Why the Syrian Rebels Should Put Down Their Guns

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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.

The point is to demonstrate wide participation, mock the authorities, and deprive them of their capacity to generate fear. When I studied Arabic in Damascus a few years ago, I asked an experienced agitator friend about the efficacy of the security forces. She said they were lousy. "What keeps everyone in line?" I asked. "Fear," she replied. If the oppositions resorts to violence, it helps the authorities: by responding with sometimes random violence, they hope to re-instill fear.

Could the Syrians return to nonviolence after everything that's happened? As long as they are hoping for foreign intervention or foreign arms, it's not likely. Steve Heydemann, my former colleague at the United States Institute of Peace, recently suggested on PBS Newshour that we need a "framework" for arming the opposition that would establish civilian control over Free Syria Army. This is a bad idea if you have any hope of getting back to nonviolence, as it taints the civilians, making even the nonviolent complicit in the violence. It's also unlikely to work: forming an army during a battle is not much easier than building your airplane as you head down the runway.

What is needed now is an effort to calm the situation in Homs, Hama, Deraa, and other conflict spots. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is visiting Damascus, could help. The continuing assault on Homs and other population centers is a major diplomatic embarrassment to Moscow. The opposition should ask for a ceasefire and the return of the Arab League observers, who clearly had a moderating influence on the activities of the regime. And, this time around, they should be beefed up with UN human rights observers.

If the violence continues to spiral, the regime is going to win. They are better armed and better organized. The Syrian revolt could come to look like the Iranian street demonstrations of 2009, or more likely the bloody Shia revolt in Iraq in 1991, or the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1982, which ended with the regime killing thousands. There is nothing inevitable about the fall of this or any other regime -- that is little more than a White House talking point. What will make it inevitable is strategic thinking, careful planning, and nonviolent discipline. Yes, even now.

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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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