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Gibson writes: "R2P states that a country has a responsibility to protect its people from genocide and ethnic cleansing, and that should a country fail to stop such violence, the state no longer retains its sovereignty and the international community has the responsibility to intervene in order to protect that nation's people."

File photo, the Free Syrian Army. (photo: Manu Brabo/AP)
File photo, the Free Syrian Army. (photo: Manu Brabo/AP)

Syria: Where Revolution Goes Wrong

By Carl Gibson, Reader Supported News

06 September 13


(Part 1 of a 3-part series investigating how violence has corrupted nonviolent attempts to overthrow regimes)
"Those who make nonviolent revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." – JFK

n early 2011, the Arab Spring protests rocked the Middle East, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt, where millions took to the streets demanding democracy, equal rights for minorities, and an immediate end to the corrupt, oppressive regimes that had been abusing their power for decades. The Arab Spring came to Syria in February and March of 2011. The Syrian uprising was, at first, nonviolent in nature, as hundreds of thousands filled the streets in Syria's major cities. However, the Assad regime quickly cracked down by mass arresting, beating and killing protesters.

Assad soon escalated his violence, and his regime has been directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrians, and the displacement of millions who have since fled to refugee camps in Turkey. This May 2012 report by the Alwaref Institute alleges that the Assad regime's shelling and bombing of cities with airstrikes and heavy artillery, shooting of unarmed civilians by heavily-armed tanks and gunships, and torturing of hospitalized protesters are all war crimes under international law, and as such, require action by the international community under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. R2P states that a country has a responsibility to protect its people from genocide and ethnic cleansing, and that should a country fail to stop such violence, the state no longer retains its sovereignty and the international community has the responsibility to intervene in order to protect that nation's people.

Independent journalist Anna Therese Day has spent considerable time in Syria, and last year authored a Shorty Award-nominated report for VICE Magazine called Gunrunning with the Free Syrian Army. In the report, Day accompanied an FSA colonel who defected from Assad's army when the mass killings began. The colonel had two main complaints: that Western governments had abandoned the Syrian people in spite of mass genocide and brutal killings of protesters, and that because of the absence of help from Western governments, the Syrian people have had to depend on the military might of jihadists like the group Jabhat Al-Nusra. The jihadists fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army have the much different objective of establishing a theocratic Islamist government, whereas the FSA's objectives are more along the lines of establishing a democratic and accountable secular government.

"Academic studies show empirically that civil resistance is more effective than armed resistance," Day told me in a Skype interview from Madrid. "But it's difficult to expect people to adhere to these ivory tower principles, even if in the long-term it will be more effective, when they are being attacked and need to defend to their families."

Erica Chenoweth, an International Studies professor at the University of Denver, is author of the book "Why Civil Resistance Works." In a February 2012 presentation at Dartmouth College, she explained how she was originally skeptical that nonviolence could accomplish major political goals, and decided to place very strict limits on which nonviolent campaigns she would credit with achieving major political goals. Chenoweth focused only on campaigns where there were more than 1,000 active participants using a majority of nonviolent tactics like boycotts, strikes, and street demonstrations over a small period of time. She also studied only nonviolent campaigns that were focused on achieving extremely difficult goals like regime change, removing an occupying military force, or seceding territory.

Chenoweth found that between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent campaigns were twice as effective as violent campaigns, and that in that time period, nonviolence became an increasingly effective strategy for achieving major victories, whereas violence became increasingly ineffective. Chenoweth's research on violent campaigns found that their strategy was limited to simply getting as many people with as many weapons as possible and challenging the state head-on through either direct warfare or guerrilla tactics like sabotage and assassinations. Chenoweth's research found that for a violent campaign to be effective at either ousting a regime or removing an occupying military force, it had to wage a long-term struggle against the state with the aforementioned tactics to corrode the state's ability to assert power over the people, and it had to sustain its efforts over a long period of time. Because the state has a monopoly on violence, with more resources at its disposal, those violent campaigns had a very small rate of success.

However, Chenoweth discovered that nonviolent campaigns, with the various tactics at their disposal, were much more successful. They could attact a vast multitude of diverse people, and so were able to sustain a long campaign aimed at accomplishing specific strategic goals. Nonviolence succeeded where violence didn't: the OTPOR movement's ousting of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia; the Arab Spring's ousting of Ben Ali in Tunisia. A nonviolent campaign can use leverage to remove all pillars of support for an oppressive regime or an occupying military force.

Anna Day says her reporting in Syria has forced her to re-evaluate her anti-war positions after seeing firsthand the brutality of the Assad regime and the indifference of Western governments who could have made a significant difference had they intervened a few years ago.

"We certainly have the economic leverage with Russia between the US and the EU to demand that Russia bring Assad to the table," Day said. "A political solution doesn't guarantee stability in the form of a US-installed government or a US-friendly dictator so we never threw our weight behind the UN and Arab League's efforts."

In the wake of a Senate panel voting this week in favor of bombing Syria, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) plans to vote NO when the bill comes up in the House. He says the only appropriate action for Syria's internal civil war should be done in accordance with the international community.

"We keep saying that 98% of the people in the world live in a country that signed an international treaty on chemical weapons," Rep. Pocan said in an interview outside the Wisconsin state capitol. "But we forget to say that in that same treaty, the remedy is to go the U.N. I hope we still consider that moving forward."

Regardless of whether or not the US chooses to intervene with either humanitarian aid or airstrikes, Anna Day says that the Assad regime is likely to win out against the violent campaign to oust him. She says she's troubled by the Obama administration's unilateral plans for intervention, and other plans that have been discussed to arm rebels with more sophisticated weaponry.

"Assad controls most of the country and won back major key swaths in August, so this notion that he doesn't have legitimacy anywhere simply isn't true," Day said. "It's debatable if the rebels – not the cause of the Revolution, but the rag-tag leadership of the armed resistance – have any legitimacy at all, even among anti-Assad civilian elements."

Carl Gibson, 26, is co-founder of US Uncut, a nationwide creative direct-action movement that mobilized tens of thousands of activists against corporate tax avoidance and budget cuts in the months leading up to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Carl and other US Uncut activists are featured in the documentary "We're Not Broke," which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. He currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin. You can contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , and follow him on twitter at @uncutCG.

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