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The Origins of the NAVCO Data Project (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Take Nonviolent Conflict Seriously)

7 May
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“Big Data”. Source: betakit.com

In June 2006, I was a doctoral student at the University of Colorado-Boulder in the final stages of writing my dissertation on why terrorism occurs in democratic countries. I was spending my last summer teaching undergraduate courses in Boulder before heading off to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was due to take up a predoctoral fellowship at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in the fall.

Earlier that summer, I received an email from my colleague Victor Asal, forwarding an invitation he had received to a workshop called “People Power and Pedagogy.” “The other side of the coin – thought you might be interested,” Victor’s email said. Sponsored by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and hosted at Colorado College, this workshop was meant to introduce social scientists to the literature on nonviolent or “civil” resistance—a concept with which I was not familiar. In all of my time researching social movements, political power, and organized violence, I had never come across the work of ICNC’s co-founders, Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall, nor had I heard of Gene Sharp or any other academic powerhouses whose work had established the field of civil resistance studies.

Skeptical but curious—and more than a little enticed by the free food and books—I applied to the workshop. Soon thereafter, I received an acceptance letter from ICNC followed by a FedEx package full of books and papers on civil resistance, its theoretical and strategic dimensions, and the ways people power movements had accomplished in many cases what violent rebellion could not. These works made the claim—sometimes implicit, other times explicit—that civil resistance was as effective or even more effective than armed struggle in achieving major political concessions. They based these claims on cases like Serbia, where the Otpor movement had initiated the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic; Poland, where the Solidarity movement had successfully challenged the entrenched Communist Party; the Philippines, where the People Power movement had removed Ferdinand Marcos from power; and the U.S. Civil Rights movement, where lunch counter sit-ins, boycotts, and marches had initiated the desegregation of many southern cities and created the base for a broader campaign.

I must say I attended the workshop as a cynic. Although I found the various cases of successful civil resistance interesting, I thought they were exceptional. For every case like Serbia, Poland, or the Philippines, I could recall a case like Tiananmen Square, Hungary 1956, or Burma 1988. After all, even Mahatma Gandhi’s dubious victory in expelling the British from India had ushered in a period of violent turmoil, punctuated by India’s bloody partition with Pakistan. Even more persistent was my suspicion that successful cases could be explained by other factors—weak states incapable of suppressing unarmed actors, international actors willing to patronize them, moderately democratic institutions that accommodated them, social, economic, or demographic characteristics that predisposed some populations to embrace nonviolent action where others would turn to violence, or plain old government incompetence.

I voiced these concerns repeatedly throughout the workshop and expressed my desire for more and better data on the phenomenon. Maria Stephan, then academic outreach coordinator for ICNC, was receptive to my concerns but was also eager to challenge me: “Well, how would we know if civil resistance was as effective as armed struggle? How would one develop a study that tested your hypotheses about structural factors explaining the outcomes?” Maria had just completed her own doctoral thesis on the topic of “extending the nonviolent battlefield,” or how nonviolent self-determination movements could solicit third-party support to increase their leverage.

In response, I developed what I thought would be a reasonable research design that might actually assess—systematically and empirically—both the relative rates of success of nonviolent and violent mass movements as well as the underlying causes for these successes. The study, I ventured, would have to be much broader in scope that the limited number of cases examined by much extant literature on nonviolent resistance. It would have to include all known cases—both successes and failures—rather than making inferences from a relatively small number of cases. It would have to have wide geographic and temporal scope so as to increase the number of observations in a way that would provide more statistical power to the study. With Maria’s recent fieldwork, familiarity with different cases, and vast knowledge of the canonical literature, we decided to put our heads and our skill sets together and conduct a study on whether it was indeed the case that nonviolent resistance was a relatively effective form of political struggle.

To ICNC’s credit, the organization’s leadership encouraged us to do this. I remember telling Maria that we might find out the opposite—that violence was actually more effective—and asking her whether Peter Ackerman understood that this was a real possibility. She assured me that if we discovered that civil resistance was ineffective, then he and everyone else at ICNC would accept this outcome. After all, Peter had a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School and fully understood and respected the scientific process. Looking back, I can see what a gamble this was for ICNC. But Maria and I agreed that if it turned out that civil resistance was not very effective, then we had better find that out sooner rather than later.

My own reservations about the effectiveness of nonviolent action directed me to take a particularly skeptical approach to the data collection and analysis, applying a “hard test” to nonviolent action wherever possible. This is reflected somewhat in the sample population itself. I decided we would only include cases where the insurgents were seeking the removal of the incumbent regime, territorial self-determination, or the expulsion of a foreign military occupation—I saw these as “maximalist” goals that fundamentally altered the shape of the state and would therefore be more difficult to achieve. Data coverage would be global and cover the time period 1900-2006. Whether it was nonviolent or violent, we would only code a case as “successful” if it achieved the full removal of the incumbent leader, de jure and de facto secession, or the expulsion of a foreign military. The campaign had to achieved this objective within a year of its peak, and it had to have had a discernable impact on this outcome. Moreover, we could collect data on a variety of features of the campaign’s structural environment—including features of the regime, socio-economic trends, ethno-linguistic characteristics of the population, international support for the campaign or the regime, region, and time period—and we would account for these factors when identifying the correlates of success.

To obtain the cases of violent insurgency, I started by looking at all of the cases of intrastate conflict from the Correlates of War dataset, which features cases of organized armed actors using violence against one another that results in at least 1,000 battle deaths. I then turned to collecting data on analogous nonviolent campaigns. Drawing on thousands of source materials—including encyclopedias, bibliographies, case studies, historical documents, news reports, and other scholars’ published lists of popular revolutions—I began to assemble a list of cases of nonviolent mass mobilization featuring at least 1,000 observed participants seeking maximalist goals from 1900-2006. My impending dissertation defense and fellowship obligations at Harvard introduced a variety of distractions at this point, so ICNC gave me a stipend to keep the data collection process on pace. By spring of 2007, I had a preliminary list of campaigns of nonviolent resistance, which I circulated to experts of nonviolent action—including some of ICNC’s staff and academic advisors, as well as subject experts like Doug Bond—to ask for any additions and to get their sense of whether we had properly characterized the outcomes of these campaigns (e.g. successes, partial successes, or failures). At the end of this often tedious process, we had produced the Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes (NAVCO) data set (version 1.0)—the first dataset of 323 maximalist campaigns over 106 years with global coverage.

Then I ran the numbers. I was shocked. More than 50% of the nonviolent campaigns succeeded whereas about 26% of the violent ones did. Moreover, when I ran a variety of regression models that included features of the regime as control variables, I could find no systematic statistical association between structural features of the country and the outcomes of the campaigns. Generally speaking, nonviolent campaigns were succeeding more often than violent campaigns despite a variety of structural factors that we typically associate with predetermining such outcomes. Other studies have since reached similar conclusions.

Maria and I wrote up these preliminary results and submitted them to International Security, which published the paper in its Summer 2008 issue. At the same time, we suggested to ICNC that we ought to write a book together on this topic. Given the striking nature of our findings and their potential impact, they agreed to provide me with a stipend to work on the book manuscript the following year while a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard. In 2011, Columbia University Press published our book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. It hit the shelves during the height of the so-called Arab Spring, a series of upheavals that leant greater urgency to the need for even more systematic, empirical research on the topic.

ICNC has been ahead of the curve of this effort. In 2009, they gave me a five-year contract to further develop the NAVCO Data Project to provide greater detail on the characteristics and tactics of different campaigns. Thanks to this funding, in May 2013, Orion Lewis and I published a release of the NAVCO 2.0 data set, which contains annual data on a variety of organizational characteristics of 250 nonviolent and violent campaigns from 1946-2006. Additionally, ICNC’s support will allow me to release NAVCO 3.0, which contains data on the tactical sequences of nonviolent and violent campaigns in 30 countries from 1987-2012, in late 2015. At this point, the NAVCO data set is the signature resource on the comparative characteristics and outcomes of nonviolent and violent campaigns, and its release has catalyzed a number of new studies on civil resistance.

ICNC has also set aside funds to support anyone interested in adding to empirical understandings of civil resistance. They have developed a generous $10,000 stipend for PhD students writing promising dissertations on the topic. Their monograph award is meant to catalyze new research on this topic by established scholars, while their curriculum development award is meant to promote innovation among scholars wishing to apply their pedagogical insights to the field.

So the story of the NAVCO Data Project is one of skepticism, hypothesis-testing, and discovery—basic principles of the scientific method. I am grateful to ICNC for providing me with the intellectual provocation to begin this research as well as the support to carry it out. In this case, as it turned out, the intuitions of many advocates of nonviolent resistance were correct, and the assumptions of many cynics—including myself—were dead wrong.

—-This post has been updated to reflect the role of lunch counter sit-ins in the broader U.S. civil rights movement, rather than in desegregating Nashville alone.

Why Social Movements Fail

2 Dec
The iconic image of "Tank Man" facing down the Chinese army during the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989.

The iconic image of “Tank Man” facing down the Chinese army during the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989.

There’s a great essay forum over at Mobilizing Ideas reviewing and discussing research on why social movements fail. It features some of my favorite researchers on this topic and is likely to be interesting to many readers of this blog. Check it out here (h/t to the ever-awesome Jay Ulfelder for pointing it out). My personal favorite is Kevan Harris’ article on the 2009 Green Movement, which critiques the view that the movement failed primarily because of state repression.

A few other reads that include analyses of why nonviolent campaigns succeed as well as why they fail:

My Talk at TEDxBoulder: Civil Resistance and the “3.5% Rule”

4 Nov

I gave a talk at TEDxBoulder on September 21st. It was a great event, and I shared the stage with over a dozen terrific speakers and a number of talented musicians. We shared our ideas with a sold-out audience of about 2,200 people, and I’ve never been more nervous giving a talk!

Here’s the video:

I anticipated that people might have questions about some of the claims I make in this talk, as well as some of the specific references I make. As you can imagine, when you have 12 minutes to tell a story, present some counterintuitive information, and try to make it engaging, there’s no time to fully reference your points. So I decided to post the script and expand it with a variety of links to sources, references, and resources for those interested in pursuing the topic further. There may be a few deviations/word changes here and there because, well, I didn’t deliver the script verbatim. But you’ll get the gist.

Feel free to leave your remaining questions in the comments section. I will collect them and answer them in a follow-up post.

I’d like to ask you to imagine that you live in a very repressive country—there are elections but they are fake. The leader wins 100% of the vote each time. Security forces beat up opposition leaders with impunity, and they harass everyone else. This is a country where being in this room right now would get you on a list. Now let’s say you’ve had enough, and so have many other people that you talk to in low whispers. I’m not talking about the Hunger Games although that would be awesome. Unfortunately I’m talking about real world conditions that many people find themselves in right now.

Assuming you’ve decided to act, what would be the best way for you to challenge the system and create major change?

My own answer to this question has changed over the past five years. In 2006 I was a PhD student in political science here at CU-Boulder, and I was finishing my dissertation about how and why people use violence to seek political goals. As for the scenario I just described? Well, back then I bought into the idea that “power flows from the barrel of a gun.” I would have said that although it was tragic, it was logical in such cases for people to use violence to bring about change.

But that June, I was invited to an academic workshop put on by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. They were giving a week-long primer on nonviolent resistance to encourage people like me to teach about it in our courses. Now, my view of all this stuff was that it was well-intentioned, but dangerously naïve. The readings they sent me[1] argued that the best way for people to achieve political change was through nonviolent or civil resistance. The authors described civil resistance as an active form of conflict where unarmed civilians used tactics like protests, demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, and many other forms of mass noncooperation to confront oppression. They brought up cases like Serbia, where a nonviolent revolution toppled Slobodan Milosevic—the butcher of the Balkans—in October of 2000, or the Philippines where the People Power movement ousted Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

At the workshop, I said things like, “Well, for every successful case you guys mention, I can think of a failed case like Tiananmen Square. I can also think of plenty of cases where violence worked pretty well, like the Algerian, French, and Russian revolutions. Maybe nonviolent resistance works if you’re seeking labor rights, gender rights, or environmental reform, but it generally can’t work if you’re trying to overthrow a dictator or become a new country. Serbia and the Philippines–they were probably exceptions. And there’s no way nonviolent resistance can work against a ruthless opponent.”

By the end of the week, as you can imagine, I wasn’t too popular.

My soon-to-be co-authorMaria Stephan–came up to me and said something like, “If you’re right, prove it. Are you curious enough to study these questions empirically?”

Believe it or not, no one had systematically done this before.[2] Although I was still skeptical, I was curious. If they were right and I was wrong, I figured somebody had better find out. So for the next two years, I collected data on all major nonviolent and violent campaigns for the overthrow of a government or territorial liberation since 1900. The data cover the entire world and include every known campaign that consists of at least a thousand observed participants, which constitutes hundreds of cases.[3]

Then I analyzed the data, and the results blew me away. From 1900 to 2006, nonviolent campaigns worldwide were twice as likely to succeed outright as violent insurgencies. And there’s more. This trend has been increasing over time—in the last fifty years civil resistance has become increasingly frequent and effective, whereas violent insurgencies have become increasingly rare and unsuccessful. This is true even in extremely repressive, authoritarian conditions where we might expect nonviolent resistance to fail.[4]

So why is civil resistance so much more effective than armed struggle? The answer lies in people power itself.

Researchers used to say that no government could survive if five percent of its population mobilized against it. But our data reveal that the threshold is probably lower. In fact, no campaigns failed once they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population—and lots of them succeeded with far less than that [5]. Now, 3.5% is nothing to sneeze at. In the U.S. today, this means almost 11 million people.

But get this: Every single campaign that did surpass that 3.5% threshold was a nonviolent one. In fact, campaigns that relied solely on nonviolent methods were on average four times larger than the average violent campaign. And they were often much more representative in terms of gender, age, race, political party, class, and urban-rural distinctions.

Civil resistance allows people of all different levels of physical ability to participate—including the elderly, people with disabilities, women, children, and virtually anyone else who wants to. If you think about it, everyone is born with an equal physical ability to resist nonviolently. Anyone who has kids knows how hard it is to pick up a child who simply doesn’t want to move, or to feed a child who simply doesn’t want to eat.

But for lots of people, violent resistance is much more physically demanding. You have to train to be good at it. When I was in college, I took military science classes because I wanted to go through the ROTC program and become an army officer. I liked the rappelling, the uniforms, map-reading, and shooting at the range. But I wasn’t stoked about getting up in the wee hours of the morning to run until I vomited. I quit–and chose the far less strenuous career of professor.

Not everyone wants to take the same chances in life, and many people won’t turn up unless they expect safety in numbers. The visibility of many civil resistance tactics, like protests, helps to draw these risk-averse people into the fray. Put yourself back in that repressive country for a minute. Say your neighbor comes to you and says, “We’re going to have a demonstration in the main square down the street at 8pm tonight. I hope you can make it.” Now, I don’t know about you all, but I’m not the person who is going to show up at 7:55 to see what’s up. I’m going to wait until about 8:30 or so, check out my window, and see what’s going on. If I see only 6 people assembling in the square, I’m probably going to sit this one out. But if I see 6,000 and more coming down the alleyway, I might join them.

The point here is that nonviolent campaigns can solicit more diverse and active participation from ambivalent people. And once those people get involved, it’s almost guaranteed that the movement will then have some links to security forces, the state media, business or educational elites, religious authorities, and civilian bureaucrats who start to question their allegiances. No regime loyalists in any country live entirely isolated from the population itself. They have friends, they have family, and they have existing relationships that they have to live with in the long term, regardless of whether the leader stays or goes. In the Serbian case, once it became clear that hundreds of thousands of Serbs were descending on Belgrade to demand that Milosevic leave office, policemen ignored the order to shoot on demonstrators. When asked why he did so, one of them said: “I knew my kids were in the crowd.”

I’ll bet some of you are thinking, “Is she insane? I watch the news, and I see protestors getting shot at in the streets all the time!” Sometimes crackdowns do happen. But even in these cases, nonviolent campaigns outperformed violent ones by two-to-one. When security forces beat up, arrest, or even shoot unarmed activists, there is, indeed, safety in numbers. Large and well-coordinated campaigns can switch from concentrated methods (like protests) to dispersed methods, where people stay away from places they were expected to go. They do strikes, they do stay-at-home demonstrations, they bang on pots and pans, they shut off the electricity at a coordinated time of day — these tactics are much less risky. They’re very hard or at least very costly to suppress, while the movement stays just as disruptive.

What happens in these countries once the dust settles? It turns out, the way you resist matters in the long run too. Most strikingly, nonviolent campaigns were far more likely to usher in democratic institutions than violent insurgencies. And countries where people waged nonviolent struggle were 15% less likely to relapse into civil war.

The data are clear: When people rely on civil resistance, their size grows. And when large numbers of people withdraw their cooperation from an oppressive system, the odds are ever in their favor.

So. Many people in my field[6] had largely ignored the millions of people worldwide who were skillfully using civil resistance in favor of studying things that blow up. I had a few questions about the way I used to think. Why was it so easy and comfortable for me to believe that violence works? And why did I find it acceptable to simply assume that violence happens—almost automatically—because of circumstances, or by necessity—that it’s the only way out of some situations? In a society that celebrates battlefield heroes on national holidays, I guess it was natural to grow up believing that violence and courage are one and the same—and that true victories can’t come without bloodshed on both sides.

But the evidence I’ve presented here today suggests that for people serious about seeking change, there are realistic alternatives. Imagine now what our world would look like if we allowed ourselves to develop faith in them. What if our history courses emphasized the decade of mass civil disobedience that came before the Declaration of Independence, rather than the war that came after? What if Gandhi and King were the basis of the first chapter of our social studies textbooks, rather than an afterthought? What if every child left elementary school knowing more about the Suffragist movement than they did about the Battle of Bunker Hill? And what if it became common knowledge that when protests become too dangerous, there are many nonviolent techniques of dispersion that might keep participants safe and keep movements resilient?

So here we are in 2013 in Boulder, Colorado. Maybe some of you are thinking, “OK, I get that civil resistance is the best bet, but what can I do?”

Encourage your children to learn about the nonviolent legacies of the past two hundred years and explore the potential of people power. Tell your elected representatives to stop perpetuating the misguided view that violence pays by supporting the first groups in a civil uprising to take up arms. Although nonviolent campaigns can’t be exported or imported, it’s time for our officials to embrace a different way of thinking—that in the short and long term, civil resistance tends to leave behind societies in which people are able to live more freely and more peaceably together.

Now that we know what we know about the power of nonviolent conflict, I see it as our shared responsibility to spread the word so that future generations don’t fall for the myth that violence is their only way out.

Thank you.


[1] These readings included Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy; Kurt Schock’s Unarmed Insurrections; Zunes, Asher, and Kurtz’s Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective; Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s A Force More Powerful; and Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler’s Strategic Nonviolent Conflict, and a handful of article-length readings. Resources like this can be found here.

[2] As note 1 suggests, many people had theorized about civil resistance and developed case studies analyzing its effectiveness, but no one had systematically compared how well it worked compared with armed struggle over time and space.

[3] Many of these are discussed in detail at the Swarthmore Global Nonviolent Action Database.

[4] For answers to questions about how we counted the campaigns, coded success and failures, etc., see here, here, and here.

[5] This figure is based on the highest number of observed participants directly confronting the opponent during the campaign. It does therefore not represent an aggregate number of participants, but rather that the maximum number of people the campaign involved in peak events.

[6] There are exceptions. See note 1.

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.