Three of the four dictators ousted so far in the Arab Spring were largely felled by a moral force: millions of people committed to nonviolent protest.
“Peacefully, peacefully” was the protesters’ watchword.
The use of nonviolent tactics in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen was a powerful persuader to the conscience of soldiers, merchants, and others – even deputies of the despots – to join in. They could see a civic principle in action – the freedom of assembly – which is a cornerstone for democracy.
In Libya, the protests turned violent after the defection of a few military officers. The result was not only NATO intervention but the ongoing problem of violence by rogue militias after Muammar Qaddafi.
Now Syria is at a critical point in which the uprising may abandon its original peaceful nature. Not only are more protesters joining Army defectors in taking up arms, but Saudi Arabia is reportedly shipping military equipment to anti-Assad militias. The Saudi monarchy sees the Syrian conflict as a chance to challenge Iran’s regional influence. Other nations also seek some sort of military intervention.
If any Middle East country needs a peaceful revolution, it is Syria. Its many minorities – the Kurds, Christians, and most of all, the ruling Alawites – fear that any violence used by the majority Sunnis to achieve democracy could quickly be used on them. And a civil war might draw in neighboring nations.
Without a firm commitment to civil disobedience, the largely Sunni protesters may not be able to gain the support of Syria’s minorities, its merchants, or even the Sunni soldiers in the Army.
Bashar al-Assad knows this. His ruthless crackdown on cities like Homs and Hama is designed to force people to take up arms, which in turn allows him to warn Syrian minorities to stick with him and endorse his iron fist. He seeks to turn the protests into a sectarian, violent cause.
The world has so far admired the discipline of Syria’s peaceful protesters who daily risk their lives, standing up to the regime’s bullets. More than 7,000 have been killed, a staggering slaughter on par with the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.
Less visible has been an underground nonviolent group in Damascus and other cities that uses pranks to win support. The “Freedom Days” movement has led general strikes, but it is best known for public antics, such as asking people to wear white T-shirts on particular days or sending donkeys into the streets with “Bashar al-Assad” written on their sides.
The group also has released helium balloons with “freedom” written on them. When soldiers shoot them down, colorful confetti with “freedom” written on bits of paper floats down. In January, the group organized a protest over shortages in which people banged on their empty fuel tanks.
Such tactics are part of a long history of nonviolence used to bring about freedom, from India to the civil rights movement in America to the Philippines to Serbia. Street protests are just one tactic, and perhaps the riskiest. A study of 323 liberation movements in a recent book, “Why Civil Resistance Works,” found that more than half of nonviolent campaigns have succeeded. Violent struggles were half as successful.
In coming days, the United States plans to introduce a resolution at the United Nations Security Council demanding access for humanitarian workers to reach the besieged cities in Syria. If the protesters can stick to the principles of nonviolence, then China and perhaps even Russia might come under greater moral pressure not to veto the measure.
If Mr. Assad loses the support of those countries, he would be even more isolated. And the model of peaceful protest for the Arab Spring might live on.