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President's Corner: Can Anyone Help Syria?

All summer, peace workers have watched quietly as the Arab Awakening changed from the optimistic phase of people power in Tunisia and Cairo to the violence in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and especially Syria. We have not marched in the streets, promoting our own solution, for we have none. Nor do our political leaders and generals. Even individually, in our own minds, we are uncertain.

The dilemma became most obvious when Libya’s dictator threatened to massacre the rebels in Benghazi, who were already abandoning their initial commitment to nonviolence. Gadhafi seemed to mean business. If ever anywhere, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine seemed to apply here, for something must be done to protect lives. Yet the political leaders of democracies were torn by uncertainty, embarrassed by the urgent need to betray their recent allies among the Arab dictators. They were able to feign purposeful unity only because the Libyan rebels declined NATO’s troop presence on the ground and requested only a “no-fly-zone” beneath which to fight their own war. The UN Security Council authorized this limited intervention with a resolution to which even the Russians and Chinese acquiesced. The rebels eventually prevailed and gave Libya an opportunity to try democracy.

If this outcome gratified the Western governments, it left peace workers ambivalent. The pacifists among us had opposed NATO’s military intervention without proposing any alternative way of preventing Gadhafi’s massacre of Benghazi. As the Libyan battle grew bloodier, many peace workers who had endorsed the No-Fly Zone expressed shock that NATO had exceeded its mandate. Later Russia would adduce their criticism when refusing to endorse an intervention in Syria. (Experienced diplomats, however, consider this excuse phony, since they say that Russians, peace workers, and everyone else must have known that a No-Fly Zone requires aerial bombing and other military actions.)

In any case, when Syria’s regime began to slaughter its own insurgents, foreign political leaders and peace activists alike found reasons not to intervene with arms. Their reasons differ. Those of the governments are practical: Europe and America are preoccupied with their financial crisis; Obama is campaigning for re-election in a country worn out by warfare; if Bashar al-Assad were defeated, Syria’s fragmented population would probably continue fighting among themselves; Russia and China would veto every adequate measure in the Security Council. And so on. The politicians’ reasoning makes sense, and they are unable to help save Syrian lives. The presidents and generals are stymied.

But peace workers are stymied too, though, unlike the pragmatic politicians, our reasons for not intervening are principled. Some of us deny that there ever is a “responsibility to protect” if that so-called “protection” involves fighting rather than diplomacy or conflict resolution. Moreover, even those of us who consider military methods sometimes necessary do not consider them always necessary. The question then becomes: Under what limited circumstances is it justifiable to use violence for humanitarian purposes? Yet people who have cogent theoretical answers to this question may be uncertain what to do in any particular real situation.

Worse yet, the principled pacifists among us, who scrupulously reject all violent interventions, propose no effective means of protecting the vulnerable. After the killing has started, they know it would be futile to urge the fighters to stop and negotiate. So they can only watch in horror or, at best, send medicines and tents for the people fleeing the battlefield.

The dilemma of a government leader is a pragmatic one, whereas the dilemma of a peace worker is moral. Yet both ask: What is a decent way to end the killing? There is no decent way, but we each have to contrive some answer anyhow. We usually refrain politely from challenging another’s modus vivendi until the war is over, but I will declare mine here. It may not match yours.

I concede that violence sometimes saves lives. Indeed, I would dread living anywhere that lacked a police force. A military campaign can sometimes protect vulnerable people, and when that is the case, it may be morally obligatory to undertake such a mission. Yes, in principle there is an international responsibility to protect people whose own government fails to do so or, even worse, attacks them.

On the other hand, a military intervention that is meant to protect may actually cause more casualties than it prevents. If so, surely it should be prevented. But we will never know whether the Libyan intervention saved more lives than it cost. I expect that a “protective” intervention in Syria in late August (when I am writing this) would kill more people than it would protect, but no one can be sure. Historically, most armed interventions to protect people have probably amplified the total casualties. Therefore as I watch TV scenes of Syrians shooting each other, I can imagine no military solution to their plight. One side will eventually win, but at a terrible price.

So what should I wish for them? That they had not resisted Assad? Certainly not! I care about their human rights. I want to bring down every dictator in the world. But how? Is there a decent way to oust a dictator? Yes, but unfortunately, the Syrian rebels did not use it while they had a chance and now it is too late.

The Arab Awakening is a contagious phenomenon. The frustrated people of several countries, watching Tunisia and Egypt pursuing their freedom successfully, tried to emulate what they saw on TV. But they did not realize that the success was a result of strategizing that had taken place off-screen—preparations for nonviolent civil resistance. Groups of young persons had analyzed the sources of power on which their dictatorships depended, and had contrived to avert armed confrontations with them. Early in Tunisia’s “Dignity Revolution” the protesters formed an alliance with the country’s lawyers, with trade unions, and soon with the military and police. In Egypt, likewise, the protesters brought ice cream to the soldiers in Tahrir Square, praised them effusively, and encircled each tank with ring of tents, where youths lolled about, constantly proclaiming their friendly feelings toward its crew.

This kind of preparation cannot be matched by an impulsive crowd. Everywhere, civil resistance requires intelligent organizing. In Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, for example, key “Pora” activists began two years in advance by visiting the wives and mothers of top military leaders, winning them over. They also recruited a retired general, who spoke privately with former colleagues who were still serving as officers. When at last the crowd gathered in the square, numerous military wives were conspicuous among the protesters, and their husbands hardly willing to order the troops to shoot them. Winning over the police and military is vital to the success of a civil resistance movement. Woe to the insurgents who do not realize that fact and choose to take up arms instead.

Unfortunately, few angry protesters know the odds, as Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan do. In their book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, they studied cases of more than 300 resistance movements and determined that between 1900 and 2006, campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as violent ones. Why so? Chenoweth and Stephan assert that it is numbers that count. Nonviolent actions can attract larger numbers of citizens to participate in protests, and this vastly increases the rates of success, even against a brutal regime that is quite willing to kill its own citizens. These peace researchers show that violent insurgency is rarely a wise strategy for overthrowing a dictatorship. Moreover, a nonviolent campaign is far more likely to result in a durable and internally peaceful democracy than a violent revolution.

To be sure, there is usually a degree of violence in every resistance movement. One cannot expect to avoid bloodshed absolutely, but when government violence is met in kind by the protesters, the fighting escalates and tends to become irreversible. In Syria we see a common outcome: civil war. It is rare for participants in a civil war to cease fighting before one side has defeated the other or both sides have become too exhausted to continue. A year after the Syrian struggle began, neither the government nor the Free Syrian Army is willing to sit down at the negotiating table to reach a peace agreement. And it is too late to attempt the only decent way of fighting—nonviolently.

There’s a lesson here for peace workers. If we want to be effective in preventing wars, we have to assist in training others how to defend their own values long before they find it necessary to do so. Whereas our governments, animated by kindness, offer weapons to help their foreign friends protect themselves, it would be a truer act of friendship to send nonviolence training manuals.

Metta Spencer is the President of Science for Peace.

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