With two superpowers emphatically vetoing three UNSC resolutions on three different occasions, the world could not be more divided about the Syrian crisis. World leaders are nonetheless united in their rhetoric supporting peaceful protest. The Syrian crisis, however, revealed troubling contradictions in the position taken by key countries. For example, Saudi Arabia committed itself to arming the Syrian opposition at the same time when its security forces are killing and imprisoning peaceful protesters within its boarder. Turkey, too, is involved in providing support to armed Syrian groups while continuing its ruthless campaign against what it calls “Kurdish terrorists.” The U.S. administration is providing “non-lethal” support to armed Syrian opposition that includes the same groups that the U.S. troops fought in Iraq. Iran, after praising the Arab Spring for bringing down long serving authoritarians, failed to tell its Syrian friend that 42 years of Assad rule is more than enough. These contradictions either suggest that the virtue of armed rebellion is in the eyes of the beholder or that non-violent resistance could co-exist with armed rebellion. Both propositions are problematic.
Trigger-happy groups have always argued that they can change corrupt regimes quickly and efficiently. The evidence is in Afghanistan and Somalia. Non-violent uprisings have changed regimes without firing a single bullet and destroying the fabric of society. The evidence is in Tunisia and Egypt. The first and most important casualty of the militarization of the Syrian uprising is the non-violent movement. A report published by the Coordinating Committees for Democratic Change testifies to this.
Arguably, the most significant achievement of the Tunisian revolution was not succeeding to bring about regime change. Rather, it was in changing the regime without resorting to violence. During a visit to Tunisia, when I was shown what used to be positions of neighborhood committees, I asked if it would have helped if citizens had guns. My interlocutor, without hesitation, replied: “thousands of people would have died if people had access to guns.” That was before the start of the uprising in Syria. Now, we can assess the truth of that statement.
By all accounts, about 338 people died during the Tunisian revolution that ousted Ben Ali in about 26 days. In Syria, also during the first month, an estimated 400 people were killed. As soon as the opposition turned violent (car bombs, assassinations, and kidnappings), the number of casualties went off the charts. As armed groups became involved, the regime’s brutality increased under the pretext of fighting terrorism. By the time the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formally established in July 2011, dozens of armed militias were already active in at least three provinces. The FSA justified its existence with the need for protecting civilians. Since then, the number people killed jumped to an estimated 21,000 to 28,000 people dead, nearly one million people displaced from their homes, and thousands of homes and public buildings destroyed. These numbers show that armed rebellion increased the number of casualties. Furthermore, civilians are not safer with the presence of the FSA than without them. It can be argued that FSA’s presence endangered civilians’ lives, risked their property, and threatened sectarian and ethnic solidarity.
On August 9, 2012, the FSA announced another “tactical retreat” from Salahuddin neighborhood in Aleppo, leaving behind rubble-filled streets and destroyed buildings. This last retreat is just the most recent in a series of many. The FSA failed to free and hold territory that can be considered safe zones making their main argument a moot point. The FSA militarized the conflict, giving the regime reason to unleash its unmatched military might.
The FSA claimed that its presence would encourage military and security personnel to defect. However, according to some FSA leaders, while many have defected, only a small percentage of them took up arms, with the rest opting instead to join their families or go into seclusion. In other words, the defection exacerbated sectarian and ethnic divides. Since the majority of the defectors are from the Sunni sect, Alawites and Christians will be more inclined to retain their affiliation with the regime to protect their communities.
The political discourse adopted by the opposition does not give assurances to minorities either. Political and military leaders of the opposition continue to emphasize that the new Syria will be democratic and inclusive. The experiences of minorities in Lebanon, a country whose sectarian composition is similar to that of Syria, show that political accommodation—not popular democracy—can assure them protection. Minorities in Syria are fearful that the Sunnis would rely on numerical majority to create governing institutions that will further marginalize them.
Sectarian and ethnic divisions are threatening the entire region, not just Syria. Sectarianism is taking over the political and diplomatic discourses in neighboring countries. Islamist rulers in Turkey are siding with the Saudis and the Qataris to defend Sunnis while executing their own version of war on terror against their Kurdish minorities. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are increasingly abusive of the Shiite communities within their own borders. In Iraq, sectarian and ethnic reconciliation is imperiled. Lebanese stability is in a precarious state despite the neutral stance the government took in regards to the Syrian crisis.
In the end, as Kofi Annan concluded, the Syrian problem cannot be solved with regional and world actors holding their current positions. World leaders, especially those directly involved in arming the opposition and the regime, must be prepared to compromise if they expect the Syrian foes to coexist. Sectarian and ethnic groups in Syria, including the Alawites, do not like to be told who their leaders ought to be. Therefore, a solution that is built on exclusion will not advance the cause of peace and stability in a fragile region; nor could the militarization of the conflict. The armed rebellion ended any and all talk about a peaceful uprising in Syria. Those calling for arming the opposition are legitimizing violence and destroying the non-violent movement.