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Armed Wing in Syria: To What Effect?

10 Oct

Anthony Shadid writes in the New York Times:

The semblance of a civil war has erupted in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, where armed protesters now call themselves revolutionaries, gun battles erupt as often as every few hours, security forces and opponents carry out assassinations, and rifles costing as much as $2,000 apiece flood the city from abroad, residents say.

Shadid’s headline overstates the degree to which Syria’s unarmed revolution is “spiraling” into civil war. The armed “wing” of the uprising is largely comprised of military defectors in Homs, who took their guns with them as they sought haven in civilian homes. In my estimation, Syria will not “spiral” into violence, as most people on the ground have little opportunity to take up arms against Assad’s regime; neither are they interested in taking up arms against Assad’s regime. I base this impression on discussions with some Syrian activists on the ground, as well as reports that nonviolent mass mobilization continues in many cities with no hint of civilian-initiated violence on the horizon—all this despite continual massacres by the regime against unarmed civilians.

However, it is important to know how the armed wing may affect the strategic dynamics between the popular, civilian-led nonviolent movement and the regime. Kurt Schock and I have done some research on how violent radical flanks have influenced the outcomes of primarily nonviolent campaigns. Using a data set of 108 nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006, we looked at how many of these campaigns were accompanied by contemporaneous violent movements, and whether the presence of these violent movements affected the success and failure rates of nonviolent campaigns.

The following figure is a bivariate cross-tabulation of the relationship between nonviolent campaign outcomes and the presence or absence of a violent radical flank.

What is evident here is that having an armed wing has a slight negative effect on the probability of success. However, this effect is not statistically significant—a finding that is confirmed in other statistical tests. There is definitely no evidence to support the notion that armed groups will help a nonviolent campaign. The bottom line: there is a slight tendency for armed wings to reduce the success rates of nonviolent campaigns, but this reduction is not common enough for there to be a real pattern from which to draw inferences.

Of course the most troubling possibility is that the armed wing will reduce the movement’s chances of success. Why might an armed wing reduce the probability of success for an unarmed movement? There are a few reasons. First, and most important, is that the emergence of an armed wing can reduce popular participation in a nonviolent campaign. See the following figure:

This figure shows that nonviolent movements without armed or “radical” flanks are much more likely to boast large numbers of members than campaigns with radical flanks. And as Maria Stephan and I show in our book Why Civil Resistance Works, participation is absolutely critical in the success of nonviolent campaigns.

Second, developing an armed wing can give the regime the pretext it needs to escalate widespread repression against all opponents—nonviolent and violent. Part of Assad’s propaganda has focused on how the uprising is comprised of armed gangs seeking to disrupt public order and destroy Syrian society. Such propaganda has heretofore seemed totally ridiculous, even among many security forces who have chosen to defect to the movement’s side. For a regime where loyalty within the security forces is crumbling, adopting armed struggle or an armed defense wing can actually reverse these trends in shifting loyalties. Security forces generally don’t surrender themselves to armed “traitors,” and Assad’s rhetoric may seem less crazy to the security forces when they suddenly find themselves under attack by their former comrades.

B. H. Liddel-Hart, who interviewed Nazi generals responsible for the German occupations throughout Eastern and Western Europe, observed the following:

[The Nazis] were experts in violence, and had been trained to deal with opponents who used that method. But other forms of resistance baffled them—and all the more in proportion as the methods were subtle and concealed. It was a relief to them when resistance became violent and when nonviolent forms were mixed with guerrilla action, thus making it easier to combine drastic repressive action against both at the same time. [1]

The armed wing in Syria will probably not be the deciding factor in whether the revolution succeeds or fails. If Assad falls, it will be because hundreds of thousands of unarmed protestors have withdrawn their cooperation from the regime; because security forces refuse to obey orders to crack down on unarmed protesters; and because business elites within the country will pressure Assad to abandon his post. It would help if a prominent member of the Alawite community would come forward and denounce the violence that Assad has perpetrated against peaceful demonstrators. It might also help if the international community figured out a way to give Assad a golden parachute out of the situation.

In sum, having an armed wing is risky, but not necessarily decisive. The armed wing won’t help the nonviolent movement in Syria. However, as long as the movement remains mainly nonviolent in nature, the campaign may succeed regardless.


[1] B. H. Liddel-Hart, “Lessons from Resistance Movements: Guerrilla and Nonviolent,” in Adam Roberts, ed., Civilian Resistance as a National Defence (Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1968), p. 205.









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):


Must-Reads for Rational Insurgents

27 Aug

In my various travels, people have asked me outright how they can overthrow their respective governments (I’m not naming names). My answer is always the same: I have no idea how they might go about this, and I have some pretty strong ethical reasons for not wanting to make suggestions either. However, I’d be happy to recommend some readings.

Here is my current top-ten list of must-reads for those wanting to become rational insurgents:

On War, Carl von Clausewitz.

The quintessential guide to strategy, and origin of the famed dictum: “War is politics by other means.” Nonviolent resistance is politics by other means too, and, although Clausewitz doesn’t really go there, lots of the same principles apply.

From Dictatorship to Democracy, Gene Sharp.

This is the handbook for how to proceed with a nonviolent campaign. Sharp explains the fundamentals of power, strategy, and tactical choice; details the hundreds of methods of nonviolent action available to ordinary civilians; and describes lessons learned from previous conflicts.

A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall.

The authors explore how twelve historical campaigns  — from Nashville to the Ruhr Valley to Burma — have employed nonviolent methods to separate regimes from their main sources of power. Easy-to-read, and full of useful details, this book’s descriptions of the various conflicts are highly instructive. For those tired of reading, there is also a documentary film. See also Bringing Down a Dictator and Orange Revolution.

Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies, Kurt Schock.

An accessible primer on why some nonviolent uprisings succeed whereas others fail. Schock finds that successful campaigns are more resilient and tactically innovative, and he describes various case studies of how campaigns that shifted between concentrated and dispersed methods were able to avoid regime repression.

The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism, Clifford Bob.

While not exactly a handbook for insurgents, this book explains the reasons by some rebels get international support while others don’t. Bottom line: framing and marketing are key.

The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Evgeny Morozov.

A sobering account of the ways that authoritarian regimes can exploit the internet to crack down on pro-democracy uprisings. A must-read, given how generally optimistic people are about the potential for social media to be a “game-changer.”

Justice Ignited: The Dynamics of Backfire, Brian Martin.

Martin looks at why government repression sometimes backfires and other times doesn’t. Very instructive.

Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Resistance, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan.

I don’t care if it’s tacky to list my own book. Sometimes nonviolent campaigns need a little encouragement — and a good reason to avoid using violence. This book will give hope (and ammunition) to people relying on civil resistance to get what they want. We find that compelling evidence that while nonviolent resistance doesn’t always succeed, it has a much better chance at succeeding than violence.

“Spoiling Inside and Out: Internal Political Contestation and the Middle East Peace Process,” Wendy Pearlman.

In this article, Pearlman details one of the major shortcomings of many resistance campaigns: the failure to achieve unity. The article contains lessons from the Palestinian conflict on why social movement organizations should avoid fragmentation.

Why Terrorism Does Not Work, Max Abrahms.

A cautionary tale for why adopting terrorism as a strategy will be counterproductive. The main point: people misinterpret the violence. Instead of hearing you say “I want political change,” they hear “I want to kill you.” Not the best way to convince people you have an attractive vision for their future.

What are your favorite readings on strategy? Feel free to post below.


For more information, see Carter, Clark, and Randle’s online bibliography of nonviolent conflict. See also the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict’s website and the the online video game People Power, which helps activists plan, implement, and reflect on their strategic choices against hypothetical dictators. You know these sites are worth checking out, because they are blocked in China.

Divide and Rule: How Dictators Hold onto Power

25 Aug

Gregory Berger and the folks over at the School for Authentic Journalism created another fantastic video about the Egyptian revolution. This one features a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Abbas, who intimates that part of Mubarak’s strategy of maintaining power was sowing seeds of sectarian strife among the population. Watch it here:

My co-author, Maria Stephan, is fond of saying that whichever side (opposition or regime) that succeeds at dividing and ruling will ultimately win the conflict. The opposition succeeds by dividing the regime from its main pillars of support — like the army, security forces, or economic elites. The regime succeeds by dividing the opposition and causing separate factions to turn on one another.

There is empirical support for this among separatist movements too. Kathleen Cunningham had a recent article in the May 2011 issue of the American Political Science Review that finds that countries tend to offer concessions when movements are internally divided (as opposed to internally united), suggesting that regimes distribute carrots selectively and in ways that turn different factions against one another.

The lesson: dictators are afraid of united campaigns, and they will go to great lengths to sow divisions among them.

Just to Clarify: I’m Not a Pacifist

24 Aug

I have gotten some interesting feedback about my article called “Think Again: Nonviolent Resistance,” which was posted in Foreign Policy magazine’s August 24, 2011 online edition. The strongest reaction has been related to the assertion that “nonviolent resistance is the moral thing to do,” which is contained in the (somewhat unfortunate) tagline below the article’s title.

I say it’s unfortunate because it distracts people from the overall point I’m making, which is that historically, nonviolent resistance has been a more effective strategic choice than armed insurrection against authoritarian regimes. People think I’m saying that using violence is immoral, whereas nonviolent resistance is moral. The question I took on in the Think Again piece wasn’t whether using violence against Qaddafi’s thugs was moral or immoral. In fact, I don’t know if using nonviolent resistance is always the moral thing to do, and I am not very interested in that question in the first place.

Because of the tagline, I am afraid that I come across as a pacifist who looked for evidence that nonviolent resistance worked where it actually didn’t. It’s the exact reverse. I’m a utilitarian who spent four years developing a research design so that I could scientifically test the hypothesis that nonviolent resistance is more effective than violence. I was a skeptic. And I was surprised by what I found. Hence the “Think Again” part of the title.

I will go on record here as saying that I am not a pacifist. I am interested in what works. At times, I think that violence is both necessary and justified. However, based on my own research, these times seem to be extremely rare, very complex, and highly contingent.

As for whether nonviolent resistance could have succeeded in Libya, well, we’ll never know. But here are three points worth considering.

1). As I mentioned, the movement was fairly spontaneous, unlike the highly coordinated campaign in Egypt. As Peter Ackerman consistently points out, planning is an essential element to a successful nonviolent revolution. As with any battlefield, a nonviolent campaign requires extensive preparation. But as far as I can tell from news reports, Libyans began protesting in earnest around Feburary 15, perhaps inspired by events in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. By February 19th, the movement became violent in response to bloody crackdowns by Qaddafi’s regime. Four days of civil resistance doesn’t give it a very long time to work. Just ask any Egyptian activist, who struggled for years before seeing Mubarak fall, or a Syrian oppositionist who has trudged along in dangerous uncertainty for the past six months. Again, I don’t fault Libyan fighters for using violence, and I do not call into question their bravery or moral fiber for doing so. I am just arguing that they did not fully exhaust nonviolent options before they resorted to violence.

2). The peaceful part of the Libyan campaign primarily consisted of protest activity. Such tactics are visible and disruptive, but also vulnerable to repression. There are a wide variety of tactics available to such movements that are lower-risk yet irritating to the regime, as I detail here. So almost always, nonviolent movements have options when faced with repression that do not involve selecting violence. The down side is that they take time to plan and coordinate. But choosing violence carries major risks to the movement’s ability to attract wide participation, which in turn can undermine the its ability to achieve sufficient noncooperation to disrupt the regime.

3). The success of the Libyan uprising will no doubt go down in history as a success for violent insurgency. But my point #2 notwithstanding, Juan Cole has argued that there was considerable civil resistance prior to the opposition’s overtaking of Tripoli. In an August 22 interview on Democracy Now, he said:

We’re seeing a revolution coming to its final phase. We’re seeing yet another popular cascade. The reason for which the freedom fighters could enter the capital so easily—many of them just walked in or drove in and came relatively quickly to the center of the city—was because the city had already overthrown the regime. Beginning Saturday night, working-class districts rose up, in the hundreds of thousands, and just threw off the regime. So they softened up the situation for the fighters to come in. And we’ve seen this picture before. This is like what happened in Tunisia and Egypt towards the final phases of those regimes: the capital city throws hundreds of thousands of people into the downtown area to demand that the dictator depart.

h/t to Stephen Zunes for this source.

Khaled Darwish’s op-ed in the New York Times today seems to corroborate this somewhat, although the sequence of events is a bit fuzzy. I have bolded potential evidence of noncooperation in the following passage:

I saw cars filled with families from the surrounding areas stream thickly toward the Souq al-Juma area and the Tajoura neighborhood east of it, over which the rebels’ flag of independence had been raised. Rebels had flocked there from Misurata, the western mountains and other liberated towns. Around noon, a convoy of Red Cross cars drove through the city, their flags raised.

I settled into an apartment in one of the buildings, to make sure that a sniper could not come in and get up to the roof. The night before last, young men had discovered a sniper in a recently abandoned apartment in the building across the street. He hadn’t hit anyone, but they made out where he was, then climbed up there. They locked the large iron safety door, with its chains and giant locks, and left him to his fate.

Around 1 p.m., I watched pickup trucks loaded with young men as they cradled the body of a martyr — God bless his soul — and called on people to pray for him. They headed toward the Sidi Buker cemetery, or maybe the Hani one. Those cemeteries used to be monopolized by Colonel Qaddafi and his dead; now they have been put to a different use.

Just as the rebels of Tripoli have broken the Qaddafi hold on the city, they have also broken the chains of the past. Our martyrs’ names will be written in bright letters on the record book of Libya’s unbroken history.

I heard the chants of “God is great” from children and women in the mosques as I flipped between radio stations like Radio Free Misurata and Radio Free Tripoli, now in our hands after fierce fighting. I was looking for the state-controlled station, which poisoned the minds of a generation that graduated not from college, but from the nightclubs of Bab al-Aziziya, the Qaddafi compound, to sing the blasphemous praises of that unholy exterminator of his people.

The shelling continued. I heard voices and saw plumes of smoke. I heard the planes high above, and some artillery from a direction I couldn’t identify. I heard that Al Sarim Street was full of the bodies of the dead, including women and children who had fallen to snipers’ bullets and were left in the street because no one dared approach.

I haven’t been able to find any additional corroborating evidence of mass civil resistance yet in the media, but if this is true, then nonviolent resistance had a pretty important part in the “endgame” of the Libyan revolution, and as such, deserves at least some credit for the opposition’s victory. You don’t hear that too much on the news these days.

Once more, for the record: I’m a guns and bombs scholar who found a fascinating and counter-intuitive relationship between the use of nonviolent resistance and the success of mass uprisings.

I am making a utilitarian argument, not a pacifist one.


I cross-posted some of these ideas about Libya at Waging Nonviolence today. Check out the post here.

Think Again: Nonviolent Resistance

24 Aug

Check out my Think Again piece at Foreign Policy magazine.