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syrian uprising nonviolence to violence

From Nonviolence to Violence in the Syrian Uprising

Pictures: Andrew Buchanan

When a nonviolent resistance movement shifts to armed resistance in the wake of violent repression, as the Syrian uprising did, observers often assume that this shift is a strategic choice on the part of movement leadership. The assumption is that the resistance movement decides with one voice that, given the circumstances, the movement will have a better chance of success if it engages in violent resistance. Isabel Bramsen critically examines this assumption in the case of Syria. Noting that Syrian activists themselves speak of the movement’s militarization as not being a choice, she asks, “what then led Syrian revolutionaries to take up arms?” She identifies three central mechanisms that help explain this militarization: emotional mechanisms (fear and anger as motivation for self-defense and revenge, respectively), material mechanisms (“the availability of weapons”), and practice mechanisms (“previous experience, training, and organizational capabilities in violence”).

Bramsen analyzed 22 interviews with Syrian activists, “citizen journalists,” and soldiers (conducted in 2015/2016) and 17 videos of the Syrian uprising, enabling her to discern the “story” behind why violent repression ultimately led the Syrian uprising to arm itself.

First, emotional mechanisms provided a motivation for violent resistance against the Syrian regime. “Righteous anger” in response to the regime’s violence against protesters led to the desire for revenge and therefore moved many to take up arms. Likewise, fear of becoming a target of regime violence provided motivation for two forms of armed protection and self-defense: the presence of armed guards at demonstrations to protect unarmed activists and personal or collective arming to provide protection from daily regime violence against oneself or one’s community (not directly connected to demonstrations). She notes that such arming provided only short-term protection, ultimately rebounding in the form of even more “indiscriminate and more powerful regime fire.”

While emotional mechanisms provided a motivation for protection and revenge, material and practice mechanisms help explain why these took violent as opposed to nonviolent form. By material mechanisms, Bramsen means predominantly the availability of weapons and the way that availability not only provided a means of violence but also in a sense caused it. In other words, weapons contain a “script” that can call on a person to play a particular role that they might not otherwise have played. It matters, therefore, what material objects activists have access to when they are filled with rage or fear — that material availability will shape the types of action they will take. Bramsen notes that guns were already fairly prevalent in Syria, particularly in rural areas, and that there were even several accounts of the Syrian military leaving weapons at demonstration sites — evidence that the regime stood to benefit from arming the revolution. Additionally, the materials available to the regime shaped its response to — and subsequently the space available to — the uprising. In particular, in response to demonstrations, the Syrian regime relied almost exclusively on gunfire from a distance, supporting reports that it did not have access to much riot control gear. These conditions made it very difficult for activists to influence security forces away from violence and also extremely difficult over time for activists to assemble and demonstrate, ceding space to the armed resistance.

Weapons contain a “script” that can call on a person to play a particular role that they might not otherwise have played.

Finally, practice mechanisms also help explain why some activists adopted violence and others remained committed to nonviolence. In short, people tend to see a different set of tools or tactics as available, appropriate, necessary, or effective depending on the experience and skills they have with violence versus nonviolence. If someone has been trained in the “language” of violence, they are more likely to “think in [its] terms” and “use [this] language.” These practices — whether violence or nonviolence — become “self-evident” for those familiar with them and with background experience in them. Therefore, rather than a cohesive group of nonviolent revolutionaries making a strategic decision to switch from nonviolent to violent tactics, there were instead distinct groups of revolutionaries, some with background in nonviolence and others in violence, who turned to the set of tactics that made sense to them. Although some nonviolent revolutionaries worked with their armed counterparts, others refused to, asserting that they essentially “stole” the revolution.

In brief, it was not a unified Syrian opposition that made a strategic decision to arm the uprising but “rather actors with access to weapons, who either had personal motivation for revenge or self-protection, had expertise and previous belief in violence, or both” who ultimately militarized the revolution. Since this shift was enabled by movement fragmentation — and more a lack of strategy than the presence of one — Bramsen suggests that greater cohesion and stronger leadership might have been able to counter these mechanisms in an effort to maintain a nonviolent uprising.


The central insight of this research — that a nonviolent uprising’s turn to violence may not be a purely strategic decision — is extremely valuable for thinking about how to prevent the militarization of other nonviolent movements. Before exploring these practical implications, however, it is worth revisiting why the militarization of a nonviolent movement may be detrimental in the first place. First, violent uprisings are simply less effective than nonviolent ones. Empirical research shows that nonviolent resistance campaigns are over twice as likely to achieve radical goals like regime change or liberation, as they are better at attracting broader participation and support. Second, when it comes to safety, although both forms of resistance can be risky, violent resistance appears to be riskier for civilian lives, resulting in a greater likelihood of repression and even mass killings than nonviolent resistance does — a counterintuitive finding given deep-seated assumptions about the necessity of weapons for protection.

If the shift from nonviolent to violent resistance were an entirely rational, strategic decision on the part of movement leaders, one could argue that persuading movements to maintain a nonviolent strategy — the strategy most likely to achieve victory, with fewer threats to safety than the alternative — would be as straightforward as making these research findings widely available and accessible. But, while publicizing these findings is certainly important, it is not this simple; as the author demonstrates, human experience and behavior are much more complex than utility maximization. Recognizing this fact and the findings from this research study, how can activists best avert the militarization of their nonviolent resistance movements? First, while nothing can — or should — be done to mitigate the anger and fear legitimately experienced by movement activists and civilian populations more generally in the face of government repression, movement leaders can partially control the materials to which activists have access during demonstrations and other resistance activities. As the author discusses in this research but also more extensively elsewhere, a movement’s instantaneous response to an act of repression is going to look different depending on whether activists have access to guns versus bottles versus flowers. Thinking ahead about the materials available to be picked up in a moment of fear or anger can make a huge difference for how an interaction between regime forces and activists plays out. Movement leaders can also think of creative and vigorous ways to channel anger nonviolently, while also coming up with a broader range of nonviolent tactics that can lower the risk faced by activists — so relying more on methods of “dispersion” (like stay-at-home strikes) rather than exclusively on methods of “concentration” (like demonstrations), which make activists easy targets for regime forces.

Second, as the author herself suggests, activists must work to build movement unity, especially around a nonviolent strategy and maintaining nonviolent discipline. This is, of course, a prescription as difficult as it is necessary in the face of movement fragmentation like there was in Syria. Not only can disagreements over movement tactics run strong and deep, especially when people come from different backgrounds that shape their familiarity with violent versus nonviolent methods, but also other very real schisms can emerge in movements, especially if exacerbated by regime propaganda and policies. The follow-up question becomes: how can activists/movement leaders build movement cohesion in the face of such challenges? We can think of a response here on two levels. One is to draw on cultural resources and the language of (inclusive) national identity to cultivate unity across lines of socio-economic, ethnic, religious/sectarian, or ideological difference. The other — the discussion above notwithstanding — is to draw on and disseminate research findings about the relative effectiveness and protective value of nonviolent campaigns and strategy to dispel myths about the “necessity” of violence that may be deeply embedded in some people’s responses to violent repression. While this sort of rational argumentation may work to a limited extent to cause some people to re-examine their assumptions, even more effective may be to point out evidence of the regime’s own attempts to militarize the resistance movement, as doing so can activate a shift in perspective on a felt, emotional level: the desire on the part of activists not to be duped or manipulated by the very regime they are struggling against.

Published in collaboration with the Peace Science Digest, which summarizes and reflects on current academic research in the field of peace and conflict studies. To subscribe or download the full piece, which includes additional resources, visit their website.

Peace Science Digest


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