Against Assad and Against Intervention

There's a misleading headline at The Daily Beast this morning: "Syrian Opposition Against New Kerry-Lavrov Plan to Avoid Strike." There are indeed, as the article says, "members of the Syrian opposition who view [U.S. military] strikes as a needed boost in their two-and-a-half-year struggle against the government." But contrary to the headline's implications, they are not the entire opposition, as Rania Khalek reports at Al Jazeera:

Much of the debate over U.S. intervention in Syria boils down the conflict there to a clash between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and an armed rebellion in which al-Qaeda affiliates play a significant role. Typically ignored in that conversation are the voices of the non-violent opposition movement that took to the streets to challenge Assad in March 2011, and which has persisted against great odds.

"No matter how beleaguered it is, civil resistance continues," says Mohja Kahf, a Professor of Middle East studies and literature at the University of Arkansas and a member of the Syrian Non Violence Movement (SNVM). A network of peaceful groups remains active in opposition to the regime inside Syria, their activities plotted by SNVM on an interactive map that can be viewed online.

Although it was the activists in such groups that originally drove the nationwide uprising against the Assad regime, these days much of their activity involves triage, mitigating the impact of the civil war and building the capacity for self-governance in towns no longer under regime control....

Ending the war through diplomatic means, says [Rim] Turkmani, is the only way to weaken both the Assad regime and the al-Qaeda-linked groups because it will open up a space for the non-violent resistance that initiated the uprising to reassert itself.

It's a balanced article that quotes both supporters and opponents of American intervention (and concedes that many activists are ambivalent about the issue). Meanwhile, Truthout has published an interesting interview with the Syrian exile Nader Atassi, who lays out two ways outside military intervention could be bad for his homeland:

I think how this specific intervention will ultimately affect the makeup or dynamics of the revolution depends on the specific scope of the US strikes. If the US strikes the way they are saying they are going to, that is, "punitive," "limited," "surgical," "symbolic" strikes, then this won't leave any significant changes on the battlefield. It may, however, give the Assad regime a propaganda victory, as then it can claim that it was "steadfast against US imperialism." Dictators who survive wars against them have a tendency to declare victories simply on the basis of surviving, even if in reality they were on the losing side. After Saddam Hussein was driven out of Kuwait by the US, Saudi Arabia and others, he remained in power for 12 more years, 12 years that were filled with propaganda about how Saddam remained steadfast during "the mother of all battles."

If the strikes end up being tougher than what is currently being discussed, for one reason or another, and they do make a significant change on the battlefield, or do significantly weaken the Assad regime, then I think the potential negative effects will be different. I think this will lead to a future Syrians won't have a hand in determining. The US may not like Assad, but they have many times expressed that they believe that regime institutions should remain intact in order to ensure stability in a future Syria. In short, as many have noted, the US wants "Assadism without Assad." They want the regime without the figure of Assad, just like what they got in Egypt, when Mubarak stepped down but the "deep state" of the military remained, and just like what happened in Yemen where the US negotiated for the president to step down but for everything to remain largely the same.

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  • Libertymike||

    FoE, first?

  • sarcasmic||

  • ||

    How long you been saving that?

  • sarcasmic||

    Considering it's comic number 1258 out of 1262, not long.

  • ||

    So, like, 4!

  • Libertymike||

    Not on this thread!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Why would anyone want to be first on a non-Links thread?

  • Libertymike||

    FoE, listen, even the 18-0 New England Patriots went down.

    You can't be No.1 all the time.

  • Virginian||

    Ah yes, hand wringing exiles.

    If you want a secular and democratic government in Syria, you're going to have kill all the Baathists and jihadis first. Power comes from the barrel of a gun.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Ah yes, hand wringing exiles.

    The article quotes people currently in Syria as well as exiles.

  • Virginian||

    Yeah, and one of the guys in Syria said this

    "I believe in people power. Arms don't bring democracy."

    Which is just retarded. That's what made democracy possible in the first place: an armed citizenry, who fought in the wars that they voted for, in defense of their polis.

    Another well meaning fool: "The Syrians I met didn't like these foreign fighters,"

    Alright, so what are you going to do about it? Because the guys who post their beheadings to YouTube don't care if you like them or not.

  • John||

    Yeah. The guys who kill people are generally not popular. But you know what, it doesn't how popular they are. If you have weapons and the will to use them and no one else does, you are going to be in charge no matter how much everyone else doesn't like it.

    It amazes me how western journalists constantly assume that because someone is unpopular they are not in charge.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Which is just retarded. That's what made democracy possible in the first place

    Worth a read.

  • John||

    Come on Jesse. You are my favorite writer on Reason. But nonviolent resistance only works if you are dealing with people who no longer have the will to shoot you.

  • Virginian||

    I am not arguing that NVCD is not an effective way to bring about regime change.

    But violence can indeed establish democratic government, and to claim that it cannot is simply untrue. In fact the reason democracy survived at all was that free citizens of the polis make a much more effective fighting force then conscripted masses.

  • Jesse Walker||

    John: As I'm sure you know, one aim of nonviolent resistance is to kill that will, so that, for example, soldiers start refusing orders to fire on protesters. Obviously the nonviolent crowd is losing badly in Syria right now, and I can't say I have high hopes for them making a comeback anytime soon. But it's worth making the point that military intervention can undermine their position still more.

    Virginia: Sure, of course violence can establish a democratic government. But it's also true that a mostly nonviolent revolution is more likely to produce a freer and more democratic society than a more violent revolt. That is one reason -- one of many reasons -- why I'm pessimistic about Syria.

  • John||

    As I'm sure you know, one aim of nonviolent resistance is to kill that will, so that, for example, soldiers start refusing orders to fire on protesters

    Yes. But generally that only works if they don't have a lot of will to start with. It is lot easier to kill people than it is to die.

    The problem is that once the government starts shooting people, it is committed. Its leaders and worse still the rank and file who pulled the trigger, know once they do that, they are going to end up hanging from a lamppost if they lose. So once you cross that threshold, it is really hard to go back.

    It is a complex equation. Some of the most brutal regimes in history, Communist Romania for example or the Shah's Iran, have had their military and police forces lose the will to fire and thus lost power. Other regimes like the Chinese go merely on for decades willingly killing anyone who dissents. I honestly can't tell you what makes one group lose the will to kill and the other not.

  • Robert||

    I can tell you. They have to run out of "others" to kill. As long as there's a supply of persons differently situated from themselves, the will to kill lives. And it doesn't take much for those persons to be differently situated. In very poor societies, if your military unit has pillows to sleep on, you'll shoot the people who don't because they may try to snatch them from you.

  • Irish||

    John: As I'm sure you know, one aim of nonviolent resistance is to kill that will, so that, for example, soldiers start refusing orders to fire on protesters.

    Okay, but this is a very West-centric way of thinking. In much of the world, soldiers have no qualms about murdering civilians and will do so without a second thought. There is no way that government forces under Assad would have any problem butchering civilians.

    People in relatively 'Western' countries, a group which I'd argue includes Japan, South Korea, and, to a lesser extent, parts of South America, tend to be wealthier and more affluent and have the moral sense that comes with wealth, education and affluence. In Africa or much of the Middle East, no such affluent morality exists and you are much less likely to find soldiers who will stand down because shooting civilians is 'immoral.'

    The reason non-violent transitions lead to better outcomes is probably because of the TYPE of country that wouldn't simply murder all the resistors. If you have an autocratic government that is nonetheless unwilling to commit such atrocities, you're probably well on your way to a Democratic transition already.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Okay, but this is a very West-centric way of thinking.

    Not really. There's plenty of examples of Third World countries where nonviolent tactics have been successful. Bangladesh, Mali, Mongolia, even Haiti—not the world's richest societies.

  • John||

    It is not so much West Centric as non tribal. Getting people to kill people of other tribes in tribal societies is really easy. And governments in tribal societies know this and use it to their advantage. The cops in one area, are always from a different tribe.

  • Irish||

    That's an interesting study, Jesse, but I do have one question:

    According to the study, countries that transition through non-violence are more likely to end up free than countries that transition through violence. This only counts the countries that successfully transition though. What about all of the countries that attempt to employ non-violence and are then violently subjugated by a military that has no qualms about killing unarmed civilians?

    It seems to me that those groups don't count, which very well might skew the results in favor of non-violent resistance despite the fact that there are many instances where non-violent resistance fails horrifically. If people tried to non-violently resist in a place that was occupied by Nazi Germany, they just would have killed them all and there would have been no transition.

  • John||

    According to the study, countries that transition through non-violence are more likely to end up free than countries that transition through violence.

    That is no doubt true. But that doesn't mean nonviolence is always the method. The fact that you start with a government that is willing to tolerate peaceful protest and not just shoot people Tienanmen Square style, makes it a lot easier to transition to Democracy. But that fact doesn't make nonviolence any more viable of an option if you start with a government that is willing to shoot people.

  • Irish||

    That is no doubt true. But that doesn't mean nonviolence is always the method.

    Obviously. That's why my last paragraph is all about the propensity for violent governments to simply suppress non-violent uprisings.

    Orwell talked about this in his article about Gandhi. He points out that there could be no Gandhi in an area controlled by Nazi Germany because they'd simply have him killed. He only succeeded because the British weren't willing to murder a non-violent resistor. Non-violent resistance only works if there is a government that, for whatever reason, won't just murder its own people.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    -He points out that there could be no Gandhi in an area controlled by Nazi Germany because they'd simply have him killed. He only succeeded because the British weren't willing to murder a non-violent resistor

    I am a fan of Orwell and have heard his lines on that subject many times, but I am not sure I am sold, at least totally. I do not buy that the English at that time were a priori against slaughter and the German Nazis were for it. The dynamics of the movement seems to matter.

  • Robert||

    Tianenmen Sq.'s not a good example, because that can happen even in free, democratic societies. Kissinger was right about that one. See also the bonus marchers.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Of course there was some nonviolent resistance to the Nazis, and that resistance saved some lives, though it obviously wasn't enough to bring the regime down.

    Anyway, to your point: I don't think nonviolent resistance is some sort of magic bullet (or magic non-bullet) that always works, and naturally there are plenty of examples of civic resistance movements getting nowhere. Of course, there are also plenty of examples of guerrillas getting nowhere too. And there have been times when nonviolent rebels succeeded after a long period of violent rebels failing to win. (See this discussion, for example.) But this particular study is only about post-revolutionary outcomes, not revolutionary successes; it wasn't set up to address those questions.

  • John||

    Jesse,

    There is no question that the longer and more bitter the revolution is, the worse the outcome for the country. The biggest break America got was that the British gave up and went home after a fairly short struggle for independence. In contrast, the Spanish stayed and fought for decades in central and South America. And those countries turned out much worse and were left with dysfunctional cultures and governments because of it. War, especially civil war does terrible things to your society.

    If there is any way to avoid a long protracted armed struggle, you should do it. Sadly, it often seems unavoidable.

  • Killazontherun||

  • Libertymike||

    You killed it.

  • Killazontherun||

    I never got the concept that being ruled by a plurality of my most politically active (thus busy body) neighbors is superior to being ruled by a guy who inherited the family business. The bourgeoisie, of which I'm a satisfied member, thrived and came into being under those arrangements; whereas in the former, we have been under a constant assault by hippies, communist, public sector parasites, labor organizers and community activists through out this previous century, and all of whom are after our wealth.

  • Robert||

    I believe freedom is won gradually, as people become more trusting of each other. So, for instance, Haiti can't do it in one fell swoop.

  • John||

    One of the biggest reasons why our State Department and really our entire political elite is so broken and does such stupid things is that they think that everyone who looks like them is automatically important in whatever country we are talking about.

    This habit really kills us in the middle east. In Afghanistan and Iraq time and time again, the DOS would listen to advice of some rich ex pat who hung out among the right people in Davos or the UN over people who were actually on the ground. Just because that guy is in a suit and talks your language, doesn't mean he knows shit or anyone on the ground cares about what he says. That guy over there who has the big beard, smells like a goat, and hasn't left his hometown in his life, is more important on the ground than all of your expats combined. The top levels of our government never understand that. They are top men. And they think only other top men are worthy of listening to. And thus, they are taken in by every fast talking hustler ex pat who comes down the pike.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Yeah for all their claims of "diversity", the last thing they want is to deal with someone truly ...foreign.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I think this will lead to a future Syrians won't have a hand in determining.

    I would have little faith in the future they choose for themselves anyway. Bad decisions plague electorates these days.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Restore the Ottoman empire. If they don't want the job, then restore the Byzantine empire.

  • ||

    What are the Assyrians, chopped liver?

  • Killazontherun||

    Plus, their name scans the best when McCain wants to change the words to a Barbara Ann to fit his world view.

  • Killazontherun||

    words to a Barbara Ann

    No preposition needed at that juncture.

  • BakedPenguin||

    No articles, either, apparently.

  • Killazontherun||

    Article, preposition, whatever. Look, if you want to nerd this up with pedantry, fine, but some of us have better things to do, like, stand around and look pretty, making this site a more pleasant experience for every one.

  • ||

    Restore the Ottoman empire. And give ProL a job as a Janissary.

  • Killazontherun||

    Hey, no one spears my buddy but me!

  • Anonymous Coward||

    "Syrian Opposition Against New Kerry-Lavrov Plan to Avoid Strike."

    Of course they are. The army deserters and Sunni jihadists would have loved to borrow the Air Force for a couple of months to years.

    Let's remember how far the goal posts have shifted:

    2011: "Assad must go."
    2012: "Okay, Assad doesn't have to go, but use of chemical weapons is a red line."
    August 2013: "We think Assad has used chemical weapons and he must, must, must be punished!"
    September 2013: "We'll leave Syria alone if they give Russia their chemical weapons."

    Look at that goalpost, disappearing off into the distance.

  • ||

    AND:

    Look at that goalpost NSA, Benghazi,and IRS scandals disappearing off into the distance.

    The dog is wagged!

  • John||

    I had a terrible thought yesterday. Suppose there is some scandal lurking out there that is so bad even MSNBC couldn't defend Obama anymore after it broke. And suppose Obama knows that it is going to break no matter what in the next year or so. Wouldn't starting a war not only distract from that but also give him the "you can't impeach the commander in chief during a hot war" card to play?

    That would explain why he is so intent on going to Congress. If he didn't, they could tack on the "fought an illegal war" charge onto the impeachment articles like they did with Nixon. And it would also make it harder for him to play the CnC card. If it is a war that Congress agreed to, arguing they can't change CnC's in the middle would be a lot more persuasive.

    I know that is a bit of paranoia. But it would explain why Obama is so intent to go to war and why he is equally intent on going to Congress for approval.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    I think the only scandal the administration was concerned about was the NSA scandal because it seemed to be cutting into his base, but I think the proposed Syria strike would do much the same so I am not sure what the angle is.

  • John||

    Maybe they thought they could whip the base into a patriotic fervor for the humanitarian cause in Syria?

    You are right, it doesn't make a lot of sense as a wag the dog tactic. But, frankly nothing they are doing right now makes much sense.

  • Cytotoxic||

    No matter how beleaguered it is, civil resistance continues

    And is irrelevant at best. The only real difference-makers are those willing to pick up a gun or aid those who do. Pacifism is evil.

  • ant1sthenes||

    In short, as many have noted, the US wants "Assadism without Assad." They want the regime without the figure of Assad, just like what they got in Egypt, when Mubarak stepped down but the "deep state" of the military remained, and just like what happened in Yemen where the US negotiated for the president to step down but for everything to remain largely the same.

    Sounds like they're applying what they learned works in the U.S.

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