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Red Team, Blue Team: Simulating a Successful Nonviolent Resistance

12 Sep

If you are an activist in an authoritarian regime today, you need a plan–and a good one. With regimes threatening to drive pro-democracy resistance movements underground, it would be useful for opposition leaders to know their options, the different risk profiles of those options, and the variety of potentially effective methods they could use to avoid repression while keeping the momentum of the movement going.

Back in the days when I worked in emergency medical services (a long time ago), I participated in mass casualty-incident scenarios to learn how to effectively deploy our resources, anticipate and deal with curveballs (since nothing ever goes according to plan), and figure out how to save the most lives when real incidents occurred. Although simulations almost never go the way you plan, they give you opportunities to respond to unplanned events, which turns out to be as important as having a good plan in the first place. Moreover, lots of creative thinking can emerge out of these types of sessions. Well-designed red team/blue team exercises can help people to experience and prepare for a number of different scenarios without having to experience any of the adverse consequences of making mistakes in real life.

Military, marketing, and IT personnel often spend considerable time and energy on red team/blue team “games,” or “battlefield scenarios” that they use to map out strategy and to anticipate and respond to unforeseen events in constructive ways. The “red team” is often the one hatching up a plot to engage the opponent (e.g., a terrorist attack against a the US), and the “blue team” is given limited information with which to stop the red team within a given time frame (e.g., a way to thwart the attack). Red team/blue team exercises allow officers and strategists to develop a skill that is crucial for a successful nonviolent resistance: the ability to outmaneuver the opponent under adverse conditions.

Militaries and corporations often have massive resources and personnel to devote to simulations. They sometimes fly in “subject experts” to help design and implement the scenarios. Now, most civilians in most countries don’t have backgrounds in conducting red team/blue team exercises, nor are they in a position to “practice” nonviolent resistance in the streets or to fly in experienced activists to help them develop these skills. But when the stakes are high, as they are in Syria and many other places today, a few big strategic mistakes could end the movement.

How can nonviolent resistance movements strategize without subjecting themselves to detection or repression?

One way do so is by playing People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance. Developed by York Zimmerman and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, this game allows people to develop a scenario where their opponent in the game approximates their opponent in real life. The site says:

People Power is about politics, about strategy and about social change. As a leader of a popular movement you fight against tough adversaries who control the police, the army and bureaucracy, even the media. The only weapon in your hand is your strategic skill and ingenuity.

The game can be used by activists to develop strategic skills and experience in facing a militarily superior adversary. Part of the idea is to allow people to get used to making strategic mistakes (like choosing the same, predictable method over and over again, or failing to communicate the campaign’s message to a wider audience) against brutal opponents without winding up in prison.

It’s $10, but they will make exceptions.

Now, importantly, I wouldn’t suggest that playing a video game (if they could even access it in the first place) is going to improve oppositions’ chances against brutal dictators. That would be an especially arrogant and irritating claim.

But in the long term, I do think that strategic planning (and strategic thinking) is a crucial element to a successful nonviolent resistance. If activists today can improve those skills by playing a game, they should. If they don’t find a tool like this useful, they should invest some time in figuring out another way to do it. As Winston Churchill said, “Those who plan do better than those who do not plan even though they rarely stick to their plan.” He would know.

How Do People Learn to Resist?

29 Aug

Here’s one way (h/t to Peter Rutland):


Pardon the Hiatus

22 Aug

The American Political Science Association Annual Meeting will be held in Seattle, WA from August 31 through Sept. 4. This means that I am trying to finish two separate papers that I will be presenting at the conference. One paper compares repressive policies of five different Middle Eastern and North African countries, and the other introduces a data set that seeks to explain the onset of nonviolent uprisings.

Seeing as these papers are already overdue, I’ll be wrapping them up within the next few days. But I have lots to say about recent events and will be weighing in again shortly.

Extraordinary Documentary on Bahrain

8 Aug

The entire piece is worth watching (h/t to Nada AlWadi.).


Three questions that arise for me:

1). NEGOTIATIONS. Should the protesters have allowed the opposition to negotiate lesser terms than full abdication? Some gains are better than none, and some progress may have allowed the opposition some breathing space to figure out next moves. See Maciej Bartkowski and Les Kurtz on how to negotiate transitions.

2). CONFRONTING FOREIGN TROOPS. What can civil resisters do to confront foreign troops or mercenaries, as were present in Bahrain and Libya? My initial reaction is that they should avoid playing that game entirely. In other words, they should shift to more dispersed methods, like strikes, that remove the opportunity for the imported troops to crack down. Although it’s true that expats from Asia make up the majority of the labor workforce, Bahraini nationals make up 43% of the workforce, which is largely concentrated in the public sector and in the petroleum industry. As in Iran, if oil workers or civilian bureaucrats withdraw their support from the regime through a general strike, it could be crippling to the state. Although I haven’t seen the political profile of the oil workers, it wouldn’t surprise me if they are generally regime loyalists, which would preclude that possibility. But there are likely to be dissenters among them. The other option is to simply retreat, wait, regroup, and when the foreign troops go home, relaunch. Foreign powers like Saudi Arabia might be willing to take decisive action like this occasionally, but I highly doubt they are willing to do so regularly.

3). GLOBAL INFLUENCE. Although the film is clearly critical of the United States and others for standing idly by while the Bahraini regime had its way with the uprising, the question remains of what exactly foreign powers could have done to help the opposition. Although it no doubt improves morale to know that the world is on your side, what precise tools could foreign powers have used to intervene and change the course of the conflict? The United States could have denounced the regime even more harshly, and stated its support of the campaign more clearly, but would that have truly helped the strategic position of the movement? After all, nonviolent campaigns that succeeded between 1900 and 2006 mostly did so without any support from foreign powers, although they may have been inspired by other successful nonviolent uprisings.

I welcome discussion.

Regional Players Criticize Assad: Implications for Civil Resistors

8 Aug

Some key regional players–especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey–had some pretty harsh words for Bashar al-Assad’s regime this weekend. The long and short of it: the Arab League has strongly condemned Syrian crackdowns, Saudi Arabia is recalling its ambassador to Damascus, and Turkey is sending its foreign minister there for an intervention about Assad’s behavior.

How will this affect the uprising?

Well, the resistors shouldn’t get their hopes up for any material support from anyone on the outside. In truth, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others have strong political motivations for criticizing Assad. Turkey is increasingly worried about refugees spilling over into its border and would prefer the bloodshed to stop so it can manage the thousands of Syrian refugees who have already found their way to Turkey. Saudi Arabia is probably genuinely supportive of the uprising’s goals, since their fulfillment has the potential to up-end one of the Kingdom’s regional competitors and diminish Iran’s influence at the same time. Also, maintaining legitimacy has been a bit of a struggle for the Saud monarchy of late, and the king’s condemnation of the bloodshed in Syria is likely to win him some political points at home. But given Saudi Arabia’s behavior toward its own nonviolent uprising, and its recent assistance to regional allies in crushing domestic revolts, its support for the Syrian opposition itself is likely to be ambivalent at best.

Interestingly, though, the opposition in Syria is probably better off without support from the outside, for two reasons. First, material aid from the outside can further divide the movement, undermining its unity. Some people currently involved in the resistance may be reluctant to accept aid from an outside power with whom they disagree. Add money to the mix, and you’re likely to get lots of infighting. Second, in Why Civil Resistance Works, we find that participation is key to successful nonviolent resistance. The more people involved, the better. But if potential participants get the sense that the movement is funded from the outside, they are likely to stay home rather than participate. Why would they risk their necks for a movement that has a steady stream of revenue from an outside source? The influx of cash could create the classic free rider problem. Syrian oppositionists seemed to grasp this and other risks, as evidenced by their reported rejection of U.S. funding offers.

Fortunately, our research also finds that outside support is not critical to success. In the aggregate, material aid from an outside state neither helped nor hurt civil resistance movements around the world (based on data from 1900 to 2006). Fewer than 10% of nonviolent resistance campaigns during that time period received material support (financing), while over 50% of them succeeded in their aims of regime change, anti-occupation, or self-determination.

What about regimes that continue to support Assad? The most important source of support to Assad’s regime, Iran, will stand by him until the bitter end. Because Iran is already such a pariah in the international system, there is little that can be done to alter Iran’s preferences in that regard. We don’t have many carrots or sticks left to persuade Iran to change. But in Why Civil Resistance Works, we found that even when regimes solicit their allies to help crush nonviolent uprisings, they aren’t necessarily more successful in doing so. Therefore, despite Iran’s continued meddling, activists can still be optimistic about their chances of pushing Assad out. That said, a well-timed withdrawal of diplomatic or military support for the regime by a key player like Turkey could make a difference. We saw this in the Philippines in 1986, when Ferdinand Marcos finally abandoned his struggle to maintain power as soon as he learned that Ronald Reagan’s administration would no longer defend him.

And moral support from the rest of us always helps, insofar as Syrians can sense that we’re here.

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.