The Syrian resistance: a tale of two struggles, Part 2

Probabilities are always shredded by violent conflict, except the probability that freedom and justice will be postponed. See Part One here.

Mohja Kahf Maciej Bartkowski
24 September 2013

Rima Dali holding a banner that reads, “My brother the policeman: Where are our friends? and who has imprisoned them?”

As Dr. Erica Chenoweth and Dr. Maria Stephan reported in their groundbreaking quantitative research (reported in Why Civil Resistance Works, Columbia University Press, 2011), substituting armed struggle for civil resistance is likely to make the success of resistance half as likely, even against the most brutal of regimes. No doubt, nonviolent civil resistance can fail. But the same research showed that violent resistance failed in more than 60% of cases happening in a 106-year period, 2.5 times more than civil resistance.

Moreover, as this research showed, it takes violent resistance against brutal regimes an average of nine years to run its course, but only three years for nonviolent resistance to succeed or fail.

Part II: Aborting a revolution

Nonviolent resistance dominated the Syrian conflict only for less than one year - under one-third of the average duration needed to produce results. Given the destructive force of violent conflict in Syria now, any additional year of violent struggle means tens of thousands more lives lost and more of the nation’s infrastructure in ruins. Even failed nonviolent resistance costs much less in lives and property destroyed, while the probability of democratization is still much greater through people power than with even a victorious violent resistance.

Finally, no major genocidal act is known to have happened during mass-based nonviolent struggles. The same cannot be said about violent conflicts, including civil wars. Had this information been known widely among revolutionary Syrians in 2011, would the turn to civil war have been as ineluctable as it appears in hindsight? Instead, different beliefs and calculations were in the driver’s seat.   

Four fatal beliefs

What can be learned from a clear-eyed evaluation of the Syrian nonviolent resistance? We think it is important to understand the movement-centered factors that victimized and degraded civil resistance amid rising armed struggle:

The belief that armed protection will help defend civil resistance

Osama Nassar, a nonviolent advocate who helped to create Daraya’s Local Coordination committee said in October, 2011, that those who became convinced of the need to bear arms “believe arming will protect people from getting killed in demonstrations and shelling of towns, but it will multiply civilian casualties by tens of thousands,” collapsing the false logic that “arms protect.”  Short-term and immediate protection against a home invasion or rape or neighborhood sniper could in fact be achieved by armed resistance but only for a limited time and with little overall protection extended over the whole community. Consequently, armed protection came at a collective price exacted by the regime, resulting in more civilian losses in the long run as whole neighborhoods were demolished in pitched battles between armed combatants.

In reality, civil resistance, while imposing significant costs on the regime and faced with brutal repression, saved many lives when it lasted, as the following figures illustrate. During the first five months of nonviolent civil resistance (mid-March to mid-August, 2011), the death toll was 2,019 (figures exclude regime army casualties). In the next five months (mid-August 2011 to mid-January 2011) mixed violent and nonviolent resistance saw the death toll climbed to 3,144, a 56% increase. Finally, during the first five months of armed resistance (mid-January 2012 to mid-June 2012) the death toll was already 8,195, a staggering 161% increase in comparison with the casualties during nonviolent struggle.

The regime also felt no longer constrained in the use of its deadly chemical weapons and frequent use of air strikes after the uprising became armed. There are no known cases of death by air strikes, for example, when the resistance on the ground was driven by the widespread protest chants of “Silmiye, silmiye” (“peaceful, peaceful”). The supremacy of nonviolent resistance over its armed counterpart in lowering the costs in human lives, and by extension in overall costs for the society when faced with a ruthless adversary, was ignored when, feeling immediate danger as well as high emotions and affinity with defecting soldiers, people turned to armed rebels to protect them.

The belief that the regime would fall in weeks, based on the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences.

Activists interviewed say that many of them held high hopes based on the successes of nonviolent protests in Tunisia and Egypt, which resulted in the ouster of the heads of those regimes within weeks of large street demonstrations, followed by the opting of soldiers not to use violence and ultimately the generals’ decision to desist from it. The absence of planning for a protracted, even years-long, nonviolent resistance may have led to directing full energy initially to the primary tactic of street demonstrations - the regime’s repression of which often justified the calls for armed protection of nonviolent protesters - to the detriment of less spectacular underground organizing of institutional networks of liberated communities, to which the civil resistance turned only after months of initial struggle.

In hindsight, one of the weaknesses of nonviolent resistance was a lack of anticipation, planning and preparation for gradual defections that would not bring about the quick collapse of the regime. Had that been anticipated, it might not have paved the way for the emergence of the “protective” violent flank that eventually took over the resistance. A frequent argument during the transition to armed resistance was, “Where should defectors go, and where can they put down their arms? They will be killed, unless they form a rebel army.” This argument was flawed on its very premise: that a resort to violence protected people, as if the probability of being killed decreased with participation in violent resistance. This belief was proven wrong. It was the nonviolent community of organizers and activists that could have offered - both through their networks and nonviolent actions - much better chances of saving lives of the defecting soldiers.

The belief that the Syrian regime was uniquely brutal, and the related lack of knowledge of nonviolent struggles in other countries as well as in Syria decades before.

The Syrian regime was not atypical in its proclivity to violence, yet youthful revolutionaries isolated from the facts about other countries’ histories believed that Syrians faced an exceptional brutality from the Assad regime. Few if any knew that the Shah of Iran killed 600 nonviolent demonstrators in Tehran on one day alone, September 8, 1978 and that Mubarak’s police and other protectors hesitated little before gunning down 900 protesters during 17 days of demonstrations in 2011 - more than twice the casualties in Syria during the first two and a half week of nonviolent protests. The question is not the willingness to kill - which every dictator possesses - but his capacity to sustain the killing. The goal of civil resistance is to weaken a regime’s capacity to such a degree that, as in Iran or Egypt, the regime is no longer able to rely on its bureaucracy, business sector, armed forces or other pillars of support.

Syrians who favored armed resistance claimed that the American colonists had armed for their liberation, failing to notice that Americans engaged in 10 years of nonviolent resistance against the British prior to armed struggle, and the Revolutionary War, triggered by the arrival of a massive British military force on American shores, created desertions away from the rebel side and undermined colonial unity while earlier nonviolent resistance had broadened its social base. Some Syrian nonviolent groups and activists, in stressing sectarian unity, didn’t see the double-edged sword of celebrating the multi-sectarian solidarity of an armed nationalist struggle. They touted the Syrian stand against the French in 1925 - a violent struggle that failed - while ignoring an astounding episode of nonviolent struggle: the General Strikes of 1936 (one of the longest in the human history) that united sectarian communities and achieved significant concessions from the French.

The belief that sectarian loyalties would inhibit unarmed resistance and necessitate violent conflict.

One argument for armed struggle was the perception that the sectarian complexion of the regime inhibited a high level of defections from the security apparatus - that Alawites would remain loyal due to strong internal ties. While the regime pursued pernicious sectarian tactics to make Alawite civilians into human shields, latent sectarian discourse surfaced on the revolutionary side, showing a failure to understand the pressures on the Alawite community and to plan ways to make their defections more feasible.

In the history of revolutions, shooting at the other side has never increased chances for defections. Sectarian discourse by extremists such as exile Adnan Aroor was also allowed to develop in the name of unity against the regime, with the dangers it represented not adequately addressed early on. Many nonsectarian nonviolent activists believed that even mentioning religion was itself sectarian, and this hampered the effort to stem sectarianism. Whether or not the initial nonviolent resistance, despite its non-sectarianism, ultimately failed to win majorities of Christians, Alawites, and other components of Syrian society, what is sure is that armed rebellion aggravated these divisions and inhibited the breadth and strength of the resistance coalition.


Civil resistance in Syria, while it dominated, was strategically effective against the Assad regime. When this method was used by hundreds of thousands of Syrians, the regime became uncertain of the loyalties of its supporters. In contrast, armed struggle neither offered effective protection to the population, nor placed the resistance in a strategically more advantageous position vis-a-vis Assad than the nonviolent resistance had. The degeneration of the conflict from nonviolent to violent force was not inevitable and might not have been eventual, had the established benefits of civil resistance been better known. Instead, the real gains of civil resistance were never assessed, before being overcome by the myth of the power of the gun, and later by hope that external military intervention could resolve the conflict, even though such intervention has been frequently shown to be incapable of assuring human rights, safeguarding civilians and ending civil wars.

Civil resistance still continues in Syria today despite the prevalence of insensate violence. The armed resistance that led to the disproportionate escalation of violence by the regime, led to multiple humanitarian catastrophes and the use of chemical weapons. But nonviolent activists are now focusing on building alternative services and institutions in communities. Their work may help restore social bonds and citizens’ networks even though the strategic effects of nonviolent resistance have been marginalized by civil war. 

As we write this, the Syrian regime has been constrained by US and Russian diplomacy to agree to surrender its chemical weapons to the United Nations. While this may stall any decisive outcome in the civil war, it may also illuminate any ongoing brutality by the regime, leading perhaps to more assertive criticism by international parties, and perhaps offer space and time for civil resistance to regenerate. But that is only a possibility. Probabilities are always shredded by violent conflict, except the probability that freedom and justice will be postponed.

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