Assad is Hammering Hama. How Should the Opposition Respond?

3 Aug

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.

8 Responses to “Assad is Hammering Hama. How Should the Opposition Respond?”

  1. Gelong Tashi August 3, 2011 at 8:34 pm #

    How can global (i.e. aggregate?) success rates be at roughly 20% when local success rates are roughly zero? I would think that the local comprise the global and therefore the percentages would be equivalent to equal, no?

    Sorry for the minute, methodological question, the greater point is utterly wonderful.

    – Gelong Tashi

  2. rationalinsurgent August 3, 2011 at 8:42 pm #

    Dear Tashi,

    Great question. You are right that the aggregate (global) probability is about 20%. What this means is that if we take every violent insurgency in the world that has faced violent repression, the chances of it succeeding (all being equal) is about 20%. On average, 1 in 5 violent insurgencies facing violent repression succeed. However, the rates have been higher in some regions (Latin America, Asia) than in others (the Middle East). In Latin American or Asia, the probability is probably closer to 30%, whereas in the Middle East, the probability is close to 0%. On balance, however, the average is about 20%. Hope this clarifies.

  3. Gelong Tashi August 3, 2011 at 8:49 pm #

    GOT IT! Thank you. Interesting that geographical differences make for lumpy data that way!

    Are you still in D.C.?

    I partly hope not, that you can relish your sabbatical, partly hope so, that you might bring potentially life-saving strategy to the decision-makers.

  4. jackgoldstone August 4, 2011 at 4:43 am #

    You are absolutely right to point to strikes, boycotts, etc. as the next steps in Syria. The final success of the Egyptian revolution of 2011 did not come solely from protests in Tahrir square — it was a nationwide strike that persuaded the military to force Mubarak to go.

    Syrians should show their revulsion at the regime’s attack on Hama by a nationwide strike; nothing would send a stronger message that the nation was rejecting the Assad regime.

  5. midya August 4, 2011 at 9:25 pm #

    in Syria strikes doesn’t use in Syria, the most important industry is oil sector and most of its workers are of allies

    • midya August 4, 2011 at 9:29 pm #

      The oil sector in Syria is the most important industry and almost all its workers are from allies of regime, so the strikes doesn’t use in syria revolution, may be the large defection in army is the better way to deface the reppresion

      • midya August 4, 2011 at 9:33 pm #

        The oil sector in Syria is the most important industry and almost all its workers are from allies of regime, so the strikes doesn’t use in the syrian revolution, may be the large defection in army is the better way to deface the reppresion, the syrian protestors have no weapons so the revolution will continuous peacefully


  1. Syria — Headed toward Triumph or Tragedy? | NewPopulationBomb - August 4, 2011

    […] other less-risky forms of collective resistance to the regime, that can help undermine its power…  Activists in Syria are in touch with, and getting support from, activists throughout the region […]

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