while it’s tempting to attribute the rebels' success in Libya to NATO intervention, in point of fact, nonviolence worked in the initial days of the uprising. “In less than a week,” Zunes said, “they had liberated most of the eastern part of the country and a number of western cities - and even some neighborhoods in Tripoli. But with the shift to armed struggle, they were basically taking Gadhafi on at his strongest point.”

Zunes also argues that it was during the unarmed stage of the conflict that Libya witnessed the greatest number of resignations and defections among regime and military circles. Before NATO intervened, he says, thousands of soldiers defected or refused to shoot at civilian protesters.

However, after NATO stepped in, the nature of the rebellion shifted. “In general,” Zunes said, “security forces are much more likely to stay loyal [to a regime] if they are being shot at, as opposed to being ordered to shoot into crowds of unarmed demonstrators.”

There’s a lesson there for Syria, says Zunes. “As the nonviolent struggle wears on, the middle class and certain privileged groups that have benefited from the Assad regime, while they might not like Assad that much, are starting to defect.” And as the economic impact of disruptions and international sanctions begins to hit them, Zunes says, he sees signs that the middle class is beginning to notice that the opposition is remarkably nonviolent, despite “severe provocation” by the regime.

“They’re thinking to themselves, ‘Maybe if these guys take over, it won’t be so bad,’” Zunes adds.

No blanket policy

Dr. Fawaz Gerges, Director of the London School of Economics’ Middle East Center, disagrees with the concept of a one-size-fits-all approach to the rebellions in the Middle East and disputes Zunes’ assertion that Libyans could have achieved their end goal without NATO’s help.

Fawas Gerges
Fawas Gerges

Gerges points out that Libyan protesters began their revolt peacefully. “If there is one particular feature that distinguishes almost every single revolution in the Arab world, from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to even Libya and Syria, it's basically the opposition to the use of armed force, either internally or externally.”

In the case of Libya, says Gerges, it was the use of massive force by the Gadhafi regime that “forced” the Libyans, “against their own will to call on the international community - the Arab states, Turkey, NATO and the United States - to help them survive, as opposed to really empower the opposition forces.”

Libyan rebels did not have the means, resources, skills or training to march to take on the Gadhafi regime, Gerges adds. “I think that the reality is NATO paved the way, cleared the way, neighborhood by neighborhood, village by village, city by city, for the rebels.”

If that worked in Libya, then would it also apply to Syria?

Gerges’ answer is an emphatic ‘no,’ for several reasons: “The leading opposition forces in Syria are opposed to foreign intervention in all its aspects, period,” he says. “Point two, Syria differs radically from Libya. Any military intervention in Syria would be disastrous for the Syrian people, for the region, and its implications would transcend the region as well.”

“Thirdly,” Gerges said, “the Syrian protesters know very well they must take ownership of their revolution. It will take time, it will be prolonged, it will be bloody, it will be costly and it will take, in fact, years as opposed to months. But the reality is there is no other way for them, given the complexity and the difficulty of the Syrian case.”

Does nonviolence work?

If it is a given that Syrians face the regime on their own and without resorting to violence, do they stand a chance at bringing down the Assad regime and achieving true democracy?

Dr. Gene Sharp
thinks so. Founder of the Albert Einstein Institution and Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Sharp is widely considered the “grandfather” of nonviolent struggle - a title that earned him the ire of dictatorships across the globe. In his “primer” on peaceful rebellion, From Dictatorship to Democracy, Sharp defines and sets out a blueprint for political defiance, one small step at a time.

Gene Sharp
Gene Sharp

Sharp believes Syrians can achieve change and, indeed, have done so already. The mere fact that they oppose the regime weakens its leader. And weakened dictators, according to the scholar, generally resort to stronger methods of repression, which backfires and weakens them even further.

“Dictators,” Sharp says, “will do all kinds of things to get you to stop the resistance, and it’s the resistance that has given democratic Syrians leverage.”

Sharp stresses that if a nonviolent movement is to be successful, it must remain nonviolent. “Violence is actually what the dictatorship wants you to do,” he said. “That’s why, for dozens and dozens and dozens of years, dictators have sent their agents into the revolutionary movements, in order to provoke them into violence.”

Once rebels become violent, says Sharp, regimes can justify the use of force to put them down.

The blueprint

Protests, according to Sharp, are beneficial to any revolution. They send a strong message to the oppressive regime. They also earn international attention and sympathy for the participants. The downside, however, is that they often result in high casualties. “Protest is good, but it’s symbolic,” Sharp says. “Protests alone will not bring down a dictator. You have to go to the sources of power and you’ve got to take those away.”

Given the muscle of the Assad regime, this might not be easy to achieve. Sharp, however, believes that it is the people who give a dictator his muscle. As long as people believe that the regime is legitimate, he says, as long as they cooperate with it and obey it, as long as they support the regime by providing it with tools, knowledge, resources, they are empowering that regime.

In his writings, Sharp catalogues at least 200 recognized methods of nonviolent “weapons,” ranging from sit-ins to strikes to mock funerals and non-cooperation in the workplace. “If the civil service no longer carries out their duties,” says Sharp, “if the legitimacy of the regime is denounced by the religious and moral leaders, if the police don’t find people to [carry out arrests], and if finally the military does not obey, then the regime’s power is gone.”

Key to weakening a dictator, Sharp says, is communication with a regime’s military and security sectors. “Troops should learn that the struggle will be of a special character designed to undermine the dictatorship but not to threaten their lives," he writes.” Sharp suggests that in the end, troop morale will gradually lower and their allegiance gradually shift from the ruler to the populace.

But this does not mean that nonviolent resistance is risk-free. Tragically, casualties, says Sharp, are inevitable; however, he stresses that “they will be far fewer than the casualties in military warfare.”

As evidence, Sharp cites the death tolls of this Arab Spring: While some 2,000 to 3,000 have so far died during the Syrian uprising this year, tens of thousands died in the armed struggle to oust Gadhafi in Libya.

And there is an other argument proponents of nonviolent uprisings use: when rebels take over by force, they tend to go on to rule by force. Or, as Stephen Zunes puts it, they become convinced that true power lies in their weaponry.

Does this then mean that rebels who take up arms are doomed to build their governments akin in pattern to those of former dictatorships? Yes, says Sharp, if they are not careful.

In more general terms, while there appears to be no single effective formula for overthrowing dictators, experts seem to agree on one point: people have at least as much power as the dictators who oppress them.

>> Vote in our poll for what you think the protesters should do <<

Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

China to Open Stock Markets to Pension Funds

In unprecedented move, government to soon allow local pension funds to invest up to $94 billion in domestic shares More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs