Nonviolent tactics may be Syria's only path to freedom

An escalation of violence in Syria, as well as the enfeebled UN cease-fire, have revived the tactics of civil, peaceful resistance among many of Syria's democracy activists. Nonviolent means may be their ultimate force.

AP Photo
Syrian activist Hussam al-Dehni holds up an Arabic red banner that reads, "stop the killing, we want to build a homeland for all Syrians," as he walks in downtown Damascus last month.

The tactics of nonviolence can be a frustrating path for those who seek freedom. In Tibet, for example, many young people have lately given up on the Dalai Lama’s peaceful means against Chinese rule, while some have even resorted to self-immolation in public.

In Syria, however, many pro-democracy protesters who first used civil resistance against Bashar al-Assad’s regime 14 months ago – and then had their cause taken over by armed rebels – may have found their peace legs again.

One sign of such a shift came last month when a young woman named Rima Dali, wearing a blood-red dress, stood in a street outside Syria’s parliament and held up a banner: “Stop the killing, we want to build a homeland for all Syrians.” Her act of courage (and her arrest for a few days) has led to similar displays of protest for peace.

One reason is that the killing by all sides has gotten worse. Suicide bombers killed dozens last week. More arms are flowing into Syria – from Russia, Lebanon, Iran, and elsewhere. “What we see across the region is a dance of death at the brink of the abyss of war,” warned Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN special envoy to the Middle East.

Even since April 12, when the United Nations began to send 300 unarmed monitors to observe a promised cease-fire by all sides, nearly 1,000 people have been killed in political violence. The UN broker for peace, Kofi Annan, now worries about full-scale civil war among Syria’s 23 million people.

Another reason for resuming peaceful tactics is the near-collapse of the leading political opposition group, the Syrian National Council. Based in Italy with a wide range of anti-Assad activists, the SNC was not even invited to attend Wednesday’s meeting of the 22-nation Arab League, which seeks to oust President Assad.

Pro-democracy activists in Syria also now believe that President Obama and NATO are not going to launch a Libya-style attack on Assad forces. And they have seen how Assad uses attacks by rebels to consolidate his support from Syria’s many ethnic and religious minorities who fear domination by the majority Sunnis in a post-Assad regime.

What Assad seems to fear most are nonviolent protesters. Their stand for a secular, democratic Syria could entice the minorities, such as Kurds and Christians, to support them. As Louay Hussein, an intellectual leader of nonviolent tactics and a founder of the group Building the Syrian State, said last year, “If we enter the cycle of violence we will not find a democratic solution but the division of the country.”

In recent days, Assad forces have tried to arrest prominent peace activists. Such actions, however, only result in more foreign support for international isolation of Assad and his top supporters. On Monday, for example, the European Union ratcheted up sanctions against the regime.

Popular, peaceful protests have the best chance of winning the backing of Russia and China for further action by the UN Security Council. Such tactics also are the best path to ensure that a post-Assad Syria looks more like Tunisia in its calm, postrevolutionary state than like Libya, where former rebels are creating chaos after NATO airstrikes forced the end of the Qaddafi regime.

Nonviolent tactics rely on a principle of peace and an appeal to conscience that are often difficult to resist. In some cases, such as Syria today, they may be the only way to freedom.

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