Why nonviolence failed in Syria

A shorter version of this essay ran on NOW Lebanon.

Many people in Syria and across the world continue to wonder why the Syrian Revolution took such a violent turn, despite the bravery and selflessness of so many of the early protest leaders. Indeed, many experts on nonviolence seem to have been genuinely dismayed by this transformation, if not shocked, but in their various writings and lectures they continue to project a profound lack of  understanding of the actual situation on the ground in Syria today.(1)

To them, the development appears as though it were the result of a strategic decision made by a group of key figures within the protest movement and the opposition. In reality, however, the turn toward opposition violence comes  from the strategy implemented by key figures within the Syrian regime, working in tandem with Iranian and Russian advisers. The people behind this strategy seem to have identified key weaknesses within the conceptual framework of nonviolence movements and philosophy. This counter-strategy could seriously undermine nonviolent struggles elsewhere in the world.  All it requires, in fact, is impunity and indifference to international opinion, and the right kind of regional and international alliances, and a regime can literally get away with genocide.

Still, rather than lamenting this unfortunate development, perhaps advocates of nonviolence need to examine the underlying reasons, which might facilitate a return to nonviolent tactics, if that’s still a possibility in Syria, and might prevent similar developments from happening elsewhere. After all, dictators often seem more adept at learning from each other’s experiences than democratic forces.
As for Syria, here are some of the key reasons as to why nonviolence seems to have failed.

The sociopathic, criminal and sectarian tendencies of the Assad family and their handpicked allies within the ruling elite.

In case of the Assads and their supporters, we are clearly dealing with a criminal syndicate where family links and sectarian loyalties play a paramount role in dictating the internal dynamics and decision-making of the regime. The way family-based crime syndicates react to certain challenges to their authority is not similar to the way traditional political actors do. The red lines are entirely different. Considerations of machismo, personal character and ego, and individual prejudices and complexes often play important if not decisive roles in how decisions are made. It’s not that decision-making in these cases is necessarily irrational. In fact, depending on the prevailing inner logic of the group, these decisions could seem quite rational under the circumstances.

Ultimately, where there is clear evidence of sociopathy at work in ranks of the ruling elites, nonviolence will never change their minds. Sociopaths have no conscience to which one can appeal. Experts might point out that nonviolence is not designed to change the minds of sociopaths, but to appeal to the consciences of those who are not in order to help isolate the sociopaths. The strategy adopted by the Assads was designed specifically it seems to undermine that possibility. They might be sociopaths, but they, or, at least, their adviser, are not all idiots.

The systematic campaign of arrest, torture, assassination, expulsion and forced migration against key youth leaders responsible for advocating the nonviolence approach.

The first few months of the Syrian Revolution witnessed a mass arrest and intimidation campaign that targeted, in particular, the advocates of nonviolence, a reality amply documented by reports from human rights organizations and the few foreign correspondents that made it to the country. The fate of some of these advocates, epitomized by the cold-blooded murder of nonviolence activist Ghiyath Matar from the town of Daraya in Damascus Suburbs, and the subsequent gloating phone call made to his family by one of Assad’s security chiefs demonstrate that this was an orchestrated campaign by the regime.

The elimination of the most vocal and active champions of nonviolence deprived a movement that is already fragmented of the only grassroots leaders it had.

The systematic campaign of extreme violence perpetrated by the regime and its supporters, unleashed against protest communities and targeting women and children taking part in nonviolent protests, had the express aim of coaxing a violent response.

The campaign by the Assad regime included releasing known Jihadi and terrorist elements from state prisons at the same time nonviolent protester leaders were imprisoned. This tactic is sometimes called “tailoring your enemies.” It is inherently a risky approach, but can serve to divide enemy ranks by creating a more radical camp in their midst, and, in this case, undermining the advocates of nonviolence. This tactic had been repeatedly used by the Assad regime in the Lebanese civil war allowing it to emerge as the main power broker there.

As further evidence of this strategy, most of the weapons obtained by rebels in the early days of protest were purchased locally from officers who still worked for the regular army. Corruption on such a mass scale could not have escaped the attention of the regime for long, yet, since no one was ever punished, we are justified in concluding that the role of these officers was part of a strategy for transforming the nonviolent protest movement into an armed struggle.

The prevalence of sectarian ethos premised on a longstanding and deeply ingrained persecution complex on part of pro-regime troops and militias.

Judging by the rhetoric that was employed by pro-Assad troops and militias from the early days of the Revolution, it is clear that the crackdown was fueled by a pronounced sectarian ethos unique to the Alawite community and their perception of their position in Syrian society, past and present. The violence that these troops were willing to perpetrate seems to have been justified internally not on the basis of the nature of the protest movement, but on a deeply ingrained persecution complex and a collective memory of past injustices. In other words, from the very beginning, the Alawites, driven by their own internal ethos, perceived the protest movement, as an existential sectarian threat. Hence, the willingness to fire on unarmed protesters, to target women and children, and to exterminate civilian neighborhoods with heavy artillery. Of course, the command structure within the army and security apparatuses facilitated these developments. Questioning one’s superiors is not something that is encouraged within the armed forces of any nation, particularly one as ruthless as the Syrian Army.

The sectarian and regional cleavages of Syrian society.

If the Alawite community was particularly susceptible to examining the world from a sectarian angle, it was not the only one to do so. The Druzes and the Christians share many of the same concerns of the Alawite community, and their suspicion of the majority community in the country, the Sunnis, is no less deep.

The Kurds had their own concerns as well, and as the conflict unfolded, the long-silent Turkmen community began agitating as well. The Assyrians, the Armenians, the Isamilis, all had their own fears. But there was also a regional dimension to the situation. Almost all regions felt neglected by the central authority in Damascus, and they blamed the Damascene merchant and intellectual elite for that, not only the Assads. These divides, which became visible since the outset of the revolution, further complicated talks of opposition unity.

Lack of vision and leaders with moral weight among opposition groups.

Even before the Revolution began, the opposition movement was decimated through arrests and fragmentation inside the country, and through continuous bickering between its representatives outside the country along personal and ideological lines. Seeing that the only common vision agreed by most opposition groups before the Revolution, namely the Damascus Declaration, was ill-suited for guiding the revolutionary movement, opposition groups had nothing by way of an agreed platform. Moreover, when the Revolution began, opposition groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, misread the situation, and each sought to gain as much influence as it possible could over the unfolding political process, thinking that the international community would be willing to pick any group that maintained an appearance of diversity and moderation before it intervened in the conflict.

By misreading the situation and vilifying each other on the airwaves, opposition figures, many of which were little known to the wider audience in Syria, lost whatever moral weight and influence they had and were no longer in a position to prevail on people to adhere to a particular strategy or approach. They appeared as pretenders and climbers, figures and movements who sought to usurp the revolution rather than the deserving leaders of the transition ahead by virtue of their erstwhile sacrifices and courageous stands. By wasting their scant moral capital, opposition movements and figures deprived the Syrian Revolution of leadership needed to help it avoid the pitfalls that lay ahead.

The presence in the opposition of elements (Islamists and Tribal) who were ideologically and traditionally more susceptible to the ethos of violent struggle.

The opposition has always harbored within its ranks elements to which nonviolence seemed too ideologically and culturally alien and secular. Members of these groups have been clamoring for an armed uprising from the very outset, and containing that impulse was a major part of the challenge facing nonviolent democracy activists. As nonviolent advocates were imprisoned, exiled or killed, Jihadis released from prisons or slipped across the borders, and more massacres were perpetrated by pro-Assad militias, these groups had more leeway to fall back on their natural tactics and choices. They always enjoyed a greater degree of social and political organization and had greater access to donors and funds than the non-violent activists.

The growing number of military defectors, people who by virtue of their careers and training, have little understanding or appreciation for the philosophy of nonviolence, provided Islamists with more people who were susceptible to their calls for armed struggle. Moreover, because the military and security apparatuses are the most sectarian institutions in the country, and considering the sectarian ethos of the crackdown, most of the defectors were Sunnis and already susceptible to messages that played on their Sunni sense of identity and their sense of victimhood. For Sunni officers in the military and security apparatuses are rarely given real powers to go with their position, and rarely get any of the side benefits that Alawite officers have, including access to affordable housing, tours abroad, and other benefits.

Dithering by western leaders.

One of the linchpins of successful nonviolent movements is the international community and its willingness to play a proactive role in pressuring ruling regimes and supporting nonviolent actors. Considering the systematic approach adopted by the Assad regime to crush the protagonists of nonviolence, and early reports that Jihadi networks were beginning to turn their attention to the country , western leaders had a very limited window of opportunity to ensure that nonviolence remained the dominant ethos in Syria’s struggle for democracy. Whatever their domestic and geopolitical calculations and justifications might be, western leaders failed to act in time leaving the Syrian revolution at the mercy of actors and dynamics that had little interest in nonviolence. 

The role of Iran and Russia in strengthening the Assad regime in its position and approach.

The unconditional support that Iran and Russia were willing to offer to the Assad regime and their willingness to offer arms, supplies, funds and diplomatic cover, contrasted sharply with the prevarications of western leaders and shielded the Assads from any reality check vis-à-vis their choice of tactics. The Assads, as far as Iran and Russia are concerned, could do no wrong and the opposition groups could do no right, not unless they accepted a return to the status quo ante.

While apathy and confusion on part of western leaders reigned, there was nothing but action and certainty on part of Iran and Russia. Considering this, and all the factors just highlighted, what chance did nonviolence really have?


By knowing why and how the nonviolence ethos failed in the Syrian context, we might yet have a chance to revive it at some point. But by continuing to simply lament the transformation of the Syrian Revolution into a violent struggle and advocating a return to nonviolence through repeated naïve pleas, is not simply irrelevant but counterproductive.

Nonviolence was embraced in the beginning because it appeared as a viable alternative to the participants in the protest movement. It cannot be made viable again with an approach that fails to consider what happened over the last few months. We need to devise a new nonviolent strategy that accounts for the systematic approach adopted by the Assads and their domestic and international supporters, and for the current proliferation of armed groups with their own agendas that are not necessarily commensurate with the early ideals of the protest movement. This might be an impossible task by now, but we won’t know until we try to tackle it. So far no one is trying.

Endnotes

(1)   See in this regard Janine di Giovanni’s article “Syria: When Nonviolent Revolutions SpinInto Bloodshed.”