Archive | Syria RSS feed for this section

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.

Advertisements

Wednesday Roll Call: Rational Stuff I Like

7 Sep

Al Giordano and crew announce the NYC Workshop on Organizing Journalism and Civil Resistance. Apply here.

Activists create an interactive map of the 43 prisons in Burma, where human rights and pro-democracy activists are currently imprisoned.

Israelis invoke Tahrir Square symbols and imagery in their 400,000-strong protests against wage inequality.

Syrians keep the pressure on, with more security force defections as a result.

The Diplomat’s Handbook is updated, with several new case studies available.

Activists in Tehran show disdain for the regime and break taboos by engaging in water fights. The regime blames the West.

 

 

 

Wednesday Roll Call: Rational Stuff I Like

30 Aug

Navid Hassanpour finds that you can Tweet your way to a failed revolution.

The Syrian Revolution News Round-Up provides daily updates with news, protester videos, official statements, etc., of the ongoing Syrian conflict.

Maria Stephan argues that Libya is no “model” for the region.

Stephan Zunes looks at lessons learned and lessons to avoid in Libya.

Iran tells Bashar al-Assad to tone it down.

In an editorial, the Christian Science Monitor mentions the research in Why Civil Resistance Works.

Chibli Mallat weighs in on designing democracy after revolution.

Syrian businessmen show their dissatisfaction with Assad.

Anna Hazare gets the Indian government to budge on his proposed corruption law.

Over a dozen papers on nonviolent resistance (or some variation on that theme) will be delivered at the American Political Science Association‘s annual meeting this week.

Think Again: Nonviolent Resistance

24 Aug

Check out my Think Again piece at Foreign Policy magazine.

Wednesday Roll Call: Rational Stuff I Like

23 Aug

Joshua Goldstein argues war is on the decline for good.

Verizon employees continue to strike, making Verizon start to sweat.

Juan Cole dispels myths about the rebels’ success in Libya.

Chilean students conduct thousands-strong protests to demand fair education policies.

Mary King analyzes security force defections (or the lack thereof) in Syria.

Anna Hazare continues hunger strike against corruption in India, prompting the government to offer talks.

Jay Ulfelder lays out the prospects for democracy in the Arab world.

China continues to witness country-wide protests against environmental abuses (among other things).

Gene Sharp weighs in on Syria.

Rational Insurgent gives an interview on Portland’s KBOO radio.

What Now in Syria?

23 Aug

Reuters reports the following:

Some opposition figures expressed fears that Libya’s endgame might encourage voices among the opposition calling for the arming of a hitherto largely peaceful movement in Syria.

“I fear that some in the opposition who are in a hurry to end the regime, who we have always warned against repeating the Libyan example, will say now it has been successful and resort to arms,” said Hussein, who was detained during the uprising.

“But we will resist such proposals, regardless of where they are coming from.”

Good on you, Hussein.

According to my research with Maria Stephan, resorting to violence will reduce the odds of success for the Syrian uprising by over 30%–even if a hypothetical violent Syrian uprising gets military backing from the international community (which it won’t).

Resorting to violence will also reduce the odds for democracy by about 40%.

Some movements have found it useful to make repression even more costly by switching to unpredictable methods like strikes, boycotts, go-slows, and stay-aways. These are low-risk for opposition activists, yet they keep the momentum moving. Strikes are particularly crippling and agitate the economic elites. If the security forces remain more or less united, the economic elites might be vulnerable to coercion. Apparently, the Syrian uprising is now a well-developed, national, coordinated campaign. Check out some of the innovations the campaign has implemented.

Anarchists Anonymous: Rationality Without Morality is a Bummer

8 Aug

Now, this hack into the Syrian Ministry of Defense was pretty spectacular. Here is the message Anonymous pasted, in English and Arabic, on the site:

To the Syrian people: The world stands with you against the brutal regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Know that time and history are on your side – tyrants use violence because they have nothing else, and the more violent they are, the more fragile they become. We salute your determination to be non-violent in the face of the regime’s brutality, and admire your willingness to pursue justice, not mere revenge. All tyrants will fall, and thanks to your bravery Bashar Al-Assad is next.
To the Syrian military: You are responsible for protecting the Syrian people, and anyone who orders you to kill women, children, and the elderly deserves to be tried for treason. No outside enemy could do as much damage to Syria as Bashar Al-Assad has done. Defend your country – rise up against the regime! – Anonymous

For news about Anonymous, click here. On that site, you’ll find a propaganda-ish video promoting their work:

For the last couple of days, I’ve been pondering whether Anonymous qualifies as a rational actor.

The first thing a rational insurgent will do is establish a clear set of goals. In this case, the goal appears to be total free speech–the inability of any government or any person to maintain any privacy. The rational insurgent will then survey the field of available methods by which to pursue those goals, selecting the techniques that will yield the highest return. Anonymous certainly seems to have a comparative advantage using cyberwarfare, and resorts exclusively to this highly effective strategy. Under rationality assumptions, in conflict, the incentives are generally to be maximally forthcoming with information about one’s credibility and resolve. Anonymous has clearly been forthcoming with information, releasing statements and digital media claiming and explaining different cyberattacks. So, on the surface, they’re pretty much on target as strict definitions of rationality go.

But this case is a little more complex.

First, rationality is more a process of means than ends. We simply assume that actors have goals, and make no judgments about whether the goal is crazy or sensible, right or wrong. This group’s goal is essentially anarchy. They apparently want total, free, unrestricted information, which would involve governments, corporations, hospitals, and other institutions letting go of any privacy or confidentiality. In my view, this goal is unachievable. It also violates one of the most fundamental human rights (see Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), which innumerable people have fought and died for over the millenia. And, they seem unwilling to practice unrestricted information themselves. If they were really committed to their stated goals, they’d go ahead and tell us who they were.

Second, in addition to taking down the Syrian Defense Ministry’s website, Anonymous’s compatriots Anti-Sec have also been hacking into domestic law enforcement in the United States in retaliation for the arrests of hackers affiliated with their anarchist cybernetwork (h/t to Jack D). The network claims to have “no sympathy” for the well-being of law enforcement officers in the release of their personal information, since they’ve been “oppressing” people for so long. That’s too bad. One of my family members is a cop, and he spends most of his time protecting us from folks who literally want to hurt us. He gets threatened all the time by violent suspects and has gone to considerable lengths to get his personal information removed from public records to protect himself and his family. In our system, law enforcement officers exist because we pass laws (including many that constrain their actions to guarantee something close to due process) and pay taxes willingly funding their positions. We rely on them to improve our quality of life. As indiscriminate cyberattack that fails to distinguish between legitimate targets and off-limits ones confuses people. Is the group for the people, or against them? Don’t they realize that in our system, law enforcement are civilians too? Don’t they appreciate that the very presence of law enforcement is, in part, what has assured them the quality of life that has allowed them to develop the skills they now use against law enforcement? Under rationality standards, mixed signals are a bad idea, as they distort the opponent’s perception of what the group wants. One way to mix the signals is to be indiscriminate about targeting, which makes it look like antagonism for antagonism’s sake, no matter how many communiques the group issues to explain its actions. Anonymous and its network seem to think that everybody is a potential target, whether they sympathize with their overall objectives or not.

Rationality can be tricky. A group can have a ridiculous goal but still use rational means to achieve it. But because this group has an arguably unachievable goal, uses mixed signals, and seems to be willing to throw literally everyone (except themselves) under the bus to achieve their goal, I’m not sure their stated goals are truly sincere. Instead, I think they are of the type I’d call “non-rational,” an especially perplexing type of insurgent who appears rational but is really just disrupting society for disruption’s sake.

Now that I’ve said all this, I really hope they don’t hack me.