A bloody end to non-violent revolution

Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria continues to use massive military force against civilians

“We, the undersigned armed terrorist groups, hereby promise to stop all violence in Syria and surrender all our weapons to the Syrian regime. We will no longer carry out the orders of Israel, the United States, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who have been financing our campaign of armed terrorism against the Syrian people. Love, the terrorists of the Free Syrian Army.”

As soon as Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria gets “written guarantees” from the “armed terrorist groups” to surrender, announced the Syrian foreign ministry on April 8, it will comply with its promise to withdraw its tanks and artillery from rebellious Syrian cities. Sorry, no, there’s more. The regime also wants “guarantees of commitment by the governments of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to stop financing the armed terrorist groups.”

The United Nations and the Arab League thought they had a deal. The Syrian government had promised the mediator, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, that it would remove all its heavy weapons from urban areas by April 10, and accept a complete cease-fire by the 12th.  But then Damascus announced that the international community had been “mistaken” to think that it was really going to pull its troops out.

“Kofi Annan has until now not furnished to the Syrian government written guarantees about the acceptance of the armed terrorist groups to stop violence in all its forms, and their readiness to surrender their weapons so that state authority can spread on all territory,” the statement said. In other words, as soon as the pro-democracy side surrenders unconditionally, “peace” — i.e., the tyranny of the Baath regime — will be restored.

Kofi Annan, the United Nations and the Arab League were doing the best they could, but with no member country willing to use military force against Syria they had no leverage whatever. If Bashar al-Assad really pulled all his troops out of Syrian cities, they would then immediately fall into the hands of the opposition, so he wasn’t going to do that.

The senior people at the UN and the Arab League who approved the deal were hoping at least to put an end to the Syrian regime’s use of massive force against civilians. Assad was obviously not going to meekly give up power, but many innocent lives would be saved if he could just be persuaded to stop using tanks and artillery against cities. He would probably continue killing his opponents on a retail basis, but the wholesale killing would stop.

Suppressing the uprising one murder at a time, with the regime’s intelligence services and “special forces” operating in hostile urban areas, would cost them a lot of casualties. The regime calculated the likelihood of foreign military intervention, concluded that it was zero, and reneged on the deal.

It was worth trying to de-escalate the conflict, but it isn’t going to happen. Shelling cities with tanks and artillery is a highly inefficient way of restoring government control over them, but it keeps the casualties down on the regime side.

So has the Assad regime won despite the deaths of 9,000 protesters? Probably. Non-violent resistance to tyranny is a powerful tool, but no political technique works every time without fail, and Syria’s Baath Party was always a hard target.

It is a single-party regime that is dominated by and mainly serves the interests of a minority, the Alawites (only 10 per cent of the population), who fear catastrophic revenge by the majority if they lose power. However, it also has significant support from other minorities, notably the Christians and the Druze.

The prospect of a non-violent transition to a democratic Syria that commands the loyalty of all the country’s religious and ethnic groups has vanished. The people who tried to make that happen were astoundingly brave, and they kept their protests entirely peaceful for seven months despite extreme regime violence, but now most of them have either been killed, or they have taken up arms.

The remaining options are both bad. If Assad succeeds in suppressing all resistance, Syria will be an even more oppressive and unjust place than it was before. If he only partially succeeds, it will open the way to an all-against-all civil war like the one that devastated Lebanon in 1975-1990. There is no plausible third option.

Am I saying that an Assad victory is Syria’s best remaining option? No, I cannot bring myself to say that. But I think that I am writing the epitaph of Syria’s attempted non-violent revolution.




Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.