Saving the nonviolent revolution in Syria: For a credible strategy

Sadek Jalal al-Azm et al , Sunday 26 Feb 2012

How to get rid of Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Asad while holding onto the non-violent character of the Syrian revolution - a proposed strategy

Demonstrators gather during a protest against the Syrian regime in Binsh near Idlib February 24, (Photo: Reuters).

1. A clear objective: ending the dictatorship: As the world is drawn to the meeting of the Friends of Syria in Tunisia, it remains at a loss on what to do to end the killing. For a year now, a dominantly nonviolent popular revolution has been demanding the resignation of the dictator and his replacement by a democratic regime. It has not succeeded. As the country’s death toll near the 10,000 mark, many more are in prison, and the nonviolent character of the revolution is giving way to the revolutionaries  - civilians or defecting soldiers - increasingly taking up arms.  As the deadlock persists, the question is how the revolution can succeed without losing its nonviolent character. It is a dilemma shared by the Syrian opposition in its most expressive manifestation, the Syrian National Council, as well as the supporters of the revolution worldwide, including millions in the Arab world and leaders and societies of the larger democracies.

The goal must be to replace the dictator.  Left in place, Asad will continue to murder his own people.  He will also send a signal to all others like him that the way to win is to shoot nonviolent protesters and hang on to power at all costs.

No less important is the means to end the dictatorship while honoring all the sacrifices made in the spirit of nonviolence, and the establishment with the least possible bloodletting of a new governance in Damascus.  The West has inadequately noticed the depth and strength of the nonviolent movement across the Middle East- a movement with roots in Gandhi and the legacy of the civil rights movement in the US, the example of Eastern Europe in 1989 and in Serbia in 2000, but one that also has a genesis of its own in the Lebanese Cedar Revolution of 2005-6 and the Iranian Green Revolution in 2009.  In fact, the Arab Spring of 2011 takes it name from the Damascus Spring, which developed considerably in Syria over ten years ago, until Bashar Asad ruthlessly destroyed it, sent his thugs to disrupt meetings, and imprisoned its leaders, many of whom had already spent years in jail under the cruel dictatorship of his father. 

2. Recognising Nonviolence. Responsible in large part for the removal of Mubarak and Ben Ali in early 2011, nonviolence as belief and practice has had extraordinary traction in a region wrecked with continuing violence for over a hundred years.  Of the thousands who died in the Syrian government’s murderous campaigns, the massive majority was mowed down in cold blood as they persisted in nonviolent action, echoed in the words, “peacefully, peacefully,” that have spread across the Middle East in 2011. Nowhere has the determination and sacrifice in the name of nonviolence been more remarkable than in Syria.

Thousands have walked into the jaws of death, trusting that their acts would bring about the basic rights and governance they deserve. Meanwhile, a bloody regime gloats and persists, putting the lie to nonviolence not only in Syria but in every land that takes the lesson – that nonviolence fails when repression rules - from its course. It is beyond the time to act. Between the first nonviolent protest of the women of Damascus in Marja and the children of Deraa in mid-March 2011, and the success of the revolution, the world has been derelict in its duty to protect Syria’s nonviolent heroes. The moment of last resort international coercion to ensure this success has come.

What support can the world give the nonviolent protestors? Perhaps paradoxically the answer is a buildup of a coercive strategy that threatens the apparatus of repression in Syria with violence used in ultimate instance if the regime doesn’t stop the killing. Given the continued veto by Russia and China of a major source of legitimacy at the Security Council, other sources of legitimacy must be sought. Communist China and Putin’s Russia must be defeated by a moral imperative that builds its strategy as legitimately as current institutions allow.

Some legitimacy will derive from deliberation.  A coalition of those governments willing to stop the killing of unarmed demonstrators, including those in NATO and the Arab League who have already expressed support for ending the dictatorship, should build up military force in a gradual, staggered manner that would permit widespread consultation, discussion, and even protest. On the diplomatic front, governments can act individually and collectively to enhance the international and domestic representativeness of the opposition, especially the Syrian National Council (SNC). The presence of the SNC in Tunisia underlines an ever closer process of consultation with the opposition that can lead the way to an ever growing distance from the current government by as many countries as possible.

Willing countries can accelerate the process of delegitimizing Asad by surrendering the Syrian embassies to the SNC as a far more legitimate representative of Syria than its present envoys. This measure will also promote defections in those embassies and in the Syrian diplomatic services. Should governments decide that giving up the embassy is too much under international law, they can provide serious logistics to help the SNC be the dominant voice on the world scene. They will be comforted by the groundswell of support for Syrian bravery and suffering by the Middle Eastern and Western public at large.

In addition to official government recognition and support to the nonviolent opposition the leading parties from both the government and the opposition can help. Political party leaders across the political spectrum can meet with designated representatives of the SNC and offer them headquarters, logistical and media support, and a meaningful humanitarian corridor to the heart of resistance in Syria. All this support must be made openly, with an insistence on ever stronger support the longer the SNC’s message of nonviolence prevails.

3. A Coercive Strategy: Deliberation and diplomacy may not be sufficient, however. As the crimes mount in Syria, the need to protect the nonviolent demonstrators and the civilian population at large requires teeth.  Although the status of Responsibility to Protect remains imprecise in international law, Syria’s nonviolent revolution presents both a test case and a formidable occasion to set new standards for dictatorships whose murders mount into the thousands to become crimes against humanity. The killers in Syria will be tried, but they must first be removed from power.

A more coercive strategy accomplishes three goals:

First it demoralizes the dictator. His hope for prevailing through the continued use of force against unarmed citizens will be undermined when his apparatus of repression sees a growing international coalition commanding a formidable force of last resort.

Second, it demoralizes the core of the army and the bureaucracy. By demonstrating the illegitimacy of the regime and making it clear that it will not prevail, it encourages soldiers and officers to desert and to link their future with a growing civil opposition.  Particularly in conjunction with increased diplomatic delegitimization of the Syrian foreign office and sanctions on the leading financiers of the repression, the gathering mobilisation encourages the domestic Syrian bureaucracy to express its disquiet in various ways, from resignations to establishing open or secret bridges to the opposition. 

Third, it gives hope to the nonviolent movement and encourages them to persist. The opposition can then pursue peaceful strategies knowing that its actions will have results and that the regime will be defeated and its leaders tried. This will happen through the increasing certainty of an impending end of the regime. Only in the worst case and in the last resort, force might be needed, and it can be applied selectively and gradually. 

If the exercise of outside force is at some point required, it must in the best case be legitimated by the Security Council.  In the next best case it would be legitimated by 1) a substantive application of the Responsibility to Protect by the Friends of Syria, 2) a combination of extensive consultation within the coalition and the opposition, with demonstrations of various sorts of domestic and international measures to assist civilians and end the killing, 3) the enhanced recognition of the opposition  as the one group that cares for the Syrians 4) the moral act itself of holding back till the last possible moment, and 5) the justice and appropriateness of the acts of force if and when they are exercised. The likelihood is high that massive violence will not be needed.  But only a credible coercive strategy developed by the opposition and its backers worldwide ensures that the dominant nonviolent characteristic of the revolution compels its success. The alternative is defeat or a Libya-style turn of events. Both would destroy the growing universal right to nonviolence from Damascus to Beijing, and bury its millions of upholders in the old practice of brute force.

Sadek Jalal al-Azm is the leading public intellectual of Syria and is emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Damascus. Jane Mansbridge is Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values at Harvard Kennedy School. Chibli Mallat is a Lebanese lawyer and law professor, and the Chairman of Right to Nonviolence, an international NGO based in the Middle East.



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