Syrian Revolutionaries Reach a Crossroads

09/28/2011 11:08 am ET | Updated Nov 28, 2011

For those risking their lives in Syria, six months of peaceful resistance appears to be producing little more than death, frustration, and stalemate. As the temptation to change tactics rises, the Syrian revolution comes closer to a crossroads.

Activists will have to decide if it is in their best interests to remain non-violent and purely Syrian in nature, or whether they should call for international assistance and try to fight back.

Until recently, the vast majority of activists unwaveringly supported peaceful demonstrations, and rejected the notion of foreign intervention, calling instead for diplomatic and humanitarian support. Many still hold onto these beliefs, counting on their ability to outlast the Assad regime, the emergence of a military coup, or some other game changing incident, such as the unexpected attack on Yemeni President Ali Abdulah Saleh that forced him to leave Yemen.

It is no coincidence that since rebel troops backed by NATO airstrikes forced former President Libyan Muammar Gaddafi out of Tripoli, there has been a louder call inside Syria for international intervention, and reports of sporadic armed resistance. According to activists, these changing sentiments are especially evident in areas hard hit by Syrian security forces, including the central city of Homs, which has seen the largest number of casualties to date.

Peter Harling, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, told the New York Times that a move away from non-violence "is quite simply a trap that the protesters will fall in."

But before that happens, it is worth looking at a number of compelling reasons why abandoning peaceful protests or seeking direct international intervention is not the right path for Syria's pro-democracy aspirations. Generally speaking it would be impractical, costly, and worse yet, exactly what Assad wants.

From the outset, the Syrian opposition movement has not had territory that it can call its own. Libyan protestors took Benghazi in a matter of days, and in Egypt, demonstrators occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo. In both countries these areas served as critical symbolic and logistical hubs of the revolution. This lack of a relatively safe area in which the opposition can act freely, makes coordinating anything more than demonstrations via the Internet nearly impossible.

One way to create room for dissidents to operate would be through international protection or intervention. But that is a risky step that almost no one has shown a willingness to take.

Unlike Libya, intervention in Syria could not be done in isolation. Geographically, Syria's location between Iraq, Israel, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, means that turmoil has the potential to spread rapidly. Politically, Syria is one of, if not the, most important country to experience a revolt thus far. Being an influential member of the Arab League and one of Iran's few remaining friends, coupled with an ardent anti-Israel policy and nuclear aspirations, affords Syria substantial regional clout. The international community is certainly cognizant of these facts, and is therefore treating the situation in Syria with extreme caution.

The Arab League is only now considering suspending Syria's membership, and the UN Security Council has yet to take real action. In contrast, the league suspended Libya's membership one week after unrest broke out and within the month, the UN found the consensus necessary to enact a no-fly zone.

Although the United States, Britain, France, and NATO have all publicly stated that Assad must go, they have also ruled out any intervention. This leaves Turkey, a country hesitant to take steps that would jeopardize its deep economic ties to Syria, as the remaining alternative. Overall, the prospects of direct foreign action in Syria look slim.

To make matters worse, powerful countries are lining up to defend the Syrian regime in the unlikely event that the international community does mobilize. With the exception of Bahrain, that has not been true with other Arab Spring uprisings.

Iran, Syria's staunchest ally, is already providing the regime with money, training, technology, and possibly weaponry. The BRIC counties (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and Iraq have also pledged their support for Assad, and would be called on for aid if the need arose.

Costs of Changing Course
Even if activists overcome the serious practical challenges they face on the local, regional and international levels, the costs of shifting away from a peaceful, autonomous revolution could have debilitating political and societal consequences.

One effect would be endangering political progress towards forming an alternative to Assad. Earlier this month, the opposition made noticeable political strides during meetings in Doha and Istanbul, culminating in the formation of the Syrian National Council.

This group, which consists of 140 activists inside Syria and the Diaspora, did not coalesce easily, and faces a litany of internal challenges and tough decisions ahead. Libya was very lucky that their Transitional National Council was largely in place before the conflict escalated; Syria is not as fortunate. Throwing other variables, particularly a violent or controversial one, into the mix now could cause the fragile Syrian coalition to fragment. The transition process would be set back months.

Another implication would be the hardening of sectarian and ethnic lines. Despite Sunni Muslims making up nearly 75% percent of the population, the Assad family is Alawaite, a sect representing only 12% of citizens. The country also includes significant Christian and Kurdish populations, as well as smaller numbers of Druze and other minorities. Many members of these groups have come out in support of the revolution, but, needless to say, there are very real concerns about what will happen as the movement, which is majority Sunni, progresses.

For the opposition, assuring minorities that they will be fully represented and protected in a democratic Syria is an essential yet difficult task. Violence, foreign intervention, or further confusion could send those on the fence to Assad's side, believing him to be their best hope. Expanding the revolution to other demographics ---making it more inclusive -- would become exponentially harder.

Most importantly, the humanitarian costs of abandoning non-violent protest would be astronomical. An estimated 2,600 hundred Syrian civilians have already been killed, while well over 10,000 others have been arrested by security forces. Economic deterioration and displacement are causing thousands more to suffer indirectly. Stocks in Syria have fallen 48%, tourism has plummeted, workers are being laid off, sanctions are being felt, and there are few signs that the economic situation is improving. To add to the despair, roughly 30,000 have been internally displaced inside Syria, while an additional 10 to 15,000 have fled to neighboring Turkey and Lebanon. Regrettably, these tragic figures would only grow were there to be intervention, or armed conflict.

Since February, Libya, which saw both international intervention and rebellion, has witnessed hundreds of thousands of casualties and refugees, in addition to the considerably higher number of people indirectly affected by the revolution. This is in a country with a quarter the population of Syria.

In a worst-case scenario, Assad could use a change in opposition tactics as an excuse to intensify his military campaign. There is little evidence that Bashar Al-Assad is averse to replicating the 1982 massacre perpetrated by his father Hafez in the city of Hama, where in excess of 10,000 were murdered.

It is doubtful that the economy would do much better. The agricultural sector would end up in shambles if scorched earth policies, such as those reported earlier this summer in the Syrian town of Jisr al-Shaghour, become commonplace, an increase in attacks on oil infrastructure could cripple the industry, and what little tourism is left would surely come to an end. These harsh conditions would result in the number of internally displaced people and refugees skyrocketing. One needs to look no further than Yemen to see the outcome of internal conflicts.

Ultimately though, abandoning the current non-violent approach would only add insult to injury for the opposition, as it is exactly what the Syrian regime wants to happen. Assad's presidential advisor Bouthaina Shaaban, U.S. Ambassador Imad Moustapha, and countless other government spokesmen, consistently insist that the domestic unrest is the work of "armed gangs", Muslim extremists and foreign conspirators. The last thing dissidents need to do is bring Syria any closer to resembling the picture that Assad's propagandists are tying to paint.