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.

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2 Responses to “Countries Don’t “Slip” Into Sectarian War”

  1. Sherrill Stroschein November 18, 2011 at 9:13 am #

    This is a pretty good overview of the emergence of ethnic wars generally. There aren’t “slips” and things don’t “boil over.” Ethnic boundary activation takes place through practices. People can engage in these practices or choose not to.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Will the Middle East and North Africa Democratize? Part II | Political Violence @ a Glance - June 13, 2012

    […] Some of you are thinking: “Well, the violent campaigns use violence because they face particularly brutal regimes and are therefore forced to use arms.” Don’t get me started. That’s another post altogether. […]

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