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.