Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
While much of the focus of the conflict in Syria has been on violent tactics used by the opposition movement, armed resistance is not the only choice. Many highlight the success and strength of the nonviolent tactics used in the beginning months of the conflict. War News Radio’s Sabrina Merold spoke to Dr. Stephen Zunes, an expert on US Middle East policy and strategic nonviolent action.
MEROLD There isn’t a single armed Syrian resistance movement. It’s fractured. It includes over a thousand different militias, sincere nationalists, and extremists directly affiliated with Al-Qaeda. But it didn’t start that way. The resistance movement in the over two and a half year Syrian civil war was initially a nonviolent and non-sectarian movement with a broad support base. Although the nonviolent opposition faced severe violent repression from the Syrian regime, for a time the movement was able to maintain nonviolent strategies. The Syrian regime is currently still violently repressing the opposition but now the opposition is an armed and sectarian movement. Civilian deaths have increased and participant support has decreased. Maybe it doesn’t have to end that way. Would the Syrian opposition movement be able to strategically transition back to nonviolent strategies of resistance and if so would the movement be successful? Dr. Stephen Zunes believes both are possible.
ZUNES I think on pragmatic and utilitarian grounds there will be this recognition that they were actually doing better despite the repression during the nonviolent phase of the movement, as they had more people involved, there were higher rates of defection from the Syrian regime, and they had more sympathy internationally. Nonviolent strategies would be the strategic choice and would make a lot more sense to be used in order to have a greater chance of bringing down Assad and creating a more representative, pluralistic Syria.
MEROLD That’s Dr. Stephen Zunes, a Professor of Politics and International Studies and the chair of the program in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco. As an expert on US Middle East policy and strategic nonviolent action, Zunes understands the Syrian opposition movement faces many obstacles in brining down the Syrian regime. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown by violent civil war. In Tunisia and Egypt, Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were deposed non-violently. But in all three of these conflicts, the opposition movement only faced the power of a single ruler. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the head of a powerful oligarchy comprised of head military officers, societal elites, and Baath Party officials with a presence in almost every neighborhood. But, Zunes says, that just makes violent rebellion a bad strategy.
ZUNES If you are fighting a government that has a relatively broad base of support you’re going to need to get a broader base of support and what nonviolent action has shown repeatedly is that you get more people involved in the struggle, allowing you take advantage of the powers you have in numbers whereas the regime has their strength in their use of military force.
MEROLD Zunes recognizes the Syrian regime has used credible force and severe repression against protesters, gunning down nonviolent demonstrators using snipers and helicopter gunships. At the same time, the strength of the nonviolent resistance lies in its ability to maintain nonviolent behavior, even when met with violent repression. In order to survive repression from the Syrian regime, Zunes says the nonviolent movement must look beyond simply leading demonstrations and strategically chose nonviolent resistance that does not expose protesters on the streets.
ZUNES The nonviolent movement would need to figure out what are the pillars of support of the regime, the Baath Party, the crony capitalists that are being developed etc., and how do you target those. You could use strikes and boycotts against the crony capitalists and others that support the regime, as in many ways withholding one’s support like in the previous number of successful general strikes that really shut down a part of the country, really sent a powerful message. I think the resistance could build on those and it could be really helpful if the nonviolent resistance again used small or quick actions where people are there and disperse since there is the reminder that there is resistance. This could power people to join in.
MEROLD Until the opposition movement transitions to utilizing nonviolent strategies of resistance, Zunes believes the United States’ decision to arm and fund the opposition was a poor strategic choice, rewarding the violent movement and sending the wrong message. In his opinion, the only role the international community should play in the conflict is supporting the nonviolent Syrian opposition through solidarity work.
ZUNES I think this could occur in a number of ways including passing on knowledge about the history and dynamics of strategic nonviolent action and there could be some practical support as well in terms of laptop computers and cellphones and other kinds of communication. Generally the United States needs to make it clear that we support the nonviolent resistance not out of a geo-political thing where our dictatorships are okay but we’ll overthrow dictatorships we don’t like but out of a belief that dictatorship is wrong wherever it is and how whoever they are aligned with, there remains basic universal human rights that should be respected. People who are struggling for these rights should be supported again regardless of the government’s relations with the United States.
MEROLD Zunes feels that the broad base of support for the opposition movement was shattered during the transition to violent strategies. This led many Syrians to hunker down in order to survive, instead of actively protesting and supporting the movement. Although he calls for a strategic return to nonviolence, he does not anticipate a sudden transition to Gandhi like pacifism. Zunes believes a Syrian opposition movement leading a strategic nonviolent campaign against the regime, would increase support, increase international sympathy, and increase rates of defection from the Syrian regime. This has the potential to finally bring substantial change in Syria.
For War News Radio, I’m Sabrina Merold.