North Africa, West Asia

Beyond civil resistance: the case of Syria

Civil resistance is not sufficient to bring down a ruthless regime, as one can see in Bahrain or in Yemen. But dismantling the ideological base of the regime is an essential first step, whether violent or nonviolent.

Maged Mandour
26 October 2013

Some commentators have argued, rightly, that the role of civil resistance has been marginalized in the Syrian conflict. This argument is based on the logic that this marginalization has had significant negative impact on the ability of the Syrian opposition to break down the cohesion of the Syrian army, and that militarization of the Syrian opposition has played into the narrative of the regime of fighting “armed gangs” and “terrorists groups”.

This arguments has significant merit. However, it surely ignores a wider concept of “ideological struggle” which can be pursued by revolutionary violence aimed at the realization of the aims of the revolution. During the twentieth century, political violence played a significant and decisive role in a number of great social revolutions not limited to the Algerian revolution, the Cuban revolution, the Chinese revolution, and the Iranian revolution (largely peaceful in its first phases until political violence claimed the lives of thousands). In these cases the revolutionary struggle was preceded by an ideological struggle, that is, an assault on the ideological foundation of the current order, replacing it with a counter-proposal. This process occurred within civil society, broadly defined as the realm of ideas and consent of the governed, the arena where the ideological foundation of the state is made and unmade. Once this is achieved an outright assault on the state or the government proper can be launched, either through civil resistance or political violence, depending on the exact circumstances.

This ideological struggle is not a simple, linear process, however, but rather a long term repetitive and iterative process that requires the existence of a political centre, whence this message can be transferred to the rest of society, creating revolutionary consciousness en route. The ability of a certain ideology to replace another does not depends on its inherent merit so much as on the strength of the carrier and its ability to infiltrate and dissipate this ideology in civil society, against whatever the current order tries to throw at it.

Where does the Syrian uprising fit in this spectrum of activity? The Syrian uprising, like other Arab uprisings in the so called “Arab Spring” was not preceded by a protracted ideological struggle between the current order and the social forces that wish to overthrow it. This lack of ideological struggle in the realm of civil society means that the ideological foundation of the state remains intact. The revolutionary forces commenced their attack on the state directly, ignoring the strategic reserves that could be deployed by the regime. In the case of Syria, this allowed the regime to rely on the rhetoric of “stability” versus “chaos”; to maintain the image of “protector of minority”; and to maintain the cohesion of army, regardless of the Sunni nature of the rank and file, unlike in Iran where the collapse of the Iranian military due to the severe ideological attacks launched by the revolutionary forces led to increasing defection, finally leading to the neutralization of the Iranian army as an effective force for repression. The lack of ideological infiltration of the Syrian army meant that the opposition had to rely on the humane compassion of soldiers that they would not shoot their fellow citizens, when they risked almost immediate execution as a result.

This means that the Syrian opposition is essentially a rejectionist movement. It has no ideological vision potent enough to counter the forty years of Arab Nationalism propagated by the Assad regime. This ideological vision is essential to win over those that remain on the fence or those who are not direct beneficiaries of the regime. It is also essential for the attraction of the Sunni, urban middle class, concentrated in Aleppo and Damascus, who can plausibly break the back of the Syrian regime. This class will only switch sides if they are convinced that it is in their best interests for Assad to fall, a feat that no amount of fighting can achieve.

The fragmentation of the Syrian opposition is another significant barrier to the creation and dissipation of the ideological hegemony necessary for the success of the revolution. The ideological cleavages between the different factions, coupled with the radicalization of some elements of the opposition have allowed the Assad regime to make gains on the ideological front as well as on the battlefield. The increased activity of radical elements such as the El Nusra front and the inability of the FSA to properly handle this radicalization has not only led to infighting among the different factions in Syria, it has also given a crucial moral advantage to Assad reinforcing the ideological premise of the regime as the protector of minorities and upholder of Arab Nationalism against extremism and Islamic radicalism.           

This in turn means that even if the Assad regime fell, the fate of Syria would be unstable at best, sliding into long term civil war at worst. The lack of a homogenous political centre capable of extending its hegemony to the rest of society can only lead to social chaos. 

This is not an argument against civil resistance, on the contrary, civil resistance can be very effective. However, the aim was to redirect attention towards the broader concept of “ideological struggle” which is essential for the success of civil resistance. Civil resistance is not sufficient to bring down a ruthless regime, as one can see in Bahrain or in Yemen. But dismantling the ideological base of the regime is an essential first step before commencing with an outright attack on the state, whether violent or non-violent. 

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Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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