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Extraordinary Documentary on Bahrain

8 Aug

The entire piece is worth watching (h/t to Nada AlWadi.).


Three questions that arise for me:

1). NEGOTIATIONS. Should the protesters have allowed the opposition to negotiate lesser terms than full abdication? Some gains are better than none, and some progress may have allowed the opposition some breathing space to figure out next moves. See Maciej Bartkowski and Les Kurtz on how to negotiate transitions.

2). CONFRONTING FOREIGN TROOPS. What can civil resisters do to confront foreign troops or mercenaries, as were present in Bahrain and Libya? My initial reaction is that they should avoid playing that game entirely. In other words, they should shift to more dispersed methods, like strikes, that remove the opportunity for the imported troops to crack down. Although it’s true that expats from Asia make up the majority of the labor workforce, Bahraini nationals make up 43% of the workforce, which is largely concentrated in the public sector and in the petroleum industry. As in Iran, if oil workers or civilian bureaucrats withdraw their support from the regime through a general strike, it could be crippling to the state. Although I haven’t seen the political profile of the oil workers, it wouldn’t surprise me if they are generally regime loyalists, which would preclude that possibility. But there are likely to be dissenters among them. The other option is to simply retreat, wait, regroup, and when the foreign troops go home, relaunch. Foreign powers like Saudi Arabia might be willing to take decisive action like this occasionally, but I highly doubt they are willing to do so regularly.

3). GLOBAL INFLUENCE. Although the film is clearly critical of the United States and others for standing idly by while the Bahraini regime had its way with the uprising, the question remains of what exactly foreign powers could have done to help the opposition. Although it no doubt improves morale to know that the world is on your side, what precise tools could foreign powers have used to intervene and change the course of the conflict? The United States could have denounced the regime even more harshly, and stated its support of the campaign more clearly, but would that have truly helped the strategic position of the movement? After all, nonviolent campaigns that succeeded between 1900 and 2006 mostly did so without any support from foreign powers, although they may have been inspired by other successful nonviolent uprisings.

I welcome discussion.

Regional Players Criticize Assad: Implications for Civil Resistors

8 Aug

Some key regional players–especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey–had some pretty harsh words for Bashar al-Assad’s regime this weekend. The long and short of it: the Arab League has strongly condemned Syrian crackdowns, Saudi Arabia is recalling its ambassador to Damascus, and Turkey is sending its foreign minister there for an intervention about Assad’s behavior.

How will this affect the uprising?

Well, the resistors shouldn’t get their hopes up for any material support from anyone on the outside. In truth, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others have strong political motivations for criticizing Assad. Turkey is increasingly worried about refugees spilling over into its border and would prefer the bloodshed to stop so it can manage the thousands of Syrian refugees who have already found their way to Turkey. Saudi Arabia is probably genuinely supportive of the uprising’s goals, since their fulfillment has the potential to up-end one of the Kingdom’s regional competitors and diminish Iran’s influence at the same time. Also, maintaining legitimacy has been a bit of a struggle for the Saud monarchy of late, and the king’s condemnation of the bloodshed in Syria is likely to win him some political points at home. But given Saudi Arabia’s behavior toward its own nonviolent uprising, and its recent assistance to regional allies in crushing domestic revolts, its support for the Syrian opposition itself is likely to be ambivalent at best.

Interestingly, though, the opposition in Syria is probably better off without support from the outside, for two reasons. First, material aid from the outside can further divide the movement, undermining its unity. Some people currently involved in the resistance may be reluctant to accept aid from an outside power with whom they disagree. Add money to the mix, and you’re likely to get lots of infighting. Second, in Why Civil Resistance Works, we find that participation is key to successful nonviolent resistance. The more people involved, the better. But if potential participants get the sense that the movement is funded from the outside, they are likely to stay home rather than participate. Why would they risk their necks for a movement that has a steady stream of revenue from an outside source? The influx of cash could create the classic free rider problem. Syrian oppositionists seemed to grasp this and other risks, as evidenced by their reported rejection of U.S. funding offers.

Fortunately, our research also finds that outside support is not critical to success. In the aggregate, material aid from an outside state neither helped nor hurt civil resistance movements around the world (based on data from 1900 to 2006). Fewer than 10% of nonviolent resistance campaigns during that time period received material support (financing), while over 50% of them succeeded in their aims of regime change, anti-occupation, or self-determination.

What about regimes that continue to support Assad? The most important source of support to Assad’s regime, Iran, will stand by him until the bitter end. Because Iran is already such a pariah in the international system, there is little that can be done to alter Iran’s preferences in that regard. We don’t have many carrots or sticks left to persuade Iran to change. But in Why Civil Resistance Works, we found that even when regimes solicit their allies to help crush nonviolent uprisings, they aren’t necessarily more successful in doing so. Therefore, despite Iran’s continued meddling, activists can still be optimistic about their chances of pushing Assad out. That said, a well-timed withdrawal of diplomatic or military support for the regime by a key player like Turkey could make a difference. We saw this in the Philippines in 1986, when Ferdinand Marcos finally abandoned his struggle to maintain power as soon as he learned that Ronald Reagan’s administration would no longer defend him.

And moral support from the rest of us always helps, insofar as Syrians can sense that we’re here.