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The Syrian Resistance: A Tale of Two Struggles

In Syria, mixing violent and nonviolent resistance jeopardized people power, particularly when violence became the main driver of resistance from early 2012 onward.

It is a tragedy of history when so many people regardless of sect, ethnicity, religion, and gender join in nonviolent resistance to demand freedom for all, and achieve so much with so little during such a brief time, only to have their accomplishments go largely unrecognized, and their struggle devolve into a fight with oppression on its own violent terms – as if these could be complementary to nonviolent resistance, an effective method to protect people, or a proven instrument to defeat a brutal regime. This happened in Syria.

The recent book Recovering Nonviolent History finds that a number of nonviolent campaigns in national liberation struggles were overtaken by violent resistance. One major reason for abandonment of civil resistance in favor of armed struggle is not understanding what civil resistance can achieve, and with what benefits for a people’s liberation. The narrative void about civil resistance during ongoing conflict is often filled by armed insurrectionists with their own ideologized discourse, which tries to discredit the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance and underestimates the costs of violence. How this happened in Syria is the story that follows.

Part I: Nonviolent and violent conflict

Civil resistance

The impact of the nonviolent resistance in Syria – before it was largely overshadowed by an armed uprising in early 2012 – was tremendous. It mobilized hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of until-then apathetic citizens, produced hundreds of “leaders” from people who were mostly unknown except locally, united diverse cross-sections of the Syrian population, both rural and urban, as no other internal struggle since the anti-colonial period, and shook and weakened Baathist one-party rule.

Widespread, organized, yet non-hierarchical, nonviolent resistance succeeded in weakening the power of the regime to a degree that armed resistance (notably in Hama in 1982), a few valiant souls from an intellectual elite (such as the signatories of the Damascus Declaration in 2005), and one ethnic group isolated in their armed rebellion (the Kurds in 2004) had all failed to accomplish. All this was achieved while the ranks of civil resisters were being decimated by massacre and detention, and when they had to undergo a mounting humanitarian crisis.

Protesters hit the streets in mass numbers on March 18, 2011, in Daraa, Banyas, Homs, and Damascus. Banyas protesters reached out to the city’s large Alawite population, singing “Peaceful, peaceful-neither Sunni nor Alawite, we want national unity,” In Damascus, protesters underscored multi-sectarian unity by holding up a sign with a cross and crescent and the words “No to repression, Yes to freedom,” while an earlier protest on March 15 in Damascus had featured a voice with a coastal Alawite accent saying, “We are Alawites, Sunnis, people of every Syrian sect, and we want to topple this regime.”

Alawite symbol of double-pronged sword, cross, crescent, and star with national flag colors, carried by protesters in Tal, (mostly Sunni town in Damascus countryside), April 2011.

Killings of unarmed protesters backfired on the regime. In one video uploaded on March 23, 2011 in Dara, a man shouts, in a desperate voice, to armed troops,

Some of you have honor – don’t shoot! You have brothers & sisters, you have brothers – your daughters – your mothers & fathers in your town – they’re just like us, don’t shoot! …This earth is big enough for all of us! You don’t have the right anymore to take all of it for yourselves!

Scenes like this in the months of nonviolent resistance countered the regime narrative that “armed gangs” were driving the resistance.

Protests spread to Salamiya, hub of Syria’s Ismailia Shia population. Misyaf, a town with large Christian and Alawite populations alongside Sunnis, was another early multi-sectarian protest locale. Chilling scenes of peaceful protesters suppressed by troops in Dara caused Muntaha Atrash, daughter of a national hero from the anti-colonial struggle, to reprimand the president by name on Orient Television (owned by a secular, non-Islamist Syrian in the Gulf) in her quavering elderly voice, declaring outright that the regime narrative was false and refuting its accusation of sectarianism. The civil resistance group Pulse (Nabd), begun by Alawite activists, emerged in Homs by summer; a Kurdish nonviolent group Ava, formed around June 2011; women were at the vanguard of a nonviolent protest series organized in Salamiya, called The Street Is Ours (al-Share Lana).

Non-sectarianism shone during Syria’s most massive rally, of an estimated 400,000 in Hama’s Clock Tower Square in July 2011, full of scenes of cross-religious embrace, women’s participation, and nonviolent conduct. This broad-based appeal would have hardly been possible, had not the uprising been unarmed.

With the regime insisting it was battling “armed gangs,” protesters clapped and raised both hands while marching to show that they were not hiding weapons. In Daraya, Yahya Shurbaji popularized the nonviolent concept of “fraternization,” whereby in order to make human contact with regime soldiers and soften their hostility or perhaps even motivate their defection, protesters distributed water and flowers to soldiers at protests.

By April, protesters in many towns had begun to self-organize, forming a non-hierarchical structure of local committees which sprang up all over Syria to coordinate nonviolent resistance. As regime detention swept and relentless violence took members, resistance groups dissolved and regrouped under new names. With similar adaptability, protesters innovated dodge-and-feint street tactics. Wael Kurdi, an Aleppo University student, developed a “flying protest:” protesters gathered on the agreed-upon street after announcing a fake location on government-monitored phone lines, marched and video-taped for eleven minutes, dispersed and hid or destroyed banners before security arrived, and went to safe-houses to upload the videos.

Dodge-and-feint tactics enabled protesters to protest another day, as did marching in narrow alleys rather than open squares on the Egyptian model, and holding protest signs backward over their heads, so faces in videos could not be identified. Street protests, whose number rose to 920 different locations in one week in the nonviolent phase and declined to fewer than 300 during the autumn 2011 when violent resistance began mounting, played an important role not only in publicizing the movement’s message but in giving people a personal sense of empowerment, long absent under the police state. One young activist, “Rose,” expressed why protesters did not stop demonstrating, even knowing they could be killed: “We do other activism, but we will not stop demonstrating: to taste freedom, if only for ten minutes!”

Narratives of defectors from the regime cite its targeting of lethal force on the unarmed and innocents as a key factor that broke the grip of loyalty to the regime. Massacres of unarmed protesters and the death in regime detention, under apparent torture, of Hamza Khatib (reportedly thirteen years old) were specifically recalled by the first defecting Alawite officer of record, Afaq Ahmad, who worked in the Dara branch of Air Force Security. Ahmad defected days before Hamza’s mutilated body was returned to his parents on May 24, 2011.

The regime responded to its defection problem by introducing snipers and tanks, among other tactics, to reduce contact between soldiers and protesters. This, however, did not stop defections, which occurred in this phase mostly among conscripts although a handful of officers defected. Some at the army defectors’ camp in Turkey would form the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Reports of field execution of attempted defectors proliferated. In response to defections, Assad began using only three of his army’s twelve divisions, the three manned by Alawites, to force the sect to retrench around the regime. A number of high-level military defections occurred after violence spiked at the end of 2011 – though in some cases advanced preparation for defecting occurred during the nonviolent resistance phase – but these defections were increasingly by Sunnis. This set the stage for the violent polarization of Syrian society.

That the government kept responding to nonviolent protests with violent means was frequently asserted by observers as an indication of the failure of nonviolent resistance in Syria, with the concomitant assertion that nonviolent actions could succeed only when a regime behaved humanely. Yet evidence suggests that, while it lasted, nonviolent resistance was in fact a powerful weapon against the Assad regime, forcing it to be on the defensive, react to events, and commit mistakes that often backfired, leading to more resistance and solidarity across diverse groups.

Armed rebellion

Besides formal regime forces, the government allowed armed loyalist militias to kidnap, loot, rape during home invasions, and traffic women to rape farms. The existence of these roving informal militias contributed to the belief that armed defense was necessary and could protect people against these violations. Reportedly the regime itself saturated certain areas with arms, to push protesters into becoming the “armed gangs” which it claimed to be fighting from the outset. Many brigades at this stage were native to local communities, making them accountable.

Peaceful protests continued but with fewer participants: many former protest locales were becoming unsafe. In some instances, the protests occurred, according to participants, only because armed rebels helped barricade areas against regime troops. This “protection” was short-term, as the presence of a brigade drew increasingly indiscriminate and more powerful regime fire – including later airstrikes – to such areas. This triggered calls for arming the rebels with more powerful weapons, rather than returning to nonviolent resistance.

The trickle of foreign fighters beginning in late 2011, who entered Syria on their own or with support of foreign governments, further jeopardized unarmed resistance and reinforced the mutation of the overall conflict into civil war. Amazingly, it was during this period of increasing violence on both sides that those who remained committed to nonviolent resistance achieved new levels of creativity and organization. Some three dozen revolutionary newspapers, many of them distributed in hard copy on the ground (some highlighted here), emerged. In September 2011, Freedom Days Syria emerged as a coalition of dozens of nonviolent resistance groups. Members of groups in this coalition implemented new, highly creative nonviolent resistance methods.

For example, several young underclasswomen at Damascus University released thousands of small papers from the highest dorm tower, containing messages of freedom and human rights, causing regime security agents to be assigned to using all their security training for the job of picking up the subversive litter from campus grounds for days, and pursuing the activists for three weeks. This led, on November 3, 2011, to the 23-day detention and torture of then eighteen-year-old Yaman Qadri, young mastermind of the scheme, which caused a ripple effect as her diverse classmates demonstrated for her, and were themselves detained, spurring more protests not only in Damascus but in their respective hometowns across Syria. Nabd, a nonviolent group in Homs formed initially by Alawite activists in spring 2011, redoubled its behind-the-scenes efforts at conflict resolution among Alawite and Sunni villages and city neighborhoods.

The Syrian Revolutionary Youth group, active in Homs and Damascus, was launched in May 2012 and spearheaded both nonviolent direct actions and socio-economic organizing in direct rebuttal to the claims that “the revolution has become totally militarized and that there is no room for peaceful protest.” So, too, the Stop the Killing campaign that lasted from April to July 2012 and held at least 26 demonstrations in diverse geographic locations, drawing in many minority members, was an attempt to refocus energies toward nonviolent resistance after militarization had become the dominant resistance.

Meanwhile, civilian structures on the ground in Syria were working toward unified self-governance. Unity did not come to fruition on a national level, but reached the next, community-centered, level: Regional Command Councils (in Damascus, Homs, and so on) integrated many aspects of resistance work: the underground clinic system, an alternate economy, schools, media, and transportation; in effect, they created alternative local governance.  Local Free Syrian Army units had liaison on each council, in an attempt to bring armed rebels under civilian leadership. Councils thus integrated both civilian and armed flanks.

Eventually, mixing violent and nonviolent resistance jeopardized people power, particularly when violence became the main driver of resistance from early 2012 onward. Assad redoubled his military efforts and could then show his supporters and neutral Syrians that he was their only protector against violent extremists. Armed struggle also helped Assad to foster skepticism about the revolution among Christians, Alawites, and other communities – something that he could not achieve during the first months of resistance. The populace now faced daunting conditions in many cities and towns. Nonviolent activists remained engaged in civic organizing but, often, in the form of full-time relief work, operating field hospitals and distributing basic goods to displaced populations, and educating displaced children.

When armed resistance fully overtook civil resistance during 2012, it gained exaggerated influence over the outside world’s view of the Syrian conflict. Once the revolution embraced using violence, the only way it seemed possible to prevail over Assad was to acquire more arms. Because the fate of any armed resistance that is weaker than its adversary is necessarily determined by external assistance in the form of weapons, army training or air strikes, the door is opened to all the negative consequences that stem from outside military involvement. By contrast, nonviolent resistance does not historically need military intervention to prevail. It might welcome help from external civil society groups, but what it needs most of all is the force of its own mobilized citizens. Such struggle comes with fewer overall costs for the society and greater self-control over the internal trajectories of the resistance and its eventual outcomes.

As Dr. Erica Chenoweth and Dr. Maria Stephan reported in their groundbreaking quantitative research (reported in Why Civil Resistance Works, Columbia University Press, 2011), substituting armed struggle for civil resistance is likely to make the success of resistance half as likely, even against the most brutal of regimes. No doubt, nonviolent civil resistance can fail. But the same research showed that violent resistance failed in more than 60% of cases happening in a 106-year period, 2.5 times more than civil resistance.

Moreover, as this research showed, it takes violent resistance against brutal regimes an average of nine years to run its course, but only three years for nonviolent resistance to succeed or fail.

Part II: Aborting a revolution

Nonviolent resistance dominated the Syrian conflict only for less than one year – under one-third of the average duration needed to produce results. Given the destructive force of violent conflict in Syria now, any additional year of violent struggle means tens of thousands more lives lost and more of the nation’s infrastructure in ruins. Even failed nonviolent resistance costs much less in lives and property destroyed, while the probability of democratization is still much greater through people power than with even a victorious violent resistance.

Finally, no major genocidal act is known to have happened during mass-based nonviolent struggles. The same cannot be said about violent conflicts, including civil wars. Had this information been known widely among revolutionary Syrians in 2011, would the turn to civil war have been as ineluctable as it appears in hindsight? Instead, different beliefs and calculations were in the driver’s seat.

Four fatal beliefs

What can be learned from a clear-eyed evaluation of the Syrian nonviolent resistance? We think it is important to understand the movement-centered factors that victimized and degraded civil resistance amid rising armed struggle:

The belief that armed protection will help defend civil resistance

Osama Nassar, a nonviolent advocate who helped to create Daraya’s Local Coordination committee said in October, 2011, that those who became convinced of the need to bear arms “believe arming will protect people from getting killed in demonstrations and shelling of towns, but it will multiply civilian casualties by tens of thousands,” collapsing the false logic that “arms protect.”  Short-term and immediate protection against a home invasion or rape or neighborhood sniper could in fact be achieved by armed resistance but only for a limited time and with little overall protection extended over the whole community. Consequently, armed protection came at a collective price exacted by the regime, resulting in more civilian losses in the long run as whole neighborhoods were demolished in pitched battles between armed combatants.

In reality, civil resistance, while imposing significant costs on the regime and faced with brutal repression, saved many lives when it lasted, as the following figures illustrate. During the first five months of nonviolent civil resistance (mid-March to mid-August, 2011), the death toll was 2,019 (figures exclude regime army casualties). In the next five months (mid-August 2011 to mid-January 2011) mixed violent and nonviolent resistance saw the death toll climbed to 3,144, a 56% increase. Finally, during the first five months of armed resistance (mid-January 2012 to mid-June 2012) the death toll was already 8,195, a staggering 161% increase in comparison with the casualties during nonviolent struggle.

The regime also felt no longer constrained in the use of its deadly chemical weapons and frequent use of air strikes after the uprising became armed. There are no known cases of death by air strikes, for example, when the resistance on the ground was driven by the widespread protest chants of “Silmiye, silmiye” (“peaceful, peaceful”). The supremacy of nonviolent resistance over its armed counterpart in lowering the costs in human lives, and by extension in overall costs for the society when faced with a ruthless adversary, was ignored when, feeling immediate danger as well as high emotions and affinity with defecting soldiers, people turned to armed rebels to protect them.

The belief that the regime would fall in weeks, based on the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences.

Activists interviewed say that many of them held high hopes based on the successes of nonviolent protests in Tunisia and Egypt, which resulted in the ouster of the heads of those regimes within weeks of large street demonstrations, followed by the opting of soldiers not to use violence and ultimately the generals’ decision to desist from it. The absence of planning for a protracted, even years-long, nonviolent resistance may have led to directing full energy initially to the primary tactic of street demonstrations – the regime’s repression of which often justified the calls for armed protection of nonviolent protesters – to the detriment of less spectacular underground organizing of institutional networks of liberated communities, to which the civil resistance turned only after months of initial struggle.

In hindsight, one of the weaknesses of nonviolent resistance was a lack of anticipation, planning and preparation for gradual defections that would not bring about the quick collapse of the regime. Had that been anticipated, it might not have paved the way for the emergence of the “protective” violent flank that eventually took over the resistance. A frequent argument during the transition to armed resistance was, “Where should defectors go, and where can they put down their arms? They will be killed, unless they form a rebel army.” This argument was flawed on its very premise: that a resort to violence protected people, as if the probability of being killed decreased with participation in violent resistance. This belief was proven wrong. It was the nonviolent community of organizers and activists that could have offered – both through their networks and nonviolent actions – much better chances of saving lives of the defecting soldiers.

The belief that the Syrian regime was uniquely brutal, and the related lack of knowledge of nonviolent struggles in other countries as well as in Syria decades before.

The Syrian regime was not atypical in its proclivity to violence, yet youthful revolutionaries isolated from the facts about other countries’ histories believed that Syrians faced an exceptional brutality from the Assad regime. Few if any knew that the Shah of Iran killed 600 nonviolent demonstrators in Tehran on one day alone, September 8, 1978 and that Mubarak’s police and other protectors hesitated little before gunning down 900 protesters during 17 days of demonstrations in 2011 – more than twice the casualties in Syria during the first two and a half week of nonviolent protests. The question is not the willingness to kill – which every dictator possesses – but his capacity to sustain the killing. The goal of civil resistance is to weaken a regime’s capacity to such a degree that, as in Iran or Egypt, the regime is no longer able to rely on its bureaucracy, business sector, armed forces or other pillars of support.

Syrians who favored armed resistance claimed that the American colonists had armed for their liberation, failing to notice that Americans engaged in 10 years of nonviolent resistance against the British prior to armed struggle, and the Revolutionary War, triggered by the arrival of a massive British military force on American shores, created desertions away from the rebel side and undermined colonial unity while earlier nonviolent resistance had broadened its social base. Some Syrian nonviolent groups and activists, in stressing sectarian unity, didn’t see the double-edged sword of celebrating the multi-sectarian solidarity of an armed nationalist struggle. They touted the Syrian stand against the French in 1925 – a violent struggle that failed – while ignoring an astounding episode of nonviolent struggle: the General Strikes of 1936 (one of the longest in the human history) that united sectarian communities and achieved significant concessions from the French.

The belief that sectarian loyalties would inhibit unarmed resistance and necessitate violent conflict.

One argument for armed struggle was the perception that the sectarian complexion of the regime inhibited a high level of defections from the security apparatus – that Alawites would remain loyal due to strong internal ties. While the regime pursued pernicious sectarian tactics to make Alawite civilians into human shields, latent sectarian discourse surfaced on the revolutionary side, showing a failure to understand the pressures on the Alawite community and to plan ways to make their defections more feasible.

In the history of revolutions, shooting at the other side has never increased chances for defections. Sectarian discourse by extremists such as exile Adnan Aroor was also allowed to develop in the name of unity against the regime, with the dangers it represented not adequately addressed early on. Many nonsectarian nonviolent activists believed that even mentioning religion was itself sectarian, and this hampered the effort to stem sectarianism. Whether or not the initial nonviolent resistance, despite its non-sectarianism, ultimately failed to win majorities of Christians, Alawites, and other components of Syrian society, what is sure is that armed rebellion aggravated these divisions and inhibited the breadth and strength of the resistance coalition.


Civil resistance in Syria, while it dominated, was strategically effective against the Assad regime. When this method was used by hundreds of thousands of Syrians, the regime became uncertain of the loyalties of its supporters. In contrast, armed struggle neither offered effective protection to the population, nor placed the resistance in a strategically more advantageous position vis-a-vis Assad than the nonviolent resistance had. The degeneration of the conflict from nonviolent to violent force was not inevitable and might not have been eventual, had the established benefits of civil resistance been better known. Instead, the real gains of civil resistance were never assessed, before being overcome by the myth of the power of the gun, and later by hope that external military intervention could resolve the conflict, even though such intervention has been frequently shown to be incapable of assuring human rights, safeguarding civilians and ending civil wars.

Civil resistance still continues in Syria today despite the prevalence of insensate violence. The armed resistance that led to the disproportionate escalation of violence by the regime, led to multiple humanitarian catastrophes and the use of chemical weapons. But nonviolent activists are now focusing on building alternative services and institutions in communities. Their work may help restore social bonds and citizens’ networks even though the strategic effects of nonviolent resistance have been marginalized by civil war.

As we write this, the Syrian regime has been constrained by US and Russian diplomacy to agree to surrender its chemical weapons to the United Nations. While this may stall any decisive outcome in the civil war, it may also illuminate any ongoing brutality by the regime, leading perhaps to more assertive criticism by international parties, and perhaps offer space and time for civil resistance to regenerate. But that is only a possibility. Probabilities are always shredded by violent conflict, except the probability that freedom and justice will be postponed.

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