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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.