Part I: The Failure of the Military Option
It may seem odd to speak of nonviolence in the same sentence as Syria, one of the bloodiest and most tragic destructions of a state and a culture in contemporary history. But the fact is that we are inching closer to a mainstream and politically realist understanding of nonviolence as a legitimate course of political change. This is very significant, because if in fact the major powers are beginning to acknowledge the futility of armed conflict, at least in places of a geopolitical standoff, such as Syria, then we can expect more Western support may to nonviolent resisters in the future. This in turn may inch the globe a bit closer to a nonviolent system of social change.
Why has the military option become increasingly futile in the Syrian case? Because Russia and Iran will not back down in their support of the regime, in classic geopolitical realist fashion. Meanwhile select Middle East Sunnis will not stop pouring jihadis into the conflict who are devastating Syria’s legitimate opposition. Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are dead set against the regime, and the U.S. and Israel are playing ambivalent roles that strengthen an impasse with Russia and Iran. This leaves the rest of the Western states confused and fumbling as to who or what to support, especially since their sole consensus item in recent years has been counter-terrorism, and a number of the jihadis are indeed dangerous extremists.
The situation demands that any reasonable analyst ask Reagan’s famous question. Were Syrians better off two years ago than they are now? Four years ago they suffered under a forty-year old secular but brutal state. Two years ago, however, there was a country alive with the Arab Spring, tens of thousands demonstrating everywhere, and the power and moral advantage seemed to be with a courageous people, right up until the spring of 2011.
It was at that fateful moment that Assad started killing the demonstrators from the rooftops. Then he tortured the children. That was the turning point of Syrian history, and what I would refer to as ‘the tragic moment of nonviolence un-readiness’. This was the moment for more effective nonviolent confrontation and social change, now lost. This was the moment to beat Assad at the game of nonviolent resistance that he could not win, that he was not prepared for. All he was prepared for and hoping for was violence, and violence he got. He was not prepared for a population that outsmarted him with new and ever changing forms of resistance. Had that happened the crowds and the participants in social change would have massively increased, as predicted by classic nonviole
nce theory. Instead, Bashar got what he wanted a desperate unprepared and isolated group of men standing up to one of the biggest and best equipped armies in the Middle East.