Jack A. Goldstone, George Mason University
The escalation of violence in Syria in the last three days has been startling. Clearly, the Assad regime, facing the spectre of Hosni Mubarak in an iron cage in a Cairo courtroom, feels it has already passed the point of no return. Despite the talk of reform, Assad knows that any truly representative government would hold him responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Syrians. Thus he is determined to crush the opposition, in the manner that Iran halted the abortive ‘Green Revolution’ of 2009.
But can he do so? Assad’s regime is vulnerable in a way the Iranian regime was not. The Iranian regime had two supports that Assad lacks, or is losing fast. The first is money. Iran’s government has oil revenues as a core source of finance. Assad has relatively little oil money to fall back on; Syria’s economy needs tourism, trade, and manufacturing. The second is religious and national legitimation. Despite major differences, a host of Shi’ite clerics still support Ayattolah Khamenei’s claim to be the spiritual as well as political “Supreme Leader” of Iran, and thus the heir of the revolution the liberated Iran from the Shah. These claims still provide popular support for the regime among many Iranians.
Because Assad’s regime is more dependent on conventional economic production, it is much more vulnerable to strikes and boycotts. The main economic centers of Syria — the capital of Damascus and the trading/manufacturing city of Aleppo — have so far been only slightly affected by the revolt. Major strikes or boycotts targeting merchants or manufacturers considered to be allied with the Assad regime would have a powerful effect.
Also, because Assad’s regime has no inherent religious legitimacy, pronouncements from Shi’a or Sunni religious leaders, even those outside of Syria, could have a major effect. It is to be hoped that religious leaders throughout the Middle East will condemn the regime’s violence, and call upon all Muslims in Syria’s armed forces NOT to follow orders to kill fellow Muslims during the Holy Month of Ramadan, which has just begun.
There are great fears that Syrian events will come to mirror the great tragedy of 1982, in which tens of thousands in the city of Hama were killed by the forces of the Assad regime to crush an incipient rebellion. Today, Iran is giving both technical support and advice to the Assad government on how to quell this revolt.
But there is reason to hope that this time we could see a triumph of the people, instead of a tragedy. Much more is known now about the effective strategies for success in non-violent rebellion (see Erica Chenoweth’s and Maria J. Stephan’s book, WHY CIVIL RESISTANCE WORKS [Columbia 2011] for the latest research on this topic.) Chenoweth’s blog contains useful advice for Syrian activists, on the power of strikes, boycotts, and other less-risky forms of collective resistance to the regime, that can help undermine its power http://rationalinsurgent.wordpress.com/2011/08/03/assad-is-hammering-hama-how-should-the-opposition-respond/. Activists in Syria are in touch with, and getting support from, activists throughout the region and the world.
Still, the armed forces are backing Assad to the hilt, worried that they will be left destitute and defenseless if Assad falls. For the Syrian opposition to triumph, here are the necessary next steps:
(1) While a virtue of the rebellion is that it has not relied on leaders, it now needs a voice — the opposition leaders who met in Turkey should speak out to the world in defense of the rebellion against Assad’s repression. They should call on the world community to impose harsher sanctions on the Assad regime that would affect the business communities in Damascus and Aleppo, not just the regime’s leaders. And they should all on Muslim religious leaders — both Sunni and Shi’a — to issue powerful statements condemning killing of Muslims by fellow Muslims, especially during the Holy Month of Ramadan.
(2) Protestors in Syria should announce that any members of the armed forces that lay down their arms now will not be persecuted or held responsible for any actions of the Assad regime prior to August 4th.
(3) Protestors in Syria, especially those outside of the recent centers of Protest, should organize strikes and boycotts aimed at those who support or benefit from the current regime.
The struggle for freedom in the Middle East has been difficult and the Syrian people have shown perhaps the greatest courage and persistence of any nation so far. But it may be time for a change in tactics, to avoid street demonstrations and confrontations with the armed forces, and shift to organized economic resistance as the next stage. That path offers the best way to continue to move toward a triumphant, rather than tragic, end.