Questions over the Syrian crisis are more pressing as the regime refuses to respond to protesters’ legitimate demands and yet, the opposition is politically divided and too weak militarily to overthrow Assad. Diplomacy, intimidation, and arming of the Syrian opposition could not so far gain the edge, and are not expected to succeed in the short term. So, what to do? How could the Syrian opposition achieve its objective?
Spreading videos of violence (fake or genuine) on YouTube and Facebook to draw the attention of the international community in order to prompt intervention as in the case of Libya has only elicited more violence from Assad. Violence creates a vicious cycle and is seductive, as in the case of Iraq. The Assad regime understands this idea and has started to target people even at home, making the streets a safer option.
Despite the division between the external and internal Syrian opposition, activists are promoting the idea of nonviolent protests as a means of challenging the regime: since they know if Assad targets people in the streets of Damascus where women and children play a key role, the violence will backfire. This is important since the regime does not wish to see massive killings in the streets of Damascus and this tactic may help other Syrians overcome their fear of being there. So far, Assad’s most violent operations have taken place in Hama; but if Damascus streets join in the nationwide protests it is more likely that the Syrian opposition will succeed in toppling down Assad.
Recently, Sheikh Jawdat Said announced that he would head to Damascus to promote the idea of nonviolent protests as he thinks the Ba’ath regime and some sectors of the opposition have believed only in arms. As he puts it: “These people believe in the power of arms, not in the power of truth”. Further, his followers successfully used non-violent incentives for soldiers, who were sent to suppress the protests in the town of Dariyah, by handing out water and roses. This is an important tactic as it delegitimizes the Assad regime in the hearts and minds of the Syrian soldiers and causes defections.
Some might argue that nonviolent protests will never be successful but there is also no chance for violence if the international players do not intervene or provide significant means of material and moral support. Nevertheless, an emerging body of data and literature suggests nonviolent action can bring change even in dictatorships, the most recent examples being Egypt and Tunisia. Skeptics would argue that the Egyptian and Tunisian people were not faced by as much violence, but go back to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and there you will find good evidence enough to persuade you that nonviolent protest works. However, the key issue in the Iranian Revolution was ‘discipline’: protesters never ceased protesting and got support from various sectors of the public and bureaucracy by using different strategies and tactics such as not going to work, or striking.
Last but not least, the wide range of armed Syrian opposition leads one to predict that if Assad is toppled by the use of violence, Syria may experience more violence than ever as these groups are established along ethnic and communal lines. Nonviolent protests could be more productive and prevent future violence if the opposition forces understand the power of not using violence and provide incentives to the public officers to follow them. The logic of nonviolent action should be strategic and sound tactics should be used to challenge the power of the Assad. Defections are paving the road to revolution; tactics such as nonviolent nationwide stay-at-home protests may accelerate this process.