Why nonviolence failed in Syria

NOW Lebanon | A longer version is available here.

Many people in Syria and across the world continue to wonder why the Syrian uprising took such a violent turn, despite the bravery and selflessness of so many of the early protest leaders. Indeed, the development seems to have come as a result of a sophisticated strategy implemented by the Assad regime from the outset. Understanding this strategy, rather than lamenting the situation, as so many nonviolence advocates and theoreticians continue to do, might help prevent its replication elsewhere.   

The Assad crackdown strategy involved a number of elements including:

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, and considerations of machismo and ego often trump more rational approaches. Indeed, where there is clear evidence of sociopathy at work in key positions, nonviolence seldom works. Sociopaths have no conscience to which one can appeal. One might point out that nonviolence is not designed to change the minds of sociopaths, but to appeal to those in positions of power who have consciences, 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 advisers, are not all idiots.

The systematic campaign of arrest, torture, assassination, expulsion, and forced migration against key youth leaders who advocated 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 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 jihadist and terrorist elements from state prisons at the same time nonviolent protest 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 during the Lebanese civil war, allowing it to emerge as the main power broker there.

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

Judging by the rhetoric employed by pro-Assad troops and militias from the early days of the uprising, 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. Hence their willingness to fire at unarmed civilians and bombard their neighborhoods. 

The sectarian and regional cleavages of Syrian society

The Alawites were only the only community to examine the unfolding revolution from a sectarian angle. The Druze and Christians share many of the same concerns as the Alawite community, and their suspicion of the Sunnis, the majority community in Syria, 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. 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, as well as the Assads. These divides further complicated talks of opposition unity.

A lack among opposition groups of leaders with vision and moral weight

Even before the Revolution began, the opposition movement had been decimated through arrests and fragmentation inside the country, and through continuous bickering between its representatives outside the country along personal and ideological lines. Moreover, when the Revolution began, 0pposition groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, misread the situation, and each sought to gain as much influence  could over the unfolding political situation as it possibly, 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 whom 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.

Opposition elements (Islamist 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, jihadists were released from prisons or slipped across the borders, and more massacres were perpetrated by pro-Assad militias, and Islamist and tribal groups became more and more likely to fall back on their natural tactics and choices.

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.

Dithering by Western leaders

One of the linchpins of successful nonviolent movements is the willingness of the international community to play a proactive role in pressuring ruling regimes and supporting nonviolent actors. At the beginning of the uprising, Western leaders had a limited window of opportunity to ensure that nonviolence remained the dominant ethos in Syria’s struggle for democracy. Their dithering left the revolution at the mercy of actors and dynamics that had little interest in nonviolence.

Iran and Russia’s success in strengthening the Assad regime in its position and approach

The unconditional support that Iran and Russia have offered the Assad regime, manifested by arms, supplies, funds, and diplomatic cover, shielded the Assads from any reality check vis-à-vis their strategy. While apathy and confusion towards Syria reigned in the West, 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?

Ammar Abdulhamid is a liberal pro-democracy activist currently based in Washington D.C., where he runs the Tharwa Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of democracy in the greater MENA region.