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Nonviolent strategies to defeat totalitarians such as ISIS

Military might has little success against violent terror organizations. If nonviolent strategies seem impractical, it is an even greater naiveté to think armed solutions can be the answer.

IS fighters in Raqqa with captured weapons, Jan 2014. IS fighters in Raqqa with captured weapons, Jan 2014. AP Photo/Militant Website. All rights reserved.

The anti-ISIS coalition is preparing a major ground offensive against ISIS to recapture Mosul and, eventually, ISIS-declared capital Raqqa. However, any armed victories will come with enormous costs for the locals and are unlikely to bring mid- or long-term stability to the region.

What will be won through arms is likely to be kept by further violence afterwards. But what other long-term strategies could be considered? What lessons do other historical struggles against totalitarians offer for fights with more contemporary violent radicals? Do past struggles provide insights into strategies other than military response? If so, what is the likelihood for their application on the ground today and how?

Historical examples of nonviolent strategies against totalitarians

In the Second World War, the 75% of Jews in France, 90% of Jews in Mussolini Italy, all of the Jews in Belgium, almost all of the Danish and Bulgarian Jews, and the few Jews in Poland that escaped the Holocaust were rescued because local populations refused to obey totalitarian henchmen. Most of these Jews survived not because they fought with arms or were defended by arms, but because ordinary people engaged in individual and collective, sustained and organized, nonviolent noncooperation with Nazi extermination orders. 

The East German state eventually collapsed because the very force that the Berlin Wall was built to counter—the exodus of people—was let loose

At the same time that Jews were being slaughtered by the Nazis but also saved through nonviolent means, Norwegian teachers and other workers refused to join state-sanctioned trade unions, and carried out noncooperation and deliberate inefficiencies in their daily work as a form of resistance against their own fascist political leadership—headed by the Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling. Nonviolent resisters were arrested and fired from their jobs, and some were sent to the concentration camps in the Artic. They persevered; helped by the underground solidarity networks. Eventually, faced with this sustained refusal to obey, the Quisling regime had no choice but to give up on the realization of a corporative state in Norway.  

Almost five decades later, in 1989, one of the most destructive and repressive totalitarian systems that ever existed, the Soviet Union, imploded largely peacefully from inside. Its relatively quiet demise was brought about not through greater violent power, but as a result of domestic grassroots nonviolent mobilization and the resistance of ordinary people. This nonviolent mobilization and resistance was compounded by the transnational assistance to nonviolent actors, such as the Solidarity movement in Poland, and international containment of the totalitarian Soviet threat within its borders. The containment strategy, articulated in 1946 by George Kennan, the minister-counselor at the US embassy in the Soviet Union, aimed to contain the Soviet Union’s expansionist ideology and hold back spread of its influence through defensive alliances as well as nonmilitary “long-range policies,” including political, economic, and cultural “counter-force.”

One of the linchpin statelets for the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain, East Germany—propped up by its feared and brutal secret police Stasi, was almost brought to its knees by the beginning of the 1960s. This happened not because of the advancement of NATO armies or the weakening of the Soviet power, but because more than 3 million Germans left its territory before the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961. The East German state eventually collapsed because the very force that the Berlin Wall was built to counter—the exodus of people—was let loose when Hungary opened its borders with Austria in May 1989 and thousands of East Germans poured through Hungarian and Austrian territories, into the West German lands. That exodus was the beginning of the end of the walled territory behind the Iron Curtain.

Nonviolent strategies against extremely brutal foes such as ISIS

No single action by itself can dislodge totalitarians and pave the way for more stable societies, but collective actions, like the multipronged, civilian-based, and nonviolent strategies offered in the cited cases, can prove successful against extremely violent groups, including non-state brutal actors such as ISIS.   

These strategies consist of:  

- Containment that lets the henchmen rule and erode their own legitimacy in the eyes of locals;

- Grassroots noncooperation against totalitarians, including acts of subtle and overt disobedience, deliberate inefficiencies, and underground solidarity networks;

- Protest migration by local people who neither want to join a violent group nor an armed opposition, nor want to remain in place and accept their own exploitation;

- Setting up temporary relocation zones for those who decide to join protest migration;

- Transnational assistance to nonviolent activists and their civil resistance actions in a violence-torn environment. 

Any of these strategies might be criticized as unrealistic or ineffective, but their alternative—an armed campaign—has historically fared many times worse than its nonviolent counterpart in dislodging brutal regimes, in reducing costs on populations, or building stable political and socio-economic environments after conflict has ended.

In fact, military might has been successful against only 7% of violent terror organizations. If nonviolent strategies seem impractical, it is even greater naiveté to think armed solutions can be the answer.

Containment as a more effective strategy than a ground assault

Traditionally, containment is about the establishment of effective checks on the opponent's ability for further political and military expansion and its financial and ideological strangulation—short of all-out invasion of the territory the opponent holds. However, more importantly, containment is about a preservation of a civic space within the contained area, and denying an extremely violent group the opportunity to carry out their atrocities in the midst of violent conflict.

It was on the eve of the Final Solution in March 1942 that Joseph Goebbels wrote: “Fortunately, a whole series of possibilities presents itself for us in wartime that would be denied us in peacetime.” In so many words, the Nazi propagandist was acknowledging the fortuity of open violent warfare for Nazi plans of annihilating an ethnic and religious group.  

The containment strategy aims to decrease the chances for such an open violent conflict that advantages an opponent with genocidal and totalitarian instincts, in favor of a stable though possibly repressive peace in the cordoned area. As artificial and tyrannical as this stability is, in the long-term it privileges the local population and creates a legitimacy crisis for its repressive rulers.

Even though containment seemingly lets the oppressor rule without physical intervention from outside, its main impact, although intangible at first, is to create a fertile ground for the emergence of a genuinely grassroots counterforce to the oppressor that, for its own long-term survival, must strive to maintain its local legitimacy.

Why use weapons that ISIS knows so well? German Nazis were, like ISIS, experts in violence.

The time and space that is given the oppressor, through containment, to govern and abuse help reveal in the eyes of the local population inherent contradictions in the ruler’s promises and actions. The violent rule is natively contradictory when it claims that violence and repression are used for good; war for peace; prosecution and death to protect life; abuses for security; bending law for rule of law.

These hypocrisies are the source of inherent vulnerabilities in violent totalitarian systems and groups, and undergird future legitimacy crisis.

According to Vaclav Havel, the Czech anti-communist dissident, the abusive ruler must stay captive to his own lies in order to maintain his grip on power. The violent regime “pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.”  

As a consequence, the perceptions of local populations about such rule changes with time as the contradictions and hypocrisies become increasingly obvious. In those circumstances, the best weapon against violent regimes is to let them rule as they inevitably mess things up for themselves. More often than not, attacking a violent regime from the outside only gives it an alibi for its own violence, and ineptitude.

A similar legitimacy crisis reportedly fuels resentment in Deir ez-Zor and other ISIS-controlled towns and cities, as people begin to see ISIS corruption, incompetence, and repressive methods directed not only against ‘non-believers’ but also against Sunni Muslims. This behavior contradicts ISIS’ own promises and propaganda.  The realization of ISIS’ hypocrisies is in fact the main driver behind defections from ISIS. Many who joined ISIS drawn by the promise of adventure, solidarity in arms, and glory, defected because they felt that they were used as cannon fodder, while no promised luxury goods (cars or houses) ever materialized. Instead, these defectors came to see ISIS’ indiscriminate violence, and the pervasive corruption within the ISIS ranks that privileges foreigners over Middle-Eastern fighters.

When containment is rejected in favor of direct military intervention, the costs, even of a successful violent campaign, reach prohibitive levels. The retaking of Ramadi in Iraq from ISIS in December 2015 shows the perils of the armed re-conquest of territory. The human toll, including mass displacements and infrastructure damage, was so great that there is little chance that the Iraqi government, strapped for cash, will be able to rebuild, deliver services, or provide effective governance to the city for months if not years to come. This destruction is a breeding ground for a continued instability—where the governance vacuum is likely to be filled in by violent (even if pro-government) groups of different stripes, jockeying for power in the area. 

Dependency and noncooperation

Michele Amoruso/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images. All rights reserved.

The legitimacy crisis comes once reality falsifies violent groups’ promises for a relatively better status quo than the one inherited from its predecessors. Once this legitimacy crisis widens, the probability will increase for the local population to engage in small and subtle acts of defiance and later, in more mass-based, organized acts of nonviolent resistance.

It also demanded from civilians to sign over car titles and family houses as a security deposit before allowing locals to leave the territory, even for a brief two-week period.

Violent groups such as ISIS clearly recognize the dangers that a legitimacy crisis might bring.  To reduce the chances of a crisis materializing, ISIS has established a service-based governance on the conquered territories, serving more than five million people. It has opened welfare institutions, and it runs schools, orphanages, and bakeries. It has restored and provides some electricity, health services, and sanitation. Its Islamic courts resolve disputes between citizens. To avoid being undermined by accusation of hypocrisies, ISIS has demonstrated that their members must practice what ISIS preaches. If found guilty of robbery, adultery, homosexuality or smoking ISIS does not hesitate to punish its own—even in public.  Though this might sound surprising given the media reports about ISIS atrocities, the violent group also provides a degree of protection for the locals, both of their property and life.

This type of work at the basis of society allows ISIS to maintain a relative legitimacy, at least in the eyes of some local people, as the alternatives to ISIS looks even less appealing or competent in ensuring security.

In exchange for these services ISIS demands from the people under its rule three things: absolute obedience to its authority, administrative and military services if needed, and most importantly, taxes. In fact, ISIS introduced a sophisticated taxation system that is estimated to bring almost the same if not greater amount of revenue to the terror group than it receives from oil sales. It taxes between 10% and 50% of income and business activity. 2,5% of tax is levied on capital assets, 5% fee on bank cash withdrawals, and 20% of tax on spoils of war, in addition to taxes on land or retail spaces. Residents of the ISIS-controlled territory also pay their rulers for electricity, cleaning and water. Even if bombings are able to dislodge ISIS oil production and smuggling routes, this is unlikely to put much of a dent in ISIS coffers as it can continue relying on the local revenue that it receives from its people.

At the same time, the payment of taxes and the estimated 30,000 local administrators that make ISIS bureaucracy work, create strong dependency relations with the local communities that the violent group must rely on to function. If the population changed its patterns of obedience and engaged collectively in acts of noncooperation this would constitute a major threat for ISIS and its long-term survival on the territory.

As a violent organization ISIS knows only too well how to deal with armed challenges that it successfully and harshly suppressed in the past. Why use weapons that ISIS knows so well? Consider German Nazis who, like ISIS, were experts in violence. When imprisoned German officers were interviewed, they noted that it was a relief to them when the local resistance turned violent, as it allowed German troops to deploy most drastic and indiscriminate measures to suppress the violent adversary. What confused the Germans most was when populations used subtle and concealed forms of nonviolent resistance. Nazis had little, if any, training and experience in dealing with such elusive defiance.

Similarly, resistance against ISIS could begin with subtle acts of disobedience (like refusal to send children to ISIS controlled schools) and deliberate inefficiencies (potentially done by workers that ISIS seeks to employ), as well as through building solidarity networks to turn defiance into more open acts of noncooperation (like the business community in the Syrian city of Minbij that went on strike in 2014 and closed down all commercial activities in protest against ISIS), joined and coordinated by a greater number of people. For such resistance to take place, civilians must have enough open space to operate and organize which can only emerge if containment, rather than territorial assault, is the prevalent strategy. As the recent outbursts of civilian-led nonviolent protests in the rebel-held areas in Syria suggest, even a fragile ceasefire can open the door for civilians to organize and act.

Protest migration

The North Korean regime is neither afraid of international sanctions, western militaries, nor even pressure from its closest ally China. What the regime is most afraid of is North Korean citizens and their actions. If China and South Korea decided to make their respective borders wide open in order to give the opportunity for millions of North Koreans to escape—no doubt the North Korean soldiers would likely shoot at civilians though many might have joined the exodus—the regime would not survive; leading to its collapse in the same way and at the same speed as what happened to East Germany. North Korea has mined and militarized its borders, not only to keep enemies out, but, more importantly, to keep its people in.  

People leave conflict zones and escape territory under totalitarian rule. They do this for personal reasons; to flee persecution and survive. They are victims that seek rescue outside. However, an organized, mass-based migration from territory under the yoke of violence can too be a bold political move of empowered people making a conscientious decision to no longer be passive, and to no longer accept violence or participation in violence against violence—nor do they want to die. These people make a choice for a nonviolent action: migration in protest against the violence that surrounds them. If done collectively, in an organized manner and en masse this can be a powerful political statement and a major disruption for the totalitarians.

In fact, there is a long tradition of protest migration in the Arab world going back to the time of the prophet Mohammed.

There are historical examples of protest migration and collective purposeful disappearance, where communities decided to move, and by doing so, stood up to oppression and aggression as their actions increased costs for and placed a significant burden on their opponents.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Algerians under the French colonial yoke left the country in thousands in protest against the rule of non-Muslims, land confiscation, and military conscriptions. The scale of the exodus and its consequences for the security of the region were so great that the French had to take measures to reduce and stop the flow.

During the Japanese occupation of China, whole villages would just disappear before Japanese troops arrived. A contemporary to the Japanese invasion scholar of the Chinese history, George Taylor, observed “[s]o well organized are the villages now that when the Japanese approach, the people evacuate the village completely, bury their food, remove all animals and utensils, and retire into the hills. The Japanese must, therefore, bring with them everything they need.”

In fact, there is a long tradition of protest migration in the Arab world going back to the time of the prophet Mohammed. The popular term - hijrat (or hegira or hizrat) – deliberate migration – refers to the flight of the prophet Mohammed and his followers from Mecca to escape persecution at the hands of tyrannical tribes. Hardly powerless, the escapees then as they do today, can constitute a major challenge for the violent groups.

And this is exactly what ISIS is concerned with.

In the fall of 2015, when protest migrations from ISIS controlled territory took on a massive proportion, when thousands were leaving the area, ISIS went to great lengths to stem the flow. They released a number of videos and documents in which ISIS both appealed to and threatened those who were thinking about leaving “Darul-Islam [land of Islam]” voluntarily.  Such an act was called “a dangerous major sin [kaba’ir].” To further discourage migration from its territory ISIS additionally imposed exorbitant “departure taxes” on the locals. It also demanded that civilians sign over car titles and family houses as security deposits before allowing locals to leave the territory, even for a brief two-week period.

Temporary relocation zones

While ISIS makes extraordinary efforts to stop the outflow of people from its territory it is determined to get all major powers involved in open violent warfare against its Islamic fighters. There are no pleas from ISIS to stop the bombing as there are for locals to stop leaving ISIS territory. Western strategies of armed intervention are precisely what ISIS wants, while no attention is being paid to what ISIS is truly worried about. 

By the end of January 2016, the United States had spent more than $6 billion or $11 million per day on its bombing campaign against ISIS. The Pentagon also requested an additional $7.5 billion for the operations against ISIS in 201— twice as much as the sum spent in 2016; a clear indication of the expanding military engagement in preparation for retaking ISIS strongholds. Two US partners alone, Canada and Britain, have each spent approximately $300 million so far on their participation in the bombing raids against ISIS.

The containment strategy would be much less expensive, freeing a considerable amount—counted in  billions of dollars—on a strategy that ISIS is genuinely afraid of: setting up major relocation zones designated specifically for civilians from the ISIS controlled territories. Such zones, built by thousands of engineers and run by local civil servants would be weapons-free areas (equivalent of peace zones or peace communities in Colombia, the Philippines or Afghanistan) though protected by coalition troops and local forces. Engineers could reinforce the zones by erecting humanitarian walls around them as a nonviolent strategy to prevent infiltration by gunmen.

These temporary relocation zones need not necessarily be large, if planned well – less than 400 square miles (the area of the size of New York City that houses almost 8 million people). The zones could be situated in relative proximity to ISIS-controlled territory for easy access by civilians; close to the Turkish border on the Syrian and Iraqi sides, which is under the control of the Kurdish forces. Alternative areas for location of such zones could be sparsely populated desert regions of southern Syria close to the Jordanian-Iraqi border, far from violent groups and armed conflict but with access to the transportation routes.

These temporary relocation zones could become places for democratic self-governance, honing leadership and self-organization skills by empowered civic actors and for grassroots engagement free of violence.

In contrast to safe havens, the zones should also be seen as a weapon against the brutal enemy and not merely a protection against it. Emptying ISIS territory of civilians – even if temporarily – will hollow out ISIS coffers, and ISIS ideological and political control, allowing for a quicker defeat of ISIS with the lowest possible loss of human life, limited destruction to infrastructure, and greater chances for quicker rebuilding and a more stable environment afterwards.

Transnational assistance

While states can take on the major burden of executing containment strategies as well as setting up relocation zones, civil society organizations and the international community, including the UN, could plan for delivering major transnational assistance. Such assistance would aim to support the civilian efforts on the ground to engage in nonviolent noncooperation to violent actors, as well as helping those who would choose a protest migration to leave ISIS territory.

In each case, transnational assistance could be a combination of development and humanitarian aid and know-how: including skills and strategies for organizing, mobilizing and engaging in lower risk, often subtle and innovative, methods of noncooperation and nonviolent defiance. This could build off of some of the existing examples of noncooperation and acts of disobedience in ISIS-controlled cities before the conditions are ripe for more overt, mass-based civil resistance actions such as open boycotts, demonstrations or general strikes.

In addition, transnational assistance could aid constructive types of defiance, including support for building schools and developing appropriate curricular for children to counter radical Islamic teachings in the conflict zones, or supporting defected lawyers and judges with developing a network of civic courts – even if underground, where people could resolve their disputes and get the recourse they seek while they boycott Islamic courts.

ISIS power and vulnerabilities come from the local population

ISIS recognizes the power of civilians under its control more so than the states bent on fighting ISIS.

This civilian power is untapped and disregarded, as people are seen only as victims or the potential collateral damage of a ground armed invasion. In reality, the civilian population, and more importantly its behavior patterns, can be the keys to dislodging ISIS— while, at the same time, minimizing costs and loss of human life, and creating post-conflict environments that are more conducive to a more peaceful transition than any that armed strategies are likely to deliver. 


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