Although the impulse to try to end the ongoing repression by the Syrian regime against its own people through foreign military intervention is understandable, it would be a very bad idea.
Empirical studies have repeatedly demonstrated that international military interventions in cases of severe repression actually exacerbate violence in the short term and can only reduce violence in the longer term if the intervention is impartial or neutral. Other studies demonstrate that foreign military interventions actually increase the duration of civil wars, making the conflicts longer and bloodier, and the regional consequences more serious, than if there were no intervention. In addition, military intervention would likely trigger a “gloves off” mentality that would dramatically escalate the violence on both sides.
Even putting aside the recent historical record, however, virtually anyone familiar with Syrian politics and history can recognize the fallacy of such foreign support for the armed struggle.
Many nonviolent protesters have tragically been killed as will many more. However, proportionately a far greater number of armed resisters have been killed and will continue to be killed. The question is not whether thousands will continue to die but what is the best way for the Syrian people to overthrow the hated regime, end the violence, and bring democracy and social justice.
Violence vs. Non-Violence
The vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians engaged in the ongoing resistance against the regime are nonviolent. Some support the simultaneous armed struggle; some don’t. However, there is little question that the regime fears their ability to neutralize the power of the state through the power of nonviolent resistance more than it does armed groups that are attacking state power where it is strongest—through the force of arms. This is why the regime has so consistently tried to provoke the pro-democracy forces into violence. It has also claimed that the opposition was composed of terrorists and armed thugs even during the first six months of the struggle when it was almost completely nonviolent, recognizing that the Syrian people are far more likely to support a regime challenged by an armed insurgency than through a largely nonviolent civil insurrection.
Supporting the armed resistance with foreign military power would demoralize and disempower those in the nonviolent resistance who are daily risking their lives for their freedom. In addition, history has shown that those who are quickest to take up arms are least likely to support democracy after the old regime is toppled. Indeed, countries whose dictatorships are overthrown by armed groups – with their vanguard mentality, martial values, and strict military hierarchy – are far more likely to turn into new dictatorships, often accompanied by ongoing violence and factionalism, than dictatorships overthrown by primarily nonviolent methods.
Some proponents of Western intervention cite the “success” of Libya as a precedent for Syria. Not only are there still serious questions regarding the necessity of armed struggle and foreign intervention in that case, Libya hardly constitutes a good model of a democratic transformation. Unlike the peaceful and relatively orderly transition to democracy going on in neighboring Tunisia, where largely nonviolent actions toppled the hated Ben Ali dictatorship in January of last year, Libya is struggling with rival armed militias fighting each other for the spoils when they aren’t tracking down and summarily executing suspected supporters of the old regime.
Even if one wants to count Libya as a “success” for foreign intervention, however, there are important differences between the two countries:
Although Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi during his final years had largely alienated virtually every segment of Libyan society, the Syrian regime still has a strong social base. A fairly large minority of Syrians – consisting of Alawites, Christians and other minority communities, Baath Party loyalists and government employees, and the crony capitalist class that the regime has nurtured – still back the regime. There are certainly dissidents within all of these sectors. But the regime will only solidify its support in the case of foreign intervention.
The Baath Party is organized in virtually every town and neighborhood. No such organization existed under Gaddafi. Unlike Iraq’s Baath Party, which Saddam Hussein ruled with an iron fist in a matter reminiscent of Stalin’s takeover of the Soviet Communist Party, the Baath Party is far more than President Assad. It has ruled Syria for nearly 50 years. And with an ideology rooted in Arab nationalism, socialism, and anti-imperialism, it could mobilize its hundreds of thousands of members to resist the foreign invaders. Hundreds have quit the party in protest of the killings of nonviolent protesters, but few defections could be expected if foreigners suddenly attacked the country.
The United States and Syria
The history of U.S. relations with Syria makes the United States a particularly inappropriate advocate for military intervention.
On the one hand, the Syrian regime has at times supported U.S. foreign policy goals in the region, such as suppressing Palestinian and leftist forces in Lebanon in the mid- to late 1970s, contributing troops to the U.S.-led “Desert Shield” operation in 1990 following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, supporting a coup against a pro-Saddam Lebanese prime minister that same year, providing intelligence and other support against al-Qaeda and other extremists, supporting tough anti-Iraq resolutions while on the UN Security Council, and becoming a destination for “extraordinary rendition” of suspected Islamist radicals captured by the United States.
Overall, however, the U.S.-Syrian relationship has been marked by enormous hostility. The United States has backed the right-wing Israeli government in its illegal occupation and colonization of southwestern Syria, which Israel invaded in June of 1967, despite offers by the Syrian government to recognize Israel and provide security guarantees in return for a full Israeli withdrawal. Indeed, in 2007, the United States effectively blocked Israel from resuming negotiations with Syria.
U.S. Navy jets repeatedly attacked Syrian positions in Lebanon during 1983-84 and U.S. army commandoes attacked a border village in eastern Syria in 2008, killing a number of civilians. The United States imposed draconian sanctions on the country in 2003, refusing to lift them until Syria unilaterally halted development of certain kinds of weapons systems already possessed by such U.S. allies as Israel, Egypt, and Turkey. A nearly unanimous bipartisan bill, which passed Congress that same year, made the ludicrous assertion that Syria represented a threat to the national security interests of the United States and that Syria would be “held accountable” for what it referred to as “hostile actions” against Americans. Passage of this bill led the late Senator Robert Byrd to warn that Congress was building a case for military action against Syria.
With this kind of history, U.S. military intervention would simply play into the hands of the regime in Damascus, which has decades of experience manipulating the Syrian people’s strong sense of nationalism to its benefit. The regime can point out that the United States is the world’s primary military supplier to the world’s remaining dictatorships, including the repressive monarchy in Bahrain, which brutally suppressed an overwhelmingly nonviolent pro-democracy struggle last year with few objections from Washington. It would not be difficult for Assad and other Syrian leaders to assert that the United States doesn’t care about democracy in Syria any more than it does about democracy elsewhere in the Middle East but is using the “promotion of democracy” as an excuse to overthrow a government that happens to oppose Washington’s hegemonic designs on the region.
The Power of Nonviolent Action
Recent history has shown that armed struggles are far less likely to be successful than nonviolent struggles, even against dictatorships, since it makes defections by security forces and government officials less likely, reduces the number of active participants in the movement, alienates potential supporters, and gives the regime the excuse to crack down even harder by portraying the opposition as “terrorists.” Indeed, empirical studies note that primarily nonviolent movements against dictatorships are more than twice as likely to succeed as armed struggles. It just doesn’t make sense for the United States or other foreign powers to throw their support to the deadlier and less effective wing of the anti-regime resistance.
The best hope for Syria is that continued protests, strikes, and other forms of nonviolent resistance, combined with targeted international sanctions, will cause enough disruption that powerful economic interests and other key sectors currently allied with the Alawite-led government would force the government to negotiate with the opposition for a transfer of power to a democratic majority. Indeed, this is the scenario that eventually forced an end to another notorious minority regime, that of South Africa.
Talk of military intervention can only benefit the regime and weaken the force that is far more likely to end the tragic violence and bring forth a new democratic Syria: that of civil society and the power of nonviolent action.