Should the Syrian revolutionaries have taken up arms?

With an inchoate leadership and no real plan forward, rebels in Syria should have stuck to non-violence, writes scholar.

With no well-developed public sphere or capable leaders, was it the right time for Syrians to challenge al-Assad? [AP]

That there is presently no feasible plan for stopping the murderous violence in Syria is one of the few certainties surrounding the ever worsening civil war. 

Primary responsibility for the violence lies with the brutal Baathist mafia-cum-government – whether 30 years ago under Assad the elder or today under his son – which has demonstrated no hesitation in killing tens of thousands of people to maintain its stranglehold on power. Beyond the human devastation, the destruction of the Aleppo Souk – one of the premier UNESCO world heritage sites – is a damning stain not merely on the Assad regime, but on the world community as a whole.

If only the UN Security Council had dispensed with the veto power given to the Five permanent members at the creation of the organisation, which has long allowed the great powers and their favoured clients literally to get away with murder. Had such a crucial reform been enacted, the world community would have a much easier time coming together to stop these kinds of gross violations of international law, whether by Syria, Israel, or the major powers in their own occupations and wars. Sadly, such a change in the most basic alignment of forces in the international arena will not soon occur.

How the international community can impose a cessation of violence in Syria in the absence of unity of such a purpose among the P5, and why the broader international community has not pushed for a restructuring of the Security Council to help prevent these kinds of conflicts from festering, are important questions that will unfortunately not soon be answered. But as Syrians and the international community search for a way to stop the killing within the existing and flawed international framework, hard questions need to be asked about the manner in which the pro-democracy protest movement was transformed into a rebellion, and then a full scale insurgency and civil war.

A classic international conflict

To be sure, any argument that the fighting in Syria is a purely internal affair which the international community should stay out of is untenable, as it flies in the face of international legal opinion which holds that once a rebellion becomes generalised across a society and impacts neighbouring countries it becomes an “insurgency”. As such, both the government and the insurgents fighting against it should uphold the basic tenets of international humanitarian law, protecting civilians and treat captured belligerents humanely.

At the point that insurgents begin to control territory with organised troops the responsibility to uphold international humanitarian law becomes a legal obligation for all parties. In July of this year the International Committee of the Red Cross declared the Syrian conflict a civil war, meaning that all sides must abide by the Geneva Conventions and other instruments of international humanitarian law.

By that score, there is no doubt that whatever the crimes of the various opposition forces, the overwhelming scope of the murder and crimes against humanity of the Assad regime make it impossible to imagine a scenario in which a cessation of hostilities in which Assad and his most senior generals would escape prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Yet it is precisely the likelihood of such an outcome which ensures that Assad and his henchmen will fight to the death to cling to power.

How to separate senior regime figures from the rest of the state so that other members of the regime might consider abandoning them is no doubt among the most urgent questions opposition leaders and their international allies are considering. But such directly political questions can too easily obscure other, even more fundamental questions; questions that are extremely difficult to ask in the present circumstances, but which in fact need to be considered by those involved in the protests movements, as well as international activists and scholars who study them.

Specifically, we need to consider how the pro-democracy protests evolved into a violent civil war, what responsibility leaders of the Syrian opposition bear for the violence suffered by pro-democracy forces as a result of the protests, and how we can adjudicate the costs of the insurgency on Syrian civilians, and the country’s civilisational heritage.

Not a cookie cutter revolution

Syria, like Bahrain and Libya, was part of the second wave of pro-democracy uprisings that swept the Arab world in early 2011. These uprisings were inspired by the surprising success of Tunisia and Egypt, but these were models that could not easily be emulated by other countries. Tunisia’s government, though brutal and corrupt, had become brittle and shallow. It was thus vulnerable to a society-wide protest movement from below that emerged seemingly without warning (of course, there plenty of warnings had the government not become too lazy and arrogant to see them).

Egypt’s civil society and democracy movement has spent the better part of the previous decade preparing for the revolution that began on January 25, 2011. But even this level of preparation and maturity among the opposition forces needed to be coupled with a host of other factors – the presence of hundreds if not thousands of Ultras and young Brotherhood members who knew how to fight back against government attacks in the first week, a labour movement capable of organising nation-wide strikes at the right moment, and most important, a senior military leadership that was willing to sacrifice Mubarak and other senior regime figures in order to preserve the system – in order to win the day.

 Inside Story – Jordan: A kingdom divided?

Such favourable circumstances did not exist in countries like Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain, Libya and Syria. At least up till now, the centuries’ old Moroccan Makhzen, with the King at its helm, remains too powerfully rooted in the country’s political economy for the pro-democracy movement to force substantive change. Jordan remains in a similar state of limbo, although under the right circumstances the most recent protests in both countries could spiral out of control.

But at least in these two “moderate” monarchies there is some space for political participation and challenging elite prerogatives. Bahrain, Libya and Syria represent countries in which the ruling family is so intertwined with the state any direct challenge to the basic structure of governance constitutes a direct threat to the regime’s survival. Even partial, broadly cosmetic reforms can not be tolerated in such a zero-sum political environment, because like any mafia, the regimes have no real legitimacy outside its core constituency, which in Bahrain and Syria’s case are a distinct minority of the population.

Leaders understand full well that any substantive political opening would severely weaken and probably fatally loosen their control over the entire state apparatus. Thus it has always been in their interest to leave no one within the power structure able to create autonomous spaces of power that could be used to pressure them from within.

Bahrain’s strategic importance to the United States and the larger Gulf monarchies ensured that it could get away with its crackdown against pro-democracy protesters. The Gaddafi regime was not so lucky, although given the accolades and “friendship” showed on it by Western governments in the last half decade, one couldn’t blame the megalomaniacal Gaddafi for assuming that NATO would not directly enter the conflict on the side of the insurgency given the warm political and trade relations that had developed with key NATO countries like Britain, France and Italy.

The Syrian government clearly counted on Iranian aid, coupled with Russian and Chinese cover in the Security Council, to ensure a free hand to engage in almost unlimited violence (save the use of chemical weapons) against its people. The Syrian government has always survived on an “as if” model of domination – publicly people act as if they support the system because the costs of challenging it have until now been considered to be too high compared with the chance of success.

Knowing your opponent

If people could articulate publicly a different vision for society to that of the regime that ruled them, the regime’s days would inevitably be numbered. Thus, any attempt to move beyond a very constrained form of political discourse could not be tolerated by a ruthlessly authoritarian regime like Syria’s.

Given the slippery slope any accommodation with pro-democracy protesters would have produced, the most logical strategy for the Syrian government to pursue has always been to meet non-violent protest with large-scale violence, with the goal of provoking violence by the opposition that would provide the pretext for even greater violence by the regime. We can imagine that such a policy would be self-defeating because the level of violence deployed by the Assad regime has in fact served to delegitimise the regime internationally. But the power holders in Syria are operating with a different metric; they clearly believe that any political opening would have spelled their demise. Like a psychopath with nothing to lose, their only play is to hope they can inflict so much pain on the Syrian people that they would accept a set of token reforms to avoid the continued destruction of the very fabric of society.

At the same time, the US and Europe have, at least publicly, let it be known that they will not intervene on behalf of the Syrian people as they did in Libya. We do not know what promises the Gulf states that are the main military backers of the armed opposition have given to the Free Syrian Army or other armed factions, but it’s clear they are either not interested in toppling the government at this point, or are being pressured by the US (and perhaps Israel) not to provide more direct support. Otherwise they would have provided the FSA and other armed groups with anti-tank and antiaircraft missiles that would have changed the balance of forces between the two sides towards the rebels’ favour.

In this situation, there are only two plausible scenarios to account for how the opposition has found itself engaged in a civil war against a murderous regime that is prepared to kill as many Syrians as necessary to remain in power. The first is that Western and Arab governments made promises of support early on that have not been kept. In this case the Syrian opposition was lured into a long-term civil war against the government based on false pretenses of support from key international actors.

One can imagine why various governments would prefer a bloody stalemate that bleeds Assad without forcing them to pay for rebuilding Syria and creating a new political structure would be preferable to moving directly to a very expensive and unsure post-Assad environment. But such a deception would be extremely immoral, and the sooner the responsible governments are exposed the better Syrians can understand where the balance of forces will likely remain in the near future.

The second possibility is that the opposition itself badly miscalculated how quickly the regime would crumble, moving towards violence based on an inaccurate assessment of how easily the regime would crack. If true, this raises questions of how the decision was made and what role the lack of a unified and coherent organisational leadership has played in moving the protests towards violence. If the move comprised multiple spontaneous local reactions against intolerable regime violence, such a response, however understandable, points to a weakness of the much-celebrated amorphous and multi-centred leadership structure it is claimed has defined the Arab Spring-associated movements (the models strategic weakness has been apparent at key moments in the Occupy movement globally as well).

It must be restated here that neither Syrians nor any other Arab people can be blamed for being inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings to take on their own regimes without fear of the consequences. At some moment in any country’s history, the thirst for dignity and hunger for bread becomes too strong to hold back. But without a well-developed and organised public sphere, experienced oppositional leadership cadres able to coordinate amongst themselves and think and act strategically, the question needs to be asked whether the moment was in fact right to present a life or death challenge to the regime. (And let us remember, when those young boys wrote “ash-sha’b yurid isqat an-nizzam” – the people want the downfall of the regime – on the walls of Dara’a, which was the act that sparked the revolution, the regime understood full well that their scribbles represented the true wishes of millions of Syrians who now had the motive, inspiration and example to act upon them.)

Once the protests started but there was still not a clear leadership, by whom and how could decisions be made as to how to conduct the uprisings and to develop strategies that would be able to withstand the murderous response of the government? Tunisian and Egyptian protest leaders had spent years preparing for their revolutions, even if they did so largely removed from the public and the government’s eyes. Was there a sufficient level of training among protest leaders in Syria to manage the situation as it developed so quickly? If not, how could the international community at various levels – from governments to NGOs, in the Arab world and internationally – have helped get them the information and knowledge they needed to make more informed strategic decisions?

There was no way to stop the explosion of protests at the start, but once it became clear that the government was unleashing massive violence against the unarmed opposition, what were the parameters used by the still inchoate leadership to decide how to respond and whether to use violence? As unfair as it may be to ask this of a democratic opposition fighting a brutal dictatorship, the question remains: Should opposition leaders have backed down or compromised when they had the chance, taking even a token level of reforms and using them to build their movement from the grass roots in the coming years and more slowly pressed for more substantive reforms? Was calling for the toppling of the system the best plan of action considering the heavy costs doing so would clearly involve?

How do Syrians or supporters of democracy movements more broadly determine if the turn to more systematic violence in the fall of 2011 was the only path available to the opposition? Indeed, I spoke with one expert on non-violent resistance who was in touch with Syrians last year before the protests became fully militarised, and the expert was convinced that had the opposition been able to remain largely non-violent, the number of defections from the military would have increased to the tipping point. In contrast, as the New York Times recently reported, leaders of the rebellion admit to having to deploy “methods only used by the Devil” to force soldiers to defect. It’s hard to see how this will produce large scale defections or lay the groundwork for a democratic post-Assad environment.

 Syrian rebel leadership still fragmented

Finally, who – inside or out of Syria – has the right to judge whether the degree of violence now employed by the uprising can be justified in the name of getting rid of Assad and his regime when the prices of many tens of thousands dead and the destruction of so much of the country and its heritage? Especially when it is quite possible that, however difficult to execute, a more concerted and disciplined and mass effort at non-violent resistance might well have ultimately proved a more successful strategy, producing fewer casualties and destruction in its wake.

Difficult questions, crucial answers

However difficult and even indelicate such questions, they are necessary to ask because Syria is not going to be the last country to experience the violent upheavals that have defined the last two years of regional and even international diplomacy. Other oppressed peoples in the Arab world or other countries might well decide to follow such a path and need to learn whatever lessons are available from the Syrian experience before doing so.

Moreover, waiting for the resolution of the conflict before assessing its impact will inevitably twist people’s interpretations, as an opposition victory will inevitably lead to a teleologisation of the violent uprising, burying counter-narratives under the weight of its ultimate “success”. On the other hand, defeat will bring recriminations and finger-pointing between former allies that will be hard to assess, either by who’s who participated in the uprising on those on the outside who wish to learn from it.

Finally, taking a sober look at the dynamics involved in the turn to violence by the opposition forces the international community to account for its behaviour at that crucial moment before the turn to violence was completed. Whether Western or Arab governments on the one hand, or international and Arab civil society on the other; all need to understand and account for their own failures either to contain the conflict or provide the democratic opposition with the necessary tools to level the field of combat.

Was the present civil war really the only path to democracy in the early 21st century? Is rebellion worth it when the society you will free has been reduced to rubble with so many deaths? And if not, what are all our responsibilities for making sure the disaster of Syria is not repeated the next time an oppressed people rise up against a despotic government in the name of freedom and dignity, the most powerful, and difficult, promises of the Arab Spring?

Update: Since publication I have interviewed a senior non-violence trainer in Beirut who has worked with activists in Tunisia, Egypt and the former Soviet Republics, as well as Syrians during the last year. He informs me that there were attempts to provide training to Syrians around the start of the uprising but “none of the usual European, American and international sources would provide funding. After it became a civil war they were suddenly ready to give us lots of money, but by then the situation had changed dramatically.” He went on to explain that it’s much harder to deescalate to a non-violent movement and pursue a strategy of non-violence after a civil war has erupted because the three key elements of such a strategy – unity, planning, and non-violent discipline – are harder to achieve once people have taken up arms and different power bases have developed through violent resistance.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.