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What hope is there for violent resistance in Syria?

Syrian rebels are using violence, but it may not be in their best interest. EPA/Cem Ozdel

What should we hope for when we look at the ongoing crisis in Syria? I don’t really know anymore.

The most interesting book that I have read this year is Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. The book has profoundly altered my feelings and challenged my thinking about Syria. Its central thesis, if correct, would seem to have extraordinary implications for the Syrian rebels’ campaign of violent resistance, not only in terms of the likelihood of success, but perhaps more tragically the likelihood that success will lead to a sustainable peace.

The argument, developed through a combination of statistical analysis and detailed case studies, is straightforward. Non-violent campaigns of resistance are more than twice as effective as violent insurgencies in achieving their stated goals.

A primary reason for this is that “the moral, physical, informational, and commitment barriers to participation are much lower for non-violent resistance than for violent insurgency”. Higher levels of participation create more resilience, more opportunities for tactical innovation and civic disruption, and encourage shifts in loyalty away from the existing regime. These factors greatly increase the likelihood of success.

When successful, Chenoweth and Stephan argue, campaigns of non-violent resistance are much more likely to lead to the establishment of durable and internally peaceful democracies. Successful violent insurgencies, on the other hand, are often followed by regress into civil war within a few years.

The book went to press shortly after the beginning of the revolutionary wave of popular movements known as the “Arab Spring”.

The authors penned an epilogue in the wake of the overthrow of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt by non-violent resistance movements in early 2011. Based on their statistical analysis developed in the book, they offered an estimate of the likelihood that Egyptians would be able to establish peaceful and durable democracy. Their conclusion is sobering, partly because of what they say about the hopes for Egypt, but even more so because of what they say about the hopes for violent insurgencies such as that which has since emerged in Syria:

Controlling for other factors, if Egypt follows the pattern of other successful nonviolent campaigns, our estimates indicate that it has more than a 30% chance of being a democracy. Although that figure may sound uninspiring, the probability would be much closer to zero percent if the revolution had been violent or if it had not occurred at all.

The implications for Syria (and similarly for Libya) are distressing. Of course the statistics of past cases do not guarantee particular outcomes in the future. But neither in this instance do they provide much ground for hope.

The decision by elements of the Syrian resistance movement (which remained peaceful for longer than did the equivalent movement in Libya) to turn from a campaign of non-violence to violent insurgency may ultimately prove tragic. Even if they are successful in overthrowing Assad’s regime, there is a danger that they will have inaugurated a period of violence and instability leading to greater civilian suffering and death than was experienced even while the tyrannical Assad wielded power unopposed.

Of course, this is not to excuse the Assad regime for its brutal response to the resistance campaign – a response which has already led to as many as 20,000 deaths including many civilians.

Similarly, it is not to rebuke the rebels for desiring freedom from oppressive rule. But, having read Chenoweth and Stephan’s book, I find it difficult to hope that the rebels successfully achieve a violent victory.

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