Opposition to intervention in Syria utilitarian, not ideological

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. A reply to Nader Hashemi.

Stephen Zunes
23 September 2013

Nader Hashemi, in an essay from his book recently excerpted by openDemocracy, mischaracterizes my opposition to western military intervention in Syria as being rooted in “Gandhian instincts” and “ideological purity.”

In reality, my opposition to such interventionism is based upon my background in strategic studies, empirical evidence regarding the efficacy of such interventions historically, my extensive research in Syria and on US-Syrian relations, my familiarity with the regime and various components of the opposition, and other factors.  It has nothing to do with any “Gandhian instincts” or “ideological purity.”  Unlike most Gandhians or other ideologically-driven pacifists, if I believed that western military intervention would help ease the suffering of the Syrian people and speed the ouster of Assad and the emergence of a stable and democratic Syria, I would support it.  All the evidence I see, however, has convinced me otherwise. 

This includes my understanding of the nature of the Syrian regime:

The Baath Party has ruled Syria for most of the past 50 years, from even before the 30-year reign of Bashar al-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 – like Libya’s Gaddafi, Egypt’s Mubarak, and Tunisia’s Ben Ali – are generally more vulnerable in the face of popular revolt than are oligarchical systems where a broader network of elite interests has a stake in the system. Just as the oligarchy that 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 entrenched ruling group has been more resilient than the personalist dictatorships toppled in the wave of largely nonviolent insurrections in neighboring Arab countries.

A 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 government has nurtured - still cling to the Assad regime. There are certainly dissidents within all of these sectors, but altogether regime supporters number as much as one-third of the population.

What this means is that even large-scale direct foreign intervention will not lead to a quick collapse of the regime.

Contrary to Hashemi’s argument that the ruthlessness of the Assad regime in its attempts to suppress the nonviolent pro-democracy struggle in 2011 was the reason for its failure – it should be pointed out that 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 flee.

If the Syria opposition movement had been able organize 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 have had a greater chance of success and recognized 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.

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 the 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. Whether a popular struggle against an autocratic regime succeeds depends not on the popularity of the cause or even the repression of state security forces, but on whether those engaged in resistance understand the basis of the real power of the regime and develop a strategy that can neutralize its strengths and exploit its vulnerabilities.

Nonviolent struggle, like armed struggle, will succeed only if the resistance uses effective strategies and tactics. A guerrilla army cannot expect instant success through a frontal assault on the capital. They know they need to initially engage in small low-risk operations, such as hit and run attacks, and take the time to mobilize their base in peripheral areas before they have a chance of defeating the well-armed military forces of the state. Similarly, it may not make sense for a nonviolent movement to rely primarily on the tactic of massive street demonstrations in the early phases of a movement, but diversify their tactics, understand and apply their own strengths, and exploit opportunities to mobilize support and increase the pressure on the regime. 

There is little question that the Assad regime feared the ability of the nonviolent opposition to neutralize the power of the state through the power of civil resistance more than it has armed groups that are attacking state power where it is strongest - through the force of arms. They recognized that an armed resistance would reinforce the regime's unity and divide the opposition. That is why the regime has so consistently tried to provoke the pro-democracy forces into violence. It claimed that the opposition was composed of terrorists and armed thugs even during the early months of the struggle, when it was almost completely nonviolent, recognizing that the Syrian people were far more likely to support a regime challenged by an armed insurgency than through a largely nonviolent civil insurrection.

It is therefore important to recognize that the dramatic decline in the nonviolent movement in Syria occurred not in response to the initial repression against it, but when elements of the opposition took up arms, making possible far greater repression by the regime, resulting in the rate of civilian deaths going up tenfold. 

Another factor to consider is the current makeup of the opposition:

The initial popular uprising against the Assad regime, which began in March of 2011, was overwhelmingly nonviolent, broad-based, and non-sectarian. Since turning to primarily armed resistance by early the next year, however, an increasing percentage of the armed opposition appears to consist of hardline Salafi Islamists, including some who are affiliated with al-Qaeda. Even the so-called “moderate” Free Syrian Army consists of literally hundreds of separate armed militias, some of which are just as extreme, and operate without a central command.

Proponents of western intervention claim that the United States and other foreign powers could somehow differentiate between “moderate” and “extremist” elements of the opposition, but it is hard to imagine how this could be done in practice. It’s important to remember that most of the US arms sent to Afghan rebels in the 1980s ended up in the hands of Hizb-i-Islami, the most hardline of the half dozen or so mujahedeen groups fighting the Soviets and the Soviet-backed Afghan regime. After the Soviets withdrew and Afghanistan’s Communist government was overthrown, Hizb-i-Islami forces killed thousands of Afghan civilians and are now allied with the Taliban fighting NATO forces. As with the fall of the Communist regime in Afghanistan twenty years ago, there is no guarantee that Assad’s overthrow would actually bring peace. And, as Iraq showed us, opposition to an oppressive Baathist regime does not mean support for the west, nor does military intervention guarantee a peaceful and democratic post-Baathist government.

Syria is very different from Libya, where NATO air power supported an armed rebellion that toppled the Gaddafi regime in a bloody civil war. The Syrian population is more than three times the size of Libya’s, and the terrain far more challenging. The liberated zones controlled by the rebels are tiny and non-contiguous, and the Syrian armed forces - and their anti-aircraft capabilities - are far superior. Another critical difference is that by the time the Libyan uprising began in 2011, Gaddafi had virtually no popular support, and even then it still took six months of heavy NATO bombardments,  fierce fighting by foreign-armed rebel forces, and 30,000 additional deaths to dislodge him.

There is also the question of what would happen after intervention:

In Libya, despite the ouster of Gaddafi and a relatively fair and free vote that elected moderates to lead the new government, Libya has not actually turned out that well. In addition to the summary execution of Gaddafi and many hundreds of his supporters, over 200,000 people in that country of barely six million have joined armed militias not controlled by the government, which have been creating havoc throughout the country. Some of these include al-Qaeda-aligned groups, like the one responsible for the deaths of four US officials, including the ambassador, in 2012. Furthermore, weapons from Libya have proliferated throughout North Africa, playing an important role in the uprising by Tuareg nationalists and Islamist extremists in Mali and the resulting conflict.

Indeed, as with Libya, there are often serious unintended consequences from foreign 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 NATO’s decision to launch 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. Military intervention in Syria would likely trigger a “gloves off” mentality that could dramatically escalate the violence on both sides, since the regime would find that it no longer had anything to lose and the opposition would feel no need to negotiate or compromise.

Yet another problem is that foreign intervention tends to exacerbate nationalist resistance:

For example, the 1999 NATO intervention in Yugoslavia, rather than force Milosevic from power, initially strengthened the regime as people rallied around the flag in the face of more than 11 weeks of bombing by foreign forces. The leaders of Otpor, the youthful pro-democracy movement that would eventually lead the struggle that toppled the regime nonviolently, strongly opposed the bombing and recognized that it set back their cause.

This nationalist reaction is exacerbated by the understandable tendency to question the motivations - sometimes justifiably and sometimes not  - of those who advocate the so-called “responsibility to protect.” Indeed, most foreign interventions by the United States which were viewed by most of the international community as acts of imperialism – Vietnam, Iraq, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Panama, among others – were rationalized on humanitarian grounds.  Meanwhile, the US government remains, by far, the world’s primary military, economic, and diplomatic supporter of the world’s remaining authoritarian regimes and occupying armies, openly defending allies engaged in military operations that, like those of the Syrian regime, have resulted in the widespread killing of civilians.

Until the United States and other western powers are willing to take a principled stand against all war crimes, regardless of their geo-political relationship with the perpetrator, they will have a hard time convincing Syrians - even those opposed to the regime - that their intentions in supporting the armed opposition are actually humanitarian.  Indeed, western military intervention would simply play into the hands of the regime in Damascus, which has decades of experience in manipulating the Syrian people’s strong sense of nationalism to its benefit. The regime can point out that the United States and Great Britain disingenuously used the “promotion of democracy” and fabricated claims of “weapons of mass destruction” to justify their illegal and disastrous invasion of its neighbor Iraq which, like Syria, was a Baathist-led government opposed to western designs on the region.

Indeed, western intervention could unwittingly trigger greater mobilization by ordinary Syrians to resist foreign attackers. Hundreds of Syrians initially quit the Baath party and government positions in protest at the killings of nonviolent protesters, but few defections could be expected if Americans and Europeans attacked their country.  Any hope of encouraging divisions within the leadership of the Baath Party or the military would be dashed as they would quickly close ranks in the face of foreign attackers.

Despite all this, I fully acknowledge that my assessment that western military intervention in Syria would do more harm than good could be incorrect.  However, contrary to Professor Hashemi’s accusations, my analysis is not based upon any “Gandhian instincts” or “ideological purity.”  Indeed, when proponents of interventionism have to resort to painting such caricatures of those who disagree with them, it becomes apparent as to just who is allowing their ideological preconceptions to taint their analysis.

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