Syria: When Nonviolent Revolutions Spin Into Bloodshed

Syria's revolution started off as a nonviolent movement before a government Jerome Sessini/Magnum

Srdja Popovic goes around the world teaching nonviolent techniques to activists to overthrow autocrats. Whenever he talks about the Arab Spring, he says: "2011 was the worst year ever for bad guys."

Meaning, goodbye Hosni Mubarak, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Muammar Gaddafi. Two years ago, it looked like even Bashar al-Assad was going to fall into that losers' club.

But judging from last Sunday's exclusive interview with Bashar—as he is called inside Syria by his detractors—by The Sunday Times, it doesn't look like this bad guy is going anywhere.

Delusional? Bashar doesn't think so. He thinks the British and American governments are bullies for aiding the Syrian opposition. John Kerry and his recent comments about Syria only fueled Bashar's determination that he is not leaving Damascus without force. The murder of innocents; the aerial raids in Aleppo; the targeting of journalists—all exaggeration, according to Bashar. All lies told by the pro-rebel press, and by the West, who have no right to pry into Syria's internal business.

Last Sunday I got woken up with the news that my fixer, Abdullah Alyasin—who helped Western reporters who venture into Aleppo work—was killed. Details of his death are appalling. Abdullah was not killed by shrapnel or rockets but was assassinated.

His killers are not yet named—though most people who knew him know who they are. His killing will either fall into that awful category of nontruth that cynics call "the fog of war," or there will be some kind of vengeance rebuttal, and the cycle of violence continues. The point to me is not who did it, but that one more human being is dead in Syria. One more young life has been halted.

The increasingly spinning cycle of violence in Syria, not just between Bashar and the rebels, but within various factions of the rebels, reminds me of the Yeats poem, Easter, 1916: "A terrible beauty is born."

Could nonviolent methods have eventually worked to overthrow Bashar? It worked in Serbia. Popovic was one of the leaders of the Serbian resistance, OTPOR, which overthrew Slobodan Milosevic back in 2000. Nothing impressed me more than his and his colleagues' dogged persistence to get rid of a murderer who brought his country into five bloody wars.

Eleven years on, to see some of the Tunisian, Georgian, and Egyptian activists use nonviolence as a method of regime change—some of them trained early on by Popovic—was equally impressive.

Then came Syria. What happened when the opposition decided, at a pivotal moment, to throw away a mantle of nonviolence and take up arms? Was it desperation? Some activists, who were in the early opposition in Homs but fled when it became bloodier, felt that they had been cheated out of trying to save their country. "I did not want a gun," one told me. "I thought we could overthrow Bashar by uniting the people. Surely enough people do not like him. We could have banded together."

The danger for Syria: a never ending cycle of retribution. Jerome Sessini/Magnum

Jasmine Revolution activists in Tunisia did something else. They used the Internet as a way of shutting down Ben Ali's regime, by hacking into his ministries and closing them down. Egypt's April 6 activists planned in advance how they would bring down Mubarak by using some of Popovic's techniques. The guru of nonviolence, Professor Gene Sharp, inspired these. His methods include street theater, social networking, and resistance without weapons. Around the world, activists from Iran, Bahrain, and other countries are secretly downloading Sharp's work from the Internet and trying methods that will avoid more bloodshed in their countries and bring about democratic change.

That Syria has gone the way of seemingly relentless violence is tragic. According to Sharp, the key to winning against dictators and changing society is to have a plan and methodology and stick to it—and to get people on your side. People power is the key. The Vietnam antiwar movement failed in many ways because going around burning the American flag was never going to get people on your side. Occupy Wall Street was too disorganized and romantic.

The worst thing that can happen right now, post-Arab Spring, is that the Syria conflict goes the way of Bosnia and Iraq. Sarajevo 1993 descended into infighting even among factions of the Bosnian Muslims—but no one (including myself) wanted to write about it at the time. Post-invasion in Iraq, ideologies separated people rather than bound them against their oppressors. Our interpreters there were in grave danger, and like Abdullah, were getting killed for working with Westerners.

My worry is no longer just a long attrition war between an Alawite stronghold on the coast, supported by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, and the rest of the country. It's that the opposition itself will self-implode with factions and wars for control inside and outside the country. When I look at war, I don't see military strategies. I see it from the micro level: how is this affecting families, schools, hospitals? I think of supply routes and water tanks and how people get through a winter without electricity and antibiotics. I think of how the ethnic mix in a place like Syria—which reminds me of Bosnia in the way people used to call themselves Syrians and now are saying they are Druze or Shia or Sunni or Alawite or Christian—will be forever stamped out.

Despite the criticism of the Arab Spring, I do believe that democracy is working. It takes years for change to be instilled—as one analyst pointed out, the American Constitution did not go into effect until 1789. True democracy takes time. But violence impedes it, and the fact that even Syrian activists are now divided over those who left once weapons became standard practice and those who stayed is deeply disturbing. We must aid the opposition, but we must also train them to work with people like Popovic, to see that they cannot respond to Bashar with the violence being heaped on them. Violence breeds violence, and Alyasin's death is a terrible illustration of that.

Nonviolence worked in Serbia, and it can work in other countries seeking their freedom. The civil rights movement in America, after all, was really started by a woman named Rosa Parks who was too tired after work one day to give up her seat on a bus, and who quietly and bravely refused to give in to hatred and segregation with one simple act.

Janine di Giovanni is an award-winning foreign correspondent and author, and a member of The Council on Foreign Relations.