Syrian activists and intellectuals have recently been defending the non-violent character of the revolution in the face of calls for armed struggle against the Assad regime. Nine months after the first protests and sit-ins erupted in Syria, more than 5,000 have been killed, tens of thousands injured, tortured and forced into exile, while at least 15,000 souls languish in prisons under horrifying conditions.
The following lines are a contribution to the defense of the non-violent nature of the Syrian revolution from two angles: one political, the other practical.
The Revolution as a Constitutive Act
Much can be said about the causes of the revolution, its characteristics, extent, ability to mobilize, and the rhetoric adopted by some of the groups participating in or representing it politically. But this is not our purpose here. Rather, we seek to identify what the revolution has been able to achieve in Syria thus far, due to its peacefulness character and the great diversity of those participating in its activities: These achievements include:
—The destruction of the barrier of fear in an act of collective liquidation of the control of authoritarianism.
—The victory of popular initiative, and revealing the naked truth about a regime that has no coherence beyond repression and no policy apart from the security apparatus.
—Reconstruction of the public space, which was for decades banned by the emergency law and [Ba’thist] political hegemony, as an inalienable right of citizenship. This includes reading, writing, publishing, holding meetings, taking to the streets, issuing statements, forming and belonging to organized bodies and committees, as well as adhering to the right of free choice and the principles of accountability.
—Consolidating national affiliations over narrow and primordial loyalties, with declarations of solidarity among towns and cities subjected to successive war crimes, and restoring the political, emotional, and social fabric that has been systematically fragmented by despotism.
—Spurring minds to participate in an artistic competition to satirise and thereby dismantle the symbolic fields of despotism that confer an aura of leadership and image of firmness so vital to the tyrant.
—Transforming virtual social networking space (particularly Facebook) into a large “sit-in for the revolution” where the resurgent nation can discuss, agree, disagree, and which joins Syrians at home, “underground” or abroad together in solidarity.
— Continuously expanding popular participation in and geographical scope of demonstrations.
—Promoting the involvement of women as leaders, comrades, writers, and citizens, who thereby seize their rights from both the regime and patriarchal society. Even if temporary, a transformation has occurred that can be sustained as an “unexceptional” phenomenon.
Amidst this and much else, a popular revolution that is not the property of any age group, gender, sect, or region has reconfigured Syria and its future. It has gradually weakened the regime and transformed it into a terrified killing machine incapable of defeating or controlling or its “enemies”. Hundreds rally to bid each martyr farewell, thousands stand in solidarity with their neighbors, and each procession swells to include tens of thousands.
The Revolution and the Shortest Path to Ousting the Regime
Against the above and the capacity of non-violent action to mobilize an entire nation, a shift to armed struggle will eliminate broad popular participation, limiting involvement to fighters and young men bearing arms.
It would also mean a withdrawal of the revolution from the public space to the private, dragging it toward a confrontation with the regime on its home turf, the arena where it most comfortably exists and acts.
The question of practicality identified in the introduction requires an evaluation of two matters beyond the issues of participation, its forms and dimensions. These are the balance of military power and the impact of armed conflict on Syria. Today neither appears today to be in the interest of the revolution. There will not be a swift, decisive victory if revolutionaries take up arms, and the regime will not fall without extensive fighting, and a loss of life and livelihood so exorbitant it would eliminate the basis for future stability and a common national project. There is additionally what we might term the “economics of the conflict”, consisting of the entry of various players with different agendas, as well as the emergence of a parallel society in Syria with long-lasting lines of demarcation that would eventually transform into sectarian ones.
On this basis, it does not seem—today, at least—that the regime will be toppled more quickly if armed struggle is adopted. Nor would such a strategy forge a new political and national consciousness around which Syrians could subsequently unite. Those who state they can no longer accept death as their daily fate are entirely correct. Yet while taking revenge against murderers might salve animosities and hatreds for a day or two, it will neither stop the killing nor, short of a massive influx of weapons and extensive training, succeed in breaking its machinery. The time required might not be any less than that needed to force out the regime peacefully, by causing it to choke economically—bankrupted financially and isolated diplomatically—while documenting the regime’s crimes in preparation for the prosecution of its members. Militarization will also shift the leadership from civilian citizen bodies to militant groups, giving a basis of legitimacy to combatants in the stage after the fighting, and complicating the process of democratic transition.
Non-violent action is therefore not only a superior choice politically and morally, but also the more pragmatic option, one that favors the revolution and the revolutionaries. Yet despite this, and despite sincere efforts to preserve and protect the non-violent character and culture of the revolution, and despite the revolution’s overwhelming continuation along these lines, its peacefulness has become endangered.
The regime is doing all that it can to uproot it, targeting prominent non-violent activists with brutal harassment add torturing some to death—illustrating, simultaneously, the extent of both its anger toward and fear of them. The regime is no longer able to think or plan beyond the temporary, and the blood soaked.
Army defections are likely to increase steadily. The refusal of soldiers and officers to carry out orders to kill their own people is a good thing, but will lead to more localized clashes.
These developments, therefore, mean that the situation might exceed the management capabilities of “citizen control”. What is therefore required are additional efforts domestically, and increased pressure from abroad, to cut ties with the regime, sanction it and those who cooperate with it, and use every available legal method to protect civilians from its brutal oppression.
In any case, all that any of us has, along with a renewed conviction about the favorability of nonviolence as the means for change, is an affirmation of continuing to support the revolution and its choices, without turning a blind eye to what may happen in the future to its practices and beliefs. Salvation from the regime remains the objective and the absolute priority. Turning this grisly page of Syrian history is an accomplishment that has no parallel in terms of importance, no matter the cost.