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Dispatch from Warsaw & the World Summit of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates

29 Oct

Last week, I was in Warsaw attending the World Summit of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. A number of Nobel Laureates were in attendance, and Sharon Stone got an award for her humanitarian efforts and peace activism.

I gave a talk at a workshop organized by Jacek Kurczewski, a professor at the University of Warsaw, on Nonviolence, Reconciliation, and Peacebuilding. Here were a few of my key takeaways from the whole event (academic insights first, of course).

  • James Gibson made a compelling argument that the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is essentially a success. Based on more than 3,000 interviews and surveys among black, white, and South Africans of Indian origin, he says that the TRC has created more mutual trust that has allowed people to reconcile with the past. Although he argues that it’s hard to expect that these successes can be transferred to other cases because of the peculiarities of the South African case, this was a refreshingly optimistic take on the reconciliation process in a country where we’ve seen a lot of cynicism lately.
  • Jennifer Lewellyn argues that we ought to look at peacekeeping and peacebuilding as an inherently relational exercise.
  • Severine Autesserre argues that local peacebuilding is far superior to top-down approaches to peacebuilding, and that such efforts ought to get more resources and support than more traditional missions.
  • John Braithwaite argues that peacebuilding, peacekeeping, and postwar transition works better when civil society is engaged and creates networks or nodes of power that can effectively “check” concentrations of power within more formal and traditional institutions.
  • Sonja Lokar argues that when women’s civil society groups are actively engaged in peace processes and settlements and continue to remain engaged in advocacy efforts regarding women’s equity issues, they are much more likely to gain higher representation in formal political institutions (including parliament). If they don’t they will be left behind entirely. And she argues that women’s representation in government will ultimately lead the country to be less likely to relapse into civil war—a claim that has some empirical support elsewhere.
  • Among the most impressive of the Nobel Laureates was Shan Cretin, the Secretary General of the American Friends Service Committee, who called out the Summit organizers for failing to involve more people from typically underrepresented groups as well as the Global South.
  • The presentation that made the most lasting impact on me was Ira Helfand’s presentation on the continued threat of nuclear war (or a nuclear accident). Dr. Helfand is was representing the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization. Their recent study found that even a very small-scale nuclear war (involving less than .5% of the world’s nuclear arsenal) between India and Pakistan would have catastrophic environmental effects that would ultimately wipe out about 1 billion people around the world—or 1/6 of the human race). Such a war could be exceedingly small and even accidental but would destroy civilization as we know it. Yikes.
  • Lech Walesa wants all politicians to have microchips so that the public can monitor their every move. (For real).
  • F.W. de Klerk is a self-proclaimed optimist and thinks that today’s troubles in South Africa are temporary.
  • None of the Laureates was willing to criticize the Nobel committee’s decision to award the Peace Prize to Barack Obama in 2009—despite moderator Ghida Fakhry’s repeated attempts to get them to do so.

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.

New Tactic: Keeping Wall Street Occupied

31 Oct

This video is going viral. H/t to Sherrill Stroschein.

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.

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.