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How not to have a revolution

  • 23 August 2012

Last year many said Syria was proof that nonviolent struggle could not overthrow a truly ruthless dictator — as if the likes of Mubarak, Marcos and Milosevic were bastions of civility.

Never mind that the latter two ordered their armed forces to fire upon unarmed protestors just like Assad, only to find the generals, thanks to a range of tactics from the revolutionaries, refusing to carry them out. No doubt Mubarak would have tried the same but the Egyptian army had made it clear early on it would refuse to do so.

There were a number of weaknesses in the strategic choices being made by the Syrian democracy movement. The almost exclusive use of street demonstrations was an admirable show of defiance and courage but it made it easier for the regime to arrest and later violently repress the participants.

Unlike Egypt and almost all other successful revolutions, there was a dearth of alternative tactics aimed at mass participation in a dispersed form (which is much harder to crack down on), such as labour strikes and boycotts.

It was as if the Syrians, in trying to capture the momentum of the Arab Spring, looked at Egypt and saw only Tahrir Square, and not the wide range of tactics and many years of struggle that predated those incredible 17 days. If so, they did no worse than the vast majority of the world's media.

Nevertheless, as the nonviolent movement came under sustained violent repression, some people inside Syria decided to take up arms. In doing so, they have unwittingly opened a Pandora's Box.

Violence has its own internal logic and momentum. Although in cases like Syria it is taken up in response to a perceived failure of nonviolent struggle and to widespread violent repression by the regime, violent insurgencies radically increase the rate of civilian and movement actor casualties.

This is because insurgent violence makes it much easier for the regime to increase its repression of even the nonviolent parts of the movement while maintaining legitimacy among its support base and neutrals.

Violent struggles often draw in outside powers, through material assistance, provision of weapons or other supplies, and sometimes through direct military support. Of course, these outside powers bring their own agendas, which rarely align with