Regional Players Criticize Assad: Implications for Civil Resistors

8 Aug

Some key regional players–especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey–had some pretty harsh words for Bashar al-Assad’s regime this weekend. The long and short of it: the Arab League has strongly condemned Syrian crackdowns, Saudi Arabia is recalling its ambassador to Damascus, and Turkey is sending its foreign minister there for an intervention about Assad’s behavior.

How will this affect the uprising?

Well, the resistors shouldn’t get their hopes up for any material support from anyone on the outside. In truth, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others have strong political motivations for criticizing Assad. Turkey is increasingly worried about refugees spilling over into its border and would prefer the bloodshed to stop so it can manage the thousands of Syrian refugees who have already found their way to Turkey. Saudi Arabia is probably genuinely supportive of the uprising’s goals, since their fulfillment has the potential to up-end one of the Kingdom’s regional competitors and diminish Iran’s influence at the same time. Also, maintaining legitimacy has been a bit of a struggle for the Saud monarchy of late, and the king’s condemnation of the bloodshed in Syria is likely to win him some political points at home. But given Saudi Arabia’s behavior toward its own nonviolent uprising, and its recent assistance to regional allies in crushing domestic revolts, its support for the Syrian opposition itself is likely to be ambivalent at best.

Interestingly, though, the opposition in Syria is probably better off without support from the outside, for two reasons. First, material aid from the outside can further divide the movement, undermining its unity. Some people currently involved in the resistance may be reluctant to accept aid from an outside power with whom they disagree. Add money to the mix, and you’re likely to get lots of infighting. Second, in Why Civil Resistance Works, we find that participation is key to successful nonviolent resistance. The more people involved, the better. But if potential participants get the sense that the movement is funded from the outside, they are likely to stay home rather than participate. Why would they risk their necks for a movement that has a steady stream of revenue from an outside source? The influx of cash could create the classic free rider problem. Syrian oppositionists seemed to grasp this and other risks, as evidenced by their reported rejection of U.S. funding offers.

Fortunately, our research also finds that outside support is not critical to success. In the aggregate, material aid from an outside state neither helped nor hurt civil resistance movements around the world (based on data from 1900 to 2006). Fewer than 10% of nonviolent resistance campaigns during that time period received material support (financing), while over 50% of them succeeded in their aims of regime change, anti-occupation, or self-determination.

What about regimes that continue to support Assad? The most important source of support to Assad’s regime, Iran, will stand by him until the bitter end. Because Iran is already such a pariah in the international system, there is little that can be done to alter Iran’s preferences in that regard. We don’t have many carrots or sticks left to persuade Iran to change. But in Why Civil Resistance Works, we found that even when regimes solicit their allies to help crush nonviolent uprisings, they aren’t necessarily more successful in doing so. Therefore, despite Iran’s continued meddling, activists can still be optimistic about their chances of pushing Assad out. That said, a well-timed withdrawal of diplomatic or military support for the regime by a key player like Turkey could make a difference. We saw this in the Philippines in 1986, when Ferdinand Marcos finally abandoned his struggle to maintain power as soon as he learned that Ronald Reagan’s administration would no longer defend him.

And moral support from the rest of us always helps, insofar as Syrians can sense that we’re here.

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