Can non-violent struggle bring down Syria’s Assad?
By Hugo Dixon
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
It was 2006. A young Syrian called Ausama Monajed was on a train to London. One of his hobbies was reading e-books. On this trip, he picked Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy, which maps out strategies for using non-violent struggle to bring down repressive regimes.
Monajed, now one of the revolution’s leaders outside the country, became engrossed. “It was as if I was reading an exact description of Syria,” Monajed told Reuters Breakingviews. The next thing he noticed was a conductor tapping him on the shoulder. The train had arrived at its terminus in Euston Station. “He asked me if I wanted to return where I’d come from.”
Sharp, who was inspired by India’s Mohandas Gandhi and who himself influenced some of the activists behind the Egyptian revolution, stresses that a dictator’s power isn’t monolithic. It relies on the army, police, civil service, business and, indeed, the wider society just to function. Activists should therefore analyze those pillars of support and systematically undermine them.
The best way to do this is not to fight dictators with their own weapons -– matching violence with violence in a struggle they are likely to lose – but to use non-violent tactics. It is much harder for the security forces to kill unarmed civilians than those who fire back at you. The more brutally the regime represses them, the shakier its pillars of support become. Eventually, the violence boomerangs on the regime and destroys it.
Sharp makes clear that non-violent struggles normally don’t succeed through spontaneous combustion. They need planning and training. Most importantly, it is vital to maintain nonviolent discipline – which isn’t easy when activists are being killed, tortured and detained.
Monajed, now 31, was smitten. An economist by training, he had hoped that Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad would be a reformer when he succeeded his father Hafez Assad, who died in 2000.
Monajed worked for the United National Development Programme and then the European Commission on development programs inside Syria. But then he became disillusioned and joined the opposition. After being arrested several times, Monajed quit the country in 2005 and has never returned.
He says he has become one of the regime’s most wanted people after writing an article in the Washington Post this April. This said the U.S. government had several years ago funded Barada TV, a London-based channel beaming anti-regime programming into Syria which he had helped establish.
After coming across Sharp’s work, Monajed studied previous nonviolent revolutions, especially the Serbs’ overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. He went to see Sharp, now an 83-year-old academic, in Boston. He also wrote a master’s degree dissertation on the role of the internet and information technology in non-violent struggle with a focus on Syria.
In 2007 Monajed organized a meeting with some disaffected Syrian friends in London. He says it is too risky to reveal their names. They decided to get trained in the techniques of nonviolent struggle and use that as the basis for training others. “We brought Syrians out of the country and trained them in nonviolent techniques,” Monajed says. “The idea was to train leaders and send them back to train others.”
They found it hard to recruit volunteers. They were told nonviolent struggle wouldn’t work in Syria because of religious and geopolitical factors. In the end, they managed to train around 100 people.
Then came the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. The whole Middle East was electrified. Syrians began to think they too might get their freedom. People contacted Monajed’s group, saying that now they understood what it was advocating.
Virtual operation center
The first protest took place on March 15 in the Hamidiyeh bazaar in the heart of old Damascus. They chose Hamidiyeh because it is a covered market. There were only about 40 protesters but their chants, calling for freedom, echoed off the iron roof making it seem like there were more. Because the bazaar was crowded, it was hard to distinguish who was a protestor and who was just an onlooker -– again exaggerating their numbers.
The next protests took place spontaneously in Deraa, near the border with Jordan, after 15 school children had been arrested for scrawling anti-regime graffiti on walls. These protests were much bigger, with thousands eventually taking part. The security services fired on unarmed civilians. The killing began in earnest.
After that, protests started mushrooming around the country. Facebook pages were created; people communicated via Twitter; protesters took video clips with their mobile phones and posted them on YouTube. Everything was happening faster than Monajed and his colleagues had imagined. Most of the protests had nothing to do with them. The challenge was how to put some order into the revolution.
An early priority was to set up a “virtual operation center,” staffed by dozens of volunteers outside the country, feeding what was happening on the ground to the world outside. Most foreign journalists were quickly kicked out of the country, including one Reuters journalist who was beaten up by the secret police, so it was important to get information out to the international media. Many of the most popular internet pages were coordinated through a new body, The Coalition of Syrian Pages.
On the ground, “local coordinating committees” started emerging in different neighborhoods. They organize campaigns, raise money to cover living costs of the families of those who had been killed or detained, and help communicate what is happening in their area.
Pillars of support
The Coalition of Syrian Pages has gradually taken a bigger role in coordinating activity. It consists of about 20-25 people, some inside the country and some abroad. Monajed won’t reveal their names. “The authorities don’t know who all the members of the Coalition are or where they are,” he explains.
One of the current priorities is to have a strategic plan that includes action on the ground and international lobbying for things like an oil embargo. This has involved coordinating the work of the activists, most of whom are young, with the traditional cohort of opposition made up of politicians, lawyers and human rights campaigners, many of whom signed the anti-regime Damascus Declaration in 2005.
“Initially there wasn’t a plan; just an idea of demonstrating until the regime falls,” says Monajed. “Now, with the Coalition, we are trying to guide the effort in a strategic manner to knock down the [regime’s] pillars of support.”
A particularly sensitive issue, which didn’t exist in either Egypt or Tunisia, is the potential for sectarian conflict. Assad is an Alawite, a minority Shi’ite Muslim sect. Many of the top positions in government, the military and business are also held by Alawites. But most of the population is Sunni Muslim.
Given this background, the regime’s four main pillars of support in order of importance, according to Monajed, are: the security forces including secret police; the Alawites; army generals, especially those who are Alawite; and the Sunni business elite, many of whom have prospered since Assad partly liberalised the economy.
In order to knock down these pillars, it is essential to keep the campaign peaceful, says Monajed. “People don’t want a Libyanisation of the situation,” he says, referring to the civil war across the Mediterranean Sea.
So demonstrators give roses to the army and don’t insult them in their chants. The underlying message they are trying to send to the top generals is: “We differentiate between you and the security service.” Some soldiers have mutinied after being ordered to kill unarmed protesters.
The message to the Alawites is that they are being held hostage by the Assad regime –- and it can’t be in their interests to engage in a war of elimination. The protesters have used chants stressing the unity between Sunni, Alawites and Christians (another minority) and called on Alawite and Christian generals to lead the transition to democracy.
Despite this, there are signs of sectarian violence. There has already been at least one case of a group of Alawites being killed — in retaliation for a Sunni elder being killed and cut into pieces, according to Monajed. That, in turn, provoked a ferocious backlash against Sunnis in the city of Homs.
Meanwhile, the message to the business community is that they won’t continue to prosper under Assad. The Syrian pound has fallen on the black market, tourism is dead, consumer demand has been thwacked and the economy is shrinking.
What about the secret police? This is the toughest part of the regime to crack, according to Monajed. He doesn’t have a simple message for them. Rather, he predicts that, as the revolution goes on, the regime will get tired and exhausted. The top generals may then liaise with Alawite leaders, arrest Assad and the top security chiefs, and form a transitional council with members from all parts of the community.
Tactics and counter-tactics
While strategizing is important, nothing will happen without action on the ground. Although protests have been the most visible tactic, they are not the only method being deployed.
There are low-risk tactics for those who don’t want to go on protests where they could get killed. One is to release “freedom balloons” at a specific time in a particular city, to give people courage that they are not alone. Another is to open their windows at night time and play revolutionary rap songs.
Activists have drawn up “lists of shame” of businesses, actors, intellectuals, imams and priests who are considered too close to the regime. These are used to determine boycotts and strikes. Campaigners have also produced lists of government informers, according to the Financial Times. Their aim is to put pressure on them and isolate them. However, there are also reports of at least two informers being killed.
The Assad regime has been far from idle. As of last week, 1,634 civilians had been killed, according to Avaaz, the human rights group. Then on Sunday tanks were sent into the central Syrian city of Hama, in what looks like an attempt to break the protesters’ morale before the holy month of Ramadan, which has now started. Demonstrations have been particularly big on Fridays after people have gathered to pray in mosques. Some protesters have been saying that Ramadan could be like a month of Fridays.
As the regime’s violence ramps up, it would be natural for the protesters either to lose courage or to take up arms themselves. The challenge for Monajed’s group will be to ensure that neither happens. If they succeed, they will then have a chance to witness whether a nonviolent struggle can really bring a brutal regime tumbling down.