Gwynne Dyer: The Syrian opposition’s great mistake
As the Syrian opposition abandons non-violent protest for armed resistance, many people think this means that President Bashar al-Assad and his Baathist regime are in even deeper trouble than before. On the contrary, it means that Assad and the Baathists are winning.
The Baathists know how to destroy armed resistance. Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, crushed the armed uprising of 1982 with massive military force, destroying the city of Hama and killing between 10,000 and 40,000 people in the process. He got away with it, stayed in power, and died peacefully in his bed 18 years later.
This time, the focus of the Baathist regime’s attention is the rebel city of Homs, only an hour’s drive south of Hama, and it is clearly willing to do the same thing there. The people around Bashar believe they’ll get away with it this time too—and they may be right.
The Arab League can pass a resolution demanding that Bashar hands over power to a deputy at once, and that the Baathists form a “unity” government with the opposition within two months, but Syria’s rulers simply shrug it off. The Arab League is not going to send troops to Syria.
Besides, the Baathist leadership comes mainly from the Alawite community, a Shia Muslim minority that accounts for only ten percent of Syria’s population. About 70 percent of Syria’s people are Sunni Muslims, as are the governments in all the other members of the Arab League except Iraq and Lebanon. So the Syrian Baathists think that the League’s resolution is merely intended to drive Syria’s Shias from power, and they just ignore it.
A comparable resolution by the United Nations Security Council will never happen, because Assad’s Russian and Chinese friends will veto it again if necessary. And even if such a resolution were passed, no Western country is going to send troops to intervene in Syria either. The country is too big and the regime is too well armed: this is not another Libya.
So Assad’s calculations all have to do with how the confrontation plays out in Syria itself. In that context, it is greatly to his advantage that the opposition is turning to violence. Violence is much easier to defeat than non-violence.
It’s a quarter century since non-violent movements began driving oppressive regimes from power: the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea, East Germany, the Soviet Union, Chile, South Africa, Serbia, Georgia, and most recently Egypt, not to mention a dozen others. By now, everybody on both sides of the barricades has the playbook. The tactics of the protesters are governed by strict rules—and the regimes also know and understand those rules.
Non-violent protesters have a whole menu of actions they can take to undermine the regime’s authority: mass demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins, stay-at-homes, and much more. They also have a strict rule never to use violence against the regime and its servants—not because the protesters are pacifists, but because non-violence works better.
It gets better results because if the protesters avoid violence, it is almost impossible for a dictator to unleash all the force at his command. The regime’s troops and police will kill a few protesters each day, or even a few dozen, but they are psychologically deterred from mass killing because the protesters pose no direct threat to them.
Whereas if the protesters do attack the regime’s security forces, the soldiers and police are released from this inhibition and will use extreme violence to “protect” themselves. If physical force is what decides the confrontation, the regime almost automatically wins, because the force it can deploy is so much greater. As soon as the protesters throw the first brick or fire the first shot, the balance of power shifts radically in favour of the regime.
Nowadays, dictators understand this, and do everything in their power to provoke their opponents into using violence. The Syrian protesters resisted this pressure for months, clinging bravely to non-violence despite a relentless toll of deaths and injuries inflicted by Assad’s regime. But then some of the regime’s troops, sick of killing their own people, deserted from the army—and they took their weapons with them.
Once the “Free Syrian Army” started fighting back, the internal pressure on Assad’s regime lessened dramatically. Its claim that it was fighting “armed terrorist gangs” gained some credence, especially among Alawites, Christians, Druze, and other Syrian minorities who fear Sunni Muslim domination in a democratic Syria. And the willingness of the security forces to use really large-scale violence grew, because now they were scared for their own safety.
It is a disaster for the Syrian opposition: their death-toll has now risen to hundreds each week, but the deaths have less moral impact because they are happening in what is becoming a mere civil war. Ugly and destructive though that will be, Assad’s regime has a better chance of survival now than it did when the protests were strictly non-violent.