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How not to have a revolution


Why Civil Resistance Works book coverLast 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 those of the original pro-democracy movement leaders.

The Syrian conflict now has active participation from the governments of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States. Iran and Israel are also posturing, threatening direct military intervention to prevent their enemies gaining the upper hand.

And in the Middle East, 'regional powers' also include al Qaeda, which has a persistent tendency to show up wherever there is violent conflict and throw its own incendiary cocktail into the mix. In the case of Syria, this complicates matters for the likes of the US government, who want to support the insurgents but do not want al Qaeda to benefit from the conflict.

Added to these factors is the significant ethnic and religious polarisation of Syria's population. The Assad regime represents the minority Alawites, who make up almost all of the regime's 'pillars of support' (e.g. the military, judiciary, senior government officials, et al.). Most people in this group believe they have no future without him.

Indeed, some parts of the Free Syrian Army have begun summarily executing important Alawite families seen as backing the regime, further entrenching this polarisation and making it impossible for more moderate leaders to reach out to these pillars of support to assure them they have a role to play in a post-Assad Syria. This dynamic is entirely consistent with violent struggles elsewhere.

Last year, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan published a ground-breaking study Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic on Nonviolent Struggle, comparing violent and nonviolent struggles to overthrow authoritarian governments and foreign occupations.

Their comprehensive analysis of 323 campaigns from 1900–2006 found that nonviolent struggle was twice as likely to succeed as violence in achieving movement goals. They also found that successful nonviolent struggles were ten times as likely to lead to reasonably robust democracies as successful violent campaigns, and 50 per cent less likely to fall into civil war over the ensuing ten years.

And they found that the 'strategic advantage' of nonviolent struggle was increasing over time, especially after the end of the Cold War, and is present even against the most powerful and violent regimes.

In looking for the contributors to success, Chenoweth and Stephan found that the greatest single indicator of success was participation rate. Here, nonviolent struggle has a clear advantage: almost everyone can participate in street demonstrations, labour strikes and boycotts, but only a few can and will take up arms.

Furthermore, the addition of a violent 'wing', as the Free Syrian Army started out, has been shown to decrease participation by nonviolent actors. We see this in Syria where street demonstrations and the like have disappeared, with everyone too afraid to step outside. Thus the nonviolent part of the revolution has been completely sidelined and the likelihood of a democratic outcome becomes ever more remote.

There is some prospect (but no guarantee) that the civil war could end Assad's rule. But both history and the myriad local factors give us no reason to hope that such an outcome would lead to a democratic, or even significantly less authoritarian, regime in Syria. 

Justin WhelanJustin Whelan has been researching and teaching about nonviolent social movements for the past eight years. His Masters thesis examined the anti-war movement in Australia in the lead up to the Iraq War. Justin has written articles on a range of public policy and justice issues in both peer review and popular journals, and appeared on ABC Sunday Nights with John Cleary as a commentator on nonviolent protest. 


Topic tags: Justin Whelan, Mubarak, Marcos, Milosevic, Arab Spring, Syria, Libya, Egypt



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Existing comments

I am hard-pressed to work out what you're trying to say here. The title helps a little - 'How not to have a revolution', suggests that you think Assad's opponents have got it all wrong, and that they should never have taken up arms because some other revolutions have been peaceful and successful. And yet you touch upon some good reasons why this couldn't have happened in Syria. So what should the Syrian people have done? Should they have just let themselves be shot, 'disappeared' and tortured, even though it wasn't getting them anywhere? And what should they do now? Let themselves be bombed, shot, disappeared and tortured?

Atrocities have occurred on both sides, as they did in Libya, and Al Quaeda has become similarly involved. We in the west have sat on our hands and let this happen, and must take at least some of the blame for the violent and bloody mess that Syria is now in. China and Russia have hamstrung the UN with their unbending opposition to any measures that might effectively support the Syrian people. Now the violence is spilling over Syria's borders, and the entire region is directly involved. Syria shares borders with Iraq, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. So what would you suggest?

Kate Ahearne | 23 August 2012  

Just as a couple of cruise missiles into the Serb gun emplacements shelling Dubrovnik would have forestalled a great many subsequent atrocities in the Balkans, a couple of cruise missiles into the Syrian secret police HQ would have done wonders for the Assad government's attitude. I am appalled by this proposition, since it implies killing people. However, it may have prevented much greater subsequent slaughter, as well as relieving a great many torturers of the trouble of continuing with the memory of what they themselves have done.

David Arthur | 23 August 2012  

Dick Cheney was a bastion of civility.

Michael Dokshin | 23 August 2012  

Assad does not order the armed forces to fire on unarmed protestors. Only on foreign insurgents "members of Al-qaida and Moslem Brotherhood" who are trying to impose Sharia law. Another aim is to annihilate Christian Syrians and Jews who have been there two millemia.Assad's regime is secular and held the nation together. The minorities Alawi, Christians, and Jews have the freedom to practice their faiths. See what is happening to Coptic Egyptians who are the original inhabitants for thousands of years. After the overthrow of Mubarak, the Moslem Brotherhood is persecuting the Coptic Christian community. On Sunday the 16 of August the Moslem Brotherhood crucified Coptic Christians naked on trees for having voiced their views on the new Moslem Brotherhood President Muhhamad Morsi. Australian Christians who support Arab insurgents speak with an authority, which they do not posses.

Ron Cini | 23 August 2012  

Thanks so much for this piece, Justin. For those who want to read more about Erica Chenoweth's research, here's a comprehensive interview with her that appeared on Waging Nonviolence (of which I'm an editor): http://wagingnonviolence.org/2012/07/participation-is-everything-a-conversation-with-erica-chenoweth/ Also perhaps of interest is this recent column we published on defections in Syria, written by Mary Elizabeth King, a veteran of the civil rights movement and a scholar on nonviolent movements around the world: http://wagingnonviolence.org/2012/08/the-significance-of-defections-in-syria/

Nathan Schneider | 24 August 2012  

Kate, thanks for your question.

Only the Syrian people can accurately analyse what they need to do if they want to overthrow the Assad regime. Local factors will impede some options and make others more likely to work.

I briefly touched on some generalised strategies that have worked elsewhere, in particular the use of a variety of noncooperation tactics, dispersed actions, fraternising with the military (to win defections), etc. There is a growing body of scholarship on this (eg. the book I mention, Nonviolent Revolutions by Sharon Nepstad, Kurt Shock's book Unarmed Insurrections, etc) but in some ways the definitive text is still Gene Sharp's "From Dictatorship to Democracy", which is basically a 'how to' textbook for nonviolent revolutionaries that was extensively used in Serbia, and by some in Egypt (Sharp's classic list of 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action was handed out to people who came to Tahrir Square). The book is free if you want to Google it.


Justin Whelan | 24 August 2012  

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