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The Myth of the Rational Insurgent

2 Feb

Lambert Strether over at Naked Capitalism reposted a presentation I delivered at Stanford last August, called “Confronting the Myth of the Rational Insurgent.” You can access his post and my presentation here.

A debate is unfolding in the comments section of the post. I address many of the questions raised here in a paper I am writing for the ISA Annual Meetings in San Diego in April. Most of the critiques the NC readers are raising about the data, however, are addressed and dealt with in my book with Maria Stephan. For anyone interested, the data and appendix used for the book are available at my research page.

As Maria and I emphasize, our book is not meant to be the last word. Instead, we hope it will catalyze new and improved research on the topic of civil resistance–a field I’ve been encouraging security studies scholars to take seriously. One of the ways I’ve been hoping to attract greater attention to the topic of civil resistance has been to develop this “myths” talk, which I have tested out on a few different audiences. It’s supposed to be provocative, and it generally has elicited fairly strong reactions. The response over at NC is no exception.

My hope is not to provoke discussion for its own sake. Instead, my goals are twofold: 1) to encourage more systematic empirical research on the topic; and 2) to persuade people, on the basis of existing empirical research, that nonviolent resistance can often be a viable alternative for challenging entrenched power.

Denial: Not Just a River in Egypt

23 Jan

Last week I wrote a post on the Monkey Cage arguing that Syria now qualifies as a civil war, by standard scholarly definitions. Jeremy Pressman wrote a smart response that asks why anyone would deny that a country was experiencing a civil war. After all, what are the risks? A declaration of a civil war does not carry with it any real international obligations, like a declaration of a genocide does. Pressman makes the point that the reluctance to call Syria a civil war can be attributed to U.S. interests or norms. He writes:

one possibility is that the Obama administration prefers a narrative of democratic protest against a brutal regime. A civil war, which means both pro- and anti-regime violence, muddies that narrative.

He goes on to suggest that

admitting a full-fledged civil war is underway muddies the narrative that the US is going to help and protect the non-violent movement against the brutal and violent regime. Members of Congress and the US public would probably be less likely to support increasing intervention if they realize a civil war is underway.

Pressman concludes with this observation:

Could Obama officials be worried that calling Syria a civil war might negatively affect the calculations of groups inside Syria such as Druze, Christians, members of the business community etc?

I think Pressman is onto something. Calling the Syrian conflict a “civil war” would likely cause officials in the US and abroad to consider more serious policy options than the current label of “unrest” which dominates media coverage of the conflict. I have a couple additional thoughts:

1). Concerns about legitimizing Assad’s propaganda. Because most of the violence is by the regime against unarmed protestors, it still looks like a classic case of one-sided violence. International observers may resist calling the conflict a “civil war” in order to maintain the sense that the Syrian population is being wrongfully victimized, and that the regime is the sole perpetrator. In Assad’s most recent televised address, he claims that the country is being held hostage by armed Islamists and terrorists. Most observers deny such claims, as well as the regime’s claim that “terrorists” have killed 2,000 soldiers and regime functionaries. Of course, it is highly likely that the regime has exaggerated its losses, and Assad is clearly misrepresenting the opposition and its demands. But it is equally clear that in recent months, regime loyalists have become casualties of violent attacks from the opposition side. The international community may be slow to call the Syrian conflict a civil war for fear that Assad might feel even more emboldened about the fight.

2). Ambiguities about the organizational capacity of the Free Syrian Army vs. local militias. For some people, a necessary feature of a civil war is a viable and organized armed opponent that confronts the regime. In the Syrian case, the Free Syrian Army is the primary armed challenger. But the FSA has yet to prove its capacity to actually degrade the regime’s staying power any more than the highly disruptive strikes and demonstrations that persist on a daily basis in the country. Estimates of its size range from 1,000 to 40,000–none of these figures have been confirmed. And at any rate, the FSA has denied some attacks on regime loyalists, indicating that in addition to the FSA, local militias may be perpetrating killings against regime loyalists independently from the FSA. This is not surprising, nor is it unique to the Syrian case: loosely organized, opportunistic, local militias are common features of most civil wars.

3). Plain, old-fashioned, wishful thinking. Syria likely crossed the threshold into civil war last summer. Why were we all so slow to admit it? A considerable body of work in psychology shows that people essentially see what they want to see. No one–not even Assad’s regime–wants to see a civil war in Syria. My guess is that observers all over the world–whether they be in the UN, the Arab League, the US, Iran, Russia, China, or Turkey–are also hoping that the unrest stops soon. I, myself, have been holding out hopes that the Syrian uprising would remain nonviolent. I have also been convinced that the opposition’s best chance at winning would be through effective prosecution of civil resistance through a unified, popular movement. And I have not wanted to distract attention from the persistent and courageous activists who employ nonviolent tactics in the face of regime repression on a daily basis. The label “civil war” seems so violent, so intractable, so uncharacteristic of the spirit of the resistance that continues to unfold in Syria. So, although I wouldn’t deny the fact that Syria had become a civil war, I certainly wasn’t rushing to embrace the fact either.

Sadly, despite our best wishful thinking, we cannot make reality disappear by ignoring its existence.

WPR Interview: Syria, Occupy Wall Street, and Civil Resistance

13 Nov

Maria J. Stephan and I had a conversation with Veronica Rueckert of Wisconsin Public Radio on November 11th. We talked about our book and its implications for Syria, Occupy Wall Street, Iran, and other cases.

Listen to the interview here.

Countries Don’t “Slip” Into Sectarian War

9 Nov

A couple of weeks ago, Robert Fisk reported in the Independent that Syria is slipping into sectarian civil war.

I have no doubt that the accounts he gives are true. The news out of Syria is troubling indeed. Today the UN announced that 3,500 civilians are dead, with regime violence on the rise day by day. Most activists place the number much higher than 3,500. With this level of violence, it is not surprising that many analysts are cynical.

That said, there are a few things to keep in mind.

1). Countries don’t “slip” into civil war. Such wars arise because people make choices. In a place like Syria, civil war is neither accidental nor predetermined. Syrian activists can maintain nonviolent discipline if they choose to; they cannot be “forced” to choose violence as an offensive strategy. They can also choose to issue demands short of Assad’s immediate departure, such as his holding competitive elections with international observers. Assad can decide, if he wishes, to stop the killing by agreeing to leave. Or, he can decide to stop the killing but stay in power. I doubt he will choose either. This is because…

2). In a crisis, dictators will try to stay in power by dividing and ruling. This strategy is working pretty well for Assad. His brutality has convinced a number of Syrians to take up arms against him. And as Fisk mentions, stories about the counter-violence by these rebels has been just the propaganda boost that Assad needs to create sympathy from his own supporters in Damascus, as well as the pretext he needs to ramp up the killing with impunity. The Syrians involved in the uprising must not forget that…

3). They have choices, and their choices have consequences. It’s worth mentioning again, because if Syria blows up, it will be because Assad was better at divide-and-rule than the nonviolent campaign was. The more violent acts and rhetoric we see coming from the anti-Assad group, the more we will see the pro-Assad group cling together for dear life and retaliate in kind. In a rather intelligent Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing today, State Department official Jeffrey Feltman rightly concludes that using violence will strengthen Assad, not diminish him. Fortunately, there is a realistic alternative:

4). Nonviolent resistance is the best bet in Syria. Eric Stoner has a thorough piece today on the importance of maintaining nonviolent discipline in Syria. I wholeheartedly agree with his conclusions based on the strategic potential of civil resistance in this case, as well as the fact that violent civil conflict would be disastrous for Syria’s social, political, economic, and humanitarian well-being in the long run. If the core of the movement is unable to control its violent flank, then the movement must simply drown out the violence with more nonviolent acts. But it will take some time, and…

5). It’s understandable why people want to retaliate with violence. Assad has certainly crossed the lines of morality, at least 3,500 times over the past seven months. But leaving aside whether violent resistance is justified, the question becomes how to remove this murderous tyrant from power–and to replace him with the type of system that people would want their children to grow up in. Wouldn’t that be the best revenge? The odds that such an outcome could be achieved with violence are slim indeed.

Turkey’s Support of the Free Syrian Army May Be a Game-Changer

30 Oct

This is a cross-post from my original post on The Monkey Cage:

—–

This week, the New York Times reported that Turkey has begun to actively support the Free Syrian Army by providing territorial shelter in a guarded camp. From the Times:

Turkey is hosting an armed opposition group waging an insurgency against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, providing shelter to the commander and dozens of members of the group, the Free Syrian Army, and allowing them to orchestrate attacks across the border from inside a camp guarded by the Turkish military.

Two questions immediately emerge: 1) How will the provision of sanctuary affect the rebels’ chances of defeating Assad; and 2). What are the long-term regional consequences of providing sanctuary to a rebel organization? The answer to both questions: rebel group sanctuary can be a game-changer.

Regarding the first question, a number of scholars have previously found that external sanctuary is associated with insurgent success. Jeffrey Record, for instance, reviewed a number of insurgencies and found that rebel groups that secured sanctuary abroad were likelier to succeed. Dan Byman, Peter Chalk, et al also identified sanctuary as the most important type of support an insurgent group can receive, as it allows rebels to move and organize freely, to import weapons, and to train for operations. However, they write,

Foreign assistance in the form of international sanctuaries, while often extremely useful to guerrillas, can also have a negative impact. In moving abroad, insurgents risk cutting themselves off from their base of popular support. Resting and recuperating across a border, while providing obvious benefits, also carries the danger of operational isolation from potentially lucrative political and military targets.

This seems particularly true in the Syrian case, where the Free Syrian Army’s contact with local activists and rebels is contested. From the Times:

Though many analysts contend that defectors’ attacks in Syria appear uncoordinated and local, Colonel As’aad claimed to be in full operational control. He said that he was in charge of planning “full military operations” while leaving smaller clashes and day-to-day decisions up to commanders in the field. Nevertheless, he is in daily contact with the commanders of each battalion, he said, spending hours a day checking e-mail on a laptop connected to one of four telephones — including a satellite phone — provided to him by Syrian expatriates living in the United States, Europe and the Persian Gulf.

In sum, sanctuary can help an armed insurgency, but it certainly carries a number of risks and does not guarantee success by any means.

So how will these developments affect the conflict in the longer term? Recent research is pessimistic. According to Idean Salehyan, providing sanctuary to a rebel group makes a conflict more likely to escalate to civil war—and one that lasts longer than the average civil war. Moreover, providing sanctuary increases the chances that the civil conflict will escalate into an inter-state one (in this case, between Turkey and Syria) or perhaps even wider.

Now, this research assumes that the rebel group is viable and not just a small and disorganized group. We don’t really know whether the Free Syrian Army is the real deal yet. Rebel groups have massive incentives to over-represent their size and strength in such situations. As the Times reports, the movement’s claims that it consists of thousands of followers and dozens of battalions have not yet been verified. Nonetheless, there are reasons to believe the group is coalescing. Recent attacks against government troops within Syria suggest that there is at least some coordinated contact among operatives on the inside. Apparently the Syrian Free Army is actively recruiting new members on a regular basis. With the accumulation of weapons, the ability to organize freely, and the fact that many previously nonviolent Syrian activists are now openly calling for armed uprising against the increasingly brutal state, the Free Syrian Army has considerable sympathy and support within the country. And Turkey’s decision to support the group is also telling: in a new paper, Salehyan, David Cunningham, and Kristian Gleditsch argue that states are more likely to support rebel groups when they gauge the groups to be moderately strong. This suggests that Turkey, at least, may view the Free Syrian Army as a viable entity.

Ultimately, research tells us that if the Free Syrian Army is the real deal, then Turkey’s provision of sanctuary heightens the risk of protracted civil war breaking out in Syria. Before this development, civil war was already a 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 effectiveness, to become a full-blown insurgency.

The good news is that there is still a committed civilian-led uprising occurring in Syria, and although the regime’s extreme violence has dealt some severe setbacks to this movement, it is still quite active and disruptive. This is good news is because recent research shows that civil resistance activities—even when conducted in the context of armed conflict—can enhance the possibilities of more durable civil peace and democracy after the conflict ends. In other words, although some people may choose to use violence to confront the regime, the conflict does not have to devolve into a purely violent one. And if civilian-led nonviolent resistance does remain the centerpiece of the anti-Assad campaign, we can be much more optimistic about the outcome and aftermath of the conflict.

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.

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[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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Day with Members of the Syrian Uprising

25 Sep

At the end of last week, I had occasion to meet and talk with some members of the Syrian uprising at a private event in Europe. I don’t want to disclose much of what went on there, but I have a few reflections I’d like to share.

  1. Among some activists with whom I spoke, there is an optimistic view of the likelihood that the international community will intervene in Syria. This optimism was only evident among older activists, and among those living outside of Syria. The younger activists, who live in Syria, did not appear to expect (and did not appear to want) international intervention.  I do not share the elders’ optimism about intervention; I think that few members of the international community have little taste for intervention there. My research with Maria Stephan shows that nonviolent campaigns rarely get material aid from foreign countries, much less intervention. They do occasionally get enough attention to provoke sanctions against the offending regime, as has happened in the Syrian case. From where I sit, international intervention is probably not coming–even if it should–so my argument is that activists should continue to work under the assumption that they’ll be going it alone. But forward-thinking foreign governments interested in ways to support them without an intervention may find it useful to consult The Diplomat’s Handbook, which contains lots of useful details for how to support activists in oppressive contexts.
  2. Some have the view that because the revolution is almost 7 months old, nonviolent resistance may be insufficient to produce change. This view, while understandable, is perhaps based on the mistaken view that most successful nonviolent campaigns are sudden and swift, like the “endgames” in Tunisia and Egypt. But nonviolent resistance had been occurring for years in both Tunisia and Egypt (the Egyptian campaign was actually about 8 years old, and the Tunisian campaign was probably more like 3 years old). In fact, the average nonviolent campaign is about 2.5 years long, and some last for decades. It would be a mistake to assume that the Syrians have exhausted nonviolent resistance as a method. On the contrary, the conflict has only just begun.
  3. Humor has played a large role in the uprising. For instance, I heard one story in which Syrian security forces “massacred” some donkeys to punish or terrorize members of the uprising. A video is here (note: it’s graphic). But this action backfired, as crowds now invoke this massacre to taunt security forces, saying “Look at the Assads…they massacre their own relatives!” Pretty clever response. In another instance, activists mock Assad’s accusations that they are terrorists by bringing large tubes to protests. They put firecrackers inside them, even as snipers open fire upon them, and mock them by setting off the firecrackers to show that they have no weapons and are not terrorists. It’s a smart tactic that’s meant to poke fun at Assad while demonstrating to the security forces that his accusations are lies.
  4. Some rock-throwing has occurred, but experienced activists are trying to prevent it from happening. At one event, 10,000 protestors gathered to participate. Some of them started throwing rocks at security forces, and pretty soon, the number of protestors dropped to 2,000. This shows the importance of maintaining nonviolent discipline for maintaining a high level of participation and long-term mobilization. When public protests remain nonviolent, people stay; when things turn “thuggish,” people go home.
  5. Like I’ve heard from people involved in many other ongoing conflicts, some Syrian activists argue that nonviolent resistance simply can’t succeed against someone as brutal as Assad, whose associates remain relentlessly loyal and whose torturers relish their jobs. They could be right, but I remember hearing the same thing from Egyptian activists in 2007. Although there are local particularities in terms of the types of tactics that will resonate in a given conflict, most conflicts with which I am familiar share the same elements necessary for success—the need to achieve broad-based participation, the ability to make repression backfire, the need for loyalty shifts within the opponent regime (including security forces, business elites, and civilian bureaucrats), the need for tactical diversity, complementing methods of concentration with methods of dispersion, the importance of massive noncooperation in ushering in the endgame, and patience. My guess (although I could be wrong) is that it will be the same in Syria.
  6. I’ve heard very few people talk about ways that Assad can be coaxed into giving up (as opposed to being forced out). Many people want to simply punish Assad, seeing it as a battle to the death. I’m sure that he sees it the same way, and is therefore very unlikely to budge unless he receives guarantees that he (and his family) will live and prosper once his rule is over. It might be time for foreign governments to think about what kind of golden parachute Assad would need to leave. I suspect it would need to be a pretty sweet deal, including immunity, and extended vacation in a really nice locale, and guarantees of prosperity for his family, etc. It’s insulting to typical views of justice, but given the rising costs of the ongoing struggle, a golden parachute along these lines should at least be on the table.

I left feeling like the next few weeks are going to be critical for the direction of the uprising. It is hard to see where it will go, but it seems like there is no going back for Assad. What would “normal” look like in Syria, after all that has happened there over the past six months? If you’re not subscribed to the Syrian Revolution News Round-Up, you can do so here. It’s a great resource.

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