How to help the Syrians

February 20, 2012

When the Syrian revolution began, the activists employed almost entirely non-violent tactics. They also rejected the idea of foreign intervention. Nearly a year on, the revolution’s character has changed. There are still protests, boycotts, strikes and funeral marches. But the opposition’s main strategy for overthrowing Bashar al-Assad’s regime has become one of out-muscling it. To achieve that, it is calling for military help from abroad – a request that will be pressed when the Friends of Syria, a contact group of mainly Arab and Western countries, meet in Tunis later this week.

The switch in strategy is understandable, though regrettable. The endless killing and torture have taken their toll. Homs, Hama and several other cities are being bombarded by Assad’s forces in what look like medieval sieges and could have similar grisly outcomes. The people worry they will be massacred if they don’t take up arms to defend themselves. Meanwhile, they have seen how foreign military intervention in Libya tipped the balance there and got rid of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

The Assad regime probably likes the fact that the opposition has embraced armed struggle. This solidifies its support among its core constituency – the Alawites, who represent about 10 percent of the population – as well as other minorities such as Christians. The regime can argue it has to hit back hard, otherwise it will be massacred. What’s more, it has seen brutality work in the past. Assad’s father survived a rebellion in Hama 30 years ago after killing around 20,000 people.

Non-violent struggle has roughly twice the chance of bringing down dictators as armed struggle, according to a study of 20th and early 21st Century conflicts, Why Civil Resistance Works, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan. Among the many reasons for this, those close to the regime feel less threatened by non-violent tactics and so are more likely to shift their allegiance while it is easier to involve millions of people in Gandhian style civil disobedience than in military operations.

Out-muscling a dictator, of course, also works sometimes. Chenoweth and Stephan found that this was particularly so when foreign powers helped. The problem is that armed struggle results in more carnage than non-violent struggle and reduces the chances that what follows the dictator will be a peaceful democracy. Involving foreign powers, meanwhile, means the revolution has to dance to their agendas.

Such a script is playing itself out now in Syria. The conflict has increasingly descended into a sectarian civil war, pitting the majority Sunni population against the Alawites, who are an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. A glance at the map shows how this could further destabilise a volatile region. Turkey and the Gulf Arab states are Sunni – and outraged by the atrocities committed against their co-religionists. Iran and, to a lesser extent, Iraq are Shi’ite and don’t want to see their man fall. The West, meanwhile, is worried about the knock-on effects on Israel and Iran as well as having some sympathy for a brave people being butchered. By contrast, Russia doesn’t like the idea of autocrats being toppled – as its regime is shaky too.

This is the context of the upcoming summit in Tunis. There are various ideas on the table, all fraught with problems. One, touted by the French, would create humanitarian corridors through which aid could be ferried to the trouble spots. The snag is that a large and sophisticated military force would be needed to blast open and protect such corridors.

Another scheme is to create a safe zone by the Turkish border, where refugees and defecting Syrian soldiers could congregate. This could then be a base from which to launch a counter-attack against Assad, in the same way that Benghazi was used against Gaddafi. Again, a foreign army would be needed to secure such a haven. Western powers, which have just disengaged from Iraq, don’t seem to have much appetite for that. There’s also the complication that Russia and China have made clear they will veto any resolution authorising military intervention in the United Nations Security Council.

The rich Gulf Arab countries, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, may not have such qualms. But they are not in a position to field an army to match Assad’s. Their main contribution is likely to be giving the Syrian opposition money to buy arms. If enough sophisticated weapons pour into the country, Assad may eventually be toppled. But the bloodshed will be horrendous and Syria could be left with radical Islamist gangs as Afghanistan was after the West decided to arm the mujahideen as a response to Soviet occupation in 1979.

The least bad option would be to revert to a non-violent struggle and support it from abroad with intensified economic sanctions in the hope that enough of Assad’s support would crumble and he could be eased out. The Syrian people would still be killed. But casualties might be kept lower if they emphasised tactics such as strikes and boycotts rather than demonstrations, where they are out in the open and sitting ducks. Defecting troops would also have to be given something to do other than attack the regime. One idea is to deploy them to persuade even more troops to defect.

Such an outcome doesn’t look terribly likely. Conflicts that turn violent rarely revert to non-violence. Probably the best known was the struggle against apartheid. But that change in strategy took decades. Still, the other options for Syria and the region look ghastly.


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Why are you making conjectures on any part of this conflict? Nor even the UN seems to a have accurate information. The Arab league wants to send observers. That would seem like the logical start.

A street brawl is taking place and it is fueled by rumors and misinformation and cheered on by unknown parties eager to cash in on the commotion and to pass the ammunition. All fights for control of governments are rock bottom about control or greater access to the money of the state. And if they are crooks or swindlers – the brawl begins again. The mostly glib coverage of Syria seems to be blind or mum about the issue of who’s making what doing what and for how much?

I am convinced that modern freedom fighting, so called, isn’t nearly as important as the money that can be made on it. Gandhi knew how to hurt the British bank accounts. I don’t think he had even heard the word “marketing” or “media” or “global arms dealers” and “defense establishments”, and he doesn’t seem to have been disturbed by rumors. And he never wanted money for himself. His descendents, apparently, thought less high-mindedly. He was also an observer of conditions on the ground and apparently toured the country without guards or secret service.

Obviously he was not particularly concerned with his own safety because a lone assassin at a public gathering shot him: a man who blamed him for the Partition. .

And he was anything but a “smart dressed man”.

But he was a smart lawyer.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

In this day and age, concerning the Middle East,changes through peaceful endeavors are null and void. Even considering what France has proposed,includes extreme violence. With Syria’s back against the wall, it has no other choice but to willfully defend herself with violence, which has been placed at her doorstep.I defend Syria and hope she gains progress within this mutilation.

Posted by elissasangi | Report as abusive

In this day and age, concerning the Middle East, peaceful endeavors are null and void.With Syria’s back against the wall she has no other choice towards her defense. Even in considering France’s proposal, extreme violence cannot be excluded.I applaud Syria for taking whatever measures necessary against the nefarious elements that surround her.

Posted by elissasangi | Report as abusive

Syria is a country of very moderate muslims…where does the idea of extremists come from ??

Posted by thatguy1919 | Report as abusive


7000+ people aren’t killed in a “street brawl”

Posted by olderstrayheron | Report as abusive

In the time following 9/11, I will admit that I was one among many who asked the question, “why don’t we hear about Muslims coming out and condemning those Muslims whose actions took the lives of innocents?” Many Americans were indignant that Muslims, who we sarcastically said were “a people of peace” could idly stand by while those who shared their name and faith were committing horrible acts of violence.

Today, I do what I clambered for 10 years ago from Muslims:

Shame on Syrian Christians who support the President of Syria, Bashar al-Asaad, the Syrian government, Syrian troops, and any others who support the actions of those people, whether in word, deed, financially, or by simply by their silence, that are causing in a violent and disgraceful way, the deaths and great suffering of innocent civilians in Syria. Just as it did following the attacks of 9/11, I am sickened by these violent actions, and as someone who identifies myself as a Christian, I am also sickened by those people in Syria who call themselves Christians that give aid, comfort, and support to those who perpetrate said violence.

I have read and hear recently that Syria is split between those who support al-Assad and those who wish for his removal from power and for sweeping changes to the government. The kicker is that even though Christians and Jews only make up about twenty percent of the country’s population, that as they predominately support the current regime, that it is by their very support that he is able to maintain power. Undoubtedly, a regime change to a more conservative Muslim government would mean much less toleration for these Christians, but at what cost will they continue to support the current government?

Every day, there are appalling reports of suffering and death from places in Syria like Homs, and what will solve it? Military intervention? Tougher sanctions? No, none of those. What would solve it is the unified withdrawal of support from the Christians in Syria. Should they in fact follow the same Jesus I do, I pray that they come to their senses and also desire to become “a people of peace.”

Posted by RepublicOfJohn | Report as abusive

Do you understand “sovereign states”. This gives that country a right to govern itself as it sees fit, independant.
What was done to Libya was illegal. The intial attack that obama ordered without proper authorization, and natos continued bombing was far outside of what was allowed by law. Totally illegal. Normally these actions would be called an ACT of WAR. Now what do you have in Libya? Total lawlessness creating total destruction. Stereotypically expected.
When Goverment troops cant walk down the street without getting shot, then what do you expect. The enabling all the lip service has done is what is responsible for the destruction of Homs.
Now that they couldnt get the UN to act on Syria they want to get a group together that excludes the Axis of Evil and make judgments???? what value do these judgements hold… there no legality to act on anything coming out of that group. Bah … more lip service.

Posted by ccharles | Report as abusive