Where Is the Non-Violent Opposition in Syria?

by Clay Claiborne on July 5, 2012

Some observers of the crisis in Syria have sought to divide the opposition to Bashar al-Assad into an “armed opposition” and a “non-violent opposition movement for freedom and democracy, which still rejects calls for military intervention” as Phyllis Bennis does in a recent opinion piece in Al Jazeera.

She sees these as two distinct oppositions movements, one non-violently fighting for freedom and democracy, and another that has taken up arms and “is also responsible for attacks leading to the deaths of civilians” and who knows what they are fighting for.

Even though the opposition to the Assad regime has clearly been growing in the last year, she sees this current state of the opposition as the result of fragmentation:

The opposition was divided from the beginning over whether massive reform or the end of the regime was their goal. It divided further when part of the opposition took up arms, and began calling for international military intervention.

Like many observers, she sees this armed opposition as drowning out the non-violent opposition in recent months.

Assad’s body count.

I believe this way of looking at the opposition to Assad is incorrect and historically inaccurate. For 18 months there has been a main opposition to the Assad regime that has been composed of a lot of forces from across the political spectrum of Syrian society. There have always been political differences within the movement and there has been political development within the movement as a whole.

The movement started out as peaceful demonstrations demanding reform, as it did in Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Egypt in January and February of 2011. There were always revolutionaries with in these movements that thought these demands could never be met by the current dictators and argued for regime change. In all of the movements of the Arab Spring, those demanding regime change gained greater and greater sway in the movement as the regimes met the peaceful protests with violence.

While, no doubt, there are Syrians who were part of this reform movement and left it when the main demand shifted to regime change, I think it is false to portray this as a split in the movement. I think it much more accurate and much more useful to realize that the movement as a whole shifted from being a movement demanding reforms from Assad to one demanding his overthrow. The opposition movement in Syria has grown massive and is united in the demand that Assad must go! Only long time fans of Assad, not members of the original opposition, are still asking him to stick around but just clean up his act.

Likewise, I think it is wrong to suggest that there is a separate and distinct “armed opposition” as opposed to the “non-violent opposition.”  In the beginning, this “Arab Spring” opposition to Assad was overwhelmingly non-violent. Assad may have been fighting al Qaeda or other “armed terrorist gangs”elsewhere, but he was lying when he used that as an excuse for firing on peaceful protesters on Homs, Hama, Dara and other places.

A member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) sports his Christianity in response to the Assad government’s charge (echoed by the Western left) that FSA is sectarian.

As Assad followed Ghadafi’s lead in applying military power to peaceful protesters, this started to have a powerful effect on the attitude towards non-violence within the movement as a whole. Whereas the movement, even as it started to demand the removal of Assad, continued to stand on the principal of non-violence and non-intervention, this started to change as more and more Syrians were killed by the regime.

The attitude of the opposition movement both towards armed struggle and outside support changed as the revolution developed and was illustrated by massive demonstrations demanding intervention. They named July 29, 2011 “Friday of ‘Your Silence Is Killing Us” and held massive demonstrations across Syria that directed that slogan not only at other Syrians that had yet to join the struggle but to the people of the world as well. The Syria wide mass protests of September 9, 2011 were named the “Friday of International Protection.” That was the first time the movement as a whole put forward an explicit demand for foreign intervention. As Assad’s violence continued unabated on March 16, 2012 the opposition called the protests the “Friday of Immediate Foreign Intervention.” Assad killed 15 protesters on that day. So you see, it is a most shameful falsehood to speak of a “non-violent opposition movement for freedom and democracy, which still rejects calls for military intervention.” It lets us off the hook by telling a lie on them.

Damascus Protesters Call for International Protection Now ! Erbeen 9-2-11

Assad sent his troops out to crush the rebellion when it said “Your silence is killing us.” From Wikipedia “20 protesters were killed throughout Syria, most notably in Deir ez-Zor, where the government tried to stop mass gatherings” on July 29th. And it was there, at Deir ez-Zor and on that day that a colonel in the Syrian Army defected to the opposition together with hundreds of soldiers to found the Free Syrian Army to protect the protester. So you see, separating the opposition into armed and non-violent camps is ahistorical as well.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) developed from soldiers ordered to shoot protesters, soldiers who decided instead that it was their patriotic duty to defend the protesters. They have been joined by formerly peaceful protesters that have now also taken up arms in defense of the revolution. The FSA started out exclusively as a force to defend peaceful protesters but as Assad’s attacks continued and grew both in scope and brutality, the FSA has also started conducting offensive operation and while they may or may not have weapons given to them by the CIA or Qatar, it is clear that they have overwhelmingly armed themselves with weapons taken from Assad.

Even though the FSA is getting better weapons, that doesn’t justify Phyillis Bennis’ attempts to create a false parity between the two forces as she does when she says:

The regime is clearly responsible for more attacks with heavy weapons, including tanks and artillery, but it is also clear that the anti-government forces are being supplied with increasingly heavy weapons

“Heavy weapons” is a distinct military category that does include tanks and artillery as well as combat aircrafts. “Increasingly heavy weapons” is no such category. Since the FSA has had to do most of its fighting with AK-47s and they are now getting more rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), it can be said that the FSA is getting “increasingly heavy weapons”  but that rhetorical flourish doesn’t make an RPG equal to a 120mm cannon.

Syrians in Homs put Assad’s head on a dummy to draw sniper fire. Assad’s killers are firing at Assad’s image.

Furthermore, “being supplied” is an underhanded way of implying that the FSA is “being run” by outside agencies without providing any proof. It is by no means “clear that the anti-government forces are being supplied” with weapons by anyone. It is very clear that they are getting more and better weapons, here is a video of the FSA taking over of a Syrian military base and capturing a lot of weapons. Would you call that “being supplied?” More recently we have heard of whole units of the Syrian army defecting with sophisticated anti-tank weapons and manpads. Would you call that “being supplied?” They have even been successful at capturing intact, some of Assad’s tanks. Would you call that “being supplied?”

This increased militarization in defense of the people has given the crisis in Syria all the characteristics of a civil war, which is what it has in fact become. But as has been said many times: War is a continuation of politics by violent means. So in assessing the legitimacy of either side of the conflict, its not enough to point out that both sides are “responsible for attacks leading to the deaths of civilians.” That is unavoidable by either side in any war. It is much more important to understand what the two sides are fight for, i.e. what policies are being continued.

Assad is attempting to suppress a rebellious population. He has elected to use mass murder as his principal method of doing that and his armed forces as this principle instrument. With canon and aerial bombs he is attacking whole neighborhoods, not just those that oppose him. In response to that the opposition to Assad has developed armed forces of their own, but the mass opposition to Assad continues to grow.

This is a collection of videos of mass demonstrations in Syria in the past few days. These are the people that are driving this whole process, not NATO or Russia or Assad, and the whole UN diplomatic corp. They are all just reacting to thousands of Syrians in revolt. These protesters are united and have courageously come out to demonstrate knowing it could cost them their lives.

They are united in demanding regime change.

They are united in their support for the Free Syrian Army.

They are united in demanding that the world come to their aid and stop Assad’s slaughter.

Please look at these videos and understand that Assad wants these people dead. He will continue to kill as long as they continue to oppose him and they will never stop opposing him.

As long as the diplomacy goes on, so will Assad’s slaughter. After 18 months of his war against his people, those that still think they can “talk” him out of this approach are fools. No, they are worst than fools, when they publicly advocate the continuation of this approach, they become accomplishes of his crimes.

Even though Phyllis Bennis argues “Only diplomacy can stop the war, ” she concludes:

The best thing outside powers can do is to move immediately towards serious new diplomacy, in which supporters of both the regime and the armed opposition participate, with the goal of imposing an immediate ceasefire.

So after more than a year of the world talking and Assad killing, what she proposes in more of the same, so that eventually, after thousands more Syrians are slaughtered, we can reach “the goal of imposing an immediate ceasefire.”

Oh, and what then? Won’t that still require a UN Chapter 7 resolution authorizing the use of force? Otherwise just how does she propose that the world impose an immediate ceasefire on Assad and his army, throw blue darter at him?

This is how the civil war in Syrian will be decided. Not by NATO and Russia and certainly not by opinions on the left. It will be decided by Syrian workers and soldiers turning against their government. Introducing the Miqdad ibn ‘Amr Battalion, formed today, July 1, 2012 in the heart of Damascus, Syria.

Syrian protest videos posted online are accompanied by the common refrain “Syrian victims are screaming for your help. Will you answer?” The response from Phyillis Bennis and many other on the left is, “Don’t bet your life on it.”

Minbaj | Aleppo | Evening Protest Demanding Freedom June 29, 2012

(6-30-12) Idlib | Standing in Solidarity With Douma

(06.30.2012) Kafar Sousah | Damascus, Syria | Amazing protests in support of Zamalka and Douma

Another HUGE HUGE protest in Salamiyeh #Syria today funeral of the martyr Ali al-Fakhur

The funeral of the martyr Ali Sadek Alqatrib  July 1, 2012

Here are my related diaries on Syria:
BREAKING: Syrian Air Force attacks Douma, 10m from Damascus, thousands fleeBREAKING: As Syria Burns, UN Blows More Smoke
BREAKING: Kofi Annan to propose Syrian unity gov’t sans Assad!
BREAKING: Douma, Syria under massive attack, another massacre feared
BREAKING: Another mass defection from Syrian army
BREAKING: #NATO says No War in #Syria shoot down of #Turkey jet
NATO meetup tomorrow as more defect from Syria
BREAKING: Turkey calls for NATO consult on downing of jet by Syria
BREAKING: Senior Syrian Officers Defect
UPDATED: Russia reported to be preparing to evacuate from Syria
BREAKING: Syria fighter pilot defects
BREAKING: Britain stops Russian ship carrying attack helicopters for Syria
BREAKING: Russian troops headed to Syria
Qaddafi forces Strike Back in Libya
BREAKING: UN suspends mission in Syria
Libya & Syria – two videos – no comment
BREAKING: Russia denies supplying Syria with NEW attack helicopters
Syrian people rise up against the massacre
Another “Houla style” massacre in Syria
Fake Houla Massacre Photo: Was the BBC set up?
Idlib, Syria protest today on anniversary of Kent State killings
BREAKING: Massive protests in Syria following Friday pray
Syria is bleeding
Syria: Ceasefire faltering as mass protests breakout

BREAKING NEWS!!! UN to send monitors to Syria AGAIN!!! July 1, 2012

UN will be sending the monitors back to Syria. They will be unarmed and in a small team. Russia agree to this and back the new cease fire that is already under threat. Monitor’s will over look the peace plan.

Car bomb kills 85+ at a funeral procession in Zamalka leaving behind a massacre! June 30, 2012

Mon Jul 02, 2012 at 12:41 AM PT: A few more point on the Phyllis Bennis article. She said about the NATO intervention last year:

…they were wrong to see the Libyan intervention as a “human rights victory” then, and they are more visibly wrong now. A year later, following the deaths of thousands of Libyans, the now-divided country struggles with out-of-control militias holding thousands of prisoners, with torture, with escalating violence, with continuing attacks on sub-Saharan Africans and other foreigners…

It is true that 30,000 Libyans were killed in 2011 after Ghadafi started killing protesters. Thousand were killed by NATO bombs, but most of those were engaged in killing Libyans as part of Ghadafi’s gang. According the Human Rights Watch, NATO killed 72 civilians, the UN has them down as killing 60,Ghadafi killed 8,000 Libyans in the month before NATO intervened. We can never know how many Libyans Ghadafi would have killed if he had been free to do to Benghazi and Misrata what Assad has been doing to Syrian cities, but all indications are that he would have killed many more than he did and since NATO’s mandate was to save human life, not assure that Libya had an nice recovery, I think it must be regarded as a big success in that regard.

This should not be taken to mean that I agree with her description of Libya now (I have dealt with this type of slander elsewhere), but my point here is that nation-building was not NATO’s mandate, saving civilian lives was,  and they did do that.

Also one other point, Bennis’s bigness fear seems to be:

As the violence escalates in Syria, as more civilians, especially children, are killed, calls for military intervention escalate as well.

She is worried that Americans may start to care about what is happening to the people in Syria and demand that something be done. This a sad plight for a leftist, to be worried that the masses may start to show an internationalist sentiments and demand that their government will do the right thing.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Diana Barahona July 5, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Phyllis Bennis
Fellow Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at IPS. She is also a fellow of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. She has been a writer, analyst, and activist on Middle East and UN issues for many years. In 2001 she helped found and remains on the steering committee of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation. She works closely with the United for Peace and Justice anti-war coalition, co-chairs the UN-based International Coordinating Network on Palestine, and since 2002 has played an active role in the growing global peace movement. She continues to serve as an adviser to several top UN officials on Middle East and UN democratization issues.

Phyllis Bennis is the author of eight books:
From Stones to Statehood: The Palestinian Uprising (1990); Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN (2000); Before & After: US Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis (2003) [US Policy and the War on Terrorism, 2nd ed.]; Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy US Power (2006); Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer (2009); Ending the Iraq War: A Primer (2009); Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: A Primer (2009); Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer (2010).
She is also co-editor of Beyond the Storm: A Gulf Crisis Reader (1991) and Altered States: A Reader in the New World Order (1993).

Elaine Hagopian
Elaine Hagopian is Professor Emerita of Sociology, Simmons College. She held faculty appointments in Sociology at Smith College and Simmons College. She was also a visiting professor at the American University of Beirut and a Distinguished Lectureship at the American University in Cairo. She served as a special consultant to UNICEF in the United Arab Emirates and as a UNESCO Expert on a team to conduct a feasibility study throughout the M.E. for a Palestine Open University to serve Palestinian refugees. She also received two Fulbright Hayes Faculty Research Grants to conduct research on Palestine and Arab Nationalism and to research the French period in Lebanon at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris. She is the Editor or Co-Editor/Author of Arab Americans: Studies in Assimilation; the award winning Civil Rights in Peril: the Targeting of Arabs and Muslims; South Lebanon; The Realignment of Power in Lebanon: External and Internal Dimensions (special issue of the Arab Studies Quarterly). She has also authored some 100 articles and book reviews.
Dr. Hagopian is also an interviewer on Arab Hour Television in Boston.

Clay Claiborne
Submitted by lizsavage on Sun, 07/01/2012 – 8:48pm
“Clay does not represent Occupy Los Angeles and has not participated in ANYTHING we have been doing since October after he broke solidarity by printing out flyers with occupiers photos and names on them and distributing them, denouncing the people on the flyers. He was not been denounced officially at OLA, but his presence at our meetings, and events is not welcomed by many, if at all any, and this has been made perfectly clear to him by many participants.
“My words represent myself and not Occupy Los Angeles.”


Richard Estes July 6, 2012 at 1:50 am

I respect Phyllis Bennis’ academic achievements, but that doesn’t prevent her from speaking demagogically when she deems necessary. Back in 2009, I think, I had the opportunity to interview her about Obama’s purportedly groundbreaking opening to the Arab world with his Cairo speech. She proceeded to say that he was evenhanded in his treatment of the Israelis and the Palestinians, apparently counting on me not actually having read the speech. Of course, Obama just regurgitated the same platitudes, condemning the Palestinians for their violence, while tepidly encouraging the Israelis to acknowledge the injustices done to the Palestinians. She persisted in her absurd view until I pointed out that precisely what he said in the speech, causing her then to became snippy, saying that I could argue about that if I wanted, but that I would miss the real importance of the speech. Well, of course, we now know that it was just more of same nonsense spoken by US presidents to the Arab world since the 1940s. So, maybe Clay is right or maybe he isn’t, I haven’t formed my own opinion about this yet, except that it will be based upon something more than a misguided deference to what Bennis has written.


Brian S. July 5, 2012 at 1:32 pm

I am in broad agreement: but I think you underestimate the problems with a “something must be done” (smbd) sentiment. What is needed in complex situations like this is, to coin a phrase, “concrete analysis of a concrete situation” (rather than the invocation of an abstract principle, as the “obsessive anti-imperialists” do, and smbd can easily slide towards.)
Looking through that prism Syria appears very different from Libya. Whether we like it or not, the Assad regime has a major military capability (both for internal repression and war-fighting); and a significant social base. The country is also socially heterogenous with deep sectarian fault-lines that can easily explode (indeed are already doing so). Under these circumstances there is a real danger that external material intervention will simply accelerate the slide towards full-scale civil war, producing even worse consequences .
In this light I think that Bennis et al’s may be right in their conclusions – that the best that can be done at present is to continue to press the diplomatic route possibly reinforced by various forms of sanctions. The hope would be that the Russians (and possibly Chinese) might be induced to break from Assad and/or that divisions might open up in the regime or in the wider Alawite community. I don’t have any illustions that this would provide a long term solution – but it might provide a breathing space for a longer term dynamic to kick in.
The window for such a process is clearly drawing to a close (indeed maybe it has already closed.) and then we may have to make different calculations. But if so then we need to focus more intently on the “s” bit of smbd – what exactly?


Arthur July 31, 2012 at 11:01 am

“something must be done” – “what exactly”?

Immediate destruction of the regime’s air force and grounding of its helicopter gunsships by US air power.

More will be needed but that would be a highly effective start. Only the US has the capability to suppress Syrian air defences reasonably quickly so there’s no possibility of others acting effectively without the US.


tony July 5, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Well, so who is doing what here in Syria? Well let’s look at the latest news about that, shall we?

Jihadists claim Syria attacks
By ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY, Associated Press – 23 hours ago

BEIRUT (AP) — An al-Qaida-inspired group claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks across Syria, the latest evidence that extremists are exploiting the chaos to make inroads in another Middle Eastern country.

The Syrian regime has long blamed terrorists for the 16-month-old revolt, and the presence of al-Qaida groups creates new difficulties for Arab and Western countries trying to help force President Bashar Assad from power.

The opposition and the rebel Free Syrian Army deny having any links to terrorism, and say they do not have the desire or the capabilities to carry out massive suicide bombings and other al-Qaida-style attacks.

On Tuesday, the SITE monitoring group, which tracks jihadist chatter on the Internet, said the Al-Nusra Front released statements on extremist websites in late June claiming the attacks were to avenge the killings of Syrians by the government.

One of the attacks targeted a pro-regime television station in the town of Drousha, south of the capital, Damascus, on June 27. Seven people were killed in the attack on Al-Ikhbariya TV….. and so on at http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hojFV0_YRgoUu-GlLa12tf6KqAdw?docId=08718a9f260842a5adc293ef511b439b

Just imagine, the US using Islamic extremists to unsettle a government???? Now just where has that been done before? Oh!!! It was in Afghanistan with Osama, wasn’t it, Comrades?


Tony July 8, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Where are the ‘Friends of Clay’? Are they acting nonviolently? Clay, are they? Are they behaving themselves?

‘Clinton: “Friends of Syria” must unite to stop Russia, China “blockading” progress’ @ http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57467452/clinton-friends-of-syria-must-unite-to-stop-russia-china-blockading-progress/

‘But military intervention is not on the immediate horizon. U.S. officials say they are focusing on economic pressure, and the Obama administration says it won’t intervene militarily or provide weapons to the Syrian rebels for what it considers to be an already too-militarized conflict.’

Would Hillary lie here to cbs news? Would Clay lie to us on North Star? Is the US government worried because it is an ‘already too-militarized conflict’ or because it is not too militarized yet? Russia and China are blocking that further militarization by the US of this conflict. Right, Clay? How can Clay and Hillary punish those 2 countries for being that way? What can the ‘Friends of Syria do?


Leave a Comment

{ 4 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: