Armed Wing in Syria: To What Effect?

10 Oct

Anthony Shadid writes in the New York Times:

The semblance of a civil war has erupted in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, where armed protesters now call themselves revolutionaries, gun battles erupt as often as every few hours, security forces and opponents carry out assassinations, and rifles costing as much as $2,000 apiece flood the city from abroad, residents say.

Shadid’s headline overstates the degree to which Syria’s unarmed revolution is “spiraling” into civil war. The armed “wing” of the uprising is largely comprised of military defectors in Homs, who took their guns with them as they sought haven in civilian homes. In my estimation, Syria will not “spiral” into violence, as most people on the ground have little opportunity to take up arms against Assad’s regime; neither are they interested in taking up arms against Assad’s regime. I base this impression on discussions with some Syrian activists on the ground, as well as reports that nonviolent mass mobilization continues in many cities with no hint of civilian-initiated violence on the horizon—all this despite continual massacres by the regime against unarmed civilians.

However, it is important to know how the armed wing may affect the strategic dynamics between the popular, civilian-led nonviolent movement and the regime. Kurt Schock and I have done some research on how violent radical flanks have influenced the outcomes of primarily nonviolent campaigns. Using a data set of 108 nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006, we looked at how many of these campaigns were accompanied by contemporaneous violent movements, and whether the presence of these violent movements affected the success and failure rates of nonviolent campaigns.

The following figure is a bivariate cross-tabulation of the relationship between nonviolent campaign outcomes and the presence or absence of a violent radical flank.

What is evident here is that having an armed wing has a slight negative effect on the probability of success. However, this effect is not statistically significant—a finding that is confirmed in other statistical tests. There is definitely no evidence to support the notion that armed groups will help a nonviolent campaign. The bottom line: there is a slight tendency for armed wings to reduce the success rates of nonviolent campaigns, but this reduction is not common enough for there to be a real pattern from which to draw inferences.

Of course the most troubling possibility is that the armed wing will reduce the movement’s chances of success. Why might an armed wing reduce the probability of success for an unarmed movement? There are a few reasons. First, and most important, is that the emergence of an armed wing can reduce popular participation in a nonviolent campaign. See the following figure:

This figure shows that nonviolent movements without armed or “radical” flanks are much more likely to boast large numbers of members than campaigns with radical flanks. And as Maria Stephan and I show in our book Why Civil Resistance Works, participation is absolutely critical in the success of nonviolent campaigns.

Second, developing an armed wing can give the regime the pretext it needs to escalate widespread repression against all opponents—nonviolent and violent. Part of Assad’s propaganda has focused on how the uprising is comprised of armed gangs seeking to disrupt public order and destroy Syrian society. Such propaganda has heretofore seemed totally ridiculous, even among many security forces who have chosen to defect to the movement’s side. For a regime where loyalty within the security forces is crumbling, adopting armed struggle or an armed defense wing can actually reverse these trends in shifting loyalties. Security forces generally don’t surrender themselves to armed “traitors,” and Assad’s rhetoric may seem less crazy to the security forces when they suddenly find themselves under attack by their former comrades.

B. H. Liddel-Hart, who interviewed Nazi generals responsible for the German occupations throughout Eastern and Western Europe, observed the following:

[The Nazis] were experts in violence, and had been trained to deal with opponents who used that method. But other forms of resistance baffled them—and all the more in proportion as the methods were subtle and concealed. It was a relief to them when resistance became violent and when nonviolent forms were mixed with guerrilla action, thus making it easier to combine drastic repressive action against both at the same time. [1]

The armed wing in Syria will probably not be the deciding factor in whether the revolution succeeds or fails. If Assad falls, it will be because hundreds of thousands of unarmed protestors have withdrawn their cooperation from the regime; because security forces refuse to obey orders to crack down on unarmed protesters; and because business elites within the country will pressure Assad to abandon his post. It would help if a prominent member of the Alawite community would come forward and denounce the violence that Assad has perpetrated against peaceful demonstrators. It might also help if the international community figured out a way to give Assad a golden parachute out of the situation.

In sum, having an armed wing is risky, but not necessarily decisive. The armed wing won’t help the nonviolent movement in Syria. However, as long as the movement remains mainly nonviolent in nature, the campaign may succeed regardless.

—–

[1] B. H. Liddel-Hart, “Lessons from Resistance Movements: Guerrilla and Nonviolent,” in Adam Roberts, ed., Civilian Resistance as a National Defence (Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1968), p. 205.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

13 Responses to “Armed Wing in Syria: To What Effect?”

  1. Jay Ulfelder October 11, 2011 at 2:36 am #

    Really interesting and timely stuff, Erica. On the comparison of uprisings with and without armed wings, it seems like there’s a real risk of selection bias. For example, the decision to take up arms might often be an act of desperation in cases where nonviolent action is already failing. How do you and Kurt address that possibility in your analysis?

    • rationalinsurgent October 12, 2011 at 6:25 pm #

      Hi Jay, Great question. We try to get at this two ways. Statistically, we try to look at the conditions under which the movements emerge to instrument for whether they were predisposed to fail, and then account for this instrument to explain the onset of radical flanks. So far, there’s no discernible effect. Second, and more preferably in my view, is just drilling down into the cases to see what the causal sequence was, etc. There may be some cases where radical flanks emerged during periods where the NV campaign was gaining little ground and leaders within the NV movement were becoming introspective about the utility of NV vs. violence (the ANC in South Africa is a good example), but in general, armed wings tended to emerge before NV conflict had truly run its course. Libya is good example, I think (although in that case, violent rebellion more or less replaced the nonviolent campaign altogether). The average nonviolent campaign takes about 2.5 years to run its course (succeeding or failing, in either case), yet the radical flanks tend to emerge pretty early on in the campaigns. Moreover, many of the campaigns that do succeed do so in spite of the existence of an armed wing, with had a truly minimal effect on the outcome (as in South Africa). So what we tend to see when we look at specific cases is that the selection effects aren’t really playing out as one might expect.

  2. quixote November 7, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    (The link to Why Civil Resistance Works is broken.)

    Looks like your results agree with those of Zunes, Kurtz, and Asher (1999). And with just plain old common sense!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    [...] Meanwhile, Erica Chenoweth and Kurt Schock have found through statistical studies that the effects of having a so-called “radical flank” in a resistance movement—having a violent minority—are a slightly lower success rate and a significantly lower level of public involvement. Canadian activists Philippe Duhamel and David Martin recognize this in their call for “a diversity of nonviolent tactics.” They argue that “some tactics don’t mix”; once violence enters the picture, it monopolizes the landscape of the conflict, co-opting other tactics and alienating potential participants. Rather than representing a true “diversity,” actions that people perceive as violent monopolizes public attention and lends sympathy to the agents of repression. This certainly was the case this past weekend, when a small number of people doing property destruction in Rome caused headlines like “Protests Turn Violent” to dominate the perception of an overwhelmingly nonviolent day of action in cities all over the world. [...]

  2. What ‘Diversity Of Tactics’ Really Means For Occupy Wall Street « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy - October 20, 2011

    [...] Erica Chenoweth and Kurt Schock have found through statistical studies that the effects of having a so-called “radical flank” in a resistance movement—having a violent minority—include a slightly lower success rate and a significantly lower level of public involvement. Canadian activists Philippe Duhamel and David Martin recognize this in their call for “a diversity of nonviolent tactics.” They argue that “some tactics don’t mix”; once violence enters the picture, it monopolizes the landscape of the conflict, co-opting other tactics and alienating potential participants. Rather than representing a true “diversity,” actions that people perceive as violent monopolizes public attention and lends sympathy to the agents of repression. This certainly was the case this past weekend, when a small number of people doing property destruction in Rome caused headlines like “Protests Turn Violent” to dominate the perception of an overwhelmingly nonviolent day of action in cities all over the world. [...]

  3. What ‘diversity of tactics’ really means for Occupy Wall Street | AmpedStatus - October 20, 2011

    [...] Erica Chenoweth and Kurt Schock have found through statistical studies that the effects of having a so-called “radical flank” in a resistance movement—having a violent minority—include a slightly lower success rate and a significantly lower level of public involvement. Canadian activists Philippe Duhamel and David Martin recognize this in their call for “a diversity of nonviolent tactics.” They argue that “some tactics don’t mix”; once violence enters the picture, it monopolizes the landscape of the conflict, co-opting other tactics and alienating potential participants. Rather than representing a true “diversity,” actions that people perceive as violent monopolizes public attention and lends sympathy to the agents of repression. This certainly was the case this past weekend, when a small number of people doing property destruction in Rome caused headlines like “Protests Turn Violent” to dominate the perception of an overwhelmingly nonviolent day of action in cities all over the world. [...]

  4. What ‘diversity of tactics’ really means for Occupy Wall Street | Revolt Lab - October 23, 2011

    [...] Erica Chenoweth and Kurt Schock have found through statistical studies that the effects of having a so-called “radical flank” in a resistance movement—having a violent minority—include a slightly lower success rate and a significantly lower level of public involvement. Canadian activists Philippe Duhamel and David Martin recognize this in their call for “a diversity of nonviolent tactics.” They argue that “some tactics don’t mix”; once violence enters the picture, it monopolizes the landscape of the conflict, co-opting other tactics and alienating potential participants. Rather than representing a true “diversity,” actions that people perceive as violent monopolizes public attention and lends sympathy to the agents of repression. This certainly was the case this past weekend, when a small number of people doing property destruction in Rome caused headlines like “Protests Turn Violent” to dominate the perception of an overwhelmingly nonviolent day of action in cities all over the world. [...]

  5. What ‘Diversity of Tactics’ Really Means for #OccupyWallStreet | OWSnews.org - October 28, 2011

    [...] Erica Chenoweth and Kurt Schock have found through statistical studies that the effects of having a so-called “radical flank” in a resistance movement—having a violent minority—include a slightly lower success rate and a significantly lower level of public involvement. Canadian activists Philippe Duhamel and David Martin recognize this in their call for “a diversity of nonviolent tactics.” They argue that “some tactics don’t mix”; once violence enters the picture, it monopolizes the landscape of the conflict, co-opting other tactics and alienating potential participants. Rather than representing a true “diversity,” actions that people perceive as violent monopolizes public attention and lends sympathy to the agents of repression. This certainly was the case this past weekend, when a small number of people doing property destruction in Rome caused headlines like “Protests Turn Violent” to dominate the perception of an overwhelmingly nonviolent day of action in cities all over the world. [...]

  6. Turkey’s Support of the Free Syrian Army May Be a Game-Changer « rationalinsurgent - October 30, 2011

    [...] risk. But now the risk is much higher. Before territorial protection, the group was no more than a radical flank accompanying a nonviolent campaign. But their new sanctuary will certainly help them build their strength, if not their operational [...]

  7. Nonviolent discipline key to success in Syria / Waging Nonviolence - People-Powered News and Analysis - November 9, 2011

    [...] as Erica Chenoweth explains in a wonderful piece, violence on the part of the Free Syrian Army is actually likely to slow defections within [...]

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    [...] now, at least, the nonviolent movement remains alive and thriving. Scholars of civil resistance understand full well that short-term gains by the FSA today do not necessarily mean a democratic Syria tomorrow. And [...]

  9. On Diversity of Tactics: The Science of Failure and Personal Experience of Injustice | A Global Public Servant - February 5, 2012

    [...] article entitled “what diversity of tactics means for OWS” I found great research on the fact that “radial flanks” to movements show nothing but a negative effect on success…, and more evidence that non-violent struggle wins in the end.  Replete within every study I read [...]

  10. Concerning violence advocates and nailing jello to walls | #OccupyOakland #OO Media - April 1, 2012

    [...] drag support down to their own unpopular level (via) – and will sharply reduce the number of people participating [...]

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