Why the Syrian Rebels Should Put Down Their Guns

Nonviolent organization has a better chance at unseating Assad's regime than an armed uprising.

Syria Feb7 p.jpg

A member of the Free Syrian Army gestures during a patrol in the western border town of Zabadani / Reuters

It is remarkable how quickly we've forgotten about nonviolence in Syria. Only a few months ago, the White House was testifying unequivocally in favor of nonviolent protest, rather than armed opposition, against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime's awful crackdown. Even today, President Obama eschews military intervention. Yesterday, Yahoo News' Laura Rozen offered the views of four experts on moving forward in Syria. While one doubted the efficacy of arming the opposition, none advocated nonviolence. When blogger Jasmin Ramsey wrote up a rundown of the debate over intervention in Syria, nonviolence wasn't even mentioned.

There are reasons for this. No one is going to march around Homs singing kumbaya while the Syrian army shells the city. It is correct to believe that Syrians have the right to defend themselves from a state that is attacking them. Certainly international military intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, and arguably Libya saved a lot of lives. Why should Syrians not be entitled to protection? Isn't it our responsibility to meet that expectation?

First on protection: the responsibility belongs in the first instance to the Syrian government. The international community is not obligated to intervene. It may do so under particular circumstances, when the government has clearly failed to protect the population. I don't see a stomach for overt intervention in the U.S. Nor do I think the Arab League or Turkey will do it without the U.S., as Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests.

If the violence continues to spiral, the regime is going to win.

The Syrian government has not only failed to protect, it has in fact attacked its own citizens, indiscriminately and ferociously. Self-defense and intervention are justified. The question is whether they are possible or wise, which they do not appear to be.

The Free Syria Army, an informal collection of anti-regime insurgents, is nowhere near able to protect the population. Their activities provoke the government and its unfree Army to even worse violence. It would be far better if defected soldiers worked for strictly defensive purposes, accompanying street demonstrators and rooting out agents provocateurs rather than suicidally contesting forces that are clearly stronger and better armed. A few automatic weapon rounds fired in the general direction of the artillery regiments bombarding Homs are going to help the artillery with targeting and do little else.

Violence also reduces the likelihood of future defections from the security forces. For current Syrian soldiers weighing defection, it is one thing to refuse to fire on unarmed demonstrators. It is another to desert to join the people who are shooting at you. Defections are important -- eventually, they may thin the regime's support. But they aren't going to happen as quickly or easily if rebels are shooting at the soldiers they want to see defect.

But if you can't march around singing kumbaya, what are you going to do? There are a number of options, few of which have been tried. Banging pans at a fixed hour of the night is a tried and true protest technique that demonstrates and encourages opposition, but makes it hard for the authorities to figure out just who is opposing them. The Arab variation is Allahu akbar called out for 15 minutes every evening. A Libyan who helped organize the revolutionary takeover of Tripoli explained to me that their effort began with hundreds of empty mosques playing the call to prayer, recorded on CDs, at an odd hour over their loudspeakers. A general strike gives clear political signals and makes it hard for the authorities to punish all those involved. Coordinated graffiti, marking sidewalks with identical symbols, wearing of the national flag -- consult Gene Sharp's 198 methods for more.

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Daniel Serwer is a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a Scholar at the Middle East Institute. He writes regularly at peacefare.net.

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