Assad loyalist army units and militias go on a country-wide hunt for defectors, perpetrating atrocities in every nuke and cranny, from removing the wounded from hospitals, to indiscriminate shelling of residential neighborhoods, to mass execution of detainees.
I am often asked these days about my own position regarding increased activity by defectors and whether I support an armed insurrection against the Assad. Answer: I am first and foremost an advocate of nonviolence, but I am not blind to the facts on the ground, and am quite aware that my influence and that of my colleagues is quite limited. There are certain objective realities out there that have more influence on the course of events than our continuous urging and admonition, no matter how earnest and sincere they happen to be.
Speaking of defectors, I cannot honestly tell soldiers not to defect just as I cannot tell defectors to be nonviolent. Soldiers in the Syrian army today are given one of three options: obey orders and fire at unarmed protesters, refuse to obey orders and be killed by your loyalist comrades, or defect. Once you defect, you are presented with three new option: get out of the country if you can, go hide in the wilderness and hope you can survive undetected, or take shelter with a protest community whose inhabitants are willing to harbor you. Since the country’s borders have become extremely difficult to penetrate in the last few weeks, and since Syrian wilderness, mostly made up of desert, barren mountains and few forest with little to offer by way of nutrition, does not offer much of a shelter, the only practicable alternative most defectors have is to seek shelter in protest communities. Indeed, this was the option embraced by most. But this decision gave more impetus to pro-Assad militias and loyalist troops to attack protest communities hosting or suspected of hosting defectors using more deadly violence. This situation gives the defectors two choices: surrender and get killed, or fight back and protect yourselves and the people giving you shelter. Is it any surprise that most defectors choose the latter option? Is it any wonder that most people encourage defectors to choose that latter option?
So, I can advocate nonviolence to my heart’s content, but there are realities on the ground in Syria that are making violence inevitable. I cannot blame the defectors any more than the people who shelter them and beg them to defend their communities and their families. We all know where the blame lies for this situation. But that’s not the point. The point is how to curtail violence, at least on our side, after so many months of official crackdown, provocation and impunity, and seeing how much frustration there is now in our own quarters, and how disillusioned some are becoming with nonviolent tactics.
But if limiting violence is now our focus then the rise of the defector could be seen as a good and positive development. For this rise has actually undermined all talk of forming armed militias that has become rampant in protest communities, albeit it never seriously moved beyond the talking phase. Now those frustrated with nonviolence are saying “let’s at least help the defectors.” Since defectors are professionals who still exhibit a strong commitment to military values with their emphasis on the command structure and obeying orders (that is, when they don’t conflict with the dictates of one’s conscience), their involvement could help keep the levels of violence under control, much more so than the case will be when dealing with armed militias. Yes, Assad’s side has armed militias, but a civil war scenario requires two opposing militias. The true challenge is for our side not to go down that road.
Still, this analysis notwithstanding, let’s not forget that we are dealing with a nascent movement here, and that the preponderance of violence seen in Syria at this stage is perpetrated by pro-Assad militias and loyalist troops and security officers, claims to the contrary by state-run media notwithstanding. What we have unfolding in Syria today is still a mass murder perpetrated by the Assads, and not a civil strife. Even with defectors becoming more active, it seems their role at this stage will be strictly defensive, as they still lack the cohesiveness, the size and organizational capacity to go beyond that.
Six months into the fray, Syria’s revolution remains a mostly nonviolent affair pitting an army of Davids against hordes of Goliaths.