As the New York Times reports today, the Syrian opposition in Hama is facing indiscriminate repression as we speak. Assad’s regime is launching a brutal crackdown in an effort to swiftly defeat the anti-regime uprising. Does this mean the end of the Syrian uprising?
The historical record suggests that the opposition does not have to end after the crackdown does. 90% of nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006 faced violent repression from their regimes, sometimes as brutal as the Assad regime’s. 46% of them succeeded despite the repression. Importantly, though, the historical record shows that if the campaign turns primarily violent in its response to regime repression, its chances for success drop by over half. Syrians need look no further than Libya to see what a strategic mistake that would be.
That said, there are several ways the opposition can respond without abandoning the effort at up-ending the regime. Perhaps the most important strategy is that the opposition might want to give protests, rallies, and other “methods of concentration” a rest for awhile–at least long enough to assure potential movement participants that the risks of participation have gone down. Kurt Schock, a political sociologist at Rutgers-Newark, shows in his book Unarmed Insurrections that shifting to methods of dispersion is often necessary for nonviolent movements to succeed. Methods of dispersion include strikes, boycotts, stay-aways, and other tactics that keep the pressure on the regime while reducing the risk of further repression. In fact, there are numerous nonviolent methods of dispersion to choose from here.
Second, the opposition can appeal to potential allies within and without the country to speak out about and against the repression. This will increase the chances that the repression will backfire. Security forces get tired of repressing their own people. Although defections have not been totally widespread, reports have indicated that a number of military officials and elites have defected. According to the research in Why Civil Resistance Works, among nonviolent campaigns where mass defections have occurred, the probability of the success of the campaign is ultimately quite high (somewhere close to 80% likely in the largest campaigns). These odds steeply decline if the movement adopts violence: globally, the chances are about 20%, but regionally, they are much closer to 0%.
In sum, although some may call for the Syrian uprising to defend itself from Assad’s brutality using violent resistance, previous experience in the region shows that taking up arms against an incumbent regime that is clearly committed to using overwhelming violent force may be extremely counterproductive. The opposition’s best chance is to maintain nonviolent discipline, thereby confronting the regime on terms with which it is highly unfamiliar.