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Syria: Lamp in the Storm

How can we can create the right vision to support indigenous nonviolence and unarmed civilian peacekeeping?
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Syrians rally outside the US Embassy in Amman to demand a US military intervention and a no fly zone to stop the violence in Syria. Arabic writing on the girl's face reads: "Syria is bleeding.. where are the Muslims?"

Photo courtesy of FreedomHouse

During the climactic “Quit India” campaign launched by Gandhi in 1942, there were outbreaks of violence. Earlier, in 1922, similar outbreaks had led him to suspend the non-cooperation movement. This time, however, he said, “let our lamp stay lit in the midst of this hurricane.”

This is very much the precarious situation of nonviolence in Syria today. A bit of background:

In the Quranic version of Cain and Abel, Abel says to his jealous brother,: "If thou dost stretch thy hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee, for I do fear God, the cherisher of the worlds." (Quran 5:28) In other words, the first murder is accompanied by the first act of nonviolence, a refusal to kill, even in self-defense, through mindfulness of a God who stands far above partisan conflict.

Islamic scholar Sheik Jawdat Said based his book, The Doctrine Of The First Son Of Adam, apparently the first book in modern Arabic to proffer nonviolent solutions to the region’s problems, on this verse. Said’s ideas were well received in some intellectual circles in Syria but did not lead visibly to any appreciable change in the political or social environment. The wave of agitations touched off by the Iranian revolution (though it itself had, and still has, some nonviolent character)—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, to a limited extent Syria itself—were in one way or another nationalistic but not particularly nonviolent. But a group of young men (shebab) who had fallen under the influence of an open-minded teacher at a school that was soon closed by the regime were receptive to the ideas of the distinguished sheik. With the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2001 they began to take some modest actions that were, particularly in one case, provocative to the regime. They began to clean up the streets of their respective neighborhoods. This may not seem very revolutionary to us, but in Syria people did not feel that they owned their country. Inside they lived in clean, orderly houses, but the public streets belonged to the state—which did nothing about them. In other words, while it’s doubtful any of them knew this, it was a perfect example of a Gandhian “Constructive Programme:” taking matters into your own hands in a way that puts the regime in a bad light if, as often, they interfere. Which they did. There were arrests. The regime knew these shebab were giving the people back ownership of their country.

Nonviolent insurrections are twice as likely to succeed and vastly more likely to lead to conditions of real liberty.

Then came Arab Spring. Protests began in Syria in late January of 2011. In the early months Opposition forces were creating defections among military and government—critical for the success of non-violent insurrections—but many of the defectors and others turned to armed struggle in the face of the repression. According to Erica Chenoweth, the author, with Maria Stefan, of the highly influential study, Why Civil Resistance Works, such movements usually require two and a half to three years to take hold. There have been cases of nonviolent campaigns persisting in the midst of armed elements on both sides, and sometimes even rising to capture the legitimacy of the opposition from those armed elements, usually with some international recognition behind them, and going on to win the struggle: South Africa, the Philippines, and at some point (inshallah) maybe Palestine. This is crucial because, as Chenoweth and Stefan point out, nonviolent insurrections are twice as likely to succeed and vastly more likely to lead to conditions of real liberty (yet to happen in Egypt). In Syria, however, the fledgling movement was rather quickly overwhelmed. Extreme violence creates mobilization challenges that fledgling movements may find difficult to overcome. Some movements manage to maintain—or even increase—participation in the face of extreme violence (the Pashtun Khudai Kidmatgars in 1931, Iran in 1977-9), whereas others find themselves in disarray." As Bsher Said (Jawdat’s son) informed me, when people are arrested and questioned they generally tell their captors what they want to hear—“Oh, yes, it was armed gangs that did the killing.” It has prompted Bsher to comment, pointedly, that “If we could stop the lying we wouldn’t need a revolution.” So far the wall of fear has not cracked, so we are lacking the sine qua non of successful insurrection—or successful almost anything.

Yet, as Donatella Rivera posts in her recent blog, “The young people I met—including those who had been injured—said they have no intention of stopping their protests.” And while the state actors of the “international community,” even if they resolve their differences, feel that they can do nothing, or worse, global civil society is not so inhibited. There is more going on than I am free to describe here, unfortunately, because of security concerns and the delicacy of some issues, but nonviolence training, badly needed visioning of a future for Syria, reconciliation work, and weekly discussion groups across borders are all going forward. As for higher level operations, we all know that the UN has sent in some 300 monitors, the so-called “blue berets” (joined by a smaller number from the Arab League). But this is the main point.

To show the world we have a real alternative to doing nothing or using military force “we need—and can provide—proof that this works.”

Summing up the failure of the nonviolent movement of Syria so far, Bsher succinctly says, “we were not ready.” Well, neither were we—the watching world. Three hundred monitors? When it comes to blue helmets the UN is ready to field 16,000. These unarmed monitors are a great step in the right direction, but they should have been at least ten times more numerous and ‘armed’ with a more robust mandate. As Mel Duncan, founding director of the Nonviolent Peaceforce, shared, they must be ready to protect Alawites as well as Sunnis: anyone under threat. They should set up cross-sectarian teams who can call in international help to forestall retaliatory violence when the transition takes place. Duncan should know. Nonviolent Peaceforce and other Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping groups have been doing this successfully, and with almost no casualties to speak of, around the world since the 1980s, and have recently made highly successful contacts with offices of the UN. As Duncan adds, to show the world we have a real alternative to doing nothing or using military force “we need—and can provide—proof that this works.” I quote the following from a special report to a high-level UN briefing:

Over the past thirty years, various (small) civil society organizations have systematically developed and employed innovative protection and peacekeeping methods, without relying on weapons or the use of force. Always working closely with local stakeholders and communities, their methods have included:

  • Proactive presence at flashpoints, sometimes even as buffer between combatants
  • Protective accompaniment of vulnerable individuals and populations
  • Community-based early warning and rapid response mechanisms (‘predict and pre-empt’)
  • Empowering what communities themselves can do— faster and better— through training and capacity building, leaving behind self-protection skills and more
  • Rumor control
  • Grassroots mediation techniques and creating safe spaces
  • Compliance monitoring of agreements (ceasefires, peace deals).

What’s happening today in the major cities and villages of Syria is not just Syria’s problem, it’s our problem. The refrain of the media is that we have no choice. That is because “we” are wedded to the wrong principle, which in turn is based on a wrong vision of reality. Open our eyes to the right vision and it becomes obvious that we can support indigenous nonviolence in and unarmed civilian peacekeeping for areas that need them. Michael Beer and colleagues at Nonviolence International have compiled lists of what governments and people can do for the people of Syria. Considering all that is going on beneath the media radar, it might not be too late for them; it is certainly not too late to prepare for—and prevent—the next conflict.

My favorite bumper sticker reads, I’M ALREADY AGAINST THE NEXT WAR. This is how to be against it: by being for the arts of nonviolence and peace.


Michael Nagler wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Michael is professor emeritus of classics and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-founder of its Peace and Conflict Studies Program. He is the author of Is There No Other Way? The Search for a Nonviolent Future, which won a 2002 American Book Award.

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