The Syrian opposition’s great mistake


Published: Feb 12, 2012

AS THE Syrian opposition abandons non-violent protest for armed resistance, many people think this means that President Bashar 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. Assad’s father, Hafez 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 Assad 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.

Nonviolent 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.

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